What’s the best learning model for conference sessions?

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We don’t usually think about the learning models we employ during conference sessions, and I believe our events would be better if we did. Conventional conferences assume a ready supply of experts to whom we listen while they cover the learning that has been advertised at their sessions. Here’s how Jeff Hurt describes this approach, which he calls surface learning, contrasting it with deep learning where attendees discover through exploratory activity:

Content Covered Or Discovered
“In surface learning, the session reflects the knowledge and skills of the speaker. Knowledge is considered a thing that can be deposited into the minds of the listener. The attendee consumes as much as the speaker says as possible and tries to store it in the mind. The speaker covers as much as they can as fast as they can.

In deep learning, attendees explore challenging questions, dilemmas and problems using new and past knowledge. A focus is put on the attendee testing ideas, correcting them as needed and opening up to new perspectives. Attendees spend time discovering and investigating.”
—Jeff Hurt, We Must Stop Promoting Conference Fast-Track, Artificial, Butt-In-Seat, Surface Learning

As explained in my books, we know that the active learning that occurs through attendee discovery is indeed more effective than the learning that may result from sharing information with passive listeners. More is learned, more is retained, and overall retention is more accurate. So I agree with Jeff that discovered learning trumps covered learning. But from whom do we discover this learning?

Even when we incorporate active learning into a conference session, invariably the assumption remains that we are learning about content provided exclusively by a speaker or presenter. What we are discovering is limited to the content he or she can provide.

While this approach is far better than the pour-information-into-their-minds model, I think it can almost always be improved. Unless the room is full of novices — attendees who know nothing about a session topic — using process during the session that uncovers knowledge and resources in the room opens up the quantity and quality of learning that’s possible.

I know this to be true from my own experience. When I’ve led a conference session using process that supports and encourages participants to contribute their own expertise and experience, I’ve always learnt something new! Extending our resources for active learning to the entire room uncovers relevant and useful knowledge from everyone present. Active learning then becomes social learning, reflecting today’s reality that knowledge is a social construct, no longer something residing in an individual head. When we incorporate social learning into our events we all benefit because, as David Weinberger says: “The smartest person in the room is the room.

Let’s summarize the three learning models I’ve described.

  • Covered learning is an outdated, inferior learning model.
  • Discovered learning is an improvement, because we are actively involving attendees in the learning process, though the focus is just one person’s content.
  • Uncovered learning further improves discovered learning by increasing the resources for active learning to include the expertise and experience available in the entire room. If a presenter or facilitator knows how to effectively uncover learning, they will be using the best learning model available.

To successfully implement uncovered learning, we need to use process that, as Weinberger puts it: “improves expertise by exposing weaknesses, introducing new viewpoints, and pushing ideas into accessible form.” Such process is the focus of the peer conference designs and associated participation techniques that I’ve been developing and writing about here and in my books. Studying how to facilitate this process and then adopting it is perhaps the most effective way you can improve the learning at your events.

Quotes from David Weinberger, Everything Is Miscellaneous, Times Books, 2007

Image attribution: Flickr user chiotsrun