Monday, 21 May 2012

The ultimate question

I have always been nonplussed by the subject I teach, Art. I have to to cover content which is not based on hard evidence at all. I may be rewarded by the gusto with which students work at tasks I set them, but in the background lures a monstrous question: “What actually is this about?” I fear the student who comes up with it, and as a teacher I would cut a poor figure if I didn't answer. So I do answer. Most of it is bluff. What I can't have in my class room is the gratuitous notion “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I mark their works of art, so at least I must be able to tell them the fundamentals of Art, to the best of my knowledge and experience.

1 Universal beauty

The American crocodil is a beautiful animal
with special aesthetic preferences
Universal beauty does exist. The aesthetic experience is one of the motors of evolution. At least all motile creatures prefer configurations of the environment that match their own constitution and head towards these. We can see they do so.

So it is not a special feature of mankind, I believe that the amoeba which moves toward light actually enjoys it. What we call beauty is the perception of an environment which is better suited for survival. There is no reason to limit such joy to the human species. The experience of beauty is in the nose of the crocodile which smells a rotting corpse. Surely it runs for it.

Our species has preferences of its own, and these can be augmented and studied. Making art is a way to do so. It makes you susceptible for for the way nature hard-wired you. That's why you like to make art. This cannot be evaluated with a mark. I should not give you a bad mark for your painting when you happen to be colour-blind, should I? Nor do you deserve a good mark when you just follow an instinct, do you?

To some extent this universal beauty of the species homo sapiens can be laid out in prescriptions or rules. These tendencies of our sensory system have been studied by psychologists and art historians. For example, we like contrasts in form, so a sure way to draw attention to your work is exaggerating these contrasts. If you draw a lady, giving her large boobs will work. I would like to mark that, but unfortunately simply executing prescriptions won't work as some of these rules are remarkably contradictory. For example: symmetry is supposed to be beautiful, then why is it so often boring?

By the way, there may have been a time, when our ancestors walked in the savannah, that they liked the smell of rotting flesh as well. Those predecessors of ours were scavengers.

2 Cultural beauty

Paul McCarthy transforms dog's poo into a work of art
We are story tellers. We can learn from stories. Also we imitate behaviour of clever members of our tribe and learn from them doing so. That's how we build culture.

Culture is a massive development in evolution. We are not the only ones, a tribe of chimps teach each other how to use stones to crack hard nuts that grow in their forest, other chimps can't do it, wild dogs teach their youngsters hunting techniques which may differ per family, and old female elephants teach their daughters where to find water in their particular environment. But we are the champions of learning and teaching.
So that's what I do for a living. I teach you the art of our culture, Western Art, which is based in Europe and has grown into a global thing. I am not versed in traditional African art at all, that is a wholly different kettle of fish. You need a lot of knowledge of magic and sorcery to understand traditional African art. I am good at Western Art, and you are to learn about it. I can mark your attainment in culture.
To make it even more complicated: Western Art shows some strands that are quite incompatible with Universal Beauty. Sometimes I must teach you to appreciate ugly things! It takes a lot of knowledge about how ugly things came about to be beautiful to understand this strange phenomenon. That body of knowledge is called Art History. It is an amazing story.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Dumbing down

Time travel

Forty years ago I was struck by a short story written by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The story is about a young boy's utter disappointment with having been spurned by the computerised assessment procedure which matches talents and jobs in a future society. Instead of having his brain instantaneously programmed for the job he aspires, interstellar pilot, he has been referred to a weird institute, a boarding school without any technical feature available to the students. After a couple of weeks he has an interview with the head master, who explains him that, instead of being glum, he should rejoice belonging to a happy few. Being programmed automatically with all necessary skills and knowledge for a career is meant for the mediocre majority of people who are completely satisfied being effortlessly provided with a livelihood. The boy's assessment produced evidence of a highly creative mind, capable of devising programmes the others are provided with. His brain must not be programmed, he has to go all the way, reading books, there is no short cut to new thought.

