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:
The 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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
What is humans’ true superpower? [Hint: We’re not more intelligent than other species.] We can make a strong case that humans’ true superpower is social learning. Why am I writing about social learning on a blog that’s (mainly) about meeting design? Because social (uncovered) learning is the best learning model for conference sessions. Which means, to create the best meetings we need to maximize the social learning that takes place.
Humans’ true superpower
I’m reading Dutch historian and author, Rutger Bregman‘s absorbing and optimistic Humankind. The book presents a ton of evidence that — despite the torrent of bad news that daily floods our media — “humans are hardwired for kindness, geared towards cooperation rather than competition, and more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another.”
Early in the book, is this passage:
“What makes human beings unique? Why do we build museums, while the Neanderthals are stuck in the displays?”
“Chimpanzees and orangutans score on a par with human two-year-olds on almost every cognitive test. But when it comes to learning, the toddlers win hands down.”
“Human beings, it turns out, are ultra social learning machines.“
“…humans have another weird feature: we have whites in our eyes. This unique trait lets us follow the direction of other people’s gazes…Humans, in short, are anything but poker-faced. We constantly leak emotions and are hardwired to relate to the people around us. But far from being a handicap, this is our true superpower, because sociable people aren’t only more fun to be around, in the end they’re smarter too.” [emphasis added, illustration based on this research] —Humankind, Rutger Bregman
Or, as Seth Godin puts it:
“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.” —The revolution in online learning, Seth Godin
We aren’t superior thinkers. Humans don’t remember stuff better or longer or more accurately that other species. We aren’t better at causal reasoning. The one characteristic — our superpower — that distinguishes us from the other life on our planet is how we learn from and with others. (And how they learn from and with us.)
Social learning is how humans learn. We’re great at it, compared with other life forms. (Yes, there’s always room for improvement.)
So, for pity’s sake, don’t lecture and test. Eliminate all the one-hour (or longer) lecture sessions. Instead, build social learning into your meetings as much as possible.
So, how can I incorporate the power of social learning into my events?
It’s not hard to unleash the power of social learning at your events! Simply implement the participant-driven and participation-rich processes I’ve described and taught in my books and workshops for over thirty years.
Peer sessions provide greater connection around content
The most important reason people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members and no connection around lecture content. Here are five reasons why.
In my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons to change our conferences for them to remain relevant to today’s attendees.
Although I’ve written about these issues before, this is the first time I’ve summarized them in one place. Together they make a strong business case for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I’ve been advocating since 1992.
Sessions provide no connection around content
Today, the most important reason why people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners: the audience. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members; no connection around lecture content.
At traditional conferences, connection is relegated to the breaks, meals, and socials! That’s why you so often hear “the best part of that conference was the conversations in the hallways”. It doesn’t have to be that way! Peer conferences provide conference sessions where participants connect around relevant, timely content.
Lectures are a terrible way to learn
We’ve known for over a hundred years that lectures are a terrible way to learn something. Lectures are a seductive meeting format because they are very efficient ways of sharing information. Unfortunately, lectures are perhaps the least effective way of learning anything.
Why? Over time, we rapidly forget most everything someone tells us. But when we engage with content, we remember more of it, remember it more accurately, and remember it longer. Every measure of learning increases drastically when attendees actively participate while learning in sessions.
The rise of online
Most broadcast content is now readily available online. An internet connection provides expert content anywhere, just in time when it’s needed. You don’t need to go to conferences for broadcast content (which you’ll probably have forgotten by the time you need it) any more!
Professionals learn predominantly socially, not in the classroom
Until about twenty years ago, professionals learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom. Today we know that only about 10% of what we need to know to do our jobs involves formal classroom teaching. The other 90% is informal, provided by a combination of self-directed learning and social, active, experiential learning with our peers on the job or (what an opportunity!) at conferences with our peers.
Though ~90% of the learning modalities adult workers need these days are informal social learning from our peers, we persist in making the bulk of “education” at meetings formal presentations by a few experts! Instead, we need to concentrate on and provide maximum opportunities for the just-in-time peer learning our attendees need and want.
