Instructing Different Skill Levels in a Creative Workshop: Let's Fill the Skill Gap with Scaffolding
Updated: Aug 2
Tori McElwain with The Quilt Patch by Tori
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It was a Saturday afternoon, my twin sister had plans and my mom "voluntold" me to accompany her to a quilt piecing workshop. At that point, I was around 12, and I had made 2 quilts ever. These were made without patterns and very little knowledge of what I was doing, but it was fun!
I remember the instructor being so excited that I was there, but her excitement quickly faded as she realized that I had no idea what she was talking about. I was so confused. She was using words I had never heard and fractions that I was frankly terrified of (shout out to Mrs. Wayne - the scariest 3rd-grade teacher that ever worked at Lincoln Elementary!) I was so confused I just wanted to hide and cry in the corner.
As creative instructors, we teach a variety of ages and skill sets. We tend to separate kid and adult learners, so the story above isn't as prominent in today's courses, however, the lack of background knowledge is.
We have adults that come to creative workshops with a variety of skill levels and understanding. One of the best ways to support newer crafters and to make sure all of your learners are on the same page is to use scaffolding within your workshop.
Scaffolding is a technique that can be used to support learners as they experience new knowledge or skills. Much like how a building has a strong scaffold as it is being built, information or new skills also need support to help the learning process along. The end goal in a workshop or course is for them to be able to use the skill, technique, or pattern completely on their own.
How much support does a workshop need?
In a creative workshop, scaffolding can look like a few different things from terminology to foundational skills. Consider your learners' experiences while creating the description and projects for your workshop. However, if you're a newer instructor, the best way to understand how much background a workshop needs is to ask! Ask how much experience a person has and how much support they may or may not need.
In a smaller workshop (10 people or less), ask them to introduce themselves and share how long they've been in the particular craft. They will typically tell you not just how long they've been in the craft, but if they are self-taught or if they have taken previous courses. You can also ask them to share why they've chosen to take the workshop or course to get a better understanding of where they are coming from and their expectations (but that's for another blog post!).
Even in beginner courses, you may have experienced crafters who may just like your pattern or project! As a quilting instructor, I started by teaching beginner quilting classes. I had a 3 leveled series. In the first class, I had them learn the basic terminology, tools, their machine, and the basic techniques of quilting (such as cutting with a rotary cutter and how to do a 1/4-inch seam) with a pillowcase. I would always have at least 1 person who had already made a quilt that just wanted to learn how to make a pillowcase.
Let's take a look at what the less experienced students, the newbies, may need support with.
Except for money, the technical vocabulary, and the hobby-specific terminology, is the largest barrier for new crafters. Clarifying terms while working through a craft, defining terms as you introduce them, and making sure you are defining acronyms, will bridge that gap for a new crafter. I would also invite you to consider providing a terminology sheet that can help support the newest crafters in your workshop.
Providing Background Information
Our brains love context. Being able to help your learners categorize the new skill, technique, or pattern may greatly lower any anxieties, help them make connections with prior knowledge, or have the added benefit of setting you up as the expert in the room. Your learners will feel more comfortable with diving into attempting the new skill, technique, or pattern in your workshop or course.
This can be as simple as sharing a brief introduction of your background or a simple history of the technique. This can be especially valuable if the technique is from a culture outside of the dominant culture they're used to.
As an example, Sashiko is a hand quilting practice originally from Japan. It has been gaining substantial popularity in the United States. For a US audience, knowing this basic piece of history about the technique, allows the learners' brains to bring up images of Japanese art, textiles, and any history they may know about Japan. It puts them at ease and can help them understand the traditional hand-quilting designs that Sashiko is known for.
Here is another example of a pattern designer. While instructing a workshop about my Peppermint Twist Table Runner Pattern, I shared a brief history of my pattern design business, inspiration for the pattern, and different ways this pattern can be used which genuinely helped my learners. At the end of the workshop, 2 students let me know they loved the pattern, but their favorite part was being able to be taught by the pattern designer!
To sum it all up: Share a little background about you and if applicable, a brief history and/or context of the technique, pattern, object, etc; to your audience.
What tools do they need and how do they use them?
These can be physical tools, a workbook, or a reference. Taking a few moments to go over the name and use of the tools that your students will be using in the workshop is a great way to support your new crafters.
Just to clarify, if you have experienced crafters in your workshop, you will not need to go over every tool. However, sharing your favorite ones and definitely, any new tools will help set up your workshop for success!
Also, I would caution you about assumptions. Many experienced crafters appreciate the reminder or if they are self-taught, appreciate the overview of tools most frequently used to get to know more craft-specific terminology. It also helps your more experienced learners feel prepared as you go over which tools the workshop will be using.
For example, if quilters are signing up for a long arm quilting workshop to learn a more moderate to advanced technique, you can safely assume that they have quilted on a long arm. However, sharing your favorite thread, scissors, needles, or other notions (tools) you prefer to use for this technique and how or why you use them can add immense value and support for your learners.
What do they need to know before the workshop?
This applies to your description of the course and, in practice, when it comes to a multiple-day course.
Be sure your learners are set up for success by informing them of specific foundational skills they need, or by teaching them any foundational skills they need to learn/master before joining your workshop. Put the expectations in the description of the workshop or course. Be clear if a workshop is intermediate or advanced in skill level. If you choose to offer a workshop to "adventurous beginners" - be ready to support them with basic skills as described in this blog post.
For my business crafters! Creating freebies that teach, demonstrate, or compare tools for foundational skills can prepare a future learner and gives them excellent value when joining your email list!
I do, We do, You do!
Skills will have a greater chance of sticking in the brain the more times they are performed. Not to get too far into the science of the brain, but learning a new skill requires your brain to create new neural pathways. Those pathways get stronger the more they are activated and used, just like a muscle!
Inside a workshop, multiple demonstrations are very useful. Gradually allowing your learners to become more independent with each demonstration will support their learning and help the new information stick by firing those new neurons several times.
Consider the I do, We do, You do Method (aka Gradual Release of Responsibility):
Step 1: I do
This is you, as the instructor, demonstrating the steps or technique.
Step 2: We do
This is your student's first attempt with support from you. That may look like doing this step at the same time, basic step by step, or answering any questions and possibly re-demonstrating.
Step 3: You do
This is the independent step where your learners will work independently. Sometimes it's not possible to get to this step for every piece of the workshop, but it's the goal. For your students to feel successful
they need to be able to recreate your workshop on their own.
Again, for those in the back (I know some like to skim!): For your students to feel successful they need to be able to recreate your workshop on their own.
Let's review the best ways to support your learners while instructing at different levels:
Consider how much support your learners might need for a given skill, pattern, or technique.
Address terminology and acronyms.
Share background information about you and the technique or pattern.
Demonstrate tools and explain how they're used.
Address foundational skills in the description or teach them before the workshop.
Structure your workshop so your students become gradually more independent: I do, We do, You do.
The more you instruct your workshop or course, the more familiar you will be with what kind of supports would be valuable for your learners.
Any questions? Anything to add? Let me know!
Need help with an existing workshop or course? Check out my Optimize Your Course! For Quilt and Craft Instructors blog post and the accompanying checklist to improve your course.
I also offer a Course Academy and 1-on-1 Coaching! If you're stuck, need ideas, or someone to hold you accountable and make sure you get your course done to make it impactful and profitable - check out my Course Design offers here!
Grab Your Free eBook, Design Your Workshop, here.
Want to see more from me, Tori? Sign up for the monthly Newsletter here!
Grab Your Free eBook, Design Your Workshop, here.