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

The Praxis of Dialogue

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One of my favorite axioms is: There are three things that make effective learning happen, in this order: time, time and time.

While the wry humor in that axiom always gets a belated laugh, the significance and meaning it offers is not at all trivial. I discovered the biology behind my simple axiom as I reread, with delight, Norman Doidge’s amazing book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

Consider the implications of this paragraph from p 24:

Traditional rehabilitation exercises typically ended after a few weeks, when a patient stopped improving, or “plateaued,” and doctors lost the motivation to continue. But Bach-y-Rita, based on his knowledge of nerve growth, began to argue that these learning plateaus were temporary —part of a plasticity -based learning cycle— in which stages of learning are followed by periods of consolidation . Though there was no apparent progress in the consolidation stage, biological changes were happening internally, as new skills became more automatic and refined.

In our present school system we rush students from one 45 minute session to another, without any reflection time or periods of consolidation.  This lovely story of a dinner table conversation between a father and his six year old son captures this principle:

Dad: What was the best thing that happened at school today, Tim?

Tim:  Recess! We went out into the garden!

I see that Tim knew he needed a period of consolidation; he wanted to learn! He knew praxis: action with reflection long before he took the Foundations of Dialogue Education course!

How can we re-design our courses, webinars, or learning tasks to include what the brain is telling us it needs: a quiet time, a period of consolidation, the opportunity to reflect on the new information or skill or attitude we just met?

In Johannesburg, South Africa years ago, I was doing a course on Dialogue Education with law professors from the university.  My friend Tricia, whom I met at a Quaker meeting, sat in on the course to observe the process. I shall never forget her comment at the end of the first day: “That is amazing, Jane. Have you ever thought of using quiet?”  Tricia challenged me then to consider The Praxis of Dialogue.  Norman Doidge offered me today the biology behind it.  

  • When have you used quiet to enhance learning in a course or workshop? 
  • When have you given yourself a period of consolidation to ensure your own learning?
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What is Dialogue Education?

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This spring GLP Senior Partner Jeanette Romkema has been busy teaching a course called Community Development: The Art of Facilitation and Workshop Design at Wycliffe College.  Recently she shared a few definitions created by these talented graduate students and emerging Dialogue Education practitioners that we wanted to share:

  • Dialogue Education is teaching with intentionality and ongoing reflection, encouraging questions with the learners’ needs in mind. The intention is to increase purposeful interactive engagement and democratization of learning, with a hoped for outcome of personal and community transformation.

 

  • Dialogue Education is about bringing communities and individuals together to harness their relationships and experiences, to build self-knowledge and social change. It is a tool in the process of transformation which allows knowledge to continually be questioned, strengthened, and acted on to build healthier communities.

 

  • At its core Dialogue Education is a deep communicative partnership between the teacher and learners that is immersed in love, unity, and faith in a better world. It is an invitation into important inquiry, personal praxis, and meaningful action helping us strive to be fully human.

 

How do you define Dialogue Education today in your work?  We invite you to add to the conversation in the comments below.  

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Impact Studies

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[Note: this piece was originally published in 2003.  We love it, and have asked Jane to update it for 2015 with her new thinking.]

I love the change of seasons: from winter to spring, from spring to the hot days of summer, from summer to the crisp, blue-sky autumn. There is a renewal here that is deep and utterly natural. There are seasons in one’s life, as well. Each change: taking a new job, finding a life partner, going on a significant journey—brings that same seasonal renewal.

[Credit: "The Four Seasons" by YeraldReloaded]

In evaluating adult learning, we might look to seasonal change as an analogue. Initially, the excitement of folks after a five day course entitled Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach (now, Foundations of DIalogue Education) is as palpable as the first day of spring, or summer, or fall. Learning has occurred and it is intoxicating! Transfer—the use of that learning in new situations—at work, at home, in the community—is more challenging. The tedious work of preparation, the tough work of research, the struggle to complete and use the Eight Steps of Design effectively becomes more and more taxing, like the dog days of August bearing out the heat of summer.

Transfer is a discipline. Without it, the joy of learning is a bubble bursting in the first blast of the wind of reality. Transfer is the opportunity for constructive use of the principles and practices, fitting them to your own context like a fine leather glove to your hand. Fitting them means changing them, and that is part of the joy and creativity of transfer.

Impact is a September day with blue skies and cool breezes…it is hoped for and celebrated when it arrives. Impact is the purpose of it all: the change in organizational systems, personal skill competency, group intimacy and collaboration that makes the whole learning and transfer effort worthwhile. Impact must be celebrated and documented. Tell it like it is! Show us not the money but the significant change for the better that the educational process has wrought.

I propose that impact indicators must be set forth with complete honesty; they must be gathered through comprehensive sampling and through collaborative responses with all participants in the sample. There must be a continuous review of these indicators to prove integration of new skills, knowledge, and attitudes.

