Here, Danielle reflects on her week at two ‘ideas’ festivals and how that approach could be used to encourage self-driven learning in business.

Rather than spend a holiday sitting on a beach, I went on a ‘learning holiday’. Eight full days attending two ‘idea’ festivals that were being held close to where I live. The first is the oddly named ‘How the Light Gets In’ (or ‘Who turned the lights off’ as it is known in Monster Towers!) organised by The Institute of Art and Ideas. The second was the more widely known Hay Literary Festival.

I’ve always loved learning. Not always as much as I do now. You learn all the time working in a small business and so to take time off work to do some more learning may seem strange to some. Maybe it is. But as an advocate and practitioner of lifelong learning, who loved every minute of my holiday, I’ve identified five elements that these incredibly popular events do. I then wondered if they could provide inspiration for anyone looking for innovative ways to promote a learning approach in their organisation.

Both festivals attract thousands of people each year for a combination of debates, talks, workshops, music and comedy. (Plenty of that in our company) They both have a slightly different emphasis, atmosphere and target audience but both still focus on what I would call ‘learning for the sake of learning’.

1. They are open to all

People from all different backgrounds, experiences and areas of expertise attend talks on Biology, Cosmology, Philosophy, the future of education, politics and creativity. Some people attending might hold a Ph.D in that particular field and are relishing the opportunity to hear from other leading thinkers. Others have literally no experience or knowledge in that field at all but are just there to simply hear about something new. Maybe learn a few things they didn’t know before or listen to a debate to understand the different perspectives on a thorny topic.

2. Everyone creates their own learning experience.

Sessions are scheduled from early in the morning to late at night. Sessions on different topics run at the same time in different locations. There are a variety of formats; talks, debates, workshops and hands-on sessions. Topics are vast and varied. You can’t do everything and every person that attends will choose a slightly different combination of experiences. You can go along for the everyday for the full week or for just a single day. Some buy tickets for individual events across the week. There is no set agenda or path. You are free to create the experience that works best for you.

3. They focus on ‘event experience’

Although most people attend because they’re interested in a particular topic or want to hear from certain authors or speakers, it isn’t just about the content. It’s possible to go to either festival; not go to any of the talks and just absorb the atmosphere.

You could sit with a book in the Serious Reading room (as I did for a morning) or get a drink in the bar and read a book there instead (which I also did) (I figured wine in the Serious Reading Room would be frowned upon!).

You could mooch around the various stalls or stands, pop your head into the ‘People’s Front Room’ and listen to a band for a while or just spend time ‘peoplewatching’ in a riverside deckchair. It’s as much about the atmosphere as the content.

4. You are in charge of your own learning

With my corporate hat on, I would say that any learning opportunity is only complete with an element of reflection, capturing next steps or action points at least. Not at an idea’s festival. People are left to learn what they want, when they want and how they want. You can apply what you want to apply and ignore everything that’s not relevant. Each session that I attended though, I did learn new information that I will apply. The tangible:

  • I learnt about MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) for example which I intend to investigate more.
  • There was recommended reading about Creativity and Purpose which I will add to my ever-increasing reading list.

Others were less tangible.

  • I marvelled at how a seemingly obvious ‘correct’ position can have many layers of ambiguity and controversy which I only appreciated after attending a debate about where to draw the line regarding free speech.

In all these instances though I was left to take away what was useful to me. The person sat next to me would likely have taken away completely different outcomes. And that’s the beauty of it. We weren’t told what we should learn. We shared an experience and then applied what was relevant to us. (though it is fair to say on at least one occasion, the only takeaway I had was that I didn’t understand a single word they were talking about!)

5. The emergence of lifelong learning

Throughout the 8 days I was in Hay, the overarching feeling I came away with was the importance of Lifelong learning. It gave me the opportunity to absorb new information, wrestle with different ideas and consider alternative perspectives. It does require the ‘learner’ to want to learn, of course it does, but similarly it is only effective because the content is interesting, the speakers engaging, the atmosphere relaxed and varied.

There was space to take time out and reflect.

There was humour as well and information.

There was self-selection and self-reflection

Taking these ideas further…

I am personally passionate about learning and more specifically self-driven learning and I’m lucky enough to be involved with building our sister business The Alternative Business School which holds this type of learning at its heart.

If this is a topic you want to debate, discuss and deliberate then please do get in touch.

With the increasingly competitive landscape and the advantages for us all to be on a lifelong learning journey, then concepts like The Alternative Business School and festivals such as the ones held in Hay each year have a significant role to play.