The Hidden Power of Conversation
We have always stressed the central role conversation plays in the way people learn – and, in particular, in the way students learn at Sudbury Valley. The students recognize this clearly, and often talk about the richness of the discussions that go on every day, all day, in every venue, among the most diverse groups of participants – and about how broad and deep an education they received as a benefit from those conversations. Perhaps the best articulation of students’ appreciation of this aspect of the school is the following, which has long been a centerpiece of our catalog and website:
[People would] say, ‘What did you learn today?’ And we’d think, ‘What did we learn today? What are you talking about?’ Because it wasn’t as if you went into the library and learned your facts for the day. You had a dozen conversations with people. We weren’t learning subject by subject. We were learning in a much more organic manner. You would be doing a lot of different things and you would learn them in little bits and pieces that would start adding up to much bigger pictures. You wouldn’t really know where it came from a lot of the time. By the time you were done learning about something, information was coming from so many different sources, from books and from people you were talking to, and from a long drawn out experience, that you had no idea how you learned it."
To understand what the underlying role of conversation is in people’s development, we have to step back a moment and consider the nature of human development. The primary task of any of us as human beings is to build a model of the world around us, so that we can figure out ways within that model to affect our environment for our benefit. Left alone in isolation, we would be limited to our own individual creative skills to build a framework for understanding our world. We would have to start from scratch, without the benefit of the experiences and thoughts of all the other human beings who have struggled with the same problem.
When we have tried to explain why conversation is such an important aspect of human development, and essential to learning, we have generally focused on the basic purpose of verbal communication: to gain entry into another person’s mind, and thus widen one’s horizons. Building models of the world becomes a collective endeavor, each person building on, evaluating, accepting, or rejecting everyone else’s versions, always with the aim of coming up with a model that works for that person. The building-blocks we use to construct these models are the words, each one of which serves as a shorthand code for a host of experiences represented by that word. Conversations become possible among people who share common code words – a common language, as we call it – and who can thus share the experiences those words represent, and the models constructed to give them context.
So we talk and talk and talk, and sometimes when we can’t talk directly to each other, we write (slower, more laborious, but better than nothing), and in so doing our individual minds broaden into an ever-expanding collective mind. Conversation has obvious advantages for each participant: some common theme is being discussed and analyzed, and each person is getting a glimpse at the way the other sees the situation. The more people who participate, the more varied the takes that are being aired on the subject, and thus the more possibilities for understanding it opens up for each participant. If you think about your own life, day by day, hour by hour, you will recognize the fact that you spend a great deal of time talking to other people; and if you try to be aware of the content of each of your conversations, you will find that in virtually every case you have learned something, large or small, from the conversation that you did not know or realize before.
In our discussions about the value of conversation, we have also often talked about another important function that conversation performs. When you are trying to convey a point of view to another person, you try to make it as clear and understandable as possible to that person. Clarity requires that the various components that contribute to your point of view be organized into a coherent whole, rather than being thrown together in whatever manner they have presented themselves in your mind. Your mind searches its various nooks and crannies to collect all the pieces that you know are related to the subject at hand, and puts them together in a presentation that allows each component to contribute to a comprehensible thought pattern. In this way, conversation goes beyond investigating another person’s mind; it serves to organize your own thoughts so that the other person can make sense out of what is in your own mind. That is why it is widely acknowledged that when someone sets out to teach a subject to someone else, it is the teacher who always learns the most about the subject, because the teacher has had to work hard to organize his thoughts into an intelligible pattern.
Until recently, I thought that the ideas presented briefly above (and elaborated at great length in the school’s literature) sufficed to make a convincing case for the central place conversation should and does take in the education of Sudbury Valley students. Until, that is, I suddenly realized that I had missed a key element that was at the heart of the power of conversation in the human experience.
To understand what that key element is, we have to step back a moment and contemplate how the mind works. At any given moment, the mind deals with a huge number of inputs, some direct through the body’s sensory apparatus, some sent to it from various sources of its own creation as it processes its thoughts. At all times, the mind is working in countless directions, developing thoughts on a myriad of subjects, linking them through innumerable connections. Out of all this mass of thinking, something is always chosen to be the focus of our awareness. We become conscious of a particular line of thought, and concentrate on it for some long or short time. (Why any particular thought or train of thought comes to the fore is a complicated issue, for which there are barely any useful theories today.)
Nevertheless, even as we are focusing on our conscious thoughts, the linkages that have been formed between those and the rest of our mind’s activities remain active. Often, they insert themselves into the conscious train of thought, and divert it (permanently or temporarily) into a direction different from the one it had been following. Such a diversion creates a flash of insight, a realization that a new connection has been made that was not hitherto anticipated when the original train of thought was being pursued.
The diversion that interrupts this train of thought comes from some other line of thought that was being pursued by the subconscious in parallel to the conscious, and that cross-links to it in the midst of its activity. It literally leads the mind into new directions, the very definition of innovation. It is the starting point for creativity, for discovering something new and unexpected.
