Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Value of Workshops vs the Love of Learning

There's been some chat on the internet recently about the value of workshops - actual and virtual.  It was postulated that, in terms of outcome - i.e a marked improvement in the work of the student - most workshops were worthless.

It seems to me that's a terribly commercial approach.  We invested this time and money and where is the improvement in the product?  Nothing very obvious?  Well then, we wasted our time and money!!

What a  very strange way to measure the value of something.  So many things are missing, just for starters: what the student wanted out of the workshop!   I remember one workshop where one of the students said her reason for being there was to escape her very demanding family for a week!  So for her the workshop was successful the moment she got there!  Other students come to have fun, it's like a fabulous holiday, so much more stimulating than laying on the beach getting skin cancer and reading trashy novels!!

There are so many reasons for taking workshops that I really don't think you can use one single measure (marked improvement in the work) as any kind of indicator of the value of taking workshops.

This is very true of online workshops -  some people are there to learn technique A or B and I feel that for the most part they do just that.  Or, if not,  they realise that that  particular technique is not for them - always valuable to know which paths you don't want to follow! 
Some people are there because they live in a really isolated place or with unsupportive people, and here in the warm ether of the 'net they can find fellowship and learning.

Furthermore, most skills improve slowly with practice - I can't think of anything  much where you will get instant success in a very short period of time.  Unless it were something very simple and straightforward and not a complex task like making art.

Indeed, the idea that we can measure how much a student is getting out of something by  a single concrete measure is probably coming from the current method of assessment in school children - how are they progressing? well let's teach them three facts, and then test them: do they know those three facts?  yes or no.  Yes success, no Fail.  Are those three facts something they can and will use, something they can build on?  Maybe not...but they are something we can measure!

 And, as many of us have had forced down us, it's important to be 95% successful in our goals and then next year try to be 96% successful. and the year after 97%!  Is education really so narrow and black and white?  When employed by bureaucracy I very quickly realised I should set my goals to something easy to achieve, and very measurable.  I will complete 6.1 units per hour next year!!!  But that's not art, and that's not what we're teaching in our design and composition classes.

When I start a class, I always ask the students what they want out of the class...and while most of them do opt for the items mentioned in the class description, they do it in a way that's not directly and immediately measurable: e.g. " I want to know more about composition  so that I can apply it to my work and eventually see myself making stronger work". "I want to find my own voice". "I want to learn how to express myself in color and thread".   It's a slow process.

One thing you can do for yourself after taking a workshop is to try to list exactly what it was you gained, and how you will put that information into practice.  I'm currently taking lessons, I make lots of notes of the new information...and between each lesson I go over those notes asking myself how I can get these ideas and skills into my creative output.

I just took a week long painting course...surprise surprise my paintings were not significantly better at the end than the beginning!  hmm does that mean the course was a failure? But, what did I learn from making those paintings?  can I list everything new I now know and can apply in future, gradually practicing so that they become second nature for me too?  And then, then, my work will be better.  And what I learned from the painting, I can apply to the quilts...what I learn from music I can apply to painting, what I learn from quilts I can apply to life!!

And what if you want to learn to create beauty? How do you measure that?  How quickly can that be achieved?

Finally, just what is wrong in learning  for learning's sake?  Just for the pure simple pleasure of knowing more about something, of stretching our wings a little bit and feeling some slight mastery of a new skill.  The great happiness is that zing inside when you feel yourself able to understand or appreciate or do something you could never do before.

Onward and upward! Let's learn!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading.  And do please comment....what do you get from lessons and workshops?  How do you know if it was worthwhile?



Linda B. said...

Oh I couldn't agree more - talk about measuring the measurable and ignoring the rest! The thing I love most about quilting in the widest sense is the feeling that I'll never run out of new things to learn about - whether that is about technique or process.
How can you measure self-esteem, companionship or the act of learning itself?
The only commercial measure you need is whether people sign up or not - and that's a measure of the teacher, not the pupil!!!

Jo Vandermey said...

As you stated sometimes learning for learning sake. Sometimes a new technique. Sometimes to be social. Sometimes to find out if I like something. The only true way we can improve is to practice what we learn. Take in the lessons and use what we feel will move us forward. For me it is to bring myself some joy because I love learning.

Online classes allow me to take courses I could not take due to costs of travel and expenses. They also let me work from home where all my stuff is.

In person classes are more social and interactive. I learn a lot from others and can share different perspectives.

I would love to take more in person classes as it would be a fuller experience. More interactive but for now I do online and read a lot. I also like a good technique dvd to have something to refer back to. I love rewatching my DVDs.

I do like your books Elizabeth and have enjoyed making notes as I read them . Maybe even some day I can take one of your classes.

Thanks for the thoughtful blog posts. It is inspiring to a relatively amateur artist who is trying to apply what she learns to improve her work


Margaret said...

I love to learn -- online and off! Will a single class/workshop/course make me an expert? Gosh, no! But...everything adds to everything else. I've recently finished your Master Class. I've even more recently created a small-ish (15" square) piece using a) layers and b) lost edges...incorporating a new-to-me technique (mono-printing) from an online tutorial...I got two miniature pieces out of the samples. I'm in your online dyeing class...with no space in which to set up a proper dye studio and no time to 'finish the assignments'. No matter! All will be stored away for time and space (when I can work outdoors) to arrive. I'm saving all the lessons as pdf files and will have a library to look at...and might even be brash enough to e-mail you with a question, possibly months down the road. It's a great 'pot' of knowledge, and I feel blessed to be able to dip into it as time and energy permits. Thank you for your contributions to the artistic learning stew! ;-)

Leigh in Portland (we are not burning down) said...

