Boring Workshops Published 2007-05-17 under ,

I just finished a week of attending various workshops put on by the Foundation Center and despite the quality of the material presented I could not help but to notice the lack of creativity with which each presenter approached his/her lesson. You can probably guess the outline:

  1. Speaker Bio
  2. Goals of the Session
  3. Historical Perspective
  4. Overview of Current Practices
  5. Linear Examination of the Details
  6. Conclusions

Now, there is nothing wrong with this approach. Throw in a few anecdotes and exercises, you have a traditional workshop. But is this the only approach or even the most appropriate approach? What assumptions are made that make this the most popular approach?

Let's start by examining the practice of stating your goals right at the beginning. It certainly makes sense. If I am going to battle 2hrs of rush hour traffic to attend a workshop, I would like to know what I am going to get out it. But providing motivation is much different than stating goals. I have often wondered how many of my students ever actually read the list of goals that appear at the beginning of every chapter in their textbook. For me, this list is to be consulted after reading the chapter so I can check to be sure I got all that I was suppose to from the reading. In reality, I expect that the list is completely ignored.

Another assumption that is often made is that a linear presentation of the material is the best way to convey the concepts of the lesson. This is certainly a tried and true approach. But for me as well as several of the other attendees at these workshops, the approach left us wanting more. We agreed that a more hands on, exploratory, approach would have been better. Sitting and listening to the presenter works for a while, but soon it looses it appeal and its effectiveness.

So, why do presenters and teachers resort to such a teacher centric approach to a lesson? It is harder to come up with a more exploratory, student centric approach. It requires more work, more creativity, and it is riskier. It also requires more class time. I am always finding myself reverting to a more lecture type of presentation when I have a bunch of material that I want to cram into a limited time span. Rarely, though, do my students come away with anything more than just exposure to the ideas presented. They don't understand the concepts. They would have been better served to have spent the time on activities that resulted in solid understanding of a subset of the topics. The rest of the topics could be covered in subsequent lessons or referenced in some take-home material for students to explore on their own.

The term "hands-on" workshop has come to mean - I will show you how and then you will have a chance to replicate what I just showed you. Can't we redefine such workshops to be more exploratory where participants discover the skills and concepts? I would love to hear of your ideas on how to make workshops more interesting and effective.

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