I have been describing the activity that goes on in the mind all the time. It’s always busy. It’s always engaged in conscious thought about something, and it usually does not want to be diverted from its train of thought, since such diversions can be disruptive. So the mind generally protects itself from intrusions into the flow of conscious thought, either by ignoring them, or noticing them and dismissing them quickly. If it did not do this, we would not be able to function in a coherent fashion; we would literally lose our sanity, which depends on not running off in different directions at every instant.
Consider a simple example. I realize I need to buy a bottle of milk for breakfast tomorrow. I think about this, and decide to get into my car, drive to the store, buy the milk, and come home. Now, as likely as not, the minute I step into the car a flood of linked thoughts enters my mind: I probably should fill it up with gas; maybe I should go to Whole Foods instead of the nearest supermarket to get organic milk; there are a couple of other things I need that I should perhaps get while I’m out – but then I would come home late; I don’t remember whether I have enough cash for the milk, or for tomorrow, how about a cash machine; and so forth ad infinitum. As all this is going on, it simply creates confusion. Yes, it’s thinking out of the box, but the box was one I wanted to be in this time: just get the milk and come home. All the rest is noise that is annoying, will make me late to come home, may lead me to forget why I went out in the first place, etc.
On the other hand, in those instances when I am struggling with a problem and focusing unsuccessfully on finding a solution, a cross-link to a completely different way of thinking can be my salvation. It is precisely such cross-links that provide “eureka” moments. And they tend to happen when a person has loosened his focus on the primary problem and allowed his mind to relax – thus giving an opening to the entry of random links.
Which brings me to the role of speech – of vocal articulation of what we are thinking. When we talk, we raise the intensity of our focus on whatever subject we are thinking about at the moment. Our minds process our thoughts on that subject at lightning speed, which is usually what we want, so that we can get on with our lives. But when we pause to vocalize our thoughts on that subject, our minds have to engage in a massive slowdown, since our mouths move at a much, much slower pace than our minds, and the slowdown involves a filtering process by which our minds select the important parts of the flow of thought that is being articulated.
The slowdown is what shines a much more intense light on the salient points of our thoughts, and thus intensifies our focus. But something else happens simultaneously. Every now and then one of the cross-linkages in our mind intrudes on the flow of our thoughts and sneaks into our articulation. We suddenly hear ourselves talking about something not quite in line with the central flow of discourse.
We are making a digression.
The digression was not planned when we started to talk, nor did we expect its content to appear while we were thinking about our subject. Its appearance is also a product of the mind’s filtering, in this case filtering out other cross-linkages and allowing only this one to come forth. The fact that we are vocalizing it forces itself upon our awareness, and solidifies its intrusion into our thinking.
All of this happens when we are alone. We attach words to our thoughts. We have silent conversations in our minds, during which the experiences I have just described always occur. In fact, most people find themselves talking out loud to themselves at some time or another, which just heightens their awareness of what is going on in their heads.
Which brings me to conversation. Here is an example of what happens when you and I talk to each other about some topic we are both interested in. You open with some statement related to the topic. I am simultaneously listening to what you are saying, and thinking about the topic – the thinking part never stops in either of us. I reply with my take on it. You respond – but in the midst of your response, you suddenly say, “This resembles another situation I encountered a year ago.” You hadn’t planned to say that when we started. The cross-linkage intruded itself into your conscious thought process, and your mind’s filter allowed it to be articulated. I now have a new perspective of yours to contemplate, in addition to the one you started with. My train of thought, in the meantime, has been interrupted with a different cross-linkage – for example, “There are some scientific studies I read about the topic” – and now, rather quickly, the entire content of our conversation has been enriched in many directions, not only because of our different initial takes on the subject, but because of the different connections our minds have made. We have both digressed, and in the process, we have broadened our perspectives on the topic and opened a host of new possibilities for each other.
The digressions that each of us makes individually all the time in our thinking become incredibly powerful tools for insight and innovation and creativity when they become part of a multi-lateral conversation. It is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which each participant’s world view is expanded and enriched during conversations, thanks to the interplay of the main subject line and the many digressions that connect to that line. We see it at Sudbury Valley literally all day every day, in every instance where kids are talking together – outdoors, indoors, while engaged in activities and chatting on the side, and while devoting their full attention to the conversation at hand.
I am always amused when skeptics ask, “If you don’t follow a curriculum, how will kids be exposed to important parts of the culture?” What an upside-down perspective! If you follow a curriculum, you purposefully filter out any deviation from the central theme being presented. The students’ exposure is severely limited to a narrow band of chosen subjects. On the other hand, if you let children interact and talk to each other (oh yes, and to adults too who are present and willing to engage), the inevitable intrusion of countless digressions guarantees that each of the participants will be exposed to a vast panoply of subjects through the natural flow of discourse. And the key is the omnipresence of digressions in every open conversation. Go back and read the passage I quoted in the opening paragraph of this essay. It will have a deeper meaning than was first apparent – much deeper than I ever realized until just recently.
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