Harri-Augstein & Thomas: Learning Conversations

Harri-Augstein & Thomas have developed a theory of “Learning Conversations.”  They view these Learning Conversations as tools of reflection, allowing learners to become increasingly “self-organised.”  In fact, the “Self-Organised Learner” or S-O-L is the epitome of learning and of their theory (and is every teacher’s dream student: self-motivated, reflective, engaged, committed).  Learning Conversations allow the S-O-L to construct, reconstruct, and share his learning.  The authors’ theory draws on Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory, and is primarily constructivist in outlook, for, according to the authors, “Learning is the construction of meaning.  Self-Organised Learning is the conversational construction, reconstruction and exchange of personally significant, relevant and viable meanings with awareness and controlled purposiveness” (1991, p. 27).

The authors write that “[c]onversation consists in the exchange of meaning but this is a uniquely peculiar business.  Meaning is transformed in the exchange” (1991, p. 27).  Beyond this, however, the term “conversation” is never clearly defined in the first quarter of Learning Conversations. However, the related terms “learning” and “learning conversations” are. Learning is defined “as ‘the conversational construction of personally significant, relevant and viable meaning’” (1991, p. 6).  A “Learning Conversation” is fundamentally a conversation the learner has with herself (see 1991, p. 3), although it prepares them to better converse with others as well.  The Learning Conversation is a “personal voyage” (1991, p. 10).  “Learning Conversations enable individuals to experience the processes whereby meaning is created, and hence learn how to learn by systematically reflecting upon, and thus expanding, the terms in which they perceive, think, feel and act” (1991, p. 56-7). “We like to think of that part of us which creates & experiences consciousness as carrying on a conversation with the rest of our fully functioning organism, i.e. our experience…. This inner conversation is essentially what constituted learning (Edelman, 1989). It is here that meaning is constructed” (2001, p. 940-941).

Despite this emphasis on the inner reflections of the individual S-O-L, there is a place for a teacher or “Learning Coach” in the theory.  Sometimes, though infrequently, the authors even afford that coach a role beyond providing feedback, a role that makes the coach part of what seems to me a true conversation.  For example, this passage shows a coach involved as a full party in what I would term a true conversation:

Two entities can temporarily synchronise becoming one.  Both, if they are actively engaged, are developing a system of personal meaning.  One is not empty while the other is talking nor is he or she necessarily receiving the message that is being sent.  The exchange influences both entities and occasionally in the creative encounter the two coalesce to form one.  This is the conversational entity. (1991, p. 33)

But usually the coach is viewed by the authors as a much more distant party.  For example, the authors explain that “[t]he Learning Coach temporarily externalizes this ‘Learning Conversationto improve its quality”  and “makes the nature of this conversation explicit to the learner as they learn.(1991, p. 90-1).  I wonder: in what sense is the exchange a “conversation”, if one party must externalize it to improve its quality?  This view of conversation as feedback made me stop and think about what it means to me to involve my students in conversation.  I feel that my very best use of conversation or discussion in the classroom has been when the conversation was meaningful to me, too.  Sometimes this occurred because we discussed a piece of literature I wasn’t yet completely sure about.  The students’ contributions were meaningful to me because I still had questions about the text.  (Hopefully, I maintained some level of uncertainty even as I became more and more familiar with it.)  In this sense of the word, conversation probably cannot be the method for all instruction in a classroom.  And let us not call “conversation” what is really just a teacher-led Q&A.  Mulling over these (still half-formed) ideas made me think of these questions for teachers: When your students are engaged in an especially thoughtful conversation, what is your own experience?

  • My own ideas and opinions are engaged.
  • My own ideas and opinions are questioned.
  • My own ideas and opinions are changed.
  • I am refereeing the conversation, a neutral & unaffected party.
  • For me to take sides would be inappropriate.
  • Guiding my students to new understandings is more important than that I develop new or deepened understandings.
  • Other questions??

In any case, in the theory of Harri-Augstein and Thomas, the emphasis is on the changes that occur to the S-O-L by virtue of individual reflection (which a Coach may facilitate).  After all, the ideal learner is a SELF-Organised-Learner.  I have wondered why the authors chose the word “conversation” instead of “reflection.”  Look at just a few passages (as well as ones quoted above) and momentarily insert “reflection” where “conversation” now sits.  Does the sentence still make sense? make better sense?

  • “the reflective learning conversation which invents its meanings and its methods better to achieve its deeply questioned purposes” (2001, p. 925).
  • “Conversational reflection on these representations enables learners to review and develop their competences” (1991, p. 54).
  • “A conversational learning technology can elevate the learner to an awareness of the processes involved in constructing meaning” (1991, p. 57).

References:

  • Harri-Augstein, S. & Thomas, L. (1991).  Learning Conversations. Routledge: New York
  • Thomas, L. & Harri-Augstein, S. (2001).  “Conversational science and advanced learning technologies (ALT): Tools for conversational pedagogy.” Kybernetes(30):7/8.  921–954.
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