Sunday, January 13, 2013

Making the best of a bad situation: reflections on a lousy class

I love making stuff. Seriously, it brings me absurd amounts of joy to take a bunch of unformed things and turn them into a usable item. So it's no surprise that when I found out my local college had millinery courses I immediately signed up for one. I mean, I like making things and I'd always wondered about hat construction, so it seemed like a no-brainer. This should have been a class I loved attending, right?

As it turned out, not so much.

The course was a terrible combination of a teacher who didn't understand how people learn, a curriculum that was written with little thought for the audience, and a class environment that quickly turned angry and toxic. Basically, the exact opposite of the relaxing and educational experience I was looking for.

In attempting to find value in what can only be considered a horrid experience, I decided to look at the whole experience from the perspective of an instructional designer. If I couldn't enjoy it for what it was, I could at least learn from it as an example of what not to do, right?

So here are some of the key things I took from the experience:

Never assume that just because a person is an expert at a task/role that they're ALSO skilled at teaching it
My instructor was an incredibly talented milliner and clearly passionate about technique and the history of her craft. Unfortunately, none of this translated in being able to teach people about hat making. Unable to put herself in the mindset of a beginner, she gave instructions that jumped around, skipped steps, and were on occasion completely incorrect. Then, when the class couldn't keep up, she'd berate us and insist that we were having trouble because we weren't paying attention, or reading our notes, or skilled enough. It was all us and never her.

I've seen this happen a number of times. Someone is brilliant at what they do, so it's assumed that the're the perfect person to teach others about that topic. Knowing a topic and being able to teach it to others, however, requires two completely different skill sets. An instructor should be chosen because they know their topic, that's a given. But equal, if not slightly more, weight should be given to their ability to translate advanced knowledge into a form that's digestible to newbies. So either hire instructors that already know how to do this, or train your experts on teaching techniques before you let them anywhere near a classroom.

Just because your teachers/facilitators are teaching adults, doesn't mean they don't need classroom management skills
The students were confused by the lessons and frustrated with the instructor... the teacher didn't understand why her students couldn't keep up... as you can imagine, the class turned ugly. Several students got angry in class and one turned out to be a spectacular bully to classmates and and the instructor alike. The class became out of control and the instructor didn't seem like she knew how to reel it back in.

I think some people assume that classroom management skills are just for teachers who deal with kids. They aren't. No matter how old the learners are, there's still value in making sure your instructors know how to guide groups and diffuse tense situations effectively. In this case, an instructor with great classroom management skills could have done a lot to nip bad habits/bullying in the bud and turn the mood of this class around. Institutions need to make sure they arm their instructors with these skills and support them if a class goes sour.

There are still many instructors who don't understand how the internet and technology can help them
For a number of reasons, our instructor didn't have access to an in-class sewing machine. This meant that she couldn't actually show us a number of the techniques we needed to use when making our hats at home. As you can imagine, this lead to many of us struggling to learn from terribly written instructions (and failing miserably). Several of us took matters into our own hands and looked for help on YouTube, but the videos we found didn't always align with how our instructor wanted us to do things. When the instructor gave us project feedback, she went off on a rant on the poor quality of instruction found online. She just emotionally shut down about the internet having any value for her class.

The frustrating thing, as anyone who's ever used YouTube or other online resources to learn a skill could tell you, is that the internet is a fantastic place to learn. Yes, you need to evaluate your sources carefully, but if you can do that then you're set. YouTube in particular could have been a perfect solution to our class' dilemma: our instructor could have curated a channel of videos that displayed the techniques done in the way she wanted and then simply given us all a link to the channel. But because her beliefs about the internet didn't reflect the reality of what was there, she couldn't wrap her head around this idea even when it was suggested.

For those of us in instructional design and training, it's important for us to remember that we're going to encounter people like my instructor: people with preconceived or out of date notions about what technology can and can't do for learning. We need to be aware enough to notice when we're talking to people like this and continue to look for ways to adjust their perceptions in a supportive way.

It's worthwhile to learn a wide variety of skills
Okay, so the class was awful and I'm never going to be a professional milliner, but by the end I could at least say that I understood hat construction in ways I hadn't before. The skills I learned mean I'll be better at assessing the quality of hats I'm considering buying. I also have a much better understanding of why a well made hat costs so much. Plus, the entire experience pushed me to be creative in ways I hadn't ever been before. Those are skills that, for me, are worth having.

Experiences like this are why I believe so much in pushing yourself to learn skills far outside of your comfort zone. They give you insight into other people's jobs and help you appreciate how much time and energy goes into the things you might take for granted.

Take a Flash course on so you can see why it takes your development team so long to build an e-Learning course from scratch, try a sewing course at so you you can pick out clothing based on construction quality, or take a woodworking class so you can understand why good furniture costs so much more than what you get at Ikea. Broadening what you know about is always worth the effort.

It was a terrible course, but I did learn enough to actually construct hats
So that was my attempt at taking something from a class that was deeply frustrating. I'd love to hear about your experiences with lousy classes and what you managed to salvage from them.