Randall Szott’s Lebenskünstler is one of my favourite blogs. The range of ideas, links, and provocations is broad, but at the heart of the blog is his desire to question and understand social (and life) art practices.

In the following post, he quotes Mark T. Mitchell writing about the importance of attention in liberal arts education (and beyond):

It is, in the end, impossible seriously to engage the great tradition without cultivating the habit (or is it the art?) of attention. Tocqueville notes that the habit of inattention is the greatest vice of democracy. This vice is exponentially more pervasive in an age where email, text messaging, Tweets, and YouTube are only a click away. Learning to attend carefully is, perhaps, one of our culture’s greatest needs. Paying attention requires self-control. We must learn to listen before we speak and think before we act. These habits are essential for self-government.

– Mitchell, cited in

ideas and noise

Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is a good read.

I spend a lot of time with students talking about the number of ideas being more important than the quality[1] . I like how Johnson also discusses the ways in which we can find ways to allow ideas to be contaminated by environments that afford mistakes, mess, noise, cross-fertilization:

Her research suggests a paradoxical truth about innovation: good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error. You would think that innovation would be more strongly correlated with the values of accuracy, clarity, and focus. A good idea has to be correct on some basic level, and we value good ideas because they tend to have a high signal-to-noise ratio. But that doesn’t mean you want to cultivate those ideas in noise-free environments, because noise-free environments end up being too sterile and predictable in their output. The best innovation labs are always a little contaminated.

– Johnson, Steven. 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From. London: Penguin Books, p.142

  1. The standing joke is that “quantity of ideas is more important than quality” is one of only two things I teach. The other is to do regular practice.  ↩

learning journey

I was clearing out some old notes over the holidays and happened across this learning journey written back in Autumn 2009:

I had a teacher in Standard 4 (10 years old) called Mr (Bill) Peters. His enthusiasm was infectious and I remember the atmosphere of the class being filled with curiosity – trying things out, creatively solving problems  – but at the same time he was quite strict and I think Mr Peters found a balance between openness and boundaries that was entirely appropriate for 10 year olds. Although there was a strong sense of ‘distance’ between him and us, I never doubted his commitment to the students … and 17 years later I received a hand written condolence note from Bill Peters when my father died. I still find that utterly incredible.

Sometimes as a teacher I think I might express my doubts too readily – that I am willing to share the uncertainties and the things that are very unknown to me. Some students (more mature?) respond to this; they recognise that I am seeking different ways of sharing ideas. I get the impression that perhaps younger (very recent graduates from High School) students find this harder to cope this. Their expectations of me knowing are higher.

Here’s improviser/teacher Andrew Morrish:

Maybe what education’s about is creating a situation where people can stand to look into … stand on what they know to look into the dark space of something they don’t know, and that education’s actually supporting people in that place, and that learning is actually about what you don’t know instead of the way I was brought up and educated, which is about what you do know.” [1]

At High School I was taught English in 4th form by Malcolm Crae. He was quite a young teacher, and we identified with him a great deal. He had a quiet manner, and was open to us ‘driving’ the energy of the class – but only up to a point. This is strong theme in my recollection of my educative experience. I have been drawn to teachers who strike a balance between openness/warmth, and – at the same time – have quite high expectations (and not anything goes). I have worked hard over the last 15 years in HE teaching to find ways to strike a similar balance. This balance seems important in part because I do worry that students are so rarely extended or deeply challenged. I wonder if this is correct. At the same time, it feels important to me to spend a lot of energy as a teacher generating an environment where curiosity, support and experimentation are nurtured.

I felt deeply supported by Malcolm Crae … he cared and he listened. It’s as simple as that.

In my final year of an undergraduate degree in Human Movement Science, I was taught by Professor L.R.T. Williams (Dean of the school). He was a tough man, and he had massive expectations of us, and demanded an enormous commitment to the module. I have never been so challenged academically in all of my life (including PhD), but it is because of this challenge that I began to understand my potential as a thinker and academic. He lost a lot of people along the way (i.e. they ‘hated’ him) but I was profoundly motivated by his approach. I understand that his ‘way’ is not appropriate to the majority of students, but at the same time, I wonder to what degree I can maintain quite high expectations of students whilst building a strongly nurturing environment into the mix.

I’ve been thinking (and trying to remember) teachers I’ve had who made impressions on me for less positive reasons. Of course, these are just as useful to remember as those who were highly influential … but just don’t spring to mind so quickly. I had a 7th Form (final year High School) Physics teacher who was a lovely gentle man, but his ability to break down quite complex problems was very limited. We sat there, and he threw formulae at us very quickly and in difficult to understand English. I don’t remember being given any time to engage with the ideas and maths in any other way than passively sitting there.

In my training/degree at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne I was taught technique and choreography by Don Asker … Don was an extraordinary teacher … he constantly challenged us to think deeply about how we moved, and the ways in which dance and performance can be made valuable. He seemed to have a huge variety of sources for his work in the studio, and a way of accessing ideas that would gently lead us down a path to find things out for ourselves. The repository for ideas, images and possibilities that he possessed was remarkable. It was quite magical in many ways. He also seemed to find a way to give quite precise feedback (but very rarely too much). His classes were quite quiet (far quieter than mine – but this probably reflects our quite different personalities), and he was able to foster a strong sense of ‘engagement’ with the ideas and material (not least because it was often quite difficult).

However, Don unquestionably put off a lot of the students – perhaps even half? Some people really loved the openness of the learning (I certainly did) – the sense of finding out for one’s self. But others felt unguided, or that he was playing games with us.

This is difficult – what are the strategies for finding out what suits individual students the best? What if (as the teacher) you don’t feel that the ‘m.o.’ of the student (their attitude, their desire for certainty … etc) is as useful as they think it is … or even that they are aware of their ‘approach’ or manner? [2]. As a teacher can I ever be all things to all students? (No). So what is an ‘acceptable’ ratio of winning to losing (for want of a better term)? What is the line between allowing students to find their way (and being open to these different ways), and recognising (given my experience etc) that there might be a better way … but then not force that ‘better way’ on them? This dialogue, or interplay between ‘doing’ and ‘not doing’ as a teacher is exciting, demanding, intricate …

What are a student’s expectations? How well are they able (or ready) to communicate what they are thinking/feeling/wanting? How might I approach different strategies for enhancing the capacity (and desire) of the student to acknowledge and articulate these?

So what are the qualities that are important to me as a kind of ‘philosophy of education’?

  • fairness
  • care/gentility
  • variation – in what is brought to the classroom – influences, ideas, tasks, strategies
  • expectations of students – desire to ‘extend’ them (in their thinking, physical skills, ability to articulate movement/ideas)
  • openness to different ‘types’ of students (ie how students are in class) – their needs, current states
  • approachability
  • sensitivity to quality and quantity of feedback
  • currency – that what I am offering is relevant to the work and thinking of current practitioners/academics/artists.

Perhaps these could be summarised by the idea of generating (with the support of the students) an environment where learning, thinking and experimentation are facilitated, or made possible.

That would be pretty good.

  1. Williams, D. (2003). “Interview with Andrew Morrish 10/3/2003.” Retrieved 29 September 2009, from–1032003.html.  ↩
  2. This reminds me of a teacher of mine at the Victorian College of the Arts – Jane Mortiss – who I really enjoyed, and whose physical material was incredibly challenging. Many years after I finished I was talking to her and she said, “I thought you always hated my classes because you used to pull all sorts of terrible faces”. I laughed because I was pulling the faces because I was challenged by the material and was trying to figure out how I could do it.  ↩