Re-imagining Professional Learning Gatherings: From ‘stump speeches’ to ‘sprout stories’

If we have learnt anything in recent months, it is that we need to look at our world with fresh eyes and develop new ways of working. I have been inspired by The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters by Priya Parker.

How do we create the environment for authentic professional learning experiences?

I have worked in the PD field for many years and two principles consistently guide me:

  1. Create an environment consistent with what I believe about learning
  2. Recognise that the smartest person in the room is the room itself

For some time I’ve been struggling with the passive-participant-conference as a predominant model and its return on investment. Real transformation unfolds when we deliberately disrupt the model and commit to change, otherwise we will default to the familiar experience.

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More ‘sprout stories’ than ‘stump speeches’, please

First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room…

the conference is the keynote

That’s what the marketing material tells us, it’s all about the headliners and their stump speech, the pre-planned presentation given many times over.

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The ‘stump’ is the strongest and most durable part of the tree, firmly planted in the ground. The ‘sprout’ is the newest and weakest part of the tree, it is still forming. Everyday struggles of the ‘sprout stories’ speak of authenticity, lived experience and vulnerability,

it is people’s sprouts that are most interesting – and perhaps prone to making a group feel closely connected enough to attempt big things together

(Parker, p.203)

Who else is thinking like this?
I asked around…

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Responses reinforced that a fresh approach is required…

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What are we looking for?

  • Learning across disciplines
  • A focus on creativity, innovation and disruption
  • Listening to the stories of real people
  • Putting learning back at the centre
  • Collaboratively learning and creating together
  • Places for informal connections that spark and sustain innovation
  • And a place to be vulnerable, because this is where we truly learn.

How do we start?

A carefully curated gathering that starts with why, maps out the how, before we nail down the what. Traditional ‘event management’ prematurely focuses our attention on locking in the logistics and the headliners before we deeply understand why we need to gather at all.

WHY: Pursue laser-like clarity of purpose, Parker notes that “Specificity is a crucial ingredient”, align the gathering to a purpose, an identified need. But ‘The school year always begins with a staff conference‘. Have you genuinely asked why? Without realising it, routine can easily become the enemy of purpose.

HOW: Engaging hearts and minds begins before we gather and continues after we leave. A focus on facilitating ‘sprout stories’, along with collaborative tools to support dialogue, this develops ideas and inspires action.

WHAT: The logistics and event details must serve the WHY and the HOW. We do need to be fed and comfortable, within a space that is fit for purpose.

Adapting to the new, changing our habits can be clunky, uncomfortable and time consuming. We make mistakes and our progress seems slow. Instincts tell us to stick with what’s familiar (“just book the stump speech”). But change-makers know that the transformation process is worth it.

This approach can be applied internally to your organisation, or to address a community-wide problem It can be face-to-face or virtual/online.

The Facilitator: Why does this matter?

The skill of the facilitator is to shape the group dynamics and the conversation, to create an inclusive learning environment where people can think, dream, argue, trust and connect. The role begins before the event to meaningfully scaffold the purpose, and can continues beyond.

Would you like to explore this idea?

There’s a contact form on my homepage or direct message me on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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