Dr. Jane Vella
Jane Vella, the founder of Global Learning Partners, gained her insights on adult education from the thousands of participants she met over her 40 years of teaching in Africa, Asia and North America. Jane’s academic research into the work of theorists Paulo Freire, Malcolm Knowles, Kurt Lewin, and Benjamin Bloom confirmed what she saw in the communities where she had worked: that adults learn best through a “dialogue” that takes place in an atmosphere of mutual respect and safety, and with learning designs that are grounded in the reality of their lives.
Jane’s insights are detailed in her books, all of which are published by Jossey-Bass (San Francisco). You can also check out her personal blog here.
Her teaching and work have inspired a generation of educators, community developers, and health workers. Some of their experiences with Dialogue Education are outlined in the book Dialogue Education at Work: Case Studies (October 2003). In 2012 she was given two awards: the Dory Storms Award by the CORE Group, an association of more than 50 international organizations who improve public health practices with underserved populations, and the School of Medicine of the Pontifical University of Chile also awarded Jane the title of Honorary Faculty Member.
In her own words
This is a letter that Jane penned in response to a request from Margaret Connor of Northern Illinois University, who wanted to know more about the genesis of the Dialogue Education™ approach that GLP teaches.
Thank you for inquiring about the genesis of the dialogue approach to adult learning… As a teacher in Tanzania in the 50s, 60s and 70s I was personally influenced in my thinking by Augustine (“no man teaches another anything, all one can do is to prepare the way for the Holy Spirit”), by the great literature of the western world, by Julius Nyerere, a philosopher who was called “Mwalimu” (teacher) by the people of Tanzania. He wrote wisely about education for self-reliant development.
Paulo Freire of Brazil made great sense to me, and we tried, in a small community education for development program sponsored by Misereor of West Germany, to put his rather abstract ideas into action. Anne Hope and Sally Timmel, authors of Training for Transformation, were very helpful in this regard.
I really meant it when I said my best teachers were the village folk in Tanzania who did not know that they were in a major experiment on epistemology. What motivated them to learn, what worked for them in those mud thatched huts where we taught, was clearly effective. It became a practical epistemology that worked in spite of a huge cross-cultural gap, limping language skills of the workshop leaders (ME!) and a mass of socio-economic-political stuff that stood boldly in the way of their internalizing the concepts, skills, and attitudes we dared to teach.
I learned dialogue the hard way: in Swahili! Listening with three ears! Six Considerations: From long experience teaching in Tanzania before this program, I learned that effective adult learning and teaching is:
- Political – that is, it has to do with power and distribution of power both in the process and in the content selected.
- Problem-posing – that is, it is a dialogue around adult themes using adult materials evoking affective, psychomotor, and cognitive responses.
- Part of a whole – that is, it must have follow-up and continuity and not be a single event raising and then dashing hopes. In quantum terms, this celebrated the context of learning.
- Participative – that is, everyone involved will have time to speak, to listen, and to be actively engaged in the learning.
- Person-centered – that is, its purpose is the development of all the people involved, not merely the covering of content.
- Prepared – that is, from the initial needs assessment through the use of Seven Steps of Planning [editor’s note – there are now eight steps of planning], through the design of materials, the learning is designed for this particular group of learners and time is used lavishly to make it ready.
These six considerations served us as a team well, as we used them in the villages. We had long talks about how they applied in the diverse situations we encountered. At this time we were building a body of theory together as we analyzed the processes and products of the community education program. We were the chief learners in this Tanzanian adult education program. When I started teaching at North Carolina State University in 1978, after completing my doctoral work, I had no cogent body of theory: it was a little of this and a little of that. It was within the work of the Jubilee Popular Education Center, as I designed a week-long intensive workshop for adult educators not as a university professor but as a struggling entrepreneur, that I began to put together a set of principles and practices, and began to use them congruently and consistently. We developed materials that captured this theory, and I used these in my business and in my Health Education graduate workshop at the School of Public Health at UNC in Chapel Hill USA. In 1999 we renamed the company Global Learning Partners, Inc. With such a set of materials and a cogent, growing theory I could pass on my knowledge and skills to a set of Certified Teachers and Associates. We can now do impact evaluation on organizations and companies who have been taught and are now using this dialogue approach in their work (Freedom from Hunger, Habitat for Humanity).
The international Global Learning Partners network of teachers and practitioners is making this theory grow in the praxis of it. Bi-annual meetings consolidate the theoretical development and influence the materials.
Malcolm Knowles’ kind words in the foreword to the first Jossey-Bass book put a seal of approval on this nascent theory in 1994. Jossey-Bass has been a great support, and I hear from various graduate schools of education that my books are part and parcel of their work in adult learning. Hooray!
I dedicated Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach to Lois Harvey and Fay Honey Knopp, my teachers. Lois taught me to be my own person, and Honey taught me how to work for a world where such a person could be accepted. Their work is obvious in any of the GLP materials and workshops.
I am an avid reader and know I should also be giving credit to all my dear authors: William Shakespeare and Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Barbara Kingsolver and Jan Karon, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, Margaret Wheatley and Danah Zohar, Margaret Maron, Agatha Christie, and P.D. James.
In 2002, a second edition of Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach was published which uses selected concepts from my own understanding of quantum theory. I am surprised how congruent these quantum concepts are to what has developed as Dialogue Education. I am not keen on naming this “the Vella approach” since I really just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch the falling star!