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Does Dialogue Make Truth Relative?

I’ve talked about the value of Dialogue Education™ with many other teachers of adults. The most common objection I hear goes something like this, “Sounds interesting, but don’t we want to teach objective truth?” I’ve had mixed success in disabusing my friends of that misunderstanding. If the reader has a similar hesitation about a dialogic approach to teaching, I hope this rebuttal will satisfy.

In my opinion, the dialogic approach is not opposed to teaching objective truth—quite the contrary. Reuel Howe makes this point in his book on Christian theological education, The Miracle of Dialogue.

“The dialogical role is often misinterpreted to mean that one does not take a stand, especially a stand against what seems to be a majority. On the contrary, the dialogical role means to take a stand. Martin Luther superbly illustrated it when he declared, ‘Here I stand.’ Before his act there was no dialogue and no Reformation” (1963, p. 103).

Dialogue Education certainly can be used to promote a relativistic view of truth, but it is not inherently designed to do so. (A lecture or a question-and-answer session could also promote relativism.) If we simply look at the principles and methods of the Dialogue Education approach, what do we find?

Evaluate this sampling of the twelve principles of Dialogue Education:

  1. Needs Assessment – It’s good to get input from learners before, during, and after a learning event.
  2. Safety – When the classroom is threatening, learning is hampered. So, for example, avoid making learners feel small by allowing “plops.”
  3. Sound Relationships – When the relationship between teacher and learners, and among learners, is healthy, learning is easier and better.
  4. Sequence and Reinforcement – Organize the content of the lesson(s) and reinforce lessons through review tasks.
  5. Immediacy – Make the usefulness of what is being learned clear.

There’s nothing to object to here. The principles simply highlight what we all know about learning. If the teacher is gruff, some students will turn off. If material is disorganized, it is harder to learn. If we don’t see a practical use for what we are learning, the lesson is rarely retained. There is no obstacle to using Dialogue Education to teach truth.

If there is no objection to the principles, maybe there is a problem with the methods. The core method Dialogue Education uses is the Learning Task. This is a group task is based on an open question, a question with no right or wrong answer. That might sound like an encouragement to play around with the truth, but in practice it is not. Let’s say that I teach a lesson on the gifts of the Spirit. I then ask the participants to break into groups and discuss an open question: “Read this excerpt from a Pentecostal preacher’s sermon. What does your group agree with and disagree with based on what we’ve learned?” A task like that promotes the understanding of the truth. True enough, a group might report back a misunderstanding of the truth. Another group might even object to the truth. Good. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Here’s why.

A Learning Task gives room for objection, and that’s good. When there is no chance to engage in a dialogue with truth, learning may be hindered. Reuel Howe made this point convincingly. “Dialogue has more respect for a responsible No and all that it signifies than for an irresponsible Yes . . . [It] is able to accept the negative response as a part of the dialogue, and instead of regarding it as a sign of failure, sees it as part of the process in which a person moves from one point of view or conviction to another” (p. 58).

The purpose of communication in teaching is not to simply transmit truth, and certainly not to impose truth. If a student has no chance to object and question what is being learned, he is not learning in as meaningful a way as he or she could be. At best, the student is obediently absorbing information. Instead, we welcome objection and doubt. We teach the truth to adults, we allow discussion of it, and we engage in a dialogue that aims at fully understanding and appropriating that truth. Dialogue does not make the truth relative; it helps the learner discover its relevance.

Whatever methods you use in teaching, I’d encourage a “dialogic” approach. Respect learners as decision makers in the learning process. Focus on the learning that is taking place just as much as the content. Allow for interaction, even objection. Do that and you’ll be doing dialogue education whether or not you invest in learning about Dialogue Education.

Resources:

In the 1963 book Miracle of Dialogue, Reuel Howe writes much about the nature and value of a dialogic approach to teaching, but little about methods.

In 1994, Jane Vella wrote her first book, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach. That was the beginning of popularizing Vella’s dialogic theory and methods, later trademarked Dialogue Education. She expanded on the theory and methods through several subsequent books. The best single book for an overview of both theory and method of is On Teaching and Learning, Jane Vella (2008).

A book dedicated to learning how to write and conduct good Learning Tasks is Taking Learning to Task, also by Jane Vella.

Jane Vella and her associates formed a company called Global Learning Partners. They conduct week long seminars to teach Dialogue Education (DE). At their website, globallearningpartners.com, you can find course offerings, a useful archived newsletter, regular blogs about DE, and purchase books about Dialogue Education.

For my brief overview of Dialogue Education follow this link to “A Practical Overview of DE.”

Video Extra: Teach the Word – Interview With Pastor Nitz, Part 5 

This is the fifth article in a five-part series by Paul Nitz, a WELS pastor and missionary to Malawi. He teaches pedagogy at the Lutheran Bible Institute, the beginning level ministerial school that serves the Lutheran Church of Central Africa in Malawi and Zambia.