Hands-on learning

Vital Speeches editor risks forced early retirement, by declaring his fear and loathing of group exercises at business conferences.

I was silent about this throughout the 1990s because what did I know, I was just a kid.

I held my tongue through the 2000s, because I thought it was just me—too much of a curmudgeon or not enough of a joiner.

I sat silently through the first half of this decade, not just as a participant but as a responsible convener of conferences—partly out of habit, and partly out of political correctness.

It is just not fashionable or democratic or modern-sounding to announce one's preference for lectures over "participative learning." And by declaring one's full-throated fear and loathing of hands-on learning exercises, one risks forced early retirement.

But screw it: I can't keep silent any longer. Finding a partner and taking five minutes (mightaswellbehoursordays) to brainstorm imaginary solutions to make-believe problems and then reporting what we came up with to the group—I'd rather retire. In the moment, I'd rather die. And so would the partner I chose (because her desperate eye caught mine before I could answer my wallet and bolt for the door).

We go through with the agonizing exercises out of extreme politeness—to one another, to the jerk speaker, and to God, who must love group exercises, or why would he put us through so fucking many of them? But nothing worthwhile ever comes out of them, and we never learn a single thing during them, except how to swallow our intellectual pride and a little bit of our dignity. Do you remember a single "group exercise" you ever participated in? No. You remember every one of them at once, the way you remember the taste of your own blood.

Now, don't lionize me for having had the courage to say this. I am not the pedagogical equivalent of Rosa Parks, Ellen DeGeneres or the Caitlin Jenner. Molly Worthen is. "Lecture me. Really," the University of North Carolina assistant professor last month in The New York Times. She spoke the praises of the old-fashioned lecture over so-called participatory learning. "Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace—and even advertise—lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media."

If a lecture is unusual for the college student, it's nothing short of an intellectual shore leave for a storm-tossed, seasick mid-career sailor. A once-a-year chance to listen with a quiet mind and an active pencil to a lecture, or a series of lectures. And really? You're going to make the poor bastard work for his boxed lunch?

I know what you're going to say, and you're right: Most conference lectures aren't the spellbinding intellectual journeys that Professor Worthen describes. They're shambling jogs through PowerPoint decks cobbled together on an airplane. They're short stories made long, old ideas sprayed and wiped. They're sales jobs. They're stump speeches.

And they're still infinitely more desirable and valuable and memorable than the group exercises with which some speakers ambush their audiences. Why? Because you can't do good exercises at conferences. Everyone in the room just met a few minutes ago. Not only do they not know one another, they don't know the speaker—and they barely even know the subject of the session. There simply isn't enough social trust or interpersonal understanding built up for a meaningful group activity. If you're asking them to share their honest ideas with each other, you might as well also ask them to show each other their genitals.

I put on conferences for part of my living. I'm not going to go as far as to forbid my conference speakers from doing group exercises, because despite a quarter century of contrary conference experience, I'm always open to the idea that, for a particular group and on a particular subject, a particular exercise might be the very key to enlightenment.

But I will be damned if I'm going to tyrannize my speakers into making sure every conference session has a "hands-on" component.

In fact, I think I'll to send this post to every one of my speakers, and tell them to keep it in mind. You know, just FYI. —DM

Leave a Reply