Think Like a Kindergarten Teacher

Variety, interaction and physical movement resonate with attendees

Tired of talking heads at the lectern? Wondering how to promote deeper learning at your meetings and events? Attendees at the Americas Connect conference, hosted in April by the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), heard some unconventional advice on how to engage their audience: Think like a kindergarten teacher.

Meeting venues are now recognizing they must assist with more than logistics. Convention sales and service managers at the conference were introduced to several meeting-session formats that are unusual but gaining traction throughout the field of adult education—as a way for these suppliers to aid planners in reaching educational objectives.

These alternate learning formats are aimed at adult participants, but they adhere to the same principles used in kindergarten classes. “How we learned as children doesn’t stop working as we get older,” says Kristi Sanders, CMM, director of the Meeting Professionals International Academy, who demonstrated the various formats to IACC attendees. “It’s enjoyable and effective whenever you are physically engaged in an experience, not just sitting and listening. Planners just have to leverage that in ways that are acceptable in business settings.”

Alternate Learning Formats

Here’s an example of what Sanders means: A session format called Spectrogram gets attendees to move around the room to demonstrate what they think about a certain topic. Those who agree with the stated premise gather on one side of the room; those who disagree gather on the other; those not fully in either camp gather somewhere in the middle. Then the attendees in each camp discuss among themselves the reasons for their common opinion and present them to the other camps, thus providing many different perspectives in a short period of time.

Another active session format is World Cafe, where up to six people sit at each table and discuss a topic for 20 minutes. At the end, one person stays at the table to summarize the conversation to the next group that comes there, while the others scatter to different tables and join a new conversation. After one hour, all the conversations are collected and summarized, and later distributed to all participants to provide maximum breadth of topics, as well as depth within each topic.

Then there’s the Unpanel, where discussion participants sit in a small circle surrounded by an audience seated in ever-larger circles. This setup makes for a more spirited conversation, and one or more participants can be replaced every so often by members of the audience, if desired.

The Walk and Talk format puts groups of two or three people together for a 20-minute stroll around the ballroom, down a corridor or across an outdoor area. Their task is to work through the various aspects of an issue, create a summary of their progress, and return to the starting point to take on a new partner and topic. “Walk and Talk is especially good for maximizing the sponsor experience,” Sanders says. “Sponsor reps can be one of the people in each walking group. It also helps them better understand the mindset of attendees.”

PeckaKucha is another format that’s useful for sponsor participation and often used to kick off evening activities. A presenter is permitted to use as many as 20 slides, but each slide auto-advances after 20 seconds. This forces presenters to be focused and polished in their message, and allows for three presenters in just 20 minutes.

Interestingly, one session format, Dotmocracy, can be used throughout an entire session—or at any point as a mechanism for attendees to choose a different session format. This process identifies collective opinions quickly and determines the direction a conversation should go, based on attendee agreement or disagreement with proposed statements. Attendees provide their opinions by placing a dot under one of several statements posted to a board at the front of the room. After a set time for conversation, a new series of statements emerges and is voted on, and the conversation continues forward.

Underlying Premise

Sanders summarizes the underlying premise of all these alternate learning formats: “Today’s attendees want input on the direction of a session, and they want to hear from each other throughout a session— not just offering up ideas, but using their collective expertise to kick the ideas around and see how they can be applied successfully in their work environment.”

She strengthens the case with two interesting points:

  • Neuroscience has found people learn best when only about 10 percent of content is pushed at them.
  • People who talk more in business sessions actually learn more.

Is the lecture format destined to fade away? Sanders won’t go that far. “Some speakers are so strong on a topic that even if they don’t engage the audience through interaction, they are still very engaging—attendee surveys from our own World Education Congress confirm that,” she says. “Lecture won’t go away completely. But meetings do need a mix of formats that promote active involvement for attendees to attain the deepest level of learning.”
Stay tuned. In next month’s column, we will provide a blueprint for how to prepare all of a meeting’s stakeholders—host organization executives, event attendees and session facilitators—for the unusual learning formats they will encounter at an upcoming event.

Rob Carey is a business journalist and principal of Meetings & Hospitality Insight, a content marketing firm for the group-business market.


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