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Expanding Learning through Dialogue

This blog is the second in a four-part series exploring the learning process taken at Vancouver's CityStudio, a collaborative hub which has university students design and implement projects related to Vancouver's Greenest City goals.

Using the process of dialogue, Simon Fraser University (SFU) students Jaclyn, Michelle and Becky answer a weekly question about what makes CityStudio important to the development of education.

Question #2: What has been the impact of engaging in dialogue with over 25 thought leaders in the public, private, academic and non-profit sectors?

Becky Till, fourth-year SFU student in human geography:

There is no doubt I have become privy to an expansive web of inter-connected networks I had no idea existed. In months past, I have sat with my 30-year-old professionally employed roommate and listened to her express her concern over not feeling connected to anything broader. She does not feel particularly engaged with Vancouver even though she wants to feel that way. It struck me that before this course I felt exactly the same way. It seemed as if I had no entry point or at least I didn’t know where to start looking for one. I must say, I feel fortunate to be ridding myself of this notion of disconnectedness.

Engaging in dialogue with successful individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds is really like getting plugged into the potential for change. 

  Becky Till

For hours every week I sit and learn with people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to change. Be it through researching it, writing about it, predicating it, storytelling it, facilitating it, starting a space dedicated to it, coaching people towards it, trying it, managing it, or helping businesses grow into it. I could go on, but in essence, I am being exposed to people who are alive with the potential for change, big and small, short and long term. This exposure does two things: 1) it rearranges and blows my mind (I can actually feel new bridges being built up there) and 2) it makes me feel responsible. I am no longer blind to the entry points I once couldn’t see — I have the option to be part of the web. 

Last year I learned a term that has sat with me — armchair academic (pun intended). To my understanding, this term refers to an academic who does much of their work from inside their office instead of out in the field. Now I’m pretty sure this is an archaic concept, alluding to a more imperialistic time in academia, but it does conjure up the image of one who spends much time reading and writing. To be a professor — to commit to researching, writing, and honing in on the academic world — requires a particular set of priorities and abilities. I’ve begun to wonder what it means that I learn exclusively from people who have chosen this path? Now, I love many of my professors — they are compelling, captivating, and sound mentors — yet they are only one type of mentor. As I learn from our thought leaders, who have utilized their varied skill sets to accomplish a wide range of goals, I realize how many more paths are available to me. I had no idea there were so many ways to dedicate your values to your work.

So to pinpoint what impact engaging in open and equalizing conversation with thought leaders has had, I would say I am impacted by their impact.

Michelle Vandermoor, third-year SFU student in environmental geography:

Approaching the end of the CityStudio program, we now speak of dialogue as if it were an oversized vitamin. With a balanced formula of speaking and listening, dialogue boosts relationships, delivers education, and fights-off city ailments. If someone got a paper cut, we’d most definitely prescribe dialogue. I think we have yet, though, to find a way to explain what dialogue actually is to those unfamiliar with it. This is likely because dialogue is something different every time we do it.

  Michelle Vandermoor

We do dialogue facing one-another in a circle, and with every thought leader that joins us, this circle is filled with different delicious things for us to tuck into. One intention, however, has been salient: we aim to establish equality among all dialogue participants so that there is shared opportunity to be heard. When a conversation is guided by a rule such as this, I think it creates an almost unheard of environment for student learning.

In this environment, we move from the hypothetical to the real, with the understanding that students can do more than is typically expected of them. We open up and delve into difficult issues in community development with some of the greatest thought leaders this city has to offer. When we discussed local food we were joined by James Mackinnon, when we discussed urban botanical interventions we were joined by Oliver Kellhammer, and when we discussed arts and culture we were joined by the Councillor Elizabeth Ball. I have never experienced anything more empowering as a student than having my thoughts heard and deemed insightful by these leaders, and especially when on topics in which they have their expertise.

I hope, in turn, that our guests have left our dialogues taking something away with them. Whether it is sharing in the excitement our class has for the city’s future and our ability to influence it, or becoming inspired to encourage the use of dialogue at City Hall.

Jaclyn Bruneau, fourth-year SFU student in communications:

On first instinct, I realize these dialogues are responsible and capable of dissolving the asymmetrical power dynamics assumed between students and experts. These discussions at first made me extremely conscious of students’ sad tendency to cower in the presence of their professors, or more generally, people they perceive to be more intelligent or experienced than themselves. An image comes to mind of a professor scratching her head in passive bewilderment that her office hours continuously remain vacant.

Students, at any given moment, are full of questions, inquiries, and half-baked points that require clarification.

  Jaclyn Bru

So what's up with skipping the face time professors put at our disposal? Why do we seem incapable of looking into someone’s eyes and admitting we don’t understand a concept, or are unable to imagine the applications of an idea beyond the literature? It happens. We have a fear of being wrong, and a discomfort in allowing people to see the raw, unrefined stage of not knowing. We are so scared to admit these gaps in our understanding that we actually slow down the otherwise-constant effort we put in constructing and strengthening our capacities.

As the conglomerate of dialogues expanded, it became apparent there were very few places where thought leaders ended and where we began; the fault lines were loosely defined. They are brilliant in their own rights, but it was important to see what surfaced as a result of their disarmament of formal presentations. Sometimes dialogues flourished quickly into a state of openness, frankness, and honesty. Other times, they would require the massaging quality of poignant, intuitive questions to bring about a conversational nirvana for students, thought leaders and instructors alike.

So it is rare that people get three months to sit with 25 diverse thought leaders for 2-hours each. What can we all do? I postulate that we “out” ourselves as curious people in the self-dedicated effort to better ourselves and enrich the conversations and situations in which we find ourselves daily. The more explicit we are about our curiosity, the more we invite others to be curious too, and the less our egos get in the way of learning. To adults and young adults — sometimes we express a sense of mourning about the loss of our wildest imaginations. I would argue that we actually mourn a culture we perceive as un-conducive to bringing about questions everyone is thinking and no one is asking, or ideas so crazy they just might work. To professors, employers, presidents, directors, owners, superintendents, editors-in-chief — do not overlook or take lightly the responsibility you hold as facilitator of these ideas, questions and answers. Set the stage for openness and learning and watch as the hive begins running itself. At the end of the day, we are all experts of our own experience and the questions and answers we deem unfit for daylight may actually prove to provide the sweetest honey.

Read the 1st Blog: How is CityStudio Changing Education?


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Jaclyn Bruneau, Becky Till, and Michelle Vandermoor are three students attending CityStudio, a collaboration between the six public post-secondary institutions and the City of Vancouver in an effort to have students design and implement projects supplementary to the Greenest City 2020 goals.

CityStudio is regarded as SFU's Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue's "Semester in the City," fusing the upper-level stream for interdisciplinary students with the opportunity to learn beyond classroom walls and engage with local community. The program is formed around dialogue, inviting thought leaders from the public, private, non-profit and academic domains into an equalizing conversation devoid of formal presentations and on the premise that everyone is an expert of their own experience.

Students learn through the dialogue process and complete projects under the guidance and advice of people in the very fields in which the projects aim to leverage change. Instead of working around a numerical grade, students devote energy toward ensuring the projects are as meaningful as possible.

In lieu of this style of learning and through a series of four blog entries, the three will explore what makes CityStudio unique and important as a consideration for the development of education as a field.

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