Review of TT5-1 Sam Poe - Engaging with Oral Culture

Newfrontiers Leadership Conference 2006 - Training Track 5-1

I found this a fascinating session, but I had one important reservation which I will explain in a moment. Sam argues that the way we communicate with those who have an oral culture is fundamentally different with those from a literate culture. He gives many examples taken from life and makes his points clearly. What gives this subject added relevancy is his statement that even in North America, a large portion of our society is functionally illiterate. This means that although they are able to read, it is not their normal means of taking in information. They are much more used to TV, radio and visual material.

Even though I believe this session to be extremely valuable material, I am going to take issue with Sam Poe in one respect—I think his classification is not quite correct. Let me explain:

He associates oral cultures with concrete (non-abstract) thinking and a lack of ability to follow a tightly reasoned argument. However, there are many cultures through history that have been primarily oral, yet have been extremely sophisticated, abstract and logical.

For example, King David was almost certainly not literate, especially in his early years when most of his psalms were written. Yet anyone who has studied them in the original Hebrew will see the high level of sophistication, abstraction and metaphor.

A second example would be the letters of Paul, intended to be read out aloud in churches where very few would have been able to read. Virtually all of his letters contain tightly reasoned arguments and most of them some very abstract ideas (“you were raised with Christ and are seated with him in the heavenly places”)

So does this invalidate Poe’s arguments? No, but there is a slight confusion of categories. The distinction he makes should be not so much between literate and oral cultures, but between those practiced in abstract thinking and those not. It is possible to have a culture that is very sophisticated in abstract thought processes, but is illiterate. However this would be rare in the modern world because improved access to literacy means that anyone interested in sophisticated thinking would probably learn to read.

On the other hand, it is very possible to have a literate culture that does not really think and is not used to following tightly reasoned arguments. This would indeed characterize the “functionally illiterate” masses described by Poe.

What I have said does not invalidate Poe’s practical conclusions at all. However, it might change our long-term teaching strategy. A very thought-provoking paper entitled Visualisation and Instructional Design by John Sweller describes how the brain processes new ideas using “working memory”, but the learning process is very dependent on already having material in “long-term memory”. What this means is that people cannot process a lot of new ideas at once. Even those from an oral culture can become very sophisticated thinkers if they learn ideas gradually over a period of time (as in the Hebrew culture where teaching began with children).

Our long-term strategy should not be to give up on teaching abstract ideas to functionally oral cultures, but to carefully plan the rate at which ideas and concepts are taught. Poe’s conclusions that we should teach by story fit in very well with this plan, but I would like to add that even though we begin with stories, we don’t have to end with them.

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I am quite convinced that it

I am quite convinced that it is more to do with how societies retrieve and learn information than how they 'think'. There is no classification by which we can say a particular society with either fit into one or the other category, rather it is typical of oral learners to think 'differently', not necessarily with reduced abstraction. Some societies are not even aware of literacy itself, but it does not mean they cannot follow sound argumentation or pick up and analyse a simple Bible story. I don't think Sam Poe ever says this, it is to do with 'how' we communicate with typical oral learners, yet there is no category to define them, that is why his project has to be tailored to suite the unreached people groups. Literacy allows you analyse words and as we give each one of them a meaning by itself, without literacy you simply analyse what you hear, and this doesn't mean they are less sophisticated by any means!