Saturday, 28 January 2012

Craft and Poetry (teaching and education)

"Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy", David Hockney, 197o- 71.

My friend John posted the following quote from David Hockney on Facebook today:

"I used to point out at art school, you can teach the craft; it's the poetry you can't teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft."

I felt compelled to reply:

Hmmm, Hockers [this was on Facebook remember] is oversimplifying as ever - nice for a soundbite but flawed as a reflection of what decent teachers really strive for. As I’m sure you’d agree, overemphasis on craft leads to vapid technical exercises whereas an overemphasis on poetry leads to self-important ineptitude.

Whilst it may be true that you cannot "teach" the poetry, as Hockney calls it, it would be a mistake, I think, to assume that it emerges naturally out of fine craft. Poetry can be nurtured, inspired, informed and encouraged just as surely as it can be neglected. Let's not allow our prejudices about teaching to cloud the issue. We live in a different world to the era of Hockney's studenthood and it’s arguable that art, let alone its poetry, is far less well regarded now [or at least regarded significantly differently] than it was in Hockney's time. If art schools devote greater emphasis to the poetry of art then this is probably simply a reflection of a belief that we have a duty, more than ever, to promote this easily trampled upon but vital aspect of culture.

Thinking about this again I think much of the problem derives from the way that we think of teaching as a form of imparting – usually of skills and knowledge: of quantifiable things. The idea that something as nuanced, complex and sometimes vexed as the poetry of art could be instilled in this way seems wholly unconvincing, preposterous even. And if we were to follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion then it would be pointless to attempt to teach the poetry of art, as Hockney’s quote suggests. However, if we were to think in terms of the word “educate” (from the Latin “lead out”) the whole issue evaporates. Many common prejudices about teaching seem to hinge on this subtle misunderstanding.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012


Over the winter break I spotted a copy of John Kay’s 2010 book “Obliquity” on the shelf in Waterstones. Intrigued I bought a copy and found it well argued and insightful. Having read few damning reviews on Amazon I decided to write my own oblique (ie: 1*) response:

If you’re like me then you’re reading the one-star reviews of this book to compare them with the five-star reviews to gauge the most convincing arguments. In that case let me try to explain why, in this singular instance, a one-star rating - in an entirely oblique way - is the only sensible rating to give John Kay’s excellent - yes Excellent - book.

When reading reviews there quickly comes a point when there is little necessity in reading yet another rave review - just buy the book. On the other hand, a negative criticism might actually reveal an underlying flaw that jars with your own values and perceptions and would thus make reading the book a pointless and wasteful exercise. According to Kay’s insight, this very strategy, of skipping directly to the criticisms, can be considered a prime example of obliquity ie: of taking a lateral route to make an evaluation about a potential expenditure of energy, money or time.

Despite whatever criticisms might be thrown at this book, the overall argument is a vitally important one: high-level objectives are difficult to attain because they invariably involve extreme complexity and uncertainty and it makes little sense therefore to attempt to achieve them by direct means. Kay provides a variety of examples from a range of fields to explore this thesis and he analyses the point from a number of differing perspectives and gives nuanced arguments to back his claims.

If you already agree with the underlying thesis and you’re not interested in any of the explanations then clearly this book is not for you. If however, you are intrigued about how the pursuit of high-level objectives can go so disastrously wrong and why a more modest focus on intermediate goals is often so much more effective then this book might well be worth a few of your pennies.

Some highlights (not in the Amazon review):

“I think that obliquity is a process of experiments and discovery. Successes and failures and the expansion of knowledge lead to reassessment of our objectives and goals and the actions that result.”

“We not only lack fixed criteria of what constitutes greatness in poetry: to have such criteria would be to miss a vital component of poetic greatness. When we describe a great poem, we use words like freshness and originality. Great poets do not necessarily conform to the accepted concepts of what constitutes great poetry. They not only break the rules, they redefine them. Such obliquity is a key part of what makes poets great.”

“We don’t reach decisions about how to behave, what should go into a poem, what to teach or how to run a company as a result of performing some direct process that begins with abstract speculation about these large and general questions. We reach these decisions through an oblique process of negotiation, adaptation and compromise. As a result, these decisions will be resolved in different ways by different people at different times.”

“The human mind is programmed to look for patterns and to seek causes, and this approach is often valuable. But that programming leads us to see patterns in random events and to attribute intentions where none existed. We believe we observe directness in obliquity.”

“Surely you must do better if you intend to achieve something than if you don’t? The metaphor of the Blind watchmaker illustrates that the answer to that question is often no. If the environment is uncertain, imperfectly understood and is constantly changing, the product of a process of adaptation and evolution may be better adapted to the environment than the product of conscious design.”