We need ongoing Impact Studies that will demonstrate the effectiveness of Dialogue Education, using qualitative and quantitative indicators. As we celebrate and document impact, we will feel a renewal akin to the feeling we have as the seasons change. Mother Nature’s own praxis!

The 2015 Edition of this blog offers what I have learned recently: 

Indicators of learning are behaviors;  indicators  of transfer are behaviors; indicators of impact are new systems and behaviors that arise from the new consciousness caused by learning and transfer…. (I must confess I smile at my flowery language of 2003 ! And I sure was sure, wasn’t I?  The years answer our prayer for doubt!)

What innovative, creative ways have you used to document indicators of Learning, Transfer and Impact? 

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What to do When Questions are Not Safe

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Powerful questions spark great dialogue. Just a few well-chosen, highly-polished questions can stimulate amazing exploration of a relevant issue for a group.

But sometimes posing a question can also pose something else: a threat. In societies where a person with authority routinely uses questions to evaluate, interrogate or humiliate a subordinate, the use of even a polite, well-phrased question may come across as intimidating. The net of safety built up by a teacher’s smiles, sharing, and setting the stage can suddenly unravel when she sets a learning task to the class that ends in a question mark! I have experienced this in a variety of cultures: a seemingly innocuous request for the participants to share their experiences and opinions on a given topic suddenly brings a hush into the room and uncomfortable shifting of eyes and chairs.

So, I tried an experiment. Instead of asking the question as a question, I rephrased it as a gentle command, like this:

Example 1:

Change “What dreams do your village people have for their futures?” to “Tell me about the dreams your village people have for their futures.”

Example 2:

Change “Why are some families more successful in raising their children than others?” to: “Tell me about what families do who raise their children successfully.

That seemed a subtle change, but then I looked at my local co-teacher who was suddenly grinning widely. “Oh, that’s much easier for us,” she confirmed. The learners no longer felt they were being tested for a “right answer” and they were emboldened to give their own insights. Sometimes, it helps to add, “In your opinion, tell me…” Other such subtleties may add further safety. In any case, be sure to keep the topic open by not implying that there might be a given right answer that you’re looking for. Gently support the sense that all answers are welcome and that as a group good solutions will be found as you explore together.

In some cultures, questions carry significant social risk. As the classroom relationships deepen, it may eventually become possible to begin introducing discussion topics with an actual open question. But stay alert for the wide-eyed look of panic or a sudden glance away by several learners. You can gently return to, “Tell me…” until safety again reaches a level adequate to bear that scary question mark.

[Learners in action at one of Jennifer's sessions.]

Question for you:

What experiences have you had in your teaching where you gave extra effort to making questions safe?

*****

Jennifer Giezendanner is a Certified Dialogue Education Practitioner, and can be reached at jegiez@yahoo.com.  She presently works for OneBook, a Canadian development organization, as program manager and training consultant, focusing on projects in Asia. 

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Dialogue Education and Love:  The Power of Sacrifice

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Love has different faces. In Dialogue Education and Love Part I  (published December 22 2014) I reflected on 8 ways that Dialogue Education principles are really a practice of love. Below are three aspects of the costly nature of love that Dialogue Education invites us to embrace, for learning sake.

  1. Ego vs. learning. A skilled trainer chooses to invest in what people really need, even if this means sacrificing something of him/herself in the process. Indeed, what people really need sometimes demands that the trainer sacrifices his/her reputation, control of the process or desire to be honored, understood or valued. The ego needs to get out of the way!

Many trainers are familiar with this tension: choosing between the learner’s real (sometimes vital) learning or his/her own desire to be validated by the learners and other observers. This tension is not as easy as it seems and many times before, during and after the learning event, the trainer needs to be reminded of what really matters... and has to face the cost.

An example:

A short while ago I felt the cost: where I needed to lost my ego to let learning happen. My colleague and I facilitated a deeply reflective workshop focused on heart learning to approximately 180 students. The challenge was that we were forced to share a large open space with 2 other workshops, one teaching music and the other cinema. Although there was a great amount of pressure to teach a fun, noisy and high energy workshop (like those around us), we knew our students had registered for the workshop for different reasons. We stayed true to what we knew the group most wanted and needed, and resisted the urge to “entertain” the group or compete with the other groups. Observers looked on in wonder. Even our learners questioned if they were in the “right” workshop as we began our workshop. In the end, all were amazed at the important and personal learning that was invited and felt.  

This act of love felt indeed costly: sacrificing our ego for the good of the learners. And boy, was it worth it!

  1. Comfort or safe disequilibrium. To enhance real learning, a skilled trainer also sometimes chooses to sacrifice his and/or the learners’ comfort. Challenging yet safe learning tasks are designed to progressively and intentionally lead learners into a secured disequilibrium. Because the trainer wants learners to have a direct and personal interaction with the object of study, he/she gradually leads learners to and through the critical content to be learned.

