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


Tips for Successful Community Engagement for Social Transformation, in Illiterate Communities


Social change is a complex process and does not follow linear steps or procedures. And, it is not usually fast.

Recently, I met some community members in rural areas of Ethiopia where many international and local NGOs have worked for a long time. I asked the community members to tell me the positive change they have experienced as a result of working with these groups. Their response was, “We have been receiving different kinds of support for many years, but we are still the same. Our community still needs support.”

It begs the question: Is our work really helping?

Most of the changes we need to see in poor rural communities can happen if and only if our approaches towards community development change. The following are a few tips for helping rural development practitioners lead communities on the road towards empowerment and positive change.

  1. Monitor your attitude and behaviour. To work with communities in rural areas we need to have the right attitude. We need to know that most of these people are comfortably living their lives the way they do and will continue to live that way in our absence. We need to remember that it is their life, and they know what is best for themselves. Even in the poorest parts of the world, change is possible. The reason this change has not yet happened is due to lack of opportunity, not because of weakness or lack of intelligence. We may be able to walk along side to help enable change, but the change is about them and not us.
  2. Creating a good environment. Depending on the culture and traditions, meetings are usually opened with prayer or by an elder’s blessing. The opening process can easily determine the outcome of the meeting. Moreover, in rural areas, people sit on the ground or on small stools. Inviting people to sit in a circle can help create a sense of equal status among the participants. The facilitator should also sit in the circle and on the same type of chair, as an equal to everyone else.
  3. Set ground rules to address status-quo. In communities where reading and writing is not present we cannot ask the participants to write their ideas on Post-it notes or paper and paste them on a wall. We can however, listen to what they contribute orally. Ideally, it is preferable to have women groups, youth groups, and elderly or local leaders in separate groups. However, this is not always possible. The culture may allow elders and religious leaders to speak first and then the other group members may not have the courage to disagree with what was shared. To avoid this, we need to carefully invite people with higher status to “take off their position” while in that group. This process can create a more democratic space for all people to speak and interact freely. These processes empower the people who consider themselves inferior (or less important) in the community, and give them a voice.
  4. Number of people in a group. It is important to limit the number of people in a group to 30 or less. Having a small group ensures each participant has a voice in the group. Safety and respect need to be modeled and intentionally worked on. They are not only needed for honest and authentic dialogue during the initial learning event or gathering, but are also critical for using what they learned, implementation of their plans, and further discussions about action or adjustments.
  5. Be patient and listen. The common mistake we make as a development professional is going into a community with preconceived ideas. Too often we consider ourselves better than those we are working with and suggest solutions for a problem we think exists before any sort of deep discovery process or consultation. We need patience and practice in listening. Having skills in Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) tools as well as a dialogue-based approach are also important. Humility is key. Once the community has decided what they want to do, we can help to develop a community action plan with responsibilities for each group member. We are invited to facilitate the process, but not determine the outcome of it.
  6. Represent the idea visually. Graphic representation of ideas using symbols that can clearly represent the issues being discussed can be extremely helpful. This can allow for some record-keeping of what is decided and it may also inspire some participants to explore more literacy methods.
  7. Invite reflection and dialogue. To bring social transformation, creating a space for people to enter and feel safe enough for meaningful dialogue and idea sharing is essential. People need to critically consider their experiences and feel free enough to challenge existing practices. In one community in which I work, people call this process “a life mirror” because they look at their life and identify spots that need to change. By creating a safe, respectful and open space for reflection, introspection and dialogue, change is more possible.
  8. Community action plan. The ultimate objective is to help communities to assess their own situation, come up with possible solutions and decide on an action plan for positive change. During the development of their action plan support will be needed. There might be issues that they can handle by themselves but also ones that need to be supported by external individuals or agencies. Careful discernment will be needed about who should step in to support their work, when, why and for how long.
  9. Monitor change and celebrate success. Setting goals and objectives with success indicators is very helpful for monitoring achievements. Once results are achieved, it is important to celebrate and recognize the individual and team efforts. This helps the group to strive for a higher level of achievement, pushing them forward in their transformation.

