Are you hearing other voices?

by Sian Lund

Knowledge exchange and idea generation rely heavily on verbal communication and can be a significant part of art and design disciplines. However, the college community may experience these exchanges in very different ways, with very different perspectives. Reflecting on expectations and assumptions around verbal communication may reveal very different feelings, not always positive ones.
Although group work sessions and seminar discussions are the bedrock of many learning outcomes at the college, communication may not always be fruitful in these contexts, and a feeling of time being wasted sometimes results. Considering what is at stake, it might be worth exploring why the exchange was not as fruitful as was hoped and what an alternative scenario could achieve.
When considering the elements involved in communication, language is of course significant.  So poor language skills might be blamed for poor communication. But there are many different reasons why a group discussion may not be a fruitful experience. Behaviour styles, learning styles, identity issues and status may all play a part in how messages are conveyed in the discussion. Contextual knowledge and cultural reference might also restrict understanding within the group. These all form an integral part of the communicative act because language is not used in a vacuum; we are not automated machines which churn out static structures unaffected by context, emotions and prior experiences. Language performance is affected by individual psychology, group psychology, behaviour styles, learning styles and many more factors. Have you ever felt tongue-tied or better still more eloquent after a few glasses of something strong? Losing inhibitions, surrounding yourself with  a familiar group of people, becoming acclimated with local banter – these are all factors which can help with communication, regardless of your language competence.

For people who have moved out of their comfort zone, to a new country or community, such difference in behaviour and attitudes can feel overwhelming. It can affect identity as well as behaviour, and ultimately language performance. This process of change is known as acculturation and has a huge impact on the success of community relations. Success is unlikely if the process is one-way: if people entering a ‘new’ community have to adopt wholesale new value systems and reject previous ways of behaving.  The process of acculturation is this movement of different groups of people and the changes which inevitably occur among everyone, not just those who are moving, but also those who have not moved out of their comfort zone.

Perhaps in the seminar discussions mentioned earlier, everyone is sitting behind tables or perhaps haphazardly around the room. A tutor might be leading a discussion related to a reading text, a current theme, or a recent talk. Some students are not participating – they are sitting silently and relying on others to speak. Other students have to ‘keep the conversation going,’ ‘come up with ideas,’ and ‘critique the arguments’. In this scenario, some group members might wonder why others don’t speak. This is a complex area with many contributing factors, but the underlying process of acculturation that is ongoing during this scenario might help to understand why communication is so difficult. This process has been divided into an ABC process of acculturation:

A – Affective (emotional) factors. This usually refers to individual psychology: how does each student feel? Are they stressed? Individual attitudes within the group are probably very different, with differing levels of openness, and different ways of coping with the diversity.

B – Behavioural factors. People may have become used to behaving in particular ways, and have developed subconscious ‘norms’ of behaviour. It might be worth identifying these apparent norms, to consider other ways of doing things. For example, in a group, there may be a variety of ways of turn-taking, interjecting in the flow of discussion, inter-relational roles, and hierarchy among participants. How do people interject in a group discussion? Is it a very fast-paced ‘first-come-first-served’ method? The way people interact and take part in a conversation can be ingrained from early educational methods. Some communities rely on the personal confidence of the speaker in the strength of their idea or argument to put it out to the group for spontaneous critique. Other group behaviours make use of reflection of an idea before it is shared with a group or before another idea or argument is considered. For some cultures (it would be interesting to know which cultures?), considerations across the group are taken into account before another idea is shared.

Of course, personalities differ and these examples are generalised, but it might be worth considering why someone behaves the way they do. We are all socialised in a particular cultural context, and surely anyone would agree that you cannot change a lifetime of behaviour patterns in a few hours, days or even weeks. If someone has rarely or never been asked their opinion by a tutor or to contribute to a controversial discussion in an open forum, is it reasonable to expect this behaviour to be adopted immediately? Does this mean that opinions are not held? That is highly unlikely – the challenge lies in unlocking the voices within: in accessing the ‘other’ voices.
Alternatively, we could just carry on hearing from half or a third of the community.
Perhaps the ‘C’ in the acculturation process could help…

C – Cognitive factors consider how everyone processes their world, and builds knowledge.  This part of the acculturation process might benefit from some introspection: to look at those thought of as ‘others’ and then reflect…and imagine being ‘the other’. To take away each person’s of cultural values and ‘norms’, and challenge these, an as outsider can be very liberating. To take all the behaviour that is ‘just the way things are done’, can be to challenge assumptions.
In the discussion scenario, this could mean to consider whether there is another way of doing things, rather than a ‘free for all’ discussion: other ways of critiquing, other ways of exploring ideas.
If the aim of a  group discussion is to generate, process, and exchange ideas and knowledge, then surely it is worth exploring ways in which as many ideas and as much knowledge and as many different perspectives as possible can be shared.
If ideas could be produced in written form at first, people could have time to reflect on their ideas and arguments. People could be given time to wander round a room looking at written thoughts displayed on the walls. Or people could work in pairs or in small groups to share ideas without the pressure of a large group. One person could then be responsible for  summarising the small group discussion and then report back to the group. These varied scenarios could allow for a variety of learning styles:

Enabling time to reflect.
Removing the need to address and consider the approval of a large group.
Avoiding the temptation to revert to the hierarchy of student – tutor roles.
Allowing time for many voices in the room.
Consider these three scenarios:

A student was being questioned about his design project. He accepted the suggestions from his group and tutor and said thank you. Why didn’t he challenge the suggestions or defend his decisions? This student remembers this situation from when he first arrived in the UK. He was a successful and articulate student, but remembers how frustrated he felt. He knew he should have defended  his decisions but he had been prevented by the ‘reverse current’ of years of being expected NOT to take a stance. He says, if he had tried to explain his perspective, he would have felt as if he was making excuses and expressing weakness.

Another very common scenario: the ‘silent’ student is sitting in a group and listening intently to the flow of the argument. Amongst the cultural references and use of idioms, she is more-or-less able to follow the points being made. She thinks of a very relevant example which could bring a valuable alternative perspective to the discussion. Just like trying to join a motorway from a slip road, she inches mentally forward, getting ready to leap. In the blink of an eye, the moment has passed! The conversation takes a sudden turn, and the moment is lost. The ‘silent’ student and those useful perspectives remain locked away.

And finally, an example around the significance of cultural references: in a seminar group, a reading text refers to ‘revolution’ and a discussion ensues among half the class. Among the others, one student is trying to connect with the concept of ‘revolution’ it is very different from her cultural reference point. She wants to ask the other students about their perspective of ‘revolution’ but is worried she  will seem as if she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word. She locks away the questions, and all her rich cultural heritage associated with the word revolution.

Addressing these issues does not require ‘dumbing down’ the conversation. It could just mean thinking outside the box and doing things differently.
All of these people who have travelled outside the comfort zone of their cultural community, whether across communities or countries, have a wealth of cultural capital.
There is a myriad of voices we could hear as well as experiences and perspectives that could be unlocked.

Cultural Diversity and Education links.

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