How Do Conversations Improve Learning and Help Change to Stick?

Early in 2003 I found myself sitting at a steamy teppanyaki bar in Taiwan, sizzling cubes of steak on the grill in front of me, a line of hungry locals elbowing through the narrow space behind my stool, a row of Canadian teachers to my left, and a heavy Chinese man to my right, and everywhere, the loud chatter of multiple languages, creating a rumbling din. I’d been in town for a few weeks, and I was experiencing what most folks would call culture shock. Where was my place in this strange land? Would I find one, or would I only ever feel momentary comfort, sandwiched between alien cultures, tuning out the noise? I raised my hand to attract the attention of the chef and said, “Chicken, please. And bean sprouts … Yes, thank you.” Then the man to my right turned to me and said, in a Chinese-American accent, “You’re from South Africa, right?” He smiled warmly, and I felt the kind of reassuring rush you get from being recognized by someone you expect has forgotten you. We started talking, and the noise seemed to fade away as we asked each other questions about our respective homes.

I explained that I grew up in Kwazulu-Natal, but I moved to the Western Cape after university. He asked, “What was the reason you moved?” What came to my mind in that moment was the turbulent water around Cape Point, and the imposing cliffs above it. I replied that one day I wanted to live in a home between the mountains and the sea. He looked thoughtful as he listened, then he said, “In my culture, a man who loves the mountains is wise. And a man who loves the sea is generous. You must be a wise and generous man.” Suddenly the anxiety of culture shock faded away. Not because I was apparently wise or generous, but because a kind person had forged a connection with me, and I had experienced an epiphany. In all the disorientation that came from eating unrecognizable food, decoding unreadable writing, and straining to follow an indiscernible language, one conversation told me that there are shared values that transcend these superficial experiences, and I was on the cusp of learning one of life’s great lessons.

So how did he do it? How did one friendly guy transform me from a stressed-out stranger in a strange land, to an ardent adventurer abroad? It’s simple, really; he asked me about me. He showed a genuine interest in me, and there really isn’t anything as flattering as that – nor is there anything as likely to get someone talking. The result was that my mind was opened to a whole new world and a whole new set of learning experiences. After that, I couldn’t get enough. I soaked up Taiwan like a sponge.

Have you had a conversation like that before? Has someone helped you to see things differently? Have you had an ‘a-ha’ moment that changed the way you thought about the world? It’s amazing how many such moments happen during conversation. Conversation is the oldest form of learning, and the most natural. Seeing things through other people’s eyes, being guided by their questions, takes us to unexpected places that we may have struggled to reach on our own. And when we arrive, we can’t undo the experience, erase the memory, and pretend that we haven’t seen something new, which permanently affects the way we see the world from that moment on.

Conversation is a powerful force for learning and change. Yet in most e-learning, conversation is absent, unless it’s introduced via a social layer. In blended learning, facilitators of live sessions often miss a trick and spend too much time talking, and not enough time encouraging others to talk. To make sure your learning initiatives are afforded the benefits of conversation, you have to plan for them deliberately. Here are some things you may wish to try …

Prepare your learners for conversation

The quality of conversation improves dramatically when people are well prepared to discuss the issues at hand. In Cognician, we get learners to do pre-work in our coaching guides to ensure that they arrive at live sessions primed to discuss key ideas. By using our Insights function – like Twitter in our own walled garden – we allow them to share thoughts with their learning group, which become conversation topics that the facilitator can draw on for live sessions. Sometimes the discussion begins within the Insights space itself, optimizing the face time even further.

Ask learners for their point of view

There is a difference between articulating your point of view and regurgitating someone else’s. Giving learners the opportunity to express their opinions in writing, helps them to elaborate and structure their thinking. When you head down this path, you’re well on your way to teaching your learners how to think, rather than what to think.

Encourage learners to entertain different points of view

Aristotle said that the mark of a mature mind is the ability to entertain an idea without accepting it. By encouraging your learners to adopt alternative points of view, you’re enriching their internal network of knowledge and maturing their thinking overall. One common way of doing this is to encourage learners to play devil’s advocate and argue for a viewpoint that opposes their own. It’s never easy, but that in itself is a sign that good learning is happening.

Create potential for argument

When Barry and I were cutting our teeth as instructional designers, we’d often ask ourselves if the learning exercises we were creating had enough potential for argument (‘PFA’). We wanted learners to debate. We wanted to throw cats amongst pigeons and create immediate, visceral responses to our propositions. We didn’t intend to be outrageous. We just went looking for the raw nerves and we poked at them. The resulting discussion would stretch our learners’ critical and creative skills, pushing them out of their comfort zones and into an optimum learning space.

Try out these tactics and then stand back and watch the learning happen. If you can get people talking, you’ve probably created a learning experience that’s worth talking about.

What can you do in your learning initiative to get people talking? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.