The Art Of Changing The Attendees’ Brain: Conference Style


Usually our view of conference education is an expert at the front of the room doling out their knowledge through witty repartee.

The speaker stands on a stage, behind a podium, towering above the audience as if dispensing expertise from on high. Conference organizers and speakers view the audience as those that need the expert’s help. The experts then hand their assistance down to the attendees through their spoken word.

This has been the model for years. It’s the way we were taught in school. It’s practiced in meetings across the globe. It’s usually the only way we know how to provide instruction and education.

A New Conference Education Model

The top-down, expert helping needy attendees completely forgets that actual learning takes place in the brain and biology of the learner. We need to turn the conference education model around with a focus on learning.

Today we have more than 20 years of research from biology, neuroscience and cognitive psychology that shows the traditional instructor model does not result in learning. Researchers like Hillel Chiel, Terry Doyle, Alkson Hall, David Katz, David and Alice Kolb, Mano Singham, David Sousa, Harold Stolovitch, Lyn Turkstra and James Zull, along with a host of others, have shown us that we need to see our learning as a biological, natural process in our bodies and brains. We need to see ourselves as biological creatures governed by a set of natural, physical and chemical laws.

If our theories about education, instruction and presenting are in disagreement with biology we need to reconsider them. Ultimately, we have to reconcile that our old conference instruction model does not align with the natural process and biology of learning.

Learning Is A Physical, Active, Biological Process

Learning is physical. It is an active process in brain. It is change in the brain.

If presenters have any success at all, they have produced physical changes in their audiences’ brains. Ultimately, conference education should be about the art of changing the brain. Not controlling the brain through a lecture. Nor rearranging the brain according to some learning style manual.

It is about creating conditions and an environment that leads to change in the attendee’s brain. Great presenters and facilitators of learning can set up conditions that favor rewiring and create environments that nurture it!

Whose Brain Is Fired And Wired?

The difference between a traditional, lecture-based instructional model and learner-centered sessions is whose brains get fired and wired. When learning occurs, neurons fire and new synapses are hardwired.

What’s unfortunate is that the only real learning that occurs during a traditional lecture is when the speaker studied the information and prepared a presentation. The speaker did all the work. It was his brain that was fired and wired.

Receiving information through a lecture does not fulfill the natural way our brains learn. It is not enough. Receiving information does not fire or hardwire the brain. It is only one step in a complex process. And unfortunately, our brains have limits of how much information we can remember during a lecture anyway.

The Biology Of Learning

The biology of learning begins with a sensory experience. But experience is not the whole thing.

In short, learning requires a conscious effort to build understanding from the experience which demands reflection, conceptualization (meaning-making) and application (testing our concepts). That’s when a brain gets fired and wired.

We have to design conference education that helps attendees build understanding from a sensory experience. We have to create education sessions that limit the lecture or panel and provide opportunities for attendees to reflect, make meaning of the content, connect it to their lives and then visualize applying it. Then we’ve addressed the biology of learning.

Until conference education transitions from passive listening to lectures to the biological process of how information is changed to understanding, most speakers will fall short of success.

It is only when our audiences have understanding that they will produce new thoughts and actions that lead to a different future. That’s when conferences will lead to true transformations!

Sources: The Art of Changing The Brain by James E. Zull; Learner Centered Teaching by Terry Doyle; How The Brain Learns by David A. Sousa; The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge; and How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose, Michael Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha Lovett and Marie Norman.

If conference education should align with the biology of learning, should the selection of education sessions be left to industry volunteers? What changes should be made to traditional lectures to address the biology of learning?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
  1. David Schreiber says:

    Jeff, Benjamin Franklin reflected on this very issue over 200 years ago, saying something to the effect of, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.” It’s funny, but beyond the “sameness” of approach used by presenters at all sorts of industry conferences, we now have attendees “multi-tasking” during sessions: Tweeting and posting on various social media sites. Thank you for raising an interesting, worthwhile issue.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and adding your insights.

  2. […] I was inspired by an interesting article about the biology of learning by Jeff Hurt, titled “The Art of Changing the Attendees’ Brain: Conference Style.”   Let me share a few quotes to help you understand Jeff’s main points:   “We […]

  3. […] sessions besides sitting and listening). It’s time for events to apply the research about the biology of learning to their model. It’s time to stop passing the buck for event programming and step up to the plate […]

  4. […] Learning is a biological process. Many of our theories about learning and the brain are in disagreement with biology. So we need to reconsider them.  […]

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *