Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Sticky Carrot

When I was studying towards a teaching qualification last year I was permitted to see the assessment and feedback guidelines given to my ‘mentor’. Much of the advice seemed perfectly reasonable, well founded and relevant, however, there was one thing nestled amongst the bullet points that caught my attention:

The feedback provided on course participant’s work should be:

· encouraging and motivating: e.g. give praise when and where appropriate. This will help motivate the learner.

It seems sound enough doesn’t it? What could be wrong with a healthy dose of praise? I’m going to argue here though that the answer to this question is far from obvious. Indeed, the use of praise is so commonplace that we’re practically blind to its subtleties to such a degree that it seems almost churlish to even cast it into doubt. So, whilst we might be critical, and even a little suspicious, of effusive or unwarranted praise, in most cases we tend to assume that praise is a good and even a wholesome thing.

“However, in study after study, measures of teacher praise failed to correlate with other classroom process variables, or with outcome variables, in ways that would be expected if such praise were in fact functioning as reinforcement.” -Jere Brophy

Ok, it doesn’t mean that praise is bad exactly, but does mean that in a wide variety of studies praise has not been found to reinforce learning. In addition:

“It is important, however, to distinguish between praise that directs attention away from the task to the self (because such praise has low information value to achievement and learning) and praise directed to the effort, self-regulation, engagement, or processes relating to the task and its performance (e.g., “You’re really great because you have diligently completed this task by applying this concept”).” -Hattie and Timperley

Here we find the first notable weakness of praise: its “low information value.” Possibly due to this very this lack of clarity, praise can also have differential effects depending on a whole range of circumstances:

“Research demonstrates that various forms of praise can have different kinds of effects on different kinds of students. Students from different socioeconomic classes, ability levels, and genders may not respond in the same way to praise. The use of praise is further complicated by the fact that it may have differential effects depending on the type of achievement being measured. For example, praise may be useful in motivating students to learn by rote, but it may discourage problem solving.” -Hitz and Driscoll

Although the majority of studies of praise have been carried out with children, there is certainly no reason to assume that the problems become any more straightforward with adults:

“older students perceived praise after success… as an indication that the teacher perceived their ability to be low. When given… neutral feedback after success, they perceived that the teacher had estimated their ability to be high and their effort low.” -Hattie and Timperley

So what’s the best response then if a student has been successful but you consider their ability to be high? You could certainly be forgiven for being confused here. But perhaps the issue brings us directly back to the poor information value of praise. If praise provides little information then it would seem wise to make every effort to supply this lacking information and to explain exactly what it is that merits praise in a successful student’s work. The valuable thing about such feedback is that it also ensures that both teacher and student are fully aware of what is working and most importantly that the praise isn’t simply the result of teacher insecurity or social convention:

“Much teacher praise is determined more by teachers' perceptions of student needs than by the quality of student conduct or performance.” -Jere Brophy

And here we encounter the obstacle of extrinsic motivation and dependence upon approval and reward. Increasingly educators agree that a fundamental goal of education should be to instill in students a desire to go on learning beyond formal education. But if students are hooked upon teacher approval, praise and external evaluations of their performance (grades) then how sustainable is their learning? And is praise really the most effective way to go about transforming it.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

School of Hard Knocks

Is it ever justified to crush a student or knowingly allow them to fail spectacularly?
"You might want to improve the student by first crushing him, as then you can recruit his pride to the love of learning. […] You do this not out of malice, but because you sense rare possibilities in him, and take your task to be that of cultivating in the young man (or woman) a taste for the most difficult studies. Such studies are likely to embolden him against timid conventionality, and humble him against the self-satisfaction of the age.” -Matthew Crawford, 2009
I've just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s largely excellent book “The Case for Working with Your Hands (or why office work is bad for you and fixing things feels good)”. Crawford evidently believes that the school of hard knocks has some valuable lessons for our self-satisfied age:
"There may be something to be said, then, for having gifted students learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their egos will be repeatedly crushed before they go on to run the country.”
Whilst we might be sympathetic with the idea of our leaders being exposed to some genuine and instructive failure as part of their training, I think Crawford's argument misses a vital aspect: the scalability of experience. Consider the following analogy: my seven month old son, Angus, crawled into my studio for the first time today. The room is filled with all manner of deadly and dangerous things and my first impulse was to immediately whisk him away. Instead though, I decided to watch very carefully and to allow him to stumble around the less threatening parts of the room. My partner, Lesley, couldn't bear to see this and left us to our risky game. During this Angus twice propped himself up on unsteady objects and inevitably found himself bringing them - and himself - to the ground with a noisy clatter, no injury and no tears (this time at least). Fortunately Angus has never had a full fall from a standing height but whenever he's in an upright position it's very clear that he's keenly aware of how dangerous it could be. Familiarity with minor knocks has evidently chastened him against an over extension of his abilities.

The point I'm making is that our more modest errors are quite sufficient to prepare us for life's larger dangers. It's rarely, if ever, necessary for us to burn our entire arm in the unforgiving flames of instructive experience.

So I don't believe it's ever justifiable to crush a student, even if you are fully prepared and equipped (and who ever is actually?) to pick up the pieces and “cultivate their taste for the most difficult studies”. If they exhibit the arrogance of "self-satisfaction" then it might be appropriate to allow them to them see the 'error of their ways' in stark reality but this surely needs to be done through having them engage in something they actually care about rather than forcing them to take up some random trade during the summer that, in all probability, they would view with supercilious contempt for the rest of their lives.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Valorisation of Trauma

Many art students will be familiar with the pervasive belief that ‘real’ artists have to suffer in some way for their art; that great work is the result of a profound and enduring struggle with an underlying trauma or neurosis. It seems likely that this assumption is in part driven by the similarly common association of effort with worth. In this peculiar economics of endeavor, the pain or torment of creative people is valorized as some kind of unique manifestation or potential for genius. The more screwed up the artist, the better they must necessarily be, so long of course as they manage to hold their creative output together.

