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Toward a Communication Theory of Teaching

by David B. Bronson - 1977

From the study of communication the following principles may be applied to a theory of teaching: 1. that communication is exchange; 2. that information resolves uncertainty; 3. that guessing is pattern-matching; 4. that patterns are more or less inclusive. This paper offers a discussion of the four principles cited above.

From the study of communication the following principles may be applied to a theory of teaching:

1. that communication is exchange;

2. that information resolves uncertainty;

3. that guessing is pattern-matching;

4. that patterns are more or less inclusive.


More has been done on learning theory than on teaching theory; there are, in fact, psy­chologists who are known as Learning Theory Psychologists. But there is no comparable teaching theory or set of theories that might, individually or collectively, illuminate the other side of the relationship between teacher and student.

Teachers, incredibly, still find themselves saying "1 taught it to them, but they didn't learn it!" Too much of our teaching is a failure of communication, not so much a breakdown as a failure to establish that fruitful reciprocal relationship that makes communication a social reality. As Roman Jakobson put it in a Scientific American article, people are better at sending verbal messages than at receiving them, and we seem particularly helpless at receiving the messages, verbal and nonverbal, from our students.

If we judge the educational system in terms of "what we taught" and ''what they learned," it appears terribly inefficient. Much of the problem is caused by the out­dated materials we have been trying to teach, and no one has described this more suc­cinctly than Edgar Z. Friedenberg:

The academic curriculum consists of shards of a pre-democratic academic curricu­lum; relics of a way of life in which many of the people who had gone through school read poetry for fun, spelled properly and wrote cogently because they some­times worked on public documents, spoke French correctly and fluently because they occasionally had to communicate as equals with civilized Frenchmen.

We have been offering our clients not much more than shards and relics, and we should not be surprised if they fail to snap them up and treasure them. Upon reflection we know very few adults who are graduates of good schools and colleges—and who are not now in academic life—who read literature; who have developed and matured the ideas to which they were exposed and with which they actually worked in school and col­lege; who apply the data of their educational experience, the knowledge that an edu­cated person may be thought to have, to the enterprises and concerns of life; or, for that matter, who contribute to the continuing efforts of teachers and administrators to improve the old system. We know too few educated people who act educated!

So in personal terms and in terms of the benefits to society, the gap between what is taught and what is learned is too great for comfort. Communication theory deals directly with gaps and sets of gaps and with bridging those gaps, and it is to be expected that this kind of theorizing will help us understand the communication problems we face in teaching. Considering the complexities of cognitive psychology, of learning theory, and of communication theory, it would be idle to pretend that a quick solu­tion is readily available, but there certainly is enough to get us started along what promises to be a productive path, and this paper offers a discussion of the four principles cited above.

Communication is Exchange

 If communication is ex­change—the sending of a message, the receiving of the message, and the signalling by the receiver that the message has "registered" or has "made a difference" to him—and if we think of teaching as a form of communication, then it is clear that there has not in fact been very much exchange or, to put it another way, the exchange has been of a discouragingly low quality: "We taught it to them, but they didn't learn it." One reason to stress this basic and rather obvious point is that today the word "communi­cation" is used of one-way transmission of material designed to produce this or that behavior in the receiver. One of the sordid triumphs of this kind of "communication" has been to capture the term "message" for an advertisement or "commercial," and a result of this one-way transmission or emission of signals has been that monster, the "nonnegotiable demand," by name and nature a perfect negation of exchange.

More important, though, is the reason that to look at teaching as communication is to make it possible to study the quantity and quality of the exchange without prej­udice. If there has been no sensible exchange in a given teaching situation, it is possible that it is no one's fault, that no one need feel guilty—and therefore threatened—but, instead, that there are "bugs" somewhere in the system. We shall return to this point in the context of the third principle, pattern-matching.

It is convenient to consider the exchange of messages between sender and receiver being carried out by means of a code. The exchange, that is, cannot be direct, like the absorption of food, in spite of the proposal in Swift's Academy of Lagado:

I was at the Mathematical School, where the Master taught his Pupils after a Method scarce imaginable to us in Europe. The Proposition and Demonstration were fairly written on a thin Wafer, with Ink composed of a Cephalick Tincture. This the Stu­dent was to swallow upon a fasting Stomach, and for three Days following eat nothing but Bread and Water. As the Wafer digested, the Tincture mounted to his Brain, bearing the Proposition along with it.

