Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: the Power of Dialogue in Educating

by Jane Vella
Reviewed by Candy Cady
Originally Published Autumn 2001

Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994

The book Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach by Jane Vella is an outstanding guide for teachers of adult learners. It offers guidelines for setting objectives, outlines, and lesson plans for teaching adults.

Jane Vella is the creator of the new style of teaching referred to as “popular education.” This type of education for adult learners relies upon twelve principles of learning, which the teacher is responsible for establishing inside and outside the classroom. The twelve principles are: needs assessment; safety; sound relationships; sequence and reinforcement; action with reflection; students as subjects of their own learning; learning with ideas; feelings and actions; immediacy; assuming new roles for dialogue; teamwork; engagement; and accountability.

The first principle is needs assessment. While adults may register for the same class, they all come with different experiences and expectations. We, as teachers, need to listen to our adult learner’s wants and needs to help shape our program into something that can be readily and immediately used by them. Jane Vella suggests that we personally telephone or meet with our adult learners before the class begins to establish their needs and expectations. Armed with this information, we can then write our objectives and lesson plans accurately. She suggests following the WWW principle: who needswhat as defined by whom.

Safety is the second principle. Teachers must provide an inviting setting for adult students to learn. The teacher enables the students to feel safe by reviewing the teaching objectives with them; placing the learners in small groups so they can find their voices safely; beginning to teach easy, relevant tasks before moving on to more complex ones; and inviting creativity and spontaneity.

Principle three is building sound relationships, which includes respect safety, open communication, listening and humility. The first meeting between teacher and student must prove to the student that the teacher is interested in their needs and expectations. This is accomplished by the teacher asking open questions.

Sequence and reinforcement is the fourth principle. Sequence
refers to begin at the beginning. A teacher must teach concepts in order, from simple to complex. Reinforcement refers to the repetition of facts, skills, and attitudes in engaging and interesting ways until they are learned.

The fifth principle is praxis, the Greek word for action with reflection. The teacher must give students a chance to practice new skills, ideas and attitudes immediately so they will learn more effectively.

Respect for students is the sixth principle. This means that teachers must regard their students as subjects of their own learning. Jane Vella defines this principle as “acknowledgement of the uniqueness and human potential of the learner as decision makers in their learning.”

Ideas, feelings and actions make up the seventh principle. “Learning with the mind, emotions and muscles, attention to cognitive, affective, and psychomotor aspects of adult learning” are all-important elements of “popular education.”

Principle eight is immediacy, Teachers must provide students with the opportunity to immediately put to use the new skills, knowledge, and attitudes they are working to acquire.

Principle nine is clear roles. Recognition of clear roles requires the teacher to communicate openly with the student. The student must understand that there is human equity between the teacher and himself/herself.

Teamwork is principle ten and one of the most important aspects of “popular education.” Not only does the team provide safety so each student can acquire their voice, but, in a team, learning is enhanced by peers. Peers hold significant authority with adults, more than most teachers. They can challenge each other in ways teachers cannot. Peers create safety for learners who are struggling with complex concepts and skills. Teams invite “welcome energy of competition.” Also consider the fact that “the size of a group is directly related to the potential for effective reinforcement and the quality of sequence.”

Principle eleven is engagement. Teachers must design effective learning tasks, which invite learners to put themselves into.

The twelfth and final principle is accountability. This principle is the most important but also the most difficult to accomplish. Accountability involves capturing the learning moment. What the teacher proposed to teach, must be taught.

Another important aspect of “popular education” is the seven steps of planning.” These seven steps help the teacher assess and then complete a specific design for a program. These steps are: who (profiles of participants), why (the situation), when (consider the time frame), where (site for learning), what for (determine content of teaching), what (the skills, knowledge and attitudes that are necessary for the learner to learn), and how (the program the teacher designed which consists of a set of learning tasks for the group of adult learners).

Each of the twelve principles and the “seven steps of planning” rely upon each other to work effectively. If one principle or step is disregarded or ineffective, the entire program will be in jeopardy.

These principles provide the teacher with the necessary elements for writing clear and concise objectives and goals and holding them accountable for their teaching. At the same time adult students become responsible for their own learning. This book is one of the most important pieces of educational literature a teacher can read and should be a requirement of all teaching programs.