Unending Conversation

I have been thinking about the changing role of the teacher for quite some time and this entry is my attempt to vocalize some of my conclusions.

It seems to me that the old conception of what it means to be a teacher is, generally speaking, predicated on the notion that teachers convey information. Teachers are content experts who dispense that content to those who need to acquire it.

My research on blogging and, specifically, on creating communities of writers, has had a strong impact on my practice; it has transformed me from a teacher who peddles content to a facilitator who co-constructs knowledge within and with a community of learners. Consequently, I no longer see myself fitting into that traditional definition. I have outgrown the definition because of the community to which I belong. The community has transformed me. Here’s how:

1. My classroom is now a community of inquiry where knowledge emerges from conversation – an act of engagement with ideas based on reflection, knowledge building, and collaboration.

2. I have learned that thought is internalized conversation (Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Wells,), generated in the process of contributing and interacting with others in a social space. As a result, I have come to believe that teachers need to become proficient in creating social spaces that contribute to the development of conversations. They need to become responsible for creating social spaces and the kind of community life that can create and sustain these conversations and the individual cognitive development that ensues. Do these social spaces need to be located online? Of course not. What they do need is personal investment on the part of the instructor to participate and grow along with the community and not assume that the community of learners needs to grow on its own to catch up to its facilitator.

3. I no longer view the texts produced by learners as definitive pronouncements or conclusive statements on assigned topics. Texts are tentative attempts to construct knowledge and, if they are produced within a community of inquiry-oriented peers, they will lead to further knowledge building and meaning-making.

4. All members of a community of learners, including the teacher, enter into a semiotic apprenticeship. We mutually define each other. The discourse of one always interacts with and interanimates the discourse of others. Definitive statements and conclusions are discouraged. Instead, we build our understanding through incomplete attempts at constructing knowledge, attempts that will always remain incomplete because it is their very incompleteness that allows us to keep constructing, to keep questioning, revising, and reflecting. It is through the process of communication and participation that we construct and transform our interpretations so that they become knowledge structures we can use to claim as our own and use them to define who we are.

5. I do not correct – I read, interact, and assist the members of my community in constructing their knowledge. I treat texts as epistemic tools – as tools for thinking and developing understanding. My students write to construct knowledge. I refuse to correct attempts to construct understanding and improve cognitive development.

6. Learning and teaching take place through participation. They are both about learning to enter a conversation and to contribute to it.

As a teacher, I have spent many years ending conversations. I thought it was my responsibility to present information as static, irrefutable, and conclusive. I thought it was my responsibility to teach my students to compose texts that present their understanding as definitive and authoritative. By insisting on closure, I had foregone the richness that is human thought. I never insisted on the process of construction but, instead, favoured the final result. I framed learning in terms of units, tests, and exams. Those who entered my classroom learned that learning is about arriving at authoritative conclusions. While we did engage in conversations, they were all designed and controlled to end neatly with a statement or two – a neat representation of reality.

Today, my classroom is an epistemic, polemical space. I aim to ensure that students who enter my classroom for the first time understand that they will be joining a conversation:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress (Burke 1941, 110-111).

So, teaching, the way I see it, is what Michael Oakeshott refers to as “unrehearsed intellectual adventure” (Oakeshott 1962), it is an “unending conversation” (Burke 1941) which teachers enter with their students to show them how to participate and construct their knowledge amid a choir of voices. This conversation does not end with the unit test or the final exam.

A few days before my students wrote their final exam (imposed upon me and them by administration), one of my students said to me:

– But I just started writing about Sugihara … I can’t possibly finish before the exam.

– Well, you can always finish after the exam.

– But, I’m not going to be ready and … the school ends two days after.

– So? You can still keep writing. Who’s stopping you?

He did continue his thoughts on Sugihara and the heroes of the Holocaust. In fact, it’s been over a month since the exam and he is still contributing to his blog. His thoughts on the Holocaust led to thoughts about heroism, which then led to thoughts about Darfur, the UN, courage, personal choices, and the portrayal of heroism in Hollywood. Of course, he hasn’t been alone – his friends who care about this conversation are reading, commenting, contributing.

The conversation continues.


Burke, K. (1941). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Oakeshott, M. (1962). “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen, 197-247.

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7 Responses to Unending Conversation

  1. Tom Hoffman July 14, 2006 at 1:43 pm #

    All good stuff, but for all the theory you still start with the cliche about “the old conception of what it means to be a teacher.” This isn’t an old/new issue, both sides (as you later cite) have deep roots.

