"The means is dialogue, the end is learning, the purpose is peace." ~ Founder Dr. Jane Vella


How to Stop Dialogue and How to Make Dialogue Thrive


We know from biology that fear incites the amygdala in the brain to pour adrenalin into the bloodstream, to give us the sudden energy that gets us out of a burning building. We know that while the amygdala is working, synapses in the brain are inhibited so we can focus on the danger at hand. No new dendrites grow in an adrenaline-soaked brain!

Thank you James E Zull and “The Art of Changing the Brain”.  So fear is a sure way to stop dialogue. “You stupid child!  You’re going to get it!’  Fear, scolding, laughing at a learner, shaming of any kind inhibits movement towards the frontal cortex and stops learning.  It is all biology, baby!   #1 Dialogue Killer: Fear 

My dear friend Paula and I sat by the fire one cold winter evening and considered what else inhibits those synapses, stopping learning, cutting off dialogue.

How about “BUT”? I offer an insight or a suggestion and someone in the group says BUT…dismissing my idea, giving 19 reasons why it would never work, kicking the amygdala into action.  Dialogue dies.  #2 Dialogue Killer: BUT…

How about what I irreverently call dialogue interruptus.  You are speaking and I speak right over your voice, interrupting any listening or possible responses to your contribution. #3 Dialogue Killer: Interrupting

How about “just”?  This is often a self-inflicted killer: When I offer my idea I say: ‘This is just an idea…”  “Hello, it is just me.” I have dismissed my own ideas and my own self!  # 4 Dialogue Killer: Just

How about “I”?  When Mary offers an idea, John immediately says: “I tried that once and it was a mess!”  Or “I did this and that” or “I can see how that would be difficult in MY situation…”  I, I, I.  Mary’s offering is dismissed by what Paula and I called the Greedy Grabbing Eye.  #5 Dialogue Killer: The Greedy Grabbing “I”

Dialogue is a gentle, loving, productive art and is both susceptible and vulnerable. It needs attention!  It needs a quiet amygdala (safety), throughout the room. It needs our preparatory work through the LNRA so we know as much as we can about the learners’ themes and contexts.  It needs some quiet time and always careful listening.

Dialogue thrives when I begin my response to your idea with AND, not BUT. 

Dialogue thrives when I let you complete your thought and never interrupt you. 

Dialogue thrives when I do not put myself or my ideas down.  Instead of “It is just me…”, “Hello, it is Jane!”

“This is what I think.” Instead of “’I’ just thought perhaps we could…”

Dialogue thrives when I avoid an immediate reference to my situation, beginning my response with YOU instead of I. “You must have felt frightened in that situation”, instead of, “I had a close call on the highway just last week…”

What other Dialogue Killers do you notice?  And what are the opposite behaviors that can make dialogue thrive?

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Dialogue Education in Higher Education


At a recent visit to have dinner with my mentor and friend Dr. Jane Vella I said, “Dialogue Education has come to academia.” In my experience, Adult Learning Theory which includes Dialogue Education, has become the premier pedagogy in Higher Education.  I asked, “Why else would UMass, Amherst recently build a new academic teaching building at the cost of one hundred and ten million dollars with mostly team-based learning classrooms?”  These are classrooms, housed with ten to fifteen round tables and nine chairs at each table, where students work cooperatively - learning the material by problem-solving and participating in other student-centered active learning projects.  At this point Karen Ridout, who came by Jane’s house to meet me, said, “Dan, would you be willing to write a blog about this?”  I said “Sure”, thinking I have never written a blog before and I don’t have a clue as to the format.   But, I am certainly willing to put my thoughts on paper.

