The purpose of this paper is to call attention to the fact that conferences for professionals rely on massive one‐way communication and hence produce little learning for delegates – and to introduce an alternative, the “learning conference”, that involves delegates in fun and productive learning processes.
A typical full‐day conference is analyzed. It has six hours of podium talk and twenty‐five minutes for delegates to become involved. What model of learning can possibly lie behind this? The transfer model, which assumes learners to be empty vessels. An alternative view is that conference delegates are active professionals in search of inspiration, and they also want to share knowledge with their peers at the conference. A theory of the conference as a forum for mutual inspiration and human co‐flourishing is proposed, as are four design principles for a learning conference: presentations must provide concise input; the conference host must introduce processes that help delegates; interpret the input in the light of their ongoing concerns; talk about their current projects; and share knowledge with the other delegates.
Six learning processes for use during conferences are described: individual reflection; the buzz dyad; “You have won two consultants, free of charge”; facilitated group work; the knowledge exchange; and lunch with gaffer tape.
This paper introduces learning theory and learning techniques into an educational context which has resisted innovation, the professional conference. It offers alternatives to wall‐to‐wall lecturing: some simple processes for involving delegates so as to help them derive inspiration from the material presented and from each other.
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