  2. roy williams July 14, 2006 at 5:48 pm #

    Clean cut, many thanks.

    mind #1
    your analytic mind
    is a sharp semiotic knife
    be careful when you cu( )t
    (from: http://recherche-d-une-presence.blogspot.com/)]

    To wit: what you have to say about the emerging properties of a “community of inquiry as a network of semantic relations” is fascinating. I work in e-learning, and try to dangle tempting discussions and blog affordances in front of students’ and lecturers’ noses. Works well here and there.

    I have been trying to get to grips with the relations between blogs and discussion forums, and hey! Its right there in your blog:

    1. Discussion forums are rather careful, collaborative, tentative (recorded) conversations.
    2. Blogs start off (lift off) as personal ‘voices’ – they are not ‘writing’ in the everyday mundane sense of the word, they are ‘own’ voices, quite autobiographical, often a particular fascet of that person’s personality, and often a fascet that’s a little different from what others might see ‘in the street’ as it were.
    3. ‘Blog-mists’, which is the best name I can give to what your students have achieved, is the next step up: when the power of personal voices gets connected across the blogosphere. A semantic web if there ever was one.
    4. Students I work with, online and offline, have moved enthusiastically into an online environment (no blogs yet). But the most stunning thing they have done is to produce a course diary in book form – a new person takes the book (physically) and writes up the next week’s experiences (on paper) and reads it to the class at the beginning of each week (approximately).
    5. My aim for the next term is to get all of it running together: online discussions, personal blogs, blog-mists, and to keep the paper course/book diary. Then see what kinds of semantic mists emerge, and try to be on hand to help it along (if it needs help!).
    6. I will also be introducing specific meta-data tools (Inspiration, Concept Map, Star Tree Studio) to enable them to map out semantic relationships that can be shared and customised between students.

    I will then watch to see what emerges between the collaborative conversations in discussion forums, the personal voices in blogs, the blog-mists in the collective blog space, and the sharing of meta-data semantic relationships in the collaborative software.

    Stephen Downes was right when he said (some time back, writing on learning objects) that facilitating e-learning is like conducting and orchestra. Except here people can play more than one instrument at a time. Any thoughts?

  3. Terry Dolson July 14, 2006 at 6:50 pm #

    I have been reading your blog with interest, and I had a similar experience with student blogging this semester. I tried for the first time to talk to the faculty I work with to explain to them the fantastic potential for collaboration that blogs create! I posted the notes for the workshop and a chart comparing discussion boards, blogs and wikis on my blog. I would love it if you could add your insights to this.

  4. jason July 15, 2006 at 6:42 am #

    It is interesting to see this transmission to co-construction shift issue still coming up. It was reported as a done deal as soon as we stopped thinking of children as Locke’s tabula rasa, and as soon as people started to buy the notion of children as makers of meaning. That said, perhaps the transition is slowest the higher up the pipe you get. It is good to see it happening whenever. Your choice of referencing is interesting. Very OISE. Personally it was elliot eisner, ivan illich, foucault, and berkeley, though I ‘d be at pains to explain berkeley. The big question centres around you study of the construction of community with technology. Teachers have not led the vangard with regards to thinking about the contruction of community, or even really learning community, and we tend to miss out on the questions and experiences that Rheingold, Fernback, Wellman have explored. I did something in one of Renningers books on this way back, but I can’t remember the title off hand.

    When we use the C word, what are we really saying. Have we met any pre-existing definition of community or have we just coined a new hot topic phrase devaluing what community might have meant. I’m not being judgemental, but it is a taken for granted assumption that we are both creating community and know what community is. I remember having to look up the definition of commmunity from anthro sources for an article on online communities back in the 90s and finding a real curriculum of community that I’d not expected. I’m not remotely critical of what you’re doing or thinking, but our field’s sometimes parochial attitude to conceptualizing learning with technology sets me off. But that’s a good thing. Thanks!

    http://www.well.com/~hlr/texts/VCcivil.html is one of the old Fernback ones.
    http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich/Deschooling/intro.html (complete text of deschooling society)

  5. david walker July 22, 2006 at 10:35 am #

    Community of learners. Collaboration. Ongoing conversation. Connection. These are the designs, the desired outcomes, among others. Part of the how is blogs, I am convinced, even as a blog neophyte. I am at the how stage, particularly where essential engagement is concerned. I teach in a community where students do not read, do not exert themselves very much, do not want to think too rigorously. Theirs is a passive push and shove through the day. There are many other calls for their attention which either do not require great effort or which enthrall them, usually friends or family strife or who’s doing what or what have you. This is not to say that they cannot be engaged, but, again, the question is how. I am interested in your take on that early and ongoing captivation, in light of how you have redefined your identity as teacher, which, by the way, is really lively and exciting. Grant Wiggin’s Understanding by Design has been a big help to me in some of the ways you describe. Thanks.


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