Well, listen to and consider this June 11, 2021 quote from New York City Mayoral frontrunner Eric Adams:
“With new technology of remote learning, you don’t need school children to be in a school building with a number of teachers. It’s just the opposite. You could have one great teacher that’s in one of our specialized high schools teach 300-400 students…”
When the leading candidate for the Mayor of New York City has this take on how people learn, perhaps it’s not so surprising that we’re still sitting through endless broadcast-style sessions at meetings and conferences.
Until we elect leadership that has a basic understanding of how great teachers actually teach, and how their students can effectively learn, we’re going to continue to live in a world of meetings full of ineffective lectures.
What is humans’ true superpower? [Hint: We’re not more intelligent than other species.] We can make a strong case that humans’ true superpower is social learning. Why am I writing about social learning on a blog that’s (mainly) about meeting design? Because social (uncovered) learning is the best learning model for conference sessions. Which means, to create the best meetings we need to maximize the social learning that takes place.
Humans’ true superpower
I’m reading Dutch historian and author, Rutger Bregman‘s absorbing and optimistic Humankind. The book presents a ton of evidence that — despite the torrent of bad news that daily floods our media — “humans are hardwired for kindness, geared towards cooperation rather than competition, and more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another.”
Early in the book, is this passage:
“What makes human beings unique? Why do we build museums, while the Neanderthals are stuck in the displays?”
“Chimpanzees and orangutans score on a par with human two-year-olds on almost every cognitive test. But when it comes to learning, the toddlers win hands down.”
“Human beings, it turns out, are ultra social learning machines.“
“…humans have another weird feature: we have whites in our eyes. This unique trait lets us follow the direction of other people’s gazes…Humans, in short, are anything but poker-faced. We constantly leak emotions and are hardwired to relate to the people around us. But far from being a handicap, this is our true superpower, because sociable people aren’t only more fun to be around, in the end they’re smarter too.” [emphasis added, illustration based on this research] —Humankind, Rutger Bregman
Or, as Seth Godin puts it:
“If you know how to walk, write, read, type, have a conversation, perform surgery or cook an egg, it’s probably because you practiced and explored and experienced, not because it was on a test.” —The revolution in online learning, Seth Godin
We aren’t superior thinkers. Humans don’t remember stuff better or longer or more accurately that other species. We aren’t better at causal reasoning. The one characteristic — our superpower — that distinguishes us from the other life on our planet is how we learn from and with others. (And how they learn from and with us.)
Social learning is how humans learn. We’re great at it, compared with other life forms. (Yes, there’s always room for improvement.)
So, for pity’s sake, don’t lecture and test. Eliminate all the one-hour (or longer) lecture sessions. Instead, build social learning into your meetings as much as possible.
So, how can I incorporate the power of social learning into my events?
It’s not hard to unleash the power of social learning at your events! Simply implement the participant-driven and participation-rich processes I’ve described and taught in my books and workshops for over thirty years.
Are you stuck in a career or life that you are reluctant to leave because it would involve ignoring sunk costs? I frequently meet people who are, and I certainly understand the temptation. Here’s the story of how I liberated my life by ignoring sunk costs. Perhaps it will inspire you to do the same?
The first twenty-five years of my life
My early education environment fed me a fire hose of information that my schools decided I should learn. Somehow, I maintained an intense curiosity to understand the world. So it’s not surprising that I gravitated to studying physics. I ended up with a Ph.D. in experimental high-energy particle physics at the tender age of 25.
I could have stayed in the field, probably got tenure, and been a physicist the rest of my life.
Instead, having fallen in love with Vermont, I left the world of high-energy particle accelerators and multiyear Big Science experiments, never to return. Although some of my experience prepared me for subsequent careers in computer science and consulting, I spent perhaps five to ten years of my life studying and working in fields I have, by now, largely forgotten. Five to ten years of sunk costs.
But no regrets. Although nothing to do with my absence, the field of experimental high-energy physics yielded little interesting progress over the last forty years. I’m glad I left it.
A visit to Korea
In 1996, my family and I visited Korea. Everywhere we went, people asked my profession. They were astounded when I told them I had recently given up being a college professor to concentrate on information technology consulting. In Korea, being a college professor was the highest status you could have. (The two college professors with whom we were staying had their graduate students pick us up at the airport and ferry us around.) The idea that I would give up college teaching to pursue a different career was incomprehensible.
Perhaps if I’d been born Korean and followed the same educational path, my high status would have seduced me, and I would never have left academia. Status is a big reason why people cling to jobs that they hate. Knowing more about myself now, I’m glad I escaped such a fate.
