Monday, 27 July 2009

A postcard


Every so often I meet former students of mine. Especially at a restaurant or bar frequently a well known face serves me as a waiter. So I met Merel.

She finished her examinations one year ago. A very nice girl, quite creative in the visual arts, very intelligent and dyslexic. I never was sure I communicated well enough with her. She often flew off at a tangent while working at my assignments, which I liked. She was amiable but she kept herself to herself. During her last year she vacillated between becoming a visual artist or an an actress. She chose to aim for a career as an actress and subsequently managed to get entrance in a theatre school.

On meeting at the restaurant she told me, eyes sparkling, that she liked the college enormously, she had chosen well and she had found her destiny. Over the weekends she worked as a waitress to earn a pittance.

A week later she sent me a hand made postcard. She had forgotten to write her name on the back, but the front showed an unmistakably recognizable signature in the form of a typical pattern in her personal style.

Her message said: "I fear the world to be a joke, while I take it seriously. Hush!..."

It made my day.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Class room discipline 101

Roaming the world of edublogs I stumbled upon Craig Seganti's blog on class room discipline. It is a hoard of most interesting ideas about how to keep your class at work instead of horsing around.

Free instructions!

I immediately subscribed to
"Free Report! Five Classroom Discipline Mistakes You Can Stop Right Now!"
I've been a teacher for over thirty years now, and during the last twenty years I never met a problem in the class room I could not cope with, but one is never too old to learn. I might find something new. Moreover, I coach young colleagues some of which are not very capable with respect to keeping order in the classroom and possibly Seganti's advices could be passed to them.

So every day instructions roll into my mailbox. Reading them made me feel itchy though, it took me some time to understand why. Something definitely was wrong with these techniques but what? After some days I discovered an underlying pattern. It made me realise that Seganti capitalizes on the fear of young teachers. Too many of the techniques he advises are defensive. For example:

  1. Stand in your doorway. Stop EVERY student briefly before they enter. Tell them the following: "I want you to go directly to your seat without talking and in an orderly manner. You are to sit down and immediately start the assignment on the board. Without talking. Do you understand?" (Make sure you have an assignment on the board). My preferred 1st day method is to hand them a copy of my rules on the way in to copy onto a clean sheet when they sit down.

  2. You are going to repeat this to each student before they enter.

Self fulfilling messages

Any teacher who demonstrates such silly behaviour should be advised to change his career. Certainly there is no gainsaying that standing in the doorway to receive your students is an excellent idea. But the message Seganti wants to be delivered to the students is utterly wrong. The message assumes that students do not want to learn in the classroom and that they must be told that they are supposed to work. That's nonsense. Students know that they are at school to behave disciplined in order to learn something. There is no need to tell them.

Seganti fails to understand that any message conveyed to the students will be heard and understood, students will react to it with behaviour. This message tells students straight away at the entrance that the teacher considers education to be a struggle. It is an invitation to start fighting.

My advice to young teachers is quite opposite: Stand in the doorway. Show and tell the students that they are most welcome. Make nice remarks. Compliment as many students as possible personally with new spectacles, their hairdo (only when changed conspicuously), nice clothing, congratulate them with their birthday. This must be natural behaviour, there is no need to say something to each student. You can allow yourself a scathing remark to someone to remind him of poor behaviour last lesson: "I'm happy that today you at least managed to be here in time," but only if delivered smilingly. These messages tell students that you are self-confident and enjoy your work, that you like your students and want to meet them on a personal level. Such a reception is an invitation to co-operate during the lesson to come.

Unnecessary rules

Craig expects students to go to their seats in silence. That is extremely unnatural behaviour. Adults would not do that when gathering for a meeting. I'm always astonished that teachers dare ask students to show behaviour they themselves would consider to be unnecessary, ridiculous or even demeaning. Demanding unnatural behaviour is asking for problems.

Then Craig tells us he gives students on the first school day a list of rules to copy. My young Initial Teacher Training colleagues often ask me for such a list: "Which rules must I give them?" My answer is "None." Which is exactly the answer my coach, a very wise man, gave me thirty-two years ago. Students know the rules. Any conversation about rules is a waste of time. You cannot afford to waste time in a lesson, can you?