Even this, though, did not work as well as might have been expected, for, as Gulliver continues:

But the Success hath not hitherto been answerable, partly by some Error in the Quantum or Composition, and partly by the Perverseness of Lads; to whom this Bolus is so nauseous, that they generally steal aside, and discharge it upwards be­fore it can operate; neither have they yet been persuaded to use so long an Ab­stinence as the Prescription requires.

Since the exchange, then, cannot be direct, there is between the participants some device or structure of contact. It may be language, and this is the most obvious case, but it could also be touch or tone or gesture, as in the case of animal communication. Furthermore, as Frank Smith points out, the code used by the sender-encoder is not necessarily that used by the receiver-decoder (or, better, recoder). Jakobson puts it thus:

The differences in patterning and extent between the codes of the addresser and the addressee attract ever closer attention from students and teachers of language. The core of this divergence was grasped by St. Augustine: "In me it is the word which takes precedence over the sound (in me prius est verbum posterior vox), but for thee who looks to understand me, it is first the sound that comes to thine ear in order to insinuate the word into thy mind."

The speaker uses one code, and the hearer uses another that is not exactly identical-he may read lips, for example, or he may give more weight to tone and gesture than the speaker hopes—and, in Smith's discussion, the writer uses one code and the reader another, a complication in the reading process that has not, perhaps, received the at­tention it deserves. The inherent validity of the code(s) cannot be tested with anything like complete thoroughness, because it would require yet another structure or code to work on the problem. So the whole human enterprise of coded communication de­pends on faith, on trust—which is steadily justified, of course—that the codes are suf­ficiently alike so that we can in fact rely on the correspondence and act upon the understood messages.

Again and again we are brought back to the indissolubility of the bond between sender and receiver; where there is no bond, there is no communication. And this is

precisely the weakness of so much of our thinking about teaching and the source of so much uncertainty and confusion. It is, after all, the responsibility of the senior partner, the adult, to initiate the exchange, and he does so in confidence that the student will respond or, to put it more clearly, will receive the message and signal his reception to the sender. The message must contain information, it must contain something to re­solve uncertainty, it must be more than simple repetition of the familiar; if it contains information, the student will receive it.

Information Resolves Uncertainty     

We tend to think of information as precious matter to be stuffed into empty heads, and it is by providing a new concept of information that communication theory, speaking broadly, makes its most cogent point for the teacher. Colin Cherry, following Shannon and others, says, "Information can be received only where there is doubt." Information, then, answers questions that have been asked, never questions that have not been asked (which describes so much of what we teach and they do not learn). Cherry adds two other expressions: ". . . messages having a high probability of occurrence contain little infor­mation" and "information content is measured in terms of the statistical rarity of the signs (likened, by some people, to their 'surprise value')." In a word, for the teacher, surprise your students!

The constraint on this is that the students' doubt is limited; they often do not know enough to be surprised. John R. Pierce writes, ". . . it is the unguessable, the surprising, that is an essential part of communication, as opposed to the mere repeti­tion of gestures, incantations, or prayers." The kind of thinking that we are to en­courage in our students- and in ourselves of course is not mere repetition. This is not to ignore what Bateson, following Samuel Butler, calls habituation, and we may quote one of Whitehead's characteristically sensible observations:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of think­ing what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and they must be made only at decisive moments.

Pierce takes us a step farther: "Communication is possible only through a degree of novelty in a context that is familiar," and he refers to a remark of Beethoven that in music everything must be at once surprising and expected. On the one hand, then, we have doubt, surprise, novelty, new information, operations of thought, and on the other hand we have expectation, pattern, redundancy, the more or less familiar. The student will neither know nor dare to guess seriously unless he can base himself on or ground himself in what he already knows and in some sense knows he knows.