Today, everyone has expertise and experience to share
Everyone who has worked in a profession for a while is a expert resource for some of her or his peers. Instead of limiting content to broadcast by a few “experts”, peer conferences provide process and support to uncover and tap the thousands of years of expertise and experience in the room. Remember how David Weinberger puts it: “the smartest person in the room is the room.” We need conference process that uncovers and taps everyone’s experience and expertise while people are together at the conference!
Most pre-scheduled sessions don’t address actual attendee wants and needs
Because we’ll forget learning that isn’t currently needed and reinforced, conferences need to provide just-in-time learning. And you can’t predict most of the just-in-time learning by asking a program committee, or attendees for that matter, in advance. My research has found that 50 – 90% of all pre-scheduled conference sessions are not what attendees actually want and need! In contrast, just about all peer conference sessions, chosen and run by participants during the event, are rated highly because they provide the just-in-time learning and connection that participants want from the event.
My first two books explore all these themes in detail. To get the full story, buy ’em!
In less than three minutes, you can improve almost any conference sessions with pair share (aka think-pair-share). The technique is simple: after pairing up participants and providing a short period for individual thinking about an appropriate topic, each pair member takes a minute in turn to share their thoughts with their partner. (More details can be found in Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation.)
Pair share is not the same as conversation, because pair share gives each person an exclusive minute of active sharing and a minute of pure listening. This balance rarely occurs during conversation, because typically:
One party speaks more than another, and;
Whoever isn’t speaking is often not fully listening to what is being said because they’re thinking about something they want to say themselves.
Improve conference sessions
Pair share improves conference sessions by:
Resetting every participant’s brain to a state of active engagement;
Providing structured opportunities for participants to share expertise and experience with their partner, and (if built into the subsequent session design) with others in the room; and
Each assigned topic must be central to the session’s purpose;
If the session is presenter-content heavy, hold a pair share roughly every ten minutes to explore and consolidate participant learning; and
Design the session to build on relevant expertise and experience uncovered by each pair-share.
I also like to incorporate a closing pair-share where partners each share three takeaways they’ve acquired during the session. I’ve found that when I use this in a session design like the fishbowl sandwich, participants inevitably stay around deep in conversation after the session is officially over. (That always looks and feels good!)
Finally, you can use pair share as a tool for introductions. Invite everyone to pair up with someone they don’t know and have each person take a minute to introduce themselves to their partner.
Improve conference sessions with pair share: it’s quick, simple, versatile, and effective. Use it!
How do you use pair share? Share with everyone in the comments below!
What’s the best learning model for conference sessions? We don’t usually think about the learning models we employ during conference sessions. I believe our events would be better if we did. Conventional conferences assume a ready supply of experts. We listen to them while they cover the learning advertised for 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.
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 discover is limited to the content they can provide.
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.”
Three learning models
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 and then adopt this process is perhaps the most effective way you can improve the learning at your events.
In 2011 I ran a two and a half hour participative techniques workshop on the last afternoon of a four-day conference. After we ended, a participating supplier came up to me. He told me that he had made many more useful connections in that one workshop than during the 3 days preceding it. Supporting connection at the workshop gave him more value than the rest of the event.
Hunger for connection
I believe that the great majority of people hunger for connection with others. Without it, our lives suffer. Indeed, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, his sobering opus on social change in America, states that about half the observed decline in life satisfaction among adult Americans over the last 50 years “is associated with declines in social capital: lower marriage rates and decreasing connectedness to friends and community.” And the sociologist James House tells us that “the magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors.”
And yet, when we hold a conference in our culture—an occasion when we bring together people with a common interest in a subject—we give low priority to the potential for connection with our fellow conferees. Broadcast-style sessions predominate. There is little or no opportunity for attendees to connect. This is so even though we have an ideal requisite for directly enjoying each other’s company—sharing a common interest!
The need for connection
Supporting connection with others is becoming increasingly important. We are moving to a world where people’s knowledge and expertise are a function of the networks—both face-to-face and online—they possess rather than the contents of their heads. If in our work lives we are spending more time learning socially than being trained in the classroom, our meetings must provide the same relative opportunities.