Solar, teaching, and consulting
New careers followed. Abandoning each one required ignoring my associated sunk costs. Yet, in retrospect, there was always learning that fed my future. Managing a solar manufacturing company taught me much about business, which proved vital to my later consulting career. And teaching computer science for ten years helped me slowly become a better teacher, eventually discarding the broadcast-style teaching modalities I had experienced and unconsciously assumed.
Meanwhile, in my spare time…
Ever since I was a graduate student, I’ve felt drawn to bring people together around topics and issues they had in common. I spent most of the next thirty years doing this as an unpaid volunteer in my spare time. My only reward was the mysterious pleasure of feeling good about what I was doing.
What I didn’t realize was that, during these decades I was learning a great deal about successful and unsuccessful ways to facilitate group connection and fruitful learning. Figuring out ways to make the fundamental human act of meeting better, motivated by nothing more than the pleasure it gave me, led me to write a book about what I had learned.
To my surprise, when I published Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love in 2009, I found myself professionally involved in the meeting industry.
It took me half a century, but I finally figured out (for now) what I love to do. And organizations pay me to do it!
Are you stuck?
Are you stuck in a career or life choice that you are reluctant to leave because you would have to ignore sunk costs? Ultimately it’s your choice, of course. For me, being able to walk away from the learning, experience, and status I’ve achieved in various realms has been worth it. If my story hasn’t convinced you, I’ll close with Seth Godin’s thoughts on the subject:
“‘Ignore sunk costs’ is the critical lesson of useful decision making…
…Creativity is the generous act of solving an interesting problem on behalf of someone else. It’s a chance to take emotional and intellectual risks with generosity.
Do that often enough and you can create a practice around it. It’s not about being gifted or touched by the muse. Instead, our creative practice (whether you’re a painter, a coach or a fundraiser) is a commitment to the problems in front of us and the people who will benefit from a useful solution to them.” —Seth Godin, Sunk costs, creativity and your Practice
Have you ignored your sunk costs, and walked away from a career or life choice? Share your story in the comments below!
Why do people overlook the importance of integration and practice? Well, the hero’s journey is a common way we picture how change occurs. A hero goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.
At the end of the hero’s journey, everyone involved, just like in fairy tales, “live happily ever after”.
Integration and practice is absent from this monomyth version of change.
Integration and practice is a vital component of change
In reality, integration and practice are vital components of change. You’ve probably experienced moments in your life when you realized that something was or was about to be different: the fourth stage transforming idea/event of Satir’s model of change. I certainly have.
Typically, however, such moments of insight or awareness do not lead to instantaneous change. Think about the times you’ve realized you can/have to/want to make a change in your life.
Some stories about working on change
Here are three stories about working on change in my life:
Each story includes the awakening moment(s), followed by integration and practice.
Even when we incorporate integration and practice, successful change isn’t guaranteed. Though eating mindfully has maintained my weight loss for 5 years, and I’m now good at asking for help, I still struggle to meditate daily.
Unfortunately, traditional conferences are poor places for this kind of learning to occur, since they’re filled with broadcast-style lectures, during which no interpersonal interaction takes place.
At well-designed meetings, however, participants have plenty of opportunities to engage with peers about topics that are personally important. The key learning modality at such meetings is peer learning.
Peer learning allows anyone to be a teacher and/or a student, with these roles switching from moment to moment. Potentially, everyone has something to contribute and to learn. Peer conferences first uncover the content and issues people want to discuss. They then facilitate appropriate peer learning around topics of interest. My books and this blog provide plenty of information on how to do this.
Of course, in order for peer learning to occur, participants need to share what they know.
And this is where trust and safety issues impact learning.
“It is important to stress that we are all connected through a complicated net of trust. It is not as if there is a group of people, the non-experts, who have to trust the experts and the experts do not have to trust anyone. Everyone needs to trust others since human knowledge is a joint effort…It is well known that low levels of trust in a society leads to corruption and conflict, but it is easy to forget the very central role that trust plays for knowledge. And knowledge, of course, is essential to the democratic society.” —Åsa Wikforss, Why do we resist knowledge?
Why people may not share their knowledge
Knowledge management author Stan Garfield shares sixteen reasons why people don’t share their knowledge. Here’s a key one:
“They don’t trust others. They are worried that sharing their knowledge will allow other people to be rewarded without giving credit or something in return, or result in the misuse of that knowledge.” —Stan Garfield, 16 reasons why people don’t share their knowledge
So, when trust is absent, knowledge fails to flow. But when knowledge flow is stemmed, opportunities for trust are reduced. This is a positive feedback loop that guarantees low trust and knowledge sharing.
This breakdown of trust can happen anywhere. Between individuals, in organizations, and at a societal level. And it is easy for it to happen at meetings.
