Listen to the conference steering committee develop its strategy: "We simply have to offer workshops that will appeal to people who've been in the field a long time and are past the basics. Let's develop an 'advanced' track." This makes sense, but what exactly does everyone mean by "advanced"? The truth is that few people can articulate a definition or make a list of topics that everyone would acknowledge as beyond the basics. Mainly it's "we'll know it when we see it." The thesaurus in my word processing program gives me three synonym category choices for "advanced": "highly evolved," "old," and "futuristic." No wonder we're confused!
"Advanced" means different things to different people. Susan takes a look at this topic from the perspective of the learner and content. Steve looks at how an advanced topic could be structured.
Susan's Point of View - Is it the learner or the content?
Sometimes we bypass the choice of subject to concentrate on the expertise of the learner. This is what we do when we have a prerequisite to register for a program, requiring a certain number of years of experience to participate in the sessions. Of course, there is no magic number of years. We arbitrarily draw a line of demarcation.
On one side are newcomers, on the other experienced practitioners. The trouble is that "advanced" is in the eye of the beholder -- not to mention in the brain! Some of our newest colleagues are capable from Day One to consider quite complex issues, while some long-time volunteerism folks may have logged the time but will never "get it." Similarly, being new to volunteer management does not necessarily imply lack of education or experience in other fields, both of which might enable someone to understand subjects without much on-the-job learning.
Having said this, it is equally true that experience is a great teacher. No matter how educated or bright, someone simply needs time to encounter the many facets of leading volunteers. Only colleagues with a shared history and a mutual collection of anecdotes can approach a topic with confidence that all participants understand (on a gut level) what is being discussed. And this can be gotten only by years of experience.
Content Affects Choice of Audience
Whether or not "advanced" workshops should be limited to veterans must be determined in conjunction with the choice of subject. First, is the learning format adaptable by each individual or dependent on group interaction? Will discussion be sidetracked or less useful if newcomers wander in? Or will the session be structured as a presentation by the speaker without much chance to talk to others in the audience? In that case, it might not matter if a few people are having trouble following the material (although it would matter to those people!).
How much does experience matter to this subject? For example, an advanced look at recruitment of hard-to-reach populations would indeed require first-hand knowledge of recruitment fundamentals. But an introduction to international exchange, where few can be expected to have much directly applicable experience, might benefit from the perspectives of as many people as possible, regardless of years in the field.
Looking at Content
It seems to me that there are four ways to develop an "advanced" session:
1. Go in-depth on a basic subject.
If we assume that most training sessions cannot cover all the things there might be to say about a topic, then an "advanced" session can be structured to go "beyond the basics." The whole point is to go past what ought to have been learned in an introductory session, not repeat it.
A variation on this theme is to "get specialized" on a basic subject. If everyone in the audience is working in a similar setting or with similar clients, then it is possible to focus in-depth on the aspects of that topic with particular relevance to them. Introductory workshops are generic, covering many types of examples. The advanced level hones in on specific issues raised by the setting, clientele, type of volunteers, etc.
2. Select topics that are something of a luxury once the basics are understood.
Many things are primary to the work of volunteer management and therefore legitimately tend to be the subject of most workshops and books. It feels as if we never have time to look at the smaller, yet vital, topics. So we see sessions on recruitment, supervision, recognition, etc. all the time. It's a luxurious relief to see offerings on nagging questions: how to get volunteers to submit written reports (as opposed to the importance of reports); making the most of (as opposed to forming) an advisory council; working with school faculty who are grading student volunteers (as opposed to getting in on student community service).
One way to hold an advanced session is to offer a "clinic." Participants bring their specific questions on a topic and the trainer offers suggestions and helps the other participants offer alternatives, too. This format presupposes basic knowledge on the part of the group and spends time instead on those "thank you for the chance to ask this" questions.
3. Focus on issues instead of tasks.
Beginners are task-oriented, asking "how can I do my job better?" More advanced learners are ready to look at the bigger picture, exploring intellectual or philosophic implications of the work. This is what Rob Jackson discusses in his article in this issue when he draws the distinction between "volunteer services management" and "volunteer program overview."
From this perspective, any session on current events, legislation, the social environment, etc. becomes "advanced" when it moves from a presentation of the facts to a discussion of the meaning of the trends.
