Dangerous assumptions: The faulty reasoning behind many conference education programs

conference education

By Jeff Hurt

It’s a very dangerous assumption: We assume that if our speakers are talking, our attendees must be learning. We equate telling from the stage with audience education.

Telling does not equal learning. We’ve placed a value on experts talking instead of a value on attendees’ learning. It’s backwards thinking and it’s one of our conference’s most dangerous assumptions.

Mimicking the wrong model

Most of our conference education mimics our traditional higher education model. Attendees listen to experts share their knowledge through lectures. The majority of higher education institutions were developed as research institutions in the early and mid 19th century. The goal was to address issues of specialized knowledge for an industrial society says scholar, author, futurist and professor Cathy Davidson.

Universities treated students as if they were on a factory assembly line. Pour information into their heads through the spoken word and learning is the byproduct. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.

Those that don’t pass university courses are weeded out and considered not good enough to enter their profession. It’s an elitist system. The irony is that the research university serves only 0.3 per cent of the U.S. student population says Davidson. Yet we copy this model for our conference schedules. That distorts the mission of our conference.

We have embraced a dangerous assumption that this model works for conferences to deliver attitude, behavior and skill change. This is where the rubber truly meets the road and is the differentiator that conference education outcomes must achieve.

Here are six additional faulty assumptions that we need to address. Some of them came from my discussions with Dr. Will Thalheimer who delivered a similar presentation at PCMA Education Conference 2015.

Assumption 1: Certification for everyone

Much of our conference education programming (in the United States) is built upon proliferating a similar elitist system—industry designations and certification. By default, we deny industry professionals access to certified-approved courses unless they are willing to pay. We then encourage the collection of continuing education units to meet standards, all for a fee of course. Next, we require payment for the attendees to take a stringent knowledge-based test, regardless if they pass it or not. Finally, we make them pay a fee every two to five years to keep that certification. We’ve created elitist customers, an exclusive clique instead of trying to help the entire industry progress.

Because of a changing nature of specialized knowledge and because of a changing access to information, many wonder about the real value of elite credentialing says Davidson. And many of your attendees wonder about the value of outdated 20th century credentialing for a 21st century world.

Truth: We serve our conference customers best by serving their industry or profession first, not just those who can afford it. When we focus on helping the industry move forward, and not the private club, everyone gets a bigger piece of the pie.

Assumption 2: Speakers and experts transfer their knowledge though lectures

Our speakers are infected by learning myths, says Thalheimer.

The majority of our professional and industry speakers have a cognitive learning virus. The most common belief is that talking to an audience automatically leads to learning. Very few speakers understand how to bridge the gap between learning research and their speech. So we continue with this virus-infected informational delivery model.

Truth: Speakers need to design presentations based on how audiences learn not how to best organize their speech. Presenters should shift to being facilitators of learning with a focus on how to help participants retain and reflect on the content as well as redistribute it back on the job.

Assumption 3: Get a year’s worth of education in just three days

We push content at our audiences as fast as we can. We claim we have something for everyone.

We believe that our audience can learn in bulk in three days at our event.

Our audiences have to give their focused attention to what is being said. This is the first and vital step to in the learning process.

Processing speed and capacity are two more bottlenecks in the learning process. And people need breaks to satisfy both their mental and physiological needs, creating a fourth bottleneck. Sitting passively for one to eight hours a day listening to experts is the exact opposite of what we should do for real learning to occur.

When too much content is presented, it overwhelms the brain’s capacity to process and make sense of that information. It leads to cognitive overload.

“When the overload gets large enough, the learning systems shuts down altogether,” says researchers Clark, Nguyen and Sweller in their book Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load.

Truth: Less content is more. And that conference education needs to have intentional breaks to allow the brain time to process, reflect and connect the information as well as dedicated time away from the content. You cannot attend to a year’s worth of content in three days. It’s impossible to do.

Assumption 4: Experts should talk out loud, not attendees

Did you ever really control your audience? No! You controlled the flow of information and therefore thought you controlled the learning.

So what percentage of your conference experience is dedicated to attendees talking to attendees? What percentage is dedicated to intentional, facilitated peer discussions around specific issues? Most of the time we don’t schedule time for attendees to think, process and reflect about what is being said.

Articulating our decisions out loud helps us learn, says author and educator Jan Bozarth. We need more one-on-one peer discussion and explanations during conferences. We need to help attendees understand the importance of talking out loud to each other for their own learning.

Truth: “Working out loud takes us off autopilot and forces us to confront assumptions, bad habits, and prejudices. Helping others better articulate decisions helps them learn,” says Bozarth. Have speakers dedicate 35-50 per cent of their presentation time to reflection and one on one discussion of application.

Assumption 5: Attendees are the best judges of their own learning

As the authors of Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning have pointed out, adults are delusional about when they think they are learning. They believe sitting and listening for long hours each day will automatically lead to learning. Most don’t want to have to work at their learning.

“Just give me the crib notes, cheat sheets, top tips or copies of everyone’s handouts and PPTs and I’ve got it,” is the common statement and unfortunately is an illusion. When we’ve got those things, we think we have learned that information but we haven’t.

Truth: We have to help attendees understand the biology of their brain and authentic learning. Provide learning tips and relevant application of the learning research.

Assumption 6: Conference effectiveness is equal to customer satisfaction

We seldom evaluate our conference education. Nor do we actually evaluate the effectiveness of our conference education. Most of the time we ask questions about the attendees’ satisfaction with the speaker. Satisfaction has nothing to do with learning, says Thalheimer, whose research shows speaker evaluations are biased in favor of the speaker.

Truth: We need to use more effective evaluations (not traditional “smile” sheets) and better gauge the workplace application of our education. We need to shift the focus of our speakers to our attendees’ real business results and not just satisfaction.

About the author:

Jeff Hurt joined Velvet Chainsaw Consulting in January 2010 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, Education and Engagement. In 2011, he was recognized as the PCMA Educator of the Year. In 2014, he was recognized as one of the meetings’ industry professional provocateurs and change agents by MeetingsNet and one of the top meetings professionals to follow on Twitter. In 2015, he was listed in Successful Meetings Magazine top 25 most influential people in the meetings industry. For more information contact Jeff at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jeffhurt.

(The above article is reprinted with permission from the author. The original article can be found at www.velvetchainsaw.com.)

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