Designing for trust, safety, and learning
In general, the more meeting attendees trust each other, the safer they feel. The safer they feel, the more likely they are to share their knowledge.
So when I design and facilitate meetings, one of my most important goals is to provide a maximally safe environment for sharing. This maximizes the potential for consequential learning.
That’s why I:
introduce group agreements upfront, one of which has participants keep what individuals share confidential;
create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes (or where mistakes are impossible);
provide ample opportunities for group discussions, rather than lectures, around appropriate content; and
give people the right to not participate at any time.
The last condition is important. An attendee’s level of trust and feeling of safety may vary from moment to moment during a meeting. Giving attendees the freedom (and responsibility) to decide not to participate and/or share at any time allows them to determine and control what is personally safe to do.
Gamification “makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli”. Education professor Amy Bruckman, coined this analogy in a 1999 paper on game software design:
“Most attempts at making software both educational and fun end up being neither. Fun is often treated like a sugar coating to be added to an educational core. Which makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli. The problem is that too many game designers are using long-outmoded models of what it means to be “educational”.
Game designer and author Ian Bogost makes the same point, somewhat more forcefully:
“…gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.
Bullshitters are many things, but they are not stupid. The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.” —Ian Bogost, Gamification is Bullshit (2011)
Clearly, sense-making is a vital human activity. At a fundamental level, our brains are continuously, and largely automatically, making sense of our sense organ data. At higher levels of thought, we routinely attempt to make sense of situations that confront us. If we didn’t, the world would be a confusing and more dangerous place.
Our sense-making prowess allows us to build models of the present and make decisions about potential future behavior. Thus, sense-making is a key ingredient of our ability to plan and make group decisions.
The danger of our drive to make sense
There’s a flip side to our incredible ability to make sense of our perceptions and experiences. Dave Snowden, speaking about tactics used by the foresight community, says:
Dave Snowden coined the term retrospective coherence, aka Monday morning quarterbacking, when talking about the behavior of complex systems. (See Dave Snowden and Mary Boone’s classic article A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making to learn more about complex systems, a domain of the Cynefin framework.) Retrospective coherence means that, in a complex environment, it seems easy in hindsight to explain why things happened. Unfortunately, applying our sense-making abilities to complex systems doesn’t work, since cause and effect can only be determined in retrospect.
For those with short memories, the danger of retrospective coherence is that it inspires a false confidence in their ability to make correct predictions. To avoid such inflation of our predictive expertise we need to scrupulously compare our predictions with actual outcomes, and admit our limitations.
Premature convergence is our predilection to prematurely decide we have found the answer to a problem and stop exploring other possibilities.
Determining what is “adequate” time is one of the arts of facilitation.
During divergence, a facilitator supports the uncovering of relevant questions, information, perspectives, and ideas.
At some point, there’s a switch to the Groan Zone. Here, the participants discuss what’s been uncovered, develop a shared framework of understanding, and create inclusive potential solutions. At least, that’s how Kaner describes the process, though the Groan Zone has always seemed to me to have a lot in common with what Virginia Satir’s change model calls chaos.
People have proposed many ways to move from groan zone to convergence, and some of them are flawed. There’s no single “right” way to move to convergence. But you’re likely guaranteed to come up with a poor conclusion if you don’t spend enough time diverging and groaning beforehand.
Despite the pitfalls outlined above, we are sense-making animals and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Stay realistic about your limitations to predict future outcomes, and take your time moving through divergent & Groan Zone process, and you’ll avoid the dangers of our drive to make sense.
In 2017, I purchased an Apple Watch. It has improved my life in many ways. In particular, it’s become an essential tool for supporting my desire to exercise daily. The watch’s Workout app tracks my exercise. All I need to do is to tell it what kind of exercise I’m about to start, and leave the app running until the exercise is over.
To pick the right exercise, the watch shows a scrollable list. Here’s what I saw today when I tapped the app:
Right now I’m living at home, and the two workouts I do most often are my daily outdoor run and yoga. So it’s convenient that these options are the first two I see.
The Workout app learns my preferences, and adjusts its display to show me the most likely workouts first.
My environment changes
Almost every year, I vacation in Anguilla, typically for three weeks. My exercise program there is different. I don’t run (it’s too hot for me!) but I walk daily, followed by a pool swim.
After a few days, the Workout app unlearns my most common home-based exercises and relearns my new routine, replacing the top two items on the Workouts list with the Outdoor Walk and Pool Swim choices.
For the remainder of my vacation, these two options stay at the top of the list.
Alas, all good things come to an end. On returning home, the Workout app unlearns my Anguilla routine and relearns my home routine.
