Why it’s hard to stop conference lecturing

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Stop conference lecturing!

“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
—James A. Baldwin

Sadly, lecturing dominates the vast majority of conferences, even though we’ve known for years that it’s a poor way for attendees to learn. Why? Here’s some…


Somewhere around 50,000 years ago Homo Sapiens invented language. Language accelerates learning by allowing communication, coordination, the spreading of ideas, and accreting knowledge from one generation to the next. Language, as Kevin Kelly puts it, “turns a mind into a tool”. Later we developed other tools—writing, books, the internet—that allow us to pass on learning to others.

Victorian classroom 2640174272_671641b79c_oDuring childhood our culture finds it advantageous to inculcate a large amount of information. Despite our amazing abilities to learn experientially, we primarily use broadcast methods to educate our young in school, because there’s no way a child could figure out experientially in the first two decades of life what has taken thousands of years for the human race to learn.

A mistake

So, a mistake we consequently make is to assume that we should extend into adulthood the broadcast learning we got as kids. Adult learning from an expert made sense in the industrial age. Now that information is moving outside our brains we have less and less need to use adult learning modalities that concentrate on packing information into our heads. Instead, most of what we need to learn to do our job 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. Why? Because it’s the dominant learning modality to which every one of us is exposed during our formal education—i.e. school—before adulthood. Teaching us 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.

Want to learn about alternatives to lectures?

My most recent book provides presenters and event organizers with the antidote to lectures. It’s a compendium of powerful low/no-tech participatory techniques that can greatly improve any conference session. You can find out more about it here.

Photo attribution: Flickr users tonayo and Drumaboy

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