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

Learning in Community: The Potential of Coactive Vicarious Learning


As the parent of a child with a developmental disability, I continue to experience the importance of “coactive vicarious learning”. I can explain things repeatedly, make detailed lists for how to do something, and even demonstrate whatever the task(s) may be. In the end, my daughter usually teaches me that what works best is to observe, ask questions, try it out, get feedback and then try again. Over time, she makes sense in her own way of what needs to be done and how she can best do it.

And that makes perfect sense! She is a different person than I am with different talents, challenges and ways of navigating the world. If I want her to really understand and “own” whatever I am trying to teach her, I need to acknowledge that my way is not the only way and to support her in bringing her skills, approaches and interests to the task.

It seems that what my daughter is slowly but surely teaching me could also be of some value to businesses and other organizations. In his recent synopsis of on-going research by Christopher Myers, Michael Blanding notes:

“Companies routinely expect employees to pick up new job knowledge through vicarious learning—through reading descriptions of tasks in knowledge-management databases or by observing colleagues from afar.”

Myers suggests this approach both ignores the critical importance of tacit knowledge and assumes “that the person undertaking the learning wants to duplicate exactly what the other person is doing—despite the fact that they may be perpetuating mistakes made by a predecessor or simply following procedures that may be a bad fit for a person of a different personality and skillset.” 

In what I suspect is not a revelation to Dialogue Education practitioners, Myers goes on to suggest that instead of seeking a more effective one-way transfer of pre-formed knowledge packets, we should be “talking about co-creation and building it together.”  What we need is coactive vicarious learning where “both the learner and the sharer of knowledge bring things to the table and together create something new.”

[Photo: "What is the best way to carve a turkey?" Coactive vicarious learning in the kitchen at a Paterson family gathering!]

Sounds great, but what might that look like in practice within organizational settings?

Myers observes that some of the best learning among co-workers occurs in more discursive settings in which colleagues are able to “dig in with each other” and ask “‘Why did you do it this way, and not that way?’” Managers can be more intentional about creating times, places and a culture that supports not just the sharing of stories, but also asking questions and creating shared meaning together through dialogue.

This is not the first time someone has suggested that more discursive forms of interaction can promote better learning and improved performance within organizations.  (For example, check this out.)  So why then do we continue to have organizations “stuck” in their traditional approaches to training, knowledge transfer and performance improvement? How can we shift our focus to creating supportive environments for these forms of interactions not just in workshops and “training settings,” but also in the day-to-day interactions of organizations and communities?

Myers points to one possible strategy for making progress in this area:

“Managers don’t have to redesign a building to engineer these encounters. Just by observing where employees naturally congregate and then tacitly condoning those conversations or actively participating in them can go a long way toward normalizing the kind of office culture that encourages employee interaction.”

I would really appreciate the opportunity to gather around the water cooler or in the lunchroom to share stories and learn with my colleagues. However, like a growing number of organizations I exist in a network that is spread across a wide geography. And as we have come to see more and more within the world of community change, the dialogue and learning that wants to happen is often between peers who are literally hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Our “water cooler” has become the internet and websites set up as places for virtual shared learning.

So how can we incorporate principles and practices of dialogue education more effectively into these virtual settings and processes?

I am looking forward to exploring these and related questions at Global Learning Partners’ upcoming Learning Design Retreat later this month. But for now, I need to go learn more from and with my daughter! 

What do you think?  How does this resonate with your experiences?


Chris Paterson is a Co-Founder and Senior Fellow with Community Initiatives. He has over 20 years of experience working with groups of leaders to develop effective collaborative planning efforts, use information-based tools as catalysts for shared learning, and engaging in local and national peer learning networks and events. Through his efforts, Chris seeks to create environments that foster dialogue, promote learning and bring a bit of joy to work that serves the well-being of all community members. To learn more about Chris and his work, please visit http://communityinitiatives.com 

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The Art of Facilitation: A Look at Safety


Recently I learned an important lesson about facilitation:  safety can impact learning!

