There are two basic nuclear reactions that produce massive amounts of energy: fission and fusion. Nuclear Fission releases energy through the splitting of the nucleus of an atom. Fission divides and separates. A Nuclear Fusion reaction releases energy when the nuclei of light atoms are joined together to form the nuclei of heavier atoms. Fusion combines and blends. Both processes can release incredible amounts of energy.
Similarly, there are two basic discourse processes in any classroom: fission debates and discussions, and fusion conversations, known as dialogue. A fission conversation splits the participants into separate elements. Just like nuclear fission, a great deal of energy can be released—though this is the energy of division and separation. When participants leave these conversations, there are winners and losers, those who feel they are in the right and that the others are wrong. There are often feelings of frustration, anxiety and tension. The ensuing talk is often heavy and heated, with little or no sense of closure or accomplishment.
Debates fall into the fission category. The goal is often winning. Participants in a debate seek to dissect the other arguments, to split them into component parts that can each be analyzed, attacked, weakened, and disproven. Debaters look for logical inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and fallacies. In other words, they are looking for what is wrong in the other argument. They are not attempting to create something new. In my experience, debaters begin and end a debate with their same beliefs and understandings. I have rarely seen a student come out of a debate with a changed mind—and many students would likely not admit it even if they did. Still, debating is a useful process, though by its very nature, it is fission.
Classroom discussions are often fission processes as well. In a standard class discussion students share ideas, swap thoughts, and tell stories. Discussions often explore curricular matters, with the teacher acting as a gatekeeper or endorser for validity and relevance. A typical discussion begins to shift more toward fusion, but the underlying goal is still highly personal and individualized. Participants offer their own viewpoints, hoping that they become accepted. In most discussions, the teacher is one of the only people synthesizing or fusing together elements of the conversation.
Dialogue, on the other hand, is a fusion process. Participants in a dialogue attempt to combine disparate elements together to form a “heavier,” more complete understanding. This is a constructive and collaborative process of fusing together a bigger picture, a greater shared understanding. Individuals in dialogue suspend their assumptions and disbelief, let go of their biases, and work toward being a functional member of a team. The energy of dialogue is that of the espirit de corps of teamwork and collective belonging. The ensuing talk is conjoining and mutual, buoyant and light, with a strong sense of success and accomplishment.
Participants in dialogue feel that they are part of something greater than themselves as individuals. By taking ownership of the group process, participants seek entirely new ways of thinking and understandings that are not constrained by their previous thought patterns. Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the level of consciousness that created it.” In dialogue, participants seek to fuse themselves together in order to achieve higher levels of consciousness as a group.
Socratic Seminar is a specific technique for creating an ecology where dialogue can thrive. When facilitated properly, conversations are deep, collective, and powerful. Participants build on what others have to say—even when they disagree. They explore ideas as far as possible in order to create more meaning and understanding. The dialogue process often yields new Eureka! moments of profound clarity and insight. With the weight of fused ideas, participants often change their minds due to enhanced insights and understandings.
Both fission and fusion processes are useful thinking endeavors, to be sure. Both yield high energy and excitement. But they definitely yield different results in the ensuing thoughts and attitudes of the participants. Debates often leave people anxious and frustrated, whereas dialogue leaves people with a sense of belonging and accomplishment. In this digital age of social isolation and loneliness, dialogue is definitely the better choice. If we are to solve any of the world’s problems, we will need to achieve new levels of consciousness that can be accessed through the fusion of dialogue.