I think the first thing I should do is introduce myself.  I am Dr. Dan Gerber, ED.D., MPH, currently the Academic Dean in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  I have been in Higher Education for the past twenty-six years, joining the ranks after spending the first twelve years of my professional life as an Adult Learning Theory education practitioner mostly overseas in developing countries. Like anyone reading this blog I was affected by Jane’s teachings and even followed her into the same ED.D. program she attended earlier in her career, at the Center for International Education at the University of Massachusetts. My plan was to complete the ED.D. and continue being an Adult Learning Theory practitioner overseas.   But upon completing my doctorate, the University offered me a job as a teaching faculty and my career made a hard right turn.  For additional information about me click here.  (I believe it is important for the reader to know I did not follow the normal road to Higher Education of bachelors, masters, doctorate, post doctorate, faculty, but first was a practitioner who was fortunate enough to encounter Dr. Vella and Dialogue Education in Indonesia where I was Program Director for Save the Children. And, even today as a dean I still teach every semester.  Not because the university wants me to but because I need to teach!  It is as much as who I am as being a husband, father, son, or friend.)

Entering the Academy (which is what Higher Education people call it) in 1996 with an ED.D. in adult learning and as a disciple of Jane Vella, I could not design my courses the usual way. Even my fifty minute, four hundred and sixty student personal health course which is set up for lecturing had to be changed to the best of my ability so that it was based on Dialogue Education.  Using case studies with in-class reflection questions, personal growth reflection exercises, small group discussions, journaling homework, and even community service learning projects, I have always done my best to follow the principles and practices I learned with Jane in Indonesia.  In the 1990s, I was considered an innovative teacher with courses popular with students. That has changed in the last decade. Today if you Google, “How to teach college students,” you will be bombarded with websites of college professors explaining how only lecturing does not work and how good teachers use Adult Learning Theory to help students learn the material they are teaching.  Do all these learner-centered activities follow the guidelines of Adult Learning Theory or Dialogue Education strictly?  No, of course not, but I would make the argument that ninety percent follow the four principles of Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Educations to the best of their ability. These four principles are (as I learned them in 1987 from Jane):

  1. Respect - the learner must feel heard, and respected for himself/herself.
  2. Immediacy - learners must see how they can use their new knowledge, skills and attitudes immediately, in their context
  3. Experience - people learn best when what they are learning is related to their own life experience.
  4. Adults learn:
  • 20% of what they hear
  • 40% of what they hear and see
  • 80% of what they discover for themselves

For example, in 2004 my profession published a manual called, Demonstrating Excellence in Practiced-Based Teaching in Public Health (published by the Associate Schools of Public Health, which is based on Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education. I don’t care if the methodology is team-based learning, problem-based learning, community service learning, labs, small group facilitated discussion, in my experience they all, to some extent, fall under these four principles of Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education.  Especially important is principle number four: Adults learn - 80% of what they discover for themselves. Do these teachers know this?  Most likely not.  What they do know is the students are learning better than with the old method of only lecturing. Most might notice a higher level of energy in their classes.  Consequently, I see that we won! The old banking approach to education (strictly lecturing with tests every few weeks) is on its way out and Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education is on its way in. As Dean, I celebrate this!

This leads me to three questions:

  1. If this is true than why is lecturing still the predominant way of teaching generally in Higher Education?
  2. Why should pedagogy in Higher Education change at all?
  3. How do we support this process of change? 

Lecturing is still the predominant way of teaching in Higher Education for several reasons:  This is how the current Higher Education faculty were themselves taught.  To become a university or college professor one does not need any training in teaching.  You are hired because you are considered an expert in your field of research or in your unique discipline.  And since lecturing is the way you learned, that is the way you teach it. Jane has said: “We teach the way we were taught.”

Lecturing is also easier to learn than doing more active ways of teaching. But it’s more than that.  In lecturing, the teacher has the most control over what happens in their classroom than any other ways of teaching.  Moving towards Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education the teacher gives up a good deal of control of what goes on in the classroom. To most teachers this is very scary! It takes a certain amount of security and confidence to trust a process of teaching that gives the control of learning over to the student. I might add at this point that one of Jane mantras that has stayed with me for the last three decades is, “You have to give up the control to have it be given back to you”.  In my experience I have found this saying absolutely true.

