Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way

Apple 1984

“Things are the way they are because they got that way.”
—Quip attributed to Kenneth Boulding

The hundreds-of-years-dominant paradigm for sessions, conferences, and meetings is broadcast: most of the time, one person presents and everyone else listens and watches. Why?

I think there are two principal historic reasons: one shaped by technology, the other by culture.

How technology shapes our system of education
Perhaps you’re thinking: Technology? Isn’t technology a relatively recent development? How could technology have influenced how we learnt hundreds of years ago?

To answer these questions, let’s take a journey back in time. It’ll take a while, but stay with me and I’ll shine some light on some rarely-examined foundations of our current educational paradigm.

Understandably, we tend to think of technology these days as material devices like cars, printers, and smartphones or, increasingly, as computer programs: software and apps. But this is an incredibly restrictive viewpoint. Such a definition of what is and isn’t “technology” is far too narrow.

“Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.”
—Alan Kay, at a Hong Kong press conference in the late 1980s

An older reader will immediately recognize a typewriter (my Ph.D. thesis was typed on one) but a child might stare in puzzlement at a 1945 Smith-Corona Sterling. A device found on a table at a yard-sale appears to be a piece of rusty sculpture until a Google search reveals it’s a ninety year-old cherry stoner. By Alan Kay’s definition, anything made after you became aware is technology. Anything that’s really old, we don’t even recognize as technology!

This worldview exists because human beings are incredibly good at adapting to new circumstances. Such an ability greatly increases our chances of surviving a hostile and treacherous world. But there’s a downside. When we start making changes to our environment by making useful things, what was once new becomes a part of our everyday existence. In the process, what was formerly new becomes largely invisible to our senses, focused as they are on the new and unexpected. As David Weinberger remarks: “Technology sinks below our consciousness like the eye blinks our brain filters out.

So let’s adopt a wider definition of technology and see where it takes us. I’ve been influenced here by Kevin Kelly, in his thought-provoking book What Technology Wants.

Technology is anything made to solve a problem.
—Adrian’s definition, a paraphrase of Wikipedia’s definition of technology

This definition is useful because it opens our eyes to technology that we have been using for a very long time.

For example, by this definition, science is technology! Science is just a way that we’ve invented to understand the patterns we notice in the world we live in.

Science is old. Writing is older. Writing allows us to communicate asynchronously with each other.

Writing is technology!

And oldest of all—we don’t really know how old—language is technology. Every culture, tribe has its own language it has invented to solve the problem of real-time communication between its members.

These technologies are so old that they are invisible to us. They are part of our culture, the human air we breathe. Language, writing, and science are tools outside our conventional, narrow-scope view of technology. We instantiate these tools using invented conventions: sounds, gestures, and symbols. These sounds, gestures, and symbols, however, are secondary features of these ancient technologies. Ultimately, language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.

Human process has become the most invisible technology. It is inexorably and continually built into every one of us by our culture, starting the moment we are born, before we can speak, write, or reason. Our culture teaches us throughout our life the signs, sounds, and movements that signify. We are superbly equipped to learn to speak, write, and think before we have any self-awareness of what we are being taught.

“We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.”
—Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Our awareness of the processes we constantly use to learn and make sense of the world and to connect with others is minimal. It’s like breathing, largely automatic and unconscious. As a result, the old process technology that we adopted for practical purposes long before recorded history continues to shape our lives today.

Think for a moment about the impact of language on our species. Before language arose, we had no way to transfer what we learned during our all-too-brief lives to our tribe and following generations. “These plants are safe to eat”, “You can make a sharp spearhead from this rock”, “Snakes live in that cave”—all such learning had to be painfully acquired from scratch by every individual. Language allowed parents and tribe elders to pass on valuable knowledge orally, improving survival and quality of life

Similarly, the later development of writing made it possible to share, physically transfer, and expand a permanent repository of human knowledge. And the evolution of the process methodology of science enabled us to design experiments about our world, codify the patterns we discovered, and turn them into inventions that transform our lives.

Now we’re ready to consider the effect of the historical development of language, writing, and science on education. For almost all of human history, language was our dominant mode of communication and our single most important educational tool. If you wanted to learn something you had to travel physically to where someone knew what you needed to learn and they would then tell it to you. Eventually schools developed: establishments for improving the efficiency of oral communication of information by bringing many students together so they could learn simultaneously from one teacher.

Language reigned supreme for millennia, thus becoming an invisible technology. Only when writing became established it was finally possible for information to be transmitted asynchronously. By that time, the model of the single teacher and multiple students was buried deep in our collective psyche and, to a large extent, the book paradigm mirrored the language process since most books were written by a single expert and absorbed by a much larger number of readers.

(The very word lecture beautifully illustrates the adoption of old models that took place during the development of writing. The word is derived from the latin lectūra which means—to read! The first books were so rare that a group who wished to study a book’s content would have someone read the book out loud while the others copied down what they heard.)

