February 1st, 2011

“Learningful” Conversations: The Value of Exchanges with Colleagues


I’ve been reading pedagogical literature for a long time and so I don’t often come upon a topic I haven’t seen before. But this week I came across one — it was an article on conversation in an international faculty development journal.

I was immediately interested because I have actually thought about writing an article on the conversations faculty have about teaching and learning. We have these exchanges regularly and they are sources of professional learning. Peter Senge is quoted in the article making the same point. I like his description of them as “learningful” conversations. In fact, a great deal of the information we acquire about teaching and learning comes to us by way of conversations with colleagues. I love how freely we exchange instructional ideas—if you’ve come up with a good technique for something and I show an interest in it, you happily share and welcome me to use it. No intellectual property issues here. Good strategies pass between teachers with little sense of ownership.

Conversations with colleagues serve another important purpose. A quote by Clark and included in the article offers a lovely description. “Good conversation feeds the spirit; it feels good; it reminds us of our ideals and hopes for education; it confirms that we are not alone in our frustrations and doubts or in our small victories.” (p. 181) Sometimes we make it through a day because a colleague has been there to commiserate, offer support and remind us that tomorrow is another day.

But my article on collegial conversations would not be all sunshine and roses. I am sometimes quite cynical about the caliber of our exchanges. One day in the mail room I overheard two colleagues arguing about whether is was better to have three or four excused absences in a 15 week semester course. They never questioned the viability of attendance policies in general, never considered the assumptions about where learning takes places inherently a part of attendance policies, never wondered if students could learn the content without coming to class—nope, they were stuck on a pretty trivial detail.

We are routinely critical of students who come to class not prepared but still willing to talk about the ideas, despite having very little real knowledge of the issues. Unfortunately, some of our exchanges about educational issues are like this, too. One case in point: conversations about student ratings and what a faculty member needs to do to get high ones. In many of those conversations you are likely to hear opinions very much at odds with research findings.

We can ratchet up the caliber of our exchanges without having to “prepare” for teaching conversations the same way we prepare material to present in class. Part of what makes conversations such gifts is their spontaneity, the surprising content they sometimes contain. But I am wondering if we might not find our exchanges with each other even more valuable if we saw them as opportunities for learning and came to them with questions, commentary and background knowledge. If opinions are a part of the conversation, we question what evidence might support them. If we don’t know an answer, we don’t only offer what we think but recognize the need to look further.

I’ve typed up a quote in the article attributed to Zeldin and put in on the bulletin board above my desk. I want to keep it front and center in thinking as I write blog entries that I hope will stimulate sustaining and “learningful” exchanges between us.

“Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts; they transform them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards; it creates new cards.” (p. 14)

Reference: Haigh, N. (2005) Everyday conversation as a context for professional learning and development. International Journal for Academic Development, 10 (1), 3-16.