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A Conversation with Dialogue Education Pioneer Jane Vella (Part 2)

Jane Vella Dialogue Education

Have you ever had a chance to talk with someone so fascinating that you hoped the conversation would never end?

That happened to me when I had a chance to talk with Jane Vella. On the verge of her 90th birthday, she’s as energetic as ever and her book, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach has been the most influential treatise on learning design that I’ve ever read.

While I find the principles of dialogue education to be important when designing training programs, we left our conversation at the end of Part 1 of this podcast when I posed a question to her, asking if dialogue education was ever not an appropriate approach to learning design.

Here in Part 2 of this podcast, we hear her answer to that question and several others.

Transcript of the Conversation with Jane Vella, Part 2

Welcome back to a second part of an interview that we’re doing on Train Like You Listen. We’re joined by Jane Vella, who is the author of Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach, also the originator of this concept of Dialogue Education, at least capturing what it means and what the principles are. It’s an approach that I think a lot of people take. On Monday, in the first part of this interview, we talked a little bit more about what Dialogue Education is, what the impact of Dialogue Education is – or just dialogue itself – is on people who are learning, and whether this approach is better than anything else. Now where we left off was I asked Jane a very interesting question about: is there any time that Dialogue Education is not an appropriate approach to learning design?

So, in today’s part two of this interview we’ll hear her answer to that. We’ll also hear about what her advice might be for any presenter who is a little bit hesitant to give up control in terms of engaging people in dialogue. And of course, we’ll end with our speed round. So welcome back to part two of this interview with Jane Vella.


Brian Washburn: So I’d like to think that Dialogue Education is kind of at the heart of every training presentation that we create. 

Jane Vella: It will be, dear. It’s coming. It’s coming.

Is There Ever a Time When Dialogue Education is Not an Appropriate Learning Strategy?

Brain Washburn: I’m kinda curious, from your perspective, do you ever feel that there are times or circumstances when it’s not an appropriate learning strategy to design?

Jane Vella: I haven’t found one. Now, what I do doesn’t look like Dialogue Education. 

Brain Washburn: Mm-hmm.

Jane Vella: I may set one question to a group of people. I remember the time I was giving the keynote and I said– I had one question, I read a little poem from my dear Levertov. What’s her first name? Oh, I can’t think of her first name, but God bless us.

And, I read the poem and then I said “in twos, tell what poem has moved you.” And wow, the room erupted.

Brian Washburn: People like to talk, right? People like to share their experiences. 

Jane Vella: And it’s also people like to share– not people, but I have to share my meaning. You can disagree with it. I love it if you disagree with it, because then I can clean it up. I’m not saying this is the only meaning, but I’m saying it’s my honest meaning. So I would have to say the principles are transcultural. You’ve said that already. 

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Jane Vella: The principles are always at work. They’re at work in nature. Look at the sequence of spring. How about that? That’s a good phrase: “the sequence of spring”. You don’t pick ripe apples too soon. 

Brian Washburn: It’s true.

Jane Vella: You pick those in October. I mean, nature uses the principle of sequence. So what I’m saying is, these principles have not only come out of my experience, but they are everybody’s experience. Think about them. And that’s praxis again.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, I love the analogies that are being used here. And so, for people who are listening and hopefully those who have listened have been reading things that I’ve written long enough to know that, “Oh, you know, Brian’s a huge fan of Dialogue Education” so maybe I should be too. 

How To Get Started Using Dialogue Education in Your Training Design?

Brian Washburn: But, you know, if there’s somebody who’s listening right now and thinking, “huh, this actually sounds like a really interesting approach. I’d like to bring some of these principles of Dialogue Education into my next training program.” What advice would you offer for them to help them get started? Especially for those presenters who are just inherently uncomfortable with, and I’m using air quotes right now, kind of giving up control of their presentation. 

Jane Vella: I would suggest and I’m going to run ahead a bit to your later question about what podcasts or books would you read? And I want to say check out Shift the Power. Isn’t that a beautiful name, title? 

Brian Washburn: Well, it definitely caught my eye because– and I love, because it goes to the heart of —

Jane Vella: It’s the heart of it – Shift the Power. You can find that it’s a learning centered podcast, produced by Global Learning Partners. You can go to And this podcast hopes to inspire creative thinking and provide practical tools. And it does. It’s fantastic. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. Which I think is a fantastic podcast. And I think that you’re right. I think that it has a lot of practical, and very immediately applicable ideas in there. And so going back to this question about, you know, people who are afraid to shift the power, because they feel like people come to hear them, right? People come to absorb their knowledge.

Jane Vella: They went to graduate school, Brian. They learned how to tea– we teach the way we were taught. 

Brian Washburn: Right. 

Jane Vella: And I was blessed by being taught by African women in Tanzanian villages. And thank God for it. I never would be able to have produced this without that experience. 

