Considering The Learning Journey At Conferences

Inner Journey

Many years ago I taught school during the day and high school dropouts preparing for their GED exam at night.

It was a grueling schedule. Yet, it was extremely rewarding.

On The Road To GED

Every evening, after a long day of teaching, I spent another five hours on my second job at Students For Success: The GED Academy.

With many of the students, I had a decent chance of helping them improve their math scores. The reading, social studies and science tests were often more challenging. Why? They did not have a lot of experience with making inferences, analyzing data and making judgments. Memorizing math facts was much easier.

Their exam pass or fail relied on if I could help them apply higher order thinking skills like comprehension, complex analysis and reasoning. In reality, the six week course was not enough time to teach three years of high school subjects, much less problem-solving skills that took years to develop.

My experience there solidified my beliefs that some knowledge and skills can be acquired quickly. Some take a long time to develop. Presenters can’t force it to happen.

How Far Down The Learning Path Can Conferences Go

My GED experience relates to many conference education sessions. Just how far down the learning path can an average presenter take their audience?

I’ve had some presenters tell me they were going to teach problem solving in a 15-minute TED-style presentation. I’ve inwardly groaned as I know that in reality that’s impossible.

Too often, conference organizers have tried to cram as much information into a conference experience as possible. But much like our all-night college exam cram sessions, memorizing facts and figures does not equate to real learning.

Pace Layering: How Buildings Learn

Author Stewart Brand describes pace layering in his book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built.

Brand says that some things change quickly like the contents of a room which changes daily. The decor might change in months or years. Some things change more slowly like how the space is used, the traffic flow or the interior structure. Some things change very slowly such as the foundation or the external structure.

So what is the pace learning layering of your conference attendees? What can change quickly? What changes slowly?

In the GED course that I taught, I could at best rearrange some furniture. I hoped that it would stay rearranged until they took the test. I wasn’t really going to change higher level thinking skills that were part of the external structure or foundation.

Pace Learning Layering For Conferences

The challenge for conference organizers and content strategists is whether the content lends to fast or slow learning.

If it’s a simple point, the presenter might be able to help the audience learn the information in a 60-minute session. If it’s a complex issue, then the presenter will be lucky to help the learner inch down the path.

Ultimately, the presenter need to decide how complex the participant’s understanding needs to be as well as their past experience before designing the content. Then an appropriate presentation strategy can be prepared.

Hat tips to Julie Dirksen’s Design For How People Learn for introducing me to pace layering and Stewart Brand’s book.

Considering pace learning layering, what types of content can be shared in a typical 90-minute presentation? What strategies can a presenter use for slow learning or changing foundational beliefs?

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