My action research project question is:
If I encourage the use of tests and experiments, will this enhance the learning experience of my students, and if so, how?
The need for this piece of action research was inspired by comments from a current student in foundation at Wimbledon, who told me that at one of the BA courses she had applied to, the first term was spent doing only tests and experiments. She felt that this must be a good thing as she thought it would help her better understand the very complex nature of ceramic process and glaze decoration. The student was wondering why we didn’t do more of that at Foundation. The current display of glaze tests which are standardised are useful learning resources. A recent innovation of mine was to introduce a laminated sample template explaining how to read the information that the tiles give. (appendix 2) This same template can also be used in conjunction with a demonstration the way of creating ones own standard test tile.
Many of the Foundation ceramic students appeared not to realise the benefits of one to one tuition and an independent style of learning and expressed a wish for more formalised teaching and guidance as to how to best plan their time. The same students mentioned that students from other areas such as theatre and fine art were receiving workshops on various things such as mask making and plaster casting. They were concerned that they were not getting those kind of group activities. My response to this piece of unasked for feedback from the students was to do an impromptu sign up for certain ceramic technique workshops. This immediately got filled up with signatures.
Another reason for wanting to do these ceramic tests and experiments is to improve the understanding of ceramic process, the timescales involved and technical knowledge, both amongst the students and the teaching staff. The difficulty most students have of understanding the ceramic process is, its many stages, and infinite possibilities for creativity.(appendix 3 ) Unawareness of timescales involved, including drying times and firing times, often mean that ceramic students only produce finished items sometimes months after the project completion date. So any discussions of their finished work are more formative than summative.
Ceramics is undervalued as a subject in its own right, despite the transferable skills and overlaps with other subjects. The rise in number of ceramic students from 2 in 2008-9 to 13 in 2009-10 and the decrease in tutor hours from two days a week in 2008-9 to 1 day a week in 2009-10 means there is less opportunity for one to one tuition. Further, the nature of the three day taught week and increased demand for autodidactic style learning, has given me empathy with the students, for the part time nature that the foundation course has become. Barnett (2007)
Students from other disciplines have access to the ceramic materials but not to tutor time. All students are encouraged to try to experiment with different techniques, but some students are having difficulty with certain techniques even if they have been shown a demonstration of what to do. They cannot master a technique if they cannot practise it at all.
The nature of some of the ceramic processes is tacit knowledge.
This means that many ceramic techniques rely on the amount of pressure one needs to apply to the clay to achieve joins or form. Touch can vary enormously between people, in the same way as people see differently , for example being colour blind or not. Learning the correct amount of pressure to apply, can be taught by pressing the student’s fingers against the clay. In my experience this conveys the knowledge better than just by explaining in words. For the specific example of using glazes the consistency of the liquid to begin with and the thickness of application will alter the final result . Each glaze will differ in the ‘best’ thickness as it is described in books, as single or double cream consistency. Even looking at a test tile (appendix 2) one cannot judge the original thickness so one has to experience doing it for oneself to learn the correct quality for a particular glaze. Occasionally, even after years of experience, if one is not familiar with a certain glaze one can still apply glaze too thickly or thinly. The application of glaze can be done in a variety of ways, which include dipping, pouring, painting and spraying. In my experience this ceramic knowledge is best conveyed individually or in small groups of 3-5 students, for all the reasons outlined above.
My actions are already changing through my own understanding of the theories of learning especially aligned teaching. Student assessment asks for evidence of discovery of different techniques, (see appendix 1 especially criteria 3 and 4) so the student can be encouraged to try these on ‘tests’, in order that the finished piece can be completed with knowledge of glazes that might otherwise produce disappointment. Perhaps the students can also be encouraged to produce not just their own tests, but also standardised tests that then become part of the ongoing resource for future students.
After reading Bryan and Clegg (2006) I understand that assessment is also feedback and so my previous understanding that I had nothing to do with student assessment has now changed. I now understand I give feedback all the time. I used to actually tell the students I had nothing to do with their assessment, mistakenly thinking this would help my relationship with them. Now I actively ask if they would like feedback about the tests they have made or their satisfaction with their finished article. I am now having more meaningful discussions as a result.
As mentioned previously, the length of the timescales involved, including drying times and firing times, often mean that ceramic students only produce finished items sometimes months after the project completion date, the conversations with tutors have already moved onto the next project.
When prompted by students asking for explanations for a particular reason as to why something has turned out the way it has. With the glaze test, it will act as a focus for discussion of the result, whether positive or negative and how to adjust the recipe or use the glaze in a different way.
I believe that by encouraging the students to give me feedback that I can then act on, possibly in the form of a suggestion box in the studio and/or a section for this purpose on Blackboard. I believe that my actions will encourage a deep approach to their studies. Prosser and Trigwell (1999) showed that there is ‘some evidence that teachers who take a student approached focus to teaching and learning will encourage students towards a deep approach to study.’
