Posts Tagged ‘Learning’

Three key kinds of learning at events—Part 1

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

learn 16846023595_b22b670d4a_kWhen asked, just about everyone mentions learning as a key reason for conference attendance.

So, given the clear importance of learning at events, it’s surprising that we lump distinctly different activities into the single word “learning”. Perhaps this reflects the reality that learning acquisition is a largely unconscious process, in the same way our casual familiarity with snow leads us to possess far fewer words for it than the Inuit. Whatever the reasons, it’s useful to distinguish between three different categories of learning: factual information acquisition, problem solving, and building a process toolkit.

Factual knowledge acquisition involves what it sounds like: learning factual information: multiplication tables, names and typical dosages of medications, foreign language nouns, and the millions of facts that we don’t even know that we know until someone asks us. It also includes sensory knowledge: the ability to recognize whether a skin lesion is benign, the sound of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the feel of satin, the smell of a skunk, or the taste of rhubarb.

Problem solving calls for a different level of learning. In essence, it requires noticing or discovering relationships between pieces of information and using these associations to infer answers to relevant problems. Problem solving provides useful process that operates on our knowledge.

Building a process toolkit is an even higher form of learning. After all, in many situations—for example, multiplying two 4-digit numbers using paper and pen—problem solving can be done by rote. But developing novel process frequently challenges our best minds, sometimes over generations, as illustrated by the growth of scientific understanding over millennia. Whether we construct our own process or appropriate useful process developed by others, building a collection of processes that are relevant to our lives is perhaps the most powerful kind of learning we can perform.

I make these distinctions because any specific instance of learning incorporates a different mixture of each category, and, to complicate things further, the effectiveness of each kind of learning is influenced by disparate factors. As a result, books about learning tend to contain a bewildering variety and quantity of information about aspects of learning.

Let’s illustrate with some examples.

Consider training workers to determine whether an applicant is eligible for government benefit—something that could involve many days teaching a large number of complex requirements. Success might be defined as the workers being able to consistently understand, remember, and apply the correct requirements for each applicant. Such learning will concentrate on acquiring relevant factual knowledge plus the capacity to follow a defined process determined by senior administrators. Factors such as retention of key knowledge, maintaining the level of accuracy necessary to make correct decisions, and the ability to recall relevant material over time are clearly important.

Compare this with the mysterious multiyear process by which some graduate students develop from novice researchers into leading practitioners in their field, which includes attending numerous conferences. This involves all three categories of learning: (1) obtaining a wide range of relevant and not-obviously-relevant knowledge, (2) comfort and familiarity with the discipline’s existing body of process and problem solving, and (3) developing a toolkit of novel process that can, hopefully, extend the field further. While the government workers need to concentrate on retaining well-defined information, the researchers will likely acquire far more information than ultimately needed to make an advance or breakthrough. Consequently, the graduate students need to learn how to refine—both narrow and broaden—their focus on a wide range of information, constantly making decisions on what they will concentrate and what they will, possibly temporarily, put aside. The capacity to do this well, combined with ability to effectively problem-solve and develop novel process defines successful learning in this situation.

So when we talk about learning at meetings, it can be very helpful to be specific about the kind(s) of learning that are desired. Trainings focus on the first two categories I’ve described, while more powerful forms of learning—typically experiential process that introduces tools that can be applied in a variety of future situations—incorporates all three.

In Part 2 of this exploration of learning, I’ll share a final example of the complex ways that learning and learning approaches can be affected by multiple factors, specifically the differences between how children and adults typically learn.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jakerust

Should Linda go to TradConf or PartConf?

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Two_paths_into_Kingsford_Forest_Park_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1185904Ask me about an environment for learning and I recall sitting in a classroom full of ancient wooden desks, hinged lids inscribed with the penknife carvings, initials, and crude drawings of generations of semi-bored schoolboys. A thin film of chalk dust covers everything, and distant trees and blue sky beckon faintly through the windows at the side of the room. The teacher is talking and I am paying attention in case I am called on to answer a question. If it’s a subject I like—science, math, or English—I am present, working to pick up the wisdom imparted, motivated by my curiosity about the world and the desire to not appear stupid in front of my classmates. If it’s a subject I am not passionate about—foreign languages, history, art, or geography—I do what I need to do to get by.

When asked to think about creating an environment for learning we tend to focus, as I just did, on the physical environment and our motivations for learning.

But there’s a third element of the learning environment that is largely overlooked. Did you spot it? If you’ve read my post Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way you probably did; we have not yet mentioned the learning processes we use as a key component of our learning environment. These processes are so deeply associated with our experience of learning in specific environments that we’re rarely conscious of how much they affect what and how we learn.

