Where Restorative Practice and Dialogue Education Meet

“Remember that your authority over other human beings is an artificial construct.” [1] 

I’ve been asking people about their core values and characteristics when they are at their best for over 20 years. I was introduced to this practice through the field of restorative justice. I witnessed mentors help groups identify their core values in settings with seemingly very different people — elementary school teachers, community volunteers, young people caught up in the criminal legal system, and people incarcerated at San Quentin prison.  

What have I learned? All groups of people can find common values regardless of setting and demographic (even if they don’t gain consensus around the importance of different values). 

Our systems, structures, and dominant culture get in the way of people upholding their values and being their best. The biggest barriers are the artificial constructs we have created to establish one person’s or group’s authority over others. When we do even a half decent job of creating spaces where people can be their best, we learn how amazing individuals and groups can be and how much we can learn and grow from one another. 

When groups come together to uphold and live into their core values, it has always involved the disruption of dominant power dynamics. It most often takes place when the practices of Restorative Approaches and Dialogue Education have been applied, including: 

  • Opportunities for people to get to know each other on a deeper level 
  • Space where people can meaningfully engage with others as their authentic self 
  • Invitations for people to have agency in their own learning or healing. 
Values generated through restorative justice work in schools, collected by author

Restorative Approaches and Dialogue Education  

You may consider yourself to be a restorative practitioner. Or, you may be trained as a Dialogue Education trainer. The good news is, both approaches see the inestimable worth of all humans. As well, both have something important to offer the other.  

Restorative Justice 

The term restorative justice (RJ) appeared in the 70’s and was largely a response to failures of the legal system to address the needs of those directly and indirectly affected by crime. Yet RJ has a longer history; RJ practices use parallel methods that have been long used by Indigenous Peoples and cultures with participatory and communal or relational ways of responding to wrongdoing. 

Research—in addition to process and outcome evaluation—has sought to understand the theory and principles that underlie RJ. While there is still not a universally agreed upon set of principles, there is a general understanding of what RJ is as well as the processes used.  

Here are four principles I find myself using to apply a restorative approach: 

  1. Exploring Relationships: Intentionally creating space and time for people in a community to get to know one another is a first step toward understanding one another and building trust. This helps to build, deepen, and support healthy relationships and community; it develops the capacity for empathy and social-emotional learning; and, it helps foster a desire for empathy. 
  2. Meaningful Engagement: Trust and respect are elements that facilitate meaningful engagement. Without it, people do not feel safe enough to engage authentically. To respect others, you need to get to know them and listen to them. The concept of equity is extremely important in building trust and demonstrating respect. For people who have experienced trauma, a trauma-informed approach can help to create an environment conducive for them to engage.  
  3. Agency / Choice / Collaborative Decision-Making: People choose whether to participate and how they participate in restorative practices. When all members have a meaningful role in a decision-making community, culture is co-created. Collaborative decision-making promotes and strengthens a sense of belonging and mutual responsibility for the well-being of all. It requires those with decision-making authority to use that authority differently. 
  4. Active Responsibility / Accountability: Consequences are often punitive and passive; active responsibility is different. Active responsibility requires an understanding of the harms and needs and addressing them through an agreement. Restorative practices foster internal motivation to take responsibility rather than rely on external coercion and exclusion. Taking responsibility for one’s actions is a requirement for a restorative response.  

It is important to note that these principles apply not just when responding to harm, but also proactively to ensure things go right—to build relationships and community and to support groups of people to co-create norms and agreements around how they want to be with each other. Advocates of restorative approaches see this foundational work as essential when restorative approaches are implemented in the field of education. 

Dialogue Education (DE) 

Dialogue Education emerged in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s although the term was coined 25 years ago by Global Learning Partners. Jane Vella and others worked to operationalize pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire and other popular education theorists while integrating adult learning principles of Malcolm Knowles, Kurt Lewin, and Benjamin Bloom. DE is a learning-centered pedagogical approach that maximizes impact and change. Frameworks, tools, and models were developed to facilitate the application of theory and effective learning principles. DE too continues to evolve to be easier to use and applied to new and different contexts. 

Dialogue Education Principles

Below are six core principles that root all Dialogue Education work [2]. Through the relentless commitment to each of these, practitioners know learning happens.   

  1. Engagement. Learners need to be engaged in their learning. 
  2. Inclusion. Learners want to feel included and valued. 
  3. Respect. Learners want to feel their ideas, experiences, knowledge, culture and everything about them is respected and honored.  
  4. Safety. Learners need to feel emotionally, physically, and psychologically safe enough to share personal stories, ask difficult questions and offer challenging ideas.  
  5. Relevance. Learners need to understand how each content is relevant and important for them and their lives.  
  6. Immediacy. Learners need to have a pressing need to use what they are learning.  

