REFLECTIONS 2: I hear and I forget
‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ (Confucius)
Looking back at Reflections 1, I’ll focus here upon identifying and applying theoretical principles to my professional teaching practice above other areas of engagement with the subject matter of the course. The sessions themselves helped me to position and articulate what I have discovered through practice as well as beginning to reveal, particularly and significantly, strategies for extending opportunities for student centredness in practice.
I was appointed as a Course Director of BA Theatre Design over a decade ago and have since led two MA courses, in Drawing and now Theatre Design. My professional practice at that time was broad, and so I believed, was my outlook. When engaging with students, a ‘catholic’ visual vocabulary and plastic approach to process was useful as the college was celebrated for not having a house style or philosophy both in terms of industrial standards and pedagogy. This of course, in itself, was a house style and one that largely speaking stands today however it’s an opportune time to articulate the potential of this position clearly and positively for the following reasons:
- To make explicit any distinctiveness both within the University and the UK at large.
- To make a declaration of intent that both resident and visiting lecturers may position themselves in relation to.
- To engage [with] students in not only the wide range of subject matter but also the choices and relevance of modes of learning available.
The remainder of this statement aims to set out my current position in relation to education and professional performing arts practice thereby identifying the arena in which I intend to research, the territory across which I will travel and fix targets to help motivate future shifts. I aim ‘to do and so understand’.
Design and planning of learning activities and/or programmes of study
Paradigm shifts in the last decade have left a gap to be exploited in the delivery of art and design subjects. The HEFCE’s push for a rationalisation and frequent merging of institutions and therefore subjects, has often softened specialist course aims presumably with the strategic intention of increasing multi-disciplinarity. The Quality Assurance Agency’s prescribed benchmarks also tend to form a homogenised canopy of academic language under which lurks a space for a more responsive specialist terminology and practice at grass roots. The Course Director who keeps light on the feet can flex the course through methods of delivery, accentuating process above outcome, to bend any suspect academic dogma to the needs of specific individuals or groups by consensus.
Choosing the individuals of this community, through an ever-more complex and diverse application procedure, to ensure as many independent *Level 3 learners is much like the theatrical casting process. The dynamics of the ‘ensemble’ of students can make or break the quality of the learning environment.
The momentum or trajectory of an individual’s progress is often dependent on the inspiration and, more importantly, trust that is offered in a secure social environment; Etienne Wenger’s ‘Community of Practice’. Consistent formative, criteria-referenced assessment techniques covering three cohort’s three-year experience at any one point in time relies on a clear understanding of the development of the group as much if not more than the success of the individual.
Thus the QAA’s advice when assessing a potential candidate for admission:
‘In assessing merit and potential to succeed, or in discriminating between candidates with broadly equivalent educational achievement, institutions give careful consideration to the different ways by which the desired characteristics might be demonstrated, for example, personal initiative or team working ability.’ QAA Code of practice Section 10: Admissions to higher education (2nd edition 2006)
At this point in my practice therefore I feel that the subtle complexion of group can be taken more advantage of when planning their programme by means of harnessing both the student’s personal initiative and collaborative capabilities. Thus I intend to take further advantage of
‘….the usefulness of an adaptive approach – examining the realities within which teachers work and experimenting with strategies that seek to achieve student learning within the limitations of these realities. The focus is on learning-centred rather than learner-centred approaches.’ O’Sullivan, M. (2003). The re-conceptualisation of learner-centred approaches
Teaching and/or supporting student learning
As a Course Director in an independent institution, I had the freedom to make radical changes to the course I took over nearly twenty years ago. I listened to students and rolled out a ‘velvet revolution’ of structural change of a period of years. This included, in no particular order:
- The introduction of Learning Agreements – increasing self-determined work
- Experiments of self assessment, self evaluation
- Students mentoring others during presentations and note taking
- Role play (both students and staff)
amongst many other strategies for learning, particularly team-based methods appropriate to theatre practice.
At a recent revalidation event, the students were asked, through a forum, if they thought we should make any far reaching change and, on the whole, changes were modest – a compliment!.
