For the past couple of posts, I’ve written about trying to the take the work of Mikhail Bakhtin seriously in designing and carrying out learning research. I wrote about the need for the voice of the researcher to enter into real dialogue with the voices of learners, and I wrote about the need to include learners as co-authors in research about their experiences. Bakthin’s account of dialogicality holds another important lesson for social sciences and study of human activity. Namely, the meanings of what people say (and by extension do) are never completely part of what they say and do. That is, we can’t unpack the meaning of an utterance or a gesture or a thinking routine by focusing on the utterance, action or routine itself. This is because everything we say or do responds to something someone or something else said or did and because it anticipates some response from the world or other people. As a result, the meaning can’t be found in the isolated words or actions themselves. It resides (or perhaps emerges is a better word) instead in the dialogue itself – the utterance-anticipated response-response-utterance or action-anticipated result-result-action sequence.

The meaning of any given element of that chain for the actors involved as well as for the observer can’t be isolated to any one of the elements. To understand the sense or meaning of these actions and utterances, we as analysts have to see them in their whole dialogic context. If as a researcher all you care about is the end state or result of what people say and do, then you an afford to ignore the rest of the chain of meaning. This is, in fact, what many learning researchers do – focus on end results alone rather than developmental sequences. Such approaches are the result of product-based research and design practices seeking to engineer better products (i.e., learners who know more, can do more, or believes the right things).

A researcher who is interested instead in either the processes that lead to learning and development as a clue to supporting it or who is interested in illuminating the meanings of what people say and do and how these meanings are shaped and constrained by the contexts we live in, then that researcher can’t ignore the chain of activity from which meaning emerges.

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