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Evolving systems: "dialogue" (and its implications for education?)

Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolving Systems

May, 2010 Core Group Meeting

Background, Summary,
and Continuing Discussion

"Dialogue" (and its implications for education?)


From the May meeting summary:

"social and cultural organizations might best be brought together with the intent of allowing a collective purpose or objective to emerge from the interactions of the particular people involved, rather than with a pre-established purpose or objective.  It was proposed that the core Evolving Systems group, having established some level of awareness of each other's distinctive backgrounds, interests, and areas of expertise, might move on to trying to more deliberately evolve/elaborate a shared sense of purpose.  One direction that might be explored, given discussions to date, relates to existing educational structures and practices, and the degree to which they might usefully be reconsidered in the evolving systems context and the experiences with group dynamics of the Evolving Systems project to date."

Notes on dialogue by Stringfellow Barr

On dialogue, culture, and organizational learning, by Edgar Schein

A meeting summary (Alice)

Continuing the process of reflection on our first year and planning towards our next one, we revisited key themes from last month’s two sessions, including the idea that several people affirmed the importance of our group as a context in which we found it safe, and interesting, to engage in serious conversation -- safe because the group afforded a significant degree of freedom from the fear of immediate judgment, and freedom for people to say out loud things they are not certain about. Another theme was that for some people, the group meetings felt more disjointed and less continuous than desirable.

The session focused on using Barr’s and Schein’s papers on dialogue to envision and evaluate possible ways forward for our group.  A primary question under consideration is whether we would like to make the creation of a dialogue-capable group -- a small collective oriented to exploration and inquiry, and as opposed to debate -- both the medium and goal of the group, or whether we want to develop as a dialogue-capable group in order to pursue an additional objective.  We considered a range of perspectives of whether a group’s achievement of the capacity for dialogue could, or should, be an end in itself -- in general and for our specific group for the evolving systems group -- or whether the achievement of dialogue-capacity would eventually lead the group to lose energy and interest, come, in a sense, to work like a well-oiled machine that doesn’t make anything, because there is no conflict, no grist.

Or, would the ongoing process of dialogue, inclusive of participants’ getting to know one another, applying their experiences in the group to experiences outside of it (in classes, faculty meetings, other work and relationships), be transformative?   (Although perhaps we could learn to anticipate them, especially with more deliberate study of dialogue.)  As part of this, we explored what it means to get to know other people, and whether that is part of successful dialogue.  Is it about their narratives of their experiences, or their ways of being what they are?  Is it interesting?  Is it finishable?  How constrained by current discourses of personal identity, struggle, and growth need it be?

We gave particular consideration to “suspension” as  a necessary move in dialogue.  Defined by Schein as “to let . . . our perceptions, our feelings, our judgments, our impulses rest . . . for a while in state of suspension to see what more will come up from ourselves and from others” (p. 33), suspension emerged as a useful name for a stance of mindful attentiveness to one’s own responses, while at the same time slowing the articulation/expression of those responses, during dialogue.  We considered whether suspension necessitates silence, or may in fact be active and interactive, but styled in a different spirit from the kind of speech that comes from defensiveness, a need to save face, or a wish to persuade.  In relation to suspension, it was pointed out that to be in dialogue is to experience and reflect on what others’ behaviors trigger within one, whether or not others have made a similar commitment.  In this way, one can approach any interaction from a stance of dialogue.  It was also pointed out that it is valuable for our group, as a group and as individuals, to work from some formalizations of the dialogue process.  Productive use of the term “suspension” emerged as a case in point.

We also took up Schein’s discussion of the dominance of face-saving in human interaction, and we used this term to reflect both on some of our own sessions and on recent discussions in the open group sessions.  As Schein points out, the drive to save face and cooperate when possible with others’ drive to save face significantly inhibits dialogue and may contribute to the manifestation of conflict as divisive rather than generative.

We concluded with discussion of whether and how to change the format of our gatherings.  Ideas included choosing a different meeting space or multiple meeting spaces; varying the  pace and span  of meeting times (start the year with a day together, choose one week and meet every afternoon, etc.);  and the potential to travel, share experiences of art, film, meals.


Continuing discussion (below)


Paul Grobstein's picture

Dialogue and beyond ....

