Your board of directors tells you that even though your association is attracting new members, the veteran members are no longer attending meetings. Their participation is critical--after all, they are the most expert and influential people in your industry. How will you entice them back to your conferences?
That's the challenge attendees were given during a seminar on adult education at the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) held this July in Chicago. Attendees were divided into groups and told to come up with ideas.
The room surged with energy. Voices spilled over each other. Participants introduced themselves and eagerly shared the strategies they had already used in their organizations and tossed new ideas back and forth. After about ten minutes, the whole group reconvened and discussed solutions.
What had just happened, explained facilitator Clifford Baden, director, programs in professional education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, was an example of how adult-learning principles can be used to create an interactive and productive session. Attendees were given the chance to be active participants in their education--to share their expertise, learn from experiences of their peers, and build on that reservoir of knowledge to create practical solutions they could apply immediately to problems they face. Those are the key tenets of adult learning.
Adult-learning theories have been around for decades. Yet associations continue to offer traditional seminars, with presenters locked behind lecterns, and panels that are really no more than a series of mini-lectures. But those standby formats are no longer satisfying audiences--if they ever did.
To help meeting planners and education committees develop more creative approaches to designing programs, the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives Foundation contracted Baden to do a study of programs that have successfully employed adult-learning principles. The results have just been published by ASAE in a book, Adult Learning in Associations: Models for Good Practice (see sidebar, page 47). The goal of his book, Baden says, is to encourage planners to think of themselves as people who can make a difference by providing members with highly effective educational experiences.
"There is some irony in the fact that much of the most powerful learning occurs outside the formal program," Baden writes. He then challenges planners: "Why not plan to have equally powerful learning occur in the sessions themselves?"
Creating Real Discussion One of the surprises Baden encountered doing his study was that he found fewer interesting uses of technology for seminars than he expected. Using a techie tool such as PowerPoint does not alter the lecture format if the learner is still passive, he says. "[Technology tools] never help interaction," emphasizes Baden. "They may help learning for those who like to see something presented visually, but they tend to be an impediment to good dialogue."
For example, when preparing a slide or PowerPoint presentation, Baden points out, all your decisions have to be made before you meet the audience. Unless the speaker is expert enough at the technology to know how to use it flexibly, "what happens is the very antithesis of good adult learning," Baden says. "If someone throws you a question, you can't say, that's really interesting, let's pursue it. You have to go on to the next slide."
One format that works well for integrating adult-learning principles is the case study, where attendees are given an example of a problem drawn from real life. That's what Baden did at the ASAE seminar. "The problem does not have a single right answer," Baden adds. "It is complex and ambiguous." Because there is no right answer, attendees share their own opinions, listen to different points of view, and develop a wider perspective.
Stretching people's perspectives is the goal that Barbara Choyke, director of continuing education, Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, IL, has in mind when she uses a version of the case study format. A company is in the midst of a takeover, the actuary attendees are told, and they are assigned new identities, such as human resources manager or CEO. They then go through the acquisition process from that person's point of view.
"When asked to value the company, actuaries look at the books, the assets and liabilities, and boom, here's the answer," says Choyke. "But they need to talk to human resources and find out what it means to company morale. Will it devalue the worth of the company if employees are not producing for fear of the takeover? The case study is actuarial at the core, but it brings in other aspects that would touch the actuary's life but that he or she might not think of."
Another variation on the case study method is to elicit participants' own experiences--what Baden calls self-generated case studies. When conducting seminars, Carole Copeland Thomas, MBA, a Woburn, MAbased diversity speaker and consultant, hands out index cards and asks attendees to write down--anonymously--difficult situations they have encountered involving a diversity issue. She then sets up small group discussions and role-playing based on those examples. "Stories that can be generated in-house are more valuable," she says. "People say, 'Wow, I never realized my story was so much like other people's.'"
Drawing stories from the participants also helps mitigate the "been there, done that" response of jaded attendees who have been through many programs. Their attitude, says Thomas, is, "Yeah, [a diversity program] is nice, but I want something that pertains to my growth." Another benefit, Thomas notes, is that attendees find it easiest to develop an action plan when the problems are their own.
Another way to generate genuine discussion is to take the traditional panel presentation and turn it into a talk show format, suggests Choyke. Panelists talk for about five minutes each, and then the moderator, with a wireless mike, goes through the audience eliciting comments and questions. "If it's a good, controversial topic, people will grab the mike and start talking," Choyke says.
