Serve up learning in small bites, not giant plates

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In May I spent a gastronomically intense delightful week in San Francisco, eating lunch and dinner at different restaurants almost every day. After an initial low from consuming the worst tuna salad sandwich ever during a hectic rush to return my rental car, I enjoyed French, Italian, Korean, vegetarian, New American, and Argentinean cuisines, to name a few. And I noticed a pattern to my favorite experiences.

I like small plate meals best.

The United States is famous for its giant servings of food. I don’t know if this is a reflection of our pioneer appetites or simply a commercial determination that people will pay for larger portions, making more profit for restaurants in the process. I do know that the large portions invariably offered when we eat out made the United States the most obese populous nation in the world until being overtaken by Mexico last year.

Korean_cuisine-Banchan-11It’s interesting to me how many other cultures concentrate on offering small amounts of many different foods at every meal. Spanish tapas are an obvious example, but there are many others. When I was in South Korea a number of years ago, I loved how before any meal “began” we were served a multitude of tiny dishes, buffet style, of all kinds of interesting and intriguing foods known as Banchan. Artfully cooked rice, bewildering varieties of kimchi, noodles, radishes, steamed dumplings, and other delicacies appear at your table before you’ve even picked up a menu. What a way to start a meal!

Small plate meals make it easy to share and fun to discover commonalities with your dining companions. They allow great flexibility for personal choice. I can mix and match my own personal mélange on the spot. If I don’t enjoy something on one plate, someone else probably will and I can concentrate on what I really like. Compare this with the common experience of ordering a single massive entrée that you find you don’t like so much or can’t finish.

You know what? In my experience, the best learning environments work the same way. Instead of serving up large indigestible chunks of content, we learn better when we:

  • Can choose from a variety of learning options and experiences;
  • Are served learning in small bites, twenty minutes or less, and then have opportunities to digest it; and
  • Can share our learning experiences with others.

Although once in a while a master teacher can create a superb learning “meal” where the whole experience flows expertly from one dish of content to the next, I’ve found that such people are rare and, more importantly, in retrospect the drama of the presentation often overshadows the learning that might have taken place. Presentations as entertainment, as art, can be great and memorable experiences, but they frequently don’t provide significant long-term learning. There is no substitute, I’ve found, for participation in one’s own learning to reinforce what of value is learned, how well it is learned, and how long the learning is retained. (Just seeing the pictures above brings back my memories of those small plates of delicacies eaten in so many different enchanting places!) Supplying small bites of learning during your conferences, with time to reflect, swap ideas, and contrast experiences turns out to be a highly enjoyable and effective way to feed the minds and souls of your participants.

Photo attributions: Flickr users kudo88 & hellaoakland