Let’s meet Linda, who’s about to discover why using good process can be so impactful.

About Linda
Linda’s waiting to get her badge and information packet at a conference registration table. She’s nervous because she’s new to the industry and has only previously briefly met a couple of people on the list of registered attendees. Linda likes her profession, but came principally in order to receive continuing education credits that she needs to maintain her professional certification. She wants to learn more about certain industry issues, get some specific questions answered, and is hoping to meet peers and begin to build a professional network.

At this point, let’s see what happens when Linda experiences two somewhat different conference designs.

Linda goes to TradConf
Linda is a first-time attendee at TradConf, a small annual association conference that has pretty much the same format since it was first held in 1982. She received a conference program six months ago and saw a few sessions listed that look relevant to her current needs. After picking up her preprinted name badge she enters the conference venue and sees a large number of people chatting with each other in small groups. There isn’t anyone there she knows. She drifts over to a refreshment table and picks up a glass of soda water, hoping to be able to finesse her way into one of the groups and join a conversation.

Linda meets a few people before the opening session, but no one who she really clicks with. Still, she’s grateful that she can at least associate a few names with faces.

Linda doesn’t find the opening keynote especially interesting. The speaker is entertaining but doesn’t really offer any useful take-aways. And sitting and listening for 80 minutes has taken a toll on her concentration. She follows the crowd to the refreshments in the hallway outside and tries to meet some more people. Linda’s not shy, but it’s still daunting to have to repeatedly approach strangers and introduce herself. By the end of the first day, Linda has met one person with whom she has a fair amount in common, and she bumped into one of the people she knew before the conference. The three of them spend the evening talking.

The next couple of days’ sessions are a mixed bag. Some of the sessions are a rehash of things Linda already knows, rather than covering new techniques, while another turns out to focus on something very different from the description in the conference program. Linda picks up a few useful nuggets from a couple of sessions, and gets one of her pressing questions answered. She connects with someone who asked an interesting question at the end of a presentation. She spends most of her time between sessions with her old connection and two new friends.

The conference closes with a keynote banquet. Linda sits next to an stimulating colleague, but doesn’t get much time to talk to him because the keynote monopolizes most of their time together. They swap business cards and promise to stay in touch.

Afterwards, Linda has mixed feelings about her TradConf experience. She met some interesting people and learned a few things, but it didn’t seem to be an especially productive use of her time, given that she has to get back to work and still grapple with the majority of her unanswered questions. She doesn’t feel like she’s built much of a professional network. Perhaps things will be better when she goes next year?

Linda goes to PartConf
Linda is a first-time attendee at PartConf, a small annual association conference first held in 1993. It has a good reputation, but it’s hard to understand what the conference will be like, because, apart from an interesting-sounding keynote from someone really well known in the industry and a few other sessions on hot-topics, the program doesn’t list any other session topics. Instead, the preconference materials claim that the participants themselves will create the conference sessions on the topics that they want to learn about. This sounds good in theory to Linda, but she is quite skeptical how well this will actually work in practice.

A few weeks before the event, Linda gets a call from Maria, who identifies herself as a returning conference participant. Maria explains that all first-time PartConf attendees get paired with a buddy before the conference. Maria offers to answer any questions about the conference, meet Linda at registration, and introduce her to other attendees if desired. Linda asks how the participant-driven conference format works, and Maria is happy to share her own positive experience. They swap contact information and agree to meet at registration.

Linda calls Maria as she waits on line to register. As she picks up her large name badge, she notices it has some questions on it: “Talk to me about…” and “I’d like to know about…” with blank space for answers. Maria appears and explains that the questions allow people with matching interests or expertise to find each other. Linda fills out her badge, and the two of them enter the conference venue and see a large number of people chatting with each other in small groups. There isn’t anyone there Linda knows, but Maria brings her over to one of the groups and introduces her to Yang and Tony. “Based on what you’ve told me about your interests,” Maria says, “I think you guys have a lot in common.” A glance at Yang’s and Tony’s badges confirms this, and Linda is soon deep in conversation with her two new colleagues who introduce her to other attendees.

By the time the opening session starts, Linda has met six people who are clearly going to be great resources for her. She’s also surprised to discover that a couple of other people are really interested in certain experiences and expertise she acquired at a previous job.

The opening session is a roundtable. Linda has been preassigned to one of five roundtables being held simultaneously. Two of her new friends join her in a large room with a circle of forty chairs. A roundtable facilitator explains how the roundtable works, and provides some ground rules for everyone to follow. Over the next 90 minutes, everyone gets a turn to share their answers to three questions. Linda learns much about the other participants and gets a comprehensive overview of group members’ questions, issues, topics, experience and expertise. Human spectrograms, held roughly every twenty minutes, get people on their feet to show experience levels, geographical distribution, and other useful information about the group. Linda notes the names of four more people she wants to talk to during the conference, and discovers that her former job experience is of interest to other people in the room.