Guessing is Pattern-Matching     

What is guessing? Bateson describes it:

To guess, in essence, is to face a cut or slash (/) in the sequence of items and to pre­dict across that slash what items might be on the other side. The slash may be spatial or temporal (or both), and the guessing may be either predictive or retrospective. A pattern, in fact, is definable as an aggregate of events or objects which will permit in some degree such guesses when the entire aggregate is not available for inspection.

One of the examples he uses in his discussion of patterns is a tree:

... the percept of the tree top is redundant with (i.e., contains "information" about) parts of the system which I cannot perceive owing to the slash provided by the opacity of the ground.

And he explains how patterns are found in sets, to which we shall return in the next section:

If we say then that a message has "meaning" or is "about" some referent, what we mean is that there is a larger universe of relevance consisting of message-plus-referent, and that redundancy or pattern or predictability is introduced into this universe by the message.

To adapt Bateson's example of two people writing to each other, if we see a student pass a note to another student who then writes an answer, and we then confiscate the note, on the first level of complexity (student-to-student) we may find no "informa­tion" at all because we do not know to what the cryptic squiggles refer. If we find out, though, and if we thus learn something about the students (and about ourselves in relation to them), then we have found "information" in our "universe" of message (the note) plus the referent. We have increased the redundancy in the larger universe.

Guessing, men, is crossing the gap in a given continuity, whether on the same level or between levels. There must be something on each side of the gap, because one must have solid ground to take off from, and one will not jump unless one has a pretty good idea that the ground on the other side is relatively solid. To translate this homely image into pedagogical terms, the student cannot and will not participate in exchange unless he has some knowledge or experience on one side of the cut or slash, and unless he also has some knowledge or experience of successful jumping—of crossing a discon­tinuity, that is—with a pattern to find a pattern. This may be laboring the obvious, but if we can learn and keep in mind these prerequisites for exchange (the guessing process), we may be able to pay attention to the student and to refrain from endlessly "teaching" things they do not "learn."

The students do have experience and knowledge of leaping gaps, of crossing discon­tinuities, of guessing, of matching patterns. For years they have been faced with cuts or slashes in the sequences or continua of events and objects, and without our intervention they have learned what to do: they jump. This is the foundation, then, for our function of releasing their communication energy by helping them improve their guessing, their exploring, their making and finding patterns. It should not be difficult to show them that they do have confidence to guess, since they are guessers by nature and by experience.

To build on the foundation of doubt and surprise is at one stroke to account for so-called "mistakes." In a discussion of a "turtle," a turtle-shaped sort of toy car con­nected to a computer console by which it is directed, Caryl Rivers writes:

Dr. Papert believes that teaching a child to think involves getting rid of the fear of mistakes. . . . "That's where debugging comes in," says Russell Noftsker. People at the (Artificial Intelligence) Laboratory talk of "bugs," not mistakes. Debugging means figuring out what you did wrong and doing it right to get the results you want. "Children get over their fear of making mistakes," Noftsker says. 'They find out that mistakes aren't disastrous. If a child tells the computer to do A instead of B, and he gets a funny picture, he can laugh at it along with everyone else." Some­times, he says, children are delighted when they make a mistake. It gives them a chance to go "bug hunting."

Fear of failure, as John Holt and others have been telling us, is the great paralyzer, and it helps to have a simple physical activity, like playing with a computer console, to show people the actual relationship between information and things like doubts and mistakes and "bugs." In order to allay and counteract the pressures of our anxious culture we may be permitted to exaggerate and say that, in a sense, information de­pends on mistakes. This is an exaggeration, but the human desire for order is so deeply rooted that we can count on it to correct any tendency to anarchy that may appear.

Information, then, cannot be said to exist where there is no doubt to be reduced. This does not mean that all uncertainty can be eliminated from life, but, instead, that discontinuity is characteristic of life and that we know how to deal with it. To do less, to stop asking and guessing and probing and leaping, is to be something less than alive. Ernest Hemingway said a writer needs a "crap detector," and maybe, to extend the thought with a heavy hand, we could say that we need a device that will print out "Insufficient Information" when we have failed to guess, or a light to flash on, perhaps with an angry buzz, to warn us: "Garbage In, Garbage Out," when we have stopped too soon.