Another reason many people believe lecturing is the most effective way to cover a lot of content.  Whether this content ends up being retained or not is not is the issue we must consider.

This final reason was first brought to light by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.  Friere wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) that teachers control what information or knowledge is given out and how it is given out so they can maintain their authority as the person with power.  Since they have the knowledge and give it out (lecturing) they are the “expert” and maintain all the perks such expertise comes with: prestige, power, resources, respect. Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education is perceived, many times unconsciously, to threaten the status quo.

What else? I would be certainly interested in what other reasons are keeping lecturing the predominant means of teaching?

Next, why is Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education having any head-way at all in Higher Education? The biggest reason is students can retain more knowledge through Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education, and even better, apply it to their life.  How do we know this?  Because our students have demonstrated this time and time again. The only research I have found that proves this is through the new field of neuroscience.  If anyone knows of other published research that shows that students learn and apply knowledge through Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education better than lecturing I would be interested in seeing it.  Meanwhile, in the field of neuroscience it has been proven that students will remember information they learned if the information is processed by Data + meaning + sensory + emotion (Endicott 2004).  This means that students are given an experience that includes:

  • Data - Presentation of data/information/knowledge
  • Meaning - Meaning is given to the data/information/knowledge
  • Sensory - Smell, touch or seeing enhances (props, video, tactile, physical interaction)
  • Emotion - Integrating all of the above plus adding an element that connects with the emotion (i.e. personal meaningful story)

This sounds like Dialogue Education!

Another change in education that forcing us to move away from lecturing to Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education is online teaching.  I was recently at large conference of academic deans and everyone said today they would never allow a faculty to develop and teach a course online without first giving them training in active learning methodologies. Why?  Because in the early years of online teaching faculty did just post their lectures online, assign readings, give tests and the students gave them terrible evaluations!  The students did not feel that the professor’s teaching was worthwhile and they were right.  Of course the same deans said where their institutions will gladly pay for training for their faculty to learn to teach online, they still just expect the same faculty to walk into a classroom and be a successful teacher. I asked the deans, “How many faculty that learn to teach online change the way they teach in the classroom?”  The answer I received was unanimous, all of them!

Which leads me to the third reason Higher Education pedagogy is changing : student demand! When I asked one of my university’s administrators why we are building team-based classrooms he said because this is what the students want.  He added that administration cares what the students want today more than ever because the population in the United States for the dominant college age student (18 to 22) is drastically decreasing. Institutions of Higher Education are concerned about filling their classes and dormitories in the future. Hence, administrators today are very concerned about their institution’s reputation and universities that have adapted Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education as their main pedagogy have the best teaching reputations.

Another reason why Higher Education is changing is employer’s demands. All the research today shows employers want students that have skills along with knowledge. For instance, today’s graduates that know how to problem-solve and work as a team player have an advantage over graduates who don’t. Again Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education are better able to teach these skills than a strict lecturing format.

Finally my last question is how do we support speeding up the process of change? This is actually the question Jane, Paula Berardinelli, Karen Ridout and I struggled with during my visit. One answer I heard the group come up with is to continue demonstrating the success of Dialogue Education by supporting models wherever we can.  Global Learning Partners is doing this in several of their current projects.

I have one idea for Higher Education and I’m interested to hear if readers have others.  Many institutions of Higher Education are in a battle, or maybe an identity crisis is a better way of saying it, between being an institution of liberal education and being an institution that is training the future professional workforce. On one side are mainstream academics who teach the specific content of their discipline because they love and value this knowledge.  On the other side are parents and children who are taking out huge loans to get their children a college education in order to give their children entry into the professional workforce.  I am suggesting a compromise.  Teach content specific knowledge but use Dialogue Education as the pedagogy (i.e. community service learning courses, classroom experiences designed with Dialogue Education methods).  This idea might give both sides what they want.

