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

Creating the System: We Make the Road by Walking


I have the honor of working with Matthew Norman from Barcelona, Spain – a colleague and Certified Dialogue Education Practitioner (CDEP). He is teaching pastors in his church community how to use Dialogue Education in designing and delivering sermons. This is important work! Part of the content for the course is about the system we call Dialogue Education:

I suggested as part of the LNRA, that Matthew invite the pastors in his course to name and describe the best sermon they ever gave and to identify the things they did to make that sermon work so well. These factors from their experience could then be added to the content of Matthew’s course.

I have often said context is content: What these pastors bring to learning the elements of Dialogue Education from their wide experience of preaching is vital! I see that each time we teach a course using Dialogue Education we create the system by using it in a new context. Learning tasks are then custom-designed for each particular group of people, in their unique situation. That’s why we need to do a solid learning needs and resources assessment: to discover WHO needs WHAT and WHY. That is the context: the content we must learn thoroughly before we design and teach!

What an immense responsibility we carry into every classroom or workshop setting – we make the road by walking. Dialogue Education is an emerging system, evolving under our hands as we design and teach in new contexts. Please share your stories and indicators of learning, transfer and impact – we need to celebrate and learn, together.

I take immense delight in receiving learning designs, challenges, questions and celebrations. Thank you to all those who have been emailing me over the years! I continue to be here for all practitioners at janekvella@gmail.com, and offer my time to you with great joy!


What question do you have for Jane?


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

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Getting People Talking When Working in Rural Africa


Every teaching or meeting situation is unique and offers its own challenges. I work in rural Africa and have found the follow seven tools especially helpful for engaging community members.

  1. Use appreciative inquiry. In every community some things have worked well. It is therefore important for facilitators to appreciate and build on what is already working. In this way people are encouraged and feel ownership of the new initiative. People will talk about what is working and feel pride in it – start there. Resistance will be minimized, and next steps may be relatively easy to imagine.
  2. Agree on pre-set rules or a set the standards. Before any community meeting, facilitate a conversation about meeting rules or agreed protocol. For instance, begin by informing the group that “no answer is wrong, and no question is stupid.” Rules may include “no walking around during the meeting, no phone calls and no mini-meeting during the training.” The most important thing is that the rules come from your participants and are agreed to by everyone. Checking in on these rules from time-to-time can help keep them top-of-mind – one good time for this is at the start of each day in a multi-day event.  
  3. Manage the power in the group. Your ability to manage those with power or privilege in the community is crucial to the success and participation of others – some of these may include the chief, unit committee member, the rich, and men. Your event stands to risk being high-jacked by the most vocal or privileged unless you have strategies for equalizing this power. Some ways to do this are: solo work, pair work, small group work, and inviting in specific voices at specific times i.e. “Let’s start by hearing from those who live past the hospital, and then we will hear from a few people on the other side of the river.”
  4. Use energizers. People come to meetings and events with many things on their mind and with different levels of energy. Make use of energizers to keep participants active and engaged. They should be purposeful and easy to execute. However, sometimes it is helpful just to have some fun and be a little less focused on the goals of the day. Learning takes energy, so monitor it carefully.
  5. Schedule events at participants’ convenience. Meetings should be scheduled at the preferred time of the community members, especially to suit women to encourage their participation. As much as possible, market days should be avoided since most women go to the market daily. If market days are selected as the best time to meet, keep the discussion short and focused. It is better to have a successful 1-hour meeting than to have a half-day session with little participation.
  6. Share real-life stories. There is no better way to get people talking than through story. Invite them to share a personal story with a partner, to share through a proverb, or to create a song with a small group. Stories are powerful tools for learning and can take many forms.
  7. Ensure safety. If the community members don’t feel safe they will not want to share much with those at the event. Greet them as they arrive, check in with them often, ensure they know why they are invited and their input is of value, and engage them in meaningful ways.  


What tips or tools can you add to this list?


Augustine N-Yokuni (an-yokuni@canadianfeedthechildren.ca) is Ghana Program Manager of Canadian Feed the Children, based in Ghana.

