Dialogue Education has come to Academia

dialogueRe-posted from Global Learning Partners with permission of the author

Dr. Daniel S. Gerber, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, School of Public Health and Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst MA

At a recent visit to have dinner with my mentor and friend Dr. Jane Vella I said, “Dialogue Education has come to academia.” In my experience, Adult Learning Theory which includes Dialogue Education, has become the premier pedagogy in Higher Education.  I asked, “Why else would UMass, Amherst recently build a new academic teaching building at the cost of one hundred and ten million dollars with mostly team-based learning classrooms?”  These are classrooms, housed with ten to fifteen round tables and nine chairs at each table, where students work cooperatively – learning the material by problem-solving and participating in other student-centered active learning projects.  At this point Karen Ridout, who came by Jane’s house to meet me, said, “Dan, would you be willing to write a blog about this?”  I said “Sure”, thinking I have never written a blog before and I don’t have a clue as to the format.   But, I am certainly willing to put my thoughts on paper.

I think the first thing I should do is introduce myself.  I am Dr. Dan Gerber, ED.D., MPH, currently the Academic Dean in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  I have been in Higher Education for the past twenty-six years, joining the ranks after spending the first twelve years of my professional life as an Adult Learning Theory education practitioner mostly overseas in developing countries. Like anyone reading this blog I was affected by Jane’s teachings and even followed her into the same ED.D. program she attended earlier in her career, at the Center for International Education at the University of Massachusetts. My plan was to complete the ED.D. and continue being an Adult Learning Theory practitioner overseas.   But upon completing my doctorate, the University offered me a job as a teaching faculty and my career made a hard right turn.  For additional information about me click here.  (I believe it is important for the reader to know I did not follow the normal road to Higher Education of bachelors, masters, doctorate, post doctorate, faculty, but first was a practitioner who was fortunate enough to encounter Dr. Vella and Dialogue Education in Indonesia where I was Program Director for Save the Children. And, even today as a dean I still teach every semester.  Not because the university wants me to but because I need to teach!  It is as much as who I am as being a husband, father, son, or friend.)

Entering the Academy (which is what Higher Education people call it) in 1996 with an ED.D. in adult learning and as a disciple of Jane Vella, I could not design my courses the usual way. Even my fifty minute, four hundred and sixty student personal health course which is set up for lecturing had to be changed to the best of my ability so that it was based on Dialogue Education.  Using case studies with in-class reflection questions, personal growth reflection exercises, small group discussions, journaling homework, and even community service learning projects, I have always done my best to follow the principles and practices I learned with Jane in Indonesia.  In the 1990s, I was considered an innovative teacher with courses popular with students. That has changed in the last decade. Today if you Google, “How to teach college students,” you will be bombarded with websites of college professors explaining how only lecturing does not work and how good teachers use Adult Learning Theory to help students learn the material they are teaching.  Do all these learner-centered activities follow the guidelines of Adult Learning Theory or Dialogue Education strictly?  No, of course not, but I would make the argument that ninety percent follow the four principles of Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Educations to the best of their ability. These four principles are (as I learned them in 1987 from Jane):

  1. Respect – the learner must feel heard, and respected for himself/herself.
  2. Immediacy – learners must see how they can use their new knowledge, skills and attitudes immediately, in their context
  3. Experience – people learn best when what they are learning is related to their own life experience.
  4. Adults learn:
  • 20% of what they hear
  • 40% of what they hear and see
  • 80% of what they discover for themselves

For example, in 2004 my profession published a manual called, Demonstrating Excellence in Practiced-Based Teaching in Public Health (published by the Associate Schools of Public Health, which is based on Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education. I don’t care if the methodology is team-based learning, problem-based learning, community service learning, labs, small group facilitated discussion, in my experience they all, to some extent, fall under these four principles of Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education.  Especially important is principle number four: Adults learn – 80% of what they discover for themselves. Do these teachers know this?  Most likely not.  What they do know is the students are learning better than with the old method of only lecturing. Most might notice a higher level of energy in their classes.  Consequently, I see that we won! The old banking approach to education (strictly lecturing with tests every few weeks) is on its way out and Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education is on its way in. As Dean, I celebrate this!

This leads me to three questions:

  1. If this is true than why is lecturing still the predominant way of teaching generally in Higher Education?
  2. Why should pedagogy in Higher Education change at all?
  3. How do we support this process of change?

Lecturing is still the predominant way of teaching in Higher Education for several reasons:  This is how the current Higher Education faculty were themselves taught.  To become a university or college professor one does not need any training in teaching.  You are hired because you are considered an expert in your field of research or in your unique discipline.  And since lecturing is the way you learned, that is the way you teach it. Jane has said: “We teach the way we were taught.”

