Dialogue as a Means of Change

Editors’ note: Dr. Olga Kovbasyuk, Ph.D., provides an insightful narrative into the nature of dialogue and how it can create the potential for positive change in higher education. Dr. Kovbasyuk examines why dialogue is at the heart of meaning-centered education and why she believes its attributes of mutuality, responsibility, engagement, and acceptance as well as its central tenet of “educating the whole personality” provides a necessary framework for positive educational change. If you would like to continue the discussion, please click on the “leave a comment” link at the bottom of the article to submit your peer commentary. We welcome your professional opinions on the article.

Author’s bio: Professor Olga Kovbasyuk, Ph.D., is Professor and Associate Dean for International Relations at the Khabarovsk State Academy of Economics and Law in the Russian Federation. She is the founder of the Far East Russia Global Learning Center and a member of the executive committee of the HETL Association. She has been teaching, training, and managing educational services in the fields of education, intercultural communication, and international management for the past 25 years. In 2008, she founded a global learning center in conjunction with the 3 leading universities in Russia and the USA aimed at integrating global learning into the curriculum. Her international experience includes: Fulbright International Exchange of Scholars Program at the California State University, Sacramento, USA (2004-2005), DAAD Academic Research Program, Germany (2009), and has worked in more than 15 countries as a manager of academic exchange programs and as a consultant on managing cultural diversity for business companies (Alliance, Shell, Rostelecom).
 She has delivered over 70 presentations and publications in the fields of intercultural education and management. She is a native Russian speaker who also speaks fluent English and German.

Patrick Blessinger & Krassie Petrova


When Patrick Blessinger offered me the opportunity to submit an opinion article to the HETL Portal, I thought I would write about meaning-centered education, which has been my research interest for a number of years. Then I decided I would also share my experience on global learning, which became a source of inspiration to my students and me since I returned from a Fulbright Fellowship I had in California in 2005.

Last week, a colleague and I were working on the chapter “The Changing Environment of Higher Education” for the book The Strategic Management of Higher Education Institutions, when I realized I tended to emphasize the importance of DIALOGUE in teaching and learning. This reflection served as a turning point for my choice of the topic for this narrative.

Symbols of Russian culture: orthodox Russian church located in a typical wooden house, birch tree, and girl wearing "babushka"

In fact, dialogue underpins the theory of meaning-centered education, which I advocate as a scholar, as well as the global learning activities that I have been engaged in as a practitioner.  Dialogue represents my personal and professional credo in life. My whole self resonates when I anticipate the possibility of a true dialogue occurring in a professional or a personal setting. I consider having a reflective dialogue with my inner world critical to my professional and personal self-development. Dialogue would rarely occur within a traditional oppressive educational system, which I experienced when I was growing up, but dialogue repeatedly occurs in my classroom now… and I can see the positive change it provides. 

With my reflections on dialogue as a means of change, I hope to contribute to the current debate about the changing environment of education in general and higher education in particular. Very often, dialogue is perceived and interpreted as the formal exchange of messages and/or ideas, but such exchange can hardly be called a dialogue. The world could have escaped many troubles had people learned the art of true dialogue. In education, we often have a monologue with each other and with our students because when we exchange ideas (although on the surface it could look like we communicate dialogically). My teacher, the esteemed professor Lydia Kulikova, would name this kind of communication and interaction as one that goes “along the formal counter of a human being” (Kulikova, 2005, p. 74) thus failing to foster meaningful teaching and learning. She taught me “to hear the strings of the human heart” (Kulikova, ibid, p. 30) when in a classroom.

According to M. Buber and M. Bakhtin, dialogue entails such quality relationships between interlocutors as mutuality, responsibility, engagement and acceptance. The existential interpretation of dialogue holds that it is only in true dialogic relationships that an individual is able to unfold and experience self as personality. Personality is different from individuality. While individuality can be described by a unique combination of individual characteristics and attributes, personality is defined by the human capacity to become the subject of one’s life – the one who is able to take full responsibility for one’s own actions in life.

Personality is characterized by her/his inner world, which cannot be understood by another personality unless both are engaged in a true dialogue with each other. Consequently, one is able to cognize her/his own self when engaged in a dialogue with someone different from her/himself. That is why Freire called dialogue “an existential necessity” and Bakhtin referred to dialogic interaction with self as the major factor of self-creation: “Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education” (Freire, 2004, p.93).