Brian Washburn: Yep. 

“There is No Shortcut to Good Learning.”

Jane Vella: So the idea is: try it. If it don’t work for you, don’t try it. Because maybe it’s not time or it’ll come later or your audience is saying “this isn’t right for me”. Because it’s affecting the audience.

Brian Washburn: What you just said – “try it” –  I think is really an interesting concept to hear you say. Because this is actually something that some of our clients have said too. When we go out, we do a train-the-trainer program, our clients sometimes are skeptical of this idea of Dialogue Education and, you know, we’re not just kind of spewing the information, but we’re letting people experience it a little bit, and then reflecting on those experiences. 

Jane Vella: That’s how the brain works. Now we do have corroboration from neurology, which is new. You know, this neurological perspective is only 40 years old, Brian. God bless us. 

Brian Washburn: Well, and the other thing that people have said when they’ve said, “you know what, we were also skeptical of when Brian and his team came in to do some of these things, but we’ve tried it.” And not just try it once, but try it three or four times, because it takes a little bit of getting used to as well.

Jane Vella: But it takes a lot of hard work. You say, try it. I mean, try it. 

Brian Washburn: Yep. 

The Principles of Respect and Engagement in Dialogue Education

Jane Vella: You don’t use a truncated version. You don’t say, “well, I don’t have to do a learning needs assessment. Oh, the hell with the design.” Excuse me. You know what I mean? No! You got to say, this is a science. This is – and it’s not only epistemology, my man, It’s also a cultural thing because you have to adapt it to the culture. You can’t– you know, I’ve taught university professors. Wow, and I have to deal with them as university professors. Because the principle is respect. The principle is engagement. However, I do invite them into my home for a party. 

Brian Washburn: I think that that’s a great point too. Is that while these principles are– they’re pretty universal, if you can make sure that you can also adapt to the culture in which you’re working, whether it is academia. I–, you know, I’ve brought some of these principles to Saudi Arabia and dialogue it works well. However, you have to make sure that you don’t have, you know, you’re not forcing men to talk with women because it’s culturally taboo. And so, you want to make sure that you work around the culture that you’re working within.

Jane Vella: That’s part of the learning needs assessment. You did the study, and that, my man, takes time. 

I want to say one thing if I may, and it comes to me now and I’m going to share it with you. There is no shortcut to good learning and I’m not talking about good teaching. With all due respect, I’m finished with teaching. Well, I’m finished with everything, let’s face it, except talking to Brian. But what I mean is it’s not teaching. Zull calls it metacognition. I didn’t even know the word before I had to go to the dictionary. And what he says is we’ve got to learn about learning. There’s no shortcut. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah, absolutely.

Jane Vella: We know it doesn’t work because we can go back to our own graduate school or grade school or high school experience. 

Brian Washburn: I don’t know a single person I have ever met that has been like, “I wish I could go back and get more lecture.” 

Jane Vella: Well, and the lecture is a good thing if it’s an open question.

Brian Washburn: Sure. 

Jane Vella: Jesus gave lectures and said, “what do you think about this?” And then they talked to their wife and said, “Hey, he’s talking about our sons”. (LAUGHING)

Brain Washburn: Yep. I think that’s a great point. Because you know lecture– lecture is a tool, right? It is a tool. It can’t be the tool. 

Dialogue Education is a Research Agenda

Jane Vella: Well, it’s also the way we learned and we have to have the courage to say “it didn’t work for me, so I don’t think it’s going to work for you all. So I’ve got another alternative. If it doesn’t work, let’s find what does.” Which goes back to what I said originally, dear, Dialogue Education, as I perceive it, is a research agenda. Every time someone uses it – this is what’s so exciting about it – every time you use it, Brian, you change the principles, the practices, everything, because you’ve got a new group. 

Brian Washburn: Yep. 

Jane Vella: I never worked with that kind of group. And you’re working with it. You’re trying to apply it. If it doesn’t work, you’ve got to adjust it. 

Get to Know Jane Vella

Brian Washburn: Jane, thank you so much for giving me some time about this. Before we leave, I have a few questions. Talk about getting to know people, I have a few speed round questions for you.

Jane Vella: Oh yes, I love your speed questions.

Brian Washburn: Okay, so you have been presenting for many, many years. What is your go-to food or snack right before you go on?

Jane Vella: A glass of wine! 

Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING) This is probably why you might be one of the most fun instructors anyone will ever have.

Jane Vella: Absolutely!

Brian Washburn: A glass of wine. 

Jane Vella: Absolutely! When I saw that question, it came to me immediately. What do I need to get a little courage? Oh, dear. (CHUCKING)

The Best Advice Jane Vella Ever Received

Brian Washburn: I love that. How about what’s the best advice you’ve ever received? 

