The setting is stunning, 8,000 feet up in the Rockies. Colorado in September, aspen, screaming blue skies, bright clear nights. Who wants to be inside listening to endless presenters and trapped in a trade show maze?
Raterfest is a different kind of conference. It's small and it's spacious. Energylogic's 'unconference' has only one session track, with a few breakout sessions. There's 30 minute gaps between the 1-hour sessions. There are no keynote speakers while your eating. There's a shit-ton of socializing and unstructured time.
At a typical 3-5 day conference, I usually bug out at the 1.5 day mark. My brain is full and I need some serious gap time to process what's been fired at me. I may miss something terrific between day 1.5 and day 2, but...
I know, I know, large, national conferences are a different beast. Attendees expect a smorgasborg, where they can pick and choose from several tracks and max out the number of CEUs they can rack up for multiple designations.
Intense + Unstructured
Raterfest was intense, for all the unstructured time. In between the sessions people discussed what had been presented while soaking up the glorious sunshine. Everyone arrived at the next session awake and aware, if still a little bleary from the nighttime activities...
The thing is, we only glean 10% of our on-the-job knowledge from formal training, so extended opportunities for informal learning like the session gaps at RaterFest are very important. The more we get to socialize the knowledge, the more we share values and common experiences, the more the learning resolves issues and the relevancy factor goes up.
I presented on ways for raters to develop some strategies for in-field informal learning to help close the building science knowledge gap, so that we can be more effective agents of change in the industry. I talked a little about adult education and some of the ways to engage people in learning.
The Irony of A Presentation on Adult Education
The irony of presenting this stuff at a conference didn't go past me ... the fundamental problem with most conferences and many, many presentations is that they don't take into consideration the basic principles of adult education.
It's nobody's fault, really. Many conferences evolved out of peer-to-peer presentations: geeked-out engineers talking to geeked-out engineers. That's not who makes up the bulk of the participants at building industry conferences any more. Conference organizers don't require presenters to have adult education background, nor do they provide guidelines for presentation structures that follow well-founded principles.
Presenters are passionate about the topics they're presenting on, they're not adult educators, they're experts in their own fields, and they're geeked-out.
As a result, many 60 or 90 minute sessions are in lecture format, with no breaks and little participation from the learners. This flies in the face of what we know about adult learning: you've got about 15-30 minutes of teaching time on a topic before your audience starts to glaze over. Here's what every presenter needs to keep in mind when developing a conference session:
People are Problem Solvers, Not Content Consumers
One way to make conference sessions more effective would be to have some guidelines for presenters on how to structure a session. Those presentation guidelines need to be based on adult education principles that can be summed up like this:
Tell me a story that builds on my prior knowledge so I can relate to your topic.
Your story has to spiral in from the big picture to the details so I get the context.
Learning is a two-way social event, not a passive filling of my brain. Engage me.