By encouraging the students to learn individually, their self-esteem can be increased as shown recently when I taught a student to throw, she then taught two other students to throw. Demonstrating the student becoming a member of ‘ the community of practice,’ as opposed to a ‘peripheral participant’. (Lave and Wenger 1991, Wenger, 1998) I am also interested to find out whether I can encourage this type of peer learning by having a list in the studio which people sign up to when they are confident they can teach someone else the technique.
I had this idea whilst thinking reflectively about the events in the ceramic studio outlined above. It has been shown that reciprocal and other types of peer learning can help a student develop a transferable skill of collaborative working with a peer that will extend into their lifelong learning and personal and professional development. Boud (2004) By inviting discussions of glaze test results with student peer group I hope to show an increased interest and consequent further testing of glazes as a result.
In my context of the ceramic studio within 3DD, within foundation as a whole, “is the aim of my action research for ceramic students only, or for any student wanting to use clay?” This was a question put to me by my colleague Ashleigh Pearson in a conversation on the teaching blog. M. Helal, A. Pearson (2009)
The Foundation Coordinator mentioned in a meeting, that he wants to see cross-curricular use of clay. Including all Foundation Diploma students would open up the scope of the action research much wider. I may have to concentrate on use of clay for mold making and provide input to my colleagues giving these demonstrations, as to what aspects of clay knowledge need to be conveyed. This may be too much for the timescale for this action research and could well be for the next one.
The monitoring will include my own reflective thinking about my own learning outcomes. Evaluation of the student actual learning outcomes compared to the intended learning outcomes and noting of any unintended outcomes. Each student will require a feedback discussion of the results. This will help them analyse and think about how to finish their project piece(s). I will record the students’ discussion of their experience of experimenting with test pieces, and use their quotes as evidence, aka Alison Shreeve. My colleagues have already indicated that they would be willing to assist me with this part of my project. All of the above action is already part of my normal working practice.
Barnett, R. 2007, A will to learn: Being a student in an age of uncertainty. Maidenhead: Open University Press and SRHE.
Bryan, C. and Clegg, K., Innovative Assessment in Higher Education (2006) Eds. Routledge, Abingdon.
Lave and Wenger 1991, Wenger, 1998, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prosser, M and Trigwell, K. (1999), Understanding Teaching and Learning. The Experience in Higher Education, Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press
A. Pearson, M.Helal (2009)
1. Student Self Assessment and Staff Feedback Form
Foundation Diploma Part 1, level 3
2. Image of test tile and template of how to read a test tile made by me.
3. 1001 cups slideshow
My reading on the theories of learning and teaching is not highly extensive but of the little I have read thus far while asking myself the question ‘how does this relate to what I actually do’ has led me to the idea that while I find the theories of great interest, I have only felt frustration and found myself trying to analyse my teaching skills to the extent of wondering about the theoretical relevance to my specialist subject area of ceramics and to arts and design teaching in general. There are so many factors mentioned using over-complicated language and jargon in an oversimplified way; I am at a stage where I am questioning my abilities and teaching practise with refreshed insight.
John Danvers’s paper entitled “Towards a Radical Pedagogy: Provisional Notes on Learning and Teaching in Art and Design” asks questions about the current educational culture of accountability, quantitative assessments, and over bureaucratised approach to education, suggesting instead a radical pedagogy that places more emphasis on indeterminacy, revisibility and pluralism, qualities (which he argues are inherent in the practise of Art and Design subjects), than exclusivity, subjectivism and absolutism.
“Changes in the way in which knowledge is perceived are discussed in relation to assessment, learning and research theories. Numerous initiatives that are being imposed upon staff and students and the wider learning community are disempowering and totally at odds with the mission statements and objectives of what government and educational institutions are actually trying to achieve, namely widening participation and diversity.” (Danvers, 2003, p.4) but also guaranteed results in terms of learning and improved efficiency for whoever is monitoring its activity. (Haggis, 2003, p.96)
These models form the rationale for legitimising “progressive practises in teaching and learning” (Webb, 1997, pp.198-199) and “appears to provide a unifying framework (Davenport, 1987) for pedagogical strategy which has not existed before.”
In my own practice and experience of both teaching and learning (because I do not make any distinction between the two), I often hear myself using the same words and language used in these articles. Consequently I detect a relevance to my own situation as both teacher and learner. While it might be useful to know theories of teaching and learning, these are, after all, only theories, and mostly not based on my own subject area of ceramics, or the broader category of arts and design. The abstraction of the concepts is acknowledged in the literature: The original research conception/perceptions and approaches model (Marton & Saljo , , 1997) was narrowly focussed on the task of reading a text. It has since been broadened to include all types of different tasks that students carry out. (Ramsden, 1992, p.42).
For example, in the same way as signs and symptoms of dyslexia have been accepted by policy makers and teachers and students, there is still current debate about whether dyslexia even exists: “I can understand parents wanting to get this label, because there’s a human need for labels. But what parents believe is that the label will lead to an intervention, in much the same way that a diagnosis of a broken arm leads to effective treatment. And what I’d argue is that the intervention they receive when their child is labelled dyslexic isn’t effective – and furthermore, it’s very expensive and time-consuming, and it diverts resources away from what could be being done better to help all children with reading problems.” (Elliott, Julian G.; Gibbs, Simon, 2008, pp.475-491)
And my beliefs differ from many of my colleagues either because of Elliot’s quote “because there’s a human need for labels” and lack of understanding of the science behind the theories, and the questionable methodologies of theories themselves.
