Is great conference learning really just about more engaging speakers?

July 30, 2013

It’s not what you give them; it’s what they take away that counts. – Mel Silberman, 1942-2010

istockphotoThe effectiveness of conference learning continues to be on the minds of many in the association world.

Conferences are primarily learning events, and as such I think we can all agree participant learning needs to be the focus. A lot of the conversations I see on this topic revolve around conference organizers and session leaders, and rarely include those who attend these sessions. Instead of thinking only about getting session leaders to be more engaging, a shift in perception and focus to that of being a “learner advocate” would put both organizer and session leader into a learner-centered mindset. And that shift, while seemingly subtle, can have huge ramifications on what learners take away.

At the same time, attention needs to be paid to helping learners be more effective in their role – learn and apply.

Jeff Cobb devotes a section of his excellent book Leading the Learning Revolution to this topic, in which he comments about shifting power to the learners: “…there is ample reason to believe that most of us are not particularly well prepared to engage in and benefit from [interactive and participatory] learning.” I agree with what he says about providing options – a mix of content-centered and learner-centered opportunities so people can select what they need. At the same time, all session leaders need to know how to facilitate learning in ways that learners will take away what they need and be able to apply it. And learners need to know how to best take advantage of learning opportunities so they can apply what they’ve learned.

There are three “legs” to successful conference learning: organizers, session leaders, and participants. Each plays an important part in determining the outcomes, and each intertwines with the others so tightly that none of the three can be ignored. Not every conference organizer is also a learning professional; not every session leader is a facilitator of learning, and not every participant is an accomplished learner.

The quote that opened this post, from active-learning guru Mel Silberman, is at the heart of any learning opportunity. It’s not about how the room is set, and it’s not about the knowledge session leaders can convey. It’s all about the learners and what they take away and, I’ll add, what they are able to apply. If your participants can apply even some of what they’ve learned at your conference to do their jobs or live their lives better or more effectively, that’s when they’ll at least begin to consider your conference a must-attend event.

What would you say are one or two important things each of these three groups needs to consider when it comes to ensuring effective conference learning outcomes?

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