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

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Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

Reading 2.3: Communication techniques

In the introduction to communication, I focused on the problems of getting a message through, but communication is commonly seen as at least a two-way process. On one side as the receiver, following the learning cycle, you sense what is going on in your environment and give meaning to what you have sensed (observe and reflect with your current models), and usually react in response (planning and acting) either verbally (by speaking or writing), visually (by gesticulating, or drawing something) and/or doing something (here you could define 'doing' as a physical action such as moving matter or changing its energetic content). You may, of course, delay the response to develop better understanding (build new models), but in any case, on the other side, there is at least one other individual that you received the communication from. This other individual observes your responding communication or the result of your doing and goes through exactly the same process. So normally you can model communication as a loop from A to B, and back again. Perhaps most importantly this loop usually operates repeatedly over time in what is called a feedback loop.

But what are you communicating? It makes sense to simplify and organise your observations into a straightforward 'package', which can be delivered to your intended audience. We have therefore evolved a set of rules which help us to develop the mental models on which our communications are based. These rules are not always helpful and may limit our understanding of our surroundings. We think that what we are seeing, hearing, smelling or touching is real, but in fact we filter this reality to build our mental models. Communication is therefore crucial in testing and improving our mental models, so that we can try and match them as much as possible with what is out there. So as I have noted previously, our human propensity to communicate is essential to learning, and what makes us very different in our learning capacity.

Different forms of communication involve different arrangements of information and modes of delivery. For example, if you want to give somebody the directions to your house, you can either describe the directions verbally – usually by following a sequence from a reference point (such as a train station) to your front door – or you can communicate the same information by drawing a map, which provides an instantaneous spatial arrangement of key geographical features. You can also provide directions to your house using a satellite navigation system that depends on mathematical algorithms containing latitude and longitude coordinates of the main transport routes and destinations.

Each form of communication has different strengths and weaknesses. It is difficult to describe relational information using oral communication. By the time you have finished describing the final turn onto your street, your listener will probably have forgotten the initial directions from the station. Even if it is all written down, your reader will probably have to go through the instructions several times. Visual communication often has the problem of being vague and imprecise. How many times have you taken the wrong turn while map reading? Mathematical communication goes to the other extreme: one can concentrate so much precise information using just a few symbols, that people usually require significant training and practice before they can understand the meaning behind those symbols.

The aim of communicating a model is therefore to avoid the trap of focusing on only one mode of communication. The challenge is to identify which approach is most appropriate for the type of model you are trying to convey. Often, using a range of communication techniques for the same model will maximise reception and understanding in others. The aim is to build shared models that correspond as much as possible with what is happening in the real world.

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