From the Earth to the Moon

Just as Jules Verne's “From the Earth to the Moon” presaged space exploration in the twentieth century, this twentieth century Asimov story predicts twenty-first century education. Of course neither Verne nor Asimov were spot-on with their description of tools and methods. Shooting people enclosed in a bullet to the moon was a bad idea, if only Verne had thought of a rocket propelled contraption, he might have expedited the endeavour. So far there is no technical tool to store information in a human brain directly, but Asimov's idea of immediate interaction of machinery and human brain seems less far-fetched than it was forty years ago.

Going elsewhere

A readily available example of how the human brain may deteriorate by offloading work to a machine is the implementation of navigation systems. Finding your way in the environment, especially in an unknown area, asks for mental mapping, while circumventing obstacles and keeping track of the right direction, and computation of distances and time. During the evolution of our species people with resourceful brains, who were proficient in finding out where to go, certainly prevailed, while others starved in places they could not escape. Until recently a travel to an unknown destination started with studying the map to find out a route where to ride your horse, or drive your car, for that matter, thereby building a mind map of the journey. Most Londoners will use some memorised map of the Underground when commuting, possibly completely different from the neatly printed graphic I have to consult as a tourist in that city on the day of arrival.

Taxi drivers given brain scans by scientists at University College London had a larger hippocampus compared with other people. This is a part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animals.
Source:BBC News, 14 March, 2000

Now it is possible to drive to an unfamiliar address without having the slightest idea of the route. One only has to follow the arrow on a screen or voiced orders from the navigation system. No internalised map is needed, nor any idea about the sun giving a clue of the direction, or whatever. Just obey the orders of the machine. A couple of years ago a Dutch lady nosedived her car in a canal doing so.

How we got here

Such development of machine aided behaviour is bound to have effect on our brains in the long term. Functions of our brain have been transferred already. The need of memorising rules for spelling and grammar has lost importance when the machine takes care of correcting your texts. Training in mental calculation seems obsolete when your pda takes care of complicated arithmetic. Why bother about memorising the capital cities of Europe when such trivial data can be retrieved from the internet in an instant?

These processes have been going on for a long time. I surmise it is possible to describe culture since neolithic times as a process of offloading individual brains to trained specialists and tools. In this view even the invention of writing has had a huge impact on the storage of information in the brain. Once upon a time the history of a tribe would be conveyed by long stories, myths, songs, and rituals which were memorised verbatim. Undeniably the invention of writing has contributed to our survival as a species, and it clearly bolstered our struggle to master nature by science, to the detriment of our innate talent to memorise huge amounts of information literally.

In limbo

Apparently nothing can be gained without a loss. When it comes to education we may feel that we are in limbo, where the gains are not visible yet, while the losses are imminent. Testing memorised knowledge or skills requests denial of use of all machinery, which seems rather awkward. In The Netherlands some schools provide their first formers with a lap top only, no text books needed. The general attitude towards education mirrors the ubiquitous computerised information transfer: school must produce results without effort by the student, the onus is on the teacher and his curriculum, in which bite size chunks are spoon fed. This is our twenty-first century version of Azimov's helmet which programmes the brain within a second with all the information needed for a future life.

Here and now

All depends on the definition of “future life.” If education aims at participation in the economy, at the acquisition of skills and knowledge to make a living, then we must draw a dismal conclusion. There is no need at all for a high rate of literacy and numeracy among the population. In the nineteenth century a huge mass of capable book keepers, excellent in arithmetic, was the bedrock of economic progress. Now a computer calculates rents, interests, debts and profits. Employees must be able to push items under scanners, put things in machines, assemble machines following lists of how to do it, wrap products in nicely decorated paper, read patients' diagnoses from screens, that's about it. They will get paid for lowly jobs and must splurge on consumer goods, preferably electronic gadgets that keep them occupied with games, music and other entertainment. Of course we must train a limited number of gifted students to devise the products that are for sale, to provide medical services, or to work in the entertainment industry, as a singer or soccer player. It is best to test students at an early age to find their special talents, and to steer them in the right direction, so as to prevent unnecessary distraction. These students are trained at universities. Some of them, higly gifted students, may even need to read books, and communicate about these at triple A universities to produce exciting new content and to advance science. A couple of universities will do, Harvard, Princeton, Oxbridge, Shanghai, Mumbai, Cape Town and Rio.

