Improve classroom education with student dialogue

The least effective way to deliver information is to tell it

To improve classroom education, create dialogue. That's the advice of proponents of dialogue education, or learning by dialogue. This approach requires that 50% of the time the instructor is not talking and the students are having dialogue in small groups or in partnership with another person, says Joye Norris, MS, EdD, an adult education consultant, curriculum designer, and speaker with Learning by Dialogue, based in North Myrtle Beach, SC.

Designing for dialogue is designing a conversation if it is one-to-one teaching or multiple conversations in a group. The most difficult part for the educator is to let go of a lot of the information usually taught because it is impossible to have a dialogue approach and keep the same level of content in the classroom curriculum, says Norris.

Adult learners must be given an opportunity to take the information and wrestle with it so to speak until they determine how to make it their own, explains Jane Vella, EdD, founder of Global Learning and adjunct professor at the School of Public Health of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Learning is always active," she says.

In regular classrooms, the educator determines what to tell the students and how to transmit the information. However, in learning by dialogue, the educator determines what students need to do to learn. This shifts the focus from the instructor to the adult learner, Norris explains.

Educators do not create a lesson plan; they design a class, says Norris. Design principles are used such as sequence or starting with the simple and moving to the more complex.

Dialogue education is carefully designed. It takes about three hours of preparation for every one hour of class time, Vella reports. There is a seven-step process that can be used to help develop a class designed to foster learning, she explains.

The process begins by asking, "Who are the learners?" They may all be people with congestive heart failure who need to learn how to manage this chronic disease, but that alone is not enough information to design a class tailored to the participants. Get the names and e-mail addresses of a sampling of the students and find out what they expect to gain from taking the class, advises Vella. This is called a learning needs and resources assessment.

Participants may be resources. For example, if a new mother in a parenting class is a nutritionist, she could be made a resource for information.

"You have to know what resources learners bring and also what their expectations of learning are. You don't need to talk to everyone, but you need to get a sample. If 10 are in the class, talk to at least three or four," Vella suggests.

The second step in class design is to determine "why" the participants need to learn the skill selected to be taught.

Norris says to select something from the content that allows participants to practice a skill that will make a difference as they manage a particular health issue. In that way, they will leave with a skill rather than with a lot of notes from a lecture they have difficulty remembering.

The third and fourth steps in the design are to determine the "when" and the "where." The when is the amount of time allotted for the class, and the where is the environment in which it will take place.

It's important to evaluate the time allotted for the class. If there are a series of classes, break the information into teachable segments. If there is only one class, the educator must determine its objective and select the appropriate point or points that fit the timeframe.

Less is more. Educators should be teaching half as much in twice the time if they are serious about wanting people to remember the information and be able to use it, Norris says.

Although there often isn't a lot of choice in classroom facilities, it is important to consider the environment in which the class is being taught. Norris says she once placed a 99-cent plastic tablecloth on the table to improve the atmosphere, and people noticed.

In the fifth step, the educator names the "what" of the course content. In the time allotted, participants must learn how to do a skill; therefore, the course instructor would determine what information was needed to perform the task. Vella says it is important to remember the only way to learn a skill is by putting the information into practice. To learn to ride a bicycle, one must get on and ride it.

Also, instructors need to know that information is only one element of the dialogue approach, Norris says.

The sixth design step is the "what for." In this step, learning objectives are created. For example, in a class for new parents, participants may leave the classroom having properly installed an infant car seat in their automobile.

The final step in design focuses on "how" participants will learn a skill. A good way to teach a skill is to design a learning task, Vella says.

A learning task has four parts that Vella describes as inductive work, input, implementation, and integration. Norris describes these parts as anchor, add, apply, away.

During the inductive work, participants are brought into the content through personal experience, Vella explains. This might be accomplished by having them pair up to discuss a question that connects them to the content, then having a few of the pairs share their answers with the entire group.

The key is to make a connection and ground the topic in the participants' lives. Otherwise, they won't be interested or they will struggle to figure out how the information applies to them, Norris says.

The input, or second part of the learning task, is the points that are to be made. In the implementation, participants are invited to select the point that they think is most relevant and determine how they can implement it. Although they focus on only one aspect of the teaching during the implementation portion, by working energetically on one item they will have learned them all, says Vella.

"During the implementation period, they have learned how to learn the content," she explains.

The fourth part of a learning task is integration. This focuses on what people will do when they leave the classroom. "Often, I like to have the fourth part open questions to the group and say, 'How will you use this when you get home.' They have to be explicit about this projection; it is not just good intentions," says Vella.

It's important to have some indication the participants know they know the information before they leave the room. The indicator of adult learning always is behavioral, says Vella.

When designing learning tasks for a group, make sure each of the different learning styles is addressed. For example, there are visual aids for the visual learners and handouts for those who like to read, says Vella.

Making personal meaning of new information is a key element in learning by dialogue, Norris notes.

To design this type of lesson, the educator must ask the right questions, such as: "How can I create a learning environment that makes them feel more safe?" "How can they connect this topic to their own lives right away?" "What at the very least should they know how to do when they leave this session?" "How exactly is that going to happen?"

Learning by dialogue is connecting with the participants, says Norris. Whether one-on-one or in a group and typically around open questions, it is engaging participants in how the information pertains to their lives.