Seminars suck, workshops are worthless, and most out there can't teach worth a lick!
That's a pretty bold collection of statements, and each point has some merit to it. Of course, these are generalizations, and not true all the time, but I can't tell you the number of times I've left a seminar, workshop or other "learning session" having not learned a thing and thought to myself "there's 4 hours of my life I'll never get back" or "what a collosal waste of time that was"! Meanwhile, others around me may have thought "Gee, that was great!" or "I learned so much!" or some other positive thing. So, seminars don't really suck, workshops aren't really worthless, and there are some fabulous teachers out there. It's all in how you learn!
The Premise: Learning is Good
That's right, I am always in favor of learning, and I certainly hold no corner on knowledge. Having said that, I have been a teacher, instructor, and trainer in several capacities for over a decade. I will never stop learning, and if anyone ever tells me they've learned enough, to me that means your mind is closed. Never stop learning, because that is the day you start dying.
There are many ways to learn too. Take a continuing educational class. Read a lot! Books, articles, magazines, and yes, even blogs are great learning resources, and with the internet being where it is today, there is a ton of content online to learn from. A lot is accessible for free (assuming you have the connection of course). There is absolutely nothing wrong with learning from free content or sources. Heck, I've even learned over the course of writing this blog. Actually, I've found that there's no better way to learn than trying to write about something yourself!)
Then, of course, there are seminars. Seminars are classes set up where one person gets up in front of a usually large group of people, and talks about something for a few hours - maybe even an entire day, and then those that gathered take their handouts, go home, and things are done. This is quite different from a continuing ed class, a college course, or even an online class, because content is built up over a substantial amount of time - say at least a couple days. Usually classes like those go for at least a few weeks or even longer! So, the question is - how do you know if a photography seminar or workshop is worth they money you're spending on it? The problem is that seminars are not the best medium for learning.
The Problem: The Medium
The problem with seminars is three-fold: time frame, persona, and knowledge.
- Time Frame: Seminars, by definition, are usually very short in duration. Content is super condensed and simplified for quick delivery so details and nuances are often left out by necessity. This also means that there's no time for hands-on, and discussions or Q&A are limited to one-off type questions (if you have time), and you can usually also forget about the chance to learn from your fellow attendees. Quite simply, the format is just not really suited to learning most types of material. Now, within the context of this blog, I am talking very specifically about photography seminars, but the same holds elsewhere too.
- The Leader: Most often, seminar leaders have no formal training in how to educate others. I've seen others try to teach in high school, college, graduate school, and the professional corporate workplace. However, in my experience, the percentage of those who actually were able to effectively communicate the topic in a meaningful capacity is exceptionally low...I would estimate in the single digits based on my own experience: Throughout high school, college, and graduate school (over 50 educators), only 4 really ever stood out for me. That's only 7%! How on earth can we expect a higher percentage of skilled leaders outside of education? We can't!
- Knowledge base: Never ever confuse knowledge with teaching skill. Just because you know the crap outta the content, doesn't mean you know how to teach others. Teaching requires training, development and learning on its own. Students don't care if you know everything there is to know about a subject. If you can't effectively communicate that knowledge to someone else, who knows less than you - you are not a teacher!
The Solution: What to Look For
As in any statement, there are exceptions. At the start, I said that seminars suck. For the most part, they do. The environment itself is not conducive to learning. The person delivering the content is not skilled in the delivery. And to top if off, expertise is often confused with teaching skills, which is almost always false Yet, amidst the pile of crappy coal, there are a few diamonds. How do you find them? Here are some key things to look for:
1. Limited content area - anyone trying to teach you everything about photography in one day is setting you up for failure. But if it's a seminar on lighting, or even better: one-light setups, the odds of success are now tilting in your favor. Similarly, watch out for seminars that try to teach you all of Lightroom (or Photoshop) in a day. I've been using both for years and probably am still scratching the surface. I can give you the basics (and some advanced stuff), but I'll never be able to teach you everything about either.
2. Limited class size - instructors who limit class size recognize the golden rule in teaching. Here the idea is that one person really can only engage effectively with no more than 20-30 people at a time. This allows for the teacher to gauge attendee comprehension, ask questions, get feedback, and either ramp things up, or dial things back to meet the needs of the audience. In a room of 500 people, this just isn't possible.
Some may argue that the smaller model kills profits, but I'd venture 30 people who learn a ton are better than 500 people who learn very little. They are better for word-of-mouth advertising, are more likely to return, and become soft sales reps more than most realize. You've built a community of followers with every class of thirty you are able to really teach!
3. Photography Workshops - Look for workshops that masquerade as seminars. Many often mis-use the terms workshop and seminar. A workshop will usually last more than a day, has a schedule (you can preview these) and includes time for hands-on, classroom stuff as well as "field" stuff. Anything worth teaching (or learning) deserves some dedicated hands-on time.
4. Certain leaders are the exception: Look for names that have been doing seminars or photography workshops for years and continually sell out. They will likely be the Hollywood style leaders in a certain field, but they are also usually very skilled at delivery too through years of experience. Some examples of excellent photography seminar leaders that I've both experienced and heard through respected opinions of colleages include David Ziser, Syl Arena, David DuChemin, and a few others...(click their names to hit respective websites for their photography workshop and seminar schedules...
Consider these thoughts before you sign up for your next photography seminar or photo workshop. How long is the class? What is the subject? How long as the teacher been doing it? Are they an expert in the field? What do others think who took their classes? Finally, consider your own knowledge levels. If you are already fairly proficient in a subject (say Lightroom), would a workshop showcasing the latest version (Lightroom 5 for instance) really be of benefit to you? What will you learn from that photography workshop or seminar that you couldn't get elsewhere?
Most importantly, ask yourself: Are you drawn by the leader, or the content they present? If it's the latter, the seminar will probably not educate as much as you hope!