Pandaji's Blog

Art, research, education

Reading review: an essay

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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 , [1984], 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, [1984] 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)

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Author: pandaji

Ceramic artist, educator

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