Learning from Professionals in Courses

The internet has also been bad for the hobby, the way it’s bad for all hobbies, Hughes says — because it’s an attractive diversion. (Still a technophile, Hughes has been on the net since before the web).
“Police Call King Calls It Quits” by Kevin Poulsen

I am usually a friend of book learning (now more Internet learning) or learning by experience (except in those areas where a ‘wrong’ experience is also likely to be the last). Experiences with courses were usually … not so good.

The longest weekend of my life was an InDesign course that I took to get a cheaper license — the instructor could not teach me anything I did not know except two or three little things, and he had the annoying habit of repeating every sentence three times in slightly different words. After the first two or three hours, my brain wanted to commit suicide. My fault (I was too advanced for the class), but even the beginners were looking for ways to resuscitate their brains. In another course (Salsa), the dance instructor tried to use a method that might have worked in Latin America, but was a complete disaster with German university students. “I do not show you the steps, you must feel the steps.” Yeah, I felt each step I took as I left. And even when the teachers were really good, sometimes it was the topic itself. In a drawing class we only had a few hours — much too little time to learn the technique well. The course was good but it left me unsatisfied.

But this weekend I took an interesting course in another hobby. The course blew me away and changed my mind about taking courses. It was one of the best courses I have ever taken and I’m going to continue with this hobby, which hopefully offers another outlet for my creativity (independent of computers and the net, these hobbies are needed as well, see the quote of this posting). So, I think that in some instances, courses from professionals can be really great. What are these instances — I think these here are some criteria:

  • Big difference between reading about it and actually performing it. Some things are hard to describe in books and easy to misunderstand. Some things cannot be understood until you were in the situation. Some require others or an audience.
  • Very steep learning curve. The content must be small enough to quickly learn the skills. It’s more a “see how it is done and do it” than “repeat it again and again until you can do it”.
  • The instructor is an expert in the topic and knows how to convey the topic (two completely different aspects!). Sadly, most of the teachers in public courses (e.g., community colleges) are people who couldn’t get a job anywhere else. And even more sadly, some people think just because they know the topic, they also know how to teach it (more sadly, because this can be learned oftentimes more easier than becoming an expert in the topic itself).
  • The discrepancy between you and the instructor in skills is large enough that the instructor could ‘blow you out of the water’, yet the instructor is still motivated and able to help you advance your skills.

But I think the most important difference, which was really crucial in this case, is the following:

  • The professional has a vested interest in the quality of the course (e.g., your learning). This may be personal standards, perhaps because they work as a team and other professionals are educated this way as well, perhaps they hope to attract customers (if this does not compromise his teaching), but there must be an encouragement — other than the money you pay — for them to do a good job.

So, if these conditions, and especially the last, are met and you get the chance to learn from professionals, try it. I still feel a little giddy from the course and the day at the Spa to come back down again, so, do you have other criteria I forgot to mention?