Giving Thanks 2021: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

November 28, 2021

When you’re still thinking about, feeling grateful for, and applying lessons learned several months after reading a book, you know the book is a winner—which perfectly describes Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters and how it will transform anyone interested in making each gathering/meeting/training-teaching-learning offering as engaging and memorable as it can be.

Priya Parker; photo by Jeff Allen, from Parker’s website

Described (by its subtitle) as a book on “how we meet and why it matters,” it might not immediately catch the attention of my colleagues in training-teaching-learning—which is a real shame, for in adjusting our thinking so that “lessons,” “workshops,” “courses,” and “panel discussions” are seen through the powerful lens of “gatherings,” we find magnificent ways to liberate ourselves and our learners—what some of us call “co-conspirators in learning”—from the “tedium of learning” and find new ways to turn those lessons/workshops/courses/panel discussions into engaging, transformative gatherings with long-term impact.

The initial chapters of this engagingly-written book focus on social gatherings and the gatherings that occur when, for example, students and senior citizens living together in a retirement community interact over a long period of time. She offers concise reminders that successful gatherings grow out of myriad up-front decisions about the purpose of the gathering, the location in which it will be held, the duration of the gathering, and even the number of people who will be included in the gathering—all of which, of course, are elements considered and decisions made as we design and facilitate effective, memorable, transformative learning opportunities. She reminds us that “…a venue can and should do one further thing: displace people. Displacement is simply about breaking people out of their habits. It is about waking people up from the slumber of their own routines” (p. 62)—again, something that any creative, learner-centric trainer-teacher-learning facilitator knows and considers regardless of whether a gathering is taking place onsite or online.

One of the sections where she tremendously inspires us in our lifelong-learning environments is in her discussion, near the middle of the book (pp. 172-173), on the importance of providing a memorable opening to any gathering:

“Openings are a big missed opportunity in gatherings. They all too often underwhelm us, and they don’t have to. After all, openings lay the track for a gathering….Our brain effectively chooses for us what we will remember later. Studies show that audiences disproportionately remember the first 5 percent, the last 5 percent, and a climactic moment of a talk….And yet we often pay the least attention to how we open and close them, treating these elements as afterthoughts.”

Continuing on this theme (pp. 177-178), she reminds us that we have plenty of adaptable models for providing stimulating, memorable openings for our gatherings—including the formats common today in movies and television programs:

“The cold open is the practice of starting a TV show directly with a scene rather than with opening credits….Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

And that, for me, is the reason I’m including Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering in this series of “Giving Thanks” essays: I’m grateful that I came across that passage about the cold open and then had an opportunity to discuss and explore it with Stephen Hurley during an episode of our “Collaborations in Learning” conversations for his voicEd Radio program earlier this year; it made me completely change the way I open any learning opportunity I design and facilitate face-to-face or online. Gone are the (occasional) openings I used to offer about what was on the agenda for the session I was about to facilitate; the learners already knew that from the session or course description that had lured them to that particular learning gathering. Gone are the introductory comments designed to provide a brief overview of whatever topic we are going to cover; that, again, is generally covered in the brief descriptions or pre-session work that so often accompanies sessions I facilitate.

What we are left with is the best, most engaging story I can provide—that cold-open approach that grabs a learner’s attention, immediately inspires conversation, makes my co-conspirators want to know more about the people or circumstances at the heart of that story, and makes it clear that we are not going to waste time on turgid, unnecessary scene-setting. We’re here to work, to learn, and, in the best of situations, have some fun along the way through the act of sharing stories and drawing, from those stories, ideas we can immediately adapt in our workplaces or other places where what has been learned is meant to be applied. We are left with learning as storytelling and community-building rather than something that is focused on a lecture and ends with a quiz or formal exam.

There’s plenty more meat on the bones of this book. Parker leads us through an exploration of the value of storytelling. She describes the importance of creating gatherings that are “safe” places as well as places that offer challenges—those places where we are not afraid to take risks (the sort of personal risks obvious to any learner who tries to avoid the pain of “failure” while learning, even though temporary failure is an integral part of the learning process).

