Learning Theory Memo
Part 1 Planning and Implementing the Lesson
(all names have been changed, except mine)
The lesson I presented to the focus groups was reading a children’s story and doing some drawing in response to it. This is a learning theory analysis of why I made certain pedagogical choices with the Art Group
Going into the lesson, it seemed like there are a variety of factors that would contribute to the various learning goals that I set for the lesson: Music, Visual, and Social-Emotional. Since I was doing this with my graduate-student colleagues, I did not emphasize the literacy part of the lesson, but with young learners, I imagine that I would scaffold new vocabulary with more intentionality.
In our group we have one musician, Susie, one musician-artist, Leslie, one visual artist, Jamillah, and me the interdisciplinary person with less music and more visual arts focus.
The book in question, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, re-mixed by Chris Raschka (the author-illustrator), is what I am calling “synesthetic,” that is, it uses more than one aesthetic medium to synthesize its overall meaning. By this I don’t necessarily mean that one is required to be proficient in any or all media going in. In theory, it should open understanding both for the visual arts and for music, and hopefully touch on some affective learning too.
The lesson was engineered to elicit responses related to the goals of more literacy in visual and musical arts by focusing on a new song, “Concentric Circles,” from the titular album by Ingrid Racine. To elicit the response to musical structures, I asked for a drawing step that focused on rhythm through pattern with limited linear drawing tools– grease pencils and water-soluble crayons. Then to get to the expressiveness I asked for an expression or tone in colors using the flow of watercolor. Finally, I asked them to find a concrete symbol or image in an effort to elicit a narrative element, for this my original plan was to add dry tempera, which is thicker than watercolor, to have some solid floating images, but unlike young learners, my graduate student class, did not inundate their papers with water while painting with watercolors. So, I put out the markers and pencils too. Since the pages were going to go into a story book of their own, it felt necessary to add some imagery so that the future audience, and the painters alike could create an arc of beginning middle and end
Controlling access and inputs can provide structure while allowing freedom for the learner to express and shape what they need within it. Structure and challenge help learners interface with new material by limiting the choices necessary. Decision fatigue and metacognitive load, are often blocks for new skill acquisition, so I tend to engineer lessons to have a few structural scaffolds as well as a few structural limitations. In other words by creating structure I hope to avoid factors of complexity that cause too much thinking about thinking, so that students can think about the new content and process instead of focusing on the mechanics of learning.
In this case, in limiting materials, my hope was to force a particular kind of exploration at each stage: drawing implements require more effort to fill in, so with the prompt to focus on rhythm, linear and patterned responses are should come out as repeated shapes, curves, and lines. In the same way the prompt about color, emotion, and tone is structured with the watercolors as the scaffold to a less linear approach. Watercolors are transparent and hard to control without a lot of practice, so they naturally elicit an expressive harmonic flow. Finally to make sure the narrative connection remained salient in this mini-book-making exercise, the prompt of a concrete symbol, character, or image is reinforced by the thicker and more opaque tempera cakes. They are easier to control and they cover everything but the crayons so they can go on-top of the other elements which are more transparent.
These three stages were also supported by the patterns in the book. The structures represented as the shapes. Then more expressive as they began to be layered in patterns: raindrops, box, and snowflake, and finally becoming narrative with the action of the kitten in the story.
Although the process of setting up the lesson is more or less how I have done it with very young learners, we focused more on expression than structure. So to help set up this lesson, I looked through Making Thinking Visible and, I was helped in picking my self-designed prompts by the “Color, Symbol, Image” thinking routine (Ritchart 2008). Having read through several routines, I decided I liked the structure and that it fit well with my underlying instincts about how each of the things that seemed learnable from the book and lesson would work.
There is something that appeals to me, as a teacher and a learner, about collective collaborative effort. Not, “You do part A, and I’ll just do part B,” but the direct interaction in same-task accomplishment. It draws out a social aspect in learning that necessitates interaction, negotiation, and co-constructed inspiration. In my teaching, particularly at the beginning of a year, we start with collaborative drawing exercises, exquisite corpses, and games, because it helps with group cohesion. Even if it doesn’t totally bond a group, collective drawing and creating brings out salient points of social tension and disagreement that need working on, letting the teacher make visible things that may prevent a group from starting to cohere.
Overall, It was quite rewarding to do this exercise. Since I have worked with learning theories, both explicitly and implicitly, but have not had the privilege of time much lately, it is good practice to take the time to revisit them in this moment of study. In my work as a Program Director at a non-profit, I insisted upon reflective practices as a measure of continuous low-stakes quality assessment, better put, supportive collaborative teaching practices. I was always so happy to hear both my teachers and myself expressing these things in our conversational meetings as we grew. Enumerating how and why we chose to do a dialectic disciplinary system instead of an external PBIS, something one of my teachers felt uncomfortable with, and something that took a lot of work, for example. It helped him grow and helped me figure out how to best implement the scaffolds across sites for my teachers and kids.
In the case of my grad student class, I didn’t have to consider this, but the process of thinking about why I made mechanistic and materials choices, something I do intuitively now, after many years of practice, helped me remember that all those details count. Thinking about research and best practices, little things can make a big difference.
Finding Vygotsky’s zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) for all the things you hope a multi-level class will learn is both complicated and supported by the multiple abilities. Challenging older learners to reframe for younger learners, for example helps both. In the grad student case, Susie’s reframing of musical information for us helped all of us think about musical structure as it relates to our visualization. She had a higher level of proficiency in the process of visualization as a string player than I did as a former wind-player.
Keeping in mind by whom and for whom the lesson is designed and implemented can help frame the choices that inform how to present a lesson, and working with my colleagues made this explicit. Remembering the things that I think are simple may not be as simple for the people that I am teaching, and remembering what my own situation is compared to others: that is, I might not know about other people’s lives so I should remember the theatre adage,
“Always remember the audience doesn’t know anything,” which means basically like a good writer, a good director and a good teacher should show and not tell.
Part 2 Reflection on Myself as Teacher in the Eyes of my Exercise Buddies
To help myself remember what my colleagues said, with their permission, I recorded them. I was struck by how they had similar reactions to most of what I tried as I would have expected. The surprising bits were how much more of the musical structure and pattern Susie, the musician, got out of the exercise than the others, though the other two did express the level of interest in the structure and listening in a new way. Susie seemed to have a few eureka moments about teaching through the process. She had taught a sound/context lesson before that I’ll write about in a minute.
I was also excited that Jamillah shared with me her love of pass-and-draw exercises. She and I had previously talked about this a little, and it doesn’t always match up with what students say. Jamillah said she loves pass-and-draw, to paraphrase: because the work comes out more perfectly when more eyes are on it, and it helps you as an artist to understand new ways of understanding/seeing/perceiving the thing you are considering. She said that it took some of the pressure to make a perfect drawing off, because someone else would make it more perfect.
The pass-and-draw part is often the biggest point of tension when I do this with a classroom because kids want “their” drawings back, and they want to control their “own” drawings. For this reason, I usually do a different kind of limitation on supplies, and make sure that kids get their own drawing back so they can put finishing touches on, color, add a background story or narrative, or whatever else they may feel they need to be at peace with a piece that they can happily call their own. In a classroom of young learners, rather than spurring technical perception, this kind of pass-and-draw tends to spur social-emotional learning about boundaries, teamwork, and self-regulation.