This course has unexpectedly prompted me to think there is more work to be done, though – however much I accommodated student opinion about broad structural concerns, the resulting handbook remained my interpretation of that opinion. This is fair enough as these events are usually ultimately led by one person rather than the mass and that’s what I and others consider to be my job – leading. Leadership however can be used to further not only the core subject matter, but also ways it could be integrated with dynamic ways of harnessing an alignment of, specifically;
- Student-designed course components (beyond individual assignments)
- Industrial techniques with reference to company, rehearsal and team effort
I was struck by the potential of the statement;
‘The social and political aspects of process reveal a teacher’s model of human learning – her theory-in-use.’ Brockbank & McGill (2000)
and that as a Course Leader I can do more to support in learn through study of the subject as much as subject content itself. Moreover, that the means of theatre production may have the potential to be of far greater use in terms of life-long learning than product-based accomplishment. There are therefore clear gaps between my ‘espoused theory’ and my ‘theory-in-use’.
If asked to declare my current position in relation to the various pedagogic methodologies (albeit admittedly only partially) synthesized at present, I am most convinced by ideas underpinned by humanist attitudes in relation to experiential, practice-led learning and teaching.
Making, reflecting and remaking are fundamental means of engagement with most Art and Design as well as Performing Arts subject matter. To do that effectively, with purpose and clarity, what Carl Rogers identifies as the conditions for learning, its ‘essence is meaning’, that;
- has a quality of personal involvement – the whole person in both feeling and cognitive aspects being in the learning event.
- is self-initiated. Even when the impetus or stimulus comes from the outside, the sense of discovery, of reaching out, of grasping and comprehending, comes from within.
- is pervasive. It makes a difference in the behaviour, the attitudes, perhaps even the personality of the learner.
- is evaluated by the learner. She knows whether it is meeting her need, whether it leads toward what she wants to know, whether it illuminates the dark area of ignorance she is experiencing. The locus of evaluation, we might say, resides definitely in the learner. Smith, M. K. (1999) ‘The humanistic to learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education citing Rogers (1983)
…. are harnessed when generating work that artists are fully committed to. Thus the sixth principle of the Modern Humanist doctrine cited at the Amsterdam Conference perceives that;
‘Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment’. International Humanist and Ethical Union (2002)
A key word in this statement of intent is ‘personal’. An underlying objective here must be that the pursuit of study of the arts prepares people for a confident, self-sufficient outlook on life in general with particular emphasis on an ability to investigate and communicate secular transcendentalism. Providing space and, possibly dynamic opportunities for serendipity in the curriculum and institutional culture must therefore be of the utmost importance; with any cohort’s infinite variations of chemical mix as a base ingredient.
A student’s craving for received subject knowledge is only matched by the lust for complementary contemporary currency – so what’s wrong with master classes?
‘It’s a crazy world out there and we are obliged to make sense of it for our students, neither simplifying it to the point where we lie, nor mystifying it to the point where we are unhelpful.’ Salzer, B. (1995) The Skeptical Scenographer
There is a clear case for knowledge and experience, even apocryphal or anecdotal, being directly passed from age to age. Good storytelling is a potent way of illuminating axiomatic truths and can reflect an idiosyncratic, perhaps unique, view of things which after all is an aspiration of most artistic endeavour – so why not share it? It’s cheap, can be entertaining (or satirical and challenging) and makes a human connection rather than an academic facsimile. It is part of a balanced scholastic diet but I would maintain that although dining out can be a pleasure, there’s nothing like home cooking – particularly if the recipe’s your own.
Didacticism has its place and implicit in any learning strategy is the possibility of a tyranny of approach – even student centred-ness. Presumption and imposition is an ever-present possibility – generic doctrines reproduced regardless of situation rather than responsive to the immediate needs of an individual or cohort. Gibbs states that,
‘What is to be learnt, how and when it is to be learnt. With what outcome, what criteria and standards are to be used, how the judgements are made and by whom these judgements are made’ Gibbs (1995:1)
… should be declared, shared and therefore ultimately appreciated. Thus, master classes, which Masters and for what Classes, can be negotiated with students and become the fulcrum of exchange between generations of practitioners. Brockbank and McGill identified
‘the optimal learning relationship as mutual, open, challenging, contextually aware and characterized by dialogue.’ Brockbank & McGill (2000)
A key to its efficacy therefore is a consensual beginning (e.g. student demand) and a common understanding of the lecture event in relation to specific learning objectives. As a Reader at the University of the Arts London, these often conflicting but also sometimes complementary polar opposites are everyday; the orthodoxy of consuming and disseminating contextual phenomena in parallel with challenging the status quo through contemporary research. My schizophrenic role it would seem is to embody the whole and broker the dialogue.
Assessment and giving feedback to learners
The Weston Manor Assessment Manifesto gives voice to a number of aspects of assessment that my colleagues and I have found increasingly problematic for a number of years; namely that the cultural shift from achieving wisdom to the acquiring a qualification, fostered through SATS, GCSE, AS and A level etc, has begun to take a firm toehold in universities. It has been the case for some time that before specialist professionally-based learning can be undertaken, tutors must undertake an increasing amount of un-teaching to do to foster non-hierarchical tutor-student relationships and independent learning can have a chance to begin.
