The hallway of learning

hallway learning Image attribution Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Have you attended in-person meetings where your hallway conversations were the highlight of the event? I’ve certainly experienced my fair share, and I bet you have too. Don’t get me wrong. Hallway learning and the connections made through conversations struck up between sessions are often valuable and important. But I see meetings where hallway learning trumps a majority of, if not all, conference sessions as failures of design, rather than a fact of life.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could improve the quantity and quality of hallway learning, conversations, and connections throughout an event?

Well, we can. Here are two ways.

1—How to improve conventional hallway conversations

We can increase the quality of conventional hallway conversations by designing a physical meeting environment that encourages and supports them. Create an architecture of assembly: spaces outside the session rooms where people can talk comfortably. Provide a range of spaces. For example, chair pairings, small group furniture arrangements, standing areas with places to park food and beverage, covered outdoor spaces, etc.

“…people, even very smart people, are unable to anticipate the benefits of in-depth interaction with colleagues until they have experienced it for themselves”
Nancy Dixon, The Hallways of Learning

Read Nancy’s article to learn how an office redesign strengthened connections amongst a group of formerly loosely connected peers. [And she gets a hat tip for inspiring this post!] Similarly, your design layout will affect the likelihood and value of hallway learning conversations. And participants most likely won’t even be aware of it!

In addition, be sure to schedule enough time for hallway learning to occur. Give your attendees plenty of breaks. Then they can rest and recuperate, consolidate what they have learned, and have time to engage in conversations that matter.

2—How to significantly improve hallway learning and connection throughout events

By far the best way to significantly improve hallway learning and connection is to build it into our meeting sessions.

Why should we do this? Here’s Nancy again:

“Typically, a presenter offers what happened in his or her own situation, but that is not what learners need to hear. Learners are interested in knowing how to adapt the lessons to their situation and for that they need to have a conversation so that the other person can understand their context, and they also can understand the context of the other.”

The trick is to use session designs that blend short useful pieces of content with conversations amongst participants. In effect, you’re providing structured hallway conversations about the content that’s just been delivered. There are many different formats you can use for such conversations (described in detail in my books): pair and trio share, facilitated small group breakouts, fishbowls, etc. You can create conversational groupings at random (“pair up with someone you haven’t met yet”) or use human spectrograms to assign attendees to like-minded folks.

Building hallway learning opportunities into our meeting sessions has additional advantages. Once a session is over, and traditional hallway conversations are about to begin, attendees are ready to continue or start new conversations with the people who were in their session. They are primed to continue to explore and deepen their hallway learning.

Conclusion

I’ll close with a final Nancy Dixon quote from a different post:

“Before people can learn from each other or collaborate on issues, they need to build connections – that is, gain some understanding of who the other person is, including their skills, depth of knowledge, experience, and attitude toward others. People are unlikely to ask each other questions or ask for assistance, until they have built a connection that allows them to learn that the other person is knowledgeable enough and respectful enough to engage.”
—Nancy Dixon, Connection before Content

To maximize useful connection and learning at our meetings, optimizing hallway learning throughout the event is the way to go!

[Cropped] image attribution Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Focus on learning, not education

learning not educationFor 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.

We’re in danger of repeating the failed approaches of education in an online setting…”
Seth Godin, The revolution in online learning

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:

“The value of an education … is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
Albert Einstein, 1921, during his first visit to the United States

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
Oscar Wilde, 1909, Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young

Social learning

If we want people to learn at our meetings, we need to concentrate on creating the best environment for learning: social learning, humans’ superpower.

Learning, not education. You’ve heard it from Einstein, Wilde, and Godin. For what it’s worth, I agree.

I hope you do too. Check out the many blog posts I’ve written about learning or any of my books to learn more about how to make your meetings places of learning, not education.

