Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Tread softly because you step on my beans

I’ve been sent the above image by a reader of an earlier post. The image is by a young schoolchild - let’s call him Al – who has evidently been asked to produce a drawing and write a sentence to accompany it. Below his sentence is the teacher’s translation, presumably from Al’s verbal description.

Al’s character; Kasper, is rendered as a catlike being with whiskers, pointed ears, two spindly legs and arrows for arms. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that this image and accompanying sentence indicate that Al is thinking about what it means to nurture something: to sew a seed. It’s about cultivating a small grain of potential with the hope of seeing it blossom and bear fruit. As yet, the bean is simply an unassuming nondescript thing, but, as every child knows, beans should never be underestimated because someday they will become beanstalks. Kasper plants a bean. Al draws Kasper. Kasper is a cat. Cats are pets which, like beans (and children) need to be treated with care.

In a brilliant essay on adult paternalistic stupidity in the face of children’s passionate fascination with cartoons, Dave Hickey explains why the “spectacle of ebullient, articulate, indestructible animals” was such a vital antidote to the incomprehensible frailty of pets:

“What we did not grasp was just exactly why the blazing spectacle of lawn-mowed cats, and exploding puppies, talking ducks, and plummeting coyotes was so important to us. Today, it’s clear to me that I grew up in a generation of children whose first experience of adult responsibility involved the care of animals – dogs, cats, horses, parakeets – all of whom, we soon learned, were breathlessly vulnerable, if we didn’t take care.” (Air Guitar, Essays on Art and Democracy)

Kids feel these things. They grow to understand that they’re part of a chain of care and responsibility. They have to learn to attend to things which respond, often in very subtle ways, to their care. Children in turn, are cared for and it is the ways they are cared for which, in turn, model and influence their own acts of caring.

I realise that I’m laying it on pretty thick here but I think it’s important to acknowledge the huge disparity between what Al is talking about in his own simple way and his teacher’s utter lack of sympathetic awareness (tact). Sure, his sentence construction is poor but the response from the teacher is simply deplorable: a “well done” (praise) and an admonishment to think about his targets, when what he clearly needs is constructive suggestions and encouragement – after all, he has attempted to use a past participle when a wiser child (or more compliant one even) would have chosen to write in the present tense: “Kasper plants a bean.” or “Kasper kicks a ball.” or easier still: "Jack kicks a ball." You see, that's one of the risks with imposed targets: they discourage risk taking and encourage devious corner cutting. At least deviousness requires some inventive creativity, but then, such teachers soon stamp out this tendency at the first opportunity too.

But let’s be fair. Perhaps this teacher was overworked. Perhaps s/he had very little experience or confidence in interpreting children’s drawings. Perhaps s/he felt that legibility and grammar was the paramount objective (“target”). All of these things are probably true and ultimately, let’s face it, it’s only a brief comment in a notebook, it’s not going to have any lasting influence on Al – he probably can’t even read it anyway. But to think thus is to entirely miss what education is all about. As John Dewey once wrote: “The effect of an experience is not borne on its face.” In other words, we can’t know the true consequences of our pedagogic actions, and to presume therefore that something will have no lasting effect is simply irresponsible. As Al’s little story deftly illustrates: we can plant our beans, but we’ll never know quite what we’ve planted until they grow up.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Prejudice of Grading Painting Students

Image Credit: Calum MacLeod

Thanks to James A for sharing a link to an article entitled: The Justice of Grading Painting Students”.

With barely concealed smugness, Professor Laurie Fendrich discusses how she works with and grades "beginning painting students". Any teacher who uses terms like “natural talent” without the slightest hesitation has made a fundamental mistake, in my view, by assuming that some students have it and some just don’t. You don’t have to know anything about the Pygmalion Effect to realise just how self-fulfilling such prejudices can be.

Whilst frequently using the possessive form (“my students”, “my course” etc), Fendrich begins by describing how she found it difficult to grade her students this semester. However, as the article progresses, it becomes quite clear that she doesn’t find it particularly difficult at all, and certainly not because she perceives any problems with the nature of grades.

“Yet the moment of a final grade in a course is not a small matter. It generates anxiety for students as well as for professors who take the act of judgment seriously. Rough and imperfect though they are, grades function as a form of justice, the meting out of which is a solemn occasion.”

