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


Offering a Suitcase to Deepen Learning: The Use of Images in Teaching



As I write these words, my 13-year-old daughter is sitting next to me, entranced by the iPhone in her hand and the world of images to which she has access. From showing me silly cat memes to sending her friends pictures on Instagram and Snapchat, images are a huge part of my daughter’s native digital language. However, while she thinks she’s being quite modern, there is something deep and ancient in her use of images to communicate meaning; something that unites her way of knowing with mine…and with yours.

In short, images can invite and evoke a deeper level of knowing. Like the difference between poetry and prose, the artistic and symbolic nature of imagery can invite the learner in at a deeper level than words alone. More nuanced truths can be captured. I simply cannot imagine teaching any concept without making use of some level of imagery, as I have found it to be the easiest way to anchor a learning task by engaging the imagination and intellect of the learner.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Imagine Lincoln standing, feet slightly apart for balance, with an axe raised above his head, held in both hands. At his feet kneels a figure obviously held in slavery, with a chain stretched between shackles on their wrists. The chain is laid across a tree stump, positioned in the path of the descending axe. Can you see it in your mind? If so, read on to the next paragraph. If not, go back to the beginning of this paragraph and read it again more slowly. Allow your mind the time to create the image. There’s no rush.

Now that you can see it in your mind…can you feel the sense of motion in the axe? Can you anticipate the moment when the chain will be cut and the slave figure freed?

As you consider the image in your mind, I have a question for you: Is this image true?

On the one hand, we know of no historical moment when President Lincoln actually broke the chains of a person in slavery. On the other hand, the image is deeply true symbolically. If I were teaching a class on civil war history, I would start the class with the exercise above. Not only does it engage the imagination, it immediately deepens the meaning of historical learning and sends the message that history isn’t just dates on a page, but transformative movements that still affect us today.

Any time I am invited to lead a learning session (or “teach a class”), I start by considering how I would like the participants to leave my session feeling, and what they will be able to do because of our time together. Once I have determined these goals, I then spend time searching for an image that will carry those emotions and messages throughout the entire session. I then introduce the image early on in the session, typically tell some kind of story that makes reference to the image, and continue to integrate that image into each part of the learning, including the summary reflections at the end. I have found that when intentionally chosen in this way, the selected image has the power to act like a suitcase in which participants can pack their learnings and experiences. Simply seeing the image again can evoke the learning and emotions of the session in a way that makes it a powerful teaching tool.

These days, any time I read civil war history, I think of the imaginary Lincoln statue described above. My sincere hope is that the images I choose to supplement learning have the same staying power for those I work with as well.

How do you use images in your teaching and designing?

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Matthew Short (matt.short@gmselca.org) is Assistant to the Bishop for Evangelical Mission of the Greater Milwaukee Synod, ELCA. He is a father, husband, digital native, and Lutheran pastor who loves using images in preaching and teaching.

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Trust the Design: The Day I Tested this Theory


Since I received my Dialogue Education training with Global Learning Partners last Fall, I have developed at least five learning events. It’s been a game changer. The pre-event surveys allow me to develop a learning design based on the intersection between my expertise and the participants knowledge and learning goals. This alone provides me with a level of confidence in the relevance of the training that infuses every step of my work. However, it is a lot of work.

Attending to the six core principles of learning, the eight steps of design, and the 4-A learning sequence, requires a high level of focus and commitment. However, the result is trust, freedom, and empowerment: trust that even if I don’t sleep the night before or don’t feel well, I can rely on the strength of my design to lead the way; freedom to use my energy on the day of the event to express my joy in the topic and care for the participants; and, empowerment of the participants to lead the learning process by engaging deeply, collaborating and sharing existing experience and knowledge.

Every time I begin a training, I introduce participants to Dialogue Education and the design that is in their hands. I joke saying, “Using this approach means I can faint in the middle of our day together and you can carry on without me!” Little did I know that this “joke” would turn into a reality.   

