Encouraging risky learning at conferences

by Adrian Segar

risky learning_276440895_472debfb4fThink of the last time you were with a group of people and made a stretch to learn something. Perhaps you admitted you didn’t understand something someone said, wondering as you did whether it was obvious to the others present. Perhaps you challenged a viewpoint held by a majority of the people present. Perhaps you proposed a tentative solution to a problem, laying yourself open to potentially making a mistake in front of others. These are all examples of what I call risky learning.

Whatever happened, was the learning opportunity greater compared to safe learning—the passive absorption of presented information?

Traditional conferences discourage risky learning. Who but a supremely confident person (or that rare iconoclast) stands up at the end of a presentation to several hundred people and says they don’t understand or disagree with something that was said? Who will ask a bold question, share a problem, or state a controversial point of view, fearing it may affect their professional status, job prospects, or current employment with others in the audience? People who brave these concerns are more likely to be exhibiting risky behavior than practicing risky learning.

Yet it is possible to provide a safe and supportive environment for risky learning. Here’s how we do it at Conferences That Work.

First, and perhaps most important, is the commitment attendees make at the very beginning of the conference to keep confidential what is shared. This simple communal promise generates a level of group intimacy and revelation seldom experienced at a conventional conference. As a result, participants are comfortable speaking what’s on their minds, unencumbered by worries that their sharing may be made public outside the event.

Second, because Conferences That Work are small, there is an increased chance that attendees will be the sole representatives of their organizations and will feel comfortable fruitfully sharing sensitive personal information to their peers, knowing that what is revealed won’t filter back to coworkers. Even when others are present from the same institution, the intimacy our conferences helps to develop amity and increased understanding between them.

Third, our conference process makes no presuppositions about who will act in traditional teacher or student roles during the event, leading to fluid roles and learning driven by group and individual desires and abilities to satisfy real attendee needs and wishes. In an environment where it’s expected that anyone may be a teacher or learner from moment to moment, participants overcome inhibitions about asking naive questions or sharing controversial opinions.

Finally, Conferences That Work facilitators model peer conference behavior. When they don’t know the answer to a question they say “I don’t know.” When they need help they ask for it. When they make mistakes they are accountable rather than defensive. Consistently modeling appropriate conduct fosters a conference environment conducive to engaged, risky learning.

Ultimately, each attendee decides whether to stretch. But Conferences That Work, by supplying optimum conditions for risky learning, make it much easier for participants to take risks and learn effectively.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seandreilinger/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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  • Dwight Towers

    YES!!!  Superb set of techniques for letting some people admit some vulnerability some of the time.  Which is all we can do, I think – everyone has a different threshold (that moves up and down depending on context, other factors) for accepting their fallibility, especially publically.

    Thanks for this!!

    Dwight Towers

    • Thanks Dwight! Most people would not believe the level of beneficial sharing and resulting support and learning that occurs routinely when this kind of environment is provided at conferences. I have heard group sharing of intimate stories which, if they had been told to me in a private conversation, would have made me feel honored to be trusted. And I agree that all we can do is provide a safe environment and support those who in the moment want to use it.

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There’s a relatively new, growing trend towards unconferences, sometimes organized using open space technologies. An excellent “how to” book on organizing this type of conference is Conferences that Work by Adrian Segar.

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