Active Learning at Conferences

I was at STAR East this past week, giving a tutorial, a track session, and a keynote. I dropped in on a few of the other sessions, but at breaks I kept finding myself engaged in conversation with individuals and small groups, such that I often didn’t make it to the next session.

At STAR, like many conferences, the track presentations tend to be focused on someone’s proposed solution to some problem. Sometimes that solution is highly specific to a given problem that isn’t entirely relevant to the audience; sometimes it’s focused on a particular tool or process idea. The standard format for a track presentation is for a speaker to speak for an hour with at most a couple of minutes for questions at the very end. Typically someone is speaking because he has energy for a particular topic. So, with the best of intentions, he puts a lot of material into the talk such that there’s a morning’s worth of stuff to cover in an hour. Trust me: I know all about this, and alas my victi…I mean, my audiences do too.

So over the last several years, I’ve been trying to learn things to change that, and two annual conferences have helped to show me the way. The first, starting in 2002, was the annual AYE Conference, at which PowerPoint is banned and experiential workshops rule. The second is the annual Conference for the Association for Software Testing, which I attended in 2007 and chaired in 2008. For me, the key idea from which everything else follows is to transform the audience into the participants.

There are two basic types of sessions at CAST. One is the experiential workshop, which typically begins with an exercise, puzzle, or game that is intended to model some aspect of some problem that we all face. At the end of the exercise, the participants discuss what happened and what they’ve learned. Sometimes there’s another iteration or stage of the exercse; sometimes the discussion continues until time or energy is up. This is almost always far more memorable, more sticky, than someone’s story. The lessons learned are direct and personal. Instead of receiving lesson or hearing about an experience, we’ve lived through one.

The other kind of session at CAST is the experience report. A speaker is given a specifically limited time to tell her story. Participants may ask clarifying questions (“What does CRPX stand for?” “I’m sorry, when you said ‘we finished in two’, did you mean two days or two weeks or two iterations?”). Other than that, participants stay quiet so that the speaker can tell her story uninterrupted. Then at the end of the talk, there’s a discussion in which all of the participants have the chance to question, contextualize, and respond to the presentaton. Conversation is moderated by a trained facilitator whose job it is to direct traffic, ensure that everyone gets a chance to be heard, and to make sure that the conversation isn’t dominated by a handful of people. Being an AST facilitator can be a challenging job, keeping order while co-ordinating the threads of the discussion and the queues of questions or comments, often with energetic people in the room.

And the energy is contagious. Participants and speakers alike are mandated to challenge tropes with their own experience, to identify dimensions of context that frame their experience, and to teach and learn from each other. When a session’s time is up, if there’s energy for a particular topic, the conversation continues and we change the break time, move to another room reserved for the purpose, or break out into groups for lunches or hallway conversations. People get engaged in the conversations; they discover new colleagues

This presentation-and-discussion format is a scaled-up version of the LAWST-style workshops, a set of peer conferences which were started by Cem Kaner and Brian Lawrence in 1999 for the purpose of getting skilled testers in conversation with one another to address a specific question about software testing. At LAWST-style workshops, the typical attendance is 20 people or so. When the Association for Software Testing held its first conference in 2006, many people wonder whether the format would scale up to rooms of 100 people or more. Thanks in part to the lessons learned in the peer conferences, and also thanks to the skill of the facilitators, there have been many vigourous discussions—yet everyone who wants to be heard can be heard, even for the keynote presentations.

This year CAST will happen in Colorado Springs, Colorado, July 13-16. There are some very impressive speakers and tutorial leaders again this year, including Cem Kaner, Jerry Weinberg, James Bach, and Jonathan Koomey. It’s a conference by testers, for testers. I’ll have more to say about some of the speakers in coming weeks, but for now, follow the link and check it out.

1 reply to “Active Learning at Conferences”

  1. Hi

    I also have found that typical presntations do not give the intended result.

    A bit ago I was thinking about this and reading J.Bach’s ideas about learning an idea occured to me.

    So i decided to try a bit different approach for making my testers learn ( or think ).
    The experiment is here :


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