Such education is heading for the ant heap. Each human being is a node in a world-wide super brain which has detached itself from the well-being of its components. Free will of a brain contained in a physical body is just a delusion of that individual brain, which must be placated with limited choices, for example whether to go to the pub or to the theatre, in order to preserve the illusion of personal identity.

This image of a future world is not other-worldly. To me it seems a fair description of the world we live in.

Ready for take off

We may also stick to our delusion of the free will. Then “future life” means fulfilling all our potentials, not just for some, but for all of us. We are to enjoy our life individually and to share this joy with our neighbours, friends and family, wherever we meet them in the global community, for real or on line.
This puts a wholly different complexion on school. We don't train our students for making a living, we educate them to create a meaningful life. We don't want a bunch of morons around us, do we?
So a high rate of literacy and numeracy across the population really matters. Our mutual efforts may possibly lead to a learning world government controlled by educated voters, thereby solving the problems of the planet. Someday we might travel to the stars to meet the others, out there.

Lost and gone

By the way, if you happen to know the title of this story by Azimov, I would be grateful to hear from you, the title disappeared from my memory, I read the story in an anthology which I lost, and without the title I lack the search word to find a book with the story at, all of which proofs my stance, unfortunately.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Learning Styles

Kolb's model of learning styles
A bugbear of mine is the concept of "Learning Styles". As a young class tutor I was convinced that it would be useful to children to be aware of their personal way how to do things. So I investigated into the ideas about learning styles and discovered a torrent of theoretical stuff, nifty questionnaires, models and so on. The students mostly were not too interested, linking the paper work and discussions to their personal behaviours and penchants improved their gusto only slightly, they agreed readily on the matters at hand. I never succeeded to employ these insights in my tutor lessons to the extent that it really had any impact on the success of students in school. It just did not catch on.

The scientific base

After a couple of years I made an appointment with the linchpin in the Dutch educational research on learning styles, a university worker. He warily informed me that the whole idea of learning styles had developed as a management tool in private enterprise, that the concept gratuitously had been transferred to education, and that he could not give me a clue how to employ learning styles in secondary education. Nevertheless, learning styles could made sense, but only if you linked them to vocational training or academic fields. Each field entails some learning styles and precludes others. Being aware of that is useful to students at the level of higher education as it can prevent failure. That was all he could offer. He had done a thesis on it. I was very grateful for his answer, because it was plain and unambiguous, and based on years of scientific thinking on the topic.

Meaningless advices

I learned something then. Firstly, do not introduce strategies without content. Your lesson will be meaningless, as there is no base to measure or experience the strategy and thereby it will not catch on. This is a very risky thing to say, as it logically exempts a lot of stuff we are supposed to teach. Just to give an example: a school may be asked by parents or the inspection to show what the school does to teach children not to bully each other. It is quite easy to respond to such a demand, materials galore are to be found to discuss bullying, have the children fill in papers and express their feelings in circle time, just put some lesson in the timetable, a tutor lesson, and have all the tutors go over the material with their class. Everyone will be very happy about it, all students will agree that bullying is bad and their parents will praise the school. However, my law says it will not prevent bullying, and the only way to make clear that bullying is not acceptable, is to quash it when it happens in such a way that everybody gets the message. As bullying is a perennial problem you can be sure that you will be able to show off your results when the inspection team comes to assess your policy in this respect, be sure to archive a report of the proceedings.

