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.

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