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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Learning vs. studying

At Harry's birthday party, which Zoë, whose birthday is also today, crashed, so they had 127 years to celebrate, together, Zoë told a story about her daughter saying to her, "Oh, I didn't know you were studying painting," to which she responded, "When I'm in Sefla's painting class, I'm just playing--I never thought of it as studying."

That's the kind of teacher Sefla is--she lets people paint, and then interacts with each person around their painting in the way that feels appropriate for that person, that painting, and that particular moment--there couldn't be a scripted curriculum for her art "Teaching," because she's not expounding from some pre-planned set of Standards that her students must master by the time they move on from her class. She's engaging each student, individually, in their particular journey along the way to becoming the painter they want to become. Many of her students come from years of academic art school experience, training, classes, workshops--many have advanced degrees. Almost all of them say that no one else until Sefla had ever really helped them paint.


Sefla Joseph teaching art class, big grin on her face

Sefla doesn't teach painting, and her students aren't studying it. They're learning painting, and she's helping each of them figure out how best they learn. They learn by doing, they play, they practice, sometimes they do exercises together to discover something unexpected, sometimes they talk about color or shape, emotion or expression, line or figure or ground--and sometimes there are no words in an exchange. Sometimes she guides a hand, touches a brush, even touches their canvas with her brush, but mostly they are exchanging energies. What they share is attention to a project that the student has chosen, a painting the student has composed of her own choosing, and is executing almost entirely on her own. Sefla's role as teacher is a unique creation for each student, a relationship they agree to maintain and nurture together, focusing their mutual attention on a work in progress.

Obviously small group classes of adults are of a very different character from any public school setting, yet I still want to find some lens there to use to ask better questions of K-12 educators: How do we focus on each learner, on their learning and their sense of ownership in that learning, rather than on ourselves as teachers? I wrote a short piece on Seymour Papert's reinvigoration of "mathetics" (to contrast with didactics) as part of our Third Space work this summer, and I mean to find it and link it here... That's one of the essentials of real education reform, a return to honoring the learner and making the learner's experience central, rather than this bizarre obsession we've developed with the teacher and the curriculum. For educated citizens who are life-long learners to emerge from schools, they must each be greeted on school entry as individual learners who each have as their primary responsibility to learn how to take charge of their own learning, and to master the skills they will need to learn what they want to learn. Each one of us....