Towards Mutual Enhancement 

What DE has to offer RJ 

Both DE and RJ have models and practices used to apply the respective approach to a given situation. However, in both cases these practices are meaningless if the principles are not active and authentically upheld. 

For someone facilitating a restorative justice process, Dialogue Education provides a framework and tools to intentionally structure dialogue around an incident of wrongdoing and harm. For example, Dialogue Education practitioners intentionally design learning events with an 8-step framework and structure learning tasks using a 4A sequence (Anchor, Add, Apply, Away). 

The participants are there to learn about the harm done and the needs that have arisen, so they are able to develop a plan to address those needs. A shared understanding of the situation that calls for the meeting (WHY) and the desired change (SO THAT) is important: two steps of design practiced in Dialogue Education.  

Restorative justice as a field can also benefit from using an established principle-based approach to learning for training needed to implement an RJ opportunity. Many who educate on RJ will realize that their training style is already aligned with DE, validating their practice. Others may be able to enhance their training by incorporating DE principles, tools and techniques into their work. 

What RJ has to offer DE 

RJ facilitators use specific processes such as circles (‘talking circles’ are a natural way people have come together for as long as we know and are a part of indigenous traditions/cultures from around the world), conferencing, victim-offender dialogue, and community panels to create opportunities for restorative response to harm. 

For someone facilitating DE-based learning, restorative justice offers helpful processes to enrich and enliven learning events and meetings. You may recognize many of these in your own practice. Here are a few restorative techniques to consider: 

  1. Open questions. These types of questions communicate ‘I want to understand’ and ‘You are of value here.’ They encourage dialogue (inner and with others), personal reflection and engagement with ideas and thoughts different from your own.   
  2. Intentional opening and closing of space. Opening activities invite connections to the purpose of the event. Closing activities can offer a sense of accomplishment and support forward-thinking. See some closing examples here. 
  3. Heart-based activities. RJ works with tools and techniques that open and access the heart and emotions. Without the heart, learning and connections are compromised. Some of these tools include journaling, storytelling, and drawing.  
  4. Personal stories. Sharing our stories helps to root learning and invite what we know and have experienced. The personalization of content ensures relevance and meaning-making. It also helps to weave in affective, cognitive, and even psycho-motor learning. 
  5. Meaningful warm-ups. Warm-ups start with the personal, work to build relationships and enrich learning and work – everything is made easier when we feel connected and seen. 
  6. Do with. Restorative work is all about doing things ‘with’ not ‘to’ or ‘for’. In a restorative approach we work to shift power and this is also true in a learning-centered approach. Power needs to be shared. See model below by Dr. Dorothy Vaandering. (2014). 

The concept of a restorative approach has caught on internationally. In addition to criminal and youth justice, the restorative approach is applied in perhaps every sector someplace in the world. Each of these places can benefit from Dialogue Education as each sector offers learning opportunities and demands a principled way of being together. 

Many Dialogue Education practitioners see themselves as restorative practitioners. Restorative justice practitioners sometimes see themselves as Dialogue Education practitioners. One thing is clear, we’re all intentionally working to make this world a better place through principle-based approaches.

What restorative practices do you use or attract you? 

[1] William Faulk, The Week (2014 v. 14 issue 670) elaborating on his prime directive for bosses ‘don’t be a jerk.’

[2] Excerpted from Global Learning Partners, 10 Critical Principles. Accessed on January 20, 2022.

Jon Kidde is an independent consultant who has studied and applied restorative justice (RJ) theory for 20 years.

Written with input from Jeanette Romkema, Senior Partner and Rachel Nicolosi, Partner, Global Learning Partners. 

Here are some additional resources: 

  1. Whole School Restorative Approach Resources Guide – a resource by Jon Kidde 
  2. Video from DE and RJ practitioner – (9 min.) by Annie O’Shaughnessy 
  3. Sample Restorative Practices Training Design Using DE Approach – an example 
  4. Connectedness Resources – activities and techniques  
  5. Transform Harm Resources – website    
  6. The Little Book of Restorative Justice in Education – a book by D. Vaandering & K. Evans  
  7. Circles in Higher Education – a video  

Here are three GLP blogs you may be interested in: 

  1. Drawing to Learn 
  2. From Head to Heart 
  3. Courage and Bravery in Addition to Safety and Respect