The conference format is dead, long live the conference!

Author: Kadri Kalle, content manager of the conference

As we are gearing up towards our III Estonian Zero Waste Conference, I wanted to reflect a bit on the conference format itself and why we are doing things the way we are. This headline might be a weird way to start but hear me out.

What I mean to say is that in recent conferences I’ve attended, in discussion with fellow-participants there has been this realization that the time of conferences full of (powerpoint) presentations should be over. They are still quite widespread – we all have that experience. We see people showing us graphs and images and “passing on their knowledge”. I use quotation marks here and I will soon come to the reason why. Yes, sometimes there is time for questions but that is usually at the end, and the questions used by the presenter to engage their audience tend to be shallow and seem to be there just because someone said you should interact with your audience.

Why do we organize conferences in the first place?

Many people would say that it’s all about networking and the programme is anyway secondary, where most people don’t really pay attention and their minds are occupied with other things like their phones. But if the programme doesn’t matter, why put so much effort in it then? If you’ve ever organized a conference, you know how much energy goes into finding the right speakers, the flow of the topics etc.

Some say that we do go to conferences also to get the latest scientific findings, share experiences and discuss the challenges – in other words: learn something new. But what often happens, is that we end up with the same format of info sharing that is still also used in academia and teaching – presenting aka lecturing. And when our goal is to learn, then lectures are simply not an efficient method.

How can we learn at conferences?

This is the reason for the quotation marks. Knowledge cannot be passed on from one mind to another by letting the speaker simply tell us – our brains are not recording machines. Learning is an active (and long) process in the learner’s head, where there is activation of pre-knowledge, confusion and effort, questioning, mistakes, connection-making between the existing and new knowledge. In passive listening there is no room for that because the lecturer fills all the time with their own talking. The presenters themselves are probably learning the most, as they are activating and connecting the knowledge in their heads while speaking.

We don’t learn by listening to presentations, we need to start discussing and thinking how the topic relates to us, what it means in our reality, how it looks in practice, what and how much do we actually know about this, did we even understand it the same way it was meant? We need to have interaction from the beginning, not just at the end of a lecture.

But we do have panel discussions and those coffee breaks, you might say. Yes, it’s true, coffee breaks offer that opportunity but they are just short breaks. The panel discussions are often still passive listening to the audience and rarely go beyond politically correct statements. What we need is all the participants to have space to ask questions, to be asked questions and to talk about real challenges in real language, not just buzzwords, slogans and jargon.

What you can always do as a participant in conferences is think about what do you want to learn there, why did you come to that conference, how would you use the information in the presentation in your own work? Try to always find at least one question in your head, because that also means that you are actually connecting with the topic.

The new era of conferences

 Majority of our conference is dedicated to active processes for the participants: workshops and the Living Library.

On the first day, participants are guided by the workshop leaders to get a deeper understanding of some topic, to solve tasks and share their understanding and experience.

On the second day we invite participants to engage in conversations with different zero waste experts, to be the active part and ask about things most important and interesting to them.

Yes, we do still have few plenary sessions too, but for sure we will be engaging everybody. And as has become the tradition, the panelists in our last discussion are participants of the conference, selected on the spot.

Are we doing something radically new at our conference? Not really. Different kinds of conferences that focus on the learning experience, have been around already for decades. The Open Space method is probably the most famous one, where the whole event is organized around discussions formed by participants themselves, having just the coffee-break-style networking part.
In Estonia, the adult education organizations have organized for years so-called non-conferences, where there are very few presentations and the majority of the event is group discussions and workshops. The Living Library format is also being used for many years in different contexts.

What we are doing is simply contributing our part to dismantling the most common understanding of a conference. We see it fitting that just as we are looking into alternatives for business-as-usual management of our resources, we are doing the same for learning. We know that showing people presentations doesn’t support deeper learning and understanding of the topic so we have to approach this differently as well. No more conferences-as-usual 🙂

There is so much more to be said about how learning happens, whether conferences are places for learning, can lectures help learn in certain contexts etc. About learning and learning illusions, you can check out this blog post. And you can come to our conference and experience it yourself!

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