During a course on facilitation a fellow participant was facilitating a “real world” case study during a mandated practice teaching session – we were learning to facilitate by facilitating. His organization was responsible for training midwives overseas where there is a high death rate at child birth:  the need for oxygen or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is not always recognized and babies die unnecessarily. He shared the case study and asked a closed question summarizing the problem for the case to move us to the next level of learning task. However, the question required that someone know the answer, “How do you know when a newborn needs immediate assistance with CPR or oxygen?” He continued to rephrase this question as closed to get the audience to respond. The group tried to guess the answer. He rephrased with every attempt. However, the only way to know the answer was if we had had medical or personal experience in this area.

Sadly, the latter was my reality.

After what seemed like an eternity, and the same question being asked multiple times, I finally blurted out, “It is the color of the baby – he is a color he is not supposed to be.”

To which he replied, “Yes. Yes, that is correct.” 

For me, I just wanted the question to stop because it was stirring something within me that I had not felt for 14 years. His questions where actually taking me back to a point in time when my three-year-old son had drowned, and was that color. It caught me off guard because I had not experienced the intensity of reliving and seeing my son’s image in a long, long time. That closed question reframed, and reframed, and reframed again had engaged my head, heart and body to react at a very deep level. An experience that impacted the core of my being had been brought to the forefront and to that present moment. I froze. Time and space changed. I was no longer in a safe place with people I trusted.

When the practice teaching was finished and we went back to the circle to offer feedback, I discovered my colleagues had experienced real learning about this unknown topic. However, during the feedback they suggested that he use open questions to encourage dialogue and that even this may not have worked because we didn’t have the personal experience to offer meaningful input. They felt stuck because of their lack of knowledge on the topic.

It was at this point I had to interject, saying “I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but my experience was different.” I shared that I did know the answer because of my son. Despite this, my learning was hampered and I could not offer input or participate in the desired dialogue. The example was too personal and I had shut-down.

I continue to ponder that experience. There was great value in it and I now deeply understand the weight of responsibility of the facilitator to ensure safety at all times. I also now know that what can take days to build up can be lost in the blink of an eye – safety is fragile.

Here are some tips that I plan to take with me from this experience:

  1. Know your audience. It is the key for building and maintaining safety in the group. Also, know that your learning about an audience continues way beyond the course timeframe.  Stay open and stay curious.
  2. Use open questions. If the individuals in the room were also content experts the closed question asked of us would have worked. In fact it may have been the best type of question for that moment. However when looking for dialogue, an open question is always best. When asked with genuine curiousity, who knows where it may lead!
  3. Check your sequence. If a workshop moves too quickly or in the wrong sequence, learning can be blocked or jeopardized. Check the alignment between who is in the room, with the content to be learned, with the time and space you have to learn it.
  4. Be authentic. We can always expect the unexpected. When someone responds to something with unexpected emotion, notice and sit with it. Tears, anger and fear can enter the room at any time when using a learning-centered approach. These emotions need to be welcomed, honored and acknowledged. Sometimes just saying:  “Thank you for sharing what you just did. That could not have been easy…” Sometimes stopping is what is needed:  “I know we were going to move right into our next practice teaching, but I feel we need to stop. What you just shared is so personal and so real, we need to sit with it a little longer. …”
  5. Minimize fear in learning. Brain research is true:  When the amygdala is heightened, learning stops. Our goal is to maximize safety and respect to minimize fear.
  6. It’s never too late for an important conversation. To my fellow participant’s credit and skill, he followed up with me about two weeks after our class. He was thoughtful, kind, and vulnerable. We had a great conversation and it has helped me continue to process all my learning. Safety can be re-established. However, it’s better to stop and reassess, then try to pretend it didn’t happen. It did.
  7. Start building safety way before the course. Safety on the front end sets the stage for when life happens in the course, and it will. The more safety and respect you present in a course the more learners will have the courage to try new things, reflect deeply, share openly, and question even what they think they know.

There will always be unknowns and uncontrollable situations when you put a diverse group of people together in a learning environment. Facilitation is an art; it is messy; it is a responsibility. May we enter it with humility, openness, a keen sense of curiosity, and deep love.


Machaela Curry has attended multiple Dialogue Education (DE) courses with Global Learning Partners and incorporates DE principles and practices in her work as the Director of Grow for New Life Church, Gainesville Campus in Virginia, USA.  Machaela is a graduate of the University of Maryland and holds a certificate in Strategic Marketing from the University of Michigan.  She is also an administrator of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator Step I and II and can be reached at nlgvgrow@gmail.com.  