And she eventually travels full circle by coming back to a discussion of the combination of supporting vulnerability in our gatherings while fostering storytelling as she quotes Moth founder George Dawes Green (p. 212):

“Story is about a decision that you made. It’s not about what happens to you. And if you hit that and you get your vulnerability and you understand the stakes, and a few other things, people will intuitively find great stories to tell, and as soon as they do, we know them. We know them as human beings. This is no longer my boss’s colleague. This is a real person who had heartbreak. Oh, I know that.”

Parker, nearing the end of her book, reminds us that gatherings need to include appropriate, satisfying conclusions/endings (p. 268): “Part of preparing guests for reentry is helping them find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside.” And, in a parallel moment of recognition, we recognize that the learning opportunities—the gatherings—we facilitate also need to end with those all-important moment of preparing our learners for reentry into the environments in which they will—with a sense of gratitude for what they have obtained during their time with us—put lessons learned to work. If our gatherings produce those gem-like moments, we are well on our way to success…and a reputation for gatherings worth attending.

Next:  Shola Richards, Community, and Ubuntu (“I Am, Because We Are”)

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Stephen Hurley and voicEd Radio

November 27, 2021

As the coronavirus pandemic started shutting things down here in the United States in March 2020, many of us were scrambling to find ways to stay in touch with cherished friends and colleagues. We quickly began exploring ways to innovatively respond to our rapidly-changing training-teaching-learning environments, and we also looked for ways to more advantageously build upon the online relationships we already had in place.­­

Stephen Hurley

One of the unexpected pleasures for me, as the pandemic continued to change the way we all work and play, was re-engaging with Stephen Hurley, whose voicEd Radio programming remains a bright light in terms of innovative online programming directed toward “a community of researchers, educators, students, parents and policy-thinkers committed to a dynamic vision of knowledge mobilization in Canada’s education space” featuring “podcasting and live broadcasting to tackle the big questions facing K-12 and post-secondary education in Canada and beyond.”

Although our paths, before the pandemic changed our world, only crossed occasionally—often through the efforts of our mutual friend/colleague Jonathan Nalder (whose lovely Edunauts podcasts were a staple of voicEd Radio programming for a couple of years)—I always found Stephen to be one of those people with whom conversations easily resumed regardless of how much time passed between each of those exchanges. So when Stephen reached out to me early this year to propose a biweekly half-hour segment that would be recorded in my time zone at 6:30 am Monday mornings, I leapt without hesitation, figuring that a half-hour with Stephen every other week was well worth whatever loss of sleep accompanied that commitment. And I was right!

To this day, I remain grateful that we kept that commitment throughout the first half of 2021 and recorded a dozen of what (at least for us) were some lovely, playful, memorable conversations connected by the theme of “collaborations in learning.” For me, at least, they were far more than ephemeral conversations; they drew upon pre-determined topics ranging from books we were reading and online conferences we were attending to powerful, easily adaptable examples of online collaboration we were seeing, and they often carried over into other work I was doing, including a blog piece on the practice of treating learners as co-conspirators in the learning process.

The first episode in that series focused on my recently-released book, Change the World Using Social Media. As he noted in his summary of the episode, we talked about “the power of social media platforms to create community, nurture a sense of action, if not activism, and what this could mean for our future world.” And, more importantly, we established a practice of trying to create threads from one episode/conversation to the next, often by pulling one comment from the latest episode and creating a thread to a related topic in the next episode.

One of Stephen’s superpowers, for me, is his ability to move seamlessly from the role of interviewer—posing stimulating questions designed to keep a conversation moving forward in engaging, productive ways—to the role of equal partner in a conversation to the role of willingly playing foil to his interviewees in ways that produce playfully serious exchanges filled with ideas that any interested listener can incorporate into their own training-teaching-learning efforts. Another is his willingness to look for connections to previous conversations so that a series of recordings along the lines of what we did together can serve as stand-along podcasts or be heard as an extended multi-episode conversation with nuanced, multiple layers of interactions. Those “superpowers,” combined, have provided me with tremendous examples of approaches and techniques that I have absorbed, sponge-like, into my own work—to the benefit of the learners I serve.