In any case, thank you to Karen Ridout for asking me to write my ideas.  Thank you to those of you who are reading this. I would be very interested in your responses.  And most of all thank you, Jane, for being Jane!  


Dr. Dan Gerber is the Academic Dean at the School of Public Health, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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Talking Is Doing


There were too many tables and chairs in the room. We started the meeting, a circle of people around a broad expanse of table with banks of tables pushed against the walls at our backs. We had to negotiate carefully to find our way to the tea. 

There were too many questions on the first handout. They were designed to stimulate reflection, then lead to an unstructured  conversation about our journeys in the organization, what brought us to this point. 

As the people looked at the questions, hesitated, reached for pens, I saw that the questions were a bit like those tables. So much structure getting in the way of the conversation. Some asked for more instructions, two or three times.  Some set to writing out their answers. I felt like a teacher, poised to instruct them in what they had so naturally been doing before the meeting started — talking with each other. 

Finally, they paired up. The room filled with the sound of five quiet conversations. Something shifted. The papers were abandoned. The work started.

"Stop talking and start doing!” Have you heard that one? Have you said it yourself? 

 I have been reading “Changing Conversations in Organisations: a Complexity Approach to Change,” by Patricia Shaw. In this challenging (confronting) book, Shaw makes the case for approaching organisational change—not as an 8-step process, which can guarantee a predictable future—but rather as an ongoing practice of making sense—conversationally—of the experience of change itself.

I am with Shaw on this point:  organisational conversation is THE real mechanism for change.

Sharing her own story about a change process with one organization, she writes:

These mature and experienced managers did not believe they could justify an explicit investment in the free-flow of open-ended conversations despite their conviction that this kind of conversation was precisely what they needed…

Yes! I wrote in the margin.

 Then the next sentence, confronted me:

In order to justify meeting you had to know in advance exactly what the topics for discussion would be and what the outcomes of discussion should be. The more uncertain and ambiguous their situation, the more they wanted to meet and talk, yet the less legitimate the expense of doing this became.

As facilitators and change practitioners we live in a world of “deliverables,” our conversations lead to “outputs”, and those outputs show up in our reports. We know, intellectually, that those outputs are not the change themselves, but they capture the future we are collectively pursuing. I see a lot of my work as helping these conversations to happen. I do that by creating thoughtfully sequenced STRUCTURED approaches to conversation. I promise that there will be useful products of those conversations. 

And yet, those outputs are frozen in time, in contexts that continually shift. Like still life paintings—the living things change before the paint is dry.  

Perhaps it was my choice to read that book on my plane trip to this meeting that made me suddenly attentive to the paradox of my work there. 

How the setting of a task was, at once, creating an obstacle and an impetus to leaping into a different future.

How the deliverable tied to this meeting required compliance with my process and while the change itself required the freedom and will to move into and shape a change already underway.

I did not abandon the deliverable. We got there. But we did have one day of organisational conversation, without outputs, living with the ambiguity and complexity of being in the change, rather than designing it.

I’m tempted here to write down the “bullet points” of what all this means, but that is an end to the conversation rather than a start….

So I will say:

Talking is doing. Things change as we talk. 

And what to say about structure?  Maybe less furniture, more space to move around.  Structure can create a sense of safety—a way to move into the chaos of a future we cannot predict. Or, maybe, it gets in our way. 


You can read more about Christine Little and her work as a GLP Partner here.  

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A Day with Less (or No!?!) Technology?


What if you wrote a letter with paper and pen instead of sending an email?  How would it change the "conversation" if you picked up the phone instead of emailing or texting?  

I recently interviewed a woman for a radio program I host once a month. She is a poet and lifelong activist in her early 70's who does not own a computer or a cell phone.  She has a telephone with no answering machine or voice mail.  She writes letters by hand and writes her poetry in the same way.  

Consider this weeklong challenge, launching February 2nd: WNYC’s New Tech City Launches “Bored And Brilliant”.

