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"I realized this morning that your event content is the only event related 'stuff' I still read. I think that's because it's not about events, but about the coming together of people to exchange ideas and learn from one another and that's valuable information for anyone." — Traci Browne

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Why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it

switching to active learning
A September 2019 research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences clearly illustrates why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it!

Lecturing has been the core modality in our education systems for centuries. Sadly it still is, even though we know that active learning provides superior quantity, quality, accuracy, and retention of knowledge. Active learning beats the pants off the “receiving knowledge” model drummed into our heads through years of listening to teachers. (For a full explanation of why active learning modalities are superior, see Chapter 4 of my book The Power of Participation.)

So why do we continue to use broadcast-style formats?

The NAS study gives us some important new information:

[M]ost college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods…We find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning.
Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom, L Deslauriers, L S McCarty, K Miller, K Callaghan, and G Kestin

Let’s look at these three conclusions in the context of meeting design.

Most meeting presenters still lecture

The majority of college STEM teachers choose traditional teaching methods. And most meeting session presenters resort to lecturing as their dominant session modality.

Attendees learn more when presenters use active learning modalities

We have had research evidence for the effectiveness of active learning modalities for more than a hundred years. (The pioneer of memory retention research, Herman Ebbinghaus, published his seminal work in 1885.)

A large body of research over the last twenty years clearly shows the superiority of active over passive learning.

“Students learn more when they are actively engaged in the classroom than they do in a passive lecture environment. Extensive research supports this observation, especially in college-level science courses (16). Research also shows that active teaching strategies increase lecture attendance, engagement, and students’ acquisition of expert attitudes toward the discipline (3, 79).”

College students are the focus of this research. There’s no reason to believe that these conclusions would not apply to adult learning during meeting sessions.

Superstar lecturers and motivational speakers

Here’s a striking conclusion from the NAS research:

“Students in active classrooms learned more (as would be expected based on prior research), but their perception of learning, while positive, was lower than that of their peers in passive environments. This suggests that attempts to evaluate instruction based on students’ perceptions of learning could inadvertently promote inferior (passive) pedagogical methods. For instance, a superstar lecturer could create such a positive feeling of learning that students would choose those lectures over active learning.

Including highly paid keynote speakers at meetings is a meeting industry fixation. I’ve argued that the evaluations of such sessions are unreliable. Now, the NAS research buttresses my point, by providing an important explanation why expensive keynote lectures are so popular at meetings. People perceive that they learn more from a smooth lecturer, while the reality is that they learn less!

Conclusion

There is overwhelming evidence that we can improve meetings by switching to active learning from passive lectures. And we now know that the popularity of fluent lectures, as measured by session evaluations, is based on an incorrect belief by attendees that they are learning more than they actually do.

Finally, the NAS report indicates that a simple intervention can overcome false perceptions about the efficacy of lectures.

“Near the beginning of a physics course that used… active learning …the instructor gave a 20-min presentation that started with a brief description of active learning and evidence for its effectiveness. …At the end of the semester, over 65% of students reported on a survey that their feelings about the effectiveness of active learning significantly improved over the course of the semester. A similar proportion (75%) of students reported that the intervention at the beginning of the semester helped them feel more favorably toward active learning during lectures.”

Consequently, we need to educate stakeholders, presenters, and meeting attendees about the benefits of active learning modalities at meetings.

Image attribution and original inspiration for this post: Inside Higher Ed & Kris Snibbe / Harvard University

Thank you Stephanie West Allen for bringing the above research to my attention!

I am crazy… but I’m not alone!

not crazy not alone

“I am crazy but I’m not alone.”
—participant evaluation comment

Someone wrote “I am crazy but I’m not alone” on the paper evaluation form for the first edACCESS peer conference in 1992. The next year we printed it on a banner above the entryway to the event, and it’s been been edACCESS’s official motto ever since.

There’s more behind this simple phrase that meets the eye.

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You can’t make people change. But…

you can't make people change

“You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.”
—Seth Godin, Leadership

Change is hard. And you can’t make people change.

However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.

What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!

Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.

Peer conferences support change

The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 27 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!

Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.

Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.

  • A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
  • The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
  • A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
  • The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.