The teacher is the alpha-person

Of course in the first lesson within five minutes after the bell rings some student will show poor behaviour, sitting backwards while you are talking or a girl will be polishing her nails. That's natural behaviour! The girl or boy wants to climb in the pecking order of the peer group by testing the mettle of this new teacher.
This is the very moment in which you repeat a basic rule: pay attention when the teacher is talking. The first student who loses attention must be addressed immediately, firmly but never frantically. To my experience this is best done, not by referring to a general rule, but by showing or telling that you are personally offended because the student is wasting precious time. This is the decisive moment: the teacher communicates that his lesson is too worthwhile to be disrupted. Students love that. They hate fools who waste their time.

Another very interesting thing happens when you react instantaneously. You show the group that you are the leader, you are the one who calls the shots. This is basic evolutionary psychology: you are the alpha-person, whether male or female. Show off your power by reacting proportionally. When a glaring look is enough you must not overdo by adding words at all. Punishment, especially punishment that is not experienced at the very moment of the offence, is mostly ineffective. It creates resentment and negative behaviour.


Punishment is the sword brandished to no avail by a swashbuckling anxious teacher. A pun that corrects poor behaviour is the best. A teacher does not need punishment. He is the alpha-person, and the group of students knows he is in charge. He can afford to give latitude, to enjoy himself while addressing the group, he knows his students. Above all he knows that he is too great not to praise his tribe when they paid attention. "This was extremely difficult to understand, and you really did effort to grasp it!" That's the way.

What's this all about, after all?

Somehow Craig Seganti misses the quintessence of education. Ultimately we don't want the discipline that is created by rules and punishment. Students should behave disciplined because they want to learn, because they understand and experience that they cannot allow themselves to run amok. We fail as educators when we do not show them this rationale with our own behaviour.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Young Experts

A question

I got a mail from Dan Willingham, in which he formulated a very interesting question: "Do you believe that students can achieve expertise more rapidly than they could, say 50 years ago?" The mail referred to my last post in which I wryly commented on some aspects of his book "Why Students Don't Like School." Fortunately Daniel Willingham doesn't ask for scientific research, he only asks about my beliefs. I'm not a scientist, I am just a humble teacher of art in the trenches of Dutch education. So my answer is based on common sense (I hope) and on years of experience in the classroom.

Stonehenge and computers

I see no reason to believe that the human brain has evolved significantly since the neolithic period. The same brain that erected the large stones at Stonehenge builds computers now. But the environment in which the human brain starts thinking during childhood has changed thoroughly. So it is conceivable that learning may have speeded up over the last hundreds of years. After all this is what formal education at school tries to achieve. I can come up with two classroom experiences that may possibly falsify Willingham's concept of the "ten years and ten thousand hours to become an expert"


Every year I tell my third form students that they perform an amazing feat. Within about 6 lessons of 100 minutes they grasp the basics of linear perspective and show these insight knowledge in their drawings. It can clearly be seen in paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth century that this was a very difficult concept for professionals at that juncture, even after Leon Battista Alberti had set out the technique in his treatise "Della Pittura" (1436). Apparently to professional artists the mathematical trick didn't always relate to their perception of the visual world.

Ucello painted the fallen lances precisely towards the vanishing point in the centre of the painting. He grappled with the concept of the depth in the picture plane and had to stick to a mathematical scheme in stead of rendering realistically the utter hassle of a medieval battle.

Figures behind the Parapet

Detail Fresco Villa Barbaro

The forms of the parapet in the painting on the left show clearly that Veronese had mastered perspective in drawing complex mathematical shapes. But he failed to envisage a realistic image of the dog perching on the banister as seen from below. To our modern eyes it is clear that the poor animal will fall down instantaneously.

