Workshop design - A workshop? Why a workshop?

In this first article in her series on creating and delivering workshops, Tessa Woodward explores the pros and cons of workshops for the professional development of teachers.

Before we get cracking on this series of articles on designing workshops, we need to consider some basic questions to make sure that we are all ’on the same page’ as the expression goes. It is worth considering if a workshop is really the right way forward for an institution interested in teacher learning. 

What is a workshop?

A workshop is a meeting, often face to face (but Skype, video conferencing and other simultaneous electronic forms of communication are also possible). At the meeting, a group of participants gain information, engage in intensive discussion, raise ideas and take part in practical activities on a defined subject. Workshops may be one-off events lasting just an hour, or longer taking up a day or a weekend, or they may be run as a series that gradually builds a topic or topics over time. They may be run in staff time, may have a budget or neither of these. 

What are the disadvantages of workshops?

One-off workshops have been criticised recently for many reasons. Participants attending may have very disparate skills and knowledge. The topic chosen may not be relevant to all participants. It can be hard to get everyone together on the same day in the same place. There can be resentment towards a workshop leader if they have no natural authority or simply jet in and jet out and do not understand the local context. Some participants may be reluctant to join in whole heartedly if others more dominant, or in hierarchically superior roles, are present. If the workshop is short with little or no pre-work or follow-up, it is doubtful whether a great deal can be achieved. The content may be quickly forgotten, or it may be difficult to understand well enough to put into practice. Workshops represent a lot of staff time. If we consider that, say, ten teachers give up two hours each, that represents twenty hours of staff time. Suitable venues may be hard to find or expensive. Other more sustained options such as peer observation programmes, action research, or studying for certificate, diploma or Master level qualifications have been given a more positive press recently.

What are the advantages of workshops?

There are many reasons why workshops remain popular. They are relatively cheap compared to running full-length courses or paying staff to attend events elsewhere. It can be fun for staff to spend time together, getting to know each other better, learning something new, generating and exchanging ideas. Workshops can offer a rare opportunity for English language teachers to speak English with other English speakers when many only speak English with language students whose level is much below theirs. If some staff cannot attend a workshop, it can be repeated. This means that nobody loses out on a thread of professional development. Workshops are relatively unthreatening to a teacher’s practice, style or beliefs. They can, however, be a chance to devise, meet or try out something new, without pressure to agree with it or succeed at it immediately. Workshops held in paid time demonstrate a management’s commitment to professional development. Workshops can be inspiring. And if planned carefully, many of the disadvantages mentioned in the section above can be mitigated. 

The overall purpose of a workshop

So, given the possible disadvantages mentioned above, it is important to know exactly why a workshop is to be held. Few people will be happy to turn up at a staff event if they are not clear why it is being held. If the purpose is vague or irrelevant to them, the chances are that teachers would rather spend the time preparing their lessons or marking homework. So, where does the idea of holding a workshop, and the topic for one, come from?

It could be that teachers have asked for a workshop. Perhaps they have spotted problems with a new course book or want to discuss how to implement a new curriculum. It might be part of a pre- or in-service training course syllabus. Maybe there is new technology in the school people want to learn how to use. Has a general classroom practice issue arisen from an ongoing peer observation programme?  Has regularly obtained language student feedback yielded interesting ideas? Are there new legal requirements whose implications need thinking through and discussing?  Would people like to get together to discuss some professional reading? Teachers preparing to give a presentation at a conference, may welcome the chance to try it out among their own colleagues first in order to fine tune it. A workshop may be the ideal way to kick off discussion of more sustained CPD options. Perhaps other stakeholders are raising issues that need to be addressed. The idea and topic for a workshop can thus arise from different sources.

Who is the workshop for?

Although it is traditional to run workshops for all teaching staff and only teaching staff, it may be more productive sometimes to run events for one particular sector of the staff e.g., those teaching exam classes or those who are in their first year of teaching. At other times, it can be fruitful to invite members of other departments to come along e.g. personnel in marketing, student services, finance, or the caretakers, governors or managers. This is so that people can understand how their own work intersects with that of other employees and how they can make things easier for those in different departments across the institution.

Although workshops may usually involve only those working at one institution or one site or branch, it is sometimes good to invite staff from other branches, or even from competitor institutions in the same district. 

Whoever is invited, the participants will all be adults. Some will be skilled professionals with their own ways of working, their own responsibilities and concerns. Each will have a view on how learners learn English and how teachers learn teaching. Some will want to work with academic resources, others with practical activities. Some will want to make things for their classes, others to be reflective. Most will be learning something other than English, whether this be pottery, Spanish, community mediation or tennis. Some participants will learn best on their own, others by pairing up with one other person, others by being in a group. It is thus imperative for teacher educators to work in a way that accords participants choice, autonomy and dignity.

Further reading

Beaven, B (2019) From traditions to frameworks for teacher training short courses and workshops in The Teacher Trainer Vol 33 No 3 pp 2-5 Pilgrims
Maley, A Ed (2019) Developing expertise through experience. British Council TeachingEnglish 

About the author

Tessa Woodward is an ELT consultant, teacher, and teacher trainer. She has trained teachers in Japan, Switzerland, the UK, USA, and in many European countries. She is the founder editor of The Teacher Trainer journal (Pilgrims), Past President and International Ambassador of IATEFL and founded the IATEFL Special Interest Group for Teacher Trainers (now the SIG T Ed/TT). She is the author of many books and articles for language teachers and teacher trainers. Tessa is also the founder of The Fair List.

Read the other articles in this series

Workshop design - What can a workshop be about?

Workshop design - How can I put it all together?

Workshop design - Have I forgotten anything?

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