Pedagogy Visited-Exactly What is Teaching Excellence? (Part B)

by Randall Lavender, Professor & Associate Chair, Foundation

Part A of this article (available here) discussed several myths that permeate college art and design teaching. Looking deeper at how we teach studio courses reveals certain methods that help to address common teaching conundrums. One way to do this is to review the current literature on teaching and learning. The 120+ titles in the accompanying bibliography (click here to access; materials available from the Otis Library) illuminate key aspects of art education, educational psychology, learning theory, aesthetics, and approaches to teaching the Millennial generation. They contain innovative ideas that can inspire in us new and creative teaching solutions and methodologies.

There are a number of teaching challenges that can arise in the college art/design classroom only to leave instructors mystified, dismayed, or frustrated. Students may seem unprepared with the necessary skills or knowledge, non-responsive to instruction, or uninterested in embracing stated project criteria. Yet these and similar issues can be successfully countered with the help of key concepts from contemporary learning theory, such as level-appropriateness, fostering skill-transfer across learning settings, and developing effective learning prompts and constraints.

Level-Appropriateness. Students can bring a mind-boggling variety of skill-levels and comprehension abilities into the classroom.When instructors encounter this challenge, we need first of all to refrain from conclusion-making about students’ character or behavior.Under-prepared students are not being uncooperative or disrespectful when they reveal their underpreparedness–they are only being (or appearing to be) under-prepared.If we can suspend initial expectations about what students could know or should know, we can find ways to propel them to new levels, albeit from varying starting points.

The suggestion that instructors should initially suspend expectations of their students’ abilities may be seen by some as amounting to “lowering academic standards” or “teaching to the lowest common denominator.”But suspending initial expectations only means delaying the point at which we expect all of our students to share a common set of skills.A period of suspended expectations can give certain students room to transfer skills they may have previously acquired, but are not yet able to demonstrate in a new setting.Hearing disapproving messages from their instructor reduces students’ motivation to learn.For an instructor to make negative comments at the beginning of a course tends to produce less effort on students’ part, dilute their responsiveness, and prolong the time it may take them to retrieve skills or knowledge from their past and fully synthesize prior learning.Yet retrieving and synthesizing knowledge from past learning experiences are the two main ingredients of skill transfer (see below).

An approach that is level-appropriate would have us meet students where they are, non-judgmentally–regardless of how we may feel about their apparent lack of understanding.It enables us to hold their attention while we deliver new information.When they hear messages of approval–whatever their skill level may be–weak students will be motivated to look deeper, follow our lead, and apply their latent understanding to the challenges being offered.And stronger students will be inspired to prove their ability.

Students often know more about a given subject than they are aware (let alone able to demonstrate) within a new learning context. But if they sometimes know more than they realize they know, how can we help them demonstrate their full range of understanding?

Fostering Skill-Transfer. Successful transfer of knowledge to a new learning setting requires a synthesis of terms, manual applications, retinal sensitivities, and intellectual understanding. Yet even if students have been exposed to, demonstrated mastery of, and apparently synthesized these layers of knowledge in earlier classes, they may not yet have integrated these into one, recallable and applicable “skill.”

We’ve all heard the lament of colleagues who find, to their dismay, that one or another of their classes is full of students who are “simply not capable” of functioning on the requisite level, are “totally unprepared” for professional study, or are “just lazy.” While our assessments of students’ underpreparedness may be accurate, we still have to teach our students at whatever level they present themselves. Thus a simple method applies: quickly re-invoke terms, manual applications, retinal sensitivities, and intellectual understanding that your students may have mastered in previous courses.

Every school teacher starts the new year by reviewing material from the previous grade’s workbooks. Yet every year, groups of college sophomores stare blankly at instructors who are attempting to elicit answers to questions such as “what’s the opposite of static balance?” or “the front- and side- counterparts of a plan-view are called . . . ?” Professors wonder how their students could be unfamiliar with such basic terms as “dynamic balance” or “elevation-view”–weren’t the students taught these things in Foundation’s Form and Space? Often such instructors are surprised by the answer–of course the students were taught these things. I have seen my own former students, having moved on to the upper division, react with open mouths and glassy eyes to terms and tasks that I know they are not only familiar with, but proficient in, as well. At least, they were at the end of Foundation year . . . . A simple fact underlies this phenomenon: students who know something in one learning setting may not synthesize that knowledge in a way that allows them to transfer it to another. And it’s our job to help them make that leap.

Just as the reading and math skills a student learns in one school grade won’t transfer to the next without the teacher’s help, transferring skills and understanding across learning settings will not happen automatically for many college students, either. Such transfer must be triggered. That means that we, as inheriting instructors, have the most positive impact when we recognize that students at every level see, hear, and otherwise process all instruction “as if” for the first time– even if they’ve seen, heard, processed, and demonstrated the same information before. In other words, as students encounter new programs, teachers, classrooms, courses, and cohort groups, a perception of separateness from prior experience is incited. That perception, in turn, reinforces a belief that lies within students that the lessons they’ve learned in past courses pertained exclusively to that particular course, teacher, or project. They often cannot or will not transfer skills and understanding across learning environments unless we first make it clear that they need to do so, and then show them how to do so by triggering the synthesis that successful skill-transfer requires.One effective way to trigger such synthesis is to consult with faculty who teach your course’s prerequisite, require students to bring learning outcomes produced in that setting into your classroom, and then review with students key concepts, issues, techniques, and/or other skill-sets that their past projects demonstrate.

Developing Effective Prompts and Constraints. Another key to supporting student success is to develop effective learning prompts (tasks or projects) and constraints. Every prompt we assign also functions as a learning constraint, because its criteria limit or isolate students’ attention and focus.The very idea of constraining students can seem, on its surface, to contradict the aims of art and design instruction.But once we realize that all learning prompts are inherently constraining in some way, we can constrain better, and thereby more effectively support students’ learning.It is well known that one of the basic skills of teachers is the ability to take a large quantity of information and present it in bite-size pieces.So it only follows that in parceling out our learning objectives into sequenced prompts and constraints we enable students through incremental learning.

At the same time, we must be sensitive to how our prompts and constraints are delivered, for they can be conceived and/or articulated either as enabling or disabling. Enabling constraints are stated in terms that can be repeated later by students. They contain only challenges that have been instructed for and at least partially mastered, and they grow out of instruction that demonstrates, clarifies, and incrementalizes the intended learning objective(s).

By contrast, disabling constraints leave students hard-pressed to state what is expected of them.Criteria may be stated ambiguously, or there may be a disconnect between the assigned tasks and the instruction, demonstration, or transfer-triggering we provide.When constraints are disabling–that is, built around murky criteria, complex and un-sequenced instruction, inadequate demonstration, or insufficient transfer-triggering–students will be unable to focus on intended learning criteria, and will likely respond insufficiently.

Disabling prompts and constraints can incite a vicious cycle: weak student responses disappoint instructors, messages of dissatisfaction result, student motivation is lost, and instructors grow more frustrated. The only viable solution available–since students don’t always bring ideal levels of preparation or motivation to our classrooms–is to become more effective teachers.

To learn more about these and other teaching issues I recommend perusing the materials contained the bibliography available here. A number of the sources cited shed new light on key aspects of college art and design instruction, and on challenges that we all face in our classrooms.

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