As learning business professionals, we tend to think – and talk – about lifelong learning mostly as it relates to professional growth. But lifelong learning as it relates to personal growth is equally important because it cultivates critical thinking and allows for the never-ending exploration of curiosity.
David Kurfirst and Chris Zumtobel are the co-founders of Think Olio, a three-year-old start-up that provides provocative and thought-provoking lecture-style events – what they refer to as “olios” – on a wide range of topics that allow individuals to engage collectively in a unique lifelong learning experience for roughly the same price as going to a movie.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Celisa talks with David and Chris about what inspired the creation of Think Olio, their model for teaching and learning and why it works for them, as well as lessons learned along the way.
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[02:31] – A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Celisa interviews David Kurfirst and Chris Zumtobel, co-founders of Think Olio.
[05:36] – Introduction to David and Chris.
[06:13] – What should listeners know about Think Olio, your origins and what you’re doing now? David shares that Think Olio is a collective of lifelong learners. They pop up in all sorts of different venues with professors to hold provocative and thought-provoking events – “olios” – which they try to keep accessible, about the price of a movie ticket. David says he and Chris try to take inspiration from both the good and bad experiences they had in school. They actually met in a social entrepreneurship class in college 2015 and that’s where the concept for Think Olio was born.
[08:54] – Chris explains where the name “Think Olio” came from—olio is a miscellaneous collection of art and literature which is the driving force behind deciding what types of classes they are going to have—they are never really skill-based or aimed at helping you get a job but rather inspiring you to think about something new and peaking your interest in something you may want to explore more deeply.
[09:54] – What relationship do you see between what you’re doing at Think Olio and the broader market for lifelong learning that includes continuing education and professional development? David shares that he Chris found that a lot of people felt rushed in college and forced to confine themselves into a field of specialization. They wanted to create an opportunity for people who missed out on taking certain classes they were interested in but that didn’t align with their field of study. He and Chris were lucky to have gone to CUNY College (in the CUNY BA program) where they could essentially design their own majors and discover the inherit joy in learning, a unique experience which led them directly to what Think Olio is today.
[14:33] – Another way you’re a little contrarian is the format—lectures have gotten kind of a bad rap in my world, with growing emphasis on the “guide on the side” versus the “sage on the stage” of the lecture. And place-based is getting not totally replaced but definitely challenged by the flexibility of online offerings, especially on-demand. Do you have a sense that you’re running counter-culture and what do you find appealing, and what do you find challenging, about the format you’re using—the place-based lecture? Chris says he likes the idea of being thought of as counter-culture with this but it was never really the emphasis—they just thought there was something huge about learning in the same room with other people at the same time rather than through a screen, and also important personally.
Regarding lectures, he says they are more of an entry point in a lot of ways. Every Friday they have a large lecture at a bookstore where they give people a way into a new idea to gauge whether or not it’s something they’re interested in. The reason they prefer to call them olios rather than lectures is because there’s a lot of back and forth and they’re very interactive. Something they’ve been putting a lot of energy into lately is smaller seminars (limited to 20 people). These are held on a recurring basis with the same professor, readings in between with a little homework, and they work through hard text/ideas together—this really gets to a kind of deeper learning. David adds they used to be afraid to use the word “lecture” because of the connotation. Also, a few months in they opened it up for anyone to teach, not just professional teachers, but admits that didn’t go well so they are now committed to teaching professionals who are interactive and value how much they can also learn from the people in the room as opposed to thinking they know all the answers.
[19:30] – How do you go about figuring out whether the teacher/individual who knows about the topic is going to be good in the room? David shares this starts with a lot of research online—Rate My Professors has been hugely helpful with this (mainly the reviews) and they also get recommendations from word of mouth. The next step is they email the person and sit down with them over a beer to see if this is somebody that’s going to make Think Olio a part of their life—they don’t just want someone who is going to teach a one-off lecture, rather anytime that person has a new idea, they want to be the outlet to explore that. Chris notes they used to just try to bring on as many teachers as possible to increase the volume of olios but then realized they were losing quality. Now they have it down to a roster of 20 professors who really think about Olio as a part of their teaching lives.
[22:42] – How do you think about evaluating the impact of what you’re doing with Think Olio? Do you do evaluations at every olio or have other regular mechanisms in place? What kind of impact are you looking to have, and what would be data you can gather and measure that speak to that desired impact? Chris says they do send out surveys after but not really focused on impact although they do gather data on more of an implicit level like through conversations with people afterwards. He thinks there’s too much data in education already and it often gets in the way in many cases and it’s not really what they want to be. Their impact is evident based on the reaction of the crowd and conversations after. Regarding impact, Chris points out a lot of times people leave the classes thinking about the topics but not knowing what to do with that energy after. Because of this, they’re working on partnering with some non-profits in New York to create a community to get involved with the related work.
[25:38] – What are your goals for Think Olio going forward? On a spectrum that runs from labor-of-love to boutique business to global juggernaut—where do you want to ultimately land? David says it’s actually all of those things—it benefits them personally and they also like the idea of it being a lifestyle business. He talks about how they want to create the tools so that other people can implement olios in their cities because they’ve barely scratched the surface of NY in three years, which makes it hard for them to think about expanding themselves. They are working on the systems now to help others start them in their communities.
[28:23] – I know you’ve recently moved to a membership model. Would you talk a little about what prompted the move to membership? Chris says the membership model allows them to probe their committed members to get feedback on what they want, rather than just David and Chris making all the decisions. It’s also increased excitement and allows a way to capture the energy to get momentum in the community. Financially it also helps because they don’t have to worry so much about attendance each month for every class.
[31:49] – To date how have you gone about setting strategy for Think Olio? How did you decide what you would and wouldn’t do? And how might your approach to setting strategy change going forward? David reflects that where they are with Think Olio is almost exactly as they imagined from the day they conceived the idea—although it’s taken 3 years and they’ve gone in all different directions and tried so many things. Because they attend about 85-90% of all their olios they talk after about whether each one felt right. Their new ideas come from spending a lot of time talking with the people who come to the olios and the professors. Chris and David stress that Think Olio has been a product of trying new things and they now feel they have a perfect skeleton for what they want to try going forward.
[36:26] – When you think big picture about what’s going on with learning these days, are there any developments or changes in technology, in society, etc. that get you excited? Chris and David both agree they aren’t really enough in that world to say. They are grateful for the technology that allowed them to start Think Olio and it is exciting that anyone globally can join in on a lecture or share ideas but it’s a different world from them since they take a slow, non-tech approach to learning.
[38:33] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education? Chris shares one that stands out to him was an olio where the professor focused on one painting for an hour and a half which taught him to appreciate art in a different way (a quality over quantity approach) as well as a lot about pedagogy. David says his was related to an olio on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and feminism.
[42:00] – How to connect with Chris and David or learn more about Think Olio:
- Website: https://www.thinkolio.org/
- Instagram: think.olio
- Twitter: @whatisolio
- Think Olio’s Chance Operation for Learning – 3 minute highlights from some of the olios
- Strand Bookstore’s YouTube page – has links to several filmed olios (about an hour in length)
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com
[45:03] – Wrap Up
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[47:04] – Sign off