For 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.
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:
Gamification “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”.
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)
Is most classroom practice astrology? David Bowles thinks so.
I’ll let you in on a secret. I have a doctorate in education, but the field’s basically just a 100 years old. We don’t really know what we’re doing. Our scholarly understanding of how learning happens is like astronomy 2000 years ago.
Certainly the vast majority of my education consisted of the learn-from-lectures education model that still largely dominates schools and conferences. Was that true for you too?
We can’t even agree what kind of astrology to use
In addition, society’s three fundamental desires for children’s education drive our primitive ideas about classroom practice. As laid out in Kieran Egan’s thought-provoking book, The Educated Mind, these desires are:
making good citizens;
mastering certain bodies of knowledge; and
fulfilling each student’s unique potential.
Politicians, researchers in education, teachers, and citizens continue to argue about the relative importance of these noble goals. Unfortunately, Egan shows that you can’t satisfy all these ideals simultaneously because they’re mutually incompatible!
What we do know about effective meeting and classroom learning
Lectures are a terrible way to learn. Knowledge is not a “thing” one person transfers to another. Rather, knowledge is a relationship between the knower and the known; knowledge is “created” through this relationship.
We learn predominantly socially, not alone in our minds. Rather, we learn in social contexts, through mind, body, and emotions.
Learners create knowledge; they don’t receive knowledge.
We learn best by actively doing and managing our own learning.Not by listening and watching.
In other words, learning is a process, not a transaction. Research shows that the vast majority of our important learning occurs via self-directed activities and while interacting with others.
Astronomy, not astrology
At the end of the 19th century, astrology, a pseudoscience in vogue for over two millennia, was finally replaced by the science of astronomy. The meeting industry, as we know it today, began about 350 years ago. The research about how we learn most effectively is decades old, and still hasn’t widely infused into classroom and meeting practice.
Astronomy finally replaced astrology as the predominant way to look at our world. We need to replace the astrology of current meeting and classroom practice with the astronomy of effective learning.
I have little memory of my earliest formal education though I suspect it has informed my entire life.
My mother decided that I should attend London’s Chelsea Froebel School. For a couple of years she valiantly brought me to school via two buses and a train, went to work, and then picked me up to return home via the same interminable route.
The school’s philosophy was developed in the early nineteenth century by Friedrich Fröbel, the remarkable German pedagogue who created the concept of kindergarten and espoused the importance of children’s games, singing, dancing, and self-directed play. I remember singing, writing poetry, and spending hours at water and sand play tables.
At the age of seven, my school environment changed drastically. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to Dulwich College, a British “Public” (in actuality private) all-boys school founded in 1619. I say “lucky” because, as a child of working-class parents who were forced to leave school at thirteen due to the outbreak of the Second World War, my options for educational advancement were severely limited. By a twist of fate, the school had recently implemented what eventually became known as the “Dulwich College Experiment”. Local councils paid the fees for the majority of boys selected to attend.Attending a private independent school with experienced teachers and small class sizes greatly increased my likelihood of access to higher education. On graduation, I won a second scholarship to Oxford University.
I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities Dulwich College gave me. But I had no awareness at the time of the poor learning environment it offered.
I sat at ancient wooden desks, complete with inkwell and carved with the initials of generations of earlier schoolboys. I listened to teachers sharing knowledge that the best minds had taken hundreds or thousands of years to figure out. A condensed précis poured unceasingly into my ears. Somehow, I was expected to absorb, understand, regurgitate, and use this information to do well at frequent tests and nerve-wracking national exams that determined my educational and vocational future.
Apart from the tests, I found this torrent of knowledge exhilarating. Apparently, as judged by tests and exams, I was capable of absorbing it better than the majority of my peers. It was only much later that I realized that for most people, immersion in a high-volume flood of information is a terrible way to learn and provides minimal opportunities to connect with others.
It had a cost for me. The school environment emphasized my intellectual side and provided almost no time for personal or social development. I made no close enduring connections at school, becoming a nerd, concentrating on my studies. Luckily, I never completely lost touch with the Froebel-nurtured, playful, and curious child buried inside me.
How I got here
After school, I began a thirty-year journey. It wasn’t until my fifties, after careers as a high-energy physics researcher, owner of a solar manufacturing business, college professor teaching computer science, and independent information technology consultant that I reconnected with the six-year-old who loved to sing and dance.
Throughout this period, convening conferences on my current professional interests fascinated me. I organized academic, solar, non-profit, and information technology conferences. In retrospect, it was an advantage to be an amateur. I hated the formal academic conferences I had to attend. Eventually I tried new approaches.
People started asking for my help with conferences on topics I knew little about. I eventually realized how much I loved to bring people together around common interests and needs. I became fascinated with the remarkable improvements that good process can have on the individual and collective experience and satisfaction when people meet. Eventually I decided to make inventing and proselytizing this work my mission.
Today, I’m happy that thousands of people and organizations have realized the value of what I’ve been learning and sharing. Over the last twenty-plus years I’ve worked all over the world, facilitating connection between people face-to-face. The current coronavirus pandemic has temporarily suspended this work. Yet I feel confident the value of well-designed and facilitated face-to-face meetings will only become more apparent during the period we cannot hold them.
Over the last five years I’ve heard increasing concern from the meeting professionals community about the deterioration of the quality of our national industry conferences. A recent thread on the MECO community (a great resource for meeting professionals since 2006) describes numerous recent basic logistical failings, and points to what I see as symptoms of fundamental problems with meeting industry associations at the national level.
In a nutshell, I think that our industry associations have become too focused on justifying their continued existence financially. They are neglecting their core mission of supporting and representing their members and association meeting attendees.
