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Dialogue Education: Arguably the most important offshoot of adult learning theory

Many of us have heard of Malcolm Knowles, or at least his theory of adult learning. While it may be a little geeky to dive too deeply into theory (in most cases), it will most likely behoove you to get to know Jane Vella and her principles of dialogue education. If properly integrated into a training program, these 12 principles truly can change how learning happens in your organization.
dialogue education in action

In 2007, I moved across the country with a 2-month old child and began a new adventure in Seattle with my first training director role.

Digging into the organization’s existing training program, I pulled out my red pen and began scanning the facilitator guide, ready to make an immediate impact and improve a training program that was being used by 70,000 people across the country.

Much to my chagrin, I didn’t find much to improve. Someone before me had rooted out all the learning objectives that had the audacity to begin with verbs such as “know” or “understand”. Each topic had a logical sequence and flow of activities. The program was extremely engaging.

How in the world was this possible without my leadership and guidance?

It turned out that this program was designed with the principles of what Jane Vella termed “dialogue education“. Whatever this dialogue education was, it seemed that this Jane Vella character laid out principles of learning and education that were like none other I’d ever seen.

I’m not a big fan of “you should’s”, because everyone has their own circumstances and situations and what works for me may not work for you. However, in this case, if you’re unfamiliar with Jane Vella’s work or the principles of dialogue education, you ought to make sure you’re incorporating these principles into your training design.

The truth is, if you’ve been designing engaging, effective training, then you probably have been using some of these principles, whether or not you knew it. Getting to know them better will help ensure that you can repeat your training design success over and over, with intentionality.

Building on the Foundation of Adult Learning Theory

Before I go too far into dialogue education, it’s important to understand that these principles build upon the foundation of Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory. The reason I like the concept of dialogue education more than the academic exercise of going through Knowles’ principles is because adult learning theory paints some broad strokes such as:

  • Adult learners want to be autonomous and self-directed,
  • Adult learners come with their own experiences which they’d like to share and this is also the lens through which they understand new concepts,
  • Adult learners are looking to your content to be able to solve their problems (so your content ought to be relevant).

These make sense, but sometimes it’s tough to figure out how to design with these in mind.

12 Principles of Dialogue Education

Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults
The definitive work on Dialogue Education

Jane Vella’s 12 principles of dialogue education, on the other hand, strike me as quite clear, actionable and easily transferable into any training design. Below is a bulleted list of these principles, but you can learn more about each one in depth when you pick up a copy of Jane Vella’s Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach:

  1. Needs assessment
  2. Safety
  3. Sound relationships
  4. Sequence of content and reinforcement
  5. Praxis (this is a fun one – look it up! It’s also one of the most important.)
  6. Respect for learners as decision makers
  7. Ideas, feelings and actions
  8. Immediacy
  9. Clear roles and role development
  10. Teamwork
  11. Engagement of the learners
  12. Accountability

Following these principles, I’ve been able to overcome the idea that my training design is too “touchy feely” or objections in which people request I include more lecture and fewer activities. I’m able to explain that my design aligns with the concept of dialogue education, which has proven effective across cultures, ages, experience levels, generations and industries. I’ve used these principles in classroom training to overhaul new employee orientation programs, to mix content with play among high level medical professionals and some of the world’s leading surgeons, and to review how a tire is made by incorporating Play-Doh into an activity with experienced professionals who had been selling tires for 20, 30, even 40 years.

These principles can be put to use in virtual instructor-led sessions (webinars) and elearning as well.

In my upcoming book about 51 different elements of engaging learning experiences, I’ve dedicated considerable real estate to this concept of dialogue education. If you’d like a sneak peak at how I broke down this concept, you can visit the site that my colleagues have designed based on some of the things I’ve written in the book.

Dialogue Education on

Interviewing Jane Vella about Dialogue Education and More

Perhaps the most exciting thing to happen to me in the past 15 years or so was having the opportunity to sit down and speak with dialogue education pioneer Jane Vella for a podcast interview, which will be released Monday. I hope you’ll come back on Monday and give it a listen (or read the transcript). Rarely do we have an opportunity to speak with someone who single-handedly innovated an entire professional field.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about ways you’ve been able to bring principles of dialogue education into your own programs – in-person, virtual or even elearning. Drop me a note in the comment section!

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