These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.

Introduction to my new book Event Crowdsourcing

Introduction to Event Crowdsourcing

Here’s a teaser: the introduction to my new book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need. Interested? Then buy the book!

Curiosity

I’ve always been curious. I’ve always wanted to understand the world I found myself living in.

As a child growing up in England, I was driven to study physics, the most fundamental science. Physics was a way of looking at the world that perhaps had the greatest chance of explaining the mysteries of the universe to me. By the age of twenty-five I had worked on a key neutrino experiment at CERN, the European particle accelerator, and received a Ph.D. for my efforts.

But a funny thing happened along the way. I became increasingly curious about people. The neutrino research was a collaboration of eighty scientists and hundreds of support personnel from five different countries. The social and cultural differences that shaped our frequent meetings fascinated me. Heated discussions about how we should proceed and whose names should go on our journal articles flared and sputtered. I marveled at the energy scientists poured into the politics of their work. Their passions frequently distracted and detracted from the science we were exploring.

Understanding people

Understanding people better became important to me. I immigrated to the United States after falling in love with Vermont, a rural state with no opportunity to continue the big-lab science path I’d been traveling. I embarked on a series of careers that increasingly integrated my technical background with working with people: owning and managing a solar energy business, teaching computer science at a liberal arts college, and consulting in information technology.

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Fixing a Tesla Powerwall that isn’t charging

fixing a Tesla PowerwallIn February 2018, I took advantage of an excellent Green Mountain Power (GMP) program to install a Tesla Powerwall 2.0 on my Vermont home. For just $1,500, GMP installed a 13.5 kWh Powerwall on the outside of my home, providing us with an automatic back up electricity source that has proven capable of running our home through continuous outages of up to two days. (Yes, we get those kinds of outages now and then in rural Vermont.)

Why GMP subsidizes Powerwall installation

Given that an installed Powerwall costs about $10,000, you might be wondering why GMP installed mine for only $1,500. The answer is that they have the right to suck power out of it when there’s a system wide power consumption peak. With several thousand Powerwalls like mine currently installed around Vermont, these combined units can supplement conventional power sources with tens of megawatts of power, reducing GMP’s need to buy expensive peak power.

I get automatic reliable power when the line power to my house is interrupted. GMP gets lower power purchase costs. Win-Win!

How the Powerwall has worked so far

My Powerwall has worked perfectly for eighteen months. In that time it’s taken us through 43 outages. Most of them are short and last less than an hour, and we don’t even realize the power was off until later. Our longest (54 hours) began on November 27th, 2018 and that’s the only time our Powerwall got completely discharged. In total, the unit has supplied 66 hours of backup electricity since we purchased it.

I know all these stats because Tesla provides an app that monitors your Powerwall, showing your backup history…

Powerwall backup history…current power flows…

Powerwall power flow

…and historical power flows.Powerwall historic power flows

The 42nd power outage

On August 9, 2020, we had a 3 hour outage. It turned out that a tree fell on the power line that snakes up the ten miles of road between our home in Marlboro and the feeder point in Brattleboro. The Powerwall worked perfectly, but when utility power was restored, the Tesla app showed that though Powerwall was still 80% charged, there was no power flowing between the electricity grid, Powerwall, and our home.

This had never happened before.

The green light on Powerwall was steady, so it was “enabled” and communicating with the Gateway.

First I tried turning off the Powerwall, using the switch on the side. The house power remained on, and the big green LED on the side slowly dimmed. I waited for ten minutes until the light was out and then turned the unit on. No improvement. Strike 1.

Second, I gingerly opened the Gateway box, something I’d never looked at before (or been told anything about by the installers.) There was a reset hole, but a flashlight showed me there was no button to reset. The Gateway box has a single breaker which I turned off. The app then came to life and showed that the Powerwall was powering the house, draining the battery. Encouraged, I turned the Gateway breaker back on. The house became powered by the grid again, but, the app display went back to showing no flows. Strike 2.