One program moderator who always mixes with the audience is Joan L. Eisenstodt, president, Eisenstodt Associates in Washington, DC. "You have got to be out there," she insists. "To make people stand up in the aisle and talk into a standing microphone is about as criminal an act as you can have at a meeting. Most people don't want to speak in public and you're asking them to stand and everyone looks at them, and then they have to wait [their turns] and their anxiety level increases. I hate having to do that."
No More Preaching It takes a different kind of work on the part of the facilitator to conduct an interactive session rather than lecture, Baden points out. "They are required to not simply get up and make a presentation that they prepared a few weeks before, independent of who would be sitting in the room, but are required to have the ability to listen to people in the room talk about why they are there."
It can be scary for a speaker to put aside those prepared remarks and slide shows, and respond spontaneously to the audience's needs. Trying out nontraditional formats "forced us to be more attentive to our speakers," Choyke says. "We were expecting them to do more. We told them they were not there to preach. We spent a lot more time getting them prepared."
When she first started implementing the new programs, Choyke's committee hand-picked speakers. "We knew which personalities could pull it off, so we went after them, and said, 'Our goal is to make these sessions more interactive, can you help us?'" Now, Choyke says, speakers, and come up with their own ideas. One 'talk show' moderator, "runs down the aisles, jamming the mike into peoples faces, and says, 'Can the cameras keep up with me?' Of course there are no cameras," Choyke says. "It lends to the atmosphere; it's funny. His sessions never end on time, people are so engrossed."
In interactive seminars, speakers have to be able to handle the emotional reactions of attendees. Learning is an intensely personal and emotional process, Baden reminds planners in his book. But, "rather than embracing these emotions, associations often treat education like a sponge," he writes. "They wring out as much of the emotion as possible, leaving behind only the soaked-up knowledge."
When facilitators generate real interaction with the audience, especially with a charged topic such as diversity, things can get heated. "Adults are only grown-up children," Thomas says. "They come in with their own level of baggage and they act out." Rather than squelching or ignoring their reactions, Thomas encourages participants to voice their opinions. "If they can express [their feelings], we can begin to change behavior. I'd rather have people express themselves than be indifferent," she says. "That way, I know where they are coming from."
Not everyone is adept at adopting a more freewheeling presentation style. When speakers think they will have a difficult time with an interactive format, Choyke suggests that they participate instead in one of the society's more traditional programs. "We tell them up front," she says, "This is what we expect of you, and if you can't do it, let us know."
Convincing the Program Committee Like many associations, the Society of Actuaries had stuck to the same program format for years: panel discussions with follow-up workshops. "Basically, talking heads," says Choyke. With her background in adult education, she grew increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional programming. About five years ago, she set out to convince her program committee to consider alternatives. It was not an easy task.
Most associations repeat the same formats "out of inertia," says Baden. People serve on the program committee for a year, and often no one has long-term responsibility for education. With that revolving door, "it's easier for people to replicate what everyone knows and what everyone has seen," he says. Another problem is education committees tend to make decisions under pressure of deadlines--not the best environment for taking on change. Program committees need to meet before they have to make decisions, just to take time to think creatively, Baden says.
That is exactly the tack Choyke took. To convince her committee to adopt adult-learning principles, she put them through a series of games andexercises so they could experience how interactive formats worked. When the committee was planning a conference in Hawaii, she divided them into teams. They played a kind of "Wheel of Fortune" game to learn key words and terms, such as learning objectives and recruiting deadlines. Each time a team guessed a reward they were given macadamia nuts (to fit into the Hawaii theme, of course) and the team with the most nuts at the end was declared winner.
"They learned to work as teams," says Choyke, "and learned all the buzz words they needed to know to plan a successful program." At first the staff people went through the sessions "with one eye open, asking, 'Why are we playing these silly games?'" Choyke recalls. But by the end they understood: "It was, 'Now I get it. Adults learn by participation.'"
Breaking Barriers The way the planner sets up a meeting room sends a message about what he or she considers to be important, says Baden. "If everybody is facing front, it says that all information is going to flow in one direction. If people are facing each other, you are saying, 'We have information to share.'"
Instead of setting up chairs classroom style, arrange for a U-shaped format if the group is small enough, or a semicircle, or seat people at round tables. When deciding on the room arrangement, Baden advises planners in his book, ask yourself: How easy is it for [attendees] to see and to hear each other, the presenter, and any displays? How easy is it for people to move around, to stretch, to get refreshments?
