The hallway of learning

hallway learning Image attribution Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Have you attended in-person meetings where your hallway conversations were the highlight of the event? I’ve certainly experienced my fair share, and I bet you have too. Don’t get me wrong. Hallway learning and the connections made through conversations struck up between sessions are often valuable and important. But I see meetings where hallway learning trumps a majority of, if not all, conference sessions as failures of design, rather than a fact of life.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could improve the quantity and quality of hallway learning, conversations, and connections throughout an event?

Well, we can. Here are two ways.

1—How to improve conventional hallway conversations

We can increase the quality of conventional hallway conversations by designing a physical meeting environment that encourages and supports them. Create an architecture of assembly: spaces outside the session rooms where people can talk comfortably. Provide a range of spaces. For example, chair pairings, small group furniture arrangements, standing areas with places to park food and beverage, covered outdoor spaces, etc.

“…people, even very smart people, are unable to anticipate the benefits of in-depth interaction with colleagues until they have experienced it for themselves”
Nancy Dixon, The Hallways of Learning

Read Nancy’s article to learn how an office redesign strengthened connections amongst a group of formerly loosely connected peers. [And she gets a hat tip for inspiring this post!] Similarly, your design layout will affect the likelihood and value of hallway learning conversations. And participants most likely won’t even be aware of it!

In addition, be sure to schedule enough time for hallway learning to occur. Give your attendees plenty of breaks. Then they can rest and recuperate, consolidate what they have learned, and have time to engage in conversations that matter.

2—How to significantly improve hallway learning and connection throughout events

By far the best way to significantly improve hallway learning and connection is to build it into our meeting sessions.

Why should we do this? Here’s Nancy again:

“Typically, a presenter offers what happened in his or her own situation, but that is not what learners need to hear. Learners are interested in knowing how to adapt the lessons to their situation and for that they need to have a conversation so that the other person can understand their context, and they also can understand the context of the other.”

The trick is to use session designs that blend short useful pieces of content with conversations amongst participants. In effect, you’re providing structured hallway conversations about the content that’s just been delivered. There are many different formats you can use for such conversations (described in detail in my books): pair and trio share, facilitated small group breakouts, fishbowls, etc. You can create conversational groupings at random (“pair up with someone you haven’t met yet”) or use human spectrograms to assign attendees to like-minded folks.

Building hallway learning opportunities into our meeting sessions has additional advantages. Once a session is over, and traditional hallway conversations are about to begin, attendees are ready to continue or start new conversations with the people who were in their session. They are primed to continue to explore and deepen their hallway learning.


I’ll close with a final Nancy Dixon quote from a different post:

“Before people can learn from each other or collaborate on issues, they need to build connections – that is, gain some understanding of who the other person is, including their skills, depth of knowledge, experience, and attitude toward others. People are unlikely to ask each other questions or ask for assistance, until they have built a connection that allows them to learn that the other person is knowledgeable enough and respectful enough to engage.”
—Nancy Dixon, Connection before Content

To maximize useful connection and learning at our meetings, optimizing hallway learning throughout the event is the way to go!

[Cropped] image attribution Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Focus on learning, not education

learning not educationFor better meetings, we need to focus on learning, not education.

Yes, sometimes, cultural or professional “requirements” mean we have to provide education. That’s so we can “certify” that we’ve educated attendees to some prescribed standard. But is that all our meetings should be about?

Learning, not education

After all, it’s what we actually learn that’s important, rather than the “education” we receive. As Seth Godin says:

“Education is a model based on scarcity, compliance and accreditation. It trades time, attention and money for a piece of paper that promises value.

But we learn in ways that have little to do with how mass education is structured.

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.

We’re in danger of repeating the failed approaches of education in an online setting…”
Seth Godin, The revolution in online learning

Seth is talking about the potential failure of online education, but his point that we need to practice, explore, and experience to learn is true for any kind of meeting. Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde pointed this out a hundred years ago:

“The value of an education … is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
Albert Einstein, 1921, during his first visit to the United States

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
Oscar Wilde, 1909, Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young

Social learning

If we want people to learn at our meetings, we need to concentrate on creating the best environment for learning: social learning, humans’ superpower.

Learning, not education. You’ve heard it from Einstein, Wilde, and Godin. For what it’s worth, I agree.

I hope you do too. Check out the many blog posts I’ve written about learning or any of my books to learn more about how to make your meetings places of learning, not education.

Image attributions: Oscar Wilde image by Napoleon Sarony – Library of Congress, Public Domain, Albert Einstein image By Ferdinand Schmutzer, Public Domain

Did anyone learn anything?

did anyone learn anythingThe meeting is over. Did anyone learn anything? And how would you know?

