We Must Stop Promoting Conference Fast-Track, Artificial, Butt-In-Seat, Surface Learning

Butts on Seats

How are your conference attendees learning?

Yes, of course we should ask, “What are they learning?” More importantly, we need to ask, “How are they learning?”

We’ve got to confront the ineffectiveness of our conference education approaches! We must begin to offer effective alternatives to the traditional “sit and get” lecture. If we want to increase conference participant ROI and loyalty, we’ve got to just stop accepting speaker proposals, assigning speakers a time slot and then offering CEs to attendees.

How Does Your Conference Education Compare?

If your conference is promoting bite-size, TED-Talk, fast-paced, succinct learning opportunities…

If you promote audience response polling systems in your conference education sessions to assess understanding and application of important content…

If your conference promotes that attendees should have unspoken acceptance of information delivered from perceived experts…

If your conference promotes education sessions that offers isolated content that is unlinked to other conference content or the attendees’ jobs…

If your conference fosters attendees sitting in chairs and passively receiving another person’s ideas…

If your conference offers content so attendees can concentrate on obtaining CEs for certification or recertification…

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then…

You have fallen victim to trendy ineffective education methods. You are promoting superficial memorization of facts to pass a test. You are ignoring the ability to change attitudes, behaviors and skills. You are offering a commoditized conference experience.

Ultimately, you have bought into, and are selling, surface learning!

And surface learning is an expensive luxury you and your organization cannot afford!

Surface Learning Versus Deep Learning

Surface learning involves simply “scraping the surface” of content, topics and issues. Registrants attend education sessions, sit passively and download the handouts. They complete evaluations to receive their CEs. Conferences that promote a surface learning approach assume attendees only attend to get CEs to fulfill certification requirements.

Deep learning involves make a serious attempt to turn other people’s ideas into their own customized, personalized mental model. It involves higher order thinking skills to construct understanding and ultimately application on the job.

Let’s compare surface and deep learning in the following areas. Hat tips Dr. Julian Hermida, Katherine F. Stranger-Hall and Dr. Maryellen Weimer.

1. Knowledge Received Or Constructed

In surface learning conference experiences, information and “knowledge” is transmitted from the speaker/expert to the attendee. The expectation is that the attendee receives that knowledge.

In deep learning conference experiences, attendees must integrate new learning within their existing experience and knowledge. They must think about how the new learning affects their past mental models and what must change. They must grapple with the new fact that their old method has flaws and will not continue to work. And they must deal with the emotions that accomplishes changes to their longstanding beliefs.

2. Facts And/Or Meanings

In surface learning, attendees search for facts, tips and shortcuts. They just want someone else’s steps to success.

In deep learning, attendees search for what the content means to them and their work. Deep learning and doing are connected at the hip. The attendee makes connections to the learning, the activity and their work.

3. 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.

In deep learning, attendees explore challenging questions, dilemmas and problems using new and past knowledge. A focus is put on the attendee testing ideas, correcting them as needed and opening up to new perspectives. Attendees spend time discovering and investigating.

4. Speaker And Attendee Acts

In surface learning, the focus is on what the speaker says and does.

In deep learning, the focus is on what the attendee does during the education session besides passively listen.

What are some additional differences between surface and deep learning in conference experiences? What resistance do you expect from some attendees when you adopt deep learning education sessions?

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  1. Thanks Jeff for jumping in heartily with this cannonball of insight — breaking the artificial surface tension of surface learning!

    Misconceptions about learning are easy. Indeed, as audience members, our cognitive machinery can fool us into thinking the learning is good. As we nod and our eyes sparkle, we send the message to presenters that the learning is good… But deep within our brains, we’ve been tickled, not realigned. Soon, we will forget… or worse, we will have missed the opportunity for insight.

    It’s easy. It makes sense to us. But we all have to go deeper.

  2. Wendy Hand says:

    Most conferences, unfortunately, are designed as stand-alone events with topics and session leaders determined specifically for the occasion. Conferences should form an integral and congruent part of an overall communication, education and relevant information driven program being presented over a one or two year period. Conferences are a great vehicle for launching such a program with an introduction to the topics to be rolled out over the coming year. They can work as a teaser and idea starter/refiner to promote future education opportunities which can be run specifically for the best fit target market. It a.so means they can be allocated the time necessary to do the topic justice and provide a deep learning experience. I think there are some unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved in the short duration offered by a conference. A fully integrated plan in which the conference plays a valuable part is a much better option. For too many associations and businesses there’s still a silo mentality between the professional development and events departments. Time to break down the silos and work together to benefit everyone.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Amen! Amen! Amen! Love your final statement, “…Time to break down silos (between professional development and events departments) and work together to benefit everyone.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

    2. Jeff Hurt says:

      Wow, thanks for reading and commenting. We’ve got to break through the misconceptions about learning for sure. Thanks for adding to the conversation here.

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