What? ...grades function as a form of justice.” Does she think she's some kind of high priestess who meets out judgement to praise and punish her minions?

“After all the friendliness and soft competition in a studio course, students are often shocked when it’s time for judgment. […] The answer is that the time has come. A final grade must be given. A judgment must be made. This, dear students, is life.”

That last patronising sentence had me instantly reaching for the comments box:

That’s the voice of unexamined orthodoxy speaking. Yes this is “life” as you call it (or “the real world” as others think of it too). However, the point that needs to be scrutinised very carefully is whether it could be different, or even better? The creation of art is very much an expression of this belief (faith even) in the power of creativity to transform experience. If we are simply to accept the status quo, as your article seems to suggest your students should, then what point is there to make art at all?

Rewards and punishments (of which grades are a common form) of all kinds are corrosive to creativity. This has been shown in numerous studies conducted across cultures and generations (lookup intrinsic motivation or check out the research and writings of Alfie Kohn).

Your article says more about your own acceptance of grades as unavoidable (“a final grade must be given”) than it does about your students naïveté in the face of life. They, on the contrary, seem to understand, if only intuitively, that there’s some hypocrisy at work in the way they’re being treated. You’d do well to examine your “dear” students’ shock a little more carefully. Perhaps then you’d realise that it is not “life” they are dealing with so much as 'an institution' and there is nothing inevitable about that, only what we unquestioningly accept as being so.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Lifelong Learning

Joseph Beuys, Untitled (Sun State), 1974

“As a society becomes yet more technical, there is no longer a separation from actual doing, and education begins to take up a larger and larger proportion of the lifespan; indeed, education becomes part of the way of life. More and more time is given over to telling (usually in print), to demonstrating out of the context of action.” – Jerome Bruner

…or of studying for teaching qualifications instead of teaching, or researching instead of practicing.

“Because the job of teaching is often insular, it is easy to fall into familiar routines. Such routines are not conducive to professional growth. For professional growth, we need, as I suggested earlier, feedback on our teaching. In even broader terms, we need to treat teaching as a form of personal research. We need to use the occasions of our performance as teachers as opportunities to learn to teach.
In saying to experienced teachers that we need to use the occasions of our own teaching as opportunities to learn to teach, I am really saying that, like any other art, learning the art form is an endless venture. In the best of all possible worlds, it never ends until we do.” –Elliot Eisner

It’s the difference between living an examined life and a life of examinations. And as Socrates might have said: a life of examinations is not worth living.

Saturday, 11 December 2010


Security panel at the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, which houses Piero Della Francesca’s famous Legend of the True Cross. ©Jim Hamlyn

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Critical Tact or Punitive Feedback?

Jenny Holzer, Abuse of Power comes as no Surprise with Ladypink, 1983

“The real question as to whether someone is a good or bad educator is simply this: Has this person developed a sense of tact?” –Johann Friedrich Herbart, 1802

Most teachers will be familiar with the situation where a student complains about feedback they've had from another member of staff. Most of these complaints concern confusing or de-motivating criticisms which have been made about their work. I don't think we need to take such expressions of dissatisfaction as an excuse to go on a witch hunt, but I do think it’s important not to dismiss them. It is only when we fully appreciate the power of critical feedback, not just to motivate, but to confound, confuse, de-motivate and on occasion to entirely alienate, that we are likely to realise just how important it is that teachers use critical feedback intelligently and tactfully.

Many teachers, and even some students for that matter, believe that harsh criticism is sometimes justified, but why might this be the case? Whilst students might benefit, to some extent, from becoming a little more thick-skinned regarding criticism, since in the ‘professional’ field art critics are frequently far more scathing than art teachers, it might nonetheless be worth taking a moment to consider exactly how people become thick-skinned in the first place. Practically all teachers and students who advocate harsh criticism are confident individuals already, who feel able to absorb criticism and thereby profit by it. However, there remain a substantial number of students who are a good deal less confident and, not surprisingly, these students also tend to be a good deal less vocal about valuing harsh criticism. The truth is, you don’t make a more confident individual by undermining their confidence. Confidence has to come first, then you can think about being more firm with criticism. This is where tact comes in. Tact is the ability to accurately judge a student’s level of confidence and pitch criticism appropriately so that the level of challenge becomes neither stressful nor boring and confidence is promoted rather than crushed.

