While the value of lectures has received considerable attention, the merits of in-service workshops are less frequently examined. In this short post, I identify the limitations of workshops as well as what I believe a well-designed workshop can hope to achieve. From the start, I want to make clear my position that workshop providers tend to be overly optimistic about potential outcomes.

Before evaluating the virtues of workshops though, I will describe their characteristics.

What is a staff development workshop? The use of an industrial metaphor must have become so prevalent that it resulted in a separate dictionary entry: “A workshop is a period of discussion or practical work on a particular subject in which a group of people share their knowledge or experience.” (Collins COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary)

I would underline that not just opinions but also reasons should be exchanged. If views are given without justifications, the value of the experience is doubtful.

Admittedly, there is great variety in workshop design but, whatever form workshops take, they tend to share several characteristics:

  • Introduction to key concepts and latest findings from research
  • A greater degree of interaction than lectures
  • Focused small group tasks
  • Plenary discussion and summing up
  • Collection of evaluations

Sometimes, events advertised as workshops turn out to be disguised lectures. The person conducting the session offers little opportunity for participants to discuss, or to carry out joint tasks on, the topic in question. Peer interaction is an essential feature of workshops and this interaction needs to be properly focused. Just asking participants to talk about a topic leads to people going off at tangents, in my experience. Thus, the interaction needs to take the form of small group tasks that have outcomes of direct relevance to the intended workshop outcomes.

The good intentions in making workshops available are, I believe, that by attending them academic teaching staff will

  1. be able to remain current in their knowledge of learning & teaching matters
  2. have a platform to discuss pertinent pedagogic matters with peers
  3. find inspiration for the enhancement of learning-teaching, assessment and curriculum design, and
  4. gain new strategies for experimentation in their respective learning-teaching contexts.

There is a problem with 1) above for the workshop designer. How to select the level of input complexity when the participants background knowledge is likely to be varied and often cannot be discovered prior to the event? This is not like teaching a regular class where the instructor really gets to know the learners and can estimate the appropriate challenge for them. It is not practical to differentiate the content if a conventional workshop format is retained.

2) and 3) above are achievable but 4) is not. In my workshop designs I do not include learning outcomes that predict that workshop participants will gain fresh strategies. This is because those strategies need to be tried out on multiple occasions, adjusted and refined before they can be said to part of a teacher’s repertoire.

Workshops are a ubiquitous feature of in-service development. At every educational institution that I have known, a programme of staff development sessions was made available on a range of educational topics. Providers of workshops included education authorities, learning & teaching centres, invited external experts, etc. Attendance at these events was recorded and credited by the institutions as evidence of ongoing development. However, they were not sufficient in themselves to provide evidence of development in practice, just development of conceptions about practice.

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