Book by Jane Vella
Review by Jean C. Fulton
Academic Advisor
Landmark College, Putney, VT

Over several decades, Vella has drawn from her extensive cross-cultural experiences and background in adult learning theory to develop dialogue education.  With this latest work, she has authored six volumes that present and expand upon its principles and practices. Vella says early on that she expects most readers of this book to be unfamiliar with dialogue education, explaining it as “a state of mind, moving us to listening, respecting, doubting, reflecting, designing, affirming, considering options, and celebrating opposites” (p. 11). 

Although educators from various pedagogical perspectives may not know the details of dialogue education, they are likely to embrace such a state-of-mind aim.  Some may even subscribe (albeit unknowingly) to the basic tenets of this approach, which include emphasis on dialogue not domination, learning not teaching; small group work and open questions; and communication, affirmation, and mutual respect.  What may set dialogue education apart, however, is Vella’s assertion that it offers “a structured system that evokes spontaneous and creative responses” (p. 11).  

People designing instruction, especially those with little experience, are likely to find Vella’s schemas useful, such as her Seven Design Steps or Four I’s or Learning Needs and Resources Assessment.  Those wanting to delve into dialogic theories, however, should look elsewhere. The same may be said for educators seeking inspiration to make changes.  As Vella’s prototypical reader, I would have liked to hear more learner voices and anecdotes.  Except for her preface and short reflections by two Utah educators, this book is essentially nuts-and-bolts.  However, although it does present design structures and sample course protocols in various subjects -- emphasizing short-term training formats but considering online courses and the face-to-face college classroom – the book is not a how-to.  (In fact, readers are referred to workshops offered through Global Learning Partners, an organization Vella founded.)  

That said, this book did spark insights, and I found myself extrapolating to the academic advising environment.  In some cases, there was powerful reinforcement for current practices, such as not stealing the learning opportunity by answering my own questions.  Sometimes, making associations created ponderables.  For example, would a different kind of needs assessment help me uncover crucial advisee issues earlier in the semester – or might this actually disturb dialogue and organic learning?  Vella explains that dialogue education involves setting students to a learning task, “an open question put to a small group with all the resources they need to respond” (p. 113).  Working primarily one-to-one, I’m still thinking about the group part, but I am more conscious of how easily a question can be perceived as rhetorical or as fishing if a student doesn’t yet have the resources to respond.  The open question, Vella says, “does not belittle facts and figures; it moves directly to examine them, to analyze the connections, and to consider the implications” (p. 113).  This sounds like the essence of advising to me.  

Advisors may already buy into much of what this book demands.  We are likely to know -- and respect -- the whole student as well as to appreciate that our work hinges on student transformation, not content presentation.  Affirmation is central to advising relationships.  We realize that it has to be genuine, and perceived that way by the student.  However, we may not see such things as part of a structured system.  Could they be?  Should they be? This book is a reminder that our world today needs more dialogue at all levels.  Vella cautions that “we must be wary of being so sure that dialogue is impossible” (p. xvi), offering her belief that “each teacher’s reflection and awakening affects us all” (p. xv).

On teaching and learning:  Putting the principles and practices of dialogue education into action.  (2008)  Book by Jane Vella.  Review by Jean C. Fulton. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 232 pp, $36.00, ISBN 978-0-7879-8699-5
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