Photography Workshops and Castrating Sheep

I've always maintained a healthy scepticism of photographic workshops, for the reasons that I outline below. However, I receive numerous photography-based questions by email and via various channels so I've decided to begin offering some workshops. Gasp! Thing is, it's what I do anyway. With 17 years of teaching and lecturing experience plus 10 years of Instructional Design and Learning Consulting roles for Corporate - I'd be able to put together quite a reasonable workshop. My knowledge of the subject matter (photography) is extensive so I'm asking myself why not? My partner Gina and most likely one or two friends will also contribute and invest their own sets of skills and knowledge.

Photographic workshops have become the primary source of income for some photographers. With the boom in the sheer numbers of people taking photos, there's been a boom in the concept of the photographic workshop. Unfortunately many workshops that have sprung out of this rich field of opportunity have been just that, and only that - opportunistic ventures for financial gain and no other reason. What's wrong with that you might ask? The poor punters who have paid thousands of dollars for the 'expertise' of the organiser have often payed for a less than adequate learning experience.

There are three areas in question with any learning experience and all three must be on the table and in no doubt prior to the workshop.

  1. Content
  2. Instructional Design
  3. Ability of the Trainer to train

1. Content

The organiser of the workshop, or the person hired to deliver it, must be an absolute expert in the content being delivered. This person is usually referred to as a Subject Matter Expert, or just a SME for short. To actually deliver training though requires a lot more than just the knowledge of a SME - and much of this is underpinned by the Instructional Design of the workshop. Of course there is also the ability to teach, to train that is hugely important and this includes numerous other things such as being able to read all your learners and anticipate whether they're learning or not to enable quick redirection in the delivery style or method. We all know that often, the people who know the most about a subject are sometimes the worst people to deliver it. Think of all those Uni professors! Hopeless!

2. Instructional Design

"Instructional Design is the practice of creating "instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing." What that means is that the punter learns more and learns better, they remember more and they are able to put into practise what they learnt and even extend that knowledge into areas that weren't directly approached within the workshop.

An Instructional Designer writes and designs training courses and learning activities. Uni lecturers are not Instructional Designers and that's why Uni sucks!

There's a whole heap of stuff that goes into good Instructional Design (ID). A good ID knows all of the following and more:

  • How people learn
  • How people remember
  • When and how to engage the learner's long term or short term memory
  • The theories of adult learning
  • How to sequence content for the best uptake
  • How to ensure all course objectives are met
  • Has a plethora of tried and tested activities and tactics up their sleeve for achieving the best learning experience for participants...

A simple image - but with lots of "stuff" behind the creation of it. Stuff like film selection, concept design, hair and makeup, jewellery, wardrobe, lighting, shooting (model selection & direction, communication, exposure, composition etc...), processing film, scanning film, editing and post production. Phew.

3. Ability of the Trainer to Train

A good trainer or teacher loves what they do. They get buzz out of imparting their knowledge to others. The have a belief that life is about learning. They love seeing the 'penny drop' in those they are teaching. A good trainer assumes nothing about their learners and realises that most of the people in front of them possible don't have the same background as themselves. Sounds obvious but think of the classic Uni professor who has spent their life embedded in one field of expertise. They often assume that everyone knows the stuff they know. Not true!

A good example of this is one of the adventures I had when I left school. I had a dream to work on the land so I found a job working as a Jackaroo on a remote cattle and sheep station in western Queensland. The old guy who owned the station had been out there all of his life and was in his sixties at the time. I knew absolutely nothing, coming fresh from the suburbs of Sydney with nothing more than a dream and a suitcase.

Old Stan didn't realise that some folk don't know how to "catch a horse". Most days were occupied riding a horse to the far reaches of this 100,000 acre property to do stuff like cut the balls off sheep or herd cattle for branding etc. Obviously then, my horse had to be "caught" each morning - meaning it was in a paddock near the homestead and needed to have the bridle and saddle put on it. This is a complex set of skills but the hardest part is catching the thing. My attempts were useless, the horse deliberately ignored me. I could see it was thinking, "useless city boy, hah I'll give him a bit of grief..." 

Luckily there were two aboriginal guys who worked on the station and these wonderful guys caught my horse every single morning for me until I was able to do it myself - those guys are another story altogether. They could have done what most whiteys did - make fun of the young city boy cause he knows fuck all about anything - but they didn't, they weren't that shallow.

I digressed a bit. Moral of the story is that old Stan, as nice a guy as he was, and as knowledgeable as he was, had no clue about how to impart his knowledge, or he just thought I'd learn myself somehow (impossible in this instance with that fucking horse).

There are lots of Stans out there (sorry Stan, RIP). During my professional career and also through my own experience of adult education and elsewhere, I've seen them in schools, TAFE colleges, Unis and workplaces. We've all seen it I'm sure. Beware of the Stan.