Fixing a Tesla Powerwall charging problem

Well, when all else fails, read the manual! I’d never received a Powerwall owner’s manual, but found it online and discovered these instructions in the Troubleshooting section:

If the Gateway and Powerwall are both unresponsive:
1. Turn off Powerwall by setting its switch to the OFF position.
2. Turn off the AC breakers for the system (Gateway and Powerwall).
3. Wait for at least one minute.
4. Turn the AC breakers back on.
5. Turn on Powerwall.

I was reluctant to do this, since I knew it would turn off the house power completely and I’d have to run around and reset all the clocks. (A classic First World problem.) Anyway, sometimes manuals prove useful, because after I followed these instructions — hallelujah! my app showed flows, including the welcome sight that my Powerwall was being recharged by the utility company. Everything worked again!

I hope my experience fixing a Tesla Powerwall that isn’t charging is helpful to anyone else who experiences this problem.

Any other Powerwall tips and experiences to share? Add a comment below!

Can a rehearsal be better than a concert?

rehearsal concertCan a rehearsal be better than a concert? You be the judge!

Every summer since 1951, the world-famous Marlboro Music Festival takes place my small Vermont hometown. Last week my wife and I attended the free morning rehearsals for two pieces of chamber music — Mozart’s Horn Quintet and Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 — played at the formal concert that afternoon.

The rehearsal

Around twenty-five people showed up in an auditorium that, in a few hours, would be filled with hundreds. We could sit anywhere! Naturally, we chose front row center.

Earlier Festival rehearsals are held in classrooms scattered around the Marlboro College campus. Many years ago, when I taught at the school, I’d wander around during the summer and hear beautiful scattered fragments of music. Auditorium rehearsals are the last before the performance, so they tend to contain long stretches of music, punctuated with only a few pauses and occasional repetitions at the ends of movements.

This rehearsal was no exception. The artists played both pieces through with little interruption. They conferred with each other on stage, but we couldn’t easily hear what they were saying.

After the rehearsal we noticed that several friends were present, and it was easy to stroll over and spend some time chatting.

Rehearsal versus concert

It’s interesting to compare the rehearsal and concert experiences. I think many listeners would agree that rehearsals are primarily about the music, though some rehearsals I’ve attended at other venues have offered fascinating glimpses into the ways in which musicians think and work together.

Concerts are, hopefully, primarily about wonderful performances of great music too, but they are also social events. Sometimes, I admit, I find the social aspects distracting and/or detracting from the performance. Audience coughs, rustling, and occasional clatter are inevitable. Navigating my way through crowds to take my seat, get a drink during intermission, or leave when the concert is over is sometimes irksome.

Paradoxically, we met and chatted with more friends at the rehearsal than we’d probably have at the concert, where it’s harder to physically move near people who you know.

Listening to a breathtaking musical performance with hundreds of others is also a unique experience, with the loud applause and, sometimes, standing ovations emphasizing the depth of feeling that the audience collectively shares and of which you are a part. The rehearsal, in contrast, is a subdued affair, with each audience member individually responding to the music and the performance.

Which is “better”? I’ll leave that as an exercise for you. (Feel free to share your perspective in the comments.)

Final thoughts — a performer’s perspective

For a dozen years I sang tenor with the Brattleboro Concert Choir. This involved many weekly rehearsals, followed by just two or three public performances. Like all musicians, we spent far more time rehearsing than performing.

As a performer I learned the wisdom of a mantra that has stood me in good stead over the years — after I slowly and painfully acquired it. “Process not product!” The frustrating, time-consuming, and taxing process of learning your part in a majestic piece of music and working to sing it really well with others is valuable in itself. Though there is the bonus of finally performing publicly to an appreciative audience, I did not spend my time and effort to be rewarded with applause. I rehearsed mightily because I love to sing for or with others. That, as an amateur musician, is sufficient reward.

Photo attribution: Mitsuko Uchida & Jonathan Biss from Marlboro Music 

Goodbye Quicken 2007 – Hello SEE Finance!

Quicken SEE Finance

I have switched my personal finance software from Quicken 2007 to SEE Finance. For twelve years, I used the venerable Quicken 2007 to manage my personal finances; a lifetime for software these days. Later Quicken versions never matched the functionality of the 2007 version, which has consequently remained extremely popular.