So it seems that modern children learn a basic drawing technique faster than the medieval painter. However, we must bear in mind that the modern child has been exposed to images which depict the world according to the laws of perspective to an extent that the fifteenth century painter could not have dreamt of. Fifteen year old students have been pummelled by photographs and screen images on a daily basis for over ten years, which is the time frame Daniel Willingham sets for becoming an expert. The students have become experts in reading perspective in realistic images. So it is not amazing that they master producing correct perspective with pencil and ruler within a couple of lessons, they immediately sense something wrong when making a mistake. Albeit, drawing a dog on a high parapet as seen from below will pose as much a problem to them as it did to Veronese. Over the years I have had only a couple of students that could draw such a thing, and these kids were all self trained artists.

So it is a delusion to think that students learn faster now than five hundred years ago when mastering perspective.

Students' works and works by famous artists

Modern Art

My last post, which triggered Willingham's question, dealt with expert decisions students made while performing a task in the art room. I will not budge on this. My students expertly chose colours, shapes and techniques while making a self portrait and their work can be compared with works done by unquestioned masters of modern art. The picture on the right combines five works done by students and four works by famous artists (Francesco Clemente, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso).

The students deliberately applied techniques that are widely used in modern art to convey expression in a portrait: for example distortion of shape, abstraction by leaving out details, non-realistic colouring and so on. What's more, they used them all differently thereby showing that their choices were not the result of some prescription given to them by their teacher. I trusted them to explore their own ingenuity and so they did.

Craft versus Creativity

There is a meaningful difference between the two cases I am discussing. Learning perspective aims at the production of a realistic image. Until the end of the 19th century perspective was an indispensable tool of the painter. Within the context of modern art this tool may be applied but there is no need for an artist to learn perspective any more because modern art not necessarily aims at production of realistic images any more. Conversely many works of modern art are autonomous, they may refer to the world around the canvass or sculpture, but not by imitating shapes, colours and space in a mechanical way.

The Child Artist

Modern artists have often been inspired by the creativity with which young children depict their world playfully and spontaneously. I don't buy the argument however that children do not have to learn art. The children's spontaneity in making art mostly stops somewhere after early childhood if they are not encouraged to go on. School education can perpetuate their development, thereby fostering their inchoate artistic talents.

Given the fact that most children in our culture start to draw and paint at the age of two or three my students have had more than ten years of experience. I can clearly see though in the classroom that the amount of time spent on artistic productivity varies enormously between my students. The so called "gifted" indeed spent a lot of time on art voluntarily because the activity filled them with joy in which they were not disappointed by the feedback of their environment. Those students bring their own colour schemes and subject preferences into my class room. To others the act of making art has become all but meaningless, they do not feel confident at all while handling a brush or a gouge. A couple of hours weekly in a school's art room is not enough for these students to keep the engine running.

The Self Portrait

The task to make a representation of the self revved up the gusto of even these students and enticed them to make expert decisions. In fact I was startled by the results of some kids that had been hanging back so far. This raises questions:what triggered the interest of these slow coaches and how did they know what to do? Describing the assignment in detail might make Daniel Willingham's question less intangible:

  1. The task evaded the problem of likeness by giving each student a photograph which was transferred to a paper by monotyping rather mechanically for a start only. This choice was based on the teacher's expertise, it enabled the students to skip a lot of troublesome "What to do?" problems. Amazingly a lot of students didn't pay too much attention to the true outline of their face and emphasized abstract patterns and colours.
  2. The task challenged the students to express their knowledge about themselves in an image. They could be trusted to be the experts about themselves, couldn't they? I made clear that it would be quite useless to turn to me for advice because they would know better than the teacher which colours, shapes or techniques would be suited for their goal. I expected them to be experts in the execution of this particular task.
  3. The students have been trained systematically to accept idiosyncratic representations by discussing works of modern art in the classroom. Next to that the pupils are embedded in a culture in which visual imagery in the mass media conveys all kind of messages in a lot of different ways and they have become experts in unravelling unconsciously the intricate layers of meaning in pictures even in their short span of time.
  4. Somehow it was clear to the students that this could not go wrong. Every action they would engage in wilfully while working at this task would be a hallmark of their personality. One student went so far as to borrowing my lighter to burn the outer edge of the paper he worked on. The understanding of modern art in this group did not reach the point of presenting a short text or even a blank paper to the teacher as a token of conceptual art. I would have enjoyed that.