The process of community engagement requires flexible and adaptive thinking. No two groups or situations are the same. We need to start by ensuring we have deep understanding of the people we are working with, their situation, and the desired change they are looking for (if they know that already). Social transformation is possible in any and every community. As facilitators of community engagement, we need to get out of the way, and learn to more effectively invite community members in to processes of discernment and decision-making.

What helpful tip do you practice or have you seen for community engagement?

* * * * * *

Yeshitila Alemu (yeshal2003@yahoo.com; yalemu@canadianfeedthechildren.ca) is a Program Manager of Canadian Feed the Children, based in Ethiopia. He has a B.Sc. in Agricultural Extension and M.Sc. in Rural Development and Agricultural Economics. He also has over 16 years of experience working with rural poor communities and urban slum areas in Ethiopia.

Leave Comments

Turning Lemons into Lemonade


I could have titled this blog post “The Travelling Consultant’s Nightmare” but I’ve opted for “Turning Lemons into Lemonade.” This is a story of turning a bad story into a good one!

When you were a child, did you ever hear the riddle: What’s the most important thing to have at a party? Common answers included:  food, party games, balloons… but, the right answer was fun! The moral of this riddle has stayed with me all these years:  when planning something you care about, don’t get so lost in the details that you forget what’s most important.

Global Learning Partners, Inc. (GLP) was invited by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) to develop a learning program for INESC – a renowned organization in Brazil devoted to human rights and social transformation. The planning started about six months in advance and dates were protected in everyone’s calendars for a three-day intensive course which I would facilitate in Brazil.

We conducted a learning assessment, adapted a course on dialogue-based learning to fit their unique context, and had all the course materials and visuals translated into Portuguese. I had time to do all the little things that one does when traveling for work:  finalize my daughter’s camp schedule, make sure my husband had everything he needed to solo parent, pack a week’s worth of supplements and travel snacks, get a good novel for the plane, and gather some small gifts for the group. You know the drill. 

As an adult learning specialist who has consulted with organizations and communities around the United States and in 19 different countries for over three decades, I thought I knew what was most important when planning a trip. I retrieved my passport and GOES traveler card from the safe deposit, and carefully reviewed the itinerary I’d been sent. But, the day the uber dropped me at the airport (nearly an hour from my house in Rhode Island) and I went to check in, I was stopped dead in my tracks:  “What? A visa?” “Yes, you need a visa.” I was not going anywhere.

How had I missed that? I seethed all the way back home.

  • Was it globalization or American conceit that made me feel I could go anywhere, easily?
  • Was it too many years of travel that made me lazy?
  • Was it an over-reliance on others, including the agent who bought the ticket?

Interesting questions, but none of them would get me to Brazil. 

So, we built an alternative plan.

Two IBP staff had graduated from a series of courses with GLP and showed a deep commitment to the principles and practices of dialogue-based learning. We all agreed they were ready to facilitate the learning “on the ground” in Brazil. I was in awe of Alex Ciconello’s last-minute flexibility and skill as a facilitator, as well as Aideen Gilmore’s attention to both details and people. I joined the group each day and all day via a large screen. The interpreters were super effective at their simultaneous translation to and from me, via headsets. We were a mutually-supportive team and, because of the commitment to a common set of principles, it worked!

But, that wasn’t what made it good.  The good part was how my not being physically there shifted the dynamic and created space that I’m not sure would have been there otherwise. I listened even more deeply than I would have had I been in the room. I was forgotten at times, as the group passionately exchanged doubts and ideas. I watched and asked to speak when I had something to contribute. The participants talked far more than the facilitators did and seemed very comfortable voicing their disagreements with what was being taught. For example, at the close of Day One we invited their thoughts on the course so far and in all my years I’d never heard such critical feedback! They critiqued the examples we’d chosen, the models we shared, and the priorities we’d set. They underscored their commitment to the tenets of Popular Education – which grew from their soil through Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire – and questioned the connections between what we were teaching and that philosophy which they know so well. 