“Too often in educational studies, theory becomes no more than a mantric reaffirmation of belief rather than a tool for exploration and thinking otherwise” (Ball, 1995, p.228) “or another theory sceptic like myself Thomas (2002) characterises educational research as being under ‘theory’s spell.”
I agree with Trowler (2005, p.21) when he states that “Theory used inappropriately…..can be counterproductive as it obscures rather than illuminates” and that “theoretical perspectives need to be chosen and applied with care and discrimination.”
‘The ideas and issues which are at the very heart of art and design programmes may be viewed as controversial by people outside of art practice. For example, the value of risk-taking, divergent thought, and encouraging exploration of different meanings, interpretations and ways of making and doing, and where learning can be viewed as a continuum of change with unpredictable outcomes.
Inventiveness, innovation and improvisation are taken for granted in arts subjects as valuable ways of learning that are in contrast to subjects like engineering, where differences of opinion and risk-taking might be discouraged, and a common knowledge, collective beliefs and value systems encouraged. Perspectivalism is a belief that knowledge is always partial and incomplete, and that there can be no absolute or complete view of any idea, topic, or subject. Multiple perspectives are to be welcomed and encouraged. “If one accepts a perspectivalist view of knowledge, then there must be a constant willingness to revise and rethink and to actively seek alternative perspectives, which revitalise and challenge previous perspectives.” (Danvers, 2003,p.?)
If everyone has the potential for these fundamental qualities, art and design curricula must include space for these qualities to be practised. This has an impact on the teaching staff who are currently in a climate of increased bureaucracy, less timetabled hours and consequent work overload: factors that do not necessarily enhance creativity or innovation in teaching programmes.
Where does this leave “spontaneity?” When questioning, examining and scrutinising ones own practice with respect to theories of teaching and learning and Biggs’s notion of ‘aligned teaching.’ (Biggs, 2002, p.1) the basic ideas of which replicate the original research in Sweden in 1970s (reported in Marton and Saljo,  1997), and the contradiction with the actual reality in the classroom or studio, mean that ideas which challenge or fall outside of the paradigms of the model remain invisible (Kuhn, 1970). He also suggests that they gain ascendancy only because they solve some of the acute problems for practitioners in higher education. Or, as Haggis so aptly writes:
“The relative lack of questioning of the current situation may be linked to the novelty of pedagogical research in higher education as a field of academic research.” (2003, p.96) Or even the novelty of specifically arts and design pedagogical research. e.g. Frances Corner, Professor of Art and Design Education and her research work on sustainability and fashion.
Failure knowledge, or the unpredictable nature of playing with ideas and processes can be as exciting, and possibly, more interesting results may occur, than where a person has complete control. These situations are highly complex and require flexible thinking. Decision making might happen with little or no conscious thought, and developing the ability to improvise with ideas as well as with materials are key aspects of teaching and learning art and design. The time and space required for opportunities to develop these abilities, and the particular learning environment and assessment procedures required to recognise these needs and values is very complicated, and the academic research and simplification of models of learning which value stability and certainty seems highly inappropriate to many activities associated with art and design study. (Danvers, 2003, p.7)
Ball, S. J. (1995)
“Intellectuals or Technicians? The Urgent Role of Theory in Educational
Studies,” British Journal of Educational Studies, 43, pp. 255-271.
Danvers, J. (2003)
Towards a Radical Pedagogy: Provisional Notes on Learning and Teaching in Art and Design.
Davenport, J. (1987)
“Is there a way out of the andragogy morass?” in M. Thorpe, R. Edwards & A. Hanson (Eds). Culture and Processes of Adult Learning. (London, Routledge).
Elliott, J. G., Gibbs, S. (2008)
“Does Dyslexia Exist?,” Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42 (3-4), pp. 475-491.
Marton, F. & Saljo, R. ([1984, 1997) “Approaches to Learning” in F. Marton, D. Hounsell & N. Entwistle (Eds) The Experience of Learning. (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press).
Moorhead, J. (2005)
“Is dyslexia just a myth?,” Guardian Unlimited, 7th September.
Ramsden, P. (1992)
Learning to Teach in Higher Education, (London, Routledge).
Shreeve, A. (2005)
“Eliding Activity Systems: Conceptualising the Role of Part Time Tutors in Art and Design,” Manchester, Manchester University.
Thomas. G. (2002)
“Theory’s Spell: on qualitative inquiry and educational research,”
British Educational Research Journal, pp. 28, 3, 419-434.
Trowler, P. (2005)
“A Sociology of Teaching, Learning and Enhancement: Improving Practices,” Higher Education, pp. 21-22.
Webb, G. (1997)
Deconstructing deep and surface: towards a critique of phenomenography,” Higher Education, pp. 33, 195–212.