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Maximize Successful Community Engagement: Tips from Africa


Safety and respect are key to ensuring community engagement. This is as true in rural Ghana where I work, as it is in most places in the world. Here are some tips that I have found helpful for the African context:

  1. Understand the cultural dynamics. It is important that while entering a community the facilitator or community engagement person has a clear understanding of the “go and no-go zones,” as well as the totems and taboos of the community. These need to be honoured and respected during the period of work with the community and will increase the possibility of success.
  2. Stay away from party politics. In general, community members in Africa are passionate about their politics. In addition, many politicians have made huge promises and failed to deliver. They are not always trusted. To be safe, explain who you are and who you work for, and that you do not have an affiliation with any political party. Wisely and clearly decline political discussions and make relevant input devoid of politics.
  3. Know the religious dynamics. This is a sensitive area and should be managed carefully during your stay in the community. People are equally passionate about their religion as they are their politics, and therefore religious conversations or examples should be avoided. However, to maximize safety and respect honour people’s religious needs during your events as much as possible i.e. prayer time, food preferences, etc.
  4. Establish rapport. Entering the community should involve and engage all the relevant stakeholders in the project. Make sure your contact persons in the community are people respected and trusted by that community.
  5. Introduce yourself or team to traditional authority. The team/officer should introduce himself to the traditional authority on the first day of entry to the community. You will be more warmly welcomed and protected by the community when you are known by these leaders. Note: Meetings with chiefs sometimes involve you giving gifts. Find out what is expected and ensure you have exactly what you need to visit the chief or other community leaders.
  6. Know the community. It takes time to get to know a community. However, doing some research in advance can give you important knowledge about the people, their religion and culture, issues of concern and challenge, strengths and resources, as well as leadership practices. Do your homework.


What do you do to ensure safety?


Augustine N-Yokuni (an-yokuni@canadianfeedthechildren.ca) is Ghana Program Manager of Canadian Feed the Children, based in Ghana.

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Learning about Dialogue in Middle School


I first learned about Global Learning Partners (GLP) and Dialogue Education about ten years ago when I started working for them. Since then I have applied the principles and practices not only in my work life, but also in my personal life. Most recently, I started using it in my role as Student Council Advisor at my local middle school.

Since our staff and consultants work globally, we deeply value any in-person time we get with each other. In 2017, we had one of these valuable face-to-face work sessions in Raleigh, North Carolina. During this trip Dr. Jane Vella invited us to her home for a mini-learning session. There we were asked to participate in a learning task about a concept from her book “On Teaching and Learning.” The concept of resisting vs. suspending immediately resonated with me. I instantly started jotting notes and planning ways I could introduce this concept to my politically diverse family members and to the Student Council I was involved in!

I spent the next few weeks designing a Student Council activity for 7th and 8th graders. Here’s what I did:

  1. I began by having one of the Student Council members read the following excerpt from Jane’s book “On Teaching and Learning.” Then, we discussed it to ensure everyone in the group understood the text.

“When we listen to someone speak, we face a critical choice. If we begin to form an opinion we can do one of two things: we can choose to defend our view and resist theirs. Try to get the other person to understand and accept the “right” way to see things (ours!). OR we can learn to suspend our opinion and the certainty that lies behind it. Suspension means that we neither suppress what we think nor advocate for it.”

     2.  Next the kids brainstormed a list of current “hot topics” they were interested in. Their list included:           

a.      Building a border wall along the United States/Mexico border

b.      School dress code

c.       Is Big Foot real

d.      Should 7th and 8th graders be allowed to have recess.

     3.  I asked two 8th graders to model resisting and suspending using helium balloons. They picked one of the hot topics and began a dialogue. Pulling the helium balloon down in front of your face modeled resisting and lifting the balloon above your head modeled suspending opinion. (See above image.)

          They wrote their position on the hot topic on their balloon. When they modeled resisting, the words were in their face indicating defense of their own view and resistance of the other’s view.

     4.  Then, I asked the kids to write examples of evidence of dialogue on Post-it notes. Some of their examples included:

a.      Hearing what someone says

b.      When people are talking and listening

c.       A conversation.

