September is back to school time for kids but it’s also the start of the fall conference season. Adult education and professional development is not so different from our younger days of learning and, for conference planners, there’s still learning lessons to be learned from elementary school:
- Defined Learning Outcomes: School curriculums are built with long-term goals in mind. At the end of a school year, students need to take away a foundation of skills and knowledge to allow them to succeed in future years and advance their education. Conference programs should be approached the same way. Take stock of what’s happening with your organization and your industry and identify the direction things taking (or you want to see them take). Then assess the audience to determine what skills and knowledge they’ll need to ensure success and advancement. Create programming to help people build strength in in these areas.
- Lectures Mixed With Practical Application: Science class would be a lot more boring if we didn’t let students pull out a microscope or beaker once in a while. History classes are a simply a series of case studies. Odds are that a student won’t learn computers by reading a book or hearing someone explain typing methodology. Some subject matter is well-suited to oral presentation while other subjects are perfect for hands-on learning. Plus, there’s a wide variety of learning styles and different people will learn better in different teaching environments. So look for variety in delivery and presentation style in your conference program: Mix lectures with case studies and workshops. Let people get hands-on with technology and tools, when possible.
- Storytime: As a rule, parents don’t read their kids textbooks at bedtime and students are attentive at story time. Everyone likes a good story. A good plot generally holds our attention longer than simple statistics and a good story-teller can capture our attention and make facts interesting. The more engaged we are with a story and the more it creates an emotional reaction, the more likely we are to remember it. When choosing speakers, look for those who can turn theory, numbers, and facts into a tale that people will want to listen to.
- Attention Spans are Limited: A school day in Canada is around 6 hours. As adults we have greater capacity to concentrate for longer periods but there is still a limit. Keep school hours in mind and avoid scheduling long days of educational content. People will tire and stop paying attention. Likewise, don’t schedule sessions to last much longer than an hour (45-50 minutes is most comfortable) or people will stop absorbing new information. For workshops or sessions where it can’t be avoided, be sure to offer breaks that give people time to stretch and absorb what they’ve just learned.
- Recess: Some people love to sit in the school yard and talk while others want to participate in structured games or activities, but everyone appreciates the chance to get out of the classroom. And they serve a functional purpose letting kids get some fresh air and a healthy snack to keep their energy up. Plan conference breaks purposefully, too. Space them out to allow people a respite when they might be tiring, and offer snacks and refreshments that will boost their energy and learning capacity. If weather cooperates, fresh air will also give people a boost but the ideal setting would not let them wander far from session rooms (or nice weather could tempt them to play hooky!) Offer structured activities for physical exercise and networking, but don’t force people to participate. Facilitate unstructured networking and relaxation with comfortable seating areas.
Adults learn differently than children but some of the fundamentals of elementary school planning remain important to adult education. Just as school administration does, conference planners need to build programs in consideration of education goals, variety of learner styles, and attention spans.