Thursday, June 4, 2015

Showing vs. Telling: Using Dialogues for Interaction and Reflection

The dialogue emerged as a genre in antiquity, and has been used across the centuries as a mechanism for demonstrating an exchange of ideas between two or more people. From a teaching and learning perspective, dialogues are particularly useful as a way to show and invite participation with information as opposed to simply displaying it for passive consumption. They represent the difference between “showing” and "telling."

There are a number of fine modern examples of the dialogue form, but one that stands out for me is Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Hofstadter uses a conversational structure inspired by Plato’s dialogues to demonstrate his thesis on consciousness and, through this construct, has been able to make highly abstract and advanced concepts both understandable and interesting to a broad audience.

I first read Gödel, Escher Bach back in the eighties, and it inspired me to use dialogues in my face-to-face courses as a device to structure student participation and understanding in literature classes (admittedly, this may have seemed like a particularly easy transition based on my experience as a beginning language instructor, a discipline that has long championed model dialogues as a tool for helping students internalize natural language forms). For my literature courses, I would take character dialogues from works we were reading, add several lines to those in order to demonstrate what I had in mind, and then ask the students to elaborate on the dialogues according to specific themes. The purpose of the assignment was: 1) to give students a purpose for reading selected portions of the text carefully; 2) to provide a framework for gaining a deeper understanding of character, motivation, and viewpoint, and; 3) to facilitate a fun way to stimulate interaction and conversation.

I had pretty much forgotten those dialogue assignments until, one day, Stacy Zemke showed me how she was using dialogues in her online courses. She was using them as a form of instructor mediation at the beginning of her lessons, as an alternative to posting "one-way” reading or reading assignments. What I found really valuable was the way she used the form to model conversations she might have with a student about the topic or information being covered. This approach, based on her cumulative experience covering the same information with real students, afforded her sever advantages. Fist she was able to “show” the topic being discussed as opposed to simply “tell” about it. In addition, she was able to engage students as active participants int he reading process by including them through her composite student participant int he dialogue. Finally, the form also allowed her to answer frequently asked questions in a way that was completely contextualized and, thus, more valuable.

As I’ve designed training courses and other learning experiences over recent years, I have resorted more and more to the dialogue as a valuable tool for creating increased student engagement around concepts and information. I have found that this kind of modeling can be particularly valuable for the students, and it is also a fun way for me to teach. And, like our improvisations, it is a highly flexible model that can be used in any learning environment, and that can be morphed easily to match different teaching styles. Equally important, experience has shown me that sharing concepts through dialogues often results in deeper and more extended reflection by students.

Taking all of this from me telling you about it to actual demonstration, here is an example of a dialogue I created for a linguistics course.

Dialogue: The Gap into Meaning


Sancho: So we might say, then, that language is evidence of our fall from Grace?

Sancho: Ignorance, your Worship?

Don Quixote: Yes. With each turn of the game human language inevitably moves further from the Meaning from which it sprang.

Sancho: Come again?

Don Quixote: From the derivative comes the derivative comes the derivative. Each iteration becoming more moronic as it proceeds.

Sancho: This is dour news indeed, your Worship. It weighs heavy on my heart and robs me of what little courage I have.

Sancho: Perhaps this understanding would weigh less heavily on me if I were able to grasp it with greater clarity.

Don Quixote: Perhaps. Knowing the depth and breadth of a mortal enemy, seeing the many weapons he has to vanquish you – this can bring a clarity of purpose to a knight’s battle.
Sancho: Your courage is a valiant comfort.

Don Quixote: A knight’s courage comes through faith, loyal squire.

Sancho: But, your Grace, assuming that Meaning exists apart from human language, that it is something altogether different, then where did it come from?

Don Quixote: Where did the triangle come from? Or Pi?

Sancho: Obviously these existed in in the universe independently of human awareness.

Don Quixote: Precisely.

Sancho: And these, along with many other wonders, were discovered by human civilization, which in turn created a special language called mathematics to describe them.

Don Quixote: Also correct, Sancho. And let me say again how I marvel at the distance you have traveled in your learning.

Sancho: Your Grace is too kind. But my understanding is still incomplete.
Don Quixote: What aid can I provide?

Sancho: I understand that the marvels of our universe have been discovered through empirical observation and rational thought.

Don Quixote:  This is true.

Sancho: What I cannot see is a path for discovering Meaning. It does not seem to be open to empirical observation, and I can think of no rational argument for reaching it, particularly as the starting point would always seem to be human language, which is only moving us further away from Meaning with each passing generation.

