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Dialogue Education at Work: A Case Book

By Jane Vella
368 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-6473-5
$33.00 (paper)

Reviewed by

María Dolores Costa

Professor of Spanish
California State University, Los Angeles


Dialogue Education at Work is intended as a guide to applying the principles and practices of dialogue education as introduced in previous works by Jane Vella and through Global Learning Partners (an education and consulting company founded by Vella). Dialogue education--an educational model founded principally on the writings and theories of Paolo Freire--is designed for adult learners. The key components of the model are dialogue, teamwork, open questions, and a mix of affective, cognitive, and dynamic techniques. There are countless other issues that arise when dialogue education is at work in the teaching setting, and these are explored in the book through tangible illustrations of the model.

Each chapter provides an individual account of how different contributors utilized the method in their particular teaching/learning situation. Needless to say, Vella and her colleagues universally find the methods and techniques they are advocating to be highly effective. In their acclaim, in fact, the diverse contributors become somewhat repetitive--which is certainly testimony to their confidence in the approach to teaching they are sponsoring, even though it also can make the experience of reading certain long passages more monotonous than it should be. There are a few mentions of hurdles encountered when using dialogue education for teaching, but, for the most part, the cases that are supplied serve to sell the method to a possibly skeptical reader. The seven design steps used in dialogue education (who, what, why, when, where, what for, and how) are discussed throughout the book. Other matters--the nitty-gritty of curriculum design, moving from theory to practice, group dynamics, materials that could be required, distance learning, what could go wrong when following the model, respect, honoring lived experiences, roles in the classroom, focusing on the needs of the group, types of questions to be used, conflict in the classroom, and so forth--are explored repeatedly, although not evenly, in each chapter. Contributors delve into issues as they come up in the examples they are providing, usually with more than sufficient description.

When reading the book, one discovers that much of what the practitioners of dialogue education have to say seems to be uncomplicated common sense. Some facets of dialogue education are not wholly new to me or, I suspect, to most educators. Many of us have been using the principles of dialogue education in our teaching without realizing it. What the book does offer, however, is a more systematized and pragmatic mode of designing and implementing courses so that they become more meaningful and learner-centered. The better chapters, however, demonstrate the importance of dealing with even minute and simple matters when preparing classes and lessons using this approach to adult learning.

While the chapters share a similar tone and style, they are not equally helpful. Some provide much greater specificity regarding what was done in class by both instructors and students, whereas others offer much praise for the method without getting into explicit detail. Still, there is enough meticulousness in the book as a whole to give the reader a reliable sense of what dialogue education is and how it might be applied in concrete instructional settings. The uniformly direct style employed by the authors, the question-based structure of the dialogue method itself, the subheadings found in each chapter, the avoidance of unique or distracting jargon, and the glossary and index at the back of the volume all serve to make Dialogue Education at Work a handy guide for adult educators. I personally did not find the questions that conclude each chapter to be very valuable, since I had more interesting questions floating through my head as I read, but that is not to say these questions could not be pertinent for other readers.

Most of the examples supplied in the book do not come from traditional academia, but from other adult learning settings. In several passages, there are references to the resistance to dialogue education often found at the university level. This opposition, we are told, comes from students as well as faculty, since the banking model of education (whereby faculty members rich in knowledge deposit portions of their intellectual wealth into the deficient accounts of their students) is deeply entrenched in most institutions of higher learning and in our culture as a whole. This fact is to be mourned, the book suggests again and again. Those writing here were all schooled in the more traditional methods, yet they found both interest in the material they were teaching and retention of information improving once they began to employ the techniques promoted by Vella and her companions. The analogies of learning situations outside of the university setting can be applied by imaginative professors to their own classroom situation, but there is little doubt the book would be more practical for faculty if there were a few more cases taken directly from established academia.

Similarly, while a wide variety of disciplines are covered in the book, fields related to health, education, and social work are most broadly represented, while the humanities are conspicuously absent. The neglect of disciplines such as literature, philosophy, or history may not be a critical defect, as the principles of dialogue education are perhaps more readily applied in these branches of learning already--even by instructors who are not familiar with the particular terms employed by Vella and her associates. Nonetheless, this work would have been enhanced with the inclusion of these neglected fields.

In general, I was authentically intrigued by the dialogue learning model when reading the book, although at times I found myself wishing I were reading one of the more theoretical volumes written by Vella instead. I attribute this mostly to the fact that the majority of examples used in the case book are not taken from a university venue and therefore deal less with testing and long term assessment concerns than I would have liked. Because it seems content must be reduced when applying dialogue teaching methods, adequate coverage of material in courses that fit into a sequence in an academic program would be a bigger issue for university faculty than it is in the texts provided here. The question "How do I know they are learning?" is addressed in several instances, but not to a degree that would satisfy a university audience accustomed to covering large amounts of material in ten to fifteen weeks. Examinations are almost not mentioned, which is certainly a drawback from the perspective of a CSU professor. Also, as I was a novice to the entire approach, I at times wanted to have more definition of terminology and background information than could be provided in a single case study. All the same, upon completing the volume and reading the glossary, I found there was an adequate amount of information to begin applying this philosophy to my own teaching.

To conclude, I would like to personally attest to the efficacy of the dialogue education model. As I write this review, I am currently two weeks into a quarter in which I have chosen to apply the methods espoused in the book in all of my classes--ranging from beginning to graduate levels. I have already received quite a few e-mail messages from students commending the structure of the class and proclaiming their excitement over the amount of interaction and energetic learning that occurs in the classroom. While I, like many of Vella's contributors, have found that preparation time has increased somewhat, the experience in the classroom is far more lively and significant than in a class centered on lectures and note-taking. Like the individual chapter writers, I can enthusiastically give my support to the model. This, in the end, is the purpose of the volume edited by Jane Vella.

Posted April 19, 2004

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. ©2004 by María Dolores Costa.

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