My grandparents grew up in a time when oral storytelling preserved memories, before television and long before the computer generation. Their way of processing information was very different from the way their parents culture would have processed information years before and the way I process information today yet we would all be considered to be a part of a literate culture because, in one form or another, technology (writing) was present.
In Orality and Literacy (Methuen, 1980) Walter Ong determines that people from an oral culture process information differently then people from a literate culture. In order to examine this theory further we must first understand the difference between oral and literate cultures according to Ong.
In an oral culture, cultural materials and traditions are passed on orally from one generation to the next. In a literate culture, cultural materials and traditions are passed along in the form of writing (Ong, Pg. 39).
With Ong’s Orality and Literacy in mind, the following question will be examined in this commentary; how might an understanding of possible differences in communication practices in oral and literate cultures inform teaching practices at all levels?
Chandler refers to technological determinism, interpreting communications technologies as the basis of society in the past, present and even the future. This determinism provides insight into the way students, young and old, learn today. How they communicate, which devices (oral or written) that they use will contribute to teaching practices as lesson plans are created with student understanding in mind.
How someone has learned, or is learning, to communicate is very important to how they take in and process information. What a culture inherits and grows up with has a significant impact on how they learn and process information around them as well as how they keep a “written” record. Their prior knowledge has a direct connection to their current knowledge.
Ong refers to the act of storytelling when he states that, “Sustained thought in an oral culture is tied to communication.” (Pg. 34) Storytellers add their own nuances and embellishments to oral storytelling depending on the audience they are sharing with. In turn, the audience will tell the same story one hundred different ways depending on how they heard the story and how it connected with them.
Students do the same in today’s classrooms. They take in the oral instructions given to them and complete the task based on what they heard and how they understood it given their prior knowledge. Reflection becomes an important component to both learning and instruction as teachers reflect on how the lesson was received and completed while students reflect on what they know, need to know and how this affected the outcome of their learning.
Ong refers to the power of sound when speaking of a primary oral culture. People that live in or come from an oral culture view words as powerful sounds that carry meaning and magic to the world as they see it.
What’s in a name? In oral cultures, names allow people to have power over what they name. (Ong, Pg. 33) They give the “thing” meaning and purpose by giving it a name. Students, pre-literate or basic literate, begin to use writing by naming different things (i.e.: mom, dad, dog, book). Their prior knowledge of these items assists with the process. Often a student is able to orally state what an item is before learning to write the name of that item. The intertwining of oral and literate cultures enables a student to move from speaking a name to writing, or labeling, an item or thing. Ong is careful to point out that the spoken word cannot be a label whereas the written word can be (Pg. 33).
Some of my grade 4/5 students can’t write a sentence with a piece of paper and a pencil but they can orally tell me what they are learning and how. This knowledge of these students informs my teaching practice so that I may put the tools in place necessary for student success. With current technology this may look like the use of an iPad with the Dragon Dictation application so that students can speak what they want to write.
Ong believes that we know what we can recall. In other words, we know what we know. “Writing establishes in the text a ‘line’ of continuity outside the mind.” (Ong, Pg. 39) In a literate culture, people can refer back to the written word. In an oral culture this opportunity does not exist. So how do people from an oral culture recall information that has never been written down as record?
Mnemonic patterns are an essential tool for recall in an oral culture. Very simply, Ong states that in order to remember something that was learnt orally, one must think “memorable thoughts.” (Pg. 34) This information is important to teaching practices at any level because it speaks to the fact that students will retain more if the information they are learning is meaningful and authentic to them.
Personalized learning encompasses this concept. Prior knowledge is personal knowledge. Meaningful prior knowledge produces memorable thoughts for students to draw from to make connections in their learning. What culture a student comes from can be connected to learning styles, for example: visual or auditory, kinesthetic or tactile. If we examine the earliest forms of writing created on stone with symbols, we can assume that this culture of people were very tactile, visual learners. This is the means they chose to communicate. This is what they knew.
An understanding of possible differences in communication practices in oral and literate cultures informs teaching practices because it lets educators know where students have come from, where they are going and how they are going to get there. Meaningful and authentic learning cannot happen without this knowledge.
Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism [Online]. Retrieved, 8 August, 2009 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html
Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.