How much scaffolding does your creative class or workshop need?

I’ve been very lucky to have gone to a few creative knitting and spinning workshops. Apparently, I’m obsessed with colour work, hence I’ve taken TWO classes on it! This of course led me to compare the experiences and reflect on the differences.

http://www.kariebookish.net

Samples by Karie Bookish

I love learning, but I can’t help myself also paying attention to how the workshops or classes are run. As an experienced trainer I tend to be critical of teaching approaches. I’m always looking at how instructors address a topic and what that experience is like for the learners. Even though my experience is in technical training, it turns out the most important concepts are the same.

  • Let the learners be the heroes. Give them ways to personalize the content and express themselves.
  • Create a context for learning and problem solving. An obstacle course of problems to solve is better than a cable car with a specific path and outcome.
  • Demonstrate steps, provide instructional supports. They need to see what you are doing. Scaffolds and support helps!
  • Give increasing independence over to learners. I do, we do, you do.

Learning can be scary and frustrating at times. The amazing thing is right at the point someone is confused they have a chance for a pivotal learning experience. As a teacher you need to give learners space to get confused and generate problems and good questions. Sometimes you have to let the students make mistakes, so they experience it for themselves. It’s a leap of faith.

For example, I was teaching spindle spinning the other day.  Though I had explained and demonstrated that the “leader” (helping you spin and anchor the new yarn) should be coming from behind the hook (else it might slip). The learner had hooked it from the side, and I knew it was going to slip. Instead of correcting her, I stopped myself and let her make the mistake. The leader slipped and then I called her attention to how she had it hooked. From then on, she certainly knew how to hook the leader on.

Of course, if you have a classroom full of people making lots of interesting mistakes like that you will get some chaos. Structure can help. The more novice learners are, the more structure they need.

What is scaffolding?

When you’re teaching skills you need to give the learners just enough support so they can work on a task without feeling lost. If I’m doing what I’m already capable of, then I’m not learning anything new. There is a  “Zone of Proximal Development” in which I can do tasks just beyond my reach- with some help.

Public domain image

With support, I can extend what I’m able to do, and develop new skills and understanding. In teaching theory, this is called “scaffolding.” Scaffolding could be samples, a demonstration, a template, printed resources, and ad-hoc coaching. Scaffolding balances hands-on practical work as well as demonstration and theory. The supports you provide help a learner understand the steps to take so they can begin the work knowing what to do, and yet be able to make the important mistakes which are pivotal to their personal learning experience.

For the learners, depending on their level of patience, a certain amount of tension will build up to where they literally want you to GET OUT OF THE WAY so they can get started. If you’ve ever taught children, you might have had the experience where they grab something out of your hands. They are like a coiled spring ready to try it out. Demonstrate too long, and you’ll bore people and fizzle out that excitement. However, if you launch too soon, you send people off in all sorts of directions.

Too much open-ended hands-on practice will leave novice learners really confused. (‘How do I do this? What am I supposed to be doing?’) Too much theory/demo can put experienced learners in a passive mode, especially if they are familiar with the content. (‘Ugh, when are we going to get started? I know this stuff already!’)

What kinds of learning supports and scaffolding do you use?

The notion of “learning styles” is one of those theories that sounds so intuitively right, but is so completely wrong, and has been debunked many times but still persists. We’re all visual learners, aural learners, tactile learners: we’re all that – depending on our physical capabilities. We all need to interact with new concepts in multiple ways. The supports you provide can help learners benefit from all the modes.

Samples by Karie Bookish

Colourwork samples by Karie Bookish http://www.kariebookish.net

There’s a scale from low interactivity to high activity with the different learning supports you can provide in creative workshops. The trick is to ensure you use a blend of learning supports.

  • Samples: Let learners interact with completed samples or samples-in-progress. By looking at example work, they can get an idea of how techniques are used.
  • Lecture: Passive learners listen to a speaker, focus on theory or concepts. Can be more interactive with guided discussions.
  • Demonstration: Passive learners observe someone working on a specific task. Most hand-work requires demonstration.
  • Handouts: Learners can follow printed instructions or use worksheets to complete tasks. Hand out notes of main topics, links and references for learners as well. If you mention a book or a service, tell people about it.
  • Discussion: Learners develop questions and use dialog to express their understand and more experienced instructors provide correction as they form the mental concepts.

You can combine them in varying amounts depending on the content and the experience levels of your audience. For example, you can capture learners’ attention for a lecture or demonstration; and then let them work and practice using samples, templates and handouts. By using discussion, you can help give learners a chance to explain their budding sense of comprehension and you can also provide correction.

A comparison: A class versus a workshop

I notice in the craft world we use the terms class and workshop interchangeably, but I think we can make a more clear distinction between classes and workshops.

  • Class: Some theory, a structured schedule, specific activities.
  • Workshop: Little theory or demonstrations. Learners work in a less-structured, self-directed manner with expert support.

I wouldn’t make a value judgement – one is not better than the other.  However, I do think certain topics and certain audiences benefit from different approaches.