Image attributions: Oscar Wilde image by Napoleon Sarony – Library of Congress, Public Domain, Albert Einstein image By Ferdinand Schmutzer, Public Domain

Did anyone learn anything?

did anyone learn anythingThe meeting is over. Did anyone learn anything? And how would you know?

An EventTech Chat discussion

I greatly enjoy participating in EventTech Chat, “a weekly conversation about meeting and event technology, including software, hardware, and audiovisual for in-person and online events” hosted by pals Brandt Krueger and Glenn Thayer.

During last week’s chat, one of the topics we discussed was whether there are differences in how people learn online, as opposed to face to face. This led to conversations about learning styles (be careful, they’re mostly mythical and barely useful), the importance of taking responsibility for your own learning at meetings, and how meeting formats affect what people learn.

Are you a regular reader of this blog? If so, you might have guessed—correctly—that I had plenty to say about these important issues. There is plenty of solid research on the best ways to support effective learning. We know that:

Of course, even if we know the best ways to maximize useful learning and connection at meetings, that doesn’t mean we implement them. Unfortunately, our meetings are still full of lectures.

Which brings us to an important question we hardly ever ask about meetings…

Did anyone learn anything?

In my book Conferences That Work, I shared a story about when I—and everyone else in my graduate class—never admitted we didn’t understand what our teacher was teaching us for weeks.

…toward the end of my second year I was understanding less and less of a mathematics course I was taking. The professor seemed to be going through the motions—he asked few questions, and there was no homework. Elementary particle physicists are either mathematicians or experimentalists. I was the latter, so my lack of mathematical understanding was not affecting my research work. But the experience was disconcerting.

And, as the semester went on, the percentage of class material I understood gradually declined.

One day, our teacher announced that we would be studying Green’s Functions, a technique used to solve certain kinds of equations. After the first 20 minutes of the class I realized that I understood nothing of what was being said, and that I was at a crucial turning point. If I kept quiet, it would be too late to claim ignorance later, and it was likely I would not understand anything taught for the remainder of the semester. If I spoke up, however, I was likely to display my weak comprehension of everything the teacher had covered so far.

Looking around, I noticed that the other students seemed to be having a similar experience. Everyone looked worried. No one said a word.

The class ended and the professor left. I plucked up my courage and asked my classmates if they were having trouble. We quickly discovered, to our general relief, that none of us understood the class. What should we do? Somehow, without much discussion, we decided to say nothing to the teacher.

The class only ran a few more weeks, and the remaining time became a pro forma ritual. Did our teacher know he had lost us? I think he probably did. I think he remained quiet for his own reasons, perhaps uncaring about his success at educating us, perhaps ashamed that he had lost us.

When I didn’t speak up, I chose to enter a world where I hid my lack of understanding from others, a world where I was faking it…

…Probably you’ve had a similar experience; a sinking feeling as you realize that you don’t understand something that you’re apparently expected to understand, in a context, perhaps a traditional conference, where nonresponsiveness is the norm. It’s a brave soul indeed who will speak out, who is prepared to admit to a conference presenter that they don’t get what’s going on. Have you stayed silent? Do you?

Silence isn’t golden

Silence during a presentation, and a lack of questions at the end does not mean that anyone learned anything. As Jonah Berger reminds us in Contagious, “Behavior is public and thoughts are private.”

If my teacher had bothered to periodically ask his class whether they understood what he was attempting to teach, or, better, asked questions to check, we’d likely have told or shown him we were lost.

So, how can we discover if anyone learned anything?

Well, I’m sorry, but smile sheets dropped in a box at the end of a session, app-based evaluations, and online surveys that must be completed within a few days do not provide an accurate picture of the long-term benefits of a meeting.

Why? Because we are far more likely to be influenced by our immediate emotional experience during a session than by the successful delivery of what eventually turn out to be long-term benefits.

Three better ways to obtain long-term evaluations of events are Net Promoter Scores, A Letter to Myself, and The Reminder. Check out this post for more details.