“We devote hours of staff evaluations, quality assessments and risk reporting, but these hours are not really devoted to evaluation, assessment or reporting: they are spent ticking boxes, and our personal judgements, our assessments and our risk management are based on other criteria.”

“Mostly, we actually solve problems obliquely. Our approaches are iterative and adaptive. We make our choices from a limited range of options. Our knowledge of the relevant information, and of what information is relevant, is imperfect. Different people will form different judgements in the same situation, not just because they have different objectives are because they observe different opinions, select different information and assess the information differently: and even with hindsight it will often not be possible to say who was right and who was wrong. In a necessarily uncertain world, a good decision doesn’t necessarily lead to a good outcome, and a good outcome doesn’t necessarily imply a good decision or a capable decision maker. The notion of the best solution may itself be misconceived.[my emphasis]

Klein’s paramedics and firefighters became competent by learning the rules and became good through practice.”

“When faced with the task that daunts you, a project that you find difficult, begin by doing something.”

“Obliqity doesn’t mean that we should stop thinking about objectives, fail to examine options or omit to seek information and understand as best we can in the complex systems that we deal with. Far from it: we should start and continue. The alternative to a ‘rational’ process of defining objectives, evaluating options, modelling consequences is an approach that is oblique, but truly based on reason and evidence.”

“To call these processes “intuition” is to miss the central point, which is that what we are describing as “intuition” is based on evidence and evaluation and is repeatedly successful when practised by Beckham, an experienced art curator or Picasso – and not successful at the feet, or in the hands or minds, of amateur footballers, casual gallery visitors all weekend artists. The more we practice the better our judgements.”

Friday, 6 January 2012

Expert Criteria

If we accept that we each apply subtly different (and sometimes radically different) criteria to the decisions that we make and to the production of our work then does it make sense to require students to comply with a one-size-fits-all set of criteria?

In 1989 artists and Turner Prize nominees Jane and Louise Wilson (sometimes known as "the Wilson twins") graduated from their respective BA courses in fine art: Louise from Dundee and Jane from Newcastle. For their degree exhibitions they decided to collaborate and to submit exactly the same work for assessment.

Unless I am mistaken, the two identical shows received unequal marks: one a 1st class honours degree, the other a 2:1 (2nd class upper). The twin who received a 2:1 subsequently appealed and her mark was raised also to a 1st class honours degree. We might be tempted to assume that the initial disparity in marking was due to either a lack of professionalism or thoroughness - which amounts to the same thing - on the part of one of the institutions awarding the marks. But there is another interpretation which we might make: each institution was employing different criteria.

All courses have criteria by which they mark student work but, in the Humanities at least, these criteria often differ quite significantly between different institutions. Thankfully this distinctiveness has not yet been overridden by a singular set of criteria to be applied to all work across all institutions. Such a move would surely make a mockery of education, even if it were to have the desired result of creating greater parity in assessment. Nonetheless, the disparity between different institutions in terms of the way that work is marked, ie: how certain outcomes are weighted and how certain activities are prioritized, may offer an insight into what we are actually evaluating when we assess student work.

During assessments it might be thought that we make evaluations based on the stated assessment criteria? We certainly strive to. But can we be so sure that these criteria really capture the full extent of our evaluative judgements? In the Humanities as elsewhere, few experts agree about exactly what constitutes the good, the great or even the deplorable, so it is no surprise that most assessment criteria are little more than stripped-down compromised rationalizations of a barely understood, complex and intangible process.

"Indeed, the history of dramatic criticism, including criticism of the plays of Shakespeare, is in great part the history of unresolved disagreement over the necessary and sufficient properties of dramatic greatness. If there are such properties, then, we must nevertheless admit that no one has ever stated satisfactorily what they are.” -Morris Weitz

When we judge a person, in no matter what aspect, is it true to say that we are judging them on the basis of that particular characteristic as an objective fact? Or isn’t it more true to say that we judge them on the basis of our own criteria of what exemplifies that characteristic? In other words, without a clear and precise universal designation of what constitute greatness in any particular form, we are limited by the frailty and capriciousness of our own judgements. Such judgements are based upon experience, experience which furnishes us with conceptual models - exemplars - that we use to compare with other experiences and artifacts. The more wide ranging and sophisticated these models, the more discriminating we become and the more elaborate and extensive become our evaluations.

Much as we may value our own hard earned criteria, it is the criteria that the students apply to their own work that matter, not their compliance with ours. If we want students to make work according to our criteria then, by extension, we wish them to make the work that we would make. What makes far more sense is that students are supported to make the very best work that they can make and in the process become as expert in their deployment of their own criteria as we are with ours. Granted, such criteria take time to develop, but far better that they should be formed through deliberate practice and experience than through conformity and compliance.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Delicacy of Instruction

How important is it that educational experiences be challenging? How challenging? And from where should the challenges arise? If such challenges can be just as easily provided by technological sources does this spell the beginning of the end for teachers as we currently understand them?