Traditional conferences leave connection time to the breaks, meals, and socials. This is why so many people report that hallway conversations during breaks are the best parts of such meetings. When sessions fail to meet our connection needs, we connect outside the official schedule. The broadcast design of most meeting sessions relegates connection with peers to an afterthought, as something you’re supposed to do on your own. And this is not easy. Even if you somehow know exactly the new people and old friends you want to meet, arranging to do so is hard enough without also competing with loud dance music, fixed meal seating, and lunchtime entertainment or talks. And if you expect to readily meet the most interesting people (to you) at such events by chance from a crowd of hundreds or even thousands, then you have not been to many conferences.
Provide opportunities for participants to connect
We must reverse our consistent demotion of connection to second-class status for meetings to effectively support the social learning that’s now essential to perform our jobs well. We need to provide opportunities for participants to connect and share in the sessions themselves. This doesn’t mean turning sessions into speed-dating or adding irritating “icebreakers.” Instead, it means taking advantage of:
Improvements in learning that result from actively engaging with others around content rather than listening to it or watching it.
The rich and extensive knowledge and experience of participants in the room.
Increased opportunities to meet like-minded peers via discussion of session content, ideas, and questions.
Active learning increases the quantity, quality, accuracy, and retention of knowledge. Active learning and connection are inextricably entangled; you can’t really learn from your peers without simultaneously learning about them. Making connections is a powerful and important motivation for attending events. So, providing appropriate opportunities to connect during sessions is attractive, smoothing the way for the active learning that follows.
Connecting with peers during a session allows participants to access expertise and experience beyond what an expert at the front of the room can provide. Using participative techniques that uncover and develop useful connections to those with relevant knowledge, participants can discover and take full advantage of the collective wisdom in the room.
It’s a common belief that classroom trainings and meeting presentations are the most important ways for adults to learn what they need to know to do their jobs.
This is an understandable belief. Why? Because it was largely true for hundreds of years until around the end of the twentieth century. Until about twenty years ago, adults learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom.
But the whole nature of “work” has changed dramatically since the last century. Today, it turns out, adults learn the majority of what they need to know in order to do their jobs informally: through on-the-job experience and practice, connections with our peers, and self-directed learning.
How adults learn: on-the-job experience and practice
Research that began in the 1980’s at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) found that about 70% of managerial learning came from the job itself. Additional research, published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1998, suggested that people learn about 70% of their jobs informally and the 70% figure appeared again in a two-year study of workers at large companies published by the Education Development Center.
Peer and self-directed learning
Well, perhaps classroom learning makes up the majority of the rest of the ways we need to learn? Nope. The CCL study referenced above also concluded that about 20% of individual professional development comes from peer learning: informal coaching, personal networks, and other collaborative and co-operative actions. The EDC study concludes that approximately 20% of what we need to know is provided by self-directed learning. This is learning we control ourselves, such as:
asking colleagues for help;
reading a relevant book or article; searching for answers on the internet; and
watching online instructional or lecture videos.
Learning from your peers is also called social learning. Increasingly, these days, we don’t have the luxury of being able to wait for scheduled training opportunities in order to respond to new job challenges. Instead, when we need to learn something professionally we tend to consult our peers and professional networks first. This is an example of just-in-time learning: we learn what we need to learn when we need it.
The 70:20:10 model
Put together, this research indicates that informal learning—experiential, social, and self-directed—makes up about 90% of the learning modalities that professionals use today. Only 10% of adult learning uses formal classroom or meeting presentation learning formats. This ratio of experiential:peer/self-directed:formal learning is known as the 70:20:10 rule. Here’s a quick overview by Charles Jennings:
What are the implications for event design?
90% of the learning modalities adult workers need and use these days are informal. So, why do we persist in making the bulk of “education” at most meetings formal presentations by experts?
Instead, we need to mirror the learning approaches that professionals need and use in their work environments. Our conferences provide a unique opportunity to tap the peer expertise and experience of assembled participants. Rather than listen to experts using broadcast models that today can be largely replaced by books, recordings, articles, and online resources, we should be using session formats that supply and support the experiential and peer-to-peer learning that attendees actually need and use.
“You send your child to the schoolmaster, but ’tis the schoolboys who educate him.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Culture,” The Conduct of Life (1860).
Ralph Waldo Emerson knew 150 years ago that adults learn mostly from their peers and by themselves. It’s time that our meeting designs reflected this reality.
Photo attributions: Flickr users petrol alt gone and herrberta