That night, our facilitation team made adjustments to the course in direct response to the feedback we received. First thing the next morning, we invited the group to express the essence of Popular Education in words and in sculpture (see images above). From then on, we connected what we had to share back to that philosophy. And, we did so in true dialogue.

Everything shifted – they engaged in the course content, and made it their own. I don’t know if any of this would have happened had I been in the room, leading the course and creating personal connections in the way I usually do. My distance – and the skills of those in the room – created a safe space for true dialogue.

Let’s toast to bad stories that turn good!


What training or facilitation story can you tell where a bad story turned to good?

Valerie Uccellani is a GLP co-owner and Managing Partner of its consulting network, as well as a Senior Consultant and Trainer with GLP.

Leave Comments

Digital Learning in a Community of Practice (Part V of V)


Silence. Total silence.

It was after one of the highlights for me of the Digital Education Masters program through The University of Edinburgh. Two world experts in their field had been discussing their topic together in a Skype class, with the rest of us listening in from around the world. When they finished, we were asked for comments or questions. That’s when silence came. Eventually someone spoke up and expressed what I think we all were thinking. He described that after hearing these two experts talk at such a ‘mountaintop’ level, no-one dared bring it down again to ‘valley’ level. I concurred totally.

I learnt a lot that day. Not just on the topic, but on much, much more. I learnt how two respected members of a Community of Practice discussed their subject, how they queried each other, how they disagreed and how they interacted with those like us who were finding our feet within that community. It gave me something to aim for.

There are two approaches I have come across to learning and we did both that day. One approach is learning through knowing, usually of skills or concepts; the other is learning through becoming. The latter is about achieving the ability to communicate appropriately within the community associated with the discipline and acting according to its norms. It comes through engagement with its Community of Practice. It can be the case that in traditional classroom contexts, the body of knowledge, skills and attitudes are taught decontextualised from the practices to which they belong. How can including a digital aspect help address that?

  • One way is illustrated above, where experts interact about a topic online. This adds more to the teaching than one person talking about their topic. Those selected to converse can model how the community wishes to conduct itself. Of course, all of this need not be done digitally, but digital makes available experts not otherwise available. If digital is used, then the interaction doesn’t even need be live. However if it is done, it is a promising way to teach attitudes as well as knowledge about the discipline.
  • Another advantage of digital is also what some perceive as a drawback of digital. Teachers may feel that learners are less ‘present’ online compared to face-to-face; a learner less present online means they are more present elsewhere! A digital environment makes it possible to apply learning directly in the context in which it will be used, while being mentored by the social presence of an online community. It is akin to a traditional master-apprentice model of learning where the master encourages the apprentice to increasingly direct themselves. This can work for some topics though not necessarily all.
  • Another advantage of digital can help address a longstanding issue with classroom training, which can be hard to follow up afterwards. We have all done courses where we set the manual aside to come back to later, yet ‘later’ may never come. The 70-20-10 concept of learning holds that 70% of learning is through on-the-job experiences, 20% from interactions with others (both of these after the course), and only 10% from formal events such as classroom or digital training. Exact figures are debatable but the idea of a lot of learning coming after is not. As well as helping provide the 10% of formal training, digital can also help with the 20% of social interaction through such as online forums, and tools like short videos for mobile phones can help with the 70% on-the-job training.

Undoubtedly new issues come with digital, particularly if learning is within a fully digital community. One example is how to know how ‘lurkers’, who don’t take much part in online activities, are still ‘on board’ with learning? But in addressing such issues, it is good to keep in mind the bigger advantages above of making use of digital within a community of practice.

How can you use digital to integrate learners into a community of practice related to your topic?


Read more blog posts by Peter Tate. This is the final of five posts in this series.

