I hate it when presenters do that

BY Jeff Cobb

I wholeheartedly agree with the following two passages. One is a comment by Stephen Downes on a Garr Reynolds blog post, the other is from a blog post that Downes pointed out a while ago. Here’s the first:

Connection is one thing. Engagement is something very different. Connection is about creating interaction, a voluntary state of affairs through a medium of communication. Engagement is about creating presence, a creation of immediacy and contact. Connection respects my privacy; engagement does not. Garr Reynolds writes, “Although I am speaking in front of nearly 300 students in a large hall in Japan, I still have them get up and *do* something relevant from time to time.” I hate it when presenters do that. It is an imposition, an invasion of my mental space and often of my physical space. It’s one thing to enable a space for activities – that’s connection. It’s quite another to require that everybody participate in these activities. That’s engagement. Enable, don’t require. [Link to Garr Reynolds post]

And here’s the second, from In Defense of Lecture:

I attended talks at education conferences lately where the speaker announces that “Lectures don’t work” and proceeds to engage the audience in some form of active learning, like small group discussion.  I hate that.  I am a good learner.  I take careful notes, I review them and look up interesting ideas and referenced papers later, and if the lecture really captured my attention, I will blog on the lecture later to summarize it.  I take a multi-hour trip to attend a conference and hear this speaker, and now I have to talk to whatever dude happens to be sitting next to me? If you recognize that the complete sentence is “Lectures don’t work…for inexperienced or lazy learners,” then you realize that using “active learning” with professionals at a formal conference is insulting to your audience.  You are assuming that they can’t learn on their own, without your scaffolding.

There’s a lot of chatter our there these days around terms like collaborative learning, active learning, participation, and engagement. These have their place, in the right circumstances, but I think the way they are often handled at conferences can be both offensive and counter-productive to motivated adult learners. (Of course, if your learners are not motivated, that’s a different issue.) A solid lecture-type presentation – yes, even one with *gasp” PowerPoint slides – is very often just the right approach. (There is a reason, after all, that TED Talks are so wildly popular.)

What do you think?


  1. Jeff Hurt says:


    I think you hit it on the head. It’s about how the presenter positions an activity. Is the setup invitational or threatening?

    People who automatically become defenisive if asked to participate have not yet been given the benefits of participation or what’s in it for them. They have not yet been persuaded that the depth of their learning depends on the depth of their engagement. I would submit that those people don’t want to learn or even listen. The session has become an escape for them.

    I am going to take a different position on the lecture. The research from neuroscientists about how the brain learns clearly show that listening has the least amount of ROI. (Medina, Willingham and even Ruth Clarke Colvin). If the presentation is about distributing information then a lecure is fine. If the goal is learning, then some type of engagement must occur for the information to move from working memory to long term memory.

    In my opinion, I submit that the TED talks are about information and entertainment, not learning. Even the TED organizers have realized that their presentations have been one-way and they are now looking at how do they make them two-way with attendee engagement.

  2. Jeff Cobb says:

    Jeff – Thanks for commenting and – as always – being both thoughtful and thought- provoking. How the presenter positions it is certainly key. As you suggest, participation has to feel safe and learners need to feel convinced of the need. But, on the other hand, a great deal also depends on the expertise and motivational levels of the learner. Interaction and engagement take many forms. A learner with significant experience and expertise – as certainly a sizable slice of attendees are at industry or topic-focused conferences – will interact with content in a very different way than a novice and can, in fact, learn a great deal from engaging and interacting with new content. Imposing other types of interaction in these situations can be a distraction from learning.

    As you know, I’m an advocate of social learning, but I am also fearful of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Dismissing the lecture as a medium incapable of supporting learning to me places far too much emphasis on the medium at the expense of other factors like context, desired outcomes, and most of all, the learner. I’m also a little hesitant – as Willingham certainly is – to directly map what we know about brain behavior directly to learning. And in any case, I’ve attended very few lectures that were purely about listening. As for TED, I don’t think the fact that they are informational and entertaining at all excludes them from also being about learning. If it does, I have somehow learned a lot from them in spite of that!

