Dialogue Education: Revisited

This week I facilitated a lunchtime session for the IDEA (Instructional Design and Education Activities) Interest Group at Mayo Clinic School. The group consists of human resource professionals, hospital administrators, instructional designers, adult educators,  faculty & staff, and interested others who function in face-to-face and online domains and concentrate in workforce training, public education, and graduate & professional schools across the health sciences fields.  The IDEA Interest Group leader was very generous in allowing me to choose my topic, but she offered these three guidelines: the topic should have broad appeal, somehow relate one or more best practices in adult learning, and leverage the digital affordances of the group’s meeting place, Blackboard Collaborate.  I chose to talk about Dialogue Education, the highly structured, pre-digital approach to participatory learning described by Jane Vella in the 1980s.

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At first glance, Dialogue Education seems so opposite-of-cutting-edge as to be irrelevant.  While it may have been considered radical in the 1980s, there is nothing overtly radical about Dialogue Education now.  I recently reread Vella’s On Teaching and Learning, and I find her emphasis on Bloom’s taxonomy and instructor-generated structure particularly disturbing when juxtaposed (often on the same page) with strongly worded mandates for “equality” among instructors and learners.  I’m not suggesting that such contradictions can’t work themselves out, but I always get suspicious when they go unacknowledged.

Additionally, there is nothing emerging about the approach.  A review of current Dialogue Education resources offers the exact same content Vella developed 20 years ago; absolutely nothing has changed with the times, with one superficial exception: the 4 Is (Induction, Input, Implementation, Integration) are now called the 4 As (Anchor, Add, Application, and Away).

The lack of conversation around dialogue education and digital participatory culture makes it look dinosaurian, particularly when compared to connected learning. Vella writes of online education in her 2008 text, On Teaching and Learning, but it’s clear she had not grasped the affordances or implications of flipped, blended, networked, or digital-integrated learning. To be fair, few educators had considered any of this in 2008 but some had; for example, by 2008 the debate over whether connectivism was a new learning theory or just a new take on social constructivism was well underway.

I want to make this clear. Dialogue Education is not my (or anyone else’s) everything. However, I think it is most definitely something – something worth talking about with all kinds of people everywhere – and here’s why.

I quit practicing medicine in March 2011.  In July, an acquaintance of an acquaintance – an education professor who was looking to recruit health professionals to her adult education degree program –  met me for lunch in a local grocery store.  She convinced me to enroll in her night class on program planning and instructional design, because, as she put it “what else was I going to do with my time?”

At the time, I didn’t even know what instructional design was – I actually didn’t figure it out until about halfway through the semester.  I sat in that class every Tuesday and Thursday night, a burned out ex-physician with all the anger, fear, and grief that you would expect me to have (and probably more), surrounded by teachers, instructors, and workforce trainers with years of experience.  I not only thought to myself “Why am I here?” but I literally wrote it out over and over again in my notebook.

The professor (who must have regretted her decision to recruit me more than once) taught Dialogue Education using Dialogue Education.  By the end of the semester, I had not only designed a workshop but had used Dialogue Education to teach my (mostly non-medical) classmates how to interpret gynecologic ultrasound studies.  I had also started teaching other subject matter experts how to integrate Dialogue Education into their continuing education workshops.

All this in one semester.  One class. One book.

I was a very conflicted adult learner with a fuzzy understanding of my purpose. Dialogue Education kept me in my seat. I came to class.  I learned something.  I used what I learned.

I was a subject matter expert with no understanding of education as a discipline. Dialogue Education opened my eyes to the fact that teaching and learning are about more than making sure the lectures are in the right order.  There are bodies of literature, best practices, things to know, and things to practice.

I was a novice instructional designer with no idea of how to start. Dialogue Education gave me something simple and concrete that I could wrap my arms around and share with others. The 4Is are firmly linked to the most ubiquitous themes of adult education literature.  When implemented well, Vella’s structure offers diverse and balanced approaches to passive and active learning. I was able to start teaching faculty how to implement Dialogue Education before I finished my class.

Despite all my protestations of “I am NOT a teacher,” I taught every single day of my medical career.  Oftentimes it was coaching, but I was also unusually active on the lecture circuit (back then it was women’s clubs, health classes, and junior leagues).  I would prepare my comments right down to the inflection and punctuation and always end within 5 seconds of my target.  The idea of moving away from that level of preparation and into the unknown abyss of participatory learning was terrifying.  Designing the right discussion questions is hard. What if they didn’t talk?  What if they said something different than what I wanted them to say? What if they said something wrong? Dialogue Education served as a stepping stone, a way to test the waters. If a group discussion bombs, even I could see that it would be okay. There is always another scheduled activity – not a class discussion!- in the next twenty minutes or less.

I believe Dialogue Education could play a pivotal role in the transition from traditional to participatory pedagogies particularly in structure-forward, accreditation-oriented, and content-driven fields.  Despite all indications to the contrary, Dialogue Education might be part of the revolution – leading the way one highly structured learning task at a time.






2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ken Bauer says:

    Great post Laura, thanks for the resources. My approach in my classes this semester is swinging back to more structure and I’ll be picking up “On Teaching and Learning” soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In my doctoral class, my students are exploring the evolution of knowledge management, and I was struck by the parallels between our study of the shifts from individualized knowledge to team knowledge to networked knowledge and your post on the learning approaches of dialogue at the individual level now co-existing with networked learning. Good post and nice slidedeck!


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