But software platforms constantly change, and Intuit recently announced the functional death of Quicken 2007 in two ways: one that can be worked around, and one that really can’t. First, Intuit pointed out that the 32-bit software will not run on future 64-bit versions of macOS. If you don’t upgrade macOS (or keep a machine to run Mohave or an older version) Quicken 2007 can still be used. But the game changer for me is Intuit’s announcement that “Due to a security and reliability update from the service provider, the ability to download transactions will no longer work in Quicken 2007, regardless of your macOS version”.

It’s unclear exactly what “update” Intuit is referring to. Regardless, there was no way I was going back to the days when I had to manually enter security prices, and bank and credit card transactions.

So I needed new personal finance software.

My search for personal finance software

I spent a few days reading reviews and comparing features of current personal finance software. My must-have features included:

  • Runs on an Apple Macintosh and looks like a Mac app
  • Can import my historic Quicken 2007 data (~50,000 transactions!)
  • Downloads bank and credit card transactions from the financial institutions I use
  • Updates security prices
  • Allows customization of the information shown in account registers
  • Includes memorized repeated transactions
  • Provides adequate financial reports
  • Allows me to choose where I store my data, so I can access it anywhere from my desktop or laptop Macs
  • Rock solid reliability
  • As responsive as Quicken 2007

One feature I didn’t need is built-in online bill paying. I use my bank’s service, or the online payment scheduling that most businesses offer today.

Hello SEE Finance!

After checking out options that included Moneydance and subscription-based Quicken for Mac, I installed a thirty-day free trial of SEE Finance 2, and never looked back.

SEE Finance 2 imported all my Quicken 2007 transactions flawlessly, even highlighting a few discrepancies I’d overlooked over the years. The OFX (think Microsoft Money) one-step update of prices and account transactions works better for me, and for more accounts than Quicken 2007 ever did. Online account updating is outstanding: one-click updates all security prices and brings in new transactions from all linked brokerage, bank, and credit card accounts.

I have bank accounts, credit cards, investment accounts, mutual funds, individual investments, and some assets — all handled without problems. It took me a little while to understand how SEE Finance reconciles accounts, but I now find the process intuitive. The program is very fast and has been rock solid. And I am rapidly adjusting to the new interface after all these years of muscle memory Quicken 2007 data entry.

The program handles multiple currencies and budgeting, which might be great features for some, but I don’t need them. The developer also offers an IOS version for $4.99 (!), but it only works if your data is stored in iCloud. My free iCloud storage is fairly full, so I prefer to use my paid Dropbox account to store my 200MB data file plus the backups SEE Finance makes.

I think the only thing I will probably miss is Quicken 2007’s extensive reporting capabilities. I haven’t fully explored the reporting in SEE Finance yet, but it looks adequate for my needs, though there may be some minor gaps.

Currently, you can buy SEE Finance 2 for $39.99 US “for a limited time”. Unlike the current Quicken for Mac, no subscription is needed.

I have no connection with the developer, Scimonoce Software; I’m just, so far, a happy customer!

The workshop that wasn’t

workshop that wasn'tLast week, my friend Traci B wrote to me about a workshop that wasn’t.

“You’ll love this…I went to a 4 hour morning workshop at this digital conference. The speaker said, this will be interactive because no one wants to listen to me talk for four hours. He then proceeded to talk for 4 hours!

I did learn stuff and it prompted some ideas, but imagine how much better they might stick if it actually was a workshop. Also, he polled people in the audience and asked who was B2B [business-to-business] and who B2C [business-to-consumer]. 90 percent of the room was B2B…his presentation was almost all B2C.”

Sadly, experiences like this are far too common. Speakers (and the folks that concoct conference programs) decide to jazz up the description of a broadcast-style session by calling it a workshop.

The dictionary definition of a workshop is: “a seminar, discussion group, or the like, that emphasizes exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques, skills, etc.”.

Workshops that are

Obviously, the lecture Traci had to endure wasn’t a workshop. Genuine workshops include significant, frequent, and appropriate work by participants, guided by leaders. The leaders typically have significant content-specific experience. However, they also need adequate facilitation skills to guide the group through the session’s activities.