There are numerous moments from those conversations that have stayed with me far longer than the amount of time I put into preparing for them. One that has proved to be transformative was the discussion we had about Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering; again, Stephen beautifully summarizes the conversation by describing it as an exploration of how “a gathering begins the moment you send out the invitation” and what that means, along with what impact it could have on the way we plan our virtual and face-to-face events—something I have continued to adapt into my own work with learners and other colleagues throughout the year. Another of those moments involved an exploration of the role of storytelling and an examination of the difference between stories and anecdotes.

As the current year comes to an end, I remain thankful  for all that Stephen has offered me and all the inspiration he has provided. And I hope you’ll support Stephen (and your own learning process) by tuning in to voicEd Radio whenever you can.

Next: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

N.B.: This is the third in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping change the world in positive ways, and the thirtieth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences. Next: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering.


Train the Trainers: On Inclusion, Trust, and Co-Conspirators in Learning

May 24, 2021

The word “co-conspirators,” as Stephen Hurley (half-jokingly) suggested during our latest “Collaborations in Learning” conversation for his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” show this morning, conjures up images of people furtively meeting to plan some sort of insurrection. And I have to admit that it makes me smile by reminding me of those comically sinister little figures from the Spy vs. Spy series I enjoyed many years ago.

But it also, as our conversation suggests, is a wonderfully subversive and productive word to describe the relationship between learning facilitators and learners when they toss out assumptions that learning involves one person providing information and another person (passively) absorbing that information. Co-conspirators in learning, as I learned from my time with Alec Couros and others in #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course) several years ago, are those who see the learning space as a place where everyone learns—teachers and students alike. It’s a space where we toss out quite a few assumptions about what learning involves and place a focus on the collaborative nature of learning.

It requires tremendous levels of trust. Learning facilitators (aka “teachers” and “trainers”) must trust their learners to be willing participants in the shaping of their own learning. Learners must trust the learning facilitator’s assertion that everyone has something to bring to the table during a formal or informal learning opportunity and makes the experience stronger, more productive, more results-driven, and more transformative than learning situations where learners are an audience drawn to words of wisdom provided by the person at the front of the room. In fact, as I suggested to Stephen, there really is no “front of the room” in a learning space (onsite or online) where everyone is seen as a co-conspirator in the learning process. Every part of that learning space is a dynamic space in which trainer-teacher-learners interact with other trainer-teacher-learners to achieve the learning goals they are pursuing. Together.

But all of that is far too theoretical. Far too academic. It misses the dynamic nature of “learners as co-conspirators” that becomes obvious when we see how it plays out. As I did last week during the first of six two-hour online sessions with a group of wonderful adult learners in a train-the-trainer series I have designed and am currently facilitating.

I made it clear, during the opening session, that we would be doing far more than learning the basics of training in a way that supported course participants in their efforts to hone their own training skills. I am encouraging them, through different approaches I am taking in each of those highly-interactive learning sessions conducted within Zoom, to interact within the basic structure of each of those formats. I try to get them to help shape each of those sessions by participating in discussions and activities that give them practice at using the skills we are exploring. And I make efforts to inspire them to question and understand the approaches and techniques and skills under discussion so they can decide for themselves which were worth using with their own learners and which might not work within the specific contexts in which they foster learning.

Image by truthseeker08, from Pixabay

Which means I need to be ready for those hoped-for moments in which they take control of the learning space and ask questions I might not have anticipated so I, too, am a learner in those sessions. Like the stunningly-unexpected question that came during the second half of the first session: why are there so few people of color included in the images used in the slide deck for this session?

Understand, please, that the question was sent privately through Zoom’s chat feature so I was the only person initially aware that the question was being raised and the only person seeing the brief, very polite, almost apologetic comments surrounding the question. It was in no way confrontational, and the learner explicitly expressed the hope that I wouldn’t be offended by the question. It was clearly a difficult question posed by a wonderful learner who felt comfortable enough to raise that question in a way that had none of the public-shaming aspects that we so often see these days through social media posts and other online interactions.