We can now understand discovery, which we have known was of central importance for some time without really understanding it. It is a process of matching patterns on each side of a cut or slash. There are several patterns involved in the discovery situa­tion: those in the minds of both student and teacher, those in their culture, those preserved in writing, of capital significance, those of the territory in general and of the particular maps we make, and those imposed by the medium of communication. It is not difficult to familiarize students with mapping and its implications by means of an examination of the early European experience on the American continent.

Pattern-matching is inherently pleasing because that is what our minds are designed (or programmed) for, and from our earliest days we are explorers. Whether people continually generate new patterns in order to explore further in life, or whether they latch nervously on to a small set of specific and rigid patterns that contain all the answers, it is quite characteristic of human beings that they doubt, test, wonder, are surprised, find similarities and analogies as well as differences and distinctions, sort out the information,and by resolving enough uncertainty begin with process again. One thing a teacher can do is help the student understand this patterning system in himself. Quite apart from anything the teacher does, though, the student, being human, is a pattern-finder and a pattern-maker.

Possibly the greatest obstacle to our making use of this not very startling principle is our ingrained notion that education is the acquisition and mastery of new material. What we "teach" and they do not "learn" is the "material." Even while we are trying to stuff young heads with "content"—like pushing toothpaste back into the tube sometimes—we may acknowledge that most of what we learn in life we learn at a very early age, without a teacher, and by a process we only dimly understand. The basic modes of grasping, releasing, talking, listening, standing, crawling, walking- all these and many more fabulous skills we learn long before we go to school, and only a com­paratively small amount need or can be added to this basic and incalculable store of knowledge for us to function as complete human beings.

Yet we teachers find ourselves almost obsessively unable to act in any other way than as if more and more and more material is essential, even urgent. Not only does this conflict with what we know about infants and children from direct personal experience and from various indirect sources of information, it also conflicts with our more recent and immediate experience in college and graduate school. Our great struggle there was to organize the material of our subject or discipline, almost from the moment of choosing this or that major. If our college and graduate school pro­grams had poured material into us as fast as we try to pour it into elementary and secondary school children, we would have gagged on it.

In his provocative discussion of television programming and advertising Tony Schwartz says, "Advertisers have used media only as a means of putting things into people, not as a means of evoking what is already in the listener." Schwartz calls attention to that feature of communication theory already specified here, namely, that communication is exchange, and that exchange is possible because the students have much the same pattern in their heads that the teacher has in his or hers. We find it almost impossible to stop doing what we have been doing so intensely "teaching" what they do not "learn" unless we can find something else to do in its place. If, then, we rely on what is already in the students' heads and work with that, our function will necessarily be different.

Instead of filling them up, we shall be helping them organize what they have. We shall be improving their natural and acquired pattern-work. The student already has more than he will acquire in the rest of his life. If he knows that this is the case and if he understands to some extent how his mind, his thinking brain, functions, then the comparatively small amount of new material that he encounters from now on, and the even smaller amount that will be useful to him, will be relatively easy to acquire and assimilate. Knowing that noise is the source of new information and that information is distilled from noise by patterning it, the student will be able to relax and will no longer have to resist and react; he can explore with confidence in his own system and structure.

Patterns Are More or Less Inclusive        

To meet the student's doubt, to surprise him, to give him or, rather, help him find that which he does not have, is to help him find the connections, the context(s) of his data. This is the universe of message-plus-referent that Bateson points to, and the referent or con­text is social, the social position of sender and receiver, their social relationship. One of Bateson's most stimulating suggestions is that what we call feelings or emotions are concerned with this social context, about our relationship to the social and natural environment. To distinguish between the message itself and the kind of message it is, is to discover its social context because it joins the sender of the message with his message. As McLuhan has argued, following Havelock, it is precisely the separation of the message from the sender and the implications of that separation that Plato spelled out.

There is, from the point of view of Plato and all the philosophers and scientists since, a pattern of the message itself, and also the pattern of its context. This is what makes ^objective" thought possible, and it is immensely significant that this distinc­tion is becoming blurred today. In an article on local (i.e., New York City) news telecast at six o'clock Robert Daley quotes Earl Ubell, Director of WNBC-TV News:

The emotional facts of the news are often left out of standard newspaper reporting, even though it is precisely those facts that allow the reader to make a judgement. ... We show that part of life which was never reported in the past. We show how the people who are making the news feel about what they're doing.

