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

On Assessing Learning Needs & Resources: The Art of the Question


In a recent Foundations of Dialogue Education course in Stowe, Vermont, 10 wonderful and wise learners examined three aspects of engaging and getting to know participants in learning events or meetings by Asking, Observing, and Studying.  This art of engaging learners prior to coming together suggests that first, whatever you do; do no harm!  Remembering that the intention is to create an opportunity to engage and respect each learner through inquiry of what they already know and bring to this event (Resource).  Whatever we ask can be done so to strengthen the apparent relevance of the topic and the work each person will apply it to.  It is so important to be specific and super intentional, avoiding asking extraneous questions such as those that ‘might be nice to know’ but not really necessary or engaging given the situation of these people. 

That architectural axiom of “Less is more” is top and center here.  Remember folks are busy and may engage at this point if it feels relevant and meaningful.  The questions you choose need to be limited and clearly related to the context of those responding, while done so in a way that gets them thinking about the event already and recognizing that what you ask may well be used in your preparations.  What you discover may suggest meaningful “generative themes” of the group with which to further engage participants in the content of the event.

Here are examples of questions I have used in two different contexts:

Context:  4-day Foundations of Dialogue Education Course

  1. Briefly describe your current role in planning, designing and facilitating learning events at your place of work.
  2. What have you seen work well AND what positive things resulted with learners when a learning experience was designed effectively?
  3. Share two (2) frustrations or challenges you often experience with learning events that you plan, run or even attend?
  4. What are 2 or 3 things that you believe to be effective and useful in designing and facilitating effective learning experiences for participants of your events?
  5. Review the draft achievable objectives for the workshop. Which (3) objectives would you say at this time you are MOST INTERESTED to achieve during this workshop?
  6. As you think about how this course will help further develop your own practice of designing and facilitating effective learning, what are 1 or 2 aspects of your current practice that you already know that you want to develop further or that you want to discover new ways to approach it?

Context:  A Statewide Summit on Housing Victims of Violence:

  1. What most engaged you to be part of this statewide Summit on housing victims of violence?
  2. In order for you to best contribute to this summit, what 2 or 3 things would you like to know about the domestic and sexual violence community and programs?
  3. In order for you to best contribute to the housing summit, what 2 or 3 things would you like to know about the Vermont housing community and programs?
  4. Based on your experience, what 2 or 3 key elements are necessary to achieve safe and stable housing for Vermont victims of domestic & sexual violence?
  5. Based on experience, what are 2 or 3 of the biggest challenges in housing victims of domestic and sexual violence?   How might challenges be unique to these victims?
  6. What 2 or 3 ways do you think housing and service agencies could work together more effectively in successfully and stably housing victims of domestic violence?

And now here's a question for you!

What are a few questions you have found useful to your context?

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Staying Connected When Designing


What I love about designing is how it makes us connect with our universal humanity. Those that don’t design may not understand what I mean so I’ll say a bit more.

This week I’ve been asked to co-design a program to help build stability among low income families of Colorado. Yesterday I got a call to co-design a high-level meeting about executive function. Next week I’ll co- pilot a program for busy managers of community credit/ health centers in Latin America. Earlier this year I co-designed an assessment of newborn health issues among the poorest of the poor in northern India. 

The range of “learners” is enormous. So different, in many ways from each other – and from me.

What do I—an Italian-American, middle-aged woman from New York city who has travelled the world and enjoyed a surprise pregnancy at the age of 44—have in common with these learners?  So much – and so little.

Here’s the deal: we are all human. And, the more I let myself feel what each group of learners might feel in the situations they are in, the better I design. This may sound obvious (of course we do that!). But, I find that it is not the tendency in our stratified society.

Sometimes I step out of our design process conversations and listen to us. We talk about the learners in descriptive “us and them” terms – as though we need to do complex research to know how a mom of a newborn would feel in Northern India, or how an unemployed man would feel in Colorado. A lot of what they’d feel is purely human. The mom would opt for the quickest, best service for their baby (even if it meant paying more) because that’s what most moms would do. The man would be motivated by small successes, and would resist anything that felt like a waste of his time because that’s what most of us would do.

I hope I don’t sound preachy here when I say: It is our job to stay connected to ourselves when we design. It is our job to ask our clients to pause and put themselves in the place of the learner, connecting with the endless similarities we have as humans.


How do you stay connected to yourself when you’re designing?

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The Praxis of Dialogue


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?


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


[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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