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Ontological Dialogic Provocations in Education

Page history last edited by Ana Marjanovic-Shane 5 years, 11 months ago

Ontological Dialogic Provocations


Ontological Dialogic Provocations in Education involves inducement of a genuine puzzlement, question, inquiry in a student that the student wants to address through an educational investigation by the teacher, peer student, or somebody else.


Ontological learning

     In educational research there exists different approaches to dialogic pedagogy and the role of educational dialogues (Lefstein & Snell, 2013; Marjanovic-Shane, 2016). “We are drawn to dialogic pedagogy for many reasons […] But for us dialogic pedagogy is important not only as means; it is also an end in itself – a good way to live. We engage in dialogue because we are interested in what our interlocutors – including children and pupils – have to say” (Lefstein & Snell 2013, p. 21). As Bakhtin (1986) said, life is ontologically dialogic. Hence, it should be emphasized that the following version in focus highlights a particular kind of educational dialogicity in which teacher talk is not reduced to an instructional tool, for example, conceived of as a functional language tool for regulating social order or arriving effectively at preset curricular endpoints (defined by the school, teacher and/or the state). In fact, dialogues are here neither analytically confined to behavioral talking and listening rules nor consensus-oriented verbalism. Moreover, learning dialogues are not exclusively occupied by the students’ learning processes, but embrace the voices of all participants within the educational context. That applies to the teachers’ responsive knowledge-development as well. Noteworthy is also that the dialogic pedagogy accounted for on this page addresses knowledge beyond a cognitive and cultural-historical intellectual tradition, strictly speaking. So, what does this specific dialogic pedagogy really address? Clearly, it sticks to a socio-cultural but ontological perspective on learning and being. More precisely, it draws upon the dialogue philosophy of Bakhtin (dialogism) and his educational ideas as well. The ‘functionalist approach’ to the role of educational dialogues described above could be seen as ultimately instrumental. In contrast, the ontological approach to dialogue calls for practices, as education, to make dialogicity as its primary guiding principle (cf. Matusov, 2009; Sidorkin, 1999; Wegerif, 2008). Here didactics and ontology are intimately intertwined – not separate in theory and practice (Matusov, 2015c, p. 67). Although it is possible to argue that you can find dimensions of ontological teaching in any teaching, a full-fledged educational dialogue reaches its ontological level not before the educator realizes its value (Matusov & Miyazaki, 2014).


     Using language both intentionally, systematically and strategically in order to direct the student’s mental understanding is not only a teacher-centered approach that tends to neglect the students’ own interests and concerns. It also reveals a technological connotation, referring to a conventional concept of schooling that leaves significantly restricted room for student agency. One could object that all kinds of learning are creative in a sense, and of course that sounds reasonable at first sight. It may, however, be opposed by the counter-claim that the creativity referred to is primarily based on an adaptive “teacher-pleasing” (Matusov, 2011b) concern that does not transcend the cultural given (e.g., the established societal norms of, for example, knowledge and schooling) and, thus, does not transform the learning individual’s agency radically in the creative sense (cf. Matusov, 2011b). That includes the teacher’s agency as well, which is bound to pre-determined educational goals with limited opportunities to learning something dramatically new; being surprised or challenged by the genuine other.

     Addressing non-finalizing alterity and multi-voiced interaddressivity in teaching and learning means to inclusively acknowledge, and thereby giving voice to, all the dialogue partners’ subjective interpretations of culture and ideological life. This kind of creative dialogicity invokes existential issues which transcend depersonalizing, reproductive ‘classroom games’ of fixed culturally established social roles as the conventional teacher- vs. student-position and the pre-given epistemic positions implied. Thereby it reaches existential meaning-making of personal relevance to the participating learner, constituting an ontological dialogic pedagogy.

     Let us turn to Lobok (2014). The Russian term for education - obrazovanie - defines it as an individual experience of an encounter and literally points to a process of forming a new reality, a new entity. The obrazovanie of a person is hence the formation of his/her personality, and his/her individuality in relation to culture. Within such an educational process the person (the learner) discovers the ability to see and feel the pulsation of his or her I, that is, not to be totally determined by the socio-cultural structures in a depersonalized sense, or reproduce it. Fortunately, cultures cannot be appropriated or acquired, but the self is by education challenged to be discovered in relation to culture. To build relations of partnership with it. Such is the nature of encounter (Lobok, ibid., p. 1).

