Seminar, workshop or class?

I admit it! I am obsessed about photography education. Of course I am. I teach workshops around the world. My wife is a university professor teaching photography. I run two web sites focused on photography education. I write about photography education on this site (and on other web sites.) I do all of this because as a photographer, I grow as I teach. The more I teach, the more I grow. And I love to grow as a photographer. So, a recent question about education got me thinking even MORE photography education.

An email came in out of the blue that read:

“I wanted to get your thoughts on taking workshops (which seem to be really short programs – 2-3 hours, 2-3 days at most), versus classes, which stretch for maybe 5-8 meetings, for 2 hours or so at a time. I really want to push myself and grow as much as possible.”

Like so many things in life, the short answer to the question of which is better is “it depends.” The long answer, which is purely my own opinion, follows.

Before I even start defining and debating the various learning venues for photography education, I would turn the question back to the person asking it and say, how do you learn? I have blogged about the enormous importance of really understanding how different people learn. There is no one way to learn nor is there a “right” way. In my experience the key to learning is to first to know how you learn. You can read more about my experience with that question at: http://thewellspoint.com/2010/03/12/learning-how-you-learn-photographically-and-otherwise/ and http://thewellspoint.com/2009/02/27/learning-how-to-learn-photographically/

As I noted up front, the way that I learn is by teaching. Teaching forces me to keep up on the practice of photography. It also requires that I come up with ways to clearly communicate what it is that I teach. That process is how I fully internalize what I am learning about photography.

Upfront I need to say, I am prejudiced! I work best in a workshop environment so I naturally lean toward those. I teach annually at the Maine Media Workshops, which have a great description on their web site of what makes a workshop a workshop:

“What workshops all have in common is an opportunity to remove oneself from the demands of everyday life and join a passionate community committed to learning a new skill or improving one’s work. While discussions of theory, history and criticism may be part of any workshop, what sets these workshops apart is a dedication to making. Students learn by doing, by trying new things, by seeing what works and what doesn’t. The Workshops experience is intense and all encompassing. It affords the participant the opportunity to live one’s passion 24/7. The spirit of sharing that permeates the community destroys any pretense and breaks down barriers of age and experience. “

Read more at: http://www.mainemedia.edu/workshops/about/workshops-community

I completely agree. The best part of the workshop environment is the high level of intensity of the learning and the way that the workshop separates the participants from the “real world.” My classes, whether in Maine or in Vietnam go best when the students put their day-to-day lives on hold and concentrate on what we are doing for three, five or seven days. The creative growth in a workshop is very intense and focused. The upside is that most folks leave my workshops transformed as photographers. The downside is that maintaining the new level of creative expression is hard.

I built two web sites to address that exact challenge. Photo Synesi http://photosynesi.com/ is where aspiring photographers can get written and narrated feedback on their work from master photographers. That is an outgrowth of this site, The Wells Point, where I offer free enhanced podcasts and information for aspiring and accomplished photographers designed to stimulate their creativity and improve their craftsmanship.

By comparison, seminars are typically an hour or so and can run as long as one day in length. They tend to focus on very specific techniques or artistic concepts. They often are fairly mono-directional, simply meaning that the instructor teaches and the participants take in whatever the teacher offers. They are usually too short to apply the lessons being taught. They usually lack the kind of in-depth creative growth found in other educational formats. Having said that, seminars can be GREAT launching points for those photographers who take the specific technical processes or creative ideas explored in the seminars and go out and apply those same lessons.

Conventional classes in a college or university setting predate both seminars and workshops. I suspect the fact that not all students do well in conventional classes is why workshops and seminars exist (and are a growing part of photography education.)

The obvious upside of a college/university is the fact that classes are spread out over a quarter or a semester, meaning the class meets many more times over a longer stretch of time. On one level that is likely to result in more growth as a photographer. This assumes the students go out and apply the class lessons.

Having said that, I do not do well in a college/university environment. Again, this is only my experience. I often find that other things varying from roommate problems to girlfriend/boyfriend issues frequently distract students in college/ university class settings. That or they are not that serious about their studies, usually because someone else is paying for their education so they are not as invested in that process.

A great college/university class can be life changing. A bad one can be pure torture. Finding just the right one can be the real challenge. Since that is not a realm I work in very often I have to admit I have little insight into how to do that.

Which one is best for you, seminar, workshop or class? I am not getting near that question. To start to answer that question, first consider how do you learn?

Once you honestly assess that it will be much easier to decide which venue will serve you best when it comes to photography education. One size (or one type of learning venue) never fits all. That’s true in photography as in life, even if someone on the web (like me) tells you otherwise.

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