I’ll illustrate with the area where I have most experience: providing education at these meetings. In my opinion (and many other event professionals with whom I’ve spoken) the “educational” content at the national meetings these days is sub-par. I suspect it’s because the processes for choosing it are seriously flawed and completely opaque.
I’ve lost count of the conference session proposals I’ve made to meeting industry associations that have wound through multiple months-long steps only to be rejected at the last possible moment with no explanation and a boilerplate request to submit more next year. Meanwhile, it’s clear from a review of industry conference programs that employees of sponsors or trade show exhibitors give large numbers of presentations. Also solicited/accepted are keynote/motivational speakers. These folks get paid large fees and provide exciting presentations with, in my experience, little or no content of long-term value to the meeting attendees. (Think back to the big-name speakers you’ve listened to in the past and — be honest now — how many of them have changed your professional life in any significant way?) But their inclusion looks good on the promotional materials.
In my case, the demand for the meeting design and facilitation services I provide has been exploding. (In the first quarter of 2018, I’ve booked more business than all of 2017.) Most clients and meeting industry professionals have yet to experience how effective participant-driven, participation-rich design and facilitation can radically improve their meetings for participants and stakeholders alike. So there’s plenty of work yet to do, and not enough people experienced enough to do it.
Our industry conferences are the obvious places to provide this education.
My contributions to meeting education are Participate! workshops I design and lead which provide experiences that significantly improve how the participants design their meetings. They are, in my opinion, fundamental education; certainly on a par with the sessions we see at the annual conferences every year on “hot event items”, F&B trends, and meeting management. Yet experiential meeting design is not acknowledged at meeting industry conferences as an overlooked fundamental competency that needs to be offered on a regular basis. Rather, it’s seen as a “hot topic” that can be covered once and subsequently ignored.
In addition, industry associations have essentially given up paying for professional education at their events, preferring, it seems, to spend money on the big name players I mentioned above. These days, someone like me is lucky to be offered event registration and expense reimbursement. (Let alone any kind of token fee for the hours it takes to design and prepare a great session.) This further biases session submissions in favor of sponsors and corporations who are attending the event anyway for marketing purposes.
Many other independent meeting professionals I know who love our industry, are great presenters, and have unparalleled expertise on important perennial meeting education areas have told me about similar rejections. Most of us have pretty much given up submitting sessions as a result.
Some may see what I’ve written as sour grapes. I’ll only add that I’ve been an educator of one kind or another for forty years. There’s a large unmet need for what I and other experts do. And I’m frustrated that meeting associations, whose purported mission is serving our industry, stymie our offers to share our expertise with our fellow professionals.
I learned to code at school when I was 15. No big deal? It was 1966. Learning to program a computer changed my life. Far more important than nearly everything else—facts I have long since forgotten—that I was “taught”.
Learning to code didn’t change my life because I could then make big bucks writing software—though my fourth career, as an IT consultant, was very kind to me. And the important truth of the video’s opening quote by Steve Jobs “Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer…because it teaches you how to think” isn’t the main reason my life was changed.
Of course it’s O.K. to express your feelings at weddings and funerals. But when was the last time you heard someone share their feelings in public at a conference? When was the last time you did?
I go to the theater
A play, like a straight line, is the shortest path from emotion to emotion —George Pierce Baker
Last weekend I went to “Raising Our Voices“, a local theater gala by children, youth, and adults with disabilities. I got goose bumps and a little teary. And I finally figured out why this invariably happens when I watch kids theater.
You see, when I was growing up my education emphasized thinking. Learning important facts and concepts and being able to apply them to solve problems led to high marks on tests. Getting the right answers, preferably quicker than anyone else, got me to the top of the graded class roster, displayed publicly on the school notice board twice a semester.
No time to feel
However, the educational agenda allocated no time for understanding or expressing my feelings. The only kinds of grading that occurred as a consequence of my emotions were the dramatic reprisals taken when I infrequently misbehaved. All of us in school had feelings, of course, and they greatly affected how and what we did. But no one encouraged us to talk about or explore them. It was repeatedly implied that being near the bottom of the class list would be shameful, without ever giving us any insight as to what shame was!
Over the years I’ve learned to be more in touch with my emotions. And so, when I see kids in a play, encouraged to display joy, anger, fear, guilt, shame, grief and all the subtle variants of these basic human emotions, I’m taken back to my youth, and the little child in me both rejoices and aches for what I missed out on: the childhood opportunity to express and share integral aspects of who we are that were part of the human psyche long before the development of analytical thought.
A wise therapist friend of mine once told me that he believes when you feel that ache of simultaneous joy and pain, healing is going on.
A safe environment for sharing feelings
I think it’s important for conferences to offer a safe environment for attendees to share feelings that may come up during the event. Conferences That Work designs do this. Agreements explicitly safety give participants the right to speak their truth, and promise privacy for anything said.
I don’t want to give the impression that Conferences That Work are full of emoting attendees who rush to share their deepest feelings with anyone they can buttonhole. Far from it. I think I’ve seen more joy and passion at our sessions than at most other events I’ve attended. But, by and large, sharing about emotional issues doesn’t happen often.
But feelings do surface. For example, when people talk about difficulties they’re having in their workplace or their uncertainties surrounding a potential career or job change. I feel happy that our event supports and encourages them to do so. And from the feedback I’ve received, I know it’s important and empowering for the attendees who have the courage to express how they feel.
Have you felt safe to express your feelings at a conference? Do you think it’s appropriate and/or important to be able to do so? Under what circumstances? And what factors make it safer or harder for such sharing to occur?