An EventTech Chat discussion

I greatly enjoy participating in EventTech Chat, “a weekly conversation about meeting and event technology, including software, hardware, and audiovisual for in-person and online events” hosted by pals Brandt Krueger and Glenn Thayer.

During last week’s chat, one of the topics we discussed was whether there are differences in how people learn online, as opposed to face to face. This led to conversations about learning styles (be careful, they’re mostly mythical and barely useful), the importance of taking responsibility for your own learning at meetings, and how meeting formats affect what people learn.

Are you a regular reader of this blog? If so, you might have guessed—correctly—that I had plenty to say about these important issues. There is plenty of solid research on the best ways to support effective learning. We know that:

Of course, even if we know the best ways to maximize useful learning and connection at meetings, that doesn’t mean we implement them. Unfortunately, our meetings are still full of lectures.

Which brings us to an important question we hardly ever ask about meetings…

Did anyone learn anything?

In my book Conferences That Work, I shared a story about when I—and everyone else in my graduate class—never admitted we didn’t understand what our teacher was teaching us for weeks.

…toward the end of my second year I was understanding less and less of a mathematics course I was taking. The professor seemed to be going through the motions—he asked few questions, and there was no homework. Elementary particle physicists are either mathematicians or experimentalists. I was the latter, so my lack of mathematical understanding was not affecting my research work. But the experience was disconcerting.

And, as the semester went on, the percentage of class material I understood gradually declined.

One day, our teacher announced that we would be studying Green’s Functions, a technique used to solve certain kinds of equations. After the first 20 minutes of the class I realized that I understood nothing of what was being said, and that I was at a crucial turning point. If I kept quiet, it would be too late to claim ignorance later, and it was likely I would not understand anything taught for the remainder of the semester. If I spoke up, however, I was likely to display my weak comprehension of everything the teacher had covered so far.

Looking around, I noticed that the other students seemed to be having a similar experience. Everyone looked worried. No one said a word.

The class ended and the professor left. I plucked up my courage and asked my classmates if they were having trouble. We quickly discovered, to our general relief, that none of us understood the class. What should we do? Somehow, without much discussion, we decided to say nothing to the teacher.

The class only ran a few more weeks, and the remaining time became a pro forma ritual. Did our teacher know he had lost us? I think he probably did. I think he remained quiet for his own reasons, perhaps uncaring about his success at educating us, perhaps ashamed that he had lost us.

When I didn’t speak up, I chose to enter a world where I hid my lack of understanding from others, a world where I was faking it…

…Probably you’ve had a similar experience; a sinking feeling as you realize that you don’t understand something that you’re apparently expected to understand, in a context, perhaps a traditional conference, where nonresponsiveness is the norm. It’s a brave soul indeed who will speak out, who is prepared to admit to a conference presenter that they don’t get what’s going on. Have you stayed silent? Do you?

Silence isn’t golden

Silence during a presentation, and a lack of questions at the end does not mean that anyone learned anything. As Jonah Berger reminds us in Contagious, “Behavior is public and thoughts are private.”

If my teacher had bothered to periodically ask his class whether they understood what he was attempting to teach, or, better, asked questions to check, we’d likely have told or shown him we were lost.

So, how can we discover if anyone learned anything?

Well, I’m sorry, but smile sheets dropped in a box at the end of a session, app-based evaluations, and online surveys that must be completed within a few days do not provide an accurate picture of the long-term benefits of a meeting.

Why? Because we are far more likely to be influenced by our immediate emotional experience during a session than by the successful delivery of what eventually turn out to be long-term benefits.

Three better ways to obtain long-term evaluations of events are Net Promoter Scores, A Letter to Myself, and The Reminder. Check out this post for more details.

Ultimately, we can’t ensure or guarantee that anyone learned anything at a meeting. As Glenn pointed out during our EventTech Chat, the ultimate responsibility for learning is the learner’s. Attend a meeting expecting that the leaders will magically transfer learning to you without doing any work yourself? You probably won’t learn much, if anything.

Nevertheless, we can actively help people learn at meetings by implementing the principles listed above. (Check out my books for complete details.) But there’s one additional thing we can do to maximize and extend learning during our meetings.

How to help people consolidate what they learn at meetings

During our EventTech Chat, several participants shared how they consolidate learning during or immediately after an event. Folks who have learned the value of this practice and figured out the ways that work best for them may not need what I’m about to share (though even they can often benefit).