There’s little doubt that this perception leads some artists to actively cultivate the persona of the troubled artist and to embellish their work through the stories of trial and tribulation that they construct around it. According to this logic, if each work produced appears to have come as the result of some deep anguish or at the risk of personal loss or injury then it follows that the object – the artwork - must necessarily contain some vestige of this struggle and is therefore a more precious commodity as a consequence. Small wonder then that some art teachers still feel compelled to encourage students to mine their personal biographies and small wonder also that there’s such a common association between artists, trauma and/or neurosis.

For many students this ‘common-sense’ connection between greatness and struggle can be a significant source of confusion and frustration, the cause of which can easily be traced to those more prominent historical and contemporary artists who have gained particular notoriety for their psychological struggles. Students end up feeling like they’re either incapable of competing in this fearsome arena of emotional turmoil or that they need to plumb their own psychological depths in order to dredge up some significantly painful spectre from the past.

The mistake is to confuse psychological struggle with profound experience. Trauma and neurosis are certainly clear sources of profound experience but they are by no means the only ones. Moreover, the belief that profound experiences are rare and inaccessible things that can only be encountered through personal suffering or by placing oneself in mortal danger misrepresent the fact that profundity can be found wherever one cares to look deeply, rather than how deeply fragile one is. The point then would seem to entail the pursuit and promotion of the kinds of profundity that do not threaten to undermine the integrity of the self but that instead place depth and significance where it deserves to be – ie: in the artwork rather than in the biography of the artist.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Digging up Skeletons

“Isn't the best way not to stunt the student's personal growth to leave it alone, as surely as we do not take too strong an interest in our children's sexual lives? Requiring students to bare themselves to us emotionally or politically as part of their course of study is arguably a step into areas we are (at best) no more qualified to deal with than the average person.”

In art education it’s still all too common for teachers to believe that it’s ok – laudable even - to encourage students to dig emotional skeletons from their cupboards. It’s somewhat endemic (for obvious reasons) but rarely leads to work with anything much to offer anyone but the maker. I’m not saying that art students should avoid personal subject matter, far from it – indeed it’s practically impossible when one is passionately engaged in something for it not to be personal. It’s just that if a personal theme needs to be brought out, it’s the student who should choose to do this themself and not the teacher who should solicit it.

I’m not trained in counselling, nor are the majority of art teachers. We’re not even trained in art therapy for that matter so I think it’s particularly inadvisable to encourage too much psychological delving. And whilst I think it would probably be helpful for staff to have a certain amount of training in counselling, I also think students that have a desire to delve into traumatic subject matter need to be advised that there is no guarantee that this will resolve their issues nor make for strong work. Undoubtedly there are a handful of artists who do manage to triumph over their demons and produce significant work despite the challenges, but these are rare exceptions. Often the only thing that makes a traumatised artist ‘good’ is the prurient fascination of their audience – teachers included.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Colour, Language and Learning

Ask almost any physicist about the order of colours in a rainbow and, if they don't already know, they'll most likely be able to work it out in an instant. Ask almost any artist and you'll probably have a 50/50 chance of getting a correct answer. Some artists evidently don't even bother to check:

And why should they? - observation and precision have never been prerequisites of a creative form which has more to do with feeling and meaning than its ability to provide representational accuracy. However, as with the ‘art’ of pictorial composition, it's virtually impossible to trace the slightest consensus on the meanings of anything other than the most basic colours. So whilst many artists have devoted their careers to developing languages of colour and many teachers, critics and historians have worked to describe and disseminate these and other symbologies of colour, there remains as much disagreement among the experts as consensus.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised then, that the use of colour in toy production is informed by nothing more sophisticated than the most rudimentary ideas and assumptions about colour. In this regard, a single universal consensus abounds: colour is good - and the more of it the better. This works out very conveniently for the toy manufacturers because they can simply continue to produce toys in colours that children find most attractive whilst parents have little choice but to accept that their homes will be invaded by a panoply of panchromatic plastic whether they like it or not.

On several occasions I’ve mentioned these thoughts to friends who, as a consequence, seem genuinely concerned that I might attempt to deprive my own child of the pleasures of colour (as if such a thing were even possible). They tell me there’s no need for a systematic education in colour from such an early age and that to put such a thing into practice would encroach, to a disturbing degree, upon a child’s freedom to explore and come to their own understanding of the world through individual experience. They also tell me that children have every opportunity to learn such things as they become older and that infancy should be a time of curiosity, play and discovery. No doubt these are all in large part true, but it’s nonetheless instructive to consider quite how significantly different the situation happens to be when it comes to the auditory world, and most specifically language.

Language is almost literally forced down our throats (or rather our ears and eyes) from the very day we are born. Words are stressed, rhymed, sung, spelled out, corrected and constantly repeated. We systematically inculcate our children into the structure and rules of language at every opportunity. We do this instinctively and for the most part we do it extremely well and have done so for millennia.

If infants were themselves able to create and propagate colours more easily than sounds, it seems likely that our primary form of communication would be through rapidly changing colour patterns as opposed to speech. This ability to produce would seem therefore to be a fundamental driver behind the desire to acquire language. In this sense infants seem less interested in language for what it might teach them - for what it explains to them – than what it enables them to do. They’re not interested to learn so much as learning comes as a consequence of wishing to engage, participate and create.