From June 25 to 28 I was scheduled to teach a four-day course on restorative practices to 40 educators. I had invited Jessica, a fellow educator who had come to one of my seminars and was interested in becoming a trainer, to shadow me during the event. Jessica did not see the design until she arrived at the conference center and had never led a training, but she had a lot of enthusiasm and experience in restorative practices.

When the educators entered the room on the first morning after listening to a keynote speaker for 90 minutes, I felt nervousness growing within me. Their face and body language revealed the exhaustion educators commonly feel after the last day of school. I wondered how I would be able to energize them and then I remembered the strength of my design. Specifically, I knew that the inclusive and connection-based anchor activities would enliven them, and that the relevant, experience-based learning activities would engage them. I was right! By the end of the second day, the group was on fire.

It was after that second day that I chose to go on a bicycle ride. I rode carefully down the mountain road, leaning on my brakes as I carefully made my way through the switchbacks and potholes. When I got down to the main road I sighed with relief. Unlike most of the roads I commute on, this one was newly paved, wide and free of traffic. I let go of my brakes and allowed myself to relax and glide in the sunshine.

Suddenly, I was airborne! I hit the pavement hard, breaking a rib and suffering abrasions and severe bruising. I had hit a chunk of asphalt hidden in the shadows. When someone finally came to where I was lying in the road, the first thing I asked was for them to call the conference organizer to let them know what happened, and that they would need to ask Jessica to continue teaching without me.

At nine p.m. that night, as Jessica drove me back to the hotel, I asked how she felt about leading the last two days of the conference. She said, “Sure! I can make a few changes to the design to match my knowledge but follow what you have layout for us.” And that is what she did.

On the final day, I was able to join the training and watched with pride and joy as Jessica delivered the training beautifully. What moved me even more was how comfortable the group was in carrying on without me. They had clearly been empowered and engaged enough the first two days to move forward with great momentum. Dialogue Education had saved the training. Without it, those teachers would have been left hanging in mid-air without two crucial days of developing action plans for their schools.

To my great delight, the conference organizer sent feedback that confirmed what I witnessed:

Annie and Jessica are among the best presenters with whom I've ever had the privilege of working. They truly believe in students, are devoid of nonsensical educational jargon, and generously gave their entire curriculum to us.

Thank you, Jane Vella, and everyone who has contributed to the development of Dialogue Education!

When did you need to “trust the design” in surprising ways?

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Annie O'Shaughnessy is an educator and consultant dedicated to transforming classroom and schools through mindfulness based restorative practices. Check out her website: www.truenatureteaching.com

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Tracing: From Decision Back to Principles and Practices


After completing the Foundations of Dialogue Education course in Vermont with Michael Culliton, Peter Perkins and Kate LaRose, Rev. Christine MacDowall kindly flew down to Raleigh to spend a week with me. Imagine!

Christine had flown from Melbourne, Australia to Vermont to take the course, after having read a few of my books and realizing how dialogue in her educational practices as a pastor would be very useful to her congregation and to herself!  

On my back porch we laughed, ate, told a thousand stories and worked hard. Christine wanted to apply the system she had just learned and practiced to her pastoral context. “I see a number of moving parts,” she told me. “I need to see them all working together.”

“What can I do to enable Christine to put all this together,” I wondered. 

I woke one morning with the idea of TRACING – moving from the experience Christine had just had back to the principles and practices of Dialogue Education. The learning task was this: 

Read aloud the first learning task Michael and Peter set for you in the course. Look at all the principles and practices cards spread out on the table. Name one of those that might have guided Michael and Peter as they composed that first learning task.

Christine immediately saw a principle she could trace the learning task back to, and then recognized there were three or more principles and practices that could have informed the designers’ decisions.

“It seems when you use one, you use them all!” She smiled at her own wise observation. “It is an iterative system!”

We went on through five or six or more learning tasks from her experience in the course, tracing each back to principles and practices:  sequence, engagement, small group work, reflection, praxis… “Aha!” she said, “I see.”          

How can you use tracing to check your design work or maximize impact?


Dr. Jane Vella is a celebrated author, educator and founder of Global Learning Partners. 

