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The Core Strategy of Dialogue Education

Teach the WordMy father-in-law used to quote a saying about boys working on the farm: “You got one boy, you got half a man. You got two boys, you got nothing.” I can hear his chuckle as he used to say it. Put kids together and they’ll goof off. Adults, however, can get down to the task and be serious. In teaching, this maturity is something we can use to our advantage.

In a classroom setting, children lack the self-discipline to work seriously in a group and the thinking skills to perform analytical tasks, but adults can do both. Put them in a group to compare a New Testament story to events in their life, or ask them to analyze a statement that is partly true and partly false. Adults can and will make good use of the discussions. Even more, they’ll connect their life experience to the group.

Because of their maturity, thinking skills, and experience, adults can take a more active part in the learning. The advantages are many. Engagement with the lesson’s content increases comprehension, retention, and interest. All teachers of adults have experienced the wonder of an engaging discussion between learners. It happens naturally, but only occasionally. How can we consistently engage adults in discussion?

For years I have successfully used a tactic for doing this — the Learning Task. It is the core strategy of Dialogue Education™. A Learning Task is a discussion-based task given to breakout groups. The task is based on an open question, and it is achievable. The task can be used to lead into, increase comprehension of, or apply the lesson. How does this work practically?

You might begin a lesson by teaching the content of your lesson in whatever way you know and like. Use lecture, create a PowerPoint, watch a video, or use any other method for delivering the lesson’s content. Then, add a Learning Task.

Follow the two criteria for writing a good Learning Task: (1) make it an open question and (2) make it achievable.

The task must be based on a good open question. Definitely avoid fishing. Come up with a question that could have many correct answers. An open question might deal with application of a principle. It could ask the groups to prioritize points according to their view of things. It might simply ask groups to list questions and comments about the content of the lesson. Take that open question and turn it into a discussion task. But make sure the task truly is a task.

By definition, a task is achievable. Likewise, a Learning Task results in something accomplished. When participants are finished with the Learning Task, we should be able to point to something and say, “You did it.” They prioritized a list, created a diagram, wrote down lingering questions, etc.

When the task is completed, the groups typically report to the entire assembly of learners. This larger group discussion is the time when the teacher can weigh in, add points, and clarify understanding.

For example, let’s say I’m teaching a lesson for elders about Christian rebuke. I present the content with a lecture, looking up passages, and asking some questions. By the end of 20-30 minutes, we have learned the following:

“There are three parts of Christian rebuke: Law, gospel, Law. Truly Christian rebuke typically starts with Law as a mirror. It continues with gospel if there are signs of repentance. Christian rebuke often ends with Law as a guide.”

We are finished with the content part of the lesson. I trust it is understood. But now we can lead learners to deeper comprehension, better retention, and increased engagement. We set a Learning Task: “In groups of four, create a drama in which two of you are elders visiting a couple who has not come to church for a year.”

This task is an open question. There is not one right answer. It is also achievable. Either the group will perform the skit or not. The groups work on the task and afterwards, I invite any volunteers to perform the skit. After the performance and applause, the teacher and other learners will discuss how the three parts of Christian rebuke were demonstrated.

Most Learning Tasks are not as nearly intimidating as performing a skit. The topic of Christian rebuke lends itself to an activity to practice the skill, but other lessons will call for different tasks. Keep in mind the two criteria for a good task: open question and achievable. Then let your imagination go. Here are some examples:

  • Ask & Comment: “Review the lesson study sheet. Decide on one question and one comment that your group has. When every group is finished, we’ll discuss together all the questions and comments.”
  • What’s valuable and what do you want to explore: “You have before you a written summary of what we’ve learned so far. Underline one concept your group finds most valuable to remember. Put a question mark by the concept your group would like to explore further.”
  • Diagram: “Draw a diagram representing the main points we want to remember from our study of the Third Commandment. When we come back together, we’ll take volunteers who would like to explain their diagram. ”
  • Compare: “Create an analogy between what we learned and the parts of a house (for example, this is like the foundation, that is like the roof, this other thing is like the furnace, etc.).
  • Evaluate a case study: “Discuss the case study below. Based on what we’ve learned, decide how your group would approach this issue.”
  • Compose: “Choose the one thing your group would most like to take away from this lesson. Write a hymn verse about it.”

The options for Learning Tasks are limitless. Just make sure that it is truly open and achievable. Try adding a Learning Task to a lesson. If your experience matches mine, there may be some initial resistance. But as you and the participants find how engaging a Learning Task can be, it will become a regular, noisy, and welcome part of the learning you do together.

Follow this link for further guidelines about writing and running Learning Tasks.

For more about learning to use Learning Tasks or generally about Dialogue Education, see the books listed at: http://www.globallearningpartners.com/resources/books

The book, Taking Learning to Task: Creative Strategies for Teaching Adults specifically addresses this core strategy of Dialogue Education™.

Video Extra: Teach the Word – Interview With Pastor Nitz, Part 3


This is the third 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.