     Experienced encounters of this context-dependent kind allow for educational meaning-making as a dialogic enterprise. Therefore, dialogic interaction is not merely a form of instruction but about ontological dialogical meaning-making, and “meaning-making is always creative; it is a surprise. It is a possibility among many other possibilities, and therefore never pre-determined.” (Matusov 2009, p.1). But on the other hand, teaching is traditionally a part of a goal-directed activity in its broader sense. It normally has its curricular endpoints and these endpoints of education seem to be anti-dialogical in its inherent nature (Matusov, ibid., p.2).  Consequently, in mainstream education as a social practice, the dialogicity is often distorted because it is guided by an anti-dialogical project that profoundly ignores how students make sense: “It involves students in a meaning-making process but this meaning-making process is very distorted, inhumane, and perverse” (Matusov, ibid., p. 2). One of the problems here is the risk that students feel alienated in their educational being. They tend to found it boring, devoid of meaningful learning and decontextualized from their own reality (Matusov, 2015c; Matusov & Marjanovic-Shane, 2012). Research has demonstrated that institutional schooling leads to students who are significantly bored due to their existence in school. Matusov (2015c) writes that teachers do not dialogically really share their mind and heart with the students, rather consistently acting as “educational zombies” in their rule-following, curriculum-based guidance.

     Bakhtin (2004), who was a former school-teacher in the subject of Russian language, emphasized the need to conduct dialogic teaching in terms of designing a teaching style that attracts students and, hence, motivating them to learn actively: “We should note in conclusion that students understand and really enjoy stylistic analyses /…/ as long as they are conducted in a lively manner and the class members are encouraged to be active participants” (p. 23). In this seminal text he also provided ideas of what kind of knowledge is worth paying educational attention to: “Creative, original, exploratory thought that is in contact with the richness and complexity of life cannot develop on a substrate consisting of the forms of depersonalized, clichéd, abstract, bookish language.” (p. 13).

     Ontological dialogic pedagogy might be seen as “a praxis of praxis(Marjanovic-Shane, 2016; Matusov & Lemke, 2015; Matusov & Marjanovic-Shane, 2012) where students “should be engaged in critical defining and evaluating their own education. They should critically evaluate their own educational desires, values, and beliefs about their own education. They should test desirability of their own educational values and values of educational practice, in which they are involved.” (Matusov & Lemke, ibid., p. 9).

     Given this, we need to establish one more implication of a non-ontological approach to learning, before continuing with the issue of dialogic provocations in education. The instrumental version of teaching also reveals excessive monologism as other-orientation, that is, the communication style between classroom participants, especially teachers and students (Matusov, 2009). In such an extreme form of monologism in practice, the voices of authorities (as the teachers and institutions) try to impose universal truths rather than relative truths contingent on particular persons and contexts: “It tries to erase any references to a particulate voice, particular context, particular practice, particular relations, and particular I. Anything that is rooted in particular being and circumstances of life has to be removed. It tries to eliminate any gaps between consciousnesses.” (Matusov, 2009, p. 140). Bakhtin argued that this extreme monologism cannot be accomplished without literally killing any consciousness of the other (Matusov, 2009). Even in conventional schools, dialogue is still alive but predominantly in distorted and oppressive forms.

     To stay away from imposing general, universal truths in the role of being a teaching guide is an ethical stance as well (i.e., not only a pedagogical choice). White (2016, p. 167) considers the responsibility that follows with a Bakhtin-inspired dialogic pedagogy: “Responsibility lies within the teacher to support learning in its broader sense. Rather than using instrumental strategies to manipulate learning towards a preordained end point, the teacher is called upon to exercise courage, honesty and wisdom in each moment. In this, there is no alibi, as Bakhtin tells us, yet there is also no certainty that what we do is ‘right’ either”. Acting ethically as an educator could be seen as an authorial gift rather than a form of manipulation, she continues. That means to put yourself as a teacher in the service of the students’ creative authorship; to be dialogically open to the priorities of learners (cf. Matusov, 2011b). This risk is also addressed by Matusov (2011a) who points at the problem of educating exclusively towards becoming and not being, which is, to educationally focus on the incomplete, developing life of the learner rather than the complete lived life in the learner’s being. Adopting a manipulating stance from ‘the outside’ as for example, an observing teaching-spectator instead of an engaged subjective dialogic partner could arguably be a communicative mistake, if genuine dialogue is desired. Calculability of the other is not only impossible to fully pursue in social interactions (i.e., constantly trying to strategically figure out what the other really knows, how he or she feels or plans to do). Moreover, it risks to turn into “immoral, exploitive, inhumane, and a killer of dialogue (cf. Butler, 2003). Unfortunately, as Bakhtin pointed out, this is exactly the relationship between the teacher and the student in conventional classrooms.” (Matusov, 2011a, p. 103). This finalizing type of other-orientation is further interlinked with subject-object relations in which the dialogue partner is treated as an object for pedagogical action rather than as a legitimate subject (cf. Matusov 2015b). As Bakhtin (1986, p. 138) puts it: “relations among subjects – individual, personal relation, ethical relation, dialogic relations among utterances, and so forth. But if the relations are de-personified they change to relations among objects, like causal relations, logical relations, mathematical relations…”


