What do you really want to know about the arts and crafts of landscaping and watershaping? That’s an important question for each and every one of us in the trades to ask of ourselves, because without knowing what you want to know (or at least what you think you should know), all of the talk about the value and power of education is just so much rhetoric.
I bring this up because, for a long time now, leaders and regular folks from all walks of the watershaping trades have been beating the educational drum. You read about it in every trade magazine, hear it in the vast majority of seminars and see it in the promotional messages of those who stage trade shows and conferences. Indeed, the value of education has become one of our industry’s most prominent talking points.
I and my Genesis 3 co-founders, David Tisherman and Skip Phillips, have certainly been among those who have made big, loud noises in favor of learning as a way to improve our businesses, the quality of our projects and the reputation of our industry. Yet, without specifics having to do with what it means to be “educated” as watershapers, all our words about the importance of education dwindle in significance.
TO THE POINT
I ask this question about what constitutes useful education from the perspective of one who craves information for my own benefit as well as one who, for many years, has participated in setting up educational programs for other people in the trades. When we were starting the Genesis programs six year ago, our only touchstone was us: We decided to provide information that we ourselves would want to know. In other words, and especially at first, establishing a trade curriculum involves large doses of educated guesswork.
Those programs have been a source of considerable pride for us, and I’d imagine that other organizations in the education business feel similar levels of satisfaction knowing that their work has done some good. I take particular pride when I receive comments from people who say that our programs have re-energized their interest in the work and prompted them to move forward aggressively in pursuing greater knowledge on their own.
Indeed, a key point I take away from the feedback we receive (both the positives and the rarer negatives) is that the greatest value in education is not always so much what is taken away from a particular presentation, but how that information leads people to see just how much is going on out there beyond the confines of the classroom and the presentations unfolding therein. As we’ve discovered, it’s the process of opening eyes and minds that has the greatest value: Our job as educators is to lead people to the trailheads of knowledge; it’s up to those folks to take up a different sort of journey on their own.
So, in organizing our schools, we’ve sought to provide a framework – and as it turns out, many people have found it useful. And that’s proved true despite the fact that our only roadmap when we started had to do with filling gaps in our own knowledge. For me, for example, information about the history of art and exploring the art in watershaping, hydraulics and design has been tremendously enlightening, as have many of the other practical sessions. (In all fairness, there have also been some classes that I haven’t found to be quite so helpful or intriguing.)
It’s been fascinating to watch how others respond within that framework. There are big differences between the backgrounds landscape architects and pool builders bring to the schools. That simple fact makes staging a single-track program tricky because there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides that need to be balanced. This calls for making lots of small program adjustments on the fly – and, frankly works well at keeping us on our toes – but there are spots where it’s difficult to find ways to bridge the gaps.
Consider the topic of plantings. For a great many people on the swimming pool side of the watershaping trades, the idea that one might need to know one plant species from another is about as foreign as the Latin used in the taxonomy of the plant kingdom. On the flip side, those from the landscape world tend to know quite a lot about plant material. The question becomes: Is education on plant types that are suitable for use around bodies of treated water something that would garner interest and be of use? To whom and to what degree?
I’ll be the first to stand up and concede that I really don’t know. Personally, I’ve found value in learning about plants and planting plans and that this knowledge has helped my design work. (In fact, my firm is now moving into landscape design to such an extent that a number of our projects don’t include water at all.)
Let’s consider the broader common ground of landscape lighting. We’ve all known for years that pool people tend to know nothing about lights that aren’t set in wet niches, but I’ve been surprised to learn that even landscape architects and designers tend to consider lighting a specialty and as something best left to others. I’m a bit mystified by the reluctance to dig in, and I’ve long been convinced that classes on the subject would be of interest to people from all walks of the watershaping world. But let me jump back to the question I asked to open this column: To what degree do people in the trade really want to learn about the subject?
Planning educational topic matter becomes even more challenging when you consider that with a topic such as landscape lighting, the knowledge people gain can lead them in one of two directions. Either they’ll get excited, continue the learning process outside our classroom and make the new knowledge a solid part of their businesses – in which case we consider the effort worthwhile – or they’ll decide that they’d rather be somewhere else and will continue to leave the work to others or to nobody at all.
In other words, those of us organizing seminar programs are left to decide whether or not offering detailed information about landscape lighting (or some other subject) has enough firepower to draw a roomful of students who will (if we’ve done our job) become inspired and pursue the topic on their own. That can be a tough call even though, on the surface, it would seem that a subject such as landscape lighting should be seen as a real opportunity to add value to our work.
Similar sets of questions arise when you consider topics such as water chemistry, industry-specific business education, soils and geology, computer-aided design, electronics, fine arts or site analysis. All of these are potentially wonderful topics, yet because trade education takes place in narrow time frames and therefore can’t possibly be all things to all people, the exercise of picking and choosing is both inescapable and often very difficult.
YOU TELL ME
So let me pose the question directly to you: What do you want to know?
I want to hear from you directly. (E-mail using the address listed at the end of this column is probably the best option.) If you’re so inclined to respond, I’m interested in the topic matter that interests you most, and I need to know why. I’d also love to know a bit about the focus of your business, specifically whether you come at watershaping from the landscape side or from the pool/spa industry.
Speaking from Experience
I recently received an anonymous e-mail in response to my column in the August issue regarding poor customer service. The note came from a receptionist who took the trouble of pointing out that people in the employ of others are often compelled by their bosses to be elusive where certain clients are concerned or to put up barriers to insulate their managers from the public.
I can understand that this is a difficult situation and that an employee would feel both hamstrung and frustrated when confronted by clients who don’t appreciate the diversionary tactics. My response to the receptionist in this case is that, ultimately, if my boss wanted me to under-serve clients so deliberately, I’d start looking for another job – pronto!
I’m asking this question for two specific reasons: First of all, the input may be useful in setting up future programs – and not just for Genesis 3, but also for others facing similar challenges as I fully intend to share the results. Second and more important, I hope to encourage you to take an active role shaping the watershaping industry’s education programs because it’s in everyone’s interests if more of us get involved.
Fact is, no matter how smart or well-intentioned educators are, it’s impossible to build an effective program while working in a vacuum. We can’t serve up the best information unless you raise your hand and tell us (and any other education-sponsoring organizations) what you want to know. Do you crave information on lighting, chemistry or art history? Or are there other topics out there that those of us on the supply side of the education game have yet to consider?
Sure, all of us process the feedback of those who attend our programs, and that’s a great tool. Yet we know those responses come from people who are already inclined to take advantage of the educational offerings as they currently exist. My suspicion is that many of you who have not attended classes may also have a great deal to say, so please do speak up!
We all know that balancing work, family, community involvement, recreation and vocational enrichment can be a challenge. Your time is valuable, and it’s up to us in creating our educational programs to try to make the wisest possible uses of that time. We stand a much better chance of doing just that if you tell us directly what it is that you think you want to know.
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of Genesis 3, A Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].