Language as the Mother Code and Learning as a Conversation
The most complex code humans deal with is language. Language is what makes our minds work as they do; it makes us social beings; it allows us to build complex mental structures. Language shapes us culturally.
It is so deeply embedded in humanity and humanity in it that language is in our genetic code; once a newborn hears language, the language potentiation in their genes can lock into a specific grammatical pattern.
But the code that is language is a living code, making it even more complex. It evolves as new phrases, connotations and words are added daily. It takes years for the large and infinitely capable brain that children are born with to master the mother code we call language.
And those children, even after being bathed in language their whole lives, and even after graduating from college, still in large part are not skilled in the mother code language. That is how complex it is.
Language use is, more than any other factor, what determines a person’s success in life. It is not a background in the STEM disciplines, but skill in using language that largely determines the quality of life for an individual (skill in math is a possible exception).
And yet, higher education invests less in developing language skills than almost any other field; compare salaries in the disciplines and this is clear.
It is important to understand language and the study of language, linguistics. It is important because language is the mother code. We live within that mother code. If we want to better understand learning, we should better understand the nature of language and discourse.
Rhetoric was among the first classical areas of study. How rhetoric was understood then still pertains to today, at least in the spoken form. But, today, we live in a world of digital code: we drive surrounded by micro-chips in our cars; we wear or carry micro-chips on our wrists or in our pockets. All of our communication now is managed and augmented by micro-chips; all entertainment; all financial transactions; medical procedures; research.
It is easy to be misled into assuming that micro-chips are our reality and not language. To be misled into thinking machines know more than we do; to seek truth through technology; it is easy to think technology is an end in itself.
And therefore it is easy to miss the real miracle: technology today allows us to back away from the industrial age surrender to machines – the 20th century was when the machines took control of humanity, not the 21st century. The 20th century was a time of total war – the machines let us release our very worst nature. In this century, our new technologies can actually allow us to return to more authentic human activities.
On the radio, now, we hear the return of story-telling. Driving to the store on a weekend, we can now hear a 20-minute story told by one of a growing number of story-tellers. They are itinerant story tellers as of old although now they don’t travel to people to tell their stories, but people “travel to them” by turning on their radios. We have, as a culture, re-discovered the magic of story telling.
Chat on the Internet often develops into a conversation that can feel as authentic as a spoken conversation. Chat conversations have been used as a way to develop writing skills in college students. It is teaching writing with writing, a kind of studio approach to teaching writing. Human conversation is infinitely engaging but is, of course, actively using the mother code, language.
Email conversations are called “threads” and are a unique form of conversation that has its own set of rules. All human interaction has rules, so conversation having its own rules only means that it can be shown to be a natural form of discourse.
Our technology now provides many new media venues for human interaction. We are discovering new “selves” that we can become in these new venues. We become these selves through conversation – sometimes in conversation with ourselves. In eportfolios, as a good example of this kind of conversation, we are conversing with the self we were weeks ago or months or years ago.
Since eportfolios are also a social space, these conversations may be with current and past teachers (or their comments in the past) and with peers present and past.
The eportfolio conversation is a way to integrate learning over time and is therefore a huge challenge. But this conversation that creates meaning out of learning experiences is one of the great goals of education, for this kind of conversation is the very essence of meta-cognition.
Looking back on evidence – photos, writing, diagrams, video-clips – we look for “cohesion elements” among that evidence. Cohesion elements are bits of evidence whose meanings are related. In discourse analysis, looking at a transcript of a conversation, for example, you’d look for the repetition of words as cohesion elements or for a perpetuation of a tone or repeated phrases or structures. In eportfolio evidence, you’d look for a concept from biology, perhaps, such as symmetrical structures in animals, and link it to building design or to the Age of Enlightenment.
Reflection on eportfolio evidence is a conversation with yourself and your learning artifacts, and with your teachers and peers. Thinking of this reflective process as conversation helps us understand the complexity of the process.
Conversation is perhaps the oldest structure humans lived within. It is perhaps what makes us human. That conversation is created within the most complex code we use is the point here: conversation is both the most fundamental of human forms and the most complex. To think of the eportfolio process as a conversation, therefore, can help us in framing that process.
One can consider all learning as a conversation, but the eportfolio provides a center for that conversation and provides reminders (and prompts) for the conversation. Framing all learning as conversation is helpful in all ways so we can get away from the artificial notion of “delivering content” and get back to natural forms of human interaction. Teachers engaging in a conversational notion of teaching would naturally consider students as interlocutors and not objects, as stakeholders in concept development, and partners in knowledge-building.
ePortfolio is important because it is another form of conversation and therefore shows how technologies today can bring out the human in us, the good human in us.