Workshops. Are they the best type of Class?

I just read recently that if you spend long enough following someone on social media you’ll learn who they truly are—they’re political alignment, they’re sense of humor, they’re beliefs etc. To an extent I find this to be true, especially when someone’s back is up to the wall, you’ll see their true nature. You’ll see what they will do to survive, and who they’ll sacrifice along the way or . . . you will see something extraordinary.

You also get to learn about people as they observe things. There are those who will watch the world go by and criticize everything around them without knowing anything about what they’re talking about, and then there are those who will blindly say that everyone is simply trying their best no matter what the outcome or effort is—and they are only two ends of the spectrum.

Chances are I’m going to offend a tonne of people with this post, but if you try to keep everyone happy you’ll make no one happy.

You also get to learn a heap when you see ‘How’ people do things. And when I say this I mean that there is more than one way to get things done, but more often than not you will see the same method or the same tool being used.

And when it comes to teaching adults or providing training, the same tool keeps on coming up . . . The Workshop!

Now before I start offending people; what’s my issue with ‘The Workshop?’

Here’s the thing, I don’t have an issue with it—my personal issue is that every single instructor out there or ‘facilitator’ thinks they run the best workshop in town, and the impression is that workshops are the only worthwhile way to get things done when teaching of adults.

Some may take offense

So . . .  let’s get ahead of the trolling. There are those who’ll be thinking;

  1. If you’re not running workshops, then you’re just a boring instructor
  2. You must obviously do your training from power point presentations
  3. Workshops are awesome, leave them alone
  4. “What course did you attend, and are you certified? Because if you were then you wouldn’t have an issue with workshops.”

Okay before I answer these questions I should tell you one of the triggers for this post and that was hearing the words—and I am paraphrasing here, ‘that power points are so 2004, I don’t use them and I have my classes learn from one another to get the best transformations.’

Yeah . . . power points are old school, but they are only a training aid; the presentation. Not the Lesson!!!

And you see this bothers me because, if your class learns from each other, then what are you really there for? As an instructor what do you bring to the party? Ah as a facilitator that’s easy—facilitators are simply there to allow something either to happen, or to allow it to become easier. It’s a nice (highly available) definition that basically says that facilitators just make things happen as opposed to teach you something.

Ugh, here’s the thing . . . you gotta understand that hearing the words in the trigger were easy to take out of context, and in this case—knowingly were. Make no mistake I’m not saying that facilitators (of workshops) do not in fact teach or develop people. And I’m not saying that they’re useless . . . I’m not.

What has gotten to me into a bit of a spin here is the concept that ‘The Workshop’ is the only teaching format that is worth using with Adults. After all each facilitator claims they run the most interactive and engaging workshop on the block.

Look if a workshop is engaging and interactive that’s great . . . but they still need to achieve something, and this is where I have my issue with them . . . because . . . well . . . workshops just aren’t that good when it comes to teaching!

Make no mistake, Workshops have their place, but especially when it comes to teaching people new things they don’t know about previously; workshops just don’t do all that well. Worst part is—the majority of the time, it’s not the instructors fault!

Let’s have a look at why—the best is at the end.

Workshops are typically tailor made—for businesses.

Unlike a ‘typical’ course which usually has a pretty fixed format (once developed), workshops (especially) that are delivered in the workplace by an external facilitator are usually created for an audience to achieve a specific outcome, either for each workshop or customized from a basic template.

Although this is fantastic for the business itself, the facilitator is behind the eight ball because they can never have enough information to create the perfect session. Think of it like this.

Your client wants you to teach something for them—you don’t truly know all of the in’s and out’s of their business but you need to teach them new material based on their demands, and get them to an outcome. Challenging at the least.

Picture of two tools
Allen key & Wrench

The facilitator does not know the audience cross section before they get there—especially in the workplace.

The owner of the workshop is in a constant state of reading the audience. On its own this is purely an instructional skill, and all instructors should be able to do this, but depending on the agenda & the audience cross section itself, the facilitator doesn’t know the skill or understanding before they get there.

In a course you have the opportunity to pre-qualify the client before you start—but in workshops you can have a broad spectrum of capability.