I take classes for techniques that I can use in other areas. I choose classes based on whether I can get the teacher locally or not, what they're teaching, etc. I have discovered that I get the most out of the class if I have a specific goal going in AND I set aside time after the class to practice. That is the hardest. It's easy to be done with class and re-enter life's rollercoaster and not get back to the class info for a month or more often way more.

I hope you will be teaching the dye class again. I too, had no setup, didn't hear about it in time to get anything together and didn't have time to commit to more than one lesson - busy weekends and a f/t job. Time is precious. Anyway, I hope you'll be able to do it as an at-your-own-pace class or similar. My other option is going to be Color by Accident, and then Color by Design and just work through those books. Any other suggestions would be welcome.

Katie Stein Sather said...

the classes I like best have a social component. whether online or in person. I really like it when there's someone in the class I know.

Sew Jacky O said...

Thank you for addressing this topic. I'm fed up with people questioning the value of my City and Guilds course. You won't believe how often someone has said "what are you going to do with that?" As if the certificate is the aim of the course!! Apart from the sheer enjoyment and escape from work and routineI have been able to try out lots of new techniques and processes, often using equipment and resources that would be costly to buy. This has meant I need only buy items I know I will use in theu future.

Molly said...

The classes I take are for the sheer enjoyment of learning. The ultimate goal is to become a better artist, but that's up to me and the amount of effort I put into it, and not the teacher. If I can learn just one new little thing, be it an obscure fact or a whole new technique,the time and expense of taking the class has been worth it. For me, online classes are preferable as I can work at my own pace (in my jammies if that's what I want to do), and if life intervenes I can at least download the materials and continue when time permits.

elle said...

No regrets but.. if I could go back to kindergarten I'd enjoy it more because I have learned to love learning. I 'had' to go to school; now I want to. I did a lot of classes when I began quilting but I've since learned I get more understanding when I am home alone surrounded by my supplies and minimal 'noise. Moving into mixed media art I have learned that everything influences everything, especially life. Thanks for sharing your own learning!!!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Great comments! And thank you so much everyone for sharing your thoughts....I agree with so many of them. I didn't realise how much I loved learning too until quite recently, but looking back I was always doing it - one of those perennial students - that should have given me a clue! A choice between a beach and a classroom is EAsy!
Re the dyeing class, yes my classes with the rotate constantly...I add a new one about once a year, but so far have not dropped any.
I do run a private master class which focusses on design and composition, not surface design. A class where the students can dictate the timing of the lessons would be an interesting prospect and I could certainly discuss it with my "boss" at the academy...the only problem I see is that the students would not all be at the same stage and so that might well cut down on discussion between them. Do email me privately about that: there's a link on the side bar for emails.
I do agree though, progress is always the result of a mix of desire, good teaching, commitment and hours and hours of practice. Thank you all! Elizabeth

Connie in Alabama said...

The value I get from a workshop consists of several things, all which are a direct result of the work that I put into the workshop. I get value right after a workshop from seeing, listening, writing, and doing the exercises the best way that I can. I also benefit by preparing for a workshop, gathering the ideas and photos, perhaps some sketching, so that I get more out of it while there. And then there is the long term value from what I assimilate and internalize from the exercises. It may come out a year or two later, in a different form because I'm expressing it in my own way. And that benefit takes effort, because I have to do the work to truly assimilate the learning.

amyfibre said...

Sometimes what I learn in a workshop is what I don't want to do. And that's perfectly valid for me.

I can't remember a workshop where I didn't learn something -- whether from the teacher, or from observing other students, or observing my own work from a new perspective.

Anonymous said...

learning is never wasted you never know when you will use it. Sometimes the things learned in a workshop are not just from the teacher.....but others around you. I like to learn because its fun.....Deb s.

KrisR said...

I always learn something - or take something away from classes whether online or in person.

My only negative from a workshop was a visiting teacher/artist who wasn't 'present' for our weekend. For whatever reason - she kept to herself, did her own work and only interacted with the students on occasion. However - other students didn't seem to mind this and seemed content. Perhaps it was because of who the teacher/artist WAS and not their teaching - I'm not sure. (Star-struck?)

I also think that sometimes I sign up for classes with expectation and excitement but by the time the class actually comes around, my interest has waned somewhat. That's more a reflection on me though! I struggle to stay focused on one area of creativity and bounce around frequently.

Elizabeth Barton said...

I think you're right, you get out what you put in...and also sometimes you find out that what they're teaching isn't for you after's all knowledge though.
I must admit I agree with you Kris R about teachers who just sit there doing their own work - UNLESS it's for a demo of course. It is difficult knowing what is the most helpful thing for the class, if you've been round everyone twice and helped them as much as they wish, and now they all want to get on with their own work! You do feel at a loose end. I try to sit there looking extremely approachable!!

Mary Ritter said...

As a former educator, I find that your thoughts in this post are so "right on"! The current approach to teaching by testing for facts is so out of whack.

I take online classes mostly because I can't focus in an onsite class. There is too much going on around me, and I continually re-evaluate my progress and change to keep up with the others. I've now taken all of your online classes, and of course, I have gained new skills. However, I have also gained work skills and organization approaches - perhaps in just doing the work and learning what "work dance" makes the process easier for me. I always hope to gain new skills, but also to gain artistic abilities and interpretive approaches. The last two can only be evaluated by me... they will never show up on a test. If I feel like I haven't gotten my monies' worth, it is always because I didn't do the work. But I love the reasons you give for others who take classes.... escaping from family pressures, enjoying the company of classmates, traveling to a new location ... all esoteric and definitely worthwhile for those people. When I consider taking an onsite class again, I will allow myself to just absorb what is offered and not be so focused on being able to complete the task at hand! Thanks for thinking and writing!