A Comparison: Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach and An Adult Education Critique of HRD

Posted: February 1, 2007 in Adult Education, Education, Educational Technology, Human Resource Development, Instructional Technology


In Jane Vella’s book Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach and Lee Nabb’s text An Adult Education Critique of HRD each author argues that specific teaching and learning principles can be applied to any situation. The authors point out, via example, that this idea holds true in their own unique ways. Vella draws on years of experience in many learning situations around the globe to support the power of dialogue and quantum thinking by sharing personal examples of these principles in action. Nabb takes the basic ideas of human resource development (HRD) and associates the processes with HRD that the Nazis conducted to systematically exterminate millions of people. Both authors articulate the ability to apply their specific principles successfully, and each makes their point by illustrating success via real life case studies. Also, both authors identify that teaching and learning principles can be used for change either for benefit or destruction.


Jane Vella’s basic ideas behind dialogue and quantum thinking are briefly described by the author when she states, “Dialogue education, as I perceive it and have taught it, is informed by quantum concepts”…relatedness, a holistic perspective, duality, uncertainty, participation, and energy (Vella, 2002, pp. 30-31). These concepts are further related to twelve principles for effective adult learning: needs assessment; safety; sound relationships; sequence; praxis; respect for learners as decision makers; ideas, feelings, and actions; immediacy; clear roles and role development; teamwork; engagement; and accountability (Vella, pp. 32-35). Vella goes on in her book to share examples of each principle in action through various case studies she participated in. For example, to express the importance of safety in learning Vella relates her experience in Tanzania to train local leaders in management, communication, and leadership to develop an extension program (pp. 72-73). In a particular village there was polarization between the men and women whereby the men refused to listen to the women, and dialogue was suffering (Vella, pp. 79-80). Vella and her colleagues set up a simulation where the women were put into a position where they had to find a way to save a young boy who had fallen into a pit, and the women’s first reaction was to call for the men (pp. 80-81). Once reminded the men were unavailable, the women were able to eventually come up with an idea of tying their shawls together to make a rope that could be lowered to the boy and used to pull him out (Vella, p. 81). Once the women were put in a situation where they could communicate with one another without the negative effects of the men ignoring or not respecting them, they were able to safely communicate, collaborate, and creatively solve a problem which was a first step to the women’s role in the extension program (Vella, pp. 81-82). Although the relationship between the men and women was not remedied immediately, the women had been put in a safe position to accomplish something on their own without the men and put them on a path to becoming partners in solving problems they would inevitably face in Tanzania (Vella, p. 82).

Another example that Vella relates concerning immediacy and safety was in El Salvador. Safety this time involved the real danger of a volatile political situation, and the immediacy of safety was at the forefront (Vella, p. 169). Vella’s purpose in this case was assistance in the Save the Children’s community development program, and safety became a huge concern as she relates a stop at the border between El Salvador and Guatemala at the hands of armed men (pp. 161-162). What Vella is able to do in both instances is to relate the principle of safety not only in a classroom setting, but also in where the setting is located. Safety can be described on a spectrum and as Vella shares two real life experiences the reader gains a deeper understanding based on a continuum of a principle the author promotes as a basic precept that enhances and encourages adult learning.


Nabb uses a similar approach to Vella in that he uses a real life experience to support his point; however, Nabb uses a historical event, the Holocaust, to highlight the use of HRD to carry out these atrocities. HRD is “the process of facilitating organizational learning, performance, and change through organized [formal and informal] interventions, initiatives and management actions for the purpose of enhancing an organization’s performance capacity, capability, competitive readiness, and renewal” (Gilley, et al, 2002, pp. 6-7). With this definition of HRD in mind, Nabb effectively relates the historical events of Nazi Germany with the principles of HRD that resulted in the atrocious killing of millions of Jews and other “unacceptables” according to Nazi belief.

Nabb uses Nadler’s Critical Events Model (CEM) that includes the following events in program planning: evaluation and feedback; identify the needs of the organization; specify job performance; identify the needs of the learner; determine objectives; build curriculum; select instructional strategies; obtain instructional resources; and conduct training/education (Nabb, 2005, pp. 32-33). Nabb compares several points in Nazi extermination that are associated with the CEM. For instance, in relating the use of gas trucks Nabb identifies that the objective for training troops was “to operate the special gas truck mechanisms to effect less violent, more effective and efficient extermination and unloading” (p. 56). Later, Nabb determines a similar objective but on a grander scale and associates this with the need to exterminate larger numbers of people in extermination camps (p. 83). As the reader understands the principles of HRD and sees the association of CEM and the carrying forth of the Holocaust by Nazi Germany it becomes apparent that good HRD or the effective use of CEM does not necessarily produce positive results for humanity. The case study is somewhat of a warning as to the effective use of a model or principle in the wrong hands or by someone with a twisted mindset.


Vella and Nabb provide evidence that specific teaching and learning principles can be applied in any learning situation for the good or the bad of humanity. The result of teaching and learning using any strategy or principle is change, and change can come in many forms. Change can be opening lines of communication in a war torn country like El Salvador, or it can be efficiently exterminating 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany. Change carries with it consequences, and it is important for educators to be aware of the effects of change and what that means in the learning process. As Vella and Nabb effectively point out, change or learning is essentially a constant but comes in many forms and requires careful consideration on the part of the teacher and the learner, and that pondering should be done by the educator and student together.


Gilley, J., Eggland, S., & Gilley, A. (2002). Principles of Human Resource Development. New York: Basic Books.

Nabb, L. W. & Armstrong, K. B. (2005). An Adult Education Critique of HRD: A Case Study of Training for Atrocities in German-Occupied Europe. Chicago: Discovery Association Publishing House.

Vella, J. (2002). Learning to Listen Learning to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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