“A tactful person is able as it were to read the inner life of the other person.” -Max van Manen

Art teachers can be an opinionated bunch at the best of times and for similar reasons we also tend to be very passionate about what we believe. But these strongly held beliefs also mean that we’re inclined to hold powerful allegiances to our chosen media, genres, styles and approaches to art making and are equally dismissive or even vehemently opposed to media, genres, styles and approaches which we see as outmoded, superficial, mannered, clumsy etc. However, any criticism that derives from such beliefs, as inspiring and persuasive as it may be, can never be anything more than partial at best, and at worst simply perpetuates the values of the teacher.

“The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence.”
-Amos Bronson Alcott

There are numerous circumstances in the teaching of fine art that call for critical feedback. Sometimes students produce work which entirely misses the point of a project or is founded upon naive conceptions due to lack of awareness or critical engagement. Work may be conceptually or technically flawed, it may be ethically questionable, vague or formally overwrought. At times, it appears as though a particular student may have simply chosen the wrong course of study and lacks the awareness, confidence or resources to remedy the situation on their own. And then there are students who are disengaged, lazy or offhand with work and who attempt to cut corners or, worse still, to pull the wool over their teacher's eyes by evading classes and/or trying to verbally embellish their work etc.

All of the above are situations where students might be seen to be falling short in one respect or another but it’s crucial for teachers to be able to clearly distinguish between such issues of engagement, perceive their underlying causes and, as much as possible, rise above personal preferences in responding to them. If someone is genuinely trying to manipulate a situation, then it’s pretty clear that they should be made aware that this is an unacceptable way of proceeding. However, if a student is simply naive, mistaken, insecure or misinformed, but is nonetheless engaging in good faith, then it is the teacher’s duty to constructively support them, encourage their engagement and to invite critical discussion about what is not working, rather than assuming a wall of unquestionable authority and backing this up through kinds of criticism that are practically indistinguishable from punitive feedback.

"In this direction he must, if he is an educator, be able to judge what attitudes are actually conducive to continued growth and what are detrimental. He must, in addition, have that sympathetic understanding of individuals as individuals which gives him an idea of what is actually going on in the minds of those who are learning.-John Dewey

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Inequality of Nice

"And this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! — It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word." -Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

In two consecutive tutorials last week I encountered the word “nice” being used to justify a decision about the presentation of artworks for exhibition. Should I have been surprised that two final year students should feel so comfortable using such an unqualified term during a tutorial? At one point, I asked one of the students to substitute the word “appropriate” as a means of highlighting the issue. At least when you use the word “appropriate” you have to think about how something is appropriate: appropriate to what?

If we wish to talk about artworks in anything other than the most superficial terms then the word nice has very little to offer. Nice is a nice word, which is another way of saying that it signifies absolutely nothing other than vague approval based upon no other criteria than gentility and convention. Nice demands no explanation. Nice is good and not nice is bad. According to many people, swearing is bad because it's “just not nice”.

Now, I’m all for people being nice and I'm all for nice weather, nice company, nice conversation, nice food and nice wine. But at some point, when we're wanting to understand a little more about what we do and like, we have to begin to think about our criteria a little more deeply.

Recently I've been thinking quite a lot about the issue of swearing and the extent to which our attitudes towards the use of expletives are often predicated upon contextual usage rather than simply meaning. Nice may not be a swearword exactly but its meaning is no less dependent upon user and context (and therefore it can actually be mildly offensive if used inappropriately, as Jane Austen was clearly aware). My nice is not your nice, but we have a tendency to use the term as if we had a shared understanding and agreement about its meaning.

It might be worthwhile to consider the idea of connoisseurship in this context. I have some serious reservations about the idea of connoisseurship because I think it tends towards exclusivity and critical stasis, however I'd be very wary about telling a wine connoisseur that they can pick up a nice bottle of Rioja from Asda for £3.99. My nice isn't their nice, but I'd certainly be keen to test their nice and to know the criteria they were using to form their opinion, and in the process, I’d hope to refine my own version of nice. The point is an important one I think, because it goes some way to explaining an unavoidable inequality in the way that experts and novices use commonplace language in relation to their specialist field. If a wine connoisseur tells you that your local supermarket is selling a nice Rioja for £3.99, it's probably worth a trip to buy a whole case.