Vacuous concepts

Secondly, do not trust concepts, formats or routines that are not related to your subject and that you cannot embed in your own expertise developed in the classroom. A lot of ideas teachers are clobbered with just are fads. Even something claimed in the context of "Evidence based education" may not be evidence based at all. In a plethora of quangos professional educators earn their bread and butter by producing and copying ideas how to advise and train teachers. They have to come up with something in their word processors, haven't they? They get paid for it.
A good teacher will read his background materials, not only pertaining to his academic field but also on education and teaching. It is rewarding to experiment with classroom routines systematically and to implement new insights in lessons, to discover new ways to reach out to the students. But the classroom is decisive, if something does not work at all in the trenches of education, it should be ditched.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Punch and Judy

Students can be quite skittish about speaking in front of the class in a foreign language. I discovered that performing a hand puppet play is a great shot in the arm. First formers are vacillating between the magical world of early childhood and their budding rational mind. Having their puppet speaking instead of themselves somehow pushes them over the threshold.
Punch and Judy offer an intriguing gateway into typically English folklore. Puppet shows are available galore at the internet, for example this one. An interview with a a genuine Punch and Judy "professor" will provide a nice learning experience by listening to native speakers.
Being an art teacher I can easily have the children make their own puppets. But that is not really necessary, in my experience anything that can be manipulated above an improvised hiding screen may represent a character in a puppet play, for example in a show titled "Mr Brush meets Ms Dustpan". If you don't buy this argument, any toy shop will provide you with puppets which are more traditional and not prohibitive.
Also you don't need an elaborately decorated booth. Just a cardboard box with a hole in it will do. I have noticed, to my amazement, that even when you don't hide at all, students keep looking at the puppet in your hand, not at the mouth that actually produces the voice.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Group work

Three students are building a structure in space out of bamboo sticks and rubber bands
A couple of years ago my team leader asked me, why I seldom had students working in groups in my art room. I opened my mouth to answer "that Art was about dealing with individual perception and about individual expression of these experiences," only to close it immediately, as I realised this was just a personal stance which might not be valid across all art phenomena in every historical or cultural context. Even worse, if my argument didn't stick at all, I might have to change my practice.

The loneliness of the learner

The idea that the outcome of teaching must be the learning of the individual student is the bedrock of school education. Most course work requires students to process tasks individually. Grading results invariably is done by assessing individual progress.
This practice is ill-suited to prepare the student for real life. No major feat of human kind has been achieved individually. Even the most extreme examples of gifted solitarians, say Darwin, Einstein, Van Gogh, never could have achieved their remarkable results without febrile communication with the scientific or artistic community of their time.

Van Gogh did not cut his ear in an act of art

Unfortunately in my subject, Art, the solitary individual, heading into no man's land all by himself, at the risk of his mental health, for the benefit of all, epitomises the ultimate artist. It is a nineteenth century concept that is kept up by art critics, art historians and especially art dealers, who groom the public into believing that what they are looking at in the white rooms of museums and galleries are gateways into a realm of unique experiences by godlike individuals. Which is nonsense, a lot of Warhol's work was produced in his Factory by employees, no art pundit is able to distinguish authentic Picassos from forgeries produced by the notorious Geert Jan Jansen.

Louise Bourgeois' work Nature Study (pink rubber on a steel basis, 1984-2001) can be traced back to various images of the Ephesis' Artemis. The idea of inserting multiple female breasts in a sculpture was not a novelty.
The life and work of Louise Bourgois shows that even when an artist works for a long time in solitude, creating her higly personal things, this does not mean that she is disconnected from the world at large. Her work draws on autobiographic content in an idiosyncratic style. Albeit, the subject matter and form can be traced back easily as we can share the feelings underlying the work and recognise the nifty tricks developed by artists in the twentieth century to poke our sensitivity. We admire the work because Louise Bourgeois is not unique, she evokes memories and experiences we all can relate to. Of course she was an expert, as Bach was, or Einstein. Those ground-breaking artists and scientists all were gifted, sure, but they worked their heads off to process the material they got from others and the world around them into something new. They didn't do it all by themselves, all alone.

The artist's workshop

Going back in time, we must conclude that the lone artist in his studio, creating for an unknown audience in a free market, is a recent invention. In a lot of Rubens' paintings we are looking at Rubens' brush only in the flesh of the buxom nudes, which the master would add after his apprentices had filled in the background.
Moreover, when “Art” includes all the artwork done by architects, illustrators, designers, all those people who work in teams to invent buildings, games, websites, magazines, clothing, then whole the idea of creating individually is ludicrous.
So, when it comes to teaching art, we are ill advised when we take the exception for the rule.