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Engaging Graduate Students to Deepen Learning


I was first introduced to Jane Vella’s steps of design and the world of Dialogue Education™ during my graduate studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. To say that my world was flipped upside-down would be an understatement. I found it extremely encouraging to know tools were available for teaching in an academic setting that helped to engage learners and create a strong learning environment.           

Before that moment in time, Dialogue Education was as foreign to me as the countries I had visited. The adage, “We teach the way we were taught,” was a living reality as I lectured to students in a variety of settings and languages. With each lecture, I increased my knowledge of the subject, but something was missing. Apart from an exam at the end of the course, how could I measure the level of learning for each student? I desired greater engagement yet feared open discussion due to my inability to answer the unknown, or worse, the uncomfortable.

As an educator, I realize I have much to learn to develop what I refer to as the Optimal Learning Environment (OLE). Basically, the OLE exists at the intersection of the methods, objectives, and evaluation of the learners’ cultural context. Incorporating formative evaluation throughout the Eight Steps of Design makes the optimal learning environment possible. Because the cultural context is dynamic, formative evaluation is essential as each step of the design process is formed and implemented. The result provides both engagement and learning for every participant.

I recently taught a graduate course in Advanced Homiletics at the Bear Valley Bible Institute International in Denver, Colorado. The academic dean asked if I would focus on expository preaching, but also wanted a larger portion of the course to address teaching. As a rookie in the arena of Dialogue Education, this was my opportunity to implement what I had learned as well as deepen my own learning. Let me share a few take-aways from this first-time experience.

  1. The Learning Needs and Resources Assessment (LNRA) is critical. The LNRA provided essential information to initially structure the course. I learned personal information about each graduate student, gained an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, listened to what each learner desired to achieve, and captured a glimpse of their plans for the future. Based on this invaluable information, I determined achievement-based objectives (ABOs) that guided the lesson plans for the week. My classes will not be taught without this information.
  2. Evaluate every step. At the end of each day, I processed what was experienced in the learning environment. This time of formative evaluation enabled me to adjust the direction needed for the next day. While this might be considered as education “on-the-fly,” I assure you it was not. I became less concerned about covering an amount of content and focused more on adjusting the content to achieve what these graduate students desired to learn. I will admit that I am far from perfecting the formative evaluation process, but I learned that even a small tweak here and there makes a major difference in the result.
  3. Model the method. In other words, “practice what you preach.” Why say it, when you can show it? I knew that Dialogue Education was as foreign to these graduate students, as it was to me years ago. Therefore, if they were going to transfer these concepts into their context, then I needed to model the concepts, design learning tasks that enabled learners to put these concepts into practice, and discuss how the whole process might impact their ministries. By the end of the week, I am positive I learned more than anyone else, but their enthusiasm was clear as they implemented the process and applied the principles and practices of this learning-centered approach.
  4. Feedback is vital for future growth. For the purpose of my own personal development, I followed up the course with an evaluation sent to each graduate student. The design of the evaluation form offered participants an opportunity to share honest feedback and ways to improve the course. The value of the information provided cannot be measured. I have already implemented changes for the future and am confident this iterative approach will continue to strengthen my courses, planning and teaching.

As I continue to process the experience of the week, additional lessons surfaced that highlighted the value of Dialogue Education. Let me sum up my approach to Dialogue Education in this way:

  • Become a learner, not a teacher
  • Draw upon the experience of others
  • Invite dialogue by posture, not position
  • Equip by providing more learning tasks, less lecturing
  • Grow in application, not information
  • Introduce more strategy to learning, less content
  • Bring passion, not power to the learning environment.

I want to thank my friends at Global Learning Partners for the opportunity to share my experience. When these graduate students engaged in learning through Dialogue Education, the whole process made sense and learning was deepened.

How do you deepen learning in your university or college classes?


Bob Turner (bturner@wetrainpreachers.com) earned his Doctorate in Intercultural Studies from the Fuller Theological Seminary, serves as an adjunct instructor for the Bear Valley Bible Institute International and a minister for the Bastrop Church of Christ in Bastrop, Louisiana. He is married to the love of his life, Sheryl. They have three children and ten grandchildren.