As per Alice's notes above, I too was struck by some of the appealing features of "dialogue," understood not as the norm of existing human conversation but rather as a form of interaction that one may have to acquire with some conscious effort.  And the conscious effort is not the same as trying to be "nice" to others nor to get others to be so to oneself.  The conscious effort is to allow things others say to influence onself, to hold in abeyance one's first reactions to things said and allow for the possibility that with time new understandings will emerge in oneself and others.  And to say things in ways that will make it more likely that others will be able to hear them and use them in the same way.  What appeals to me about this is an underlying premise, that the point of dialogue is not to test understandings against one another until one prevails.  It is not even to achieve a new shared understanding.  It is to to maximize that likelihood that everyone involved in the dialogue will come away from the interaction with new understandings of use to themselves.  And, by so doing, to develop an enhanced sense of the value of community and of the diversity among individuals who constitute them.  "Niceness," on this view, is not something one aspires to but rather something one acquires in the interests of sharing with others the creation of new understandings.  Similarly, community is not something one creates for its own sake; it is instead something that develops out of the experience of sharing in the creation of new understandings.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me, and I look forward to playing more with it in the educational context, both in my own classes at Bryn Mawr and in an upcoming summer institute with K12 teachers.  I also want though to think about it more in connection with our own conversations this year, and two issues from those that were highlighted in our last conversation.  What aspects of onself should or should not be brought to an occasion of dialogue?  And is dialogue an end in itself or does it eventually, if not at the outset, need to in the service of some other objective?  Both are, I think, also relevant in the educational context.

I fully agree that dialogue is inhibited by any sense of the "authoritative."  Dialogue depends on each participant being confident that what they bring to the interaction is uniquely significant and not dismissable by what anyone else brings, that there is no definitive voice.  This though, in my mind at least, does not require denying the significance of "expertise," however it is acquired.  Indeed, I'd be inclined to argue that individual "expertise" is a key element in successful dialogue.  To the extent one puts it aside, one has less to offer to others that can contribute to their own changed understandings and less likelihood that one's own understandings will be changed by the reactions of others to one's own stories.  To put it differently, I think "expertise," understood not as the product of particular kinds of lives but of any life, is essential for satisfying dialogue.  "Expertise" and "authoritativeness" are sometimes hard to disentangle, both in the minds of speakers and in the minds of listeners.  Rather than presuming that everyone in a dialogue should start with the same (hence inevitably diminished for everyone) expertise, I'd favor keeping in play everyone's distinctive expertise and learning to more fully dissociate that from "authoritativeness."  Not only in our group, and in considerations of dialogue generally, but also in the classroom.  Teachers can give up authoritativeness without giving up expertise and are, I suspect, more effective in that mode in the long run.

I certainly conceived the evolving systems group as brought together for a particular purpose: the explore further the notion a world of blended emergence and emergent intentionality and the implications of that for academic work, education, and life in general.  Against that backdrop, I share a sense that our conversations have been somewhat "aimless," but have not been at all displeased by that.  Whatever they have been in and of themselves, I have taken from them much that has advanced my own initial interests, as I gather has been the case for many others.  Moreover, they have been, as noted by others, characterized by a kind of non-judgemental yet consistently interesting atmosphere that I value.  Finally, I have some strong sense that, over time, more collective directedness will emerge.  In short, I don't, for myself, feel a need for dialogue to have some collectively agreed upon purpose; it suffices for me if it serves distinctive individual purposes.  Clearly though there are people in the group for whom that's less true, or whose individual purposes are less well-served in the absence of a focused collective purpose.  And I suspect that's likely to be true in classrooms as well, so its probably not enough there either to expect uniform success from dialogue in and of itself.  This is very much something I want/need to think more about, and I'm looking forward to trying out various ways of conceiving dialogue interacting with shared and explicit purpose in our group and in classrooms.  In some ways, that is actually a concrete version of the general problem that I hoped at the outset the evolving systems project would be exploring.

A related question that has arise several times in our conversations, and that was also highlighted in our last, was the issue of whether we should continue to meet in a more or less "academic setting" and to interact in a more or less "academic" mode (background readings, a presentation designed (hopefully) to trigger dialogue, all in two hours once a month).  Would we be more successful at dialogue (in the sense talked about above) if deliberately got away from "academic" patterns like these?  Since I have been in general quite satisfied with what we've done, I feel less need to get away from resemblences to the "academic."  I am though more than willing to try out any alternate modes of generating dialogue that others think might be more productive.  My hunch, both here and in the classroom, is that simply having together some set of experiences won't quite do the trick, that there needs to be something preparatory to the shared experience that motivates it and something following the experience that encourages shared reflection on it, but I would be perfectly happy to be have my hunch proven wrong.  Here too I think there is substantial room for experimenting, and ample reason to do so. 

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