But this is far from being easy. Daring to focus on what has the potential of producing real and lasting change is an act of courage and love. Love is found in the trainer’s perception that a learner is naturally resourceful, relational and creative - even when learners themselves do not believe they are! The trainer is determined to give back to learners the power to choose, decide, think and create, and this can be deeply disturbing or confusing for a learner who may have spent most of his life learning in someone else’s shadow.

The trainer’s message needs to be: I already know you can do this - this is yours, this is for you, take, test, dare and create, and see how good it is to be alive, to be you and to grow as a person. I will give you time to find the resources you already have.

An example:

I once met a young woman who participated in one of my workshops who told me how she experienced the method I was using (Dialogue Education principles and practices). She said that task after task she began to feel a tension, fear, and even anger. She felt she couldn’t move, couldn’t really talk or interact, as if she was chained by an invisible belief that she was condemned to fail. At some point, a learning task invited her to be and do exactly what she really needed (but had been avoiding). She couldn’t stand it - she wanted to leave, run, escape and hide. But a friend of hers, enthusiastic about the task, asked her, “How do you respond to this?” Tears began to fill her eyes, blood rushed to her face, and she blurted out an answer in anger, fear and disbelief. She admitted that at that moment she hated me and my colleague as trainers.

Surprisingly, no sooner had she shared her feelings, she could finally see her real potential and, hand-in-hand with her friend, she continued to share what she was really thinking, hoping and wanting in life. It was as if something had been given back to her. When all of this was done, she finally felt loved...and told us so.

This is why in Dialogue Education the trainer never does for the learner what he/she can do for him/herself. What is at stake is far too important: an individual’s potential transformation.

  1. Unjust vs. just reinforcement. There is a certain type of learning that is often cherished by trainers. The one that produces learners who just want to understand by listening and reading, and who are able to recognize intellectual brilliance. These learners know presenters appreciate their passive interest, and PowerPoints slides and handouts are offered as “gifts”.

A skilled trainer recognizes the diversity of learning styles and wants to speak to everyone using each one’s learning language, even if this means some challenging tasks so that all learners are honored. Love is here found in justice. Dialogue Education is built on the belief that 1) there is no inferior or superior learning styles, and 2) the combination of learning styles will enrich the whole learning process because it will provide a variety of lenses to observe the object of study and thus complete its understanding.

The trainer is typically confronted by a difficult tension: those who can understand everything but not really learn anything (because usually a personal application is missing), and those who cannot learn because they speak another learning language than the one used in the learning event. The trainer is like a mediator in an intercultural context. He/she tries to speak each person’s language, then connect the learning styles with each other and finally create a common new language that everybody will be able to use and understand.

This courageous choice to leave nobody behind while facing the frustrated or angry faces of those who speak fluently the common learning language of our times, is in fact an act of love for those who are often left behind.

This is also an act of love for the object of study because the trainer knows that this is far beyond the grasp of one learning style and does not want to reduce it as such. But mostly because this connection between individuals is a prerequisite to love. When people do not understand each other and are unable to see or imagine other people’s perceptions, love is not possible. But when people begin to understand each other and begin to speak the same language... love happens!

An example:

During the same workshop (mentioned above), I met two very different persons. One told me that she didn’t need what we were doing. She looked completely disengaged and unwilling to interact with the learning tasks or people in the room. At some point in the learning event, she was shocked to finding herself “lost in the process” (and her learning!) because she was someone who prided herself in always being in total control. She wanted information and knowledge but I was giving her the opportunity to test different postures and practical skills. She was aware that this event was going to be interactive and experiential, and didn’t think this would be a problem for her. In fact, she couldn’t reflect on herself alone, she needed others to learn and deepen her thinking. Her challenge was that the other people around the table didn’t look as “clever” as she thought she was, and in the end was shocked to realize how much she actually needed them. She felt loved, despite herself.

Another example:

The other person I met was an autistic woman. She was also shocked but not for the same reasons. She was included in the learning process from the beginning. She felt heard and she fully accepted. Despite looking, sounding, and acting different from everyone around her, people accepted her differences and added their own. I saw in her eyes a thirst for a freedom that she spent her whole life looking for. Dialogue Education principles and practices used in this learning event offered her this freedom. She felt loved...but even more, what she learned that day produced a deep awareness that she could learn, despite and because of who she was.

Dialogue Education and love are so intertwined because this way of working and being in the world focuses on what really matters. This is a method that says:  learning is not a matter of self-worth or domination but a matter of justice, freedom and responsibility. Dialogue Education gives back to people their own responsibility to make a difference in this world. This is love. Love for humankind; love for the oppressed and the vulnerable; love for hope and for the future. 

*****

Frederic Defoy fred.defoy@gmail.com is an ICF certified coach, a consultant and a trainer practicing In France. He graduated from Wheaton College, Illinois, USA. His passion is to contribute to people’s potential for living out their vocation. Recently Fred also became a CDEP with Global Learning Partners.

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