Sunday, 12 January 2014

What makes a good workshop?

Everyone will have their own ideas what contributes to an enjoyable workshop run for adults. I’ve been holding them now since 1998 and many things have changed since the first few years. Mine are held in two very different locations, my kitchen in the Midlands and my Sanctuary in the Cotswolds. 

During the coldest months we spend time using the hob and the contents of my herbal larder to create syrups, cordials, oils and salves whilst considering what we might need to fight winter ailments or bring our bodies back into balance using tonics or bitters to aid the digestive system.

During the remainder of the year the learning happens mostly outside looking at plants, identifying them, sowing, growing and harvesting. We take fresh plant matter to make teas, vinegars, tinctures, honeys or elixirs using the simpler method. Thanks to a slow cooker there is usually the opportunity to make a double infused oil from whatever is abundant at the time.

When I first started offering workshops there were closely defined titles and I wore myself out doing most of the talking, trying to share as much herbal knowledge as I could in a short time. What I discovered was that whatever the subject advertised, participants would ask questions about something else, often leading everyone off down a different path for the majority of the allotted time. This worried me until I discussed it with other experienced facilitators and decided to radically change how I approached the whole experience.

Adults learn best through sharing experiences in small groups. This is not to decry the “chalk and talk” methods, which are superb at delivering large amounts of information to large numbers of people when delivered by skilled educators but whilst such information may well be retained and understood, the individual may not have the confidence to put what they have learned into practice.

Understanding is most easily assimilated when all the five senses can be employed. If people can see, touch, smell and taste a herb in its many forms they will remember more. If they can do something themselves rather than rely on others they will both understand the process and have confidence to do it again in their own environment.

It helps if you have a group of mixed experience so newcomers can benefit from someone who has either been before and feels comfortable in the environment or who knows basic procedures and can share expertise. As a facilitator, I try to assign tasks and explain the overall aims for the workshop early on in the proceedings so people can start doing something, feeling engaged and useful.

The aim of each workshop is to make one or more herbal items for participants to take home with them. During the activities there will be conversations about the purpose of these items, why it is being made in this form rather than another, who you would make it for, how you apply it, what other ways you could do the same thing and which herbs you might combine or interchange to achieve a similar result.

There will be stories about herbs and herbal products. There may be feedback about items made in previous workshops. Have they been strained if they were taken home to infuse? What dosage to use? Were they effective? What else could have achieved the same or a similar effect? For example, last month someone asked to make a muscle relaxing salve for his partner. We combined St John’s wort and agrimony oils with beeswax and everyone took home a sample. It had proved extremely effective for two different types of muscular cramps. When asked if there was anything else that could be used we talked about using a chamomile fomentation introducing a new word, process and concept into the conversation.

As workshop facilitator, I am there for three main purposes, to discover what each participant would like to achieve during the workshop, to support them in carrying out the tasks and answering questions to the best of my ability and to ensure they return home having experienced and learned something new.

When I had access to a photocopier, I would provide paper handouts for everyone. This isn’t possible anymore, so I  may provide one paper copy on the day and either email it to everyone afterwards or, occasionally beforehand. Participants are encouraged to bring notebooks and write notes during the workshop.

In the winter, we finish with a shared lunch where everyone can chat and share experiences. At the Sanctuary we finish later, but I always try to end the experience by asking people to identify and share one new thing they have learned discovered. Yesterday there were a group of three who played with vervain tea as well as making their tonic wine to take home.

“When I came here,” said one, “I was really worried. It’s all gone away and I feel perfectly calm.”

“It tasted like chocolate,” commented another of a tannin-rich bitter vervain tincture made from a twelve month infusion. “I’m sitting here happily away with the fairies.”

Two very new apprentices arrived late for their first workshop after a long journey. They admitted to feeling somewhat overwhelmed by all the ingredients on the table in front of them.

“I spent a while just looking at everything and seeing what I was drawn to. After that it was easy and I realised I could do this! It was so exciting.”

I try to make my workshops financially accessible to everyone, which is why I ask for donations rather than set a price. Participants bring their own alcohol, vinegar or honey and I provide home-grown herbs in different forms. Empty jam jars and bottles are shared. No-one goes home empty handed.

Here are some of the points I have found to help provide a happy experience for everyone.
            Set a subject area and programme for the day
Be clear in your mind what your teaching objectives/outcomes are for the workshop
Know the subject area thoroughly before you try to share it with others
Have any handouts prepared and available but don’t give them out until needed
Deal with housekeeping issues and introductions at the beginning
Discover from each participant what their best hopes for the workshop are
Try to tailor the needs of each participant to what happens in the workshop
Be aware of what each participant is doing so you can step in if necessary
Be available to answer questions and queries
Make sure the workshop has a definite ending session
Make sure everyone takes something tangible away with them
Get everyone to help clear up before they leave

Holding workshops can be very tiring and sometimes can be very hard work. My philosophy is that the people who need to be there will attend. My biggest pleasure is to watch the people who arrived with the cares of the world on their shoulders begin to laugh and share stories. They leave with smiles, hugs and a desire to return.


Emily | The Guest House said...

Such a useful post - thanks for sharing.

Elizabethd said...

Thank you for your visit. Herbs are a big part of my garden also.