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Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults, Revised Edition

By Jane Vella
288 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-5967-7
$23.00 (paper)

Reviewed by

Elaine M. Blyler

Department of Family Environmental Sciences
CSU Northridge


This is the revised edition of Jane Vella's highly acclaimed book originally published in 1994. It is a book about teaching and learning that has the potential to make all teachers of adults into more effective educators. In the CSU system, the diversity of students in age, ethnicity, and country of origin encourages educators to consider and to incorporate various methods of teaching in order to engage each student in class discussion and maximize learning. Vella's principles can be useful in this process. In Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults, Dr. Vella describes "Twelve Principles for Effective Adult Learning." This book will provide teachers of most disciplines with examples of how to incorporate dialogue into a curriculum or individual class. It may be most useful to those who did not read the 1994 edition and those who read the 1994 edition and want further examples of how to incorporate dialogue into their work. Although the author has a public-health background, many of her examples have broad implications and add an interesting global perspective to the book. Furthermore, the principles described for educating adults are applicable beyond the academic community. Educators who provide consultative services during semester breaks may find that using Vella's twelve principles will help them work more effectively with adults toward change in corporate for-profit and non-profit organizations.

The revised edition presents the "Twelve Principles for Effective Adult Learning" introduced in 1994. But in the eight years between the two editions, Vella studied physics and saw a relationship between her use of dialogue and quantum physics. She suggests that classic Newtonian physics has influenced our institutions and led to the acceptance of hierarchy, cause-and-effect relationships, and mechanistic thinking. Vella argues that the current state of the world calls for a different type of thinking that is based on quantum physics. She uses as her description of quantum thinking, "new paradigm thinking: holistic, integrated, spiritual, energetic" (p. xi). Vella believes quantum (which defines a measure of energy) thinking is spontaneous and collaborative and develops from the dialogue produced within a group. This is the kind of thinking she favors, and examples of quantum thinking and how to encourage it are incorporated into this new edition.

Vella states that "if we are building a civil society that can distinguish domination from democracy" (p. xiv), it is necessary to understand that "nothing in the universe grows or develops alone. We learn together" (p. 23). One of her basic assumptions is that learners come with both experience and personal perceptions of the world based on that experience, and all deserve respect as subjects of a learning dialogue. Adult education, community education, and training are most effective when we honor that assumption. This is quantum thinking at its best. This is dialogue education (p. 27).

Many of us agree with these statements and will benefit from reflecting on ways to incorporate some or all of the principles into a class or curriculum. Despite numerous examples, readers may be left wondering whether an understanding of quantum physics is necessary. No, it is not, but since Vella indicates that her examples are rewritten and shared from a quantum-thinking perspective, why not include a bit about the principles of quantum thinking?

The book is divided into three parts. In Part One, the author presents the "Twelve Principles for Effective Adult Learning":

  • Needs assessment: participation of the learners in naming what is to be learned.
  • Safety in the environment and the process. We create a context for learning. That context can be made safe.
  • Sound relationships between the teacher and learner and among learners.
  • Sequence of content and reinforcement.
  • Praxis: action with reflection or learning by doing.
  • Respect for learners as decision makers.
  • Ideas, feelings, and actions: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor aspects of learning.
  • Immediacy of the learning.
  • Clear roles and role development.
  • Teamwork and use of small groups.
  • Engagement of the learners in what they are learning.
  • Accountability: how do they know what they know?

(p. 4, emphasis in the original)

Following the introduction of the principles, she discusses six quantum concepts that relate to dialogue education and lastly speaks of course design.

In Part Two, a chapter expands upon each of the principles. After discussing the principle, Vella presents a case study to show how the principle was used with groups of adult learners in various cultures and countries around the world. Vella shares with us examples of adult thinking and learning in Ethiopia, Haiti, Tanzania, Maldives, Nepal, Zimbabwe, El Salvador, Zambia, Bangladesh, North Carolina, and New York. In each instance, we observe the author, in the role of consultant, approach adult learners and incorporate the twelve principles into her training programs. This section shows the common needs of human beings and was for me fascinating. The final section in each of these twelve chapters is termed "Design Challenges." In these sections, Vella poses questions and invites us to reflect on the principles and apply them to our own situations, thereby demonstrating praxis and engaging each of us in the process. Some of the questions were useful to me while others were less so. A contemplative reader may accept this invitation while another may rush to the next chapter, while promising to return to the exercise at another time.

The final section of the book assists the reader in implementing the twelve principles in the classroom. In this section Vella suggests we never tell adult learners what can be asked, for asking honors the learner as an adult with years of experience and informal as well as formal learning. Tapping this experience is one way to show respect (p. 233). In the process of showing respect, Vella reminds us that we, the teachers, build safety and provide the opportunity for dialogue and praxis. It sounds simple to do but may require us to break old habits and think in a different way. How can we "ask" students when the class or course contains technical information that must be taught? Read this book for its many good ideas.

I read this book just as I was developing plans for the upcoming semester's classes. I modified assignments and considered how to create a culture more conducive to learning. In the first week of a graduate seminar, I presented the twelve principles and gave an example of how each principle might relate to the students' field experiences during the semester. As their field experiences would include teaching adults in various settings, I thought at least some of Vella's principles would be applicable. After further discussion the students agreed to illustrate their use of Vella's principles when writing about their field experiences. One student described her success in using several principles when providing group education to employees who were using a new food-safety process. Several other students wrote about using principles of dialogue to promote lifestyle changes during individual and group counseling. Based on these responses, I thought Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults provided me with useful strategies that I will use in the future. Is that not one reason to read a book?

Posted April 29, 2003

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2003 by Elaine M. Blyler.

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