     5.  Next, we discussed what exactly listening is and what are actions associated with listening. Once again, they jotted their ideas on Post-it notes and took turns presenting their answers to the group.

     6.  Finally, it was time to practice what they learned. The kids split into groups of four (with two teams of two) and picked a hot topic of interest. One person in each team held the balloon and the other person engaged in dialogue. If the kids engaging in the dialogue started to show signs of resisting, the balloon holder would pull the balloon down as a reminder that they weren’t suspending or truly listening to the other person. The student would then work harder to practice modeling suspending.

I was so happy to see the Student Council kids truly engaged in this activity from start to finish! The learning was powerful and impactful. Days later, I had teachers approach me to let me know that kids were still talking about resisting and suspending in their classrooms.

I’m excited to continue using the principles and practices of Dialogue Education to enrich the work and learning of Student Council this year!

How do you engage young people in their own learning?


Rebecca Kerin-Hutchins (rebecca@globallearningpartners.com) is a co-owner and Finance & Contracts Manager for Global Learning Partners. She is also the Student Council Advisor at Barre Town Middle & Elementary School. She resides in Vermont with her husband and four children.

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Oh No, They Wrecked My Beautiful Design!


“Training – that’s easy. We know the stuff.  We just wing it.” Sound familiar?

Those of us who adhere to principles of Dialogue Education™ and who respect and appreciate adult learners don’t buy that perspective. Whether we’re planning a workshop for personal growth, community education or workplace performance, we design carefully. We have our Steps of Design, we think about what Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes will be learned during the workshop, and we make sure we do not have too much “what” for the “when.” If we can, we connect with some of the learners before the workshop to assess their Learning Needs and Resources. We NEVER wing it!

Usually, we and the learners are delighted by the result, even if they don’t know the time and effort that went into the design. They often mention that they appreciated the tight organization, that they felt listened to, and that they enjoyed the interaction with others in the group. During the course of the workshop, we take time and effort to listen in, to be sure that the energy for learning stays high, and that directions for learning tasks are clear. When it’s all not humming along smoothly, we can and do make adjustments, building on the key principles that guide us.

Last October, I had the pleasure of crafting and critiquing beautiful designs with a group of fellow educators and trainers at the Advanced Learning Design and Evaluation Retreat in Vermont.

But, a thought…what happens when we create the design and someone else is facilitating?  How do we know these facilitators will share our level of commitment and fidelity to the design? While I know that I can be a little obsessive, I also know that learners should be able to trust that the learning objectives will be achieved. Without strict adherence to the design, we cannot know that learners’ knowledge, skills and attitudes were affected by a particular learning event, and cannot justify the resources expended on the event.

Back home, the retreat participants shared stories of how we had applied our learning from Vermont. It turned out that several of us were vexed by the implementation of training (carefully designed by us but facilitated by others). Here are five examples:

SITUATION #1: Workshops on opiate addiction, offered throughout the state to community groups.

Facilitators wanted to use different resource materials than those offered in the design, including videos, with the groups they were leading.

SITUATION #2: A day focused on quality improvement for medical residents.

The facilitators were experienced medical professionals who wanted to keep providing lectures to the residents, as they had done for years. Unfortunately, the lectures were not targeted to the learners, and contained too much “what” for the “when” and the “who.”

SITUATION #3: A county-wide, ten-week program for parents, offering peer-to-peer support and education on topics of children’s emotional and behavioral health.

The program utilized facilitators with minimal experience in leading groups, and whose expertise was grounded mostly in their own experience as parents, and not in knowledge of the principles of children’s health and development. They valued open group sharing more than focused learning activities.

SITUATION #4: Workshops for participants from international budget civil society organizations, aiming to equip them with skills to advocate on budgets to their governments.

Facilitators received the workshop design and went in one of two directions – neither of which achieved the desired outcomes of the workshops. Some facilitators were very free with the design, allowing discussions to go down paths that did not stay focused on the outcomes. Other facilitators, feeling constricted by using a design they had not created, would not deviate from it at all, producing a rigid, non-empowering workshop for participants.