4. Practice skill development instead of absorbing information.
The less experienced the learner, the more the reliance on the trainer as a source of information. "Advanced" programs are structured to ensure that everyone in the room is tapped as an expert consultant as well as a student. Rather than presenting or teaching, the trainer facilitates interaction, practice sessions, discussion circles and other ways for participants to be involved in the learning on many levels.
This is why "advanced" programs often take more time than beginner sessions. There has to be opportunity for practice and reflection. For example, beginners learn about how to develop volunteer orientation programs through presentations, handouts and Q&A time. But more experienced practitioners want "trainer training," which requires actually planning and conducting a sample session, receiving feedback and taking time for self-assessment. This can hardly be done in a 90-minute workshop.
I look forward to our readers' thoughts on this subject. As a trainer and writer, I hope this essay will remove the focus from ME. I can't give a group an "advanced" session in a vacuum. It isn't as if I can make the subject harder or more sophisticated! I can start only from what has come before me. Sort of like "...to infinity, and BEYOND!"
Steve's Point of View -- Is it how the training is structured?
Sometimes "advanced" training is indicated by the shape or structure of the training, defined by the way in which the training is conducted or the length of time given to a particular topic or focus. This results in an equally arbitrary method of "cutting up" a topic to best match the needs of the audience.
Neil Karn used to abuse with great passion the workshop that operates by having participants break into small groups and talk about their knowledge and experience. He referred to them as "share your ignorance" sessions and began his own trainings by telling participants that if he wanted them to talk, he'd call on them by name. Some subjects fit rather well into this theory. I do a session on "Legal Liability of Volunteer Programs," in which I do almost all of the speaking. Participants get to ask questions, but they are discouraged from voicing legal opinions. Given the degree of misinformation on this particular topic, it seems like the safer alternative. As Neil used to observe: "If you didn't think I know more than you do about this subject, why did you ask me to talk?"
A contrary theory suggests that people must control their own learning experiences, and they understand best when they can directly practice and apply what they are learning. Adult educators have a lot of fascinating statistics about this, most of which I've always thought were based on some really bad training sessions, probably done by other adult educators. (Oops. A little bit of bias may have slipped in there. If you're Nancy Macduff, feel free to post a scathing alternate view of reality here.) The notion behind this is that people learn best through "doing," so training sessions should be based around activities.
If you like this theory of "participants rule," I have a great workshop called "Working Without a Net." It goes like this:
trainer breaks participants into small groups and hands out case study
participants analyze, argue, think and exchange ideas
trainer eavesdrops and gives time signals
All the "work" goes into developing a case study rich enough to fuel the discussion, which in this scenario involves the volunteer program of the Animal Relief Facility, affectionately known as "ARF." Rick Lynch has always dreamed about doing a session in which the role of the "trainer" is limited to the following instruction: "Break into small groups and talk about something that interests you."
Over the years I've developed my own set of notions about training:
Changes in knowledge can actually be transmitted by direct lecture, despite the notions of many adult educators. You just have to be a very good trainer to hold people's attention and get them to think. (Side comment for adult educators: for some people, "thinking" is an activity.
Changes in attitude can best be produced by peer interaction and discussion. You can, however, do some of this by using surrogates and role models in presentations. Those of you who have ever heard Rick Lynch tell one of his longer stories will get what this is all about. Rick's stories are terribly entertaining, but they also are perfectly crafted to get you to see another point of view or gain a deeper understanding of a situation -- almost like interacting with the cast of characters and hearing their side of the story. This is why fictional books are usually more powerful than factual ones -- they're more "real."
Changes in skill level can be produced only by practice. This is a problem in many trainings, since the acquisition of skills is directly proportional to the length of time available to practice them and inversely proportional to the number of other participants who interfere with your getting personalized feedback.
Breadth of knowledge is enhanced by the diversity of other participants. Depth of knowledge is usually enhanced by the homogeneity of participants. The application of this is that if you're new to a program area, go to the national conference of your own organization -- you'll learn the most about operating that kind of program. If you're experienced, go to a generic volunteer management conference such as the ICVA or the National Community Service Conference, where you'll get a wider range of viewpoints about totally new ideas.
And so how do you do produce "advanced" training?
There's more than one way to skin a participant...