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What Happens in the Classroom…An Exploration of the Role of Emotions in the Learning Process


NOTE: This reflection was written from the perspective of a community college educator, but it has implications for adult learning in both formal and informal settings.

Every Tuesday and Thursday at 6:10 p.m. my heartbeat grew progressively faster with feelings of anxiety and nervousness as I began to countdown the clock to 9:00 p.m. Although I was mindful of the time, I often gazed at the images on the wall and wondered if my images would ever be good enough to be considered “featured work.” The portrait of the little girl laying in an open field of grass was definitely my favorite because it was such a strong contrast between nature and humanity. There were more portraits, landscapes and fashion images on the wall that both inspired and overwhelmed me which accelerated the speed of my emotional roller coaster. I began each session of my summer Digital Photography course in the state of emotional flux described above. I never knew that being a student again and studying a subject that I loved so dearly would be such an emotional journey!

My intentions for taking this course were to enhance my photographic imaging skills; yet, I became a better educator after spending a summer being a student again. As an academic advisor, I hear countless student stories about courses that did not have favorable outcomes, teachers that did not connect with the students’ learning styles and time-management failures. Now that I have gone through the student experience again, I hear similar stories but respond with more empathy and relatability because I better understand what happens in the classroom.

As a photographer, I am so proud of the progress I made and often share my photos with anyone that expresses a slight sense of interest! However as an educator, I am most concerned about the emotional aspect of learning students experience because I feel that it is not well managed nor even mentioned. Embarking on the journey to learn a new subject is filled with highs & lows and a variety of emotions between the peaks and valleys. I think it would be valuable to students and educators if there were more communication about the possible emotions students may experience along the learning curve in an effort to sustain learner engagement.

Here are a few lessons I learned about teaching and learning and the role of emotions in the learning process:

Yikes, he is speaking another language and I am lost…

Establishing Common Language

During the third session of class, the instructor was lecturing on the various elements of photography and I murmured to myself that he was speaking a different language. If language is an equalizer then we were clearly on different levels because I did not understand much. Initially, I was being a tad bit sarcastic, but then later I realized the truth in my initial reaction. Each subject of study has common language, the foundational principles and vocabulary of the subject. It was in this moment that I realized that just because we as educators may lecture and explain complex concepts, it may not resonate with learners. How much information retained by the student is dependent on his/her understanding of common language. If learners do not fully grasp the common language of a subject then he or she may become despondent with the learning process. Discouragement in the early part of the learning process may be very difficult to overcome and prevent the learner from fully engaging in the material.

Relief or Worry…

The Power of Grades

The first sigh of relief I experienced in my photography course was the sight of a perfect score on one of my assignments. I needed that grade to give me feedback that I was going to make it through this course because until that point, all I felt was some degree of anxiety. My level of anxiety resulted from having a very limited knowledge of the technical component of photography; I have a natural “eye” but needed to improve my technical photography skills. Receiving a perfect score gave me reassurance that I could learn the new material.

When done effectively, grades do measure the students’ comprehension or lack thereof. For students doing well in a course, grades can boost self-esteem and create points of pride. The converse is also true for students struggling along the learning curve. Poor grades can lead to internal isolation and dejection from other members of the learning community because students are not necessarily vocal when they fail assignments. It is quite common for failing students to fear judgement from their peers regarding grades. However, I think if educators openly discussed the possible emotions associated with grades, students would be better able to use more emotional intelligence in extracting meaning from grades.


Tell Your Story…Students are Curious

Sometimes students wonder about the people we are behind the cloaks of our knowledge. From time to time, a student will come in and inquire about my origins- where are you from? Did you go to school here? Have you taken this class? How did you decide upon your major? All of these questions are evidence that leaners wonder about educators. Who is he/she? What does he/she want? Was this job his/her goal? These are all questions that travel through learners’ minds. I would go a little deeper to say that knowing more about my challenges and victories may encourage my students to know that their experiences are universal and similar to my own. More students would realize that experiences of feeling overwhelmed, isolated, joyful and enthusiastic are all a part of the learning experience.