Working in a large group. The students cut shapes and patterns of own preference. However, where patterns meet they are to find a solution how to combine their various patterns in such a way that a sense of unity is achieved.

The concerted effort

Bearing that in mind, I don't take it to be very wise to emphasize originality in the art room. Originality comes with expertise, my students are far too young to have made ten thousand hours of deliberate practice, needed to reach the level of an expert. If a student feels he needs to copy Walt Disney's Donald Duck, I will teach him how to recognise Disney's scheme. Neither do I care too much any more for individuality in art work.
After decades of teaching art at last I have freed myself from all kind of bugbears I've been struggling with for a long time. Now I just listen to my students. If two girls ask me: “Can we do this together?,” then I may answer “Yes, why not?” Whenever I set students to work in groups, the atmosphere in my room brightens up, the chatter is functional, discussions become edifying and we enjoy the others' contributions to a shared goal. We are enjoying our work, just as the workers who built the cathedrals in medieval times must have enjoyed working together at building for posterity. My pupils study art at school, they are not lunatics in an asylum.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Visiting schools in the UK

A young man fetches his eleven years old boy from school. He is dressed in a nylon anorak from under which a long frock falls low on his calves. He is bearded and wears an Arabic cap. His right hand clutches his son's left hand. The young one is wearing the attire of the western male, a suit, white shirt and tie. It is the boy's school uniform.

To me those two clutched hands bridge Samuel Huntington's “Clash of civilizations”. I made a one week visit to schools at Small Heath, one of the most depraved urban districts of the UK in terms of employment, crime rate, health conditions and housing. Not so in terms of schooling, I learnt. The three schools I visited, a primary school and two comprehensive schools for secondary education, were all located in this area, and all three of them were appraised “outstanding” by Ofsted, the UK school inspection board. Of course these schools had not been chosen at random, I travelled with a group of Dutch teachers, on a study tour organised by the international branch Inet of the Specialist School and Academies Trust. Nevertheless, how is such a remarkable result achieved?

The Head

Firstly you need a visionary, charismatic school leader. The type of person you go along with, even when you don't buy into all the minutiae of his plans. One school was upgraded by such a leader within four years from the bottom of school ranking to the top. He expanded the school's remit from the school's premises, fenced with barbed wire, by reaching out to the community around it. One of the strands in his programme meant offering courses to adults. “Only the parenting course didn't catch on.” Such a leader is good at attracting sponsorship. The school's brand new van drove us from the hotel to school every morning and I guess such a vehicle can't be bought with state funding only. Not only is he a good manager but he motivates his staff on a daily basis. During briefings to all staff early in the morning he stands in the line of heads of departments, listens to their messages and shows his approval. He joins the roars of laughter. He meets all students weekly in the main hall and addresses them.

Secondly the school instils confidence in children and makes them ambitious. The school doesn't concede defeat, nor does it accept that the best children from poor backgrounds can hope for is a career as a taxi driver. Every student must get the education that enables him to materialise his talents. The school wants the academic inclined students to attain their A* levels and go to university.

Behaviour policy

With such aspirations the school cannot allow its students to indulge in silly behaviour. Sitting at the back of classrooms I only once in those four days saw a student do something which contradicted goal oriented student attendance. She took the pin out of the headscarf of the girl sitting before her. This was not perceived by the teacher, but the harassed girl griped and was expelled from the classroom straight away. To my amazement the insulted student left without any objection, while the perpetrator smiled smugly. In an other lesson I heard the teacher say: “I put you on a C1”, referring to a certain level of misbehaviour in a scheme for students understandably represented in “The Behaviour Snake.” You had better avoid spiralling down the curves towards the beak of the serpent. Ultimately you are sent away forever. I hadn't even noticed something was going on.
I witnessed this wonderful discipline at all three schools. All students seemed meek and obedient, not to compare with the rumbustious boys and chattering girls I meet in Dutch education. The whole situation seemed wholly otherworldly to me. I can come up with two explanations only. Possibly a school population of only immigrant students is more amenable because they share a completely different parental background. In their cultures the revolution of the sixties never took place, so to say. The other rationale might be that the discipline system is enforced rigorously in a concerted effort of all staff because everyone understands that giving some leeway would set hell loose. Probably both thoughts are valid: the problems we have in The Netherlands with young boys from Moroccan background often is explained by the gap between the rather loose Dutch society and home where they are flogged by their fathers.