Traditional school is knowledge-oriented and places an emphasis on the formation and upbringing of students to meet the expectations of society, rather than supporting the individual’s self or educating the whole personality. Knowledge can be tested but the inner world is personality’s sovereign space that cannot be measured by numbers and tests. Progress in students’ learning entails understanding and therefore is difficult to measured. An understanding is a transfer of meanings, but not a transfer of knowledge. ”I can’t teach you, but I can only hope you understand me. Understanding cannot be predicted, but may occur as a result of transfer and re-construction of meanings.”  (Leontiev, 2008, p.233)

As educators, we should consider that, like every transformation in general, personal transformation entails not linear progress but some points of regression and even stagnation as we progress. In fact, students should learn to welcome confusion and chaos as a transitory state between their prior convictions and new personal perspectives. It can also be viewed as a reversible process of quantitative and qualitative transformations of psychological attributes and states, which add to one another in timely reformations.

A true dialogue is open-ended; interlocutors may be unaware of conclusions they reach at the end. In the process of a truly dialogic interaction, it requires courage from those engaged in a dialogue to admit the possibility of change and re-construction of one’s views and perspectives. Consequently, the possible change and transformation within self may serve as a criterion of a truly dialogic interaction. Regrettably, we often tend to oppose a true dialogue, because we are often reluctant to change. It is easier to remain rigid than to admit the possibility of change. In such a way, we block our capacity for exploring new possibilities and ideas.

In education, dialogue entails partnerships between students and teachers. “Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students, and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers” (Freire, Ibid, p.80).  The dialogic position of students and teachers constitutes their independence, freedom, and responsibility. True dialogue requires developing “efforts towards others” (Bakhtin), and consequently facilitates meaningful interaction between people and cultures.

As educators, we face some controversies about how to educate generations in order to better prepare them for dealing with the complexities and conflicts arising from interconnectedness and interdependence between cultures in the contemporary world. Conflicts and xenophobia in the world arena suggest the inability of people to construct dialogic interaction, but in contrast show their inclination to negate the existence of different views and opinions. The challenge of being tolerant is the ability to recognize and accept different realities. Intolerance comes when people consider only one truth, and if someone adheres to a different truth, she/he has to be “taught”.

I believe that the global learning, incorporated in academic studies, facilitates recognition of different cultural perspectives. As a Stanford University student wrote in his evaluation essay: “One of the outcomes for me is a more critical understanding of Russian youth (and female) culture. The videoconferences allowed me to see and recognize the perspective of a group of students in Russia that I would not have been able to see otherwise. I was specifically struck by the students’ conceptions of happiness and their focus and perceptions of gender roles which were so different from my conception”.

My experience indicates that meaning-centered education encourages learners to actively seek, express and negotiate meanings in dialogues. Such dialogues have the potential of fostering value-oriented relationships and appreciation for the diversity of the world, as well as the potential of developing students’ critical self-reflection and collaborative skills. What is unique and resourceful about meaning-centered education and why it can provide the common basis for global learning, is that it facilitates people’s capability for constant self-developmental growth, which is innate to being a human. It is holistic because it embraces all aspects of personal growth.

Regrettably, much of higher education today is still more directed towards the training of a professional who is capable of performing certain functions and responsibilities, rather than nurturing a personality who makes the maximum effort to become a full human being. I hold that education should support developing the personality rather than to just help her/him acquire professional attributes; striving to become involves striving for intelligence, self/world-improvement, and professional competency.

In reality, what can we do to introduce dialogue as a means of change in teaching-learning environments? There might be a variety of ways for each of us to put it in action. I hope to hear different perspectives on the issue from colleagues around the world.

I would point out just a few to summarize my own perspective:

–       Priority of personal meanings over “educational requirements”

–       Priority of the evolution of increasingly better questions, as in Bloom’s Taxonomy

–       Priority of shifting through a variety of micro and macro perspectives

–       Priority of thinking about thinking (metacognition)

–       Priority of thinking about the processes of knowledge construction

What would you add to the list?

Olga Kovbasyuk


Bakhtin, M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. (Caryl Emerson, Trans.) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published in 1929).

Freire, P. (2004). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Buber, M. (1995).  (Gurevich, Trans.) Two Modes of Belief. M: Respublika.

Kulikova, L. (2005). Personality Self-Development: Psychological and Pedagogical Foundations. Kh: HGPU

Leontiev, D. (2008). Psychology of Meaning. M: Smysl.


Professor Lydia Kulikova taught Philosophy of Education in the Far East State University of Humanities in Khabarovsk, Russia, for 40 years.

Copyright © [2011] Olga Kovbasyuk

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and as such do not necessarily represent the position(s) of other professionals or any institutions.


