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Communication

Communication is another habit that not only underlies many elements of good democratic living and is tied to other democratic habits described throughout this section, but also explicitly aids in building publics and the sense of the collective “we” that comes with them.10 Communication is also fundamental to the views of education and democracy put forward by Dewey. He states that “education consists primarily in transmission through communication. Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession”11 So, for Dewey, the public nature of education lies in the process of working together to communicate shared experiences and the knowledge that comes from them. Much attention has been drawn to the first part of one of Dewey’s most quoted lines from Democracy and Education, but look instead at the final clause: “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience”12 Democracy, then, is a way of life where people come together through communicating shared experiences. It is communication that enables us to make our lives, our experiences, and our ends-in-view common.

And it is also through conjoint communication that we generate and share ideas. Within the context of coming together around shared problems in schools, these ideas may be articulations of frustration, proposals for change, or plans for action. Or, in Dewey’s words, these ideas “are anticipations of possible solutions. They are anticipations of some continuity or connection of an activity and a consequence which has not as yet shown itself.”13 These ideas can lead us out of debilitating ruts, bringing growth and change. Generating and sharing ideas is also essential to a healthy democracy, where knowledge and viewpoints must be free and openly accessible. Neoliberalism increasingly commoditizes and privatizes knowledge and access to it, as we’ve seen in its influence over schools. Habits of open communication, inquiry, and knowledge sharing help to work against these antidemocratic forces.

The way that one transacts with others and the world during the process of formulating and articulating an experience, including learning to view one’s situation from without or through the eyes of others and appreciating the impact it has on others, is central to the public endeavor of communication. Again, Dewey states: “The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. To formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning.”14 The formulation of experience and the exchange of ideas is central to the act of doing “public,” of creating common worlds and solving common problems. And efforts to see experiences as others do help us to make those publics more inclusive.

For Dewey, communication is not just a transfer of meaning between two parties; instead, it is an activity of cooperation by means of which beliefs and actions are formed and changed and communities are established and enacted.15 Unlike recent trends to isolate ourselves among our peers and consult news sources that confirm our beliefs, communication as a sharing of experiences and ideas is not an insular process. It should not be constrained or confined by the group that makes up a public. Rather, communication must be outward directed. As I will expand upon in the next section about deliberation, communication must include seeking out new information to confirm or challenge beliefs, and it must test out ideas, sometimes among groups whose views differ from our own.

Important for fruitful transaction, flexible habits include flexibility in the ways in which one communicates with others. This includes how one speaks and listens in context-specific situations and relative to the habits of the other person with whom one is conversing. For Dewey, communication is “the establishment of cooperation in an activity in which there are partners, and in which the activity of each is modified and regulated by partnership”16 Here, activity should be thought of as habits enacted by (and constitutive of) each participant. During activity, these habits are engaged in transaction and therefore open to being changed by and through one another. When both interlocutors come together with a shared concern for improving life’s conditions and for communicating across their differences, it may be helpful, but not necessary, for them to consciously reflect on their habits. When their habits are characterized by openness or are held tentatively, the responses that they make to one another can be sufficient causes for each to modify their respective responses in turn, hence altering themselves to better achieve a fruitful transaction. It follows that, for Dewey, communication “modifies the disposition of both the parties who partake in it”17 Communication, as a process of making common, changes its participants and the public they constitute as it negotiates new meanings. In today’s increasingly fragmented society, developing commonality through communication may help us affirm or build new identities and create improved ways of living together.

To develop habits of communication that can form democratic publics, teachers must provide conditions and activities that are conducive to the sharing of ideas between students and with people outside of the classroom. While the value of project-based learning and group work has achieved significant traction in most schools, problematic silence policies in some “no excuses” charter schools, pressures toward efficient use of school time and resources, and a larger testing climate that requires students to find solutions to problems independently prohibit deep and ongoing conversations about meaningful issues between students. As much as they can, teachers should strive to provide conditions that spark such conversations and carve out spaces where these discussions can come to fruition, all the while modeling and calling for communication to be inclusive and transformational. And they can raise awareness among the community and their administrators about the restrictions on deep communication that they experience in their classrooms.

While perhaps most obviously suited to social studies classes, such communication-based learning can also be supported in other disciplines, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses focused on scientific problems that affect many people in society, and within English courses where careful attention to language and its use are emphasized. Within those courses and others, teachers can shape classroom environments so that solving problems well requires effective communication, and teachers can guide students in reflecting on their use of communication to assess not only its effectiveness or inclusiveness, but also to reshape and improve future practice. Through repeated use as well as environments and teachers who affirm the fruitfulness of good communication, its invocation can become a habit.

 
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