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Book Review: Dialogue Education at Work - Jane Vella

Vella, Jane. Dialogue Education at Work: A Case Book. Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Vella's book is a collection of case studies of people that have applied the principles and practices known as dialogue education. "A case book is a presentation of action research. Each story tells what happened in a learning event..." (p. xiii) From University Education to the Public Sector, from Not-for-Profit Organizations to International Education, there is a wide variety of learning environments that are explored and used as examples of the potential of dialogue education when applied to everyday opportunities and challenges.

What is dialogue education and what distinguishes is from other forms of education? There is a fundamental difference in dialogue education and traditional educational models. Vella describes dialogue education as "a finely structured system of learning-focused teaching rooted in a research-based set of principles and practices." (p. xiii) That means that the focus is on the process of learning. "In contrast, problem-posing education or dialogue meant that concepts, skills, or attitudes were presented as open questions for reflection and integration..." (p. 1)

Through each case study we are reminded that learning is not about the teacher, it's about the learners. Elena Carbone, in chapter 2, made an astounding and paradigm-altering (for me at least) observation - "Initially, I found my traditional content-heavy, teacher-centered course nearly impossible to translate into a dialogue-based, learning-centered format." (p. 25 italics mine) This should be the goal of all education - learning! Not necessarily providing the teacher with an outlet for all of his or her information-laden brain. I know this sounds simple, but most of the educational models that I have experienced are teacher-centered, not learner-centered. In chapter 4, Marianne Reiff describes how she used to prescribe to the teacher-centered model. "I would have used the texts, my knowledge base, and my assumptions to construct presentations that would work for the students." (p. 48) I concur that, until reading Vella's book, that was my primary paradigm for education.

What drives education for the dialogue educator, though, is the question, "How will I know if the students are learning?" (p. 29) And as Carbone goes on to explain that "less is more," keeping the focus less off the content and more on the learning process. (p. 25) An excellent illustration of this emerges in Vella's book - that of the Midwife. "Perhaps an apt image is that of a midwife presiding over birth: during the difficult stages we offer encouragement and assurance, bearing witness to the pain and struggle, and when the miracle of new life emerges, we celebrate." (p. 171) I thought this a perfect illustration for the differences between dialogue education and traditional education. A midwife is an encourager, facilitator, coach and cheerleader. In traditional education, the teacher is a lecturer and giver of information. Very different in both approach and format.

What concepts, ideas and tools are immediately transferable and applicable to my current context, and how can they be transferred and applied? When I briefly looked at the overview and contents of this book, I sensed that it was going to have a profound effect pedagogically on many of the leadership development programs, structures and systems that I have built or am building. Because this is a "Case Book" I realized that the "what" and "how" would be inherently linked and woven together, so I have combined these 2 questions into one response, with both the "what" and "how" interwoven together. Here are just a few of the vast number of concepts, ideas and tools that I found to be transferable and applicable:

- The overwhelming necessity and benefit of a comprehensive and informed needs assessment before the class begins. "My first task was to design a learning needs and resource assessment (LNRA), which invites learners to share information about what they already know about the subject and what they believe they need to know." (p. 26) It was obvious that the needs assessments done throughout the cases (p. 26, 38, 49, 63-64, 165, & 197) worked to provide a basis which informed the learning tasks, objectives and direction of the course. It wasn't about pushing a grid onto the learner's grid, it was about finding out their needs and assets, and using those to build the learning environment. There was even an example of a woman who made personal visits in order to do the needs assessment. (p. 137-138) I found this to be a great example of a way to gather real-time information that can help move the learners toward success.

- Learner-process focus as opposed to teacher-content focus. As Meredith Pearson noted that "this...project has required me to place the highest priority on the process of learning rather than on the content of learning alone." (p. 43 italics mine) Throughout these cases it became obvious that content-driven education was largely ineffective in the learning process. Focusing on the process of learning by creating highly structured systems seem to have a higher degree of success in achieving the objective of learning. (p.25, 38)

- There are certain principles and practices that create an environment of effective learning. Meredith Pearson suggests 5: respect, a safe learning environment, group discussion and interaction, praxis (reflection and action), and evidence of transfer. (p. 41-42) Providing learning tasks (p. 65-68) and even posting them in the class (p. 50) were effective in motivating the shared learning experience. Defining roles, expectations, and standards creates a healthy environment. (p. 50-52) And especially the 7 Design Steps helped to flesh out all of the necessary elements of creating a healthy learning environment. (p. 140 & 231)

"Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value" was the admonition by Linda Gershuny in her case study about schooling in Haiti. (p. 255) What makes Vella's book unique is it's contribution, by virtue of the volumes of successful development and practice, of the ideas and concepts that make up the foundation of dialogue education. Learner-centered, objective-based education that asks the question, "How do we know they know?" is the foundation for the collection of these case studies.

I had a hard time finishing this book. Why? Because there was so much RICH material that had application to my current context. I found myself diving into different aspects of each case study and gleaning practice after practice. The notes above are just the tip of the iceberg.

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  • Blogger JANEVELLA says so:
    7:19 AM, July 24, 2014  

    I am delighted that you found in DIALOGUE EDUCATION AT WORK what my colleagues and I were trying to make clear!

    Elena Carbone is now a professor at the School of Public Health at U Mass Amherst and has been selected Teacher of the Year...

    Marianne Reiff is now a Dean at a University in CT
    and a dear friend who has worked with me on later books.

    I hope you will write me to tell what you are doing with what you found in DE AT WORK...