DonnaM » Blog Archive » My workshop dilemma

My workshop dilemma

I have been teaching for many years (like 22) and teach often (4 workshops in the last 4 weeks). And in all that time, I have never resolved one particular problem. One that I have found harder as I move into harder work.

People come to my workshops wanting answers. They would really like to turn up, spend a day playing and go away with answers. Really, most don’t want to go away with increased skills, heightened awareness or a reading list; they want answers. Not only that, and they don’t know it, but they want those answers deeply embedded in their brains so they don’t have to think too hard when the next problem arises.

And I understand this. My user-centred, empathetic brain cares deeply about the expectations of workhop participants. I pay attention to what they think, expect and want. I know that I would like to approach some fields and get the ‘main ideas’ from the field – things I can understand and use straight away.

But my ‘experience-in-the-field’ brain causes conflict. That part of my brain says that I’ve spent a long time learning, thinking and doing this stuff; and that I can’t distil it into a set of rules. It makes me think ‘Duh. If this were so easy I could tell you in a couple of hours, don’t you think someone would have by now’.

This is the spot where some gurus have made their names – in context-free rules and answers. In providing the simplistic answers that some people want.

This is my teaching challenge. Providing the answers I’m confident about, letting people know I can’t provide an answer on the spot and raising awareness that much work needs thought. It is an incredibly hard balance, lifting people from ‘give me answers’ to ‘help me think’ in a short time.

I sort of think I’m making it. I’d guess 10-20% of people who attend my workshops start thinking (depends on the situtation – IA Summit the % is very high, in-house workshop is low). All my mentoring clients do. But I still feel bad for not meeting the needs of the rest.

3 Responses to “My workshop dilemma”

  1. Steve Baty Says:


    You don’t need my advice on this, but one thing I would say is that there are very few context-free rules in our domain. So we have to rely on our experience, and getting our brains working if we want to reach a good solution.

    If 10-20% of your attendees start exercising their brains instead of reaching for the IA for Dummies check-list, then I think you’re doing a great job and should keep it up.



  2. Caronne Says:

    Context-free … that is really not possible or appropriate for your domain. The whole point of IA and UCD is context, and that’s the most important thing that participants can gain from your workshops is that understanding. Even if they don’t think that they want it.

    Providing ‘answers’ could be an outcome if participants can workshop their individual issues and problems – no, wait, that’s context. Hmmm. You can get them to more personalised answers if you do a part workshop/forum, then part (hands-on) online tutorial with PCs allowing them to attempt to apply some concepts and circulate amongst them as they complete them. Each module would have tools and reading list. Post-workshop, they could access a secure URL to continue to work on their modules / tutorial(s).

  3. Andrew Boyd Says:

    Hi Donna,

    I think that all you can do is be up front about expectations – yours and the students’ – such that no-one is under any illusion going into the workshop that you will do their thinking for them. I know that sounds harsh, but if you make it part of your synopsis, then you’ll get fewer disappointees. Maybe even using the “give a non-gender-specific person a fish, feed them for a day, teach them how to fish, and they’ll feed themselves” and link “fishing” to “thinking in a certain way”.

    Cheers, Andrew

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