Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults
reviewed by Peter Rushbrook - 2003
Title: Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults
Author(s): Jane Vella
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787959677, Pages: 263, Year: 2002 (revised edition)
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Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults is Jane Vella’s welcome revision of her 1994 adult education classic of the same name. Malcolm Knowles writes in the Foreword (p. vii), that, ‘You will enjoy reading this book so much that you may wonder whether your are learning anything from it.’ He is right.
Vella’s fifty years’ experience as a global adult educator, her possession of an intellect effortlessly combining educational theory and practice, and her natural story-telling ability, have produced not only an important work for adult education practitioners and researchers, but also one that is highly accessible and entertaining. Moreover, Vella’s book is not one merely for reflection and challenge, in the nature of many academic tomes, but one for empowering the powerless through practical political action in the vein of Knowles and Paulo Freire, her oft-quoted mentors and collaborators.
While I approached with caution the ‘addition’ to this new edition of the principles of quantum physics as a ‘means of looking at the [adult education] world in a new way’ (p.29), I became convinced of their veracity at the book’s end.
The book is constructed as a series of lessons based on Vella’s ‘Twelve Principles for Effective Adult Learning’ (Chapter 1) and six ‘selected’ concepts drawn from Quantum Theory (Chapter 2). Her approach, in her own words, is both ‘deductive and inductive’: the principles, concepts and practices are explained deductively and illustrated inductively through story telling. From the principles and concepts an overall theme emerges that may challenge adult educators. Vella claims that her model has cross-cultural and trans-national applicability, a unifying theory, if you will, of effective adult education practice. The unfolding of her narrative appears to put her claim beyond dispute.
Vella’s twelve principles are built on the assumption that the most effective adult learning occurs through the dialogic relationship formed between teacher and learner. In a curious combination of traditional behaviorally based ‘training’ approaches and the radical insights of Freire’s liberation education, the unfolding of the twelve principles in practice speaks the language of experience.
First, a needs assessment should take place involving learners naming what is to be learned (Chapter 4). Second, the teacher and learners should create an environment of safety and context where ideas are shared freely (Chapter 5). Third, sound relationships should be established between teacher and learner and among learners (Chapter 6). Fourth, an agreed sequence of learning and its reinforcement should take place (Chapter 7). Fifth, learners should be encouraged to reflect and act through praxis (learning and doing through critical refection) (Chapter 8). Sixth, learners should be encouraged to develop respect for learners as decision-makers (Chapter 9). Seventh, the agreed program should include ideas, feeling and actions, based on Bloom’s cognitive, affective and psychomotor taxonomy (Chapter 10). Eighth, the proposed program should demonstrate learner relevance or immediacy (Chapter 11). Ninth, under the principle of clear roles and role development, the program should encourage both teachers and learners to challenge and dissolve their roles as ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ (Chapter 12). In an illustrative conversation with Vella, Paulo Freire once remarked, ‘Only the student can name the moment of the death of the professor’ (p. 20). Tenth, the group, almost axiomatically, should use and work as a team to achieve mutually agreeable outcomes (Chapter 13). Eleventh, the teacher and learners should, through engagement, take their learning outcomes into the community for action, where and when appropriate. Twelfth, and finally, the group should adopt the principle of accountability to measure, ‘How do they know they know?’ (Chapter 14). Vella calls this a ‘synthesis principle – it is the result of using all other principles’ (p. 25).
To previous readers of Vella’s work, the above principles are most likely well known. However, the innovative addition to this current work is the fusion of the twelve principles with six concepts drawn from Quantum Theory. The first concept is relatedness, based on the idea that all we do in life is both connected and related. The second concept assumes a holistic perspective to teaching and learning: the whole is more than the sum of its parts; for example, ‘Learners learn more than we teach!’ Third, the concept of duality asks teachers and learners to embrace opposites, question openly and use ‘both/and’ thinking. Fourth, the concept of uncertainty challenges educators and learners to rebuild theories when applied to new contexts. Fifth, the concept of participation reminds adult education participants that they are part of what they observe. As Vella remarks, ‘We evoke the world we perceive.’ And sixth, the concept of energy suggests the power of dialogue-based education to ‘raise and sustain the energy of learners’ (pp. 30-31). It is Vella’s intention to apply these principles directly from the practice of quantum theory, and not merely as a useful metaphor. Though at first difficult to grasp, their unfolding through lively illustrative examples brings them to life.
The chapters in the book relating to the elaboration of the ‘twelve principles for effective adult learning’ each contain a case study of the principle in action. Many are drawn from Vella’s long-term work with the Save the Children Foundation. They include training relief workers in Ethiopia (Chapter 4), teaching life skills to Haitian migrants in North Carolina, USA (Chapter 7), and educating community development officers in the Maldives (Chapter 8). These and other examples are a wonderful collection of Vella’s teaching and learning experiences and would be useful in themselves as illustrative case studies of adult teaching excellence, regardless of their value for grounding Vella’s educational approach.
Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults is a book deserving a place on every adult educator’s bookshelf. While adult education theorists may quibble with some aspects of the book’s arguments (for example, I was uncomfortable with the splicing of Bloom and Freire – though it appears to work in practice), its value lies in Vella’s distillation and collation of her vast educational wisdom. It is, therefore, ultimately a book for the adult education practitioner-researcher, rather than the armchair theorist. And I think this is exactly as Vella intends.