Two precepts of the manifesto interest me. Firstly that;
‘When it comes to the assessment of learning, we need to move beyond systems focused on marks and grades towards the valid assessment of the achievement of intended programme outcomes.’
and secondly that;
‘Assessment standards are socially constructed so there must be a greater emphasis on assessment and feedback processes that actively engage both staff and students in dialogue about standards. It is when learners share an understanding of academic and professional standards in an atmosphere of mutual trust that learning works best.’ Attwood, R. (24.04.2008) THE Report
The alignment of learning outcomes linked to assessment criteria has been a fundamental of course design for the best part of two decades. However the positioning of shifting structural elements and the language with which they are articulated have [by necessity and a compelling blend of hierarchy and resource/time constraints] usually descended through quality and revalidation procedures, the tutor and finally to the student – a form of pyramid promotion and sale; the efficacy of which is then summarily adjudged by those that have a vested interest in its success.
The second precept above implies that reversing this process of curriculum design may be a more reliable and nourishing foundation upon which to construct a worthwhile programme of study. Its dynamic thrust relies of course on discussion, decision and action but should involve discursive engagement of the learner at fundamental stages of its creation and execution and presumably therefore greater ownership, even authorship, of assessment for learning rather than, or perhaps more holistically, as well as assessment of learning.
Developing effective environments and student support and guidance
The role of the convenor brings with it a responsibility to guide the group’s ideas in so far as she should ensure that benefits to the ensemble cannot be at the expense of the individual’s self-worth; particularly in relation to formative assessment. Young found that;
“Students varied in their attitudes to receiving feedback, their perceptions of the messages they were receiving and whether it was important to them that they receive positive comments. They also differed in the extent of the impact of the feedback, for some students, it was ‘only work’; for others, their whole sense of self was at stake.” Young, P. (October 2000) Journal of Further and Higher Education, Volume 24, Issue 3
Student-centred processes may often prompt suspicion that a tutor is having an easy time of it; renouncing some sort of self constructed or historically imposed supposition inherited from a legacy of historical precedents that teachers have a primary responsibility to reproduce the prescribed wisdoms of a previous generation and failure to do so may break a cultural genetic chain, or cause anthropological chaos. In actual fact the role of facilitator is a far subtler and demanding position than that of the conduit through which preconceived knowledge descends.
The idea of ‘ensemble learning’ brings with it an implicit recognition of group dynamics and chemistries.
‘An object with other objects and/or sub-ensembles as its functional constituents. The constituents are encapsulated and can be created and deleted by the ensembles exclusively’
- Understanding that good theatre requires lifelong Level 3 learning also embraces;
Theatre purports to harness the benefits of collective forces and so it would seem reasonable that theatre courses could, or even should, embrace collaborative philosophies throughout the curriculum. Thus,
‘The approaches to learning deployed in academic life are a product of the particular model of learning held by any given practitioner, dictated by an implicit theory. Where the model champions factual recall that is what will come through and be assessed. Where the model calls for adversarial discussion that will be rewarded in assessment. Were the model to call for collaboration, joint endeavours would be rewarded and encouraged.’ Brockbank & McGill (2000)
But to what extent are the collaborative objectives of my course accurately aligned to the processes of assessment?
Reflections on my practice to identify scope for enhancement – a conclusion
If students are given an opportunity to create their own subject-specific unit, how would their construction of the learning environment differ from that of the academic norm re. learning objectives, delivery and assessment… towards alignment through collaborative, ensemble-driven phenomenography?
To return to the paradigm of rehearsal, an ensemble must negotiate and agree upon its rules of engagement before advancing as a cooperative whole. Within the collective ranks are individuals who’s role is encouraged by a framework designed by consensus but that also values the individual endeavour the maintains the group’s momentum.
What is then ideally created is an assured solo taxonomy within an understood framework of peer group-generated conditions for progress. In a Performing Arts context, the convergence of the professional and pedagogic may also be more likely; PPD (Personal and Professional Development).
My intentions are to use space in the curriculum that I have recently designed to test the an alignment of;
- specific industry-based methods and skills with
- the design and execution of an element of study (short course) that draws upon the Weston Manor Group’s recommendations
… and thereafter to attempt an analysis and evaluation of its effectiveness as a learning experience from both the student and tutor perspectives.