Q: What Is A Masterclass?

Gareth Armstrong Online Learning - What is a masterclass audio video production

When the term “Masterclass” suddenly popped up on our screens and in our feeds a few years ago, I became very excited – finally an opportunity to learn from the best in the business.

Imagine my dismay after I pushed the purchase button and attended / tuned in, and it is someone sitting on a stage being interviewed by a host or sitting on a couch talking to a camera?

“This isn’t a masterclass, this is a talkshop / a talking head / a monologue!”

Why did I come all this way / log onto this website just to hear someone relate insights, stories, and experiences they have probably shared in an article, online forum, or through a video I could probably find on YouTube for free?

So what then is a Masterclass?

In order to answer this question, we need to take a step back into history:

From the earliest times, in Egypt and Babylon, training in craft skills was organized to maintain an adequate number of craftsmen. The Code of Hammurabi of Babylon, which dates from the 18th century BCE, required artisans to teach their crafts to the next generation. In Rome and other ancient societies, many craftsmen were slaves, but, in the later years of the Roman Empire, craftsmen began to organize into independent collegia intended to uphold the standards of their trades.

By the 13th century a similar practice had emerged in western Europe in the form of craft guilds.

The notion of individual training extended beyond the craft guilds in the Middle Ages. For example, universities advanced the same principle with the master’s degree, as did religious orders that required newcomers to pass through a novitiate. In medicine, the guild system applied to the surgeon, who also acted as barber and was regarded as a craftsman with less prestige than the physician. Lawyers served an apprenticeship by working in close association with a master of the profession.

Here we see the earliest form of masters of a particular craft or discipline training those who were to follow in their footsteps. It was a practice intended to deliver and maintain the highest possible standards in their respective industry. But the Industrial Revolution would change this – for more information – follow this link to Britannica.com (also the source of the above insights.)

Here are a few questions with which to examine today’s Masterclass offerings:

  1. Did the masterclass you attended last week allow you to work “in close association with the master of [your] profession” for an extended period?
  2. Did the masterclass you attended last week offer any real life, over the shoulder views of the master of your profession actually performing their craft or correcting an apprentice in the act of performing their craft?
  3. Did the masterclass you attended last week allow you to ask questions to the master, interrogating specific activities that your craft requires?
  4. Did the masterclass you attended last week have the master demand that you move the practice of your profession towards its highest possible standards?

If you can answer yes to only one, maybe two, of these questions, I would argue that you did not attend a masterclass.

Masterclasses, as offered in centuries gone by, were for the privileged few…

…whereas there is now a dramatic equalization because of digital learning opportunities.

This does not, however, mean we should accept a lowering of standards and all the marketing slogans out there – I certainly do not – in fact, I will quickly stop supporting a brand or organisation that markets a masterclass to me but offers me something else instead.

Ultimately, it is about value -a masterclass is a promise of a very specific kind of value. Great brands and organisations keep their promises.

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