The meaning of your communication is the response you get [Part 2]

By | August 13, 2014

[Part 1 of this post is available here]

When I wrote the first column on this topic, I had no idea that neurolinguistic programming (NLP) had become the target of so many skeptical and scientific attacks, aimed at undermining its basic assumptions and discrediting its practitioners. As examples, you can check here and here. It’s not my intent here to engage these arguments systematically, and I’m not out to debate the scientific validity of the entire NLP approach. Over the years, I’ve found a number of the so-called presuppositions of NLP to be very usefulin terms of embodying a whole series of insights that follow on the contemplation of the presupposition. Whether or not the presuppositions are “true” in any scientific sense is much less important than whether they can trigger useful insights. In this sense, the presupposition that “the meaning of your communication is the response you get” is particularly fruitful.

In particular, thinking about this idea has caused me to substantively reevaluate my teaching performance. In general, I have thought of myself as a good teacher, and have received enough reinforcement for this idea from various students and colleagues to take it seriously. But it’s always been pretty ad hoc. When I fell into teaching on two days’ notice back in 1976, I had no training at all in the process, and nothing to go on except what I recalled from various classes and professors that I had had before. I literally had to make everything up on the spot. You can imagine precisely how horrible that might’ve been. For the second term I taught, I decided to concentrate on the one aspect of what I’d done earlier that seemed vaguely successful – telling stories.

Pretty much at random, I fell into the “parable” approach to teaching, employed successfully and thus made famous by a nice guy from Nazareth. Stories are at the center of human experience. Our own story essentially defines us as an individual, and understanding our own story is at the core of self-awareness. Culture is really nothing more than a whole lot of stories about us and about people like us. It’s the telling and retelling of stories that constitutes the essential human experience. But please note – stories are impermanent. They change continually, both in structure and message. What eternal human truth they embody lies at some meta-level, not in the stories themselves. Stories are valuable as triggers to individual thought and awareness, but they can’t by themselves convey truth.

I’ve tried hard to introduce students to alternative ideas and paradigms, to think systematically and interactionally, and to expand their focus toward wider contexts. I’ve experimented with a wide variety of teaching techniques, including a lot of class participation, interesting online exercises, interactive learning, backwards course design, and a lot of other presumably student centered activities. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a wide variety of interesting exercises that I’ve used in a lot of different kinds of classes to make a lot of different kinds of points. Many of these exercises have been used to point out counter-intuitive aspects of life in organizations, and the element of surprise and shock elicited from students has always seemed to me a kind of indicator of the “AHA!” moment of learning made famous by Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. It’s really exciting when you are able to have a student experience something in an entirely different and presumably more effective way, as a direct result of something that you did.

Those are some of the best moments in a teaching career. At the same time, they are some of the most dangerous moments – because like any “high”, the “Aha moment” can easily become addictive. And it is the epitome of the instructor-centered model. Although I’ve thought of my teaching as “student-centered”, looking back over my courses, it’s apparent that all too many of them were of the variety, “Here are things that you ought to know – learn them!”; or perhaps even worse, “Here is how you ought to think! Show me that you think this way!” That’s not student-centered; it’s centered on me. “Here are all the really neat things that I know that you don’t, and here’s how I think to come up with these brilliant observations!”

Probably far too much of the teaching I’ve done over the years has been focused on what I wanted to say, rather than on what my students needed to hear. My teaching has been more a process of constructing well-composed and compelling monologues, relying on their sheer brilliance and my own vibrant personality to cause the thoughts to embed themselves in the students’ minds and thus make them into small clones of me. The degree of success that a given student achieved was the degree to which they were able to manage being cloned.

So my teaching has largely enacted “the meaning of your communication is the response you get”, at least in the sense that the responses mirrored my original intent. But is this really a viable or useful pedagogical model? We’ll take that up in my final column on this subject, coming soon!