Peter Tate designs and delivers interfaith and cross-cultural training in both classroom and digital formats at the King’s Centre Southall, London. This is alongside his studies for a Masters in Digital Education with Edinburgh University on how to implement a Dialogue Education (DE) approach in online environments. He previously provided training consultancy as Brainy Training Solutions for various charities, including financial management training for the WaterAid charity. Before that, he delivered DE-type training for UK based charities Hope Consultants (developing digital training to make use of DE) and Wycliffe UK (training trainers to implement DE within their adult learning programmes).


Leave Comments

The Power of Peer Review and Implications for Digital Learning (Part IV of V)


There were many challenges throughout my course. Electricity was intermittent. English, the language of communication, had varying levels of understanding among participants. But the biggest challenge was the cultural shift to a dialogue approach to learning; a big shift for many in other courses too, but even more so here. Yet over the week I slowly saw things start to change. It was 5 days of training for 12 participants, most were Ugandans. Many were community leaders coming from their towns or villages, learning how to best present content they cared about so that others would come to care as well. They were discovering adult learning principles and how to apply them, each to their own contexts.

I was most aware of the cultural challenge during the teaching practices. This was when everyone took a topic of choice and taught it to the rest of us using an adult learning approach, assisted by one other person from the group. Right after that came feedback; firstly by themselves and then from their peers. One cultural challenge was moving from monologue to dialogue teaching but another was in them becoming comfortable with the process of peer review. Should the teacher not be respected as the expert, there to impart their knowledge? Would questioning them like this not seem like challenging their authority? What if the teacher was also their work manager?

I was impressed by progress they made with peer review. After the first pair taught, feedback from participants was scant, but slowly, with lavish encouragement, it increased as later pairs taught. I was aware that as well as any overt learning going on, much hidden learning was happening too, something backed up by the research into peer review. Here are ways I saw it happening:

  • Feedback given to one pair was used later by other pairs when making their own presentation. One example was feedback about putting instructions in written form (rather than just verbal) – later pairs started to do this without being told! Participants not only gave feedback to others, but were comparing it with their own presentation and making changes appropriately. They were developing skills to generate feedback about the quality of their own work.
  • There was a mix of weak and strong presentations. Seeing a range of samples helped them develop criteria for judging whether or not a presentation was good. To avoid being harmfully critical about weaker ones, we gave ground rules on giving and receiving feedback, which helped. In early presentations, staff modelled these. Skills for learning how to be constructively critical are of use long after the course ends.
  • The quality of peer review varied a lot. This meant that participants had to make a choice on how useful it actually was. They had to decide which to keep and which to discard, so they were learning how to evaluate feedback. Again, this is a good skill to have when we receive many opinions about the work we do.

Each of these skills gained was of use well beyond our course. Research shows that teachers develop these skills through assessing the work of their students. Students need to be given similar appraisal experiences build these skills and this is done through providing peer review opportunities for them. I have become more conscious since to provide these where I can when designing training.

You may be convinced by peer review but what does it mean for digital training?

There is absolutely no reason why peer review cannot happen within classroom training. The strength of digital is in helping it to happen. Digital enables work to be reviewed and shared more easily among participants and maybe also more ecologically. Work submitted for review need not be near the final product; it can be a rough plan or at draft stage, which makes feedback immediately useful and so become formative in learning. Using media such as discussion forums or a class wiki means review comments can come over a longer period, which allows comments become more reflective. Digital also enables a wider variety of people to review, not just demographically but also internationally, leading to a richer range of insights given. One highlight for me of my Digital Education Masters studies was learning first-hand, ways in which Swedish education worked differently to what I was familiar with.

By the end of the week in Uganda, we were pleased to see that participants could analyse and be constructively critical of each other’s training and recognise good training. These were skills they would be able to use long thereafter.

How can you integrate peer review into training that you provide – either classroom or digital?


