Talks, Town Halls and Takeaways: Understanding Learning Architecture

learning architectureLast month, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism’s (Commission) Future is Now: Legal Services 2.019 conference in Chicago (shameless plug – save the date for April 2020). The conference got me thinking about the nature of conferences, talks, the legal learning space and how they interact with the theories of learning architecture.

Attorneys are some of the most adept people when it comes to absorbing and recalling large amounts of detailed information. However, even they have limits of what they can effectively take in, and lengthy lectures can be challenging for anyone. The process of committing something to memory involves encoding, storing and retrieving information. Each of these stages are supported or hindered by how the information is received, the environment it is received in, the contextual reference points we can attach or even our mood that day. (A quick show of hands – have you ever arrived to a conference and thought ‘I’m not feeling this – when’s lunch?’).

So, when considering all the elements that go into a conference – the structure, the speakers, the location, the topics, the food – event organizers could be forgiven in overlooking one of the central elements, the “learning architecture” of the event.

What is Learning Architecture?

Simply put, learning architecture is an integrated plan describing how the different parts of a conference work with each other to support and reinforce the main learning goals. Think of it in the same way that a well-designed building is an interconnected series of supports, functions and features. Have you ever noticed how an upstairs bathroom is often above the downstairs one? That is an example of integrated and connected thinking.

The principle underpinning the Future is Now learning architecture is ‘facilitating discussion around new ideas.’ We, as humans, are pretty good at accepting new facts, if they don’t alter the cognitive schema we’ve already developed. However, we aren’t so good at accepting new ideas and new interpretations of facts. So, just telling us something new, that doesn’t fit into our predefined cognitive schema, usually doesn’t stick for long.

No matter what method or practice of teaching you subscribe to, it is generally established that exposure to different approaches, reinforced with a sense of ownership in your learning and space to process ideas, is an effective strategy.

With these two things in mind, and in order to reach the Commission’s goal of facilitating new ideas, we knew the attendees couldn’t just listen to talks containing new ideas. We needed to provide opportunities for discussion and reflection, a sense that the content could be challenged, interpreted and contextualized for each person, and time and space for attendees to encode and store the ideas that they felt could strengthen their own cognitive schema.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But how does learning architecture work in practice?

The Future is Now Conference

For those who couldn’t make the Future is Now conference, the format was as follows:

  • There were five sessions each consisting of two 15-minute talks that focused on a central theme. The talks each had different topics but were related through the central theme. After each session, there was a townhall that provided an opportunity for discussion. Moderators asked the two speakers ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ style questions related to their theme and added in additional interesting snippets.
  • During the talks, the attendees were listeners. But, during the 25-minute townhalls, it was their turn to own the direction of their learning. During this time the speakers took questions from the audience through a moderator. The commission utilized a mobile chat app to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to ask questions. The range of questions produced told us that the app was effective in connecting the participants to the speakers.
  • One of the fundamental principles of learning is that you must be in the right frame of mind to learn. The Commission held lunch away from the auditorium, in an open setting with a lot of light. The attendees sat at roundtables, which promoted an atmosphere of engaging, relaxed discussion. During this time, slides containing the speakers images and key takeaways from their talks rotated on the wall in the background. The slides were present to promote reflection and discussion.
  • Finally, during each break, refreshments were available in an open area with high top tables to encourage connections and conversation.

A final point to note is that a significant component of your learning architecture is your learners. Your event will never be absolutely perfect. This is why asking for honest, insightful feedback and listening to that feedback without an agenda or bias is vital if you want to continue to improve.

I’ve outlined how the Commission’s learning architecture informs our decisions for the conference and beyond. Your architecture may be different because the purpose of your event is different. However, by implementing the following best practices: establishing a unifying theme throughout the event, giving attendees the opportunity to drive the direction of the discussion and setting up a learner-centered environment, you will have a solid base. Designing an experience from the attendee’s perspective, not just the speaker’s or subject matter expert’s viewpoint, gives you solid ground to provide your learners with an architectural masterpiece.

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