Education: Learning How to Fish

There are so many people jumping into the education pool these days that it is really hard to tell the difference between a reliable resource and someone who is just giving you fluff in order to sell you a product or service. However, there are ways to see through the marketing BS to see if a teacher truly has “the chops” and that’s what I’ll be discussing here. Don’t mistake this for a rant on people charging for their educational products though. I fully believe that if you’re knowledgeable on a subject and you choose to share that knowledge that you should be compensated. My problem lies within the “snake oil salesmen” who lure you in with promises of wondrous knowledge, only to leave you high and dry with more questions than you had before you started.

There’s an old philosophy that says “If you give a man a fish, you’ve fed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you’ve fed him for a lifetime.” That should be the philosophy of all educators but, unfortunately, it’s not. Many people (most of whom are considered influencers in the creative industry) tout that they have magic formulas for sale and that if you buy their book, product, or service you will be given access to said formula so that you’ll never have to worry about whatever it is you’re worrying about, ever again. The problem here is that they aren’t really teaching you a damn thing. They’re offering to help you put a bandaid over a gunshot wound. In truth, every project is different. Whether it’s graphic design, web design, photography, or whatever… There are no magic formulas.

I can’t make the above statements without ridiculing myself for a moment. I built a career off of being the “Quicktips Guy” with my Photoshop podcast. Every episode offered a 5-10 minute tip on how to achieve something magical in Photoshop. The truth is, though the show was wildly popular, it frustrated me greatly. I can’t really teach you something in 5-10 minutes. I was merely showing you a set of steps that you could easily repeat to get a cookie cutter result of the same effect. Any real value that was present in those tutorials lied within my explanation of the tools or the philosophy behind the technique, not the actual technique itself. That’s what people seem to misunderstand about education. Education is not matter of fact (at least not in this sense). Education is conceptual and philosophical and should be treated as such.

Ok, so what exactly should you be looking for in an educator or education service? First and foremost, you should look and see what, if anything, they offer for free. By this I mean look at their YouTube videos, sign up for free trials, and read their blog posts. While doing this, look to see if there is really any substance to what they’re showing you or if it’s just a big smoke-and-mirrors display of marketing speak. Most importantly you’re looking for them to tell you WHY… Why are they using this tool? Why are we making this adjustment? Why are we writing this code? If they’re not answering the why, they’re not teaching you!

One of the things that struck me when I first started working for lynda.com is that they place great importance on “the why” of instruction. When I recorded my first test movie, they instructed me to give them 3-5 minutes of instruction on a topic and to make sure that I explained not only “the how” but “the why” as well. I was blown away. Nobody had ever put so much emphasis on that before. Other companies I’ve worked for just cared about the “wow factor” that my tutorials could bring to their library, not the actual educational value of them. That’s what makes them the leader in online education and why I’m so honored to work here.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people use these dubious tactics… It’s actually a great way to ensure more income. Think about it. If you teach someone how to retouch a photo (let’s say) by following these 7 easy steps, but you’re not really explaining why you’re performing these steps or what’s going on in the background, you’ve almost guaranteed that your audience will have a crippled skill set going forward, thus making them come back to you time and time again for more “quick fixes.” It’s brilliant! What most educators don’t understand is that by teaching the idea behind the technique, they build credibility with their audience and credibility breeds loyalty, and loyalty equals returning customers as well. That is a true win-win for all parties involved!

No matter if you’re signing up for an online service like lynda.com or buying a book at the local bookstore, be sure that the material you’re buying focuses on teaching you something rather than showing you something. That’s the bottom line. Don’t be hooked in by the promise that you’ll be able to produce photos like some amazing photographer or designs like this amazing artist. The truth is, yeah you’ll learn how to reproduce that look or technique on a given file, but when a situation arises where you need to modify that technique or create something original on your own, you’ll be lost… Plain and simple.

Justin Seeley is a graphic designer, author, and online content creator. His work can be seen on platforms such as LinkedIn Learning, Lynda.com, CreativeLIVE, and Pluralsight. Justin loves helping both individuals and businesses reach their professional goals through education, creative services, and social content strategy.

6 comments On Education: Learning How to Fish

  • Well written post Justin. I have been teaching junior and senior high school for 23 years now (the last 10 years teaching photography and graphic design). Most of my career has been spent trying to get kids to think about the ‘why’ and not just the ‘how’.

    The teacher in me also has to point out that your are missing the word ‘it’ in your first sentence. Still an A+ article though.

  • Taking exception to your premise: ” The truth is, though the show was wildly popular, it frustrated me greatly. I can’t really teach you something in 5-10 minutes. ”

    Truth is I am one of those who loved your short “episodes”. My exception is, I think they taught a lot .. keyboard shortcuts, the names of processes, the knowledge that something was possible, how some action changed a picture. AND, there are many times that 5-10 minutes is all I want to invest in something new, or it was a break from some more mundane project – wake my brain up. You are very good at it, speak very clearly, and are succinct with the presentation. So, think about resurrecting the project.

  • Nice put together Justin, this is really hard on me though. Some of your episodes have brought me to this point. I will sure change my direction from now. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Hello!
    thank you for the wonderful post today for it is very educative. My concern has to do with something wrong on your footer in ABOUT ME. This part “…ranks int he top 25 software…” Please correct (in the) to give this website its A++. Thank you

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