It deserved an immediate and honest answer. So I took a deep breath, stopped the lesson-oriented conversation that was underway, and told all participants that I wanted to share and address a comment that had been directed at me privately—because I felt it was an issue well worth acknowledging and addressing in a virtual room with co-conspirators in learning. Without identifying the person who had raised the question, I started by saying I was appreciative that our co-conspirator had brought the thought to my attention. And, glancing quickly at the images I had been using in the PowerPoint slide deck supporting the discussions we were having, I acknowledged that I had not been as diligent as I always try to be in creating something that was visually representative of the diversity of our community of learning. I assured everyone that I would be applying a different, more critical eye to the decks for the remaining five sessions. Then, after again thanking the person for the comment, I returned us to what we had been doing. And, afterward, took the small amount of time it takes to review decks already prepared for subsequent sessions and making adjustments that were easily made.

This might seem like something that, once addressed, would be done. But the real work is to see what sort of positive impact our actions with our co-conspirators in any learning situation have. So, without doing anything to overtly continue that particular thread of conversation and learning, I worked with that same group of learners during the next session and, as always, let the learners know that I would stay for a few minutes after the formal end of that virtual session in case anyone had further questions or items to explore—the online equivalent of staying in a physical classroom for post-session conversations with interested learners. You can, of course, anticipate what happened next: The only learner to stay was the one who had raised the question about the lack of images of people of color in the first session. And the reason the person stayed was to continue a conversation springing out of the second session. Because that learner was engaged. Comfortable. Interested in gaining all that could be gained during the time we had together.

As the post-session conversation around Session Two content wound down, I couldn’t resist asking whether there had been any noticeable difference in approach to the images used for that session. “Yes,” the learner replied simply and directly. “It felt more on point.”

And those few simple words, for me, spoke volumes in terms of how much we all gain when we are co-conspirators in learning. We all learn. We all improve. We all gain. We are all transformed, long-term, by the positive nature of those all-too-brief short-term interactions. And those we serve long after our shared learning moments have ended are the real beneficiaries of what we accomplish together.

N.B. – This is the first in a set of reflections inspired by a collaboratively run online train-the-trainer series.


ShapingEDU Winter Games: Driving and Intersecting with the Dreamers and Doers

February 1, 2021

There are conferences that start and end on a pre-announced schedule; you step away from work, you attend them, you enjoy them, and then you go back to work. And then there are conferences that feel as if they are already underway long before you arrive onsite or online for the first formally-scheduled event and seem to continue for days, weeks, or even months after the final formally-scheduled session concludes—which pretty much captures what I experienced nearly a month ago (January 5-7, 2021) during the Arizona State University ShapingEDU three-day Winter Games online conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age.

You could, at the beginning of the Day 3 (January 7), already see it happening: through the discussions and plans for action that were forming and through the intersections between participants, you could see Winter Games transforming itself into part of a longer-lasting series of conversations and efforts to foster positive action extending far beyond what was happening. Attendees were engagingly interacting with presenters and panelists including elected officials, nonprofit and for-profit business representatives, educators, and a variety of other people exploring how collaboration across a variety of sectors might lead to short- and long-term positive results to everyone’s benefit.  

Feeling as if I am (a month later and after having participated in yet another virtual conference) still very much participating in Winter Games and looking back on the final day and everything I saw and learned, I’m not at all surprised by what we accomplished. Nor by what we laid the groundwork to accomplish. The discussions during keynote sessions, during smaller, more intimate breakout sessions, and during a final late-afternoon wrap-up gathering were Frans Johansson’s Intersection (explored in his book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures) coming to life: people from a variety of backgrounds gathering to talk and listen to each other, exchange ideas, and then return to their own communities to disseminate those ideas in world-changing ways.

As Samantha Adams Becker—one of our community leaders—observed that day, a dreamer envisions a better future. A doer makes it happen. And a driver scales it so that the future is more evenly distributed. Which, to me, serves as an acknowledgement of the community’s increasing attention toward placing lifelong learning within the larger context of social change, social justice, and social challenges we are facing and attempting to address through the work we do. It’s a community of educators as activists—where learning is a tool rather than an ultimate goal or achievement.

