Conferences make one wonder whether they are of any use at all. Whether the amount of money and time spent on them in terms of arrangements made and the fares for all the participants was worth the effort and money, considering that nothing concrete seems to come out of them as far as implementable recommendations, etc are concerned.
Conferences are usually divided into different sessions dedicated to various sub-themes, with a number of papers being read out by large numbers of participants from a dais using a powerpoint presentation, while the rest sit/sleep in the audience in front. It is unknown whether much of what has been said is heard, let alone absorbed by the said participants/ audience members. Most of the time participants are mentally absent from the venue while others are presenting their papers. At times some participants are also physically absent, putting in an appearance only at the time that they are to read their own paper, while site-seeing the city they are visiting the rest of the time. The aim for a large number is to make a token presence felt, while disappearing with the precious piece of paper – the participation certificate – in hand.
Recently I had the honor of participating in a rare conference. Keeping in mind participants’ comfort with the traditional system of paper presentation, the conference organizers had made various modes of presentations available to the participants. Presentations could be made through the traditional, linear system, through posters or through the dialog method.
I opted to try out the interesting sounding ‘dialog method’ of paper presentation, designed by Dr. B. K. Passi and Dr. (Ms.) S Passi.
The dialog method changes the presentation format from a linear, one-way, non-interactive presentation to an interaction, where those present interact intensively with each other. The traditional mode of paper presentation has someone chairing the session, while the speaker speaks from a dais, with an unknown ‘mass’ audience seated in front of him/her. The dialog method has the participants divided into small groups of four, five, six, eight, ten, seated in the form of small circles. Here, all are at par with each other, with each individual being a chairperson, speaker, audience, at various points of the interaction, creating intimate, mutual relationships with each member of the group.
Unlike the traditional method where one keeps listening to endless paper presentations, the dialog mode involves deep involvement in the limited number of presentations by the members of the intimate group.
Where the traditional system of paper presentation does not encourage questioning and limits questioning to one or two questions at best, the dialog mode encourages and thrives on questions. The greater the number of clarifications sought the deeper one’s understanding of the subject is likely to be. In fact, instant questioning is a tool built into the dialog mode.
Here is an outline of the dialog mode of paper presentation: all participants are divided into small groups and sit in a circle. They introduce themselves to each other to break the ice. After this the actual paper presentation begins. The presentation can be made either in the ‘cycle mode’ or the ‘non-cycle mode’ depending on what has been decided by the presenters at the outset. Both modes use two essential tools – (a) IQ or ‘Instant Questioning’, where one cuts in as soon as a question rises in the mind at any point of the presentation, and, (b) CCC or Compare, Contrast, Create, where one compares and contrasts one’s own work with what the speaker is saying about his/her paper and tries to see whether something new emerges from this, leading to the creation of a new angle to one’s paper or a modification in it in any way. Both these tools are used extensively by the participants throughout the presentations.
In the ‘cycle mode’ the presentation is divided into various cycles – ‘Readiness Cycle’, ‘Title Cycle’, ‘Methodology Cycle’, ‘Findings/Conclusions/Expected Outcomes Cycle’, ‘Recommendations Cycle’, ‘Reflections Cycle’.
In the ‘Readiness Cycle’ participants introduce themselves to each other and begin to get comfortable with each other.
The ‘Title Cycle’ has a participant discussing the title of the paper, the research question, hypotheses. The others in the group listen to the speaker and pose instant questions for clarifications. Once all are satisfied that they have understood what the speaker is talking about, the second speaker discusses his/her topic. Thus, the cycle continues until all titles have been discussed.
The ‘Methodology Cycle’ discusses the methodology used in terms of design, sample, tools and analysis. In case of a historical, philosophical, conceptual or qualitative paper, the participant describes the steps of the relevant methodology or the steps for the proposed action plan of the project. Clarifications are sought through IQ & CCC.
The ‘Findings/Conclusions/Expected Outcomes Cycle’ is divided into two phases. Each participant discusses the findings of his/her own paper in the ‘I-findings’ phase.
Once all the participants have discussed their ‘I-findings’, the findings from the various papers are compared, contrasted, synergized to derive the ‘We-findings’. These could be something totally unexpected and not plainly visible when one merely glances at the ‘I-findings’. It needs the mind to be actively looking at and studying the various papers being presented.
The ‘Recommendations Cycle’ is based on (a) ‘we-findings’, (b) past literature/experiences, (c) current socio-economic-cultural conditions, &, (d) future dreams/visions. Considering that the recommendations are based on the synergized ‘we-findings’, they tend to be something concrete, do-able and something that one had not conceived of at the beginning of the presentation or when one was writing the paper originally. The recommendations need to keep in mind the situational conditions of the area where the paper is being presented with a greater emphasis on the philosophy ‘think globally, act locally’.
The next stage in this cycle is for each group to share aloud its recommendations with the other groups, so that a comprehensive list of recommendations from all the groups can be compiled and handed over to the conference organizers.
In the ‘Reflections Cycle’ one connects one’s self with the rest of the world. It is a time to reflect on the scientific and ethical implications of one’s role with the larger community. During this cycle one tries to link one’s title with the larger theme of the session/conference and reality and tries to derive learning from them, focusing on what one can do in one’s individual capacity towards implementation of the theme/recommendations.
In the non-cycle mode each participant discusses his/her entire paper in a flow up to the ‘I-findings’, with members of the group, without breaking it up in cycles. Once a participant has finished with his/her paper, the second participant begins with his/her paper, until all participants have discussed their respective papers.
After the initial discussion is over, participants then derive the ‘we-findings’, like in the cycle mode or presentation. The recommendations are then arrived at and reflections made.
I have found the dialog method of presentation to be very useful, given that the outcome is a holistic learning experience. Some of my learning is:
(1) The smaller the group, the more intimate the experience and the deeper one can delve into the papers being discussed.
(2) Seating in a circle, instead of being part of a passive, larger audience like in the traditional presentation format, encourages interaction and active participation.
(3) Each participant is mentally active and involved all the time, instead of being physically present and mentally absent, as often happens in the traditional system.
(4) Various concepts are clarified through the intense use of IQ, instead of needing to wait till the end for posing one or two questions.
(5) The process of trying to arrive at ‘We-findings’ helps in developing synergistic skills and in learning to look at various angles of a topic, instead of being compartmentalized to one’s own topic.
(6) Listing do-able recommendations and sharing the recommendations of other groups also helps to look at the world holistically, and at ourselves as active players in the world, instead of isolated ring-side audience of a match being played in the stadium.
(7) It gives new insight into new possibilities and modes of action on the personal level.
(8) In a nutshell, the dialog process challenges and actively involves all faculties, helping one to develop along the way, finding one’s self to have grown anew by the end of the presentation.
My experience with the dialog method of paper presentation has strengthened my belief that the dialog mode is the best mode for interactions. The dialog mode needs to be used not just for paper presentations, but also in the classroom, so that a learning environment, instead of a teaching environment, is created and students and facilitators (not teachers) absorb and learn from the experience as active participants, instead of students sitting in classrooms with closed or wandering minds as passive listeners.