Saturday, 30 May 2009

Oppositional Defiant Disorder


Work in wax by a 15 yold student diagnosed with ODD and ADHD

The loss of the village

In his blog "Obedience" Andrew Old beefs about disobedience in the classroom, and rightly so. Without students' accepting that the teacher is the alpha person education is impossible. Andrew's arguments point at a ubiquitous slackness in Western culture. An African saying tells us: "It takes a village to raise a child". Apparently we are no villagers any more and children are at a loss in a highly individualised global city. The result is mayhem in the classroom.

Extreme behaviour

In the extreme the problem is represented by the definition of Oppositional Defiant Disorder:

  • frequent temper tantrums
  • excessive arguing with adults
  • active defiance and refusal to comply with adult requests and rules
  • deliberate attempts to annoy or upset people
  • blaming others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
  • often being touchy or easily annoyed by others
  • frequent anger and resentment
  • mean and hateful talking when upset
  • seeking revenge

This behaviour is connected with neurological disorder. This makes sense: in all cultures of all times some people have been behaving anti-socially. These troublesome kids are in real danger of becoming criminals, or greedy bankers for that matter. Every so often we have one of them in our classrooms.

A lot of lunatics?

Albeit, I can't buy the percentage of kids purportedly suffering from this condition: five to fifteen percent of all school-age children. That's an outrageous number and it does not match my experience of over thirty years of teaching. I do not expect all children to be obedient and meek all of the time. I am an educator and it is part and parcel of my calling to correct poor behaviour, laziness, heckles, foul language and solipsistic ideas. I teach young adolescents after all. The predominance of pupils are reasonable and willing to learn, I can communicate with them and enjoy them, knowing that they will outgrow insolence and petulance.

To the detriment of lessons

In my tutor group I have a girl who has been diagnosed with ODD and ADHD. Dutch governmental policy has it to place children with special needs in the normal classroom. This child may benefit from the example of other children, at least she realises that her behaviour is not considered to be normal. However, her condition seems to be contagious. Some other students take pleasure in the aggro caused by her histrionics and one boy shows copycat behaviour. Teachers are harried, parents complain about the learning environment of their children. At the end of this year the girl will have to leave the school because she cannot meet our academic standards and can not be promoted to the next form. I have no doubts about her innate intelligence, she falls behind because she cannot concentrate and work on a daily basis. She does not accept guidance.

The singer in wax

The art work shown in the images above was done by this girl. To my amazement she worked on it for several hours fully concentrated. Whenever she has set a goal for her art work all symptoms of her neurological disorder disappear. Provided she has an interest in the topic at hand she will work at her drawing or sculpture with rapt attention over a prolonged period. I advised her to aim for a career as an artist. She is not extremely gifted, but she is capable of producing interesting work. Even more important, in the arts a highly eccentric personality is not uncommon and will be accepted more easily. This might give her a chance to find a place in society. But she baulked at the prospect of having to spend time on art theory and art history.

Don't blame the teacher

Bearing in mind that ODD, ADHD, PDDNOS and all those other afflictions described in DSM IV do exist and have a base in physical disorders that can be detected and measured by scans, I am inclined to think that the number of students suffering from these conditions is highly exaggerated. By medicalising anti-social behaviour our society denies the underlying problem: too many parents fail to discipline their children properly in a stable and safe environment. Because of inadequate caring, excessive consumerism and lack of rules lots of children do not develop a sound personality. As a result they cannot communicate reciprocally. Emotionally they keep functioning on the level of a three year old child.

Teachers cannot solve this problem at a later stage.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The Art Laboratory

At work

This girl is working in my classroom. She is as concentrated as not even to be disturbed by the photographer.

Apparently the assignment I gave her compelled her to do a good job. The result fulfilled the demands included in the task given to the class. It had to do with expressive quality in art by exaggerating form aspects.

I introduced this task with the question why art can be appreciated across cultures and referred to the idea of "Peak Shift," introduced by V.S. Ramachandran

So I guess she learned something about that. I can not be sure because the scope of the course didn't allow an extensive test.

Her gusto may have been triggered by the sheer size of the work, which exceeded anything she had worked on before.

A wonderful book

I am reading a book by Daniel T. Willingham these days: "Why Don't Students Like School?". The content is very satisfying for a teacher. In Dutch education teachers have been harassed by ideologists of every ilk since 1993 when the government implemented a major change in secondary education. Willingham is a cognitive psychologist. His book debunks a great deal of the myths that underlie deprecating views on proven teachers' routines. Recommending this book does not mean I want to fuel those colleagues who are unwilling to reflect critically on their daily work with children. It goes without saying that teachers have to adapt continuously to ever-changing demands of society. Nevertheless, the book keeps me smiling while turning pages because it confirms that a lot of ideas about learning are not supported by science at all and some are falsified by research.

I adhere to Karl Popper's legacy

I consider my classroom to be a laboratory in which the teacher's hypotheses are tested against children's motivation and visible results of learning. Remember I teach art. Nice products do not guarantee effective learning, but poor products show clearly that something went pearshaped. Enthused children are not necessarily proof of good teaching, boredom is evidence of the converse.