About Patrick Blessinger

Higher Education Leader, Author, Speaker, Consultant.
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11 Responses to Dialogue as a Means of Change

  1. sasmita says:

    I agree with the author on the importance of dialogue in teaching-learning environment. The last points capture the author’s perspective on how to do so…..and to me the list is complete.
    However, I feel that young minds must be taught the importance of ethics and how to differentiate between the right and the wrong in any profession. As educators we can teach them the importance of identifying and not crossing that fine line between professional and unprofessional conduct. This can be done through dialogue, therefore my addition to your list will be- Priority of understanding the responsibilities associated with a profession – the ethics and morals.

  2. Dear Olga Kovbasyuk,
    This is a wonderfully stimulating article. I can definitely relate to the importance of Dialogue in teaching and learning. I know the discussion about Changing Education to be mainly centred on ‘whether or not’ and ‘how’ to use social media in the classroom; and whether or not educators are digital savvy as opposed to their students.

    In no way, do I object to the introduction of digital gadgets in the learning environment. But actually, they’re just that: gadgets and tools. The core was, is and will always be the (human) interaction between student and teacher. And by emphasising Dialogue, you’ve emphasised what (Changing) Education should really be about.

    You’ve mentioned that “we often tend to oppose a true dialogue, because we’re often reluctant to change.” I more think we’re afraid of true Dialogue because of the state of confusion and chaos it takes us too —which you also mentioned. We’ve no idea how long that state will last; or what its outcome will be. I think it’s the unknown that scares us.

    I believe educators fear the unknown as much as students do. Hopefully as an educator, you’ve faced this dilemma a few times. And you’re confident enough to know that no matter what, “things will turn out alright” and that in the end you’ll be able “to connect the dots”. An experienced and open-minded educator should be able to guide his/her students through this process.

    Changing Education should not be centred on solely appropriating knowledge. It should also be about how you put that knowledge into practice; it should be about ethics; it should be about understanding; it should be about embracing the unknown; and it should definitely be about always having an open dialogue.

    That’s why I’d like to add the following to your list of perspectives:

    Priority of Reflection and Incorporation.

    I truly hope your article keeps the debate on Changing Education an ongoing one.

    Kindest regards,
    Evita Martina
    (The Netherlands)

  3. What rich treatment of an often subtle and underappreciated art of making a space for active reflection to open up between collaborators in learning. Are we really ever not in an a situation where there is an invitation to learn deeply from ourselves and others? Conversation hits the pause button and deep conversation with mindful sharing of stories generates insight based learning – the kind of learning that moves our locus of attention from logos (word and rationality) to imagination. Of course it is imagining who and who we are that leads to the possibilities of shifts in our behavior. New behaviors can emerge in delightful and unexpected ways.

    I play with many of these themes in short conversation starter videos I create and share with my clients:


    Here’s a link to one of meaningful conversation (applying the same ideas to organizational meetings):

    Thank you for your thoughtful, important well written piece.

    Terrence Gargiulo
    WEB: http://www.makingstories.net
    BLOG: makingstories-storymatters.blogspot.com/
    TWITTER: twitter.com/​makingstories
    PHONE: 415-948-8087

  4. Peter Taylor says:

    One of the great challenges faced by ‘meaning making’ reformers in the field of science and mathematics education is overcoming the traditional focus on delivering an accurate body of disciplinary knowledge (to passive receptive students); reinforced by reproductive assessment methods. Even when ‘constructivist theory’ was introduced to improve the meaningfulness of learning, the pedagogical focus seemed to stick with knowledge (deconstructing misconceptions, constructing correct conceptions) rather than on discourse about meaning making experiences. Your article reminds us that education should be much more holistic in its aim – to educate the whole person, rather than just the analytic mind situated in left side of the brain. As you argue, critical theorists (Freire, Bakhtin) advocate ‘dialogic’ relationships which enable the human spirit to flourish. Jurgen Habermas (of the Frankfurt School) developed a theory of ‘communicative action’ focussing on an emancipatory ethics aimed at creating conditions for dialogue that are not distorted by power imbalances associated with the institutional (or egoic) status of participants in dialogue. Science and mathematics educators (especially in higher education) would find it easier to observe these conditions if the disciplines themselves were understood from the Wittgensteinean perspective of ‘language games’. Scientists and mathematicians develop their disciplines in large part through critical, reflective and imaginative thinking grounded in discourse. Thus learning to think (to make sense of the unknown) is synonymous with learning to speak. An ethics of emancipation would foster an educative conversation between teachers and students.

