hairylunch (hairylunch) wrote,

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Trainings and conferences

Two thoughts have been running through my head recently . . .

The first is from something Shannon said at training last week, and she's said before, and it's the idea that you learn the most when you're pushed outside your comfort zone. Her example is that during the square rope activity (your group is blindfolded, and everyone has to grab a rope tied in a loop, and then form a square), she grew frustrated with the group/communications/etc, and literally quit - dropping the rope and leaving the room. I think the general idea behind this is right, but instead of being uncomfortable, I'd say the importance is being challenged. I forget the exact wording she was using, but I was thinking that with the way Shannon was phrasing it, the idea expressed was implying that discomfort was good, but if you really do make someone uncomfortable, odds are they'll shut down, and not learn anything at all. The idea came up again when we were discussing an acitivty that dealt with gender roles that some of our participants had expressed discomfort with. A few people mentioned the discomfort issue, and in those conversations it was apparent to me that they hadn't learned what the activity meant to learn, but were rather focused upon the task itself. While we kept trying to stress that all our activities were metaphors, and that the ice-breaker style activities we were working on weren't the end goal. The training was focused on facilitating - i.e. how do you get a group to process/learn from things they've done. For my members, a possible application might be a post-fundraiser meeting, where the group/committee is going through what worked, what didn't work, etc. Yes, activities like square-rope can teach some valuable lessons about communication, trust, or whatever, but in our case, this was ancillary.

The other thought that's been going through my mind since a conversation with Marcial last night, is the difference between a training and a conference. Marcial was saying how the workshop he had attended wasn't very good, in that it wasn't engaging. I think this is where I would differentiate a training from a conference. We have lots of training activities, where we're trying to impart skill sets to people. In my mind though, the workshop that he attended, was a conference. If you look at the learning objectives and the description of the conference (Alcohol and tobacco are frequently used together, and because of their numerous social and health-related consequences, our communities face daily challenges in implementing prevention efforts. Join us for this workshop as we explore environmental strategies for addressing alcohol and tobacco problems.) it seems apparent that this is going to be an overview type event, not a training event. I think if I saw this description, I'd be approaching it as I would an academic conference, where people are presenting papers/research/posters to notify the public about what they've done or other things going on in the field, not a training event.

Perhaps the more critical question is should there be this distinction? Can a conference, where the main objective is to get a lot of information out to the masses, as opposed to a training, where the objective is to teach a specific skill set to a group of people, be one and the same? Kevin Cheng, a usability guy that focuses upon Human-Computer Interactions, and artist of web-comic Ok/Cancel, dealt with this topic a while ago in his post about presenting a paper at an academic conference. Pretty basic post about how to be an engaging presenter, but can this be taken further? In my mind, at trainings, you have the luxury of lots of time to really delve into topics (i.e. at last weeks training we spent hours with the participants practicing a feedback cycle, facilitating, and leading people through experiential learning cycles).

Of course, even with academic conferences, where people are expecting to sit through lecture style presentations, feedback often indicates that the value is in the networking that comes out of the conference, not necessarily seeing the ideas/papers presented. (Which makes sense since if you really cared about the ideas, you could just read the journals or relevant blogs.) People don't go to conferences to pick up skills - they go to broaden their horizons, and make some connections. Even with prevention or national service conferences, you're going to see what the people on the cutting edge are doing, not necessarily to learn how to do what they're doing.

So, the more I write (and in case you haven't realized it, I tend to write stream-of-consciousness style, hence the rambling nature of many of my posts), it seems to me that this difference can't be reconciled - yes you can have conferences that are engaging, but a conference is going to be inherently different from a training. Conferences are about quantity of information, trainings are about quality of instruction.

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