Dialogic provocations

     As hinted above, in ontological dialogic pedagogy teachers engage students as whole persons, inviting them to engage deeply in their subjective convictions by testing their diverse ideas, positions, desires, interests, views, relationships etc. (Bakhtin, 2004; Marjanovic-Shane, 2016; Matusov, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2011a, 2011b, 2015a,2015b,2015c; White, 2016). Arguably, the teachers function as guides who help the learners transcend the given by creating new possibilities and thoughtful initiatives in their lives, due to the ontological experiences that occur in the educational encounters. With the words of Marjanovic-Shane (2016), this dialogic testing constitutes a critical ontological pedagogy, based on Bakhtin. The idea is to give students an opportunity for personal transformation and transcendence, in and through an eventful teaching that actualizes critical identity-issues which are closely related to new knowledge in progress. In doing so, the educator needs to provide multiple, alternative ways of understanding and reasoning, thus “providing opportunities to encounter diverse possible and impossible alternative views and positions, bringing up the ‘what-if’ scenarios, having diverse desires and ways of seeing and acting, comparing them and contrasting them” (Marjanovic-Shane, ibid., p. 53). Providing opportunities to the experience of what is profoundly different in relation to the learning individual’s knowing, wanting and feeling, means to open up not only for existing knowledge of the teacher and its society, but also to dialogically play with the opportunities of new upcoming ideas and values. Teaching and learning could be seen as an art-based dialogic practice in this sense; dealing artistically with the creation of unpredictable meanings in the tentative acts of knowing (cf. Bingham & Sidorkin, 2001). By implication there is also one more aspect worth considering when speaking about dialogic provocations.

     The social phenomenon I am having in mind here is the common agreement-orientation, habitually taking for granted in both educational theory and practice as the ideal way of approaching each other educationally (Marjanovic-Shane, 2016; Matusov, 1996; Matusov, 2015a; Matusov & Wegerif, 2014). If disagreement occurs along the way between the student and the teacher, the ideal intention is to overcome such ‘erroneous’ intersubjective tensions in order to seek for the desired endpoint, that is, solid consensual understanding (cf. Matusov & Wegerif, 2014, p. 15). At the point when students arrive at such kind of preordained shared understanding, meekly taking over the instructor’s knowledge and often his or hers opinions as well and, besides, are willing to display the particular sharedness in action, they are viewed as more knowledgeable than they were at the starting point of observed disagreement. Agreement-based performance in classrooms is then taken as a proxy for truth, or at least the ideal knowledge to enact. Such knowledge clearly counts as more valuable in the current school system and there are notable consequences at stake in the learner’s life, like marks, judging tests, certificates, and self-confidence in being and knowing. A young knowing person who quickly learns that overall learning, and the individual curiosity included in the processes of learning, is paradoxically not the crucial goal in conventional school but rather learning to thinking and demonstrating the ‘right’ things at the ‘right’ time, at the ‘right’ place and, of course, in the ‘right’ way (i.e., actions that are valued in the school/society). Facing such rigid institutional demands of learning, the issue is no longer about experiential subjectivity in socio-cultural knowledge development, but socialization in which reproduction due to the interest of others overshadows the individual’s own incipient reflections; the experience-based interests and concerns at stake. That is why a critical ontological pedagogy that relies on a multi-voiced dialogicity could be argued as needed.  In contrast, the agreement-approach brings to bear the uniform, single-voiced discourse in teaching. It is still somewhat dialogic - in a monologist fashion. With other words, “heterodiscoursia” promotes genuine dialogues (Matusov, 2011a, p. 107). Or, to put it with Skidmore’s (2000) words, there unarguably exist “pedagogical dialogues” in conventional schools but certainly not a “dialogic pedagogy”.