What I’ve found over decades of designing meetings is that the majority of meeting attendees do not know how to consolidate what they learn there. So I designed a closing plenary that gives each participant a carefully structured opportunity to review, consolidate, and reinforce what they have learned at the conference. They also get to develop the next steps for changes they will work on in their professional lives. It’s called a Personal Introspective, and takes 60 – 90 minutes to run. (You can find full details in Chapter 57 of The Power of Participation.)

Did anyone learn anything? There are no guarantees. But, following the above advice will make it significantly more likely that your attendees will learn what they want and need to learn. Do you have other thoughts on how to improve how you or others learn at meetings. If so, please share them in the comments below.


Why our meetings are still full of lectures

Why are our meetings still full of lectures?

Well, listen to and consider this June 11, 2021 quote from former candidate and now New York City Mayor 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 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.

Yes, switching to active learning is hard, but it’s worth it! Social learning is humans’ true superpower. Learning researchers and our best teachers and meeting designers have known this for a long time. Learning in community allows us to uncover and incorporate all the questions, discussion topics, expertise, and experience available in the room.

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.

Video courtesy of The Matt Skidmore Show

Social learning is humans’ true superpower

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

social learning superpower
Illustration from Humankind by 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.

What are you waiting for?

The liberation of ignoring sunk costs

ignoring sunk costsAre 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!

Image attribution: Flickr user Falco Ermert, under CC license Attribution 2.0.

Successful change requires integration and practice

integration practiceI find Virginia Satir’s change model to be the most useful of the many models of change. There’s a crucial fifth stage in Satir’s model that people often neglect: the integration and practice phase.

integration and practice
The hero’s journey shortchanges change

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:

Losing weight.

Meditating daily.

Asking for help.

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 6 years, and I’m now good at asking for help, I still struggle to meditate daily.

As Jerry Weinberg said in his wonderful book Becoming a Change Artist:

Change requires patience. John Stevens tells this story from the martial arts:

Once, a young man petitioned a great swordsman to admit him as a disciple. “I’ll act as your live-in servant and train ceaselessly. How long will it take me to learn everything?”

“At least ten years,” the master replied.

“That’s too long,” the young man protested. “Suppose I work twice as hard as everyone else. Then how long will it take?”

“Thirty years,” the master shot back.

“What do you mean?” the anguished student exclaimed. “I’ll do anything to master swordsmanship as quickly as possible!”

“In that case,” the master said sharply, “you will need fifty years. A person in such a hurry will be a poor student.”‘

Practicing to become a change artist

We all probably hope that implementing change in our lives won’t take decades of integration and practice. So, are there ways we can practice getting better at facilitating change?

Why, yes, suggests Jerry Weinberg!

The title of Chapter 6 of Becoming a Change Artist is “Practicing to Become a Change Artist”.

In it he makes simple suggestions on how we can practice implementing change in our lives, and, in the process, become more open to and expert in facilitating change for others and ourselves.

‘The purpose is to launch your career as a change artist by experiencing some of the theoretical learnings in the “real world,” but in as small and safe a way as possible.’

Here are some exercises Jerry recommends:

  • Go to work in a different way tomorrow.
  • Make a different lunch every day, or make the same lunch a different way.
  • Brush your teeth in a different order.
  • Instead of trying to change something, sit back, listen, and observe. Notice your urge to change things and what happens when you don’t do anything about your urges.
  • Pick one habit that keeps you from being fully present, and focus on reshaping that habit in all your interactions.

Why not try some of these yourself? I enjoy this challenge!

Practicing how to implement change in small ways in our daily lives can help us improve how we facilitate change. Put another way, concentrating on the process of facilitating change, rather than the product or outcome is the way to go.

Image attribution: Close up of a girl training inside a boxing ring by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

Trust, safety, and learning at meetings

Trust safety learningIf people come to meetings to learn, how can we create the best environment for them to do so? It turns out that trust and safety are prerequisites for optimum learning at meetings. Let’s explore why.

How we learn at meetings

For over twenty years, we’ve known that adults learn 90% of what they need to know to do their job via informal learning. Only about 10% of adult learning involves formal classroom or meeting presentation formats.

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.

The importance of trust

[A tip of the hat to Harold Jarche‘s post trust emerges over time, which provides the quotes for this section.]

Harold quotes philosophy professor Åsa Wikforss:

“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.

Trust safety learning

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.

[For more on creating safety at events, see Chapter 17 of my book The Power of Participation.]

Image attribution: Young girl learning spring board diving at outdoor pool by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

Gamification makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli

gamification chocolate-dipped broccoliGamification “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”.

Can educational be fun? Amy Bruckman

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)

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