For the talk show format, "If speakers are so far removed from the audience, on a stage, far away behind a table, you're putting layers of barriers between the speaker and audience," says Eisenstodt. Instead she recommends seating the panelists and moderator in comfortable chairs around a coffee table. At a session she moderated recently, panelists sat on the edge of the stage. "It was very interactive," she says. "They had a real sense of being part of the audience."
And don't lower the lights, Eisenstodt adds. "Having the lights down is another criminal act." For the audience to be involved and interactive, "people need to see each other and react to facial expressions."
Even something as seemingly mundane as a different room arrangement can throw a speaker off guard. When panelists first walked in to the meeting rooms arranged to look just like an "Oprah" set, "they were stunned," Choyke recalls. "Women would wear straight skirts and expect to be hidden behind a skirted table," she says, "only to find out it ain't so." Now, Choyke includes a diagram of the room setup in speakers' packets, and suggests what clothing they might be most comfortable wearing.
Speakers aren't the only ones discombobulated by new room setups and program formats. "Our attendees were stunned," Choyke recalls. "They were so used to being in the same setting. They asked, 'Where am I supposed to sit?'" For the first year or so, staff explained to attendees why the sessions looked different and what the purpose of the each program was. "We said, 'As adult learners you are expected to fully participate,'" Choyke says. She even assigned certain attendees the task of initiating discussions. But now, that is no longer necessary.
Choose the Right Format There are many different formats for creating interactive programs. Will each type work for every attendee? Of course not. Each adult has a preferred style of learning, Baden says. Some prefer active, hands-on sessions, others prefer listening. But if all your programming has attendees sitting in rows of chairs facing front, listening to someone, you're satisfying only one type of learner, Baden says, asking, "What are you doing for the others?"
Even those people who learn better through listening will benefit from programs that use adult-learning principles, says Baden. "If you construct that listening so that they have to think, not just listen, you will engage their attention better. Give them a problem to think about, as opposed to just listening to the speaker talk." No matter what the topic, you can involve the participants, agrees Reneta E. Webb, PhD, CAE, and president of Partners in Learning, an educational consulting firm for associations in Chicago. "Even if you're doing a philosophical thing, like ethics in meetings, there are ways of letting people participate," she says. "Have them formulate a ."
When planning a meeting, think about incorporating various teaching formats, says Webb. "There's gotta be some lecture, some group work, some individual think-about-it time." Make sure the format you choose matches the subject matter, adds Choyke, who says she's had some real 'bombs.' In teaching modeling, for example, the instructor needs to stand at a blackboard, and explain the mathematical formulas and how to do them on a computer, Choyke says. For that type of session, an open forum just won't work.
One organization, faced with the problem Baden presented at his ASAE seminar--the problem of losing veteran members--developed a special, invitation-only seminar just for those experienced people. Attendees suggested the topics themselves. During the session, facilitators encouraged candid, off-the-record analyses of the issues the senior leaders faced, Baden says. One delegate, quoted in Baden's book, said, "Participants are not being propped up on stage to give public relations pitches. [The program] gives us a chance to learn from each other's successes andmistakes and to benchmarkbest practices."
When you use innovative approaches to education, "the satisfaction level does go up," says Webb, "because people have learned something. They feel better about something, which is also a big part of it. As a result, the next time you send out your brochures, they say, 'I really liked that. I want to go back.' Your credibility level rises."
We've all heard speakers lecture about creativity, but to really foster creativity among your members, you need to give them opportunities to be creative, says Clifford Baden, director, programs in professional education, Harvard Graduate School of Education. How? Well, you could send attendees to an artist's studio for a day to make ceramics. Or to a theater workshop where they create a dramatic piece. Or to an African art museum to learn to play African musical instruments. Afterward, participants would come back together and discuss what they learned about their own creative potential and how, back in the workplace, they can establish an environment for their employees that encourages creative thinking.
That's just one of the program ideas outlined in Baden's new book, Adult Learning in Associations: Models for Good Practice. Highlighting 24 model programs implemented by associations, universities, corporations, community-based organizations, and consultants, Baden encourages planners to tap into their own creativity to develop more innovative educational programs for members.
Eschewing academese, Baden writes in an accessible style, providing planners with an overview of each program, and explaining when you might consider adopting a similar approach. For example, Baden suggests using video vignettes in a seminar when you want to strengthen participants' decision-making skills. Each section also features a sidebar of tips for success, advising how long the sessions should be, how the space should be arranged, and what experience is required of the facilitator.
Published by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), the book is $29.95 for ASAE members and $35.95 for nonmembers, plus $6.25 for shipping and 5.75 percent sales tax for books shipped to Washington, DC addresses. Call (202) 371-0940.