We are using technology to connect globally.  I Skype with people in Crimea and the Czech Republic.  My granddaughter stays in touch with her dad via Skype.  I have a Facebook friends from around the world.  

It is good, but is it ALL good?  

What would a day, even an hour, be like in your life and work if you turned off all the technology?

A challenge for Dialogue Education practitioners in honor of Bored and Brilliant week:

Adapt an activity you already use that involves technology to become low or no tech.  Share your ideas and reflections in the comments section below. 


Fran Weinbaum is a Certified Dialogue Education Practitioner, life coach, and consultant.  You can find out more about her work at http://www.vermontwildernessrites.com/

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5 Tips for Integrating Dialogue Education into Program Culture


Through our work with World Vision’s domestic programs in Canada, my colleague Clayton Rowe and I have designed (and re-designed, and re-designed) over 45 days’ worth of workshops that are resonant with a Dialogue Education approach.  With our intrepid ‘Canadian Programs’ team, we facilitate these learning events, on topics such as ‘Introduction to Community Assessment’ or ‘Non-Profit Marketing’, across Canada with over 500 grassroots non-profit leaders. 

Our partners have come to celebrate the distinctive approach to learning demonstrated in our workshops. Here are 5 tips for seeing our personal passion for effective Adult Education move toward being an accepted, integral component of our program’s culture and ethos:

  1. Keep Time.  As every emerging practitioner of Dialogue Education learns, too much “what for the when” undercuts the best-laid learning plans.  Dialogue takes time. The spectre of an interminable group discussion, however, can overshadow all learning for some (especially if your kids have a precise after-work pick-up time!).  Articulate an achievable list of learning outcomes then be ruthless in ensuring that your session is wrapped up a few minutes before the advertized close of the day.  Starting and ending on time is critical for building trust (and buy-in) from participants in your program—especially as you invite them to future workshops. 
  2. Acknowledge la différence.  Within a 1-day practical workshop on a topic like “Grant-Writing”, time feels especially precious.  We have learned, however, to briefly acknowledge our approach to learning (and to invite feedback) in every opening task. It is easy to forget that elements such as moving around, limited lecture and PowerPoint, and a variety of groupings can be discombobulating for first time participants.  Briefly naming the differences in your approach to facilitation lowers participant anxiety and resistance, leading to a better learning environment for all.  Consider including a brief, standardized introduction to dialogue in each of your workshops.
  3. Build detailed action plans.  A primary ‘cost’ in using a learning-centred approach is that fewer topics are covered than in a conventional workshop. The ‘value add’ is the ability to go deep into the learning, and that participants start applying new ideas into their own context before they leave the room. We are passionate about ensuring that each learning task rolls up into an overall, step-by-step action plan.  Participants will happily modify a template that they feel is too detailed for their own context.  Participants will be frustrated and struggle to apply action-plan templates that are not detailed enough.
  4. Leverage your pre-workshop survey.  With the volume of workshops our small team delivers, participants are sometimes shocked that we make completing a short pre-workshop survey mandatory for registration, and that we follow-up individually on each one.  The principle of “starting learning before the event begins” is very powerful, and helps prepare first-time participants to engage well.  Addressing participant expectations and acknowledging participant expertise via an online pre-workshop survey is a critical practise in building a culture of dialogue learning.
  5. Push for team participation.  One of the most powerful facilitation tools we have is building and nurturing space for dialogue, about a pressing issue, amongst colleagues. It is rare for sufficient time for this learning to be available ‘back at the office’.  In many of our workshops, attending with a partner from one’s own organization is required. While there are definite challenges in managing this expectation, the pay-off is significant:  action-plans are much more likely to be successfully implemented when the decision-makers initially work through the process together, with facilitator support.


Hugh Brewster is the National Manager of World Vision’s Canadian Programs department. He first read Jane Vella’s Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach after co-facilitating a teacher training program with GLP Partner Jeanette Romkema in Kyrgyzstan in 2003. 

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