Look back to look forward

Janus-VaticanFrom September 2002 through November 2009 I kept a journal, writing each day before going to bed. Every once in a while I’ll pick one of the five thick notebooks I filled during those seven years and read some entries at random.

Why do I do this?

I don’t revisit my journals to immerse myself in my past. Back then, I wrote to capture and reflect on my experience while it was still fresh, to explore how I responded to and felt about the day’s events. I didn’t write for posterity, and there are many raw experiences in these pages that are painful to recall.

Instead, I dip into what I wrote to compare where I was then with where I am now.

Sometimes I discover that life circumstances have changed. Perhaps I’m no longer impacted by certain issues that once preoccupied me (e.g., my financial situation has changed for the better.) Perhaps some issues are still part of my life, but my response to them is different (e.g., speaking in public no longer scares me as much as it once did.) And perhaps I’m aware now of issues that were absent from my journals (e.g., the implications of growing older.)

Whatever I discover, when I look back at what I used to think and do I receive important information.

Often I discover that I am continuing to change and grow in specific ways. As someone who wants to be a life-long learner, someone who doesn’t want to be “stuck”, that is good and encouraging information to have.

I also notice that certain aspects of my life haven’t changed significantly. Frequently, that’s because they are core aspects of who I am and the world I inhabit.

And sometimes, I become aware that I’m stuck in some pattern of behavior or response that I’d like to change. That’s good information too.

Look back to look forward. At the end of a peer conference, a personal introspective allows participants to explore new directions as a result of experiences during the event. On a longer timescale, old personal journals (or any records of past personal introspection) can be a great tool for learning about ourselves and mapping our future path on life’s journey.

Creative Commons image of Janus courtesy of Wikipedia

Sometimes you CAN learn from experience

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People do not learn from experience. You may think you learn from experience but…People only learn from reflecting on their experience…

…This is why all education programming needs to adopt and adapt reflection and debriefing exercises during the session. If not, people will not learn.
—Jeff Hurt, Time To Face This Ironic Truth: We Do Not Learn From Experience

Jeff Hurt’s recent post makes the case for incorporating reflection/debriefing into all conference sessions. While I completely agree with him that these activities should be included, I think a small clarification is in order.

His post implies that you must debrief participant experience at events in order for learning to occur. If that were true, you would never learn anything from a lecture. While it’s true that lectures are one of the worst ways to attempt to teach people anything, there’s no question that some learning occurs via lectures for some people some of the time.

You probably discovered at school that if you took notes during a lecture (interestingly, handwritten notes seem to be more effective than typed notes) you retained more of the material than if you simply listened and tried to remember the lecture points later. This is because note-taking is a form of personal reflection/debriefing; it forces you to process, to some degree, the information you are hearing and this improves your associated memory and understanding, and consequent accuracy, quantity, and length of recall.

What this means is that it’s possible to learn from experience without external prompting or exercises—if you are capable of doing the necessary reflection yourself. One of the most powerful learning disciplines you can cultivate is the practice of regular reflection on your own experiences. I know that many impactful decisions and changes in my life have occurred through ongoing self-reflection rather than the feedback or advice of others.

During our education, we are rarely taught the value of regular honest self-reflection. By “honest” I mean self-reflection that neither avoids beating oneself up over “mistakes” or hard-to-stomach experiences nor glossing over them. Instead, cultivating your ability to dispassionately notice what is happening to you and periodically reflecting on what you have noticed allows you to learn effectively by yourself.

Having said this, I want to be clear that there is great value in learning from others. Conversation and connection with others give you opportunities to uncover and clarify your tacit knowledge: things bubbling under the surface that you don’t know you know. I think that a majority of our important learning occurs in this way. But we should not discount our significant capability to learn by ourselves.

John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflection with others and by yourself will allow you to maximize your learning throughout your life.

Photo attribution: Flickr user markybon

From broadcast to learning in 25 minutes

GMIC2014 collab session Last week’s Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference opened with a one-hour keynote panel: The Value of Sustainability Across Brands, Organizations and Sectors. Immediately after the presentation, my task was to help over two hundred participants, seated at tables of six, grapple with the ideas shared, surface the questions raised, and summarize the learning and themes for deeper discussion.

Oh, and I had twenty-five minutes!

For a large group to effectively review and reflect on presented material in such a short time, we have to quickly move from individual work to small group work to some form of concrete visual summary that’s accessible to everyone. So here’s what I did.

1) My audience hadn’t moved for over an hour, and their brains had, to varying degrees, gone to sleep. So, for a couple of minutes, I had people stand, stretch, twist and do shoulder rolls.

2) Next, I summarized what we were about to do. I

      • Outlined the three phases of the exercise: a) working individually; b) sharing amongst the small group at their table, and c) a final opportunity to review everyone’s work in a short gallery walk.
      • Pointed out the tools available. Each table had a sheet of flip-chart paper (divided into a 2 x 2 matrix), 4 pads of different colored sticky notes, and a fine-tip sharpie for each person.

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      • Explained the four categories they would use for their responses. After introducing each category I asked a couple of pre-primed volunteers to share an example of their response with the participants.
        • REMINDERS. “These are themes with which you’re already familiar that the keynote touched on. You might want to include ideas you think are important. And you might want to include themes that you have some expertise or experience with. More on that in a moment. Write each REMINDER on a separate blue sticky note, which will end up in the top left square of the flip chart.”
        • SPARKS. “Sparks are inspirations you’ve received from the keynote; new ideas, new solutions that you can adopt personally, or for your organization, or at your meetings. Write your SPARKS on yellow sticky notes; they’ll go in the top right square.
        • QUESTIONS. “These are ideas that you understand that you have questions about. Perhaps you are looking for help with a question. Perhaps you think a question brought up by the keynote is worth discussing more widely at this event. Write your questions on a green sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom left square.
        • PUZZLES. “Puzzles are things you feel that you or your organization or our industry don’t really understand and need help with. Write your puzzles on a violet sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom right.”
      • Gave these instructions. “In a minute I’m going to give you about five minutes to work alone and create your REMINDERS, SPARKS, QUESTIONS, and PUZZLES. Don’t put your notes on the flip chart paper yet; we’ll do that communally soon. Any questions?” [There were none.] “Two final thoughts:
        • 1) Words are fine, but feel free to draw pictures or diagrams too!
        • 2) Consider adding your name to any of your notes. We’re going to display your notes on the wall over there. If you have expertise or experience of one of your themes, adding your name to your note will allow others who are interested in the topic to find you. If you have a question or puzzle you need help with, adding your name will allow others who can help to find you.”

3) I gave everyone five minutes to create their individual notes, asking them to shoot for a few responses in each category.

4) For the second phase of the exercise, I asked for each person to briefly explain their notes with the others at their table, placing on the appropriate quadrant of the flip chart as they did so. I allocated each person a minute for this, and rang a bell when it was time for the next person to begin.

5) The final phase was a gallery walk. I asked one person from each table to go and stick their flip chart page on a large blank meeting room wall. Once done, I invited everyone to go to the gallery and explore what we had created together.

Here’s one end of the resulting sharing wall.

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6) Later that evening I had a small number of subject matter experts cluster the themes they saw. (If I had had more time, I would have had all the participants work on this together during my session.) The resulting clusters were referred to throughout the conference for people to browse and use as a resource. Here’s a picture, taken later, showing the reclustered items in our “sharing space”.

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Even when time is short, an exercise like this can quickly foster huge amounts of personal learning, connection (via the table work and named sticky notes), and audience-wide awareness of interests and expertise available in the room. I believe that reflective and connective processes like this should be used after every traditional presentation session to maximize its value to meeting participants.