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A Conversation with Dialogue Education Pioneer Jane Vella

Jane Vella Dialogue Education

If you were interested in the NBA and wanted to talk with one of the most influential players ever to play, with whom would you talk? Michael Jordan?

What about if you wanted to talk with a legendary recording artist who changed the face of music, with whom would you talk? Paul McCartney?

I recently had an opportunity to talk with a legend in the field of education whose concept of Dialogue Education built upon her mentor, Malcolm Knowles‘, theory of Adult Learning to further transform the world of learning: Jane Vella. While this is a longer conversation than our typical Train Like You Listen episode – and has been split into 2 parts (part 2 is here), I hope you’ll indulge me and spend some time listening to (or reading) this conversation with someone whose work has influenced every corner of every training program I’ve developed (or written about on my blog) since I learned about Dialogue Education in 2007.

Transcript of the Conversation with Jane Vella

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn with Endurance Learning and I am very excited for today’s episode. Before I get into that, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that we are sponsored by Soapbox, which is the world’s first and only rapid authoring tool for instructor-led training. So if you’d like to know more, go to

Today we are joined by the very famous and somebody who I find is a hero of mine. And basically everything that I’ve done since I’ve gotten into corporate training has been along the lines of the philosophy that she has espoused for her career, Dr. Jane Vella, who is the author of Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach. She is the founder of Global Learning Partners and the originator of the term and concept Dialogue Education. Jane, thank you so much for joining me today. 

Jane Vella: Delighted, Brian. Delighted. 

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: And I wish that we didn’t have this in our format, but we do, because we try to keep things relatively short – so a six word biography. I think that your biography could be much longer than six words. But if you were to describe your own career in six words, and especially when we’re talking about this concept of the power of dialogue in adult learning. You know, if I was to do my own introduction in exactly six words, I would say, “Dialogue Education truly changed my life”. How about you, Jane? How would you sum up, kind of, what you’ve done along the Dialogue Education world, or just kind of in your own career, in six words?

Jane Vella: “I am still learning. Thank God.” 

Brian Washburn: Which I think is fascinating because you’ve had such a career that I think has been so impactful because you do continue to learn and then you write about those experiences.

And so, I have a ton of questions here. Unfortunately we have a time limit and I’m sure that you have better things to do with your day as well. 

Jane Vella: (CHUCKLING) Oh, sure.

Brian Washburn: But, you know, I’ve been to a number of training sessions in which the presenter will say, “you know, I want to make this highly interactive and engaging. So, ask me any questions as I’m presenting” and to me, just inviting people to ask questions isn’t necessarily inviting dialogue, right, let alone Dialogue Education. And I know you’ve literally written a book on the subject. Would you just be able to briefly explain what Dialogue Education is so everyone listening can have the same thing in their mind.

What is Dialogue Education?

Jane Vella: I see Dialogue Education, as I said on the podcast of Global Learning Partners, which is called Shift the Power – you can hear that podcast. And what I say is it’s an ongoing research agenda. I hate to admit it. I’m 89 years old and I don’t know how people, human beings learn. We’re just learning. We’re just looking at the brain for the first time.

I mean, this is a moment of great, great, great learning. And I would say three words. You asked for a biography of six words, I’ll give you a definition of three words. 

Brian Washburn: Sure. 

Jane Vella: You design and give them – this is four words – the experience. 

Brian Washburn: It’s so fascinating as somebody who has raised two children to see how they learn. 

Jane Vella: Yes!

Brian Washburn: And then to be in a classroom and working with professionals who are much older sometimes than I am and see how they learn as well. You know, it’s the interactions that seem to be much more powerful than any content that, perhaps, I can give.

Jane Vella: Dialogue. Interaction is dialogue.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, and can you talk a little bit from your experiences in terms of what you feel is the impact of dialogue on people who are learning? Like, why is that such an important thing? 

Why is Dialogue Education so Important in the Field of Learning?

Jane Vella: Well, right now you and I are having a dialogue. I won’t be the same lady when we close this Zoom at two o’clock. It is transformative if – and there’s one condition – Jane listens. 