As always, what we accomplish comes down, at least in part, to the stories we tell. Panelists during the Day Three opening keynote session, “Unlocking the Data to Drive a Smart Region Vision,” told stories about the efforts underway in the greater Phoenix area to foster results-producing collaborations across sectors. Panelists, responding to questions and comments from moderators Brian Dean (co-founder and director of operations for the Institute for Digital Progress) and Dominic Papa (vice-president, Smart State Initiatives as the Arizona Commerce Authority), included Corey Woods, Mayor of Tempe; Elizabeth Wentz, a professor and dean at Arizona State University (ASU); David Cuckow, Head of Digital at BSI; and Patricia Solis, executive director for the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU.

My own notes from that session—captured in the form of tweets prepared while the session was underway—in no way fully capture the depth and nuances of the conversation, which you can watch and hear in its entirety through the archived recording on the ShapingEDU YouTube Community Channel. But they do offer a gateway to a world of thought well worth exploring. Mayor Woods, for example, talked at one point about how the city of Tempe uses data to determine what services stay open; he also noted that city officials are known for making city-government decision based on data, including data related to diversity and inclusion. Another panelist wryly and repeatedly noted that short questions often reveal the need for long, thoughtful answers influenced by data sets as we attempt to address the challenges we face. Collecting data, the panelists suggested, is one step in better serving citizens (and, we might add by extension, learners); it’s about creating networks to look at data, to ask critical questions, and being able to better meet people’s needs by drawing upon and using the data we collect.

Leaving that session with my head still swimmingly in a wonderfully deep pool of ideas, I next moved onto more familiar ground—at least for me—in a session exploring some of the latest upgrades offered through Zoom. Listening to Zoom representatives talk about everything from incorporating PowerPoint slide decks into virtual backgrounds within Zoom to campus-wide integration of communications (telephone) systems and security systems into Zoom demonstrates, once again, that this is a company and product that is far from being content resting on its already well-deserved laurels. The entire session did what I want any great learning opportunity to do: it made me hungry for an opportunity to explore some of what I was learning was possible, and I have, since leaving that session, been exploring ways to build what I learned into the work I am continuing to do with learners.

The final session of the morning, for me, was an intriguing, intense look into the ever-evolving world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which have remained of interest to me (and, apparently, others) ever since their brief moment in the spotlight several years ago. Led by Arizona State University Director of Digital Innovation Dale Johnson, the “Global Adaptive Instruction Network: Building a Collaborative MOOC Model” was a stunning look at how MOOCs in theory and in fact continue to evolve in ways that offer learners and learning facilitators intriguing ways to create more personalized, engaging learning opportunities than might otherwise be available.

“MOOCs have really become more like the McDonald’s of Higher Ed…” Johnson noted at the beginning of his session. “A lot of people are served but of some questionable educational value….How do we enhance the MOOC?….We are moving from a mass production world to a mass personalization world….The challenge for us is how do we move, in education, from mass production…to mass personalization?”

As we move to delivering the right lesson to the right student at the right time, he suggests, a collaborative MOOC model offers us interesting and intriguing possibilities. (Those interested in learning more can view the archived recording on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel.)

There is so much more to say about Winter Games. About that fascinating intersection/Intersection at the heart of the event. And about the conversations that are continuing even though nearly a month has passed—including one I had earlier today with Stephen Hurley during a “ShapingEDU and Community” segment of his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” program. There is much we can learn about organizing effective online learning opportunities/Intersections along these lines, as we see in the ShapingEDU “ShapingED-YOU Toolkit” available free online. And there is much to be said for innovative, playful communities of learning that operate seamlessly throughout the year face-to-face as well as online.

But the Intersection we have reached at this moment is one where looking back, looking forward, and relishing the present moment bring to mind a line I’ve found in poems and many other pieces of writing I have absorbed over the years: The end is the beginning. And if that remains true for Winter Games, the best is still ahead of us.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-eighth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the third in a series of posts inspired by the ShapingEDU Winter Games.


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