Here are a few additional GLP resources connected to the topic of teaching in academia:

  1. Dialogue Education in the University: First and Last Day
  2. Dialogue Education in the University: From Monologue to Dialogue
  3. Dialogue Education in the University: Creating a Learning Environment
  4. Dialogue Education in the University: Using a Learning Needs and Resources Assessment
  5. Dialogue Education in the University: Starting with the Syllabus
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Performance Reviews: Something to Look Forward to


Recently, a client emailed me a few questions, unrelated to the work we were doing together. She was on a human resources committee and was working to revamp their performance review process. She was wondering, “Does Global Learning Partners have any resources for conducting performance reviews using a learning-centered approach?” What a great question!

Performance reviews should be something to look forward to. They should be a time for celebration, looking back at achievements and areas of concern, looking forward to goal setting and helpful changes, honest conversation about roles and responsibilities, and visioning for greater impact. Of course, not all performance reviews are positive, but this is the ideal. So, how do we ensure they are learning-centered, meaningful and engaging?

Here are some tips I sent my client.

  1. Invite a self-assessment as well as a peer- and other- assessments. When doing other assessments, it is important to ask the person being interviewed the same questions. You may want to check in with some of this person’s clients, partners, colleagues, or stakeholders. Assessments from different perspectives may highlight differences of opinion, check self-knowledge, and enrich the description of the situation i.e. strengthen and challenges.
  2. Send the results of the performance review to interviewee in advance of the meeting. The person being interviewed can benefit from time to read the assessment results in advance, jot down their questions and consider their additions. The meeting time can be more focused on synthesis of results, items that need clarification or action, and forward planning.
  3. Ask questions that ensure a celebration of what is going well (their strengths) as well as areas of potential growth (their challenges). Performance reviews should be productive and interesting for all involved, and not a nervous negative experience people dread. Start with the positive.
  4. Be specific. The more specific you can be about what the person is doing well and what areas of growth you are hoping for, the more helpful the performance review will be. Again, start with the positive.
  5. Book enough time for meaningful dialogue and to plan next steps. There is nothing worse than being rushed and having a one-way conversation because “time is limited.” Don’t book meetings immediately after a performance review so there is some room to flex the time, if needed. If this meeting is once a year and therefore precious time, treat it with the respect it deserves.
  6. Use the last part of your meeting to name goals for the next year or time frame. By starting with a review of past goals, and then ending with new goals, the performance reviews will feel connected to reflect the journey of personal growth, learning and productivity.
  7. Check in on how people feel. Relevance is high when people’s skills, knowledge and happiness are at the core of your meeting. Ask how they feel about their work, responsibilities, co-workers or team, and work environment. Check in with the heart.
  8. Have tissue handy. You never know what may trigger tears—whether happy or sad. Having tissue close-by communicates that tears are welcome and normal.
  9. Name achievable goals. Some interviewers or interviewees get caught up in all that they would like to change, and indeed there may be much change needed. However, setting the person up for success is critical for morale. More goals can be added next time.
  10. Start and end by affirming what you most appreciate about the person. Naturally, most people feel rather vulnerable in a performance review. Affirming a real strength and how a team or the organization is benefiting from their presence, is confidence-building and important.
  11. If you currently carry out only annual performance reviews, consider shortening the time in between the reviews for meaningful, focused check-ins. Meeting more regularly to monitor the progress of goals, workplans, morale, and general contentment can help prevent problems or challenges from building. It also provides an opportunity to celebrate accomplishment and achievements sooner.

I have been on both sides of a performance review – they can be an amazing gift or a surprising waste of time or (in the worst case) a damaging experience. As supervisors, we need to ensure they are helpful sessions our staff look forward to that reflect a learning journey of growth and health. 


If you could change one thing in the performance reviews you are part of, what would it be? Why?


Jeanette Romkema is a Global Learning Partners (GLP) co-owner and Managing Partner of Communications and Marketing, as well a Senior Consultant and Trainer with GLP.

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