Some workshops are better described as trainings, where the participants are novices and the leader supplies the vast majority of the content and learning environment. However, most workshops I’ve led included professionals with significant skills and experience.

Customizing a workshop

When running such sessions, it’s important to customize the workshop in real time to meet the actual wants and needs of the participants, rather than plowing through a predetermined agenda that may be partially or largely irrelevant.

This did not happen at Traci’s event!

“Also, adapting your presentation isn’t tagging on “it’s the same for B2B” after every example…cause it’s not.”

Skilled leaders know to uncover the wants and needs of participants at the start of the session, and use the information to build a workshop that’s optimized for the attendees.

This sounds more difficult than it usually is. Preparation involves having a broad set of potential content, techniques, and skills to cover. Then, during the session, the leader concentrates on the wants and needs the attendees have initially shared, adjusting the time spent on each area to match the expressed interest.

One final suggestion

If a presenter (like me) is actually running a workshop, please don’t insist on calling them a speaker! In my experience, attendees prefer well-designed workshops to almost any other session format. Tell them the session is a workshop. They’ll appreciate the information (and likely the session too)!

What I remember from high school — and why

high school memoriesHigh school feels like a dream. Fifty years later, few distinct memories remain. I’ve only stayed in touch with one friend from those days, so there’s almost no reinforcement from reviewing and remembering the past. And yet there are some experiences that still retain power. Let’s look at three and explore why they endure.

Mr. Crooke’s holes

We knew almost nothing personal about our high school teachers. So I was surprised one day when our physics teacher, Mr. Crooke, told us that during World War II he had helped to develop some of the earliest rockets. His job was to figure out the best fin designs. This was long before the days of computer simulations (or computers for that matter), so Mr. Crooke experimented by drilling holes in the fins and then firing the rockets to see how straight they flew.

This captured our schoolboy imaginations, and for the next few weeks “Mr. Crooke’s holes” were a frequent topic of conversation.

I liked physics class because we did actual experiments and it offered the possibility of understanding the strange and confusing world in a rational way that seemed comforting to me. But this unexpected personal story cut through the dry presentations of facts that filled most of my childhood education, and it stuck.

Mr. Crooke told us that one of his rockets was displayed in the London Science Museum. Fifty years later, I spent a day at the museum. I examined every rocket, but, sad to say, couldn’t find the one with Mr. Crooke’s holes.

The biology class I’ll never forget

In class one day I was asked to publicly announce my score on a ten-question biology pop quiz. “Six” I said, and I heard loud gasps. The class of twenty-three students was shocked. I was supposed to be smarter than that. Although it has lost its emotional impact, I still remember the shame I felt at that moment.

In my school, the unspoken classroom rules were do what the teachers tell you and don’t make mistakes. Transgressions were followed by public shaming.

It took me many years to realize how much my education environment relied on shame. Because the emotional cost is high, it’s a rotten way to motivate learning.

Inventing an electric bicycle

Back to my physics class. (Hey, I became a physicist.) One day Mr. Crooke gave us a homework assignment for the week: design something that involved physics. I remember having a hard time thinking of something that would actually work. The evening before the assignment was due, I thought of inventing an electric bicycle.

Although there are some Victorian era patents for electric bikes, they were never mass-produced until recently. I certainly had never seen one when I invented mine. I remember drawing a bicycle with an electric motor bolted on, connected by a chain to the rear wheel. The battery was mounted on a little platform behind the bike. The details of the controls were conveniently omitted.

It amuses me that, thanks to the development of powerful lightweight batteries, my fanciful and impractical “invention” in the 1960’s has become the commonplace e-bike of today.

High school memories

These high school memories of mine have endured because they all include an emotional component of one kind or another. We may learn wondrous facts in school, but it’s the stories, experiences, and associated feelings that trigger memories that live on.

Is that true for you?

Becoming Brave

becoming brave

The past

It’s been a long journey becoming brave.

Fifty years ago, I was a teenager who, after a single embarrassing moment, gave up dancing in public. For forty years.

Twenty-five years ago I was a college professor who spent hours preparing classes, fearful that students would ask me a question I couldn’t answer. And when I started convening and speaking at conferences I was scared of being “on stage”, even in front of small audiences.

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