     In concert with Bakhtin, Matusov (1996; 2009; 2011a; 2015a) stresses the problem of agreement-focused dialogues and the role of second consciousness in dialogic teaching and learning. In doing so, he distinguishes the traditional approach to intersubjectivity with agreement and intersubjectivity without agreement (Matusov, 1996), and favors the latter approach (cf. Matusov, 2015a). The traditional definition overemphasizes agreement and de-emphasizes disagreement among participants in joint activity, according to him. A single consciousness cannot create dialogue and, thus, the gap of understanding between two consciousnesses has the potential to create elements of surprise and novelty – a dialogical meaning-making which is built on interpersonal tensions rather than subordinated imitation, or internalization, from the authoritarian “knowledge expert” in the classroom – the teacher. Dialogic pedagogy is basically not given hands-off-approaches to teaching, but rather includes opportunities to take risks in educational encounters; to test truths dialogically in an open-minded social climate (cf. Sullivan, Smith & Matusov, 2009; White, 2016).

     So, the learning opportunities in disagreements pertain to the issue of seeing students as creative actors on the learning scene, as responsive “authors”. In authorial teaching (Matusov, 2011b) the dialogic teacher also tries to support and value pedagogical relationships in which she or he does not share the student’s ideas, wants, feelings or desires. Students here “develop their authorship in response to teacher-developed dialogic provocations that ontologically engage them in some inquiry through provoking responses that students are asked to justify and test against alternative responses.” (p. 37). Matusov (ibid.) underlines the importance of recognizing that dialogic provocations, on which promoting students’ responsive authorship depends, can include both those of emergent, improvisational nature as well as those which are more or less preplanned. The latter are prepared as dialogically testable ideas in advance, based on the teacher’s knowledge of the students’ needs in relation to current curriculum. Interestingly, he also discusses the tension between the teacher’s and the students’ agenda. Both are always at play and ideally, a dialogic and ethical encounter are encouraging in unique, situated ways (cf. Hayes & Matusov, 2005). To sum up, adherents of ontological (and authorial) dialogic pedagogy take ideologies of existing cultures, embodied in particular persons, very seriously, “finding ways to open up spaces for people to share and for teachers to maintain vigilance about the extent to which their practice is shaped by ideologies – their own, and others” (White, 2016, p. 170). Given this, Withe (ibid.) also concludes that the educational outcome (and design) is informed by individuals in the social event rather than through the transmission of prescribed pedagogical objectives.


Internally persuasive discourse in teaching

     As mentioned in the preceding sections, teaching should ideally be constituted by critical dialogues which do not accept institutional, political goals as a starting point of practice, and not either a one-sided transmission of knowledge. Bachtin (1981) would probably talk in terms of internally persuasive discourse (IPD), in contrast to authoritative discourse (AD). IPD refers to the open meaning structures in polyphonic discourse, leaving room for individual reflections, interpretations and stance-taking. This discourse acknowledges the primacy of dialogue; the impossibility of every word being final and, thus, “able to reveal ever newer ways to mean” (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 346, emphasis in original). The unrepeatable, non-finalized feature in human communication is also described with emphasis in his late essays and notes (Bakhtin, 1986). This being said, in education, Bakhtin’s central contribution could be the dialogic idea of IPD and should hence guide any educational design that seeks for truly dialogic encounters (Matusov, 2007). In IPD, truths becomes dialogically tested and forever testable (Morson, 2004), implying a special dialogical and critical exposure, facilitated by an instructor, as alternative discourses. “According to Bakhtin, a person is involved in internally persuasive discourse when different ideas that embody diverse voices collide with each other in a dialogue that tests these ideas” (Matusov, 2007, p. 229-230). In contrast, the authoritative discourse (AD) refers to those forms of language use which presents themselves as unchallengeable, formulating a closed social position which is not open to debate. Consequently, it demands our unconditional allegiance (Bachtin, 1981, p. 343).



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