Understanding the environment: Learning and communication
Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

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Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

Reading 2.2: Introduction to communication

In Reading 2.1 I identified communication with others as being an important way in which humans learn. Unlike many other animals, we don't have to interact directly with our environment to learn the dangers – we learn from the experience of others communicated to us in an ever increasing variety of ways. Here you are reading about knowledge gained by others, communicated through these written words. Communication between humans in all its forms is perhaps the single most important factor which differentiates us from all other creatures on this planet.

But more generally, in this block you are interested in the way things interact, their relationships with each other, and how this is extremely important in understanding the world in which you live. Understanding communication is central to understanding the way in which things interact with each other. To interact they must communicate in some way. So what are the essential features of a communication link?

Start by thinking about communication between you and me, Person A addressing Person B, through the mechanism of this writing which you are reading perhaps online, perhaps in a book. First, it is important to investigate exactly what I mean by communication in the light of our models of thinking and understanding developed in the these readings.

But remember communication is also important in understanding an ecosystem. A model of an ecosystem can be thought of in terms of the people, animals and plants, and the communications between them all, existing within some outside environment. You can identify these elements in every such ecosystem. Different ecosystems have different people, different animals, different plants, which constitute components of a system, and different communications which constitute interconnections between the components. But everything that is common to all ecosystems is contained in these two sets of elements, the components and their interrelations.

You will find that the model of communication developed in this resource can be used in a much wider context and will help in understanding any system.

The standard model of communication was first proposed by Shannon and Weaver (1949). This model has seven elements. The first element is the message itself, which you are not directly concerned with here, since this will be particular to a particular situation; even in a typical human activity, the particular people, their particular relationship, and the particular organisation will all be different in every case. What you are concerned with here is what is common to every case.

The second element is the originator of the message, which in this case is me, Person A, where the message to be sent is formulated.

The third element is you, Person B, the recipient of the message. These are the parties to the communication.

Figure 2.2
Figure 2.2 The Shannon-Weaver communication model

The next important component is the channel through which the message is to be sent (see Figure 2.2). In our example the communication is this part of these readings, part of my attempt to transfer knowledge without you having to learn it by trial and error directly from your experience of your own physical environment. So the channel is the path these words have travelled between us, in the case of a book – from me into my computer, through several editorial and production checks involving various staff and processes, to the printer to be printed, and then through the post to you. But a channel between two people could be a telephone system, or an electronic computer system. Whatever the channel, the message has to be put into a suitable form to travel over that particular channel. In a conversation the voice box in the sender's throat converts their thoughts into sound waves so that the message can travel through the air to the recipient's ear, where it is then decoded back into the message in the recipient's head. The voice box is the transmitter and the ear is the receiver in this simple conversational situation. The transmitter and receiver are therefore the fifth and sixth components of the communication model. In the case of the telephone, or computer system the message has to be converted to electrical pulses to travel along the wire and be reconverted at the other end. This is, of course, a process which takes several stages, but overall, the process is one in which the original thoughts are changed to a means by which they can be transmitted, and then once received are changed back again into thoughts.

The last component of the model is the external disturbances that affect the channel. Hopefully nothing has changed the words I now write, but disturbance is common – in a conversation other people can interrupt, electrical disturbances can affect the phone line, anything that distorts the pattern of the message – and these increase the difficulty of the decoding process.

The model as it stands assumes commonality between source and destination, that the thoughts in my brain that give rise to these words will be the same thoughts that these words generate for you in your brain. But from the understanding developed so far we realise that the interpretation placed on the message by the receiver may not be the same interpretation as that intended by the transmitter. In any communication between two people, what we might call the mindset (the totality of all mental models in a mind) of each individual plays a crucial role (see Figure 2.3).

Figure 2.3
Figure 2.3 The enhanced communication model

Firstly, the communication is formulated within, and is encoded through the mindset of the sender, and so can be thought of as part of the transmission system of the sender. Secondly, the receiver decodes and interprets the message through their mindset. In an extreme case, if the sender speaks only Cantonese and comes from a Chinese culture so the message is formulated in Cantonese and in terms of Chinese culture, and the receiver speaks only English from an English culture then the message cannot be decoded. Or at least much thought and ingenuity will have to be put into the message so that something of the meaning will be conveyed. It cannot be communicated simply as speech, but must be put in a form that can be decoded in the receiver's mind, perhaps in pictures, or signs. At the other extreme, a husband and wife who speak the same language, and know each other very well, can communicate complex messages with just a few words because they share much experience and therefore have much of their mindsets in common. Ross Ashby (Ashby, 1956) has a nice illustration of the power of shared models:

A prisoner is to be visited by his wife, who is not to be allowed to send him any message however simple. It is understood that they may have agreed, before his capture, on some simple code. At her visit, she asks to be allowed to send him a cup of coffee; assuming the beverage is not forbidden, how is the warder to ensure that no coded message is transmitted by it? He knows that she is anxious to let her husband know whether or not a confederate has been yet caught.

(Ashby, 1956, p. 123)

Because of the shared model between husband and wife, the relatively complex information of whether the confederate is caught can be transmitted by a simple yes/no signal. If the warder also shares the model then he can anticipate the communication and block the signal. If he doesn't, then he cannot perceive the significance of the request.


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