  5. Pingback: Single Stories and Blind Spots « IVICHIE SAYS

  6. Cynthia Lewis says:


    Thank you for pointing out the many pros and cons educators associate with dialogue. I agree with the above additions to your list and personally have tried to overcome the change of perspective that comes through effective dialogue. I teach adults. As a new instructor years ago, I was afraid of dialogue and did not encourage it for fear of comments and what it may lead to. Only when I realized the importance of what I could learn from my students did I grab onto dialogue and value what it brought to my classes. The self-reflection I see students embody through dialogue often has demonstrated my position as facilitator, rather than “teacher.” I have explored new ideas and concepts only through taking risks through dialogue, and I continue to be a student in my own classroom. As stated before, reflection must be considered simultaneously with incorporation. Without both, change likely will not occur.

  7. Irina Babichuk says:

    Dear Olga! Thank you for new ideas in teaching and learning dialologues, especially in terms of intercultural communication. I agree that”it requires courage from those engaged in a dialogue to admit the possibility of change and re-construction of one’s views and perspectives” But I also want to mention that some students of 17-18 years old do not remain rigid and they can easily admit the possibility of change. The problem is that we (teachers) are not always ready.

  8. @Cynthia: I recognise what you say about “I was afraid of dialogue and did not encourage it for fear of comments and what it may lead to.” I had this same experience years ago. And —like you— it wasn’t till the moment I realised what I could learn from the situation; I dared to embrace the dialogue with my students.

    Like Irina says: “The problem is that we (teachers) are not always ready.” And the funny thing is, when I ‘became ready’, I learnt a lot.

    Regards, Evita

  9. Glyn says:

    Thank you for a great article Olga. I agree that “dialogue” is an essential part of learning and development of the whole person. You have inspired me to pose some questions and suggest some additional priorities.

    Priority of Curiosity
    Priority of Courage

    To explain these a little, I believe, as I am sure you do, that it is important to model and inspire curiosity among our co-learners. This is particularly important for understanding ourselves and the people with whom we have a dialogue. Sometimes, we need to be curious about ourselves as much as we are about other people. “Why do I feel upset when some of my colleagues dismiss intercultural communication competence as unimportant or trivial?” “Olga, what early experiences inspired you to learn English?”

    Equally, we need to have courage sometimes to ask the probing question that will help us understand the basis of another person’s beliefs, values or assumptions about life. Courage is needed during a classroom or videoconference dialogue when it comes time to share something personal about yourself. It is only through this more penetrating dialogue that we can come to better understand ourselves and others. ” I discovered that it was unproductive to imagine why people in the Central Hotel of Khabarovsk in November, 2005, did not smile, including things like, the staff do not like foreigners or the winter weather is making them depressed; rather it was helpful to ask Olga about smiling and find out the reasons I imagined were false.” Dialogue and the courage to ask, helped us both to learn something about our perspectives.

    To finish, I would like to pose a couple questions for HETL readers:
    How can we reduce the inhibitory effects of power distance on dialogue?
    How can we guide a dialogue away from binary thinking to a dialectic flow?


  10. Cynthia Lewis says:


    Thanks for your insightful questions. They made me pause and think about how I handle these concerns and what I probably can do better. I teach Americans, as well as international students, and clearly state that all opinions and beliefs will be respected in the classroom. I reiterate this at the beginning of most classes and tell students there are no “dumb” questions or answers; we all can learn from each other. I model this by redirecting or rephrasing for clarity as necessary and by expressing value for every comment by students. I strive to make the learning environment as nonjudgmental and comfortable as possible. During our 10-week courses, I ask students to complete a reflection survey, and this includes giving them an opportunity to tell me what’s not working. Students share that these techniques garner more dialogue in my classes, and they feel safe with no fear of ridicule. Additionally, my students often work on projects in smaller groups, which helps them feel safer about opening up and sharing ideas. I think they key is helping them feel safe and respected.

    I try to guide dialogue to include more participants by asking for examples and lessons learned. I also relate my own successes and failures to various topics to encourage students to share similar experiences. Rephrasing questions or statements may help trigger ideas from more than one or two students. I have found that one of the best ways to promote a dialectic flow of dialogue is by sharing comments from students in prior sessions. This often eases students’ concerns by demonstrating others have similar issues to combat.

    Of course, these techniques require just what you listed as additional priorities: curiosity and courage.


  11. Olga Kovbasyuk says:

    I would like to say thank you to all the authors for thoughtfull comments to my article!
    Thank you for your interest and sharing!
    I hope we will continue our collaboration on how to make our teaching/learning meaningful.
    With gratitude and deep respect,

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