For example—let say a workshop is being organized for leadership & management training. The cross section could have lone managers without staff, managers who have never been taught or exposed to external theoretical or practical content but have been simply given a title with no guidance. You can also have ‘managers’ who believe they are the gift to commerce who choose to sit training out! The bigger the skill & knowledge spread the more chance there is for a collective loss of cohesion.

They aren’t lessons & they’re not courses.

Workshops typically take a few hours or even a day to run. A course which fully teaches, revises, practices and assesses a skill can take days to run and lessons can be done within an hour. Workshops are, highly interactive development sessions—to develop known skills & create immediate take away outcomes. So their real advantage is where collective skill & knowledge already has a high starting point.

When it comes to audience engagement & interaction workshops often make use of ‘experiential learning’ or ‘peer-to-peer’ learning. Now as good as this sounds and as well as it works it comes with risks.

Dominant personalities within the audience can easily smother less confident members of the audience. As the facilitator your role then becomes about restraining those big personalities in order to provide more benefit for less confident and experienced members.

But also when experiential discussions are used, there is the element of risk here too. If you can imagine an audience with low experience . . . say a junior team that are all early into new responsibilities without much support or guidance.

Chances are they will get less from one another due to low overall experience, and especially if the group struggles with creativity or motivation, ‘skill ceilings’ can accidentally be put in place; because if the group cannot create new ideas or thinking, then they’re experience is going to be ‘as good as it gets’

The real reason Workshops fail

Time, is not your friend when it comes to skill development. As mentioned courses and lessons can (and should take time) take days. But . . . who has days to spend on training when work needs to be done now?

Workshops (at the high level—on paper) achieve more than a complete course in a shorter space of time, but the overall skill level at the end, and in the following week/s tends to be significantly reduced. Particularly without ongoing guidance, the small amount of information that is retained after a workshop is not fully utilized and with no subject expert around, the audience will tend to avoid new skills out of fear of misuse.

No Learning Confirmation

At least with the sample set of workshops that I see, confirmation or learning & testing of teaching objectives is something that I have never seen. So it begs the question . . . if audience skill is not tested then how effective are the sessions? It’s fine to have a great environment where everyone feels comfortable and safe, but what is the end state outcome? I have seen people attend workshops only to revert back old practices in less than a week after attendance. In fact when it comes to learning—rather than observe facilitators confirm learning, they instead ask; ‘What is the best thing you’ve seen today?’

Really? It’s not about you. Its about the client skill!

Furthermore once you break an audience down into small groups it is almost impossible to teach practical skills, functionally impossible to correct faults and stop bad habits and practices from taking place. In fact when the facilitator is focused in one area, other groups can ‘feel good’ about a bad practice and adopt this as their new ‘skill’ . . . the complete opposite of the intent.

Are they wrong? Should workshops be abandoned?

As I said, (you may find this hard to believe) I genuinely don’t have a problem with them, but like all tools Workshops are a learning & development tool for an audience that is aware of what is being developed.

Workshops are not a tool for new learning! They just suffer too much when it comes to the novice trainee.

Let me say it again—it is a learning & development tool! And like each tool there is a time, place and circumstance in which it can be used and where it is most useful. After all just because you know how to use an Allen Key to assemble Ikea furniture, doesn’t mean you can call yourself a builder.

Workshops have a place in teaching and in skills development, and are really useful especially when it comes to fast tracking milestone & development outcomes (particularly for walk through, talk through practice to get a client to do something for the first time), But make no mistake they are not ‘the best’ or ‘the only’ tool for use when it comes Adult teaching, and to that degree seemingly over used and over promoted by coaches and facilitators. Sometimes the circumstances for their use isn’t in their control—sometimes it’s just what’s expected.

So what method do I use for teaching?

I’ll give you that answer in a minute. Rather than look for an ‘awesome client experience’ an instructor who really wants to make the biggest impact will ‘Make sure the audience learns useful & functional skills. The audience will also have a good time when they do it.’

I got a lot of tools . . . and I use what works!

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#educationandtraining #education #teaching #facilitation #workshops

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