Jane Vella: Shut up. Keep quiet. Listen. 

I have a story, a wonderful story, that kind of gives that in a wonderful way. Peter Noteboom, who is the head of Global Learning Partners, a brilliant man, Canadian Director of the Canadian Council of Churches, God help him. And he’s wonderful. He’s also running or leads Global Learning Partners. And one time we had a conference and there were about 200 people at this conference. And they asked me to do the keynote, and I said to Peter, “Peter, how about we make it a dialogue? We’ll talk.” So we stood on the stage and we sat together. We sat on two chairs looking at one another and we started talking. And at one point Peter– this is my best advice I ever got. Peter looked at the 200 people and said, “Is this the lady who wrote Learning to Listen? 

Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING)

Jane Vella: (LAUGHING) “I can’t get a word in edgewise.” And 200 people said, “Yeah, we know”.

So as I said to dear Meg, nobody’s ever found the off button. I’m learning. I am learning. I am learning. 

Brian Washburn: I love that story. Now you’ve shared a few things that people should be reading and listening. You mentioned Shift the Power. You’ve mentioned a few books, which people can find in the show notes to this episode.

Is there anything else that people should be reading or listening to? 

Jane Vella: Well, the two books I mentioned earlier are brilliantly done. They’re tough reads. James E. Zull was at the Cleveland clinic as a biologist when they decided the medical school was having so much trouble with young people trying to learn medicine because the education was so awful.

And so they decided to have an Institute of Medical Learning or Institute of Medical Education. And all the doctors ducked their heads and said, “not me, not me, not me”. So they gave the directorship to James Zull , who was a biology professor. He’s a biochemist, poor guy. So he got to be the director of this and he started reading all the great guys of adult education. He said, this is how the brain works. And the people who wrote those books about adult education didn’t know the neurology. 

Brian Washburn: Right. 

Jane Vella: But he did. Anyway, he’s got two books. I mentioned them earlier. The first one is called The Art of Changing the Brain. The second book is called From Brain to Mind, which is really, I said, I would re-title that book. I would call it “From Brain to Mine” because when my– my brain is the same as yours, dear, and is the same as every other human being in the neighborhood here. However, my meaning of any experience is mine, because of my life experience. 

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Jane Vella: So you can’t argue with me when I say something is so, because you haven’t had my experience. And I can’t argue with you.

So could the Republicans and Democrats please learn this? 

Brian Washburn: Ahhh, I think that that is a ver– So after you’re done in your career with education, have you thought about going into politics now? 

Jane Vella: My goodness, sir, I ain’t moving from my rocking chair . I’m going to be 90 years old next– June, in June. God bless.

Brian Washburn: Well, they say that 90 is the new 50.

Jane Vella: No, no, no. I missed that chance. And so did the world. (LAUGHING)

Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING) Before we end here, do you have any shameless plugs, anything that you want to share, anything that people should be checking out that either you or Global Learning Partners are doing these days? 

Jane Vella: Look at our experience in this 15–what is it, 15, 20 minutes. Did you notice the laughter? 

Brian Washburn: I don’t know that I have smiled as much during a podcast interview recently.

Jane Vella: So one of our wonderful axioms. And by the way, there’ll be a podcast on this soon. I hope I’m not giving away secrets, but one of the axioms is “no laughing, no learning”. And that is a neurologically based statement about the amygdala, which is a gland in the brain. 

Brian Washburn: Sure. 

“No Laughing, No Learning.”

Jane Vella: Come on. So, all I can say is I hope all of you who are listening to this podcast, hope you’ve laughed.

Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING) Well, I certainly have, Dr. Jane Vella, thank you so much for giving me some time here. 

Jane Vella: (LAUGHING)

Brian Washburn: Thank you everyone else for listening. Hopefully you have had an opportunity to laugh. Just like Jane mentioned, Shift the Power is available on Spotify, on Apple, iHeartRadio, wherever you get your podcasts. Same with Train Like You Listen.

Jane Vella: And there’s a new podcast. I just want to say there’s a new secret podcast, involving me, that GOP will make an announcement about in a few weeks. 

Brian Washburn: Oooh.

Jane Vella: So stay tuned. More fun in the spring, more fun in the spring

Brian Washburn: The intrigue. I love it. 

Jane Vella: Brian, I’m so happy to meet you. Let’s talk again soon, huh? 

Brian Washburn: Absolutely. It was great to meet you here. I feel like I’ve known you through your work and thank you everyone else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which can be found on Spotify and Apple, iHeartRadio, wherever you get your podcasts.

If you like what you hear, go ahead and give us a like. Share what you hear because that’s how people find out about us. Until next time, happy training everyone. 

Jane Vella: Thanks, Brian.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up today for a free demo below.

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