Lecturing is also easier to learn than doing more active ways of teaching. But it’s more than that.  In lecturing, the teacher has the most control over what happens in their classroom than any other ways of teaching.  Moving towards Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education the teacher gives up a good deal of control of what goes on in the classroom. To most teachers this is very scary! It takes a certain amount of security and confidence to trust a process of teaching that gives the control of learning over to the student. I might add at this point that one of Jane mantras that has stayed with me for the last three decades is, “You have to give up the control to have it be given back to you”.  In my experience I have found this saying absolutely true.

Another reason many people believe lecturing is the most effective way to cover a lot of content.  Whether this content ends up being retained or not is not is the issue we must consider.

This final reason was first brought to light by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.  Friere wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) that teachers control what information or knowledge is given out and how it is given out so they can maintain their authority as the person with power.  Since they have the knowledge and give it out (lecturing) they are the “expert” and maintain all the perks such expertise comes with: prestige, power, resources, respect. Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education is perceived, many times unconsciously, to threaten the status quo.

What else? I would be certainly interested in what other reasons are keeping lecturing the predominant means of teaching?

Next, why is Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education having any head-way at all in Higher Education? The biggest reason is students can retain more knowledge through Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education, and even better, apply it to their life.  How do we know this?  Because our students have demonstrated this time and time again. The only research I have found that proves this is through the new field of neuroscience.  If anyone knows of other published research that shows that students learn and apply knowledge through Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education better than lecturing I would be interested in seeing it.  Meanwhile, in the field of neuroscience it has been proven that students will remember information they learned if the information is processed by Data + meaning + sensory + emotion (Endicott 2004).  This means that students are given an experience that includes:

  • Data – Presentation of data/information/knowledge
  • Meaning – Meaning is given to the data/information/knowledge
  • Sensory – Smell, touch or seeing enhances (props, video, tactile, physical interaction)
  • Emotion – Integrating all of the above plus adding an element that connects with the emotion (i.e. personal meaningful story)

This sounds like Dialogue Education!

Another change in education that forcing us to move away from lecturing to Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education is online teaching.  I was recently at large conference of academic deans and everyone said today they would never allow a faculty to develop and teach a course online without first giving them training in active learning methodologies. Why?  Because in the early years of online teaching faculty did just post their lectures online, assign readings, give tests and the students gave them terrible evaluations!  The students did not feel that the professor’s teaching was worthwhile and they were right.  Of course the same deans said where their institutions will gladly pay for training for their faculty to learn to teach online, they still just expect the same faculty to walk into a classroom and be a successful teacher. I asked the deans, “How many faculty that learn to teach online change the way they teach in the classroom?”  The answer I received was unanimous, all of them!

Which leads me to the third reason Higher Education pedagogy is changing : student demand! When I asked one of my university’s administrators why we are building team-based classrooms he said because this is what the students want.  He added that administration cares what the students want today more than ever because the population in the United States for the dominant college age student (18 to 22) is drastically decreasing. Institutions of Higher Education are concerned about filling their classes and dormitories in the future. Hence, administrators today are very concerned about their institution’s reputation and universities that have adapted Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education as their main pedagogy have the best teaching reputations.

Another reason why Higher Education is changing is employer’s demands. All the research today shows employers want students that have skills along with knowledge. For instance, today’s graduates that know how to problem-solve and work as a team player have an advantage over graduates who don’t. Again Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education are better able to teach these skills than a strict lecturing format.

Finally my last question is how do we support speeding up the process of change? This is actually the question Jane, Paula Berardinelli, Karen Ridout and I struggled with during my visit. One answer I heard the group come up with is to continue demonstrating the success of Dialogue Education by supporting models wherever we can.  Global Learning Partners is doing this in several of their current projects.

I have one idea for Higher Education and I’m interested to hear if readers have others.  Many institutions of Higher Education are in a battle, or maybe an identity crisis is a better way of saying it, between being an institution of liberal education and being an institution that is training the future professional workforce. On one side are mainstream academics who teach the specific content of their discipline because they love and value this knowledge.  On the other side are parents and children who are taking out huge loans to get their children a college education in order to give their children entry into the professional workforce.  I am suggesting a compromise.  Teach content specific knowledge but use Dialogue Education as the pedagogy (i.e. community service learning courses, classroom experiences designed with Dialogue Education methods).  This idea might give both sides what they want.

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I don’t generally re-post blogs written by other authors, but this one is special.  First, I think it is thoughtful and timely, and second, the author is my brother.

John M. Gerber, Professor

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