VelLear1 06-5-74


The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults


Jane Vella

Josey-Bass Publishers, 1994, 202 pp.  ISBN 1-55542-630-1

Dr. Vella is president of Global Learning Partners in Raleigh, North Carolina.  She has many years of practical experience in adult education.  Vella illustrates 12 principles of dialogical education via powerful and entertaining stories of training lay educators from Nepal to the rural South.  While the examples help me understand the concepts, I need more guided experience to apply them effectively.


“A significant problem in the education of adults is the perceived distance between teacher and student.  All of the principles (in this book) are...means to close that gap and develop...dialogue.  Learning to Listen constitutes a dialogue with readers about the power of dialogue in adult learning.”  (Preface)


The basic assumption is that adult learning is best achieved in dialogue.  Adults have enough life experience to be in dialogue with any teacher, about any subject, and will learn new knowledge or attitudes or skills best in relation to that life experience.  (3)


The seven steps of planning to design a course:

  1. Who? – Study the profile of the participants.
  2. Why? – Study the situation
  3. When? – Consider the time frame
  4. Where? – The best location
  5. What? – The content of the training
  6. What for? – Set achievement-based objectives. 
  7. Then set tasks for the participants to do in order to learn the content. (89)


The final learning task is evaluation.  Two open questions:

·       What was most useful to you?

·       What would you suggest we change? (31)

“Long-range evaluation occurs some time after the event.  This process invites examination of indicators demonstrating how learners are using the skills, knowledge, and attitudes learned in the course.” (31)


Principle 1:  Needs Assessment: The First Step in Dialogue

Key question: “Who needs what as defined by whom?” (48)  This question must be asked over and over.


“As a teacher, I need to discover what they know and what they think they need or want to know.”  “People are naturally excited to learn anything that helps them understand their own themes, their own lives.” (5)


“In formal education, the professor usually begins planning with What: the skills, attitudes, and knowledge that will be imparted to the learners.  In this approach to learning, using these principles, the adults’ needs, discovered during the needs assessment, sort out the What.” (26)


The key to adult learning: “the loving, respectful relationship of learner and teacher.” (45)


Principle 2:  Safety

People are willing and eager to learn when they feel safe.  “Allowing small groups to find their voices enhances the possibility of safety.”  “Realization that the environment is nonjudgmental assures safety.” (7)  “Affirming is one of the basic tasks of every teacher.” (8)


“The safety of the program organizers and teachers is as important as that of the learners.  We now insist that organizations who contract for training make sure that their senior managers take full part in the programs.” (58)


“Our job was to design and present the task, a simulation, a role play, in a safe, structured environment, and invite their wise analysis.” (62)


Principle 3: Sound Relationships

“Sound relationships for learning involve respect, safety, open communication, listening, and humility.”  The teacher must demonstrate a sense of inquiry and curiosity.  (8)


A sound relationship implies “friendship, but no dependency; fun without trivialization of the learning; dialogue between men and women who feel themselves peers.” (65)


In a personal learning situation the professor offered a long reading list and suggested the student select the book she wanted to begin with and then set up a time to discuss the book and any other items she was learning.  (66)


In a graduate course, “I arrange to be present one hour before class to meet one or more of the graduate students for reflection or response to questions.” (68)


“Affirmation, lavish affirmation, is possible at every step of the way….”  “Affirm at every level, to celebrate learning when you see it happening, to say, ‘Well done!’”  “…there is something to celebrate and something to improve in any human endeavor.  Before marking things wrong, begin by celebrating what is right. (69)


“Affirmation is not always affirmation of the idea, but always of the person.  The purpose of affirmation is to have the person learn and develop.  We can nurture their thinking power by affirmation and build a learning relationship.” (70)  “Listening without interrupting is a simple structure for assuring respect.” (70)


“Judging stops spontaneity.”  “The relationship has to be built by avoiding judgment.” (72)  “Open questions are the single sure practice that invites critical thinking and effective learning.” (73)


The task itself can be the teacher.  The engagement with the task is a way of learning: by doing it.  The teacher’s role is to be a resource, to set the task clearly without ambiguity, to make sure there are adequate physical resources to do it successfully, and to get out of the way.” It must be significant work. (74) 


“Set the norm that any question which arises has priority over the task at hand.” (75)  Capture the moment. (76)


Principle 4: Sequence and Reinforcement

“Sequence means begin at the beginning: move from small to big, slow to fast, easy to hard.” (80)


“Reinforcement means the repetition of facts, skills, and attitudes in diverse, engaging, and interesting ways until they are learned.”  (10)  Do it 1,142 times and you have learned it.  But those 1,142 times should move from easy to difficult, from simple to complex, from group efforts to solo. (9)


“The teacher listens to the adult learners and changes learning tasks to meet their needs…  If the task is too difficult for most of the learners, it must be changed.  This is what we mean by learning as dialogue.” (11)


“Learn the situation and the environment first and then design and lead the training.” (79)


Principle 5: Praxis

Action with reflection.  Doing with built-in reflection. (11)  Doing-reflecting-deciding-changing-new doing. (12)  It is “action, full of reflection, leading to new, refined action.  It is an ongoing, never-ending cycle of change toward a better situation.” (92) 


Four open questions: “

1.      What do you see happening here? (description)

2.      Why do you think it is happening? (analysis)

3.      When it happens in your situation, what problems does it cause? (application)

4.      What can we do about it? (implementation)” (12)


“It is the teacher’s responsibility to set training objectives very clearly and explicitly for participants before the training begins and then, in honest dialogue, ask them what they want to do in light of these objectives.  The dialogue begins by design when we invite these expectations.” (90)


