I’ve been thinking about why it’s so hard for people to speak and listen, with empathy.
My assumption has always been that this is part of ‘the human condition’, a narrow view shaped by me spending the whole of my life, apart from holidays, in the United Kingdom – significantly, perhaps, in England. I have felt uncomfortable for a long time about the way people communicate around me – and the ways in which I collude with that – but I’ve been unable even to articulate the problem, never mind search for ways to address it.
Technology has opened up my life and my thinking most powerfully by bringing me into contact with diverse opinions, which arise themselves out of people’s diversity of experience, culture, environment, neurolinguistic wiring – of everything. I don’t just mean the communication explosion of social media, but also those technologies that we take for granted in many parts of the world in 2014, such as radio (patented in 1880) and television (found in most houses in the UK by the 1960s). In the literature around diversity in education, you rarely see diversity of opinion mentioned, so fixated are we on an approach to diversity which promotes labelling and factionalising, rather than listening. @juliaserano writes here about replacing the word ‘diversity’ with ‘heterogenity’ (thanks @ellietrees for the link). Julia writes that:
“Diversity has become a buzz word, an oversimplified ideal. We should instead embrace heterogeneity—the fact that people in the population at large, and within our own movements and communities, will invariably differ with regards to every possible trait. Heterogeneity is messy and complicated, but we must come to expect it.”
I’d love to think of a simpler word than ‘heterogenity’, which might be more likely to ‘stick’ but I can’t summon one up – what do you think?
The approach we are taking to diversity with TeachDifferent: The Diversity Programme (and in life) is this: equality enables everyone to take part, and then diversity enables each person to take part as themselves. At any one time, we are the sum of our shifting, mutable identities and they form our opinions. As educators, our job as I see it is to facilitate the self-responsible expression of those opinions and provide a safe space to allow them to change. I am increasingly coming to believe that it doesn’t matter whether that takes place on- or off-line.
In the past few days, I’ve had four experiences of thinking so diverse that they have blown my mind. Firstly, the Time to Think Collegiate, a whole day of thinking using Thinking Environment applications (see http://www.timetothink.com), where a 30 minute Thinking Partnership session with @nigelcutts was one of a number of opportunities to massively shift my thinking. Then I had the honour of facilitating the second Diversity Programme Study Day, where we used similar processes to generate ideas I’m still buzzing off two days later. The following day, I travelled to London to participate in the Compass Online Education Inquiry, which was not what I expected, before being woken up this morning via Twitter to the notion of Rhizomatic Education, @davecormier’s powerful idea that the community is the curriculum. In the middle of it all, I caught up with ‘The Bridge’ on iPlayer (that is relevant, bear with me). This blog is both an attempt to process the deep learning I feel I’ve been doing over the past few days, and my initial contribution to #rhizo14, a community ‘course’ like no other I’ve ever experienced (but with unexpected resonance to our TeachNorthern ‘Community of Praxis’).
The contrast between these different experiences has raised lots of questions for me:
– why can’t intelligent people be succinct?
– what is it that causes people to need to establish their status before they speak?
– how do we learn from the past without getting stuck there?
– how can we be more self-aware of the personal drivers that form our opinions?
– why is it so hard to disagree and still keep talking?
It seems to me that power is at the heart of all of this and that those interventions that subvert or bypass power relationships stand the best chance of making honest communication possible – and consequently the best chance of thinking up something new. As long as we are taking sides, we are in danger of only speaking from the ‘fetish of assertion’ (Bernard Williams’ concept that I’ve talked about elsewhere in this blog). Yes our opinions are formed by our experiences (and the rest), but if we can’t move on from the emotional pain of the past we’ll keep making the same mistakes. As @shukieone writes in his blog about COOCs (Community Open Online Courses),
“It is not enough to say that the education system doesn’t work for all, it is also important to create a way of thinking about the future that is open, creative and optimistic.”
Yesterday, I was amongst school teachers, who were clearly passionate, informed and committed to the work they do. But it was hard to avoid the impression of a victim identity stranglehold on the thinking of those there. We were there to contribute to the Inquiry and to question the Shadow Education Secretary @tristramhuntMP on his intentions, should Labour (or “the left” as he referred to it) have more power next time round. The dynamic was a strange mix of deference and politely defensive attack. There was barely a question asked which was not clearly fuelled by the fetish of assertion. People were speaking not as themselves, but as the position they had taken up. Consequently, and despite the finesse of the Chair and of Tristram Hunt, finding new common ground was implicitly impossible. I got the impression that people said what they’d gone there to say, and heard what they’d expected to hear.
I’m trying not to be hypocritical here. I’d gone there to say something too, and when I didn’t get chance during the questions (fair enough, there were 150 of us there) I took the path of tweeting, which I could have done by staying at home (except that had it not been for @fredgarnett there wouldn’t have been a hashtag). But I hope that when I hear something I don’t agree with, I will think about it with empathy and allow it to change my mind if it needs to (not without wrath and soul-searching often, but still…) This is hard work, because the (negative) emotional response arrives in nanoseconds and the (positive) empathic connection has to be worked for.
This is the crux. And also where Scandinavian drama comes in. When I watch Borgen or The Bridge, both at work and in personal relationships Scandinavian people seem more able to challenge one another without falling out, than we do in English culture. I may be shot down in flames for shallow analysis and the assumption that this particular slice of a nation’s TV programming can offer any form of ‘truth’. But I do wonder whether respect for one another as thinkers is better able to flourish in a society which is in many ways less hierarchical than our own? And whether it is easier to have equality in a dialogue where, for example, doctor and patient address each other as ‘Mette’ and ‘Thorsen’, rather than ‘Mette’ and ‘Doctor’?
I’m aware of course that the central character of Saga Noren in ‘The Bridge’ has no filter and even more fascinatingly, no label either. It’s hard to imagine this happening even on TV in the UK, without the hovering presence of the tragic back story. Saga is presented just as herself and it’s interesting that fans of The Bridge seem to adore her because of this. Maybe we should all become just a little more Saga?
Although conflict may play itself out differently in working-class and middle-class culture in England (few finer killer statements than the middle-class use of ‘interesting’ to convey disapproval), its presence and the avoidance of it seem to dominate our communication, as does the assumption of previously established, identity-connected ‘place’. In all that has made me feel happy, buzzy, fulfilled and creative this week, I have felt able to contribute as myself, and safe to change my mind and my ‘place’, even mid-stream. I have felt listened to and – energisingly, respectfully – challenged. In all of this, I have grown.
I want to keep on learning, and find a way to contribute more broadly and consistently to what is genuinely out there, via Compass Online and in other spaces; a fundamental rethinking of education – and that’s all education, not just schools, colleges, universities, organisations and communities regarding one another with polite and meaningless collegiality from silos of place. I will be continuing to talk and think with others in a Thinking Environment, to explore and unblock my own limiting assumptions. I will be participating in #rhizo14 to extend my thinking about communities as curriculum, in discussion with other free thinkers. I will be contacting Compass Online to say that I’ll be setting up an Inquiry for social purpose educators (maybe online).
And the next time I have a conversation that scares me a little, I’ll do my best to be more Saga.