At the first evening social, Linda enjoys getting to know her new friends. Everyone spends some time proposing and signing up for “peer sessions” to be held over the next few days, using a simple process involving colored pens and sheets of paper. Peer sessions can be presentations, discussions, panels, workshops, or any format that seems appropriate for the participants’ learning and sharing. Linda suggests several issues she is grappling with and a couple of the sessions she wants get scheduled. Although another topic doesn’t have sufficient interest to be formally scheduled, she notes the names of the people interested and decides to try to talk with them between sessions. She is surprised to find that quite a few people want to learn from her former job experience, and ends up facilitating a discussion on the topic the next day.

The next couple of days’ sessions are incredibly productive and useful for Linda. She gets all her questions answered, meets several people who can advise her on potential future issues, enjoys being an unexpected resource herself, and has begun to build a great professional network by the time the conference draws to a close.

The last couple of sessions provide Linda an opportunity to think about what she has learned and what she wants to do professionally as a result. She now feels confident about beginning a major initiative at work, sketches out the initial steps, and gets helpful feedback from her colleagues. She even has some time to reconnect with now-familiar peers and make arrangements to stay in touch. The last session starts with a public evaluation of the entire conference: what worked well and what might be improved. Linda makes several contributions, gets a clear idea of how the conference has been valuable to the many different constituencies present, and several great ideas emerge on how to make the event even better next year, together with next steps for their development.

Afterwards, Linda has very positive feelings about her conference experience. She got all her questions answered, learned much of value, and built the solid beginnings of a significant professional network. And she’s certain PartConf will be even better when she returns next year!

The impact of good process on the learning environment
Linda’s story illustrates the tremendous effect good process can have on the learning environment. The attendees at TradConf and PartConf are the same; only the processes used are different! PartConf’s participation-rich process gave Linda a learning experience that was much more tailored to her and the other attendees’ actual needs and wants than the predetermined program at TradConf. Linda also made useful connections with many more people at PartConf compared to TradConf.

The PartConf design also allows participants to make changes to the conference processes used, either at the event or future events. The learning environment at PartConf extends to the event design—the conference can “learn” itself through participant feedback and suggestions to become a more effective vehicle for participants’ needs and wants.

I have been running conferences like PartConf for over twenty years. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the vast majority of those who attend these events come to greatly prefer such designs over the TradConfs that have been the rule for hundreds of years.

Image attribution: Wikimedia

Sometimes you CAN learn from experience

Monday, October 27th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

banana peel 1517673819_8a2720cdd1_b

People do not learn from experience. You may think you learn from experience but…People only learn from reflecting on their experience…

…This is why all education programming needs to adopt and adapt reflection and debriefing exercises during the session. If not, people will not learn.
—Jeff Hurt, Time To Face This Ironic Truth: We Do Not Learn From Experience

Jeff Hurt’s recent post makes the case for incorporating reflection/debriefing into all conference sessions. While I completely agree with him that these activities should be included, I think a small clarification is in order.

His post implies that you must debrief participant experience at events in order for learning to occur. If that were true, you would never learn anything from a lecture. While it’s true that lectures are one of the worst ways to attempt to teach people anything, there’s no question that some learning occurs via lectures for some people some of the time.

You probably discovered at school that if you took notes during a lecture (interestingly, handwritten notes seem to be more effective than typed notes) you retained more of the material than if you simply listened and tried to remember the lecture points later. This is because note-taking is a form of personal reflection/debriefing; it forces you to process, to some degree, the information you are hearing and this improves your associated memory and understanding, and consequent accuracy, quantity, and length of recall.

What this means is that it’s possible to learn from experience without external prompting or exercises—if you are capable of doing the necessary reflection yourself. One of the most powerful learning disciplines you can cultivate is the practice of regular reflection on your own experiences. I know that many impactful decisions and changes in my life have occurred through ongoing self-reflection rather than the feedback or advice of others.

During our education, we are rarely taught the value of regular honest self-reflection. By “honest” I mean self-reflection that neither avoids beating oneself up over “mistakes” or hard-to-stomach experiences nor glossing over them. Instead, cultivating your ability to dispassionately notice what is happening to you and periodically reflecting on what you have noticed allows you to learn effectively by yourself.