Ultimately, we can’t ensure or guarantee that anyone learned anything at a meeting. As Glenn pointed out during our EventTech Chat, the ultimate responsibility for learning is the learner’s. Attend a meeting expecting that the leaders will magically transfer learning to you without doing any work yourself? You probably won’t learn much, if anything.

Nevertheless, we can actively help people learn at meetings by implementing the principles listed above. (Check out my books for complete details.) But there’s one additional thing we can do to maximize and extend learning during our meetings.

How to help people consolidate what they learn at meetings

During our EventTech Chat, several participants shared how they consolidate learning during or immediately after an event. Folks who have learned the value of this practice and figured out the ways that work best for them may not need what I’m about to share (though even they can often benefit).

What I’ve found over decades of designing meetings is that the majority of meeting attendees do not know how to consolidate what they learn there. So I designed a closing plenary that gives each participant a carefully structured opportunity to review, consolidate, and reinforce what they have learned at the conference. They also get to develop the next steps for changes they will work on in their professional lives. It’s called a Personal Introspective, and takes 60 – 90 minutes to run. (You can find full details in Chapter 57 of The Power of Participation.)

Did anyone learn anything? There are no guarantees. But, following the above advice will make it significantly more likely that your attendees will learn what they want and need to learn. Do you have other thoughts on how to improve how you or others learn at meetings. If so, please share them in the comments below.

 

Why our meetings are still full of lectures

Why are our meetings still full of lectures?

Well, listen to and consider this June 11, 2021 quote from former candidate and now New York City Mayor Eric Adams:

“With new technology of remote learning, you don’t need school children to be in a school building with a number of teachers. It’s just the opposite. You could have one great teacher that’s in one of our specialized high schools teach 300-400 students…”

When the Mayor of New York City has this take on how people learn, perhaps it’s not so surprising that we’re still sitting through endless broadcast-style sessions at meetings and conferences.

Yes, switching to active learning is hard, but it’s worth it! Social learning is humans’ true superpower. Learning researchers and our best teachers and meeting designers have known this for a long time. Learning in community allows us to uncover and incorporate all the questions, discussion topics, expertise, and experience available in the room.

Until we elect leadership that has a basic understanding of how great teachers actually teach, and how their students can effectively learn, we’re going to continue to live in a world of meetings full of ineffective lectures.

Video courtesy of The Matt Skidmore Show

Trust, safety, and learning at meetings

Trust safety learningIf people come to meetings to learn, how can we create the best environment for them to do so? It turns out that trust and safety are prerequisites for optimum learning at meetings. Let’s explore why.

How we learn at meetings

For over twenty years, we’ve known that adults learn 90% of what they need to know to do their job via informal learning. Only about 10% of adult learning involves formal classroom or meeting presentation formats.

Unfortunately, traditional conferences are poor places for this kind of learning to occur, since they’re filled with broadcast-style lectures, during which no interpersonal interaction takes place.

At well-designed meetings, however, participants have plenty of opportunities to engage with peers about topics that are personally important. The key learning modality at such meetings is peer learning.

Peer learning allows anyone to be a teacher and/or a student, with these roles switching from moment to moment. Potentially, everyone has something to contribute and to learn. Peer conferences first uncover the content and issues people want to discuss. They then facilitate appropriate peer learning around topics of interest. My books and this blog provide plenty of information on how to do this.

Of course, in order for peer learning to occur, participants need to share what they know.

And this is where trust and safety issues impact learning.

The importance of trust

[A tip of the hat to Harold Jarche‘s post trust emerges over time, which provides the quotes for this section.]

Harold quotes philosophy professor Åsa Wikforss:

“It is important to stress that we are all connected through a complicated net of trust. It is not as if there is a group of people, the non-experts, who have to trust the experts and the experts do not have to trust anyone. Everyone needs to trust others since human knowledge is a joint effort…It is well known that low levels of trust in a society leads to corruption and conflict, but it is easy to forget the very central role that trust plays for knowledge. And knowledge, of course, is essential to the democratic society.
—Åsa Wikforss, Why do we resist knowledge?

