Thoughts on Conversation as Art as Learning Activity


“There’s no doubt in my mind that collaboration, diversity, the exchange of ideas, and building on other people’s achievements are at the heart of the creative process.” – Sir Ken Robinson

It is no great surprise to anyone who knows me to any degree that I believe in process, the beautiful messiness of the creative act. I believe the process associated with the creative act in all of its forms requires a deep commitment to searching, to diving into the deep end, without complete understanding of what we’ll find there. I can remember viewing photos of Francis Bacon’s studio, walls covered in strokes of paint and chaos in physical form. This image of creativity was profoundly visceral for me, exciting and a little scary. I remember it accompanied a set of profound interviews with David Sylvester (a video example of one of these interviews can be viewed here). Note that Bacon explains that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he doesn’t have any story to tell.

Creativity that is truly about learning (learning about ourselves, our past, our future, each other) is always an unknown venture, one rife with much failure and lack of comfort. However, it is worth the risk of failure to discover and gain new knowledge. In my experience, art and education are two of the most direct methods for almost immediate access to the creative act of learning through the search itself. Both art and education can be viewed as conversations, either synchronous or asynchronous communication that is reciprocal in nature.

Art and education are forms of conversation in which the full potential of the creative act (or its initial creation) can only be experienced with the participation of the other. Whether the conversation is happening simultaneously (as in most classrooms or innovative online degree programs) or with the past (as in Adrienne Rich’s beautifully descriptive “Diving into the Wreck”), it must always include more than the lone individual (even if the other is experienced in mind/imagination only).

One example of dialogue with the audience of the imagination is Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”, a poem that describes his own connection to the past (and his lineage) and how writing poetry is similar to working in the soil to provide future nourishment. In this short work, we understand that Heaney is in dialogue with the past and present, family and himself. Martin Buber, in his philosophical work I and Thou, explains that humans define the world through our interactions with the other. These interactions can take place regardless of time and place. Heaney’s work is locked squarely in direct dialogue with memory, self-reflection, and his role in the patrilineality of his family.

Marcel Duchamp claimed that without the viewer/participant, the artistic act is stillborn and never really complete (Maria Popova shares this in her amazing blog, Brain Pickings, here). This really connects with me as a teacher. Teaching is a dynamic, ever-evolving act of creativity, a beautiful conversation (Tricia Whenham describes this very well on her blog).

Art is difficult. Real conversation is difficult. Learning makes us uncomfortable. There are reasons for this (not the least of which includes Piaget’s concept of equilibration). When we are in situations wherein we encounter something new, perhaps even unpredictable, we can become emotional. According to the concept of equilibration, we are having to cognitively accomodate for new information and assimilate within our existing schema (or our knowledge map of the world).


Conversation is one of the most basic creative acts. However, the act of real conversation may not be long for this world, if we believe the statistics collected by the Pew Research Center (2015) regarding the prevalence of cellphone usage in social settings. Teachers and artists must create the conversational act, must shape it to help generate deep thinking and self-reflection.

I have discussed the importance of creativity, conversation as pedagogical framework, and the impact of engaging learning experiences for months now. Even this is a process for me. Conversation is that important as a transformative activity. It is a contract with the unknown, the improvisational, and it is essential to understanding.