Technology and Conversation

Mark Johnson


The biologist Humberto Maturana once wrote a poem called “The Student’s Prayer” in response to the unhappiness of his son in school. It goes:

Don't impose on me what you know,
I want to explore the unknown
And be the source of my own discoveries.
Let the known be my liberation, not my slavery.
The world of your truth can be my limitation;
Your wisdom my negation.
Don't instruct me; let's walk together.
Let my richness begin where yours ends.
Show me so that I can stand
On your shoulders.
Reveal yourself so that I can be
Something different.
You believe that every human being
Can love and create.
I understand, then, your fear
When I asked you to live according to your wisdom.
You will not know who I am
By listening to yourself.
Don't instruct me; let me be
Your failure is that I be identical to you.

Maturana’s poem speaks of the importance of exploration and conversation in learning – what he calls “walking together”. Taken literally, conversation is actually “dancing together” because the Latin “con-versare” means “to turn together”. I find this a useful starting point for thinking through the confusing categories by which we distinguish online activities and artefacts from face-to-face engagements. Anyone who has danced with anyone else knows that it doesn’t work by one person imposing something on the other. It does require “leading”, but the leader of the dance engages in a kind of steering which takes into account the dynamics of the whole situation including themselves and their partner.

What happens in this steering process is also revealed in “conversation”: it is a negotiation of constraints – “this is how we can move”, “this is how I am able to move”, and so on. Like dancing, conversation is not about imposition. In a conversation, participants reveal their understanding and their uncertainty through the many utterances that they make. Those utterances are multiple attempts to describe something which lies beyond description. But taken together, something is revealed, and if it works, like the dancer and their partner, each person becomes a different version of the same thing – rather like a counter-melody to a familiar tune. A richer reality emerges through the counterpoint of multiple descriptions.  

This understanding of conversation is the antithesis of the increasingly transactional way in which the education system seems to view the “delivery” of education. This is not merely an exchange of words, essays, text messages, tweets, or blog posts. It is a coordination. Or perhaps more deeply (to borrow some terminology from Maturana) it is a “coordination of coordinations”.

When I try to explain this, I sometimes use some software called “Friture” which graphs the spectrum of sound in real-time. You can download the software here (http://friture.org). I ask people to sing a single note (or at least try) and capture it on the computer. The resulting spectrum shows a set of parallel lines representing the many frequencies which combine in making the single sound. Conversation is like this, I say.

Indeed, we can explore things further with sound. If you sing the note while gradually changing the shape of your mouth to make the different vowel sounds, the number of lines decrease and increase. The narrow “e” sounds are rather like a tinny transistor radio. The fuller “ah” sounds are more “hi-fi” and rich. So the more simultaneous versions of the same thing, the more “real” it feels. Try it!

The message is that our grasp on reality and the effectiveness of our social coordination requires the coordination of diverse voices – and that is what conversation is about. The physicist David Bohm, who made the connection between a view of quantum mechanics and scientific dialogue, explained it more elegantly here: (1) David Bohm on perception – YouTube. And there is a political message: the richness in our understanding of reality entails the conditions of a free society which embraces diversity and creates the conditions for conversation: that is, one that doesn’t impose one particular description of the world on everyone else. That merely produces the tinniest of transistor radios!

Technically, in the world of information theory, multiple descriptions of the same thing are termed “redundancy”, which is another word for “pattern”. This is useful when we try to make sense of the relationship between the conversations that we have face-to-face, and the phenomena that we experience online. 

The Internet’s Multiplicity

The internet has vastly expanded the multiplicity of descriptions of the world. Does the internet dance in much the same way that our face-to-face conversation dances? I think it does, but to understand how it does, we have to look a bit more deeply at the kinds of multiplicity involved in all conversation. 

The internet produces its multiplicities differently. Face-to-face conversation is comprised of gestures, words, phonemes, and prosody – we wave our arms, use our eyes, change the pitch of our voice, and often repeat ourselves. The repetition we might think of as a “diachronic” (over time) redundancy; the arm-waving, voice pitch, gestural stuff is “synchronic” (simultaneous). Returning to the sound spectrum analyzer, the parallel lines identify the synchronic aspects, while if we were to sing a melody, the changing pattern over time represents the diachronic dimension. 

So what if the balance between synchronic redundancy and diachronic redundancy can be shifted around? What if parts of what is synchronic, become diachronic? Isn’t that what happens on the internet? 