I was able to attend Karie Westermann’s Scandinavian Knitting class at The Glen Gallery in Culleybackey (of all places!) last Saturday. She was very clear in her approach, and she gave us ways to experience the concepts in a hands-on way. At one point she joked we were going to “wreck the shop” which meant hunting around for colours in the shop to find colour combinations, after she had explained some colour wheel basics. This gave us a low-risk way to play with colour and consider how they would affect a design. Then, when she picked up the colour theory again, we had all taken some time to consider these effects, and we could compare the choices others had made. Karie also gave us a way to be creative if we wanted to with custom designing on graph paper, or follow the specific sample design. Having that suited some participants better. This simple hands-on activity of colour picking also let us feel like we were getting started on something without getting into the main project without guidance. Design, afterall, was one of the learning objectives of the course.

In comparison, at Hazel Tindall‘s Fair Isle Colour Work workshop earlier this year, we got immediately to work with little demonstration or theory. We sat down to a pre-knit cuff and immediately got started on a specific design in which we all did one of two patterns. By limiting the project to two specific designs, we could focus on the practical skills of holding the two yarns, colour dominance and tension. We didn’t touch on design because it wasn’t a learning objective of the course.

As people came up with questions, Hazel would collect people with a similar question and answer that in an ad-hoc demo. I think this is a classic example of a workshop model. We were working along with an expert available to help us over our individual hurdles.

In a way, I felt the workshop probably suited many of the participants who were already experienced in colourwork, and had specific technique questions. It’s possible they would have been annoyed by basic introduction or demo in a more structured class, and just itching to just get started. Hazel has lots of experience teaching, so she knows what suits these audiences.

There was an enormous selection of colours to choose from, but we didn’t engage in a specific discussion about why you’d choose certain colours over another, or what effect it might have.  I was probably one of the people who felt a little lost since this was my first time attempting to use two colours at the same time. Though thankfully I had read through Knitsonik’s Stranded Colourwork book so I had a good idea about colour and contrast.

I observed as someone knitting next to me started working with colour choices that didn’t have much contrast. I didn’t feel it was my place as a fellow student to say anything, but in the end, she certainly learned how important colour intensity and contrast is to colour work. In a workshop you are given space to make mistakes so you can learn what you need to. Each person will have their own individual hurdles.

To compare, you could say that Hazel’s class was more hands-on, while Karie gave more theory and concepts. One wasn’t better than the other, it’s down to your learning objectives you have and approach suits what kinds of learners you have.

Novice learners will benefit from more structure, and experienced learners need more open-ended practice and a chance to get coaching on-demand.

Workshop planning tips

A definition of good training is the right content for the right audience at the right time. In real life, however, you will end up with a room full of people with mixed abilities and experience. This makes it hard if you have novices alongside more experienced learners who all need different content and different times. Here are some tips to help plan your workshops.

Define who your learner is: What is are the prerequisite skills required? This will help you limit what you need to cover and help communicate to potential participants if this is the right course for them.

Define your learning objectives: What is the special focus of your workshop? What are the main things you want people to take away? What can you cover in the amount of time you have? Prioritize and review what is important. For example if a specific technique is a priority and you don’t have time to delve into design, limit what designs are provided.

Warm-up activity: Provide a simple activity to warm up without throwing absolutely everything at the learner. In her spindle spinning workshop, Abby Franquemont lets people draft and spin fibre right in their fingers before they even touch a spindle. She also shows making yarn with a stick and pretty much teaches you the evolution of the spindle while letting you experience in a low-risk activity.

Create an obstacle course: In the example I gave above, Karie’s course emphasized design by letting learners look at design sources, and draft their own design on paper. As a comparison, Hazel left this element out of her shorter workshop, so learners would focus on colour and knitting technique. Define what activities will highlight the learning objectives.

Bonus and challenge activities: Planning small detours for more experienced learners can give them something to work on, while novice learners catch up.

Demonstrations: Practice and prepare your demontrations. Keep them as brief as possible for people to get started. Give just enough information. Provide printed materials with notes about the tasks and concepts.

Step away: Give learners space to make mistakes, especially ones which they can do with low-risk. Don’t pounce on learners right when they are about to make their own discovery. Instead, stand back and provide support and prompt insight with questions.

Dealing with larger groups: Depending on the size of your group, you may or may not have time for general introductions or discussions. You can let people speak in small groups however, and elect one person to report to the larger class what they learned or discovered.

And most importantly…

Get feedback: I think it’s odd that at almost every in-person creative workshop I’ve ever done, they never ask for feedback. I find that strange. As a teacher, I crave feedback, and work hard to make sure I get it. It’s the only way I can improve. Bring your own feedback forms, make them anonymous and tell people how much you appreciate feedback.

I hope that helps! If you have questions about planning workshops, I’d be happy to help. Ping me for a virtual cup of tea via Skype chat or Google Hangout to talk about planning your next workshop.

3 thoughts on “How much scaffolding does your creative class or workshop need?

  1. Thanks for this post! I really enjoyed reading it and it’s given me some food for thought too. Do you think that ‘obstacle’ courses work best when all learners are at the same skill-level? Is it trickier to deal with a big group of mixed abilities?

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