Summarizing: The students did make expert decisions within the scope of a task which was limited expertly by an experienced teacher. The expertise of the students was based on learning processes over some length of time, some of which had gone on all their life.
It goes without saying that no student can be considered to be an expert in modern art. An expert painter knows what to do when staring at a blank canvass in his studio, realizing that his work must contribute to an ongoing history of art that started 40,000 years ago in such a meaningful way that his work will acclaimed by a downright critical world.


I can give an answer to Dan Willingham's question now: No, I don't believe that students can achieve expertise more rapidly than they could, say 50 years ago? But students bring a lot of expertise in the classroom based on years of learning outside the classroom, even at the age of twelve. In a culture that renews methods of communication, perceptions of the world and concepts about the relation between the individual, the group and the world at large more rapidly than, say fifty, or hundred or five hundred years ago, teachers risk to be unaware of what's going on while young kids enter their classroom who are experts in these worldly affairs. If we fail to ask students about their expertise and if we do not adjust to their possibly completely different perceptions students will not like school. They will feel alienated. If we succeed in respecting the kids as experts in their own right school can be a place they like. They might even accept that rote learning is unavoidable to learn foreign languages, become proficient at solving mathematical problems, to become knowledgeable in history and all those other school subjects that they need badly to understand the world they live in beyond the scope of their easily acquired expertise.

A New Renaissance

I believe a Renaissance is going on now. I fear I may make the same mistake Veronese made: learning to implement tricks without acquiring the perception underlying the technique. Some day my students will tell me that my dog falls off the parapet, and I will not see it. Then I will retire.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Willingham and the Art Room

The great Willingham?

I have been ruminating about Daniel T. Willingham's thoughts on school education in his book "Why Don't Students Like School?"1 for some weeks now. In this book Willingham summarizes research in cognitive science and sets out consequences for learning in the class room.

His conclusions confirm a lot of my experiences as a teacher. Some myths that teachers have been taunted with lately are being debunked. I was so enthralled with the content of the book as to recommend it to my fellow teachers by quoting Willingham's "Nine principles of the mind" in our school's weekly. Albeit, there are some features of the book that I look upon with suspicion and I keep asking myself whether the book legitimizes school routines that make children unnecessarily unhappy.


The title makes me tetchy in the first place. In fact most of my students like school. Of course they like it first of all because it is a place to meet their peers. Next to that school offers challenges that they like to meet. Capable teachers really do succeed in enthusing pupils with their subject. Not few students even love to do their homework though they would not be caught dead admitting it. Willingham's book offers wonderful suggestions for teachers to make rote learning within school routines more acceptable and doable for students. In fact "How to make your students happy" would have been a better title.

Child oriented teaching or academic programme?

My main beef about the book is that by emphasizing purely cognitive learning in academic subjects it denies children's possibilities to learn independently, to be creative in asking questions and to be experts in their own right. There is more to school than learning the answers the teachers know to questions a child never would ask.

Traditional schooling

Training to be a painter once started with chore tasks in the workshop: the grinding of pigments, preparing of canvases. Subsequently the student would learn to copy the works of the master. Certainly he would be encouraged to draw as much from nature as possible next to that. When the student had proven himself he would co-operate with the master, he might fill in backgrounds , the clouds in the sky. Indeed, it would take ten years and ten thousand hours of hard labour to become a master, the apprenticeship Willingham claims to be necessary to become an expert.

Modern art

Modern art changed all that. The realistic image can be obtained by making a photograph. The photograph can be outlined and transferred to a painting and changed. Andy Warhol's portraits of Marilyn Monroe2 and Mick Jagger were produced in such a way, and so were the images in this blog, self-portraits by fifteen year old students of mine, with completely different outcome though. These young kids deliberately chose expressive visual elements that matched their self-awareness and they applied these consistently. They made expert decisions. Not too bad after only three years of training at school during two hours per week.

self portraitself portraitself portrait