Discuss the Learning Process Associated With Your Subject

One easy solution to helping students manage the emotional journey of learning is informing students about what to expect in the learning process associated with the specific subject. For instance, it is common for a photography student to spend hours on a location and not leave with the “right” shot. Similar things are true for students taking writing and math courses. After hours of researching a topic a writing student may choose to restart the process and choose another topic of interest. It may take a math student a few hours to solve a few problems when he or she only estimated the learning task to take thirty minutes or less. I propose that if instructors/educators inform students about the learning process associated with achieving subject matter proficiency and then mastery, learners would know what to expect and be better equipped to manage negative emotions when they encounter disappointment in completing learning tasks.

Emotional Check-Ins

I do not suggest that trainers/facilitators/instructors/educators replace instructional time with lots of dialogue about emotions. However, I do think short emotional ice-breakers may be a great supplement to the learning design. This quick check-in process can be something as simple as, “how are you relating to the material/training/course?” After each participants describes their emotions in one word, the instructor should lead a discussion on managing emotions and how to use emotional intelligence to achieve success related to the specific subject.

The benefit to this process is to give the facilitator feedback on the emotional well-being of learners in the course or session. Helping students move pass negative emotions and leverage positive feelings is the major objective of managing emotions in the learning process to encourage perseverance, develop new skills and expand knowledge content. In my experience, when I discuss emotional intelligence with students, something absolutely remarkable happens. They begin to self-assess their own behavior and thoughts then decide if their current reality properly aligns with their future life vision. After conducting emotional check-ins, I have witnessed students take control of their own learning and decision making process to overcome challenges associated with motivation, personal responsibility and host of other things.

In your next class session, training, meeting or learning event, how about leading the group in an “emotional check-in exercise?” Let us know how it goes.


Tonjala Eaton works an academic advisor and program coordinator at Lansing Community College in Lansing, MI. She has over 10 years of experience working with adults in both formal and in-formal environments as a diversity trainer, community organizer, consultant and educator.

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20 Images x 20 Seconds: A Tool Worth Considering


Tired of “death by PowerPoint?” Do you struggle with dull, endless, listless, droning presentations? It doesn’t have to be that way.

If you’ve attended a PechaKucha Night in one of the more than 800 cities around the globe, it’s probably occurred to you already that his could maybe work in the classroom to make things a little more zippy.

“What’s PechaKucha (PK)?” you ask. Well, it’s a presentation format that started in Tokyo in 2003. Each presentation is made up of 20 slides and each slide advances automatically after 20 seconds. The result is a high-speed, high-energy experience for both presenter and audience.  (Check out the PK website for lots of example presentations.)

I’ve used the PK 20X20 format in a university setting with Japanese English as a foreign language (EFL) students. The results have been overwhelmingly positive: improved skills, increased confidence, engaged audiences, and heightened community satisfaction. Here is a student 20x20 presentation.

As an EFL teacher doing a lot of content-based instruction, I’m mostly concerned with teaching language skills. If there’s time and energy remaining, I’ll work on critical thinking skills. I sometimes ask my students to do reflective discussions and/or journaling for feedback. Sometimes I’ll ask students to prepare questions for post-presentation discussions. All these are concerned with language skills primarily. I use 20X20 because it meets so many needs while being an entertaining, engaging experience.

Why it works for me

The slides are highly visual and low on text. Presenters tend to talk about the ideas illustrated by the visuals instead of reading the screen to the audience.

The time factor helps the teacher manage things on presentation days. When you know it’s going to be 400 seconds exactly, you can easily plan how many presentations to work into a class period.

Nobody dies of boredom. If it’s bad, it comes to a merciful end at 6’40”.

The time factor makes practice do-able. Practice is the single most important issue determining whether a presentation succeeds or fails. A presenter can practice one of these eight or nine times in one hour. Supervised practice can be part of classroom work. And with increased practice, presenters tend to do better in areas of voice inflection, gestures, posture, movement, and eye contact—all vital parts of a successful presentation.

The time factor also forces presenters to work within strict boundaries to create something compelling. As one of my students put it, it reminded her of haiku. What she meant is: it’s compact, it follows rules, and in doing so, the meaning somehow overflows the boundaries.

And yet it’s flexible. It’s possible to work it out in teams with say, two or three people working on one 20X20 presentation together. Or doing mini PKs of ten slides.

Try it out with your students, your colleagues or at your next meeting; attend a PechaKuchaNight; or, create a 20x20 and present it yourself. It’s fun, easy to use and helpful.

