How a Firefighters' Symposium Turned Up the Heat on Adult Learning


We've heard it all before: Avoid talking heads, speakers who need more time to get their points across, and the dreaded death by PowerPoint. In each of these cases, we risk attendees checking out halfway through the presentation. Research suggests that we as adults learn best in short increments; to increase our period of focus, we need a moment to "reset" in order to keep going. But too often, we as event organizers resist changing our conference formats, essentially ignoring adult-learning best practices.

At the International Association of Fire Chiefs, we are hosting a portfolio of eight conferences in 2018. We recently held our smallest, the VCOS (Volunteer and Combination Officers Section) Symposium in the West, in Phoenix. Many of the fire departments in the United States that have volunteer or a combination of volunteer and career firefighters are represented in this section. Now in its third year, the conference has continued to grow and this year attracted 160 attendees. 

We decided to take a chance in 2018 and experiment with the layout of the educational sessions. We wanted to create movement and excitement using the kind of shorter sessions that are recommended in adult-learning models. So we used the Symposium in the West as our test conference to see how attendees would react. Because it was a relatively small gathering, it doubled as a focus group, from which we could then apply our findings to some of our other conferences. 

Attendees began day 2 of the conference with a very different experience from what they were accustomed to. We broke the general session room up into three separate rooms, each with a different layout. We divided attendees based on birthday: January-April started in room 1, May-August were in room 2 and September-December began in room 3. Each speaker had 30 minutes to present to each group, with a half-hour break in between, and then groups would rotate.

By lunchtime, all attendees had seen all three presentations. After lunch, we reset the room back to its general-session format and had a Q&A panel with all of our morning speakers.

This simple approach was extremely successful. Both attendees and speakers provided overwhelmingly positive feedback. They loved the short and concise sessions, the networking in between and the ability to ask all of the speakers' questions during the afternoon panel. What began as an idea simply to incorporate some movement into the three-day itinerary of general sessions resulted in what is now the most talked-about part of the conference.

The IAFC will incorporate more adult-learning principles in the annual conference this year. We've added variety by creating a mix of sessions that last either 30, 60 or 90 minutes, with longer breaks in between. We hope to build on the success of Symposium in the West and foster creative learning and increased networking by applying the same principles to larger, more complex meetings. By shaking things up just a bit, we can create a learning experience that will keep attendees thinking.

Sara Stehle, CMP, is conference manager for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and one of M&C's 2018 Rising Stars in the Meetings Industry.