The Art in Teaching

June 2011

Light waves

In Scott Thornbury’s blog the other week there arose, as usual, quite a lengthy discussion in the comments section, in which Rob Haines wrote this interesting remark.

I aspire to be more of an artist than a scientist in the classroom. I can’t be both equally for balance, to me, is a perfectionist ideal, created by a hyper-rational Western culture, to help us feel in control amidst the chaos. Show me balance and I’ll show you someone who simply likes the feel of the mix, no matter how out of kilter things might be.

Scott replied by saying he believed the distinction was perhaps an artificial one, bred from Cartesian thinking. Rob responded,

Scott, I’m not sure the Cartesian mind-body polarity hasn’t produced a false art vs. science division either. A holistic perspective feels better to me and makes more sense. Perhaps teaching can be like the alchemy of Marsilio Ficino.

The reduction to Cartesian philosophy is a clever deprecation but I don’t think it is quite true. There exists a useful art & science dichotomy in most areas of design and discovery. We can see its amalgamation in the work of the world’s most elegant creators including Leonardo da Vinci, Richard Buckminster-Fuller, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

In education, the art-science distinction is a very important one. I suggested in the original blog post that because proficiency in foreign languages is acquired through practical demonstration, not abstract analysis, ESL has more in common with music, art, sports, and drama than it does with the traditional knowledge subjects. There is a creative depth to communication and interpersonal skills which can be taught but also must come from within; being formed through personal experience.

It is the ability to inspire that is the mark of a great teacher.

Hermes Trismegist
“This century, like a golden age, has restored to light the liberal arts, which were almost extinct: grammar, poetry, rhetoric, painting, sculpture, architecture, music… this century appears to have perfected astrology.” ~ Marsilio Ficino. Once again we are in age where it is possible for the individual to blend the arts and sciences.

Researchers who get too caught up in the science of teaching lose touch with the classroom and it shows in their writing. Research enshrines the custom of hoisting minutiae to the front of the discourse so that people believe it has real significance in the overall impact of what we do. Researchers and applied linguists have the time and resources to bark up wrong trees and ignore the more intangible and metaphysical aspects of interpersonal communication.

Theory certainly mediates my teaching but primarily it is the human element in the way I articulate my point, execute a task, and answer a question which gets the real results. Teaching is not inherently scientific. It comes about through force of character and that does not mean being a domineering person. It means being sensitive to the other personalities in the room and placing their progress above your ego.

A good way to channel emotions in class is through poetry and the haiku is the best vehicle to do this. The form takes a 5-7-5 meter and by demonstrating this you can reassure students that it does not require correct grammar. This takes a big weight off their shoulders. Of course, there is nothing clinical about poetry — it’s a wonderful escape.

I begin by asking the students sit back and relax, take a few deep breaths and think back to their earliest childhood memory. Then I ask them to think of the colours, shapes, people, places, feelings and other associations. I suggest things like a garden or a park, or an old house, a favourite toy, or an event that they remember like a distant dream. Then I wake them up and ask each person to write down all the words that immediately come to mind. After that, I get the students (including myself) to write a haiku entitled ‘Earliest Memories’. Each person must then write his/her poem on the board and explain the story behind it, taking questions from everyone else.

Horoscopes are another good example. Every scientist knows they are a lot of nonsense but that doesn’t stop them being very useful for communicative and psychological gameplay in class. Just because astrology is scientifically meaningless doesn’t mean it’s not an extremely meaningful springboard to conversation and action. Horoscopes are synchronistic, weird, relevant, and emotionally appealing: all the things that are perfect for use in class.

Hangups hinder execution & expression.
Haikus and horoscopes improve and increase them.

When you have time, try this activity.

  1. Tear out the horoscopes column of the newspaper and make a copy of it.
  2. Then black out the zodiac signs so that you are left with a page of twelve simple enigmatic texts.
  3. At the start of class, have the students list themselves and their birthdays on the board. Then discuss the zodiac and match each person with their star sign.
  4. Next, elicit and list the characteristics of each sign. Students should have a good idea about this but if not, think about the adjectives related to each symbol. It’s mostly fudge-work and ad lib interpretation anyway…
  5. Give a copy of the blacked-out text to each student and ask them to decide and explain which most applies to them, taking questions and advice from everyone else.
  6. Hand out the full copy and see who guessed correctly.

Superstitions, folklore and cognitive biases are all fair game in the classroom for the teacher who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Horoscopes make use of the Forer Effect, which is to our tendency to believe the things we want to believe, especially if they relate to ourselves. This is why people are such suckers for fortune tellers. When I’m in class I’m not a psychiatrist but I am creative enough to make on-the-spot idiosyncratic interpretations of student-talk, be they true or not. These keep the class focused and alive. If what I did was a science, I would be bored to death and that is why I am, first and foremost, an artist in the classroom.