Just as school cannot allow students to create havoc, can it allow teachers to have it their own way. The outcome of lessons must be secured. So every lesson I observed started with stating goals to achieve by students. Students were asked to appraise their knowledge and skills with respect to this goals. Subsequently the lesson was executed, after which the students had to reflect on their success during this lesson. The teacher then would comment on their reflection by giving feedback leading to advice how to improve. This format of four steps was implemented in an amazing variety of ways, but always it would lead to evidence on paper, to be archived. I learnt that heads of departments checked their teachers and thereby produced more paper work to be delivered on demand. Clearly Ofsted has a stranglehold on every level of the hierarchic structure, felt every moment of the school day.
This ubiquitous lesson format guarantees a basic quality in any educational arrangement. The four steps are good practice. All lessons I observed were well executed by skilled teachers. The level of attainment by students was remarkable. I definitely took home a lot of ideas to improve my own practice. Albeit, the time spent on producing evidence on paper painstakingly cannot be used to produce new teaching tools and invent new directions. Some of my art lessons are adventures, for me and for my students. “Actually, I don't know what you are going to come up with,” I quite often hear myself explain to a student. I have not become a teacher to execute lessons only, though mostly this is what I do. I like to explore what teaching and learning is about by experimenting with unpredictable results. My teaching is learning, and it defies formats, not all of the time but sometimes. I guess my teaching would not be acclaimed in an English school. Ofsted would not approve of it.

Content and Language Integrated Learning

One can't help comparing when being in a completely different setting of your own job. At primary school I observed a reading lesson. The lesson prepared the kids for the Standard Assessment Test. That means teaching to the test. In Dutch schools the same lesson could have taken place in preparation of our CITO-test. In both countries the results of the tests are crucial, not only for the child but for the school as well, as the outcome will position the school in rankings.
I admired the quality of reading and the level of answering quite difficult questions, comparing these aspects with the reading abilities of my students in Dutch and my bilingual students in English. So I asked the teacher how many of these kids, twenty eight there were of them, spoke English at home. She answered promptly: “One.” This may not necessarily have been the one white kid in the room, there are a lot of people from Poland in the UK.
I teach in a Dutch immersion programme in which children are taught in English across half of the subjects. The kids in the English classroom are involved in an immersion programme in which all of their subjects are taught in a language not spoken at home. All these kids are bilingual, not just the gifted middle class kids as is the case in my school. These students speak Asian or African languages at home. All the teachers I met are involved in an immersion programme with a deep impact on the lives of their students.


My colleague of art told me that, after having evaluated the results of a lesson on portraits, some of her students repaired the transgression of a taboo by scratching the eyes from their drawings. The English enjoy the advantage of having a tradition in wearing a uniform at schools: it hushes up differences in cultural backgrounds. In this district of Birmingham the school uniform includes a headscarf with the school's logo for girls who wish to cover their head. Also the school instils proud in diversity by organising “Diversity Days” which feature cultural backgrounds.


The most remarkable difference between the schools at Small Heath and my own educational environment in The Netherlands is the grip school management has on the classroom situation. Compared with these schools a Dutch school resembles sheer anarchy. A teacher in The Netherlands is quite autonomous with respect to his classroom management, the content of his lessons and the feedback he gives to his students. Any school leader wishing to steer his school towards a shared goal has to fight obstinate staff. At the Small Heath schools clearly all staff complied with diktats issued by the school management. Although this may be rooted in a different tradition it can also be related to the context in which the schools have to function. Having to cater for children in a multicultural inner city area sets clear targets which ask for a concerted effort by all teachers.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Education Buzz Carnival #7

An "eclectic smattering of things buzzing about in the EduSphere" is to be found at Bellringers.