Book Review: Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach (Jane Vella)

Learning to Listen, Learning to TeachISBN 978-0787959678
Available from Amazon

By The Rev. David Robson, M.Ed., D.Min., rector, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, York

A few decades ago, educators began to shift their focus from teaching to learning. Instead of teaching material, educators began to focus on helping students learn. This represented a monumental shift.

Around the same time, educators began to discover that adults learn differently than children.  Unfortunately, some continue to use traditional methods to teach adults. The phrase, either spoken or inferred, “I am the priest, and I will tell you what you need to know” is a perfect example of that historical style.  Today, we realize that adult learning represents a new and bold field that weaves theories with healthy viable practices. Adult educators believe that instead of treating adults as passive receptors we need to engage and help adults in their inquiries of mental and spiritual development. Today, countless books explore this burgeoning field. Some of these books are big, bulky and tend to be designed for academics or other professionals. Frankly, the average reader would likely find these efforts boring!

Thankfully, Jane Vella offers several small, very readable and deep insightful works. At age 19, Jane became a Maryknoll Sister.  In 1956, she moved to Africa where she spent the next twenty-five years working and teaching in a variety of settings.  When she returned to America, she completed her Ph.D. in adult education.

Among various projects Jane found time to write delightful books. In 1994, Jossey-Bass, perhaps the predominant publisher of adult education, printed this remarkable book. Early in this book Vella introduces a central and pivotal adult education image. It is, I think, an image we often overlook or ignore in the church. She wrote:

Do not tell what you can ask. Do not ask if you know the answer; tell in dialogue.' This invites the adult educator to honor the learner.                          

Perhaps the best way to further review this fine work is to simply note the twelve principles of adult education that Vella identifies and explores in this work. These are:

  1. Needs Assessment - meeting the need to provide quality Christian education.
  2. Safety - providing a comfortable learning environment.
  3. Create a sound relationship for all - no experts, just a community of learners.
  4. Careful attention to the sequence of content and reinforcement - learning at the speed and comfort level of the small group.
  5. Praxis education - learning by doing.
  6. Respect for learners as subjects of their own learning - self explanatory.
  7. Total learning - being aware of everyone's ideas, feelings and actions.
  8. Immediacy - direct application of new learning into one's faith or leadership ministry.
  9. Clear roles - understanding the relationship between provider and learner.
  10. Teamwork - everyone contributes to everybody's learning.
  11. Engagement - sharing and learning with others of similar background.
  12. Accountability - success is learners deepening and sharing new insights.

While a small book, it is filled with many anecdotal descriptive stories rooted upon the author's experiences.  These illustrations help readers learn and appreciate some of the wonderful and supportive ways we can help adults embrace learning.