LearingToListen 1

Brian Washburn: The title of one of your books is– the book I’ve read is Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach. And that “learning to listen” is the first three words, not “learning to teach”. 

Jane Vella: And I’m still learning Brian, as you know, as you’ll know after this session. 

Brian Washburn: And so, I think that this is actually something– whether we’re talking about training or we’re talking about our current environment of discourse, in general, that you’ve mentioned. The only way that we can do it is by listening. Why? Why is that so important that we even, especially as trainers or as teachers, that we need to listen? What are we listening for? 

The Importance of Listening

Jane Vella: We’re listening for the opportunity to learn. You know, your two children – God bless them – never wanted to go to bed at night. Did they?

Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING) Haha! They still don’t!

Jane Vella: They didn’t want to stop learning. And I’m at 89 years of age. I don’t want to stop learning. There’s so much to learn. And when I listen to you, and I’ll never stop talking. However, if I can talk in dialogue–. We have a wonderful axiom: Don’t tell what you can ask because when you ask, you gotta listen. And when you ask, don’t ask if you know the answer, for God’s Holy sake. Don’t ask if you know the answer. Tell in dialogue. Now how you do that, brother, is a lifetime of work, as you know.

Brian Washburn: Do you have any nuggets, any helpful hints to help those of us who have not yet reached 89? Some strategies we might want to adopt? 

Praxis – Action with Reflection

Jane Vella: (LAUGHING) No, seriously it’s– oh, I think what happens, in that podcast I sent you, Brian, talks about reflection.

Brian Washburn: Yep. 

Jane Vella: And the amazing word – it’s a Greek word of all things – which we’ve taken right off the Greek into English. It’s “praxis”. And what it means is, you have an experience and you have a chance to think about it. We call it action with reflection –  that’s praxis. That’s what led me to where I am on the back porch today.

Brian Washburn: You know, that concept is really interesting. Any time that I’m involved in the train-the-trainer program, we talk about Dialogue Education, we talk about the principles. And the one principle that everyone always asks a question about is praxis. One, is because it’s kind of a weird word, right? It’s not a word that we use in English.

Jane Vella: It’s all Greek to me! (CHUCKLING)

Brain Washburn: (CHUCKLING) Exactly. And then the other is: how do you combine them? Or a lot of times people’s nature is, “we gave them experience, let’s move on”. And that reflection piece I think is such an important piece to it and especially when we’re running behind in a training session, right? It’s so easy to say, “alright, we just did this activity. I had some questions, but we need to move on”. And what is the impact of moving on before we can have a chance to reflect?

What Happens When Learners Don’t Have Time to Reflect?

Jane Vella: Oooooooo. There’s another axiom. I love the axioms of Dialogue Education, and one of the axioms is: “Don’t steal the learning opportunity”. 

Brain Washburn: Mmm.

Jane Vella: If the learner doesn’t do it, she doesn’t learn. Because what James Zull, my new teacher– go to James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain.  And number two is From Brain to Mind. Two books he’s got. They are dynamite. And what he says is essentially what I’ve been saying for, God help me, 50 years. You cannot go too slowly. You’ve got to follow the learner and you know, who said this dear? You know this with little children, Maria Montessori. Her mantra, her axiom was “Follow the Child”. 

Brian Washburn This is so fascinating, and this conversation is so fascinating. I’ve seen, and this can get a little bit academic, I’ve seen some debates about pedagogy versus andragogy and, you know, are they actually two different things?

Jane Vella: Oh that’s theory. That’s no–

Brian Washburn: Right? And it’s so interesting because I think that people, if you study them, there is a process by which they learn. And it’s through curiosity and an opportunity to experiment and experience things.

Jane Vella: And to speak their meaning, which will not necessarily be yours. And that’s where the principle of respect and engagement and listening, all the principals come in to say, “Hey, you’re here to learn too, Brian”.

Brian Washburn: Mm-hm. And so, and this actually leads me to my next question because there are a lot of things out there. One is at my previous job, I worked in healthcare and attended medical symposia. And that’s a bunch of doctors who stand up and show a bunch of slides and talk as fast as they can for, you know, eight minutes. And then– this is like a day of presentations like that. So that’s, that’s one kind of thing where people are like, “well, we learned from that”. 