Even science started as an individual enterprise—the early study of “natural philosophy” by Socrates, Aristotle, and others used an oral teacher-students model. Although science today is largely an intensely cooperative enterprise, we still see considerable leftovers of the older invisible technologies in its societal organization: prescribed progressions towards mastery of fields, formal paths to tenure, the format of academic meetings, etc.

What are the effects of these powerful invisible technologies on our educational archetypes? When our culture has been steeped in technologies like language, writing, and science for millennia, it becomes very difficult for people to consider learning models other than broadcast, even though other models may be far more appropriate these days.

The earliest organized religious schools are a few thousand years old, and the oldest non-religious universities were founded nearly a thousand years ago. For centuries, oral learning was the predominant modality in what we would recognize as schools. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century that a significant number of people were able to learn independently from books and newspapers, which are, of course, still a form of broadcast media. Even though the invention of inexpensive mass-printing revolutionized society, the old broadcast teaching models were sunk so deeply and invisibly into our culture that they have persisted to this day. When you are taught by broadcast by teachers who were taught by broadcast it is not surprising that when you are asked to teach in turn, you employ the same methods. And this ancient cultural conditioning, which we are largely unaware of, is very difficult to break.

As adults, when we are asked to create a meeting we are thus naturally primed to choose a broadcast paradigm for the “learning” portions. As a society we are mostly unaware of how we have been conditioned by past centuries of broadcast learning. And when it is brought to our attention, it is still very difficult for an individual to break away from the years of broadcast process to which he has been subjected as a child.

The process we’ve been using for so long inhibits our ability to consider alternatives, but the quantity of “knowledge” that we currently expect adults to possess also plays a role. And this leads us to the second reason why meetings are infused with broadcast methodology.

How culture shapes our system of education
For most of human history, learning was predominantly experiential. Life expectancy was low by modern standards and formal education nonexistent. Even after schools began to become important institutions, curricula were modest. In the Middle Ages, formal education of children was rare; in the fifteenth century only a small percentage of European children learned to read and write, usually as a prerequisite for acceptance as a guild apprentice.

Up until around a hundred years ago, advanced education was only available for a tiny number of students, and the expectations for those entering university were laughable by today’s standards. Isaac Newton, for example, received no formal mathematics teaching until he entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661. Algebra wasn’t routinely taught even at university until the eightieth century. In the Victorian era, secondary school students were expected to master the “three R’s”—reading, writing and ‘rithmetic—plus perhaps a few other topics like needlework (girls only), geography and history.

The need for jobs has driven education ever since the birth of apprenticeship programs in the Middle East four millennia ago. Apprenticeship remained the dominant model of education until the advent of the industrial revolution, when apprenticeship no longer matched growing needs for workers just-enough capable to handle repetitive work plus some with specialized new trainable skills like bookkeeping and shopwork. A period of emphasis on career and technical education ensued. Once formal education became a social and legislative requirement for a majority of children, curricula wars erupted between the conflicting goals of content and pedagogy, and these wars have been with us in some form ever since.

Whatever you think about the relative merits of “traditionalist” and “progressive” approaches to education (see Tom Loveless’s The Curriculum Wars for a good overview), the key cultural reason why broadcast methods remain firmly embedded in our children’s education is the sheer quantity of knowledge that society—for whatever reasons—is determined to cram into young heads during formal education. As the brief history above illustrates, we now require young adults to be exposed to and absorb a staggering diversity and quantity of topics compared to our expectations of the past.

As a result, there is no way for this added knowledge to be taught experientially in the time available. It took centuries for some of our brightest minds to formulate the algebra that today we routinely teach to eleven-year-olds! While we have probably developed better paths and techniques for sharing this educational content, any increased efficiency in delivery has not kept pace with the massive increase in expected knowledge mastery.

It is this significant cultural imposition that requires us to use primarily broadcast methods to educate our young in school. The mistake we go on to make is to assume that the broadcast learning we’re all exposed to as kids should be extended into adulthood. This is why meetings continue to concentrate on broadcast learning modes. Every one of us is conditioned by an overwhelming exposure to broadcast teaching in our youth. While receiving specialized adult learning from an expert made sense for human history up until the industrial age, now that information is moving into systems outside our brains we have an urgent need to use adult learning modalities that do not concentrate on packing information into our heads. Instead, we’ll find that most of what we need to learn to do our jobs today is based on working informally and creatively with novel problems with solutions that need just-in-time information from our peers.

We find it hard to stop conference lecturing because it’s the dominant learning modality to which every one of us is exposed during our formal education—i.e. school—before adulthood. Being taught in school, however inefficiently, via lecture about the amazing things humans have created, discovered, and invented indoctrinates us to believe that lecturing is the normal way to learn. That’s why we continue to inflict lecturing on conference audiences. It’s what we’re used to, and, sadly we’re mostly unfamiliar with alternative and more effective learning modalities that are becoming more and more important in today’s world.

If you’d like to read more about the ideas shared here, and also learn about how to make meetings powerful places for learning, connection, engagement, community-building, and action, check out my book The Power of Participation.