The following week, in a letter taking exception to some of Daley's remarks, Ubell wrote, describing camera operators, "Their eyes and skills capture the essence of the story on film just as the reporter grasps the facts."

In a fine phrase Henri Frankfort describes early man "entangled in the immediacy of his perceptions/" and the consequences of this entanglement, of the failure to disentangle fact and emotion (i.e., message and the social context), were shown with appalling clarity by a jury that virtually disregarded the evidence and the argument in a recent manslaughter (and abortion) trial, making its decision on what it felt about a photograph of a sixteen-week-old fetus. This on the account given by several jurors of their deliberations, and it would be hard to find a more conspicuous example of what Ubell refers to as an “emotional fact.

In any discussion of the separation of fact from meaning it must be noted and taken into account that we cannot try to return to an innocent age of "pure fact." Scientists have been telling us for years that it is a fatal error to leave the human factor out of science, but we can all see the results of society's attempts to do just that, to work with a small set of data and to ignore everything else. The results are pollution and exploitation, and the comprehensiveness of the newer media of communication will preserve us from such isolation again. The solution is neither to occupy ourselves only with "hard facts" nor, on the other hand, is it to sink into an unreflective percep­tion. We can be grateful to the newer media for calling us back to a balance, to the "precious square of sense" (King Lear I, 1); for showing us that, as Ubell says, a great part of life was not adequately reported or studied or taught. Art and literature have done their best to deal with the whole of life and the wholeness of experience, although, as Raymond Williams has been pointing out, the business of the world has circumvented art. It is, perhaps, a measure of our inadequacy as teachers that what we have taught and what people have learned—all too well—of the classics, in school and college, has not encouraged people to make this material central in their lives. The wholeness and strength of these signal records of human experience have been more honored, as it were, in the breach than in the observance.


By making clear that communication is exchange, that the raison d'etre of information is the resolution of uncertainty, that we function in and by patterns, and that we order our understanding hierarchically, communication theory, broadly speaking, makes possible a radical understanding of what it is to be a teacher: one who encourages guessing, who reinforces and clarifies the strategies for the testing and validation of guesses, and who by example and action provides a model of an intelligent and com­petent guesser. To be human is to guess.


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Bronson, David B., 'Thinking and Teaching," The Educational Forum, March 1975.

Cherry, Colin, On Human Communication, Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1957.

Dalcy, Robert, "We Deal with Emotional Facts, New York Times Magazine, Sunday, December 15, 1974.

Frankfort, Henri, Frankfort, H.A., Wilson, J.A., and Jacobsen, T., Before Philosophy: The Intel­lectual Adventure of Ancient Man. Chicago, 111.: University of Chicago Press, 1946.

Friedenberg, Edgar Z., The Vanishing Adolescent. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1959.

Havelock, Eric, Preface to Plato. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Jakobson, Roman, "Verbal Communication," Scientific American, September 1972, pp. 75-80.

Korzybski, Alfred, Science and Sanity. Lakeville, Conn.: The Institute of General Semantics, 1958.

Pierce, John R., "Communication," Scientific American, September 1972, pp. 31-41.

Rivers, Caryl, "General Turtle," Saturday Review of Education, April 14, 1974.

Schwartz, Tony, The Responsive Chord. New York, N.Y.: Doubleday/Anchor, 1974.

Shannon, Claude, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, 111.: University of Illinois

Press, 1949.

Smith, Frank, Psycholinguistics and Reading. New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973.

Swift, Jonathan, Gulliver's Travels, Book 3. New York, N.Y.: Modern Library, 1958, Ch. 5, p. 149.

Ubell, Earl, letter New York Times Magazine, January 20, 1975.

Whitehead, Alfred N., An Introduction to Mathematics. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1948.

Williams, Raymond, Culture and Society: 1 780-1950. New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 78 Number 4, 1977, p. 447-456
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1211, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:32:53 PM

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