Saturday, November 15, 2008

No More Conferences

I went to a church conference today. You've seen 'em: two morning sessions, lunch, two afternoon sessions; a guy talking in front of a powerpoint screen. He did a little flip chart work at the beginning. We all had spiral notebooks with fill-in questions.

By 3pm, I was standing at the back of the sanctuary thinking This is not my learning style. And - this was after I had twice gone out to the car for naps, had had two private conversations in the foyer of about fifteen minutes each, and spent most of the rest of the time moving from place to place in the back. I really only sat through 30 minutes of the first session and 15 minutes of the third.

Here's the worst of it: the guy was a pretty good speaker. Yet I still couldn't stay with it. I used to be somewhat better at it by simply forcing myself to sit still, but I have never learned this way. It dawned on me that I was never good at this at school, either. I was always in minor trouble for unauthorized pleasure reading during class or daydreaming. Later I skipped classes when I could, and endured when I couldn't by counting to 1000 or writing letters or a dozen other time-killing strategies (I recommend geography - capital cities, rivers, whatever - as the best strategy). I was polite enough to try to please, and smart enough to pick up the gist of a lecture from fragments, but from earliest school years, sitting and listening has been painful.

There isn't enough stimulation. The front of the room never changes, the voice intonation becomes repetitive even with a skilled presenter. Getting up and moving around a few times just isn't enough. Video presentations work somewhat better because the facial nuances of the speaker are noticed by the brain end keep it working in the background. Better still, videos provide other new stimuli - a change in speakers, a change in camera angle or distance, background music, more interesting graphics.

I looked over the crowd of attendees, almost all over forty and thought In forty years no one will do this. Hell, in twenty years no one will do it. I don't think black churches do this much; I'm not sure about hispanics but I'm going to guess not; Roman Catholics don't, eastern Orthodox don't. This is a white Protestant thing. I take that back - I'll bet Jews do it, too. These things are run by people who went to seminary, a lecture-heavy graduate school, after graduating from college in the humanities. This is their learning style. Even more, this is their teaching style, and conference designers often gravitate to the idea of "what info do I want to tell them" rather than "what do I want them to learn?"

Even then, the pastors cheat more than average, sitting at the back, getting up and moving around a bit, taking care of details they suddenly find important about the running of the conference. This style of learning works for some people, but I'll bet it's much less than conference organizers think. Even my wife, who does well with the note-taking lecture format, was fading by the fourth session. If you can't keep Tracy with you on these things, then it's really not working at some basic level.

I have never learned this way, and I'm not getting any better at it. No more conferences.


lelia said...

I need to think about this.
Difference between what do I want to teach versus what do I want them to learn.

Ellie said...

I just thought it was old age setting in. I found myself flipping ahead in the notebook wondering where we were going. I did like his accent, though.

Jonathan said...

What's the alternative learning style that will work better?

(another) jonathan said...

Different people learn best in different ways. Not everyone realizes this. I think that there is also a control issue for some teachers and lecturers. They are like bosses who want their subordinates to spend all work time in the office even if they are more productive elsewhere. Sometimes the one-size-fits-all approach is necessary but I think it's much overused.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

lelia - example: when you are crowding everything into the end of a lecture to "finish" it, not only is no one getting the last part, but you are creating interference with the learning of the first part, which you did right.

Jonathan - dunno. That's what I'm going to think about. I have some initial ideas.

Jonathan said...

It had better not involve a garden hose...

Dubbahdee said...

The problem is not in the concept of "conference." The problem is in the design of the conference.
The program was ostensibly a workshop on evangelism. A workshop. This implies the teaching of (or preferably training in)skills, as opposed to the the transference of information. The entire 1st day (6 hours) could easily have been compressed into 2-3 hours. This would be done by eliminating the useless flipchart work and jamming through the material at an intentionally energetic pace. Kill the powerpoint outline. We had it in front of us in the workbook. It's a useless duplication. Instead use the projector for graphics, pictures, illustration that would enhance the material rather than repeat it. With the help of good graphics you can quickly convey lots of information in little time.
Then the rest of the conference (4-6 hours)could be dedicated to application. This is where the real useful interaction should take place. Explain a technique or method, and give the group a chance to practice in pairs and small group breakouts. Explain the game. Breakout. Reconvene. Debrief.
The initial two hours provide background to enhance the skill practice that should have comprised the bulk of the session. This would have been MUCH more effective at building comfort and confidence with the techniques they were intending to teach.
Just my take as a professional trainer.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Dave, that would be better, but still wouldn't work for me. 2-3 hours is 2-3 times longer than my brain does that, even when the packaging is good.

Dubbahdee said...

Yes...true. But see it this way.
Get a cigarette (or three). Talk with some folks in the narthex. Catch a few snatches of the content. Riffle through the pages of the workbook. Pretty soon, what with the break that everyone else takes, 3 hours has flown by.
Then what do you get? The chance to interact and discuss and play around for the rest of the conference -- but it's built into the structure, and it has a direction and a purpose. I've seen you do that. You can actually play around with a goal in mind, and come up with some pretty good stuff. You always bring something good to the table in those scenarios.
Also keep in mind that during the "content delivery" portion, there will be lots of pretty pictures up front to dazzle you. Maybe not for three hours, but if they catch you for 5 minutes here, and 5 minutes there...and really help you see something new...that's all to the good. The powerpoint I'm envisioning is something COMPLETELY different from what most people think of as powerpoint. The closest I have seen to it is the way Al Gore used PPT in An Inconvenient Truth. Whatever you thought of the content, his use of powerpoint was genius.

Let me be clear though. I am in no way attempting to talk you into coming to any conference again, EVER. I wouldn't dream of it. If I saw you at one, I would tell you to leave immediately. Probably even threaten to take away your ciggies if you didn't comply. ;-)

Even this conference, modified according to my suggestions, might not appeal to you much or help you at all -- But it would be much much **better** than what you experienced this weekend.

One more thing -- the content was rock solid, the intent dead on, and the presenter was indeed skilled and competent. I appreciated what they were going for very much. I just think it could be improved by modifying the structure.

Wyman said...

I'm working to reinvent our video podcasting to make it more visually compelling for people who don't watch a lot of media/television. I should use you as my test case.

Wyman said...

Also, Duhbadee - if my dad thought the speaker was good and remembered some details of the unnecessary bits he usually dislikes (workbooks and flip charts and what have you), you can be sure the speaker was very good and his methods, otherwise he wouldn't have made it nearly that long. He would instead have just remembered the general gist of what the speaker was saying in each section and whether or not the speaker had a bone he was trying to pick.