The gap between theory and practice

Background reading is indispensable for a teacher. The try-and-error in the classroom must be subsumed into intelligent thought of others. Often I have experienced a gap between literature and my everyday experience. Neither did Skinner's pigeons resemble my students, nor did Marxist education in visual communication appeal to them. Constructivistic ideas seeped into my work with meagre results. So mostly I resort to common sense based on over thirty years of experience. Only recently does theory bridge the gap. Willingham's book is wonderful. But there is not very much on Art Education in it and I have some objections. I will get back to that a.s.a.p

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


Boring content

One of the objectives of my lessons is to sensitize teenagers to historic art styles. They need that for their national exam. They will be asked to compare images, such as the crucifixes you see on the left, and connect these with styles, e.g. Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque.

A 16 year old student will not be intrinsically motivated to study on such a content. Of course the teacher collects slides to show the class, works of art that epitomize each style. The best thing you can hope for as a teacher is polite silence while you go out of your way to describe characteristic features, point out differences in details, explain composition and expression. If you are a good storyteller you may even have their attention, however to no avail. After a series of lessons on those styles they will not be able to categorize an image that is new to them. I found out why.

Useless words

The problem is in the talking. When you try to get the message across in words you work on the wrong side of the brain. Historic background of art, names of famous artists, difficult descriptive words, reasoning about relations, for the student all these words build up a farrago. Mostly the verbosity has to be interrupted intermittently to tell off sniggering girls. If the teacher is very eloquent, he may mesmerize his class into a mutual delusion of understanding.

Four words only

Only four words are needed to begin with: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. These words can be introduced in ten minutes with a couple of images. The sole goal is to store these four words in the working memory of the students. They are no morons, this will be successful. Subsequently show them a multitude of images, not chronologically but completely at random. They get 15 seconds per image to guess the style of the art work. Then give them immediately feedback about the correct answer. They can reward themselves with a tick on a paper, and if you like mayhem in your classroom they may shout "Bingo" if their answer was right. You really need at least a hundred images in a Powerpoint presentation. The images can be grabbed from internet sites such as The Web Gallery of Art. No talking, no explanations. "Just look at the picture and guess what style." Students like gaming and they discover to their amazement by their tally that failures slump during the game. They really start recognizing styles. That's extremely rewarding. Also by repeatedly thinking about their choice a hundred times the four words will be transferred from working memory into long term memory.

We are all gifted

I believe such a lesson uses an innate human skill: face recognition. We are good at distinguishing subtle differences while looking. We use this capability to categorize people and objects. We can even recognize familiar people from behind, by looking at the back of their heads. We don't need to think in words to perform remarkable feats

This recognition is the bedrock to build upon. It is the start of the learning process. After that experience chronological order can be memorized and the relation between historic backdrop and style can be explained. To achieve true understanding words are needed. But recognizing different styles comes first. That doesn't warrant lengthy explanations, only training is needed.

Monday, 18 May 2009


Today two guests covered a lesson of mine. My first formers were to participate in scientific research in which their perception while gaming at the computer was questioned, in particular their awareness of advertisement pop-ups at the edge of the screen.

I have a lot of experience with trainees. Of course they lack experience, but mostly they are pupil oriented, communicative and aware of their task as a teacher.
However, these guests were a student of psychology and a computer expert. They were not trainees from a teacher training. I had my start routine, which in this case had to include amiable lambasting of some rumbustious boys and less friendly ticking off a latecomer, introduced the guests and let it go.
They managed to get their message through, more or less. Inviting thirteen year old students to play a computer game is not that difficult. Albeit, the psychologist said quizzically: "They listen better to you than they do to us."

What struck me was that I had to tell this young woman that she should explain to my students what the test had been about at the end of the period and how their participation would contribute to scientific progress at large. I take it she thought lollipops would be enough reward for my students. The lollipops were enjoyed by the pupils, but the sweets certainly did not meet my demands, so I had the lady explain the aim of the test and the first formers were given the opportunity to ask questions.

The event made me realize that the teacher's expertise is taken for granted, even by the teacher himself. I cannot assess the quality of the scientific experiment at hand but treating first formers as if they were guinea pigs definitely makes poor psychology.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


Work by 15 year old students

The pictures on the left show one work seen from different angles. It was made by two students. I had them work in pairs, as it is convenient to have four hands available when assembling pieces of shaped cardboard. The parts were stuck together with adhesive tape. The students discovered that all directions in space are attainable with just a few joints.

The complicated form is balanced on a very small foot which adds a delicate sense of equilibrium to it.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Magic Material

rubber object 1
rubber object 2

All materials have tactile qualities in their own right. A great deal of the immense joy an artist experiences when crafting can be explained by the direct touch on the material.

Rubber certainly triggers a palpable joy.

Its flexible resilience results in unique experiences when cut, twisted, stretched or woven. My students love it. Rubber is a perfect material to teach them never to tangle with material but to go with the flow and to be surprised with the result that the hands create while the brain just aimlessly observes.

On top of that: rubber is affordable. Worn out bicycle tyres are free to have at cycle repair shops, at least in The Netherlands, as the shop owners have to pay to get rid of them. So the budget keeper fancies this material as well, which is not to be sneezed at during a credit crunch!

Pictures: Works by 15/16 year old students

Sunday, 10 May 2009

They do me proud

leerlingenwerk 016Every so often a teacher strikes a chord with his students. The animal in the picture has been made by a thirteen year old girl. The hybrid animal, assembled out of plywood parts and subsequently painted, shows that she has grasped the idea that art is not just about imitating reality. She created an object that conjures up a completely new and mindboggling creature.