SITUATION #5: Two different projects of professional development for early childhood educators (ECE): statewide in-person training engaging 50 trainers, and the production of 40 printed guides with training activities to be selected as needed by managers and supervisors in over 2000 individual ECE settings across the country.

           Designers had no control over how facilitators used the materials.

My four colleagues and I shared our worries, frustrations and eventually our insights into how to develop training that has a high likelihood of being facilitated as designed, with the ultimate goal of meeting the needs of the learning and the learners.

We started with the recognition that the facilitators are really part of the “who” we consider in our Eight Steps of Design. Sometimes we were so focused on the ultimate learner that we simply ignored the facilitator and handed over the plan. We realized that we need to think just as clearly about the people who are on the front lines of the training. So, we will now do the following:

  • Share the information from the Learning Needs and Resources Assessment (LNRA) with the facilitators. That will help them to see that we have a reason – based in what the learners needed – for including specific learning activities and audio-visual materials. 
  • Respect the expertise of the facilitators. Whether they are medical professionals with many years of formal education, or parents who are venturing into their first facilitation role, they have their own pride in their knowledge and skills, and their own fears about appearing competent to the trainees. Increasing communication with the facilitators – and if possible, conducting a thorough Training of Trainers (TOT) goes a long way toward assuring that the design is well-understood, and, therefore, followed.
  • Build in flexibility. Be clear on the learning objectives, so that facilitators can make some adjustments in their style of facilitation, and respond to their participant groups, without losing the essential elements of the learning tasks. In one of the ECE projects, the designers asked that facilitators make changes only if they believed the change was needed to support one of the six principles of adult learning: Safety, Respect, Inclusion, Engagement, Relevance or Immediacy.

We recognized that it would be useful to collect data. With two of our projects we created feedback forms so that facilitators could make note of where they made a change in the design.  With those forms returned to us, we could see what needs the facilitators saw within their participant group that required a change, or if there was a design flaw: something unclear, an activity that ran too long or fell flat, etc.

Finally, we gave some thought to publications. We considered how we could provide facilitators’ manuals that give clear information on what is essential information (through use of an icon, perhaps) and when an anecdote from the facilitator’s experience is appropriate.

With the national ECE guides, we offered a variety of learning activities within each module, so that facilitators could choose the ones that best met their situation, and yet achieved the objectives of the module. For the medical education program, we created a “Faculty Guide” that covered the elements that were essential for learners, some ideas for modifications where appropriate, and ideas for further coaching or exploration on a topic. 

In the end, no one wrecked our designs. They gave us the opportunity to make them better.  There may have been some tense moments when the design wasn’t followed: in one situation the designer commented that “…the silence in the room spoke volumes to the lack of appropriateness of her presentation….” Stepping up our efforts to work with facilitators, publish helpful guides and collect data on needed changes will lead to more effective and enjoyable training as we go forward – while we still adhere to all the principles of excellent design.

Other resources of interest include:

  1. A Great Learning Design is Only 50% of the Work – a tip sheet 
  2. A Dialogue Approach Transforms Corporate Training: A Spectacular Example – a blog


What do you do to bridge the gap between the designer and the facilitator when they are not the same person?

* * * * *

Peggy da Silva, MPH, is a longtime practitioner of adult education in out-of-school settings. She develops public programs and staff training systems, with the overall goal of building and supporting healthy communities. Peggy first discovered Jane Vella’s philosophy and methods over twenty years ago, sharing them with California Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs. The staff training and certification system she and her team developed has been adopted by WIC programs across the country. Peggy often brings creative and learning-centered approaches to organizations that have not historically invested in high quality training, and sees the joy among learners – and positive results for funders – that result from careful design and evaluation. More information about Peggy’s work is available on her website: www.coheco.net .


Aideen Gilmore is Senior Program Officer of Training, Technical Assistance and Networking at International Budget Partnership in Washington, DC.

Bridget Hogan Cole, MPH, is Executive Director at Institute for High Quality Care in Los Angeles, California.

Claudia Marieb is Substance Abuse Prevention Consultant at Vermont Department of Health in Springfield, Vermont.

Jesica Radaelli-Nida, MA, is Early Childhood Program Specialist in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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