Why people may not share their knowledge

Knowledge management author Stan Garfield shares sixteen reasons why people don’t share their knowledge. Here’s a key one:

“They don’t trust others. They are worried that sharing their knowledge will allow other people to be rewarded without giving credit or something in return, or result in the misuse of that knowledge.”
—Stan Garfield, 16 reasons why people don’t share their knowledge

So, when trust is absent, knowledge fails to flow. But when knowledge flow is stemmed, opportunities for trust are reduced. This is a positive feedback loop that guarantees low trust and knowledge sharing.

Trust safety learning

This breakdown of trust can happen anywhere. Between individuals, in organizations, and at a societal level. And it is easy for it to happen at meetings.

Designing for trust, safety, and learning

In general, the more meeting attendees trust each other, the safer they feel. The safer they feel, the more likely they are to share their knowledge.

So when I design and facilitate meetings, one of my most important goals is to provide a maximally safe environment for sharing. This maximizes the potential for consequential learning.

That’s why I:

  • introduce group agreements upfront, one of which has participants keep what individuals share confidential;
  • create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes (or where mistakes are impossible);
  • provide ample opportunities for group discussions, rather than lectures, around appropriate content; and
  • give people the right to not participate at any time.

The last condition is important. An attendee’s level of trust and feeling of safety may vary from moment to moment during a meeting. Giving attendees the freedom (and responsibility) to decide not to participate and/or share at any time allows them to determine and control what is personally safe to do.

[For more on creating safety at events, see Chapter 17 of my book The Power of Participation.]

Image attribution: Young girl learning spring board diving at outdoor pool by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

Gamification makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli

gamification chocolate-dipped broccoliGamification “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”.

Can educational be fun? Amy Bruckman

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)

Read the rest of this entry »

Contrasting examples of unlearning from Apple

examples of unlearningUnlearning is crucial for change, both personal and organizational. Here are two examples of unlearning from the Apple ecosystem: one successful, and one not.

#1 The Apple Watch Workouts app

In 2017, I purchased an Apple Watch. It has improved my life in many ways. In particular, it’s become an essential tool for supporting my desire to exercise daily. The watch’s Workout app tracks my exercise. All I need to do is to tell it what kind of exercise I’m about to start, and leave the app running until the exercise is over.

To pick the right exercise, the watch shows a scrollable list. Here’s what I saw today when I tapped the app:

examples of unlearning Right now I’m living at home, and the two workouts I do most often are my daily outdoor run and yoga. So it’s convenient that these options are the first two I see.

This happens because the Workout app learns over time which workouts I use and, to quote from Apple support: “As you use the Workout app over time, the order of workouts is changed automatically to reflect your usage.

The Workout app learns my preferences, and adjusts its display to show me the most likely workouts first.

My environment changes

Almost every year, I vacation in Anguilla, typically for three weeks. My exercise program there is different. I don’t run (it’s too hot for me!) but I walk daily, followed by a pool swim.

After a few days, the Workout app unlearns my most common home-based exercises and relearns my new routine, replacing the top two items on the Workouts list with the Outdoor Walk and Pool Swim choices.

For the remainder of my vacation, these two options stay at the top of the list.

Alas, all good things come to an end. On returning home, the Workout app unlearns my Anguilla routine and relearns my home routine.

And if my exercise regime changes over time, due to circumstances or location, the Workout app will continue to use its learn-unlearn-relearn routine to display the most likely choices first.

I’m sure that Apple has incorporated other examples of unlearning into its products, but this is one I’ve noticed. Small thoughtful touches like this have helped Apple products and services become market leaders in a very competitive industry.

#2 Apple Mail

Apple doesn’t always get things right, unfortunately. Apple’s Mail program provides a classic example of what happens when unlearning is not an option.