And if my exercise regime changes over time, due to circumstances or location, the Workout app will continue to use its learn-unlearn-relearn routine to display the most likely choices first.
I’m sure that Apple has incorporated other examples of unlearning into its products, but this is one I’ve noticed. Small thoughtful touches like this have helped Apple products and services become market leaders in a very competitive industry.
#2 Apple Mail
Apple doesn’t always get things right, unfortunately. Apple’s Mail program provides a classic example of what happens when unlearning is not an option.
Apple Mail allows you to file messages in folders, a useful way for me to organize the 94,000 emails I currently store. Trying to be helpful, the program learns where you tend to store specific kinds of messages, and after a while, right-clicking a message will pop up an option to move it to the “learned” preferred folder.
This is a generally helpful feature — except…
Once Apple Mail has “learned” where to file an email, it won’t unlearn that choice!
Furthermore, there’s no way to manually reset Apple Mail’s choice!
For example, let’s say you’ve been working with Marce, a client’s employee, for some time, so you’ve been moving Marce’s emails to a folder for that client. After a while Apple Mail helpfully offers to move emails from Marce to that client folder. So far, so good. Then Marce moves to a new company, and you continue to work with them. Now you’d like to file Marce’s emails in a separate folder for the new client. Unfortunately, no matter how many times you manually file Marce’s emails in the new client’s folder, Apple Mail will forever continue to suggest moving them to the former employer folder!
You will have to move email from Marce to the new employee folder manually every time, remembering every time not to choose the (wrong) default Apple Mail continues to suggest.
This is a drag, and a product flaw.
It surprises me that the Watch software incorporates learn-unlearn-relearn into its memory-limited program space, but Apple Mail on the desktop, where program size is not an issue, only includes the learn piece.
I’ll conclude with a few observations about the wider value of unlearning in organizations.
Most organizations need to innovate constantly, due to changing circumstances. Innovation doesn’t just involve coming up with new ideas. Innovation also requires a willingness and ability to cannibalize or destroy existing products or services; i.e. to unlearn what used to work, and relearn what is now relevant.
Is most classroom practice astrology? David Bowles thinks so.
I’ll let you in on a secret. I have a doctorate in education, but the field’s basically just a 100 years old. We don’t really know what we’re doing. Our scholarly understanding of how learning happens is like astronomy 2000 years ago.
Certainly the vast majority of my education consisted of the learn-from-lectures education model that still largely dominates schools and conferences. Was that true for you too?
We can’t even agree what kind of astrology to use
In addition, society’s three fundamental desires for children’s education drive our primitive ideas about classroom practice. As laid out in Kieran Egan’s thought-provoking book, The Educated Mind, these desires are:
making good citizens;
mastering certain bodies of knowledge; and
fulfilling each student’s unique potential.
Politicians, researchers in education, teachers, and citizens continue to argue about the relative importance of these noble goals. Unfortunately, Egan shows that you can’t satisfy all these ideals simultaneously because they’re mutually incompatible!
What we do know about effective meeting and classroom learning
Lectures are a terrible way to learn. Knowledge is not a “thing” one person transfers to another. Rather, knowledge is a relationship between the knower and the known; knowledge is “created” through this relationship.
We learn predominantly socially, not alone in our minds. Rather, we learn in social contexts, through mind, body, and emotions.
Learners create knowledge; they don’t receive knowledge.
We learn best by actively doing and managing our own learning.Not by listening and watching.
In other words, learning is a process, not a transaction. Research shows that the vast majority of our important learning occurs via self-directed activities and while interacting with others.
Astronomy, not astrology
At the end of the 19th century, astrology, a pseudoscience in vogue for over two millennia, was finally replaced by the science of astronomy. The meeting industry, as we know it today, began about 350 years ago. The research about how we learn most effectively is decades old, and still hasn’t widely infused into classroom and meeting practice.
Astronomy finally replaced astrology as the predominant way to look at our world. We need to replace the astrology of current meeting and classroom practice with the astronomy of effective learning.
Are you old yet? (Click on the image to watch the skateboarding professor, who’s my age.)
I turned 69 last week. My body and mind do not work as well as they used to. Oh for the days, long gone, when I went to bed, fell asleep immediately, and woke up eight hours later feeling refreshed! My stamina starts to drop at five pm; no more long productive bouts of late night work.
Traveling extensively for my meeting industry work, I’d meet hundreds of new people every year, and used to be pretty good at remembering their names and how and when I met them. Not these days.
There are all these little aches and pains that weren’t there before. Standing up from a chair is harder than it was. Standing after kneeling on the floor is unexpectedly difficult at times.