Powerful Learning Events: shake off the old sit-and-listen approach


I just spent a few days with my family. At the beach in South Carolina between daytime sand castles and evening charades, my 7-year-old niece asked me about my job. I often hem and haw in trying to describe my work, particularly to kids. This time, I stole from my recent article on Itzhak Perlman and said, “I am a teacher, but not for kids, for adults.”

“Oh,” said Juliet, who laughed, no doubt imagining her second-grade classroom but full of adults. “Cool!”

We went back to hosing off beach chairs and boogie boards.

I was pleased with this exchange. I teach adults. Meaning, I facilitate knowledge and its application. On topics where I have experience and knowledge, I do the instruction myself in person or by video or phone. Topics include change management, process improvement, and leading teams. Where I am not the expert, I find experts and plan the instruction on those topics with them and the client-audience organization.

I love the challenge of weaving multiple topics together for a practical session of applied learning. It is what educators call “curriculum design” or “curriculum development.” I enjoy connecting change management to a specific goal-oriented topic like medical-dental integration, or making the connection between process improvement methods and the mechanics of opioid addiction program development.

Moving from the topics to the details of a session agenda, the first thing everyone says is “Make it interactive." But what does that mean, and how do we do it? From my work over the past ten years with distinct audiences each focused on different specific goals, I have general principles that make learning events active and fun. They help me and my clients shake off the old sit-and-listen learning model. That’s what it’s all about: People doing something with the information you provide. Here are six tips to get you started. Want more? Let me know. I can add more ideas in a future article, or run through your next big session agenda with you sometime.

Six tips to design powerful learning events:

  • Write session objectives for the person applying the content back at work. You know you need “objectives” or goals for the session. When you define these, imagine your adult student back at work on Monday morning. Here’s a weak objective: “State two ways social determinants of health impact childhood development.” Better would be something like “Apply your top two strategies for screening for social needs to client services in your agency.” Resist the temptation to skip over this step and come back to it after you have your speakers lined up or your favorite facilitation activities in the agenda. Specific action goals for your session will make each presentation, discussion and in-session planning meeting fall into place.

  • Let participants guide the agenda and goals. Even if you don’t know your attendees before they sign up, you can send an email or a quick survey to the first 10 people who register. (This is a great reason to open up registration for your learning event two months or so ahead of time.) Ask your attendees:What they plan to do with what they learn. Then use that input to help you revise objectives, and then guide your expert speakers’ content, and the goals of work time in the agenda. Which parts of the content they want to hear about from peers at the session.Their nagging questions and challenges related to the topic of the session.

  • Give participants homework to do ahead of time. Whether it’s reading expert presenters’ published work, or (my favorite) asking them to complete a short survey to assess their needs or status related to the goals of the session, help people arrive ready to apply what you are giving them. Not everyone will do the homework. Don’t let that stop you from assigning it. Those who do the prep work can share what they learn with everyone throughout the session.

  • Give participants time to work during the event, particularly in events that are longer than an hour. Help busy people get momentum on real-life application of session content while they are in the session. You know this from the conventional wisdom about adult learning theory: It’s not enough to tell someone something. They have to be able to apply it. Build in 20-minute meetings for group or solo planning time. I like to use simple worksheets that people can use on paper or access online. If planning activities are too clever and complicated, I find, the notes don't seem as real or useful when people get back to their desk back at work.

  • Require participants to contribute their experience and ideas. Another cliché of adult learning (and group development theory and health care self-management) is also true: The wisdom is in the room. To me, the perfect day-long or half-day learning event starts with small group discussions, with specific instructions on what and how to share. Right off the bat, this lets people know: Today is not the day to check your email every ten minutes. You are here to think and talk. You are an important part of the show.

  • Break down the best practices and expert advice you are conveying into smaller interconnected lessons and recommended actions. We want to learn from the experts, those superstars who are leading the work we are covering. But a problem arises: When confronted by the amount of effort it takes to get to where these innovative leaders are, many people retreat and tune them out. It's a flight response to all the effort required to improve. People say, “We can't do that because we don’t have the staff," or “Our board would never let us do that.” Fight this (perfectly reasonable) reaction by making sure each recommendation by an expert is parsed and shared as a series of smaller changes. Do that, and more people will leave inspired and equipped to make progress in their own unique organization.

I hope you find these principles useful in your work. These strategies take more thought and lead time as you plan your learning events, but they ensure your participants are set up for using the content provided.

As you move from these (and your own) curriculum development principles to specific session activities, look online for facilitation exercises you can use to inspire deep listening and commitment to action. I encourage you to pick activities that get people up and moving around the room. Also, when you can, plan follow-up contact after the event to support action and continued learning. Finally, there are ways to evaluate the session to understand its long-term impact, versus just which speakers and lunch menu items people liked best. I will address some of these topics in future articles here. I am taking suggestions: What do you want to read about, related to Powerful Learning Events?

Andrew Edwards