Having said this, I want to be clear that there is great value in learning from others. Conversation and connection with others give you opportunities to uncover and clarify your tacit knowledge: things bubbling under the surface that you don’t know you know. I think that a majority of our important learning occurs in this way. But we should not discount our significant capability to learn by ourselves.

John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflection with others and by yourself will allow you to maximize your learning throughout your life.

Photo attribution: Flickr user markybon

A little humility leaves us open to learning

Monday, August 25th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Every time I’m sure of something that turns out not to be true is an opportunity for me to learn.

To remember that I can always learn something new.

Now if only I could be less all-knowing more of the time…

Serve up learning in small bites, not giant plates

Monday, July 14th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

tapas 7217145804_8dd3edd94d_b

In May I spent a gastronomically intense delightful week in San Francisco, eating lunch and dinner at different restaurants almost every day. After an initial low from consuming the worst tuna salad sandwich ever during a hectic rush to return my rental car, I enjoyed French, Italian, Korean, vegetarian, New American, and Argentinean cuisines, to name a few. And I noticed a pattern to my favorite experiences.

I like small plate meals best.

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Change first, explain later

Monday, June 23rd, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Be The Change_4868893727_3bd6f4d34e_bSometimes an experience is worth a million words.

In 1982, Australian physicians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren proposed that a bacterium Helicobacter pylori was the cause of most ulcers, challenging established medical doctrine that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid. Their claim was ridiculed, so Barry drank a Petri dish containing cultured Heliobacter and promptly developed gastritis. His self-experiment eventually helped change medical thinking. In 2005, both men were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

So, how do we convince people?

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From broadcast to learning in 25 minutes

Monday, April 21st, 2014 by Adrian Segar

GMIC2014 collab session Last week’s Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference opened with a one-hour keynote panel: The Value of Sustainability Across Brands, Organizations and Sectors. Immediately after the presentation, my task was to help over two hundred participants, seated at tables of six, grapple with the ideas shared, surface the questions raised, and summarize the learning and themes for deeper discussion.

Oh, and I had twenty-five minutes!

For a large group to effectively review and reflect on presented material in such a short time, we have to quickly move from individual work to small group work to some form of concrete visual summary that’s accessible to everyone. So here’s what I did.

1) My audience hadn’t moved for over an hour, and their brains had, to varying degrees, gone to sleep. So, for a couple of minutes, I had people stand, stretch, twist and do shoulder rolls.

2) Next, I summarized what we were about to do. I

      • Outlined the three phases of the exercise: a) working individually; b) sharing amongst the small group at their table, and c) a final opportunity to review everyone’s work in a short gallery walk.
      • Pointed out the tools available. Each table had a sheet of flip-chart paper (divided into a 2 x 2 matrix), 4 pads of different colored sticky notes, and a fine-tip sharpie for each person.

2014-04-15 14.41.30

      • Explained the four categories they would use for their responses. After introducing each category I asked a couple of pre-primed volunteers to share an example of their response with the participants.
        • REMINDERS. “These are themes with which you’re already familiar that the keynote touched on. You might want to include ideas you think are important. And you might want to include themes that you have some expertise or experience with. More on that in a moment. Write each REMINDER on a separate blue sticky note, which will end up in the top left square of the flip chart.”
        • SPARKS. “Sparks are inspirations you’ve received from the keynote; new ideas, new solutions that you can adopt personally, or for your organization, or at your meetings. Write your SPARKS on yellow sticky notes; they’ll go in the top right square.
        • QUESTIONS. “These are ideas that you understand that you have questions about. Perhaps you are looking for help with a question. Perhaps you think a question brought up by the keynote is worth discussing more widely at this event. Write your questions on a green sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom left square.
        • PUZZLES. “Puzzles are things you feel that you or your organization or our industry don’t really understand and need help with. Write your puzzles on a violet sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom right.”
      • Gave these instructions. “In a minute I’m going to give you about five minutes to work alone and create your REMINDERS, SPARKS, QUESTIONS, and PUZZLES. Don’t put your notes on the flip chart paper yet; we’ll do that communally soon. Any questions?” [There were none.] “Two final thoughts:
        • 1) Words are fine, but feel free to draw pictures or diagrams too!
        • 2) Consider adding your name to any of your notes. We’re going to display your notes on the wall over there. If you have expertise or experience of one of your themes, adding your name to your note will allow others who are interested in the topic to find you. If you have a question or puzzle you need help with, adding your name will allow others who can help to find you.”

3) I gave everyone five minutes to create their individual notes, asking them to shoot for a few responses in each category.

4) For the second phase of the exercise, I asked for each person to briefly explain their notes with the others at their table, placing on the appropriate quadrant of the flip chart as they did so. I allocated each person a minute for this, and rang a bell when it was time for the next person to begin.