Read more blog posts by Peter Tate:

Peter Tate designs and delivers interfaith and cross-cultural training in both classroom and digital formats at the King’s Centre Southall, London. This is alongside his studies for a Masters in Digital Education with Edinburgh University on how to implement a Dialogue Education (DE) approach in online environments. He previously provided training consultancy as Brainy Training Solutions for various charities, including financial management training for the WaterAid charity. Before that, he delivered DE-type training for UK based charities Hope Consultants (developing digital training to make use of DE) and Wycliffe UK (training trainers to implement DE within their adult learning programmes).


Leave Comments

Digital Training – Enabling Better Discussion? (Part III of V)


One participant came to speak to me about how the training session had been for her. At this early stage as a trainer, I had thought it had been good, but I listened. I had engaged participants with the content and had facilitated good discussion, either in small groups within the class or sometimes as a whole class.

“I am an introvert…” she said, “and I find it really hard to go from learning about a topic to talking about it almost right away with other people, even in small groups. I need time to reflect before I talk to others.”

Since then I have sought to give more reflection time in classroom sessions but this always has limits. It is hard to balance reflective time with time for participants to speak in class, either sharing their experience or asking thought-provoking questions. Facilitation inevitably involves keeping an eye on the clock. Keeping time for coffee break conversation is also important for learning!

How can digital learning do better? There are two ways I see that digital can help; one is fairly familiar and to be expected; the other perhaps less so. First of all, the familiar one…

Discussion forums are commonly used within digital training. This means that as well as synchronous discussion, with comments interconnecting as in a classroom, it is also possible to have asynchronous discussion, where comments are posted on a forum to be viewed or responded to after they are made. This helps not only introverts, but also others who wish to reflect further before posting, and helps lead to a richer discussion. There is a place for both synchronous and asynchronous discussion, and digital enables both. Each has different strengths, asynchronous for reflective discussion and synchronous for high energy to stimulate exploratory discussions or brainstorming or motivating those on the margins.

But there are also other advantages to discussion forums. Sometimes in a classroom, a fruitful conversation can occur informally after a class between a staff member and a student. I have seen and experienced this personally. But if it is face-to-face, the benefit to everyone else is lost unless summarised and shared widely with others later. Conversely, I have been in tutorial groups where a topic discussed is not relevant to me, yet there is no easy escape! Digital forums display each conversation to be selected as desired. It is thus possible to choose which ones to join and contribute to, and equally, which to ignore. One big advantage to discussion forums is in connecting learners who are drawn to the most appropriate topics, both to learn from and to contribute to.

The other way that digital enables reflective conversation is with digital documents. Digital significantly changes the nature of documents beyond convenience. With comments from readers enabled, the nature of a document changes significantly in at least two ways when made digital. For example, I found a recipe for Irish soda bread online but I not only read the recipe but also the comments below. Contributors suggested maybe more of one ingredient or less of another. Some readers added a surprise ingredient and told of subsequent results! This made the recipe no longer static, as it would be in a book, but that it was made alive by the community of contributors. A second change with digital is that while the authority of a book typically comes from the writer or publisher (such as a Delia Smith recipe in the UK!), with digital it comes from the acceptance of its readers.

Thus, digital forums and comments on online documents are both ways to enable asynchronous discussion among learners. This will result in a more reflective and so, more rewarding conversation.

How can digital enable better opportunities for discussion for your learners?


Read more blog posts by Peter Tate:

Peter Tate designs and delivers interfaith and cross-cultural training in both classroom and digital formats at the King’s Centre Southall, London. This is alongside his studies for a Masters in Digital Education with Edinburgh University on how to implement a Dialogue Education (DE) approach in online environments. He previously provided training consultancy as Brainy Training Solutions for various charities, including financial management training for the WaterAid charity. Before that, he delivered DE-type training for UK based charities Hope Consultants (developing digital training to make use of DE) and Wycliffe UK (training trainers to implement DE within their adult learning programmes).


Leave Comments

Page 1 of 46 pages  1 2 3 >  Last ›