In the early decades of cinematography it was believed that film had the potential to completely transform education, Thomas Edison even went so far as to proclaim:

"I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. I should say that on average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture, a visualized education, where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency."

With the benefit of hindsight we can see how misconceived this optimistic vision was, but how could Edison have got it so wrong? The most obvious explanation is that his conception of education was constrained by his meagre understanding of the ways in which knowledge is acquired. Following on from the work of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, it is now widely believed that the most effective forms of learning involve an active process of knowledge construction as opposed to simple passive absorption. All forms of information transmission (film, TV, radio etc.) are therefore necessarily limited in their educational potential since they do not adequately engage the active construction of knowledge.

This may take us closer to the truth but it nonetheless fails to explain why video games for instance, fare no better in their instructive potential (though many games companies are investing significant resources in order to increase the educational value of their products). It would appear that mediated experiences of this kind are simply incapable of providing the necessary form or range of stimulation necessary to generate effective learning. Something else must be required, something that perhaps involves a more acute understanding and application of the role of challenge.

“When parents decide to intervene when a young child is having a bit of difficulty learning to tie their shoes is an important tactical decision. If the parent intervenes too soon, the child may become dependent upon the parent. If the parent provides too little help too late, the child may become frustrated. The parents task – like the teacher’s – is to be tuned in well enough to make the right decisions about when, how much and how.” -Elliot Eisner

As Eisner’s characterisation suggests, this process is an extremely delicate one which may explain why the job of teaching is often such a demanding and unpredictable task. Teaching, it might be argued, can be conceived very simply as a process of creating instructive challenges - challenges that are neither too difficult that they become overwhelming nor too simple that they prove tedious. Between these two poles, lies the productive zone of learning. However, the judgement of how best to pitch challenges in order that they operate as near to the point of being overwhelming as possible without tipping over the edge is an extremely subtle skill. One of the risks with constantly aiming at the most demanding challenges is that students eventually become so fatigued that their tolerance for challenge quickly diminishes. Similarly, if a challenge becomes overwhelming it is likely that students will be all the more wary the next time and the benefits of pushing so hard will have been lost. Optimising instruction in such dynamic circumstances is therefore a highly taxing operation in itself and it is not surprising that most teaching occurs at a more sedate level and pace.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from overwhelming difficulty we find the tedium of undemanding monotony. But, there is another far less obvious hazard that permeates almost the entire spectrum of challenge - it is often forgotten or misunderstood largely because it frequently receives very positive feedback from students. This presents itself as a form of mollycoddling that, while it might seek to support students, neglects to develop both their independence and resilience in the face of the very challenges through which learning most profitably occurs.

This human element, in particular its dimension of fallibility, may provide an alternative explanation for Edison’s grandiose claim. Perhaps he felt that by reducing the human element we might free education of one of its most fickle and uncontrollable aspects. Where human to human instruction is concerned, one hundred percent efficiency would appear to be nothing more than a fantasy. Nonetheless, without a capacity for perceiving and adjusting to the finest details of challenge and motivation it seems unlikely that artificial forms of education could ever reach the pinnacle of efficiency either.

Through the proliferation of online tools and networks it is now possible to engage in an enormously rich and edifying range of informative and educational experiences from the comfort of your own keyboard. Many of these also involve a significant portion of social communication and participation, a variable and adaptive mix of the formal and the informal, the social and the artificial. In this context the role of the teacher would appear to be increasingly threatened. But from a more nuanced perspective it is clear that teaching may not be quite as expendable as some might have us believe.

Since the days of Edison, recorded music, film, TV and the internet have become primary forms of mass entertainment, yet most people continue to value the uniqueness of one-to-one experiences to a far greater degree. Manufactured experiences are rarely as powerful and enduring in memory as those encountered individually and at first hand. Such experiences speak to us directly as the individuals that we believe ourselves to be and we place greater emphasis upon such experiences as a consequence.

Education can neither afford to dispense with the teacher entirely nor place them so centrally that they distract from the goal of learning. Distractions, like so many incidentals in education, need to be avoided as much as possible. The authoritative, domineering or even the nurturing presence of the teacher can become just as much of a distraction as anything else – perhaps even more so. If education is to be truly useful it surely needs to encourage students to generate their own challenges and to pursue them without fear of failure. Challenges that are sought for their own sake in this way are infinitely more rewarding than challenges sought for the transient thrill of institutional approval or a teacher’s praise.

Education then, becomes a process by which students are led to identify and originate their own challenges and to evaluate their progress as they accumulate new realisations and new skills that enable them to tackle yet more challenging tasks. And the teacher’s job? The teacher’s job, in Higher Education at least, is to lead the student to the point where they have no further use of the teacher.