Apple Mail allows you to file messages in folders, a useful way for me to organize the 94,000 emails I currently store. Trying to be helpful, the program learns where you tend to store specific kinds of messages, and after a while, right-clicking a message will pop up an option to move it to the “learned” preferred folder.

This is a generally helpful feature — except…

Once Apple Mail has “learned” where to file an email, it won’t unlearn that choice!

Furthermore, there’s no way to manually reset Apple Mail’s choice!

For example, let’s say you’ve been working with Marce, a client’s employee, for some time, so you’ve been moving Marce’s emails to a folder for that client. After a while Apple Mail helpfully offers to move emails from Marce to that client folder. So far, so good. Then Marce moves to a new company, and you continue to work with them. Now you’d like to file Marce’s emails in a separate folder for the new client. Unfortunately, no matter how many times you manually file Marce’s emails in the new client’s folder, Apple Mail will forever continue to suggest moving them to the former employer folder!

You will have to move email from Marce to the new employee folder manually every time, remembering every time not to choose the (wrong) default Apple Mail continues to suggest.

This is a drag, and a product flaw.

It surprises me that the Watch software incorporates learn-unlearn-relearn into its memory-limited program space, but Apple Mail on the desktop, where program size is not an issue, only includes the learn piece.

Organizational unlearning

I’ll conclude with a few observations about the wider value of unlearning in organizations.

Most organizations need to innovate constantly, due to changing circumstances. Innovation doesn’t just involve coming up with new ideas. Innovation also requires a willingness and ability to cannibalize or destroy existing products or services; i.e. to unlearn what used to work, and relearn what is now relevant.

Building and supporting an organizational culture that incorporates learn-unlearn-relearn is, thus, essential for the organization’s continued relevance and survival. Kodak was unable to unlearn that film was no longer a viable market for the size the company had become, or relearn how to switch to a digital imaging world. Apple, on the other hand, maker of the iPod, the most successful music player, poured energy into the development of the iPhone, a whole new product area that, while eventually cannibalizing Apple’s iPod sales, made far greater profits than if Apple had stayed with what they first built.

Do you build learn-unlearn-relearn into your personal and professional life? Share your story in the comments below!

 

Most classroom practice is astrology

classroom practice is astrologyIs most classroom practice astrology? David Bowles thinks so.


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

(See my book The Power of Participation for more details and research references.)

  1. 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.
  2. We learn predominantly socially, not alone in our minds. Rather, we learn in social contexts, through mind, body, and emotions.
  3. Learners create knowledge; they don’t receive knowledge.
  4. 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.

Are you old yet?

are you old yetAre you old yet? (Click on the image to watch the skateboarding professor, who’s my age.)

I turned 69 last week. My body and mind do not work as well as they used to. Oh for the days, long gone, when I went to bed, fell asleep immediately, and woke up eight hours later feeling refreshed! My stamina starts to drop at five pm; no more long productive bouts of late night work.

Traveling extensively for my meeting industry work, I’d meet hundreds of new people every year, and used to be pretty good at remembering their names and how and when I met them. Not these days.

There are all these little aches and pains that weren’t there before. Standing up from a chair is harder than it was. Standing after kneeling on the floor is unexpectedly difficult at times.

It’s not going to get better. (Although, I can run better than I did twenty years ago. But I really had to work at that.)

Anyway, I could go on. This is a litany you’ll likely experience at some point in your life. If you haven’t already.

So, I ask myself: “Are you old yet?”

And then, today, I read this quote from Nobel Prize winner Rosalyn Yalow.

“The excitement of learning separates youth from old age. As long as you’re learning, you’re not old.”
—Rosalyn Yalow

You know what? I’m still learning and unlearning every day — and I’m excited about it!

So I’ve decided.

I’m not old. Yet.

(How old are you, anyway?)

Photo attribution: Stephen Shield