5 Tips for Integrating Dialogue Education into Program Culture

Through our work with World Vision’s domestic programs in Canada, my colleague Clayton Rowe and I have designed (and re-designed, and re-designed) over 45 days’ worth of workshops that are resonant with a Dialogue Education approach.  With our intrepid ‘Canadian Programs’ team, we facilitate these learning events, on topics such as ‘Introduction to Community Assessment’ or ‘Non-Profit Marketing’, across Canada with over 500 grassroots non-profit leaders. 

Our partners have come to celebrate the distinctive approach to learning demonstrated in our workshops. Here are 5 tips for seeing our personal passion for effective Adult Education move toward being an accepted, integral component of our program’s culture and ethos:

  1. Keep Time.  As every emerging practitioner of Dialogue Education learns, too much “what for the when” undercuts the best-laid learning plans.  Dialogue takes time. The spectre of an interminable group discussion, however, can overshadow all learning for some (especially if your kids have a precise after-work pick-up time!).  Articulate an achievable list of learning outcomes then be ruthless in ensuring that your session is wrapped up a few minutes before the advertized close of the day.  Starting and ending on time is critical for building trust (and buy-in) from participants in your program—especially as you invite them to future workshops. 
  2. Acknowledge la différence.  Within a 1-day practical workshop on a topic like “Grant-Writing”, time feels especially precious.  We have learned, however, to briefly acknowledge our approach to learning (and to invite feedback) in every opening task. It is easy to forget that elements such as moving around, limited lecture and PowerPoint, and a variety of groupings can be discombobulating for first time participants.  Briefly naming the differences in your approach to facilitation lowers participant anxiety and resistance, leading to a better learning environment for all.  Consider including a brief, standardized introduction to dialogue in each of your workshops.
  3. Build detailed action plans.  A primary ‘cost’ in using a learning-centred approach is that fewer topics are covered than in a conventional workshop. The ‘value add’ is the ability to go deep into the learning, and that participants start applying new ideas into their own context before they leave the room. We are passionate about ensuring that each learning task rolls up into an overall, step-by-step action plan.  Participants will happily modify a template that they feel is too detailed for their own context.  Participants will be frustrated and struggle to apply action-plan templates that are not detailed enough.
  4. Leverage your pre-workshop survey.  With the volume of workshops our small team delivers, participants are sometimes shocked that we make completing a short pre-workshop survey mandatory for registration, and that we follow-up individually on each one.  The principle of “starting learning before the event begins” is very powerful, and helps prepare first-time participants to engage well.  Addressing participant expectations and acknowledging participant expertise via an online pre-workshop survey is a critical practise in building a culture of dialogue learning.
  5. Push for team participation.  One of the most powerful facilitation tools we have is building and nurturing space for dialogue, about a pressing issue, amongst colleagues. It is rare for sufficient time for this learning to be available ‘back at the office’.  In many of our workshops, attending with a partner from one’s own organization is required. While there are definite challenges in managing this expectation, the pay-off is significant:  action-plans are much more likely to be successfully implemented when the decision-makers initially work through the process together, with facilitator support.


Hugh Brewster is the National Manager of World Vision’s Canadian Programs department. He first read Jane Vella’s Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach after co-facilitating a teacher training program with GLP Partner Jeanette Romkema in Kyrgyzstan in 2003.