5) The final phase was a gallery walk. I asked one person from each table to go and stick their flip chart page on a large blank meeting room wall. Once done, I invited everyone to go to the gallery and explore what we had created together.

Here’s one end of the resulting sharing wall.

2014-04-15 19.06.05

6) Later that evening I had a small number of subject matter experts cluster the themes they saw. (If I had had more time, I would have had all the participants work on this together during my session.) The resulting clusters were referred to throughout the conference for people to browse and use as a resource. Here’s a picture, taken later, showing the reclustered items in our “sharing space”.

2014-04-17 15.08.14

Even when time is short, an exercise like this can quickly foster huge amounts of personal learning, connection (via the table work and named sticky notes), and audience-wide awareness of interests and expertise available in the room. I believe that reflective and connective processes like this should be used after every traditional presentation session to maximize its value to meeting participants.

How many mistakes have you made?

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

mistakeHow many mistakes have you made? It depends.

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Why measurable outcomes aren’t always a good thing

Monday, January 6th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

“Enough of this feel-good stuff! How do we know whether people have learned anything unless we measure it?”
—A little voice, heard once in a while in learning designers’ heads

Ah, the lure of measurement! Yes, it’s important. From a scientific perspective, better understanding of the world we live in requires doing experiments that involve quantifying properties in a statistically meaningful and repeatable way. Science has no opinion about ghosts, life after death, and astrology, for example, because we can’t reliably measure associated attributes.

Once the power of scientific thinking became widely evident at the start of the twentieth century, it was inevitable that it would be applied to management. The result was the concept of scientific management, developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Even though Taylorism is no longer a dominant management paradigm, its Victorian influence on how we view working with others still persists to this day.

I’m a proponent of the scientific method, but it has limitations because we can’t measure much of what’s important to us. (Actually it’s worse than that—often we aren’t even aware of what’s important.) Here’s Peter Block on how preoccupation with measurement prevents meaningful change:

The essence of these classic problem-solving steps is the belief that the way to make a difference in the world is to define problems and needs and then recommend actions to solve those needs. We are all problem solvers, action oriented and results minded. It is illegal in this culture to leave a meeting without a to-do list. We want measurable outcomes and we want them now…

…In fact it is this very mindset, one based on clear definition, prediction, and measurement which prevents anything fundamental from changing.
—Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging

One of my important learning experiences occurred unexpectedly in a workshop where a participant in a small group I was leading got furious after something I had said. He stood up and stepped towards me, shouting and balling his fists. At that moment, to my surprise, I knew that his intense anger was all about him and not about me. Instead of my habitual response—taking anger personally—I was able to effectively help him look at why he had become so enraged.

There was nothing measurable about this interchange, yet it was an amazing learning and empowering moment for me.

So, one of the dangers of requiring measurable outcomes is that it restricts us to concentrate on what can be measured, not what’s important. Educator Alfie Kohn supplies this example:

…it is much easier to quantify the number of times a semicolon has been used correctly in an essay than it is to quantify how well the student has explored ideas in that essay.
—Alfie Kohn, Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests

Another reason why we are fixated on assigning a number to a “measured” outcome is that doing so can make people feel they can show they’ve accomplished something, masking the common painful reality that they have no idea how to honestly measure their effectiveness.

Measured learning outcomes can be relevant if we have a clear, performance-based, target. For example, we can test whether someone has learned and can apply cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) by testing them in a realistic environment. (Even then, less than half of course participants can pass a skills test one year after training.)

This leads to my final danger of requiring measurable outcomes: it turns out that measurements of learning outcomes aren’t reliable anyway!

For nearly 50 years measurement scholars have warned against pursuing the blind alley of value added assessment.  Our research has demonstrated yet again that the reliability of gain scores and residual scores…is negligible.
—Professor Trudy W. Banta, A Warning on Measuring Learning Outcomes, Inside Higher Ed

Given that requiring measurable outcomes often inhibits fundamental change and is of dubious reliability, I believe we should be considerably more reluctant to insist on including them in today’s learning and organizational environments.

[This post is part of the occasional series: How do you facilitate change? where we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.]

Image attribution: xkcd

Conferences need to be flexible!

Monday, December 16th, 2013 by Adrian Segar

flexibility 4935170625_6a0f649a3d_o

We are informed about conferences by email, we arrive by airplane, and we gaze at fancy PowerPoint presentations, but, year after year, over a hundred million people experience a conference process that has changed very little since the 17th century.
Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love

We need to make our conferences flexible. We need an exercise program for our events. Why? Here are three reasons.
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