Or if you think of Ted Talks, right? People, you know, millions of views of some of these Ted Talks. Do you feel that Dialogue Education is a better approach or is it just a different approach?

Is Dialogue Education a Better Approach or Just a Different Approach for Learning?

Jane Vella: I like to be very bold here and say, it’s an approach that works according to how the brain works. And the brain part is because I just finished reading Zull’s books. I’m learning. Everything he teaches about the brain corroborates what I’ve been teaching since, God helped me, 1948. And I was teaching because I saw it work. If it don’t work, it don’t work. You can take that as an axiom.

Brian Washburn: And we’ll attribute it to Dr. Jane Vella. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. 

Jane Vella: If it don’t work, it don’t work. And it doesn’t work for whom. The issue is it may work for you, but you’re not the only one in the room. 

Brian Washburn: Yep. 

Jane Vella: As you said so wisely, people came because they wanted to change something and they were curious about new things. So find out, first thing– and frankly, Brian, if I may, the biggest offering that I think Global Learning Partners in Dialogue Education offers is if you’re going to do Dialogue Education, and you know it from your experience, it’s a lot of hard work because you’re going to have to meet all those people.

You’re going to have to talk to them and we can do that now on zoom and on email. And you know what I used to do? I think I said it in that podcast I shared with you. I used to have a party at my house before my graduate course at Chapel Hill at UNC. And I learned stuff about those people and they were amazing, scared me to death. I thought, how am I going to teach these people? But I had to know that before I designed.

Designing Specifically for Every Learning Environment

Brian Washburn: So that– this idea of relationship, right? The relationship between the person who’s supposed to be teaching and the people who are going to be–.

Jane Vella: Takes time, brother. Takes time, and everybody gots time. I like to say to folks and, pardon me, I’m jumping in here dear. But I always say, when people say, “Well, it takes too much time. I can’t do this.” I say, “You know what? I got 24 hours every day; how many do you have? You’ve got fewer? Could you check your clock?”

Brian Washburn: And so what would you say to somebody who says, “Well, I mean, we have two hours. We have two hours with people and then they have to go about their day”.

Jane Vella: It’s part of the design. You have two hours. It’s like saying “I got one pie plate, I got four apples, but I want to put in 27 apples.” Well, the pie plate’s going to protest. 

Brian Washburn: I love that analogy because that is one of the biggest flaws, and I know that I fall into this trap as well, trying to put 27 apples onto a pie plate that–.

Jane Vella: You can’t teach too slowly and you can’t teach too little. Now, quote me on that, bro. 

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLING) We have it in the show notes. So for those who are listening to this, the whole thing is transcribed and we have all of Jane’s quotes. 

Jane Vella: I mean, how often have I walked out– and I want to learn physics. I want to learn astronomy. I’ve got the time. I can’t find– I want to play the piano. I got a beautiful baby grand. And I can’t find anyone who will take the time to meet me where I am. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. 

Jane Vella:  I don’t mean to diss anybody in that comment, but what I’m saying is as I need that as an 89 year old lady, I’m ready to practice. But I can’t practice if you “shhhhhhhh” come at me with a, what do you call it?

Brain Washburn: A fire hose?

Jane Vella: Fire extinguisher.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And 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.

When is Dialogue Education Not Appropriate In Learning Design?

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?


Brain Washburn: Oh, actually that sound right there means that we are out of time. This is a longer interview than we typically do, so we’re going to have to break this one up into 2 parts. And so if you’re able to please join us again on Thursday for the 2nd part of this interview, in which we’ll hear her answer to whether there are instances in which Dialogue Education actually isn’t appropriate to integrate into a learning program. 

Until then, you can hear Train Like You Listen on Spotify, on Apple, on iHeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcasts. Please do subscribe, so that you can hear this every week when it comes out, and if you like what you hear go ahead and give us a rating, because that’s how people learn about Train Like You Listen. Until next time, happy training everyone.

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