One day last week I took off from a workshop I had facilitated for suburban high school kids to attend to my own learning, first dropping in at an open-to-the-public talk at Northwestern University and then finishing the evening at a Chris Matthews-moderated political event downtown as part of a three-city 2009 speaker series.
The contrast was shocking. At my workshop, students talked in pairs and small groups, moved their bodies, grappled with exercises, reflected and shared, engaged and debated. The session and insights changed based on their participation.
At the two “adult” learning events, I sat on my ass and occasionally grunted.
Look, our changing times require that adults learn more–and more effectively–than ever, and technology is giving us more at-home and powerful options to do that. So I don’t care if it’s called a “talk” or a “speaker”: I no longer can accept showing up to an event and finding the primary advantage to being there live is that I can tell people I was there. Our current model of adult learning–someone lectures/reads/talks for 80% of the time and then a few audience members ask a question for the remaining 20% time–needs some serious innovation.
At Northwestern, the only difference in the professor’s presentation from 50 or 100 years ago was the occasional powerpoint slide of words and bullet points. At the political event, my favorite part was watching the libertarian Tucker Carlson–particularly the amusing way he sat and stared almost obliviously out into space while others were talking. I liked the conversation, and know that some entertainment issues were at hand. But still, I kept thinking, I could just watch these talking heads on video at another time.
We all learn best by doing, by engaging, by actively caring about the theme at hand, and while our K-12 education still needs to change in many ways, good teachers at least know that the old model of teacher-centered classrooms with students as passive receptacles in rows of desks does not work. But we still accept the lecture at universities and conferences. We still mostly have work meetings that just go from one person talking at you to another, as opposed to active collaboration and debate (below).
I’m in front of a computer right now, as you probably are. Technology has enabled us to get more of our social and educational needs met this way, on our own time, without having to dress up for the occasion. There are so many resources online to engage, entertain and teach us, with more video than ever before. So if we’re going to take on the hassle, travel and expense to learn live and to be with others while doing so, we need to demand that our “speakers” learn how to involve us more, tap into the knowledge in the room, bring alive the bodies and hearts and imagination that finds themselves together at that one moment of possibility.