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 needs what 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
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
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
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
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
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.