Don Quixote: Ah, yes. I see your dilemma now. Perhaps I can lead you through another thought experiment to help you understand more fully.

Sancho: I would be forever in your Grace’s debt. What I mean to say, of course, is that I would be even more eternally in your debt.

Don Quixote: I understand what you mean, Sancho.

Sancho: What a relief. I have begun to despair that all communication was hopeless!

Don Quixote: Very well then, let us imagine that we are standing on a blank sheet of paper.

Sancho: There is nothing on it?

Don Quixote: It is completely empty of markings. And, since any markings would represent possible language, can we not assume that this piece of paper represents every possible sound, word, phrase, and thought in the universe?

Sancho: How is that?

Don Quixote: No choices have yet been made about what will be written. There are no limitations. This blank sheet of paper, through its very silence, represents an almost infinite number of available meanings.

Sancho: Yes, I understand now.

Don Quixote:  Next, imagine that my sword is a pen that I take and make a mark on the paper.  [Don Quixote removes his sword from its scabbard and draws an imaginary mark on the ground with its tip] It is a single stroke of ink. It is the beginning of some letter or sound but, in this form, is only a small individual line. The start of something bigger, perhaps.

Sancho: Yes, it could be any combination of lines or sounds at this juncture.

Don Quixote: By making this mark, however, even though it is small and unformed, I have also reduced the number of possible meanings for this page. Can you see that?

Sancho: I can see that there is less space for future marks than there used to be.

Don Quixote: Exactly, This is because each mark on a page necessarily defines a limitation. The blank page, the one without any language, contains all the possible expressions of meaning in the universe. Anything and everything is out there for the choosing. With each mark, however, the writer makes a decision. A particular line increases the likelihood of the next stroke and eliminates the possibilities of others. One or more possibilities are inevitably covered up, obliterated.

Sancho: And this will continue as you draw more marks, will it not?

Don Quixote: Indeed it will, good Sancho. As I draw more strokes the process continues. I form an entire letter, and then a syllable. This letter and syllable preclude other letters and syllables.

Sancho: [With great enthusiasm now] And before long, you will have written an entire sentence. This sentence will naturally suggest new sentences, ones that would seem to follow logically or make sense. It will also eliminate the possibility of other sentences that would make no sense within the context being created.

Don Quixote: Yes, yes, and so it goes. The more marks I make on this page, the more writing I do, the more limitations I place on meaning. Once I have filled the page with words, I move onto a second page but this new page is now confined by the context of the first. Whereas the first blank page represented the entire universe of possible meaning, this second page has a much more modest body of meaning from which to draw.

Sancho: This is incredibly helpful. Your Grace! I see how the possibility of Meaning is constrained by the continued use of language.

Don Quixote: Good. Now, let us pursuing this line of thought to its logical extremes.

Sancho:  I will defer to your Grace’s wisdom, although I must admit I am hesitant to wander into any extremes.

Don Quixote: Let’s imagine a novelist, writing late at night in her study, tapping out page after pager on her keyboard in an effort to create a perfectly clear narrative and Meaning, one that eliminates all other possible narratives or meanings. We might even say that this is what, ultimately, defines the great work of fiction: it eliminates definitively the possibility of other marks on other pages, of every other possible utterance or meaning available in the universe.

Sancho: But according to our previous conversation, that narrative cannot actually be complete or definitive. The language the novelist is using too much too loose for wrapping up Meaning.

Don Quixote: That is absolutely correct, dear Sancho. She has been working under a false assumption, an elaborate hoax that human beings have perpetrated on themselves for many generations, actually since the advent of writing itself. It is a hoax founded in our misguided belief that the locus of utterance and Meaning is in the markings on the page. We have convinced ourselves that the music of written language is expressed in the formation of written signs. In reality, this is less true than if we were to say that the entirety of the sounds that can be created on a piano can be expressed by pressing on different combinations of the thirty-six black keys.

Sancho: That would be strange and incomplete music indeed, your Grace.

Don Quixote: To answer your original question, friend Sancho, Meaning is found in the white spaces on the paper, in the silence. It is in that silence that Meaning is inevitably wrought and rendered.

Sancho: And how are we to interpret this silence?

Don Quixote: For that, we must learn a new skill. We must learn to listen.

Don Quixote: Indeed, Sancho. The magic of von Neumann has allowed us to see this invisible evolution toward ignorance.

Don Quixote: Dour but inevitable, dear Sancho.

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