Old Conference Education Memes Die Hard

The Calm After the Show

What does it mean to learn at a conference?

What tools does it take for learning to be successful in that environment?

Most people say that successful learning occurs when a speaker presents to an audience. It requires a subject matter expert (SME) or panel of SMEs, research, content and a lecture. It must have chairs facing the front of the room, a podium, a stage, a screen for the SME’s slides and a LCD projector.

Memes: Commonly Held Beliefs

When most adults identify these as the common learning traits we are looking at a meme.

A meme is an organized way of thinking tied to action based on a powerful belief about how the world works. It is a pattern and standard used by most. This meme spreads from one person to another and is passed down through culture. It is shared by a large number of individuals.

In the case of the conference education meme, it is a set of powerful beliefs that prevent new, scientifically-proven ideas from taking hold. This conference meme actually hinders and prevents most learning from occurring.

Conference Education Memes

Speakers expect to stand at the front of the room and be the center of attention. They dispense their knowledge, information and expertise on the subject. They do all the work presenting their information. They believe that covering the content in the lecture leads to learning. They expect that the more content they cover, the more the audience learns.

Attendees expect to sit passively watching the speaker. They consume the SME’s information by listening to it. They also expect that upon hearing the information they have learned it. They believe that the more content the speaker covers, the more they retain.

Attendees’ supervisors tie their employees’ time sitting in conference chairs listening to speakers as learning. Supervisors tie the registration fee to their employees’ knowledge gained. They believe that after attending the conference their employees behaviors will improve, their skills will grow and ultimately their work productivity increases.

Conference organizers expect attendees to sit in rows of chairs facing the stage. Conference hosts expect registrants to attend the education sessions available during each time slot. They believe offering speaker-led sessions equates to attendee learning.

Venue managers expect conference stakeholders to use their space and set the rooms in one of four common ways (theater, classroom, banquet, reception). They expect that their space is the conduit for learning.

All of these expectations come from a strong education model. It is the conference standard. It is an education meme. All of these expectations need to shift!

Shifting The Conference Education Meme

Few question this education meme. Yet more conference hosts, organizers, speakers, attendees and venue managers need to question this governing model. If conferences are to prove their education and networking ROI, we must demand a shift in this education meme. We must adopt a new education paradigm.

Powerful research proves that the old meme does not serve us.

Shifting this education meme begins with understanding how adults learn naturally. It starts when we understand how our brains operate and learn. Creating brain-friendly learning conferences could be revolutionary, if the old meme was not in the way.

Neuroscientist Joaquin Fuster’s research demonstrates that our brain grows based on learning that has personal relevancy and that leads to action and feedback.

The three critical keys for this new conference education model are:

  • Action (attendees actively involved in doing something besides listening, this can be as simple as peer discussion)
  • Feedback (attendees receive immediate feedback from peers regarding their thoughts about applying the information not just Q&A from SME)
  • Relevancy (the information presented must apply immediately to the attendees’ situation or it is quickly forgotten)

What will it take for conference organizers to adopt the new conference education meme? How can conference organizers help their attendees understand the value of a brain-friendly education meme?

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  1. Niesa Silzer says:

    Part of the challenge is that this “conference education meme” is ingrained from grade 1. It’s not just adult learning, but learning at all ages. I think conference organizers will fight an uphill battle on this issue until we see some changes in how we teach/learn in the school systems.

  2. I would differ a bit in that I don’t this members are engrained form day one. Elementary school is much more about play and exploration with structure slowly introduced as the years go on. Edward deBono has a great quote about how we start school with a box of 64 crayons and graduate high school with one blue pen.

    So many people (including you, Jeff) have been pushing back on these memes for so long, yet so little has changed. It’s maddening to me.

    I think it’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Laslow Lahey who in one of their books about change write that many changes don’t take hold because the people who need to shift have an equal or stronger commitment to something else they find valuable. The only things I can thing planners may be hanging on to is certainty, control, templates/checklists, and logistical ease. If that’s the case, maybe we need to help them get control over something new that matters more, much in the way the Flipped Class movement seems to be attracting even some of the most ardent skeptics to change their classroom methodology.

    And while we need planners to adopt new members, they also need to help planning committees do the same. Ironically, when i’ve asked planning committee members to talk about their best learning experiences, few of them fully reflect any of the members that just won’t die.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and adding your point of view.

      I’m with Jeffrey on this one. I think just the opposite happens. Teachers of young students promote play, discovery, exploration and curiosity. It’s only when we get in older grades that we transition to the lecture model.

      I believe there were always pockets of educators that taught the right way. And some schools and universities are undergoing dramatic changes to adapt to more evidenced based learning methods. It will take time for these changes to become new memes. The question is will conference attendees continue to accept the old memes.

      Thanks as always for responding and reading. You’ve been on this drumbeat for years and I hope you never tire of it. As long as we have people like you that challenge old memes we can try to make change even one person at a time! Viva la Learning!

      Thanks for the support, comments and reading. Keep on challenging the status quo when it comes to learning! We’re here with you on that for sure.

  3. Great posting! I think the way you’ve described what everyone thinks is happening at conferences and the vested interests is really powerful.
    We’re running an unconference in the UK and I believe we’ll be following your critical keys.
    I also think this is true of much training that takes place – the training happens but has there been any learning? Our Brain Friendly Learning Group is promoting getting people involved and making it relevant – not lectures or experts talking. Thanks for your posting!

  4. Niesa Silzer says:

    I agree with both of you and just may have been off on when the lecture model starts in school. And there are great teachers and schools doing really innovative things – much like there are conference planners doing innovative things. Those just aren’t the norm yet.

    @Jeffrey – you’ve also hit on an issue. It’s not that planners don’t want to change up the model….planning committees need to do it too, and there has to be a level of buy-in from the attendees.

    I wish it was simple to just throw away the old methodologies but there are many layers that need consideration. I absolutely agree its worth an ongoing fight to change things.

    So taking it back to Jeff’s blog. What are the suggestions for getting attendees to understand that learning might not be passively sitting in a chair? Or what messages need to go to supervisors?

    I’d love to see some great examples of how thinking has been shifted on those levels. I know it would help me and my planning committees.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I believe that the model for planning committees is shifting from actually selecting speakers to acting in advisory roles and reviewers. We typically don’t let committees design the marketing or IT programs and the same thing needs to happen regarding education.

      That being said, education is the key and it takes a while to make that shift. Challenging planning committees to really think about the value of lectures. Did they actually learn anything from a lecture or did they have to go and study the information after the lecture. More than likely the latter. Also, when you start sharing the scientific research about how the brain learns with committees, they start thinking differently. Education through article sharing and presentations on brain-friendly learning are typically where I start.

      Hope that helps some.

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