Principle 6: Respect for Learners.  Learners as Subjects of Their Own Learning

“Healthy adults desire to be subjects—decision makers—and resist being treated as objects….”(at the disposal of other people)   “…insofar as possible, they themselves decide what occurs in the learning event.” (12, 97)


“The content of a course is an object for us, learners and teacher as subjects, to examine together as we decide what is useful and true.” (98)


“One practical guide is: Don’t ever do what the learner can do; don’t ever decide what the learner can decide.” (13)  “The learning is in the doing and the deciding.” (13)


“Training is only as good as it is accountable.”  Therefore the learners set the pace of training.  The participants must demonstrate their grasp of the ideas and skills.  (102)


It is imperative for the teacher to model all aspects of the training, to use the principles, skills, and attitudes being taught. (102)


Praise from a peer carries more weight than advice, correction, or praise from an outsider. (108)


“Control the variables and people will produce, content to work hard on their own tasks.” (109)


Principle 7: Ideas, Feelings, Actions

Learning with the mind, emotions, and muscles.  A mass of information can frighten people off. (14) 


Every learning task must include an element of ideas, feelings, and actions.  They need not be distinct but are often integrated.  Elicit the learner’s feelings about and get them to do something with the concept. (114)


Principle 8: Immediacy

“Adult learners need to see the immediate usefulness of new learning: the skills, knowledge, or attitudes they are working to acquire.” (16)


“Any educator goes into a situation with a boilerplate of concepts, skills, and attitudes he or she wants to teach, can teach.  Problem-posing approaches to adult learning do not deny this or judge it as wrong.  The operative word is dialogue.” (126)


“In every non-English-speaking country I have worked in, my very desire to learn the language created a relationship with the local people, and my struggling efforts created occasions for hilarity.” (127)


“Since adults learn by doing, we must design opportunities for this doing, using new knowledge, skills, and attitudes.  But they have to do it.” (127)


My motto as a teacher: “Question the answers.” (128)


“By accountable, I mean that we do what we say we will do.” (132)


Principle 9: Clear Roles.  Assuming New Roles for Dialogue

“If the learner sees the teacher as ‘the professor’ with whom there is no disagreement, no questioning, no challenge, the dialogue is dead in the water.  Adult students need reinforcement of the human equity between teacher and student.” (17)


“Modeling an approach to learning means being true to it in all circumstances.” (141)  “We teach the way we have been taught.”  Model “a participative, problem-based approach by inviting their reflection on the objectives and the program.” (142)


Principle 10: Teamwork: How People Work Together

“Teams provide, in the adult learning experience, a quality of safety that is effective and helpful.”  “If you…see negative energy between people, keep them on separate teams.”  “Try to have people choose their own teams as often as possible….” (19)  “In a team, learning is enhanced by peers.” (20)


Team leadership emerges in action.  “When setting team tasks using open questions, it is important to realize that the trainer does not know the answer to the question.  The facilitator has no control over what the team will say or how it will respond.” (155-56)  


Principle 11: Engagement: Learning as an Active Process

Not everyone has the same role.  It must be understood who has the deliberative (decision-making) voice.  “If this distinction is not made, participants who are engaged in naming priority issues and program innovations may expect their pronouncements to become policy.  The distinction clarifies each person’s role and invites creative suggestions.” (160)


Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations, John Bryson (1988).  Bryson gives a sequence of concepts: stakeholders, mission, SWOT, strategic issues, strategies, action plan. (161)


“We have discovered that the shorter the time frame for a task, the higher the energy.” (162)


Principle 12: Accountability: Success Is in the Eyes of the Learner

“Accountability is a synthesis principle—the result of using all the other principles….” (21)


“One does what one can at the time, trusting that the seeds will bear fruit the sower will never see.” (168)


“This is one of the most compelling aspects of popular education.  You must use the principles and practices to teach them—or else you do not teach them.  It is as simple as that.” (172)


“There are three things that make accountable learning happen, and they are important in this order: time, time, and time.  Without reinforcement, without a sequence of continued learning activities and a research agenda, without the stimulation of appropriate rewards and motivation, professionals will go back to teaching the way they were taught.” (174-75)


Using the Twelve Principles in Your Own Teaching

“How do you know what they need to know?  Ask them!” (181)   “If you use a written survey, you can list all the potential content of your course and invite them to indicate which three items seem most important to them.” (180)


“A relationship of mutual respect between teacher and learner is often cited as the most important motivator of adult learners.”  “Developing such a relationship takes time.” (182)


“Coaching is never telling.  It is setting out a well-sequenced series of small tasks, repeating them often enough, and affirming the learners as they show their new skills.” (183)


“No matter what you do, adult learners will learn what they need and want to know.” (184) 


“Do not tell what you can ask.  Do not ask if you know the answer; tell in dialogue.” (185)


“How is my teaching involving the learner in thinking, feeling, and doing?” (185) 


“You invited them to use the first section of a skill, celebrate that, reflect on the process, and move on to the next part.  The immediate success encourages the learners to begin to believe they can learn.” (187)


“A learning task is an open question put to a small group with the resources they need to respond to it.” You can do this with any size group.  You can ask them to “turn to their neighbor” to make small groups to do a learning task. (188-89)


“Often, the more teaching, the less learning.” (193)                    

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