In preparing my recent session at Lean Agile Scotland (on “Theory of Change“) I decided to try a different format from the usual conference thirty-minute “push stuff at the audience” presentation. I generally prefer to encourage interaction and help improve learning amongst all present. In fact, my key aim is always to help more learning happen. On this, I very much share Russell Ackoff’s viewpoint:

“You see, everybody recognizes immediately that teachers are the ones who learn the most. School is absolutely upside down. Students ought to be teaching. The faculty ought to be learning.”

~ Russell L. Ackoff

I believe conferences are as much upside down as our schools. My Lean Agile Scotland session was conceived within this frame.

So I chose a topic of which I have little direct experience myself, but with much relevance to my work at present. This afforded me an opportunity to learn about it through preparing to teach something about it.

And I also chose to include a significant block of time – ten minutes – for the audience to discuss issues pertinent to their own situations. I.E. The Theory of Change prevailing in their own workplace, and the assumptions underpinning their current or planned change initiatives. This, with the belief this would afford the audience a better learning opportunity through some aspects of teaching each other what they knew.

In a nutshell, I chose to hold the space so that some mutual exploration of the topic could happen. This was, admittedly, something of an experiment.


The session turned out much like Marmite. Some loved it. Some hated it. (Some 100 attendees; 14 green feedback cards, 20 orange, 9 red). The haters shared one thing in common, as far as I could tell. The session did not match their expectations. In particular, some shared their frustration that there had been little “content” pushed at them.

As this had been my deliberate choice – to eschew pushing content at folks – I was not too surprised. But I did feel some sympathy for their reaction, given that they had little chance to know in advance that this would be the format. And thus little opportunity to make an informed choice whether to attend, or go to another, parallel, session.

I’ll be writing a companion post to this one in the near future, with suggestions for improving the information available to attendees prior to a session, and with the aim of reducing the chance of disappointment through mismatched expectations.

Now might be a good time to help me with those suggestions. Would you be willing to?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Purpose of Education Is Learning, Not Teaching ~ pp. Russell L. Ackoff & Daniel Greenberg
Students should be teaching. Schools should be learning. ~ Educamp blog

  1. I would be very happy to make suggestions – I, too, tire of the ‘broadcast’ format of presentations/webinars and much prefer task based, interactive sessions. How did you kick off the audience (I now don’t like that word) discussion?

    • Basic format for the session was: Approx 5 minutes introduction to “Theory of Change”, 3 minutes explaining the brief for the interactive part, 10 minutes interaction (in groups of 4 or 5), 5 minutes sharing learnings with the room, 7 minutes Q&A and wrap-up.

      – Bob

  2. Are you familiar with Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster? http://abahlali.org/files/Ranciere.pdf

    Based on Jean Joseph Jacotot’s work after the French Revolution. Jacotot found that the best teacher does not have expert knowledge of what is being taught. The teacher does not teach, but facilitates the learner in recognizing their own capacities and discovering things for themselves.

    This can sound quite trite, but while the platitudes survived Jacotot’s experiments the underlying conviction of shared and equal intelligence did not. The key to this is in how pedagogy perpetuates the inequality between those who know and those who do not. School’s failures are a feature, not a bug.

    What you’ve done is an experiment like Jacotot’s. The resistance, I think you’ll find, comes from those with the most invested in inequality of intelligence.

    Too big a topic for a comment….

  3. Nice to experiment with audiences like this. Every audience is different. Sometimes you connect surprisingly well, sometimes not at all. In between there is the 10-80-10 rule. 10% always connect with the speaker, 10% always diagree (not up to their expectations no matter what you do) and 80% figure it out as it comes and the other 2 10%s interact with conviencing arguments. Somethings the supportives win and your overall score is positive. Sometimes the terror wins and you go home feeling horrible. Focus always on the 10% supporters, neglect the terror (don’t even argue) and become 10%+1 that draws the 80% towards you 🙂

  4. Tobias said:

    Most conference sessions I’ve run have been interactive, exploratory and often physical (using whole body learning). The session description always indicates this, and yet there are still dissatisfied people, who feel they “haven’t been fed”. On the whole though I have found that those who attend do engage, and often enjoy the experience.

    However, I don’t think I’ve ever had 100 people attend 🙂 Many will self-select out based on the description. So yes, it’s probably wise to be clear upfront on what your offer is. I think it’s actually an attractor, e.g. “don’t expect to be spoon fed—come explore and create with me”. I’d go 🙂

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