Our snippets of text, video, emails, game plays, hyperlinks, blogs, timelines, likes, shares and status updates do not happen at the same time. While some of them (like video) contain rich synchronic aspects similar to face-to-face engagement, and text itself is a remarkably rich synchronic medium (without which poetry wouldn’t exist!), much of the multiplicity (or the redundancy) occurs diachronically as well as synchronically. The timeline matters; the concern for a particular individual’s understanding matters. And we may never meet somebody face-to-face, but following them on Twitter might mean that we get to know them as if we had, and perhaps a bit better.

Why don’t your Zoom lectures Dance?

So why, when it comes to education online, does so much seem deathly? Why doesn’t your zoom lecture dance? If the internet dances, why can’t education join in?

To answer this, we have to examine education’s constraints. And here we meet the very things that Maturana was railing against. Why is it so dreadful? Because the basic function of the system is to impose on students what is already known, examine them and certificate them. It instructs, reproduces and fails (at least, in Maturana’s terms): more goose-step than dance. 

There are of course reasons why this is so. After all, how would a meaningful assessment system operate if learners were allowed to be different from one another or do completely different kinds of activities? Well-intentioned though ideologies like “constructive alignment” are, inevitably they get used to hammer abstract “learning outcomes” into students in the same way that we hammer in facts. In short, online learning is crap not because of technology, but because of the constraints of the institution. But our institutions took their form in a world where our available tools were limited, meaning that this was the most effective way to organise education at the time. If we started from scratch today, with the tools that we now have, might our institutions would look and behave very differently?

We have a vestigial education system which increasingly insists on a transactional “delivery of learning” and its measurement. Shifting this ideology online brings the added disadvantage that the internet does not afford the same synchronic richness of face-to-face situations (which at least mitigate the pain of instruction), while the education system cannot adapt to the internet’s rich diachronic mode of operation.

Dancing on Stilts

But it was always obvious to the pioneers of technology in education that learning with technology was a different kind of dance. One would end up dancing on stilts or trying to play Mozart wearing mittens if one insisted on reproducing established ways of institutional education online. 

In a very revealing passage explaining his core idea of “teach back” (where a teacher would ask a learner to teach back what they had learnt), Gordon Pask noted something fundamental in the patterns of teaching and learning processes that chimes with Maturana’s poem:

“The crucial point is that the student’s explanation and the teacher’s explanation need not be, and usually are not, identical. The student invents an explanation of his own and justifies it by an explanation of how he arrived at it” (Pask 1975)

What Pask argued was that it was the redundancy of the interactions that mattered in the dance. 

Technology and Institutional Structure

Now we have amazing technology, this redundancy can come in many forms and many different kinds of media. Videos, blogs, social media interactions, and so on. And yet within the context of formal education, we rarely harness this diversity because it presents organisational problems in the assessment and management of the formal processes of education. The root cause of why we dance on stilts lies in the structures of education, not in any particular pedagogy or “ed-tech”. 

This is the paradox of the current state of the uses and abuses of technology in education. The need for technical innovation in education lies in the use of technology to reform the management and structures of education which constrain teachers and learners to such an extent that it makes online education unbearable. The actuality of “ed-tech” innovation in education lies in corporations feeding on the obvious inadequacies of online learning, looking for a chunk of the enormous sums of money going into education, and pitching for minor improvements to fundamentally broken processes, while often burdening institutions with increasingly complex technical infrastructure and expensive subscriptions. 

There is hope. The internet really does dance, and the students are getting increasingly good at using it (and indeed, some teachers!). Educational institutions are like a Soviet-style old-guard in a rock-and-roll world. Technology is the lubricant that will eventually free everything up – but the old guard will be slow to shift. 

We have to decide what our educational institutions are for. Are they there to “deliver learning” and make profits and pay vice-chancellors obscene salaries? Or are they there for creating the contexts for new conversations? It is a fork in the road. One way lies a future of ed-tech which feeds on the inadequacies of the existing system like a parasite. The other lies a future of technology being used to transform the self-steering both of institutions and individuals in their dances with each other and society.


Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

Mark Johnson is a Post-doctoral researcher in the Department for Science Education at the University of Copenhagen. His work focuses on cybernetics, the organisation of education, and the role of technology in institutions. His current projects include designing novel approaches to machine learning in medical diagnostics, developing radical pedagogies at the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia, and researching implementation of curriculum digitalisation at the University of Copenhagen

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