    I suspect we’re probably much closer on our thinking about this than any of this back and forth may suggest, but in any case, I’m thrilled to have some meaningful discussion around it and look forward to much more over time! – Jeff

  3. Jeff,

    Thanks for initiating this discussion… At several recent ASAE conferences I attended a number of sessions simply to observe the learning process and view the effectiveness of different teaching strategies. There were a number of lecture based programs that worked well. These were mostly supported by dynamic presenters, or those that were proven experts in their field or provided unique content that was relevant to the needs of the audience. Unscripted interaction among the audience occurred because they were naturally engaged. So it was their choice.

    I observed scripted interaction in other sessions. This mostly worked well because the participants seemed to be eager to engage and learn from each other. They came in predisposed to participate in the learning process.

    In creating a teaching strategy there appears to be many factors including uniqueness of the material, presenters’ capabilities, personality or position of responsibility of the audience and learning objectives. While there is certainly a movement towards learning driven by the community my observation showed me that the lecture style format will continue to be a valuable teaching method. A key is being nimble enough in your approach to adapt to the circumstances… Rich

  4. Great post, Jeff Cobb, and excellent points, Rich and Jeff Hurt! I’d like to put a slightly different spin on the issue of activities.

    I find that presenters sometimes add activities because someone (perhaps a conference organizer) told them they must…so they stick in an activity for the activity’s sake. If this is the primary reason to include an activity, is there any wonder there’s a disconnect with at least some participants?

    I agree with Jeff Hurt’s comment that people sometimes haven’t participated in an effective learning environment; it’s been my experience that once they have, it’s generally rare they’ll continue to be satisfied as a passive participant. I think that’s one reason we’re seeing such an explosion of connection AND engagement these days; it’s happening more, people are getting into it, and they want similar experiences in other learning opportunities. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

    It’s also true there are learners who prefer NOT to participate in active learning for any number of reasons. They may be shy, uncertain, or prefer their own form of learning process. As Downes states, “enable, don’t require.” It must be absolutely okay for someone not to participate in an activity even though the majority does; content leaders should never “force” people to join in or make them feel badly if they choose not to.

    An old instructional design adage is “content first, format second.” The best activities support accomplishment of the program/session objectives, and in fact each activity used should have its own objective that supports the overall session objectives. Good activities are opportunities to practice a skill, try out a new concept, or apply new learning to a given situation…maybe even to take a little risk. If the presenter has created a safe environment and connected the content and activity well, it’s a natural progression to participate in activities because doing so leads to better understanding of the content.

    There are definitely situations where lecture is appropriate. Lecture-only sessions can be quite engaging and even interactive (a great resource: “Thiagi’s Interactive Lectures,” by Sivasailam Thiagarajan – http://amzn.to/dX8O5l). At the same time, the most effective learning opportunities often incorporate a combination of formats, including lecture and appropriate activity, into a single session.

    In my work with subject-matter experts especially, I’ve learned it’s important to let them know WHY connecting participants via activities helps learning be effective. Avoid telling presenters to “include an activity.” Get them to understand, instead, why it might be a good idea for their content and their participants. Then, lend a bit of support to their making it happen.

  5. Jeff Cobb says:

    Kathi and Rich – Thanks so much to both of you for adding to the discussion. (And apologies for the slow response on my end – busy times here at Tagoras!) I think it is certainly true that presenters are often coaxed (coerced?!) into adding activities just for the sake of adding activities, and those are when “engagement” really flops. But it is also true, as all of you suggest, that many adult learners have not been exposed to and are not really ready for participatory learning. I am struck by the following passage from Maclom Knowles in light of this discussion:

    “…by and large, the adults we work with have not learned to be self-directing inquirers; they have been conditioned to be dependent on teachers to teach them. And so they often experience a form of culture shock when first exposed to truly adult educational programs.”

    Naturally, it would be nice if we were addressing this situation early in life through improvements to K-12 education. In the meantime, I think anyone involved in continuing education needs to be well prepared to get learners past “culture shock” in situations where active, participatory learning is truly the best approach. – Jeff

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