What ideas do you already have about how you could integrate PechaKucha into your Dialogue Education approach?  If you have experience using PechaKucha, what tips can you share with the rest of us? 

For a fuller understanding of PechaKucha and the 20x20 presentation tool, read the article “Helping Students Develop Skills for Better Presentations: Using the 20x20 Format for Presentation Training” by Mark Christianson and Sylvan Payne (Language Research Bulletin, 26, ICU, Tokyo).

* * * * *

Sylvan Payne sylvanjpayne@me.com teaches academic English skills in the PACE Program at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

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Three Levels of Listening: Café Conversation, Part 3


[This post is the last in a summer series of three posts on Three Levels of Listening. Want to learn more?  We invite you to read the first and second post, and download the tipsheet Three Levels of Listening.]

Imagine this:

You are sitting in a café with two colleagues that you consider friends and have just had an impactful conversation with one of these friends who was just notified by text that his brother was taken to the hospital for chest pains. After listening for a few minutes as your friend speaks about how important his brother was to him, he leaves with you and the remaining friend sitting in awkward silence at the café table.

As you sit in silence, you realize several things at once. One, you had completely ignored this friend during the previous conversation. Two, you actually don’t know this friend as well as the other one who just left the table. And three, you would like to call it a day and go home. So with this in mind, you completely ignore your inner urgings to either address the awkwardness or leave the café and instead launch into how nice the weather is this week and ask if your friend has any plans for the following weekend. As your remaining friend launches into a detailed account of how her dog is pregnant and about to deliver puppies your mind wanders. You hear words like “multiple colors” and “quiet corner” and are immediately reminded that you need to get flowers for the living room for when your parents visit on Friday. You then try to concentrate on what your friend is saying but as soon as you hear “trial run” and “low cost” you are reminded that you need to get vitamins because your iron is low…and that reminds you that your knees have been hurting from all the extra running you’ve been doing recently. And then you realize that your knees are hurting right now – better get those vitamins as soon as possible. And as you start writing down your growing shopping list you completely phase out your friend’s words and are now planning your own weekend activities. Meanwhile your friend is oblivious to your obvious lack of focus and attention.

After adding a few more items to your shopping list, you realize that your friend is winding down and that you both will be ready to head out the door soon. Yay! Can’t wait to get my shopping done.

Level One – Listening to Self

To review Part I of this blog series: there are many aspects to listening, and we are looking at listening from the viewpoint of three distinct levels. Level One is where you listen to what is happening inside of you. Level Two is where you listen to another person with focus and attention. Level Three is when you listen to the broader emotional field, or dynamic, around you. We all take in information on these three levels, but we are not always paying attention to all three levels. The story above is an example of Level One Listening. The two friends were more aware of their own thoughts than of what was happening with the other person.    

Imagine that you can turn a knob to fine tune your listening to pick up on the emotional field or dynamics happening within yourself. 

  • Think of a time in the recent past when you were very aware of, focused on, and in sync with your own thoughts, feelings and physical and spiritual self. What was that experience like?   
  • Now think of a time when you were very out of sync with your own wants, desires and needs. What was that like? 


  • What benefit is there to being aware of and listening with focus and intent to yourself?
  • In a learning event, how might you use Level One Listening to enhance your learning experience? 
  • What do you do when you are distracted by thoughts in the middle of a conversation? Is it effective? Does it promote active listening or detract from it?
  • How comfortable are you with Level One Listening? 
  • As a leader, how might you use Level One Listening to lead more effectively? What kind of information will you glean from listening to your spirit, soul and body as a leader?


Let’s practice! Over the next week, twice a day spend about 7 minutes writing out (longhand) exactly what you are thinking, feeling and experiencing physically at that moment. What do you notice? What have you been thinking or experiencing for a long time but have not paid attention to it? What new awareness is showing up? What do you want to do about it?

Are you willing to take on the challenge? If so, please post your learning in the comments section below and let’s learn together what Level One Listening has to offer us this week!  


Wendy Balman wendy@wendybalman.com is an ICF professional certified coach, a consultant and a coach trainer practicing in Chicagoland, IL, USA. Her passion is to provoke people to deeper learning and to grow their capacity to creatively address life’s challenges and opportunities with joy. 

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