I took a book out of the library that was about viewing art but it triggered in me thoughts about “looking into” classrooms, watching and listening to children. The book is, “Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art“, by Michael Findlay. You might be asking now, “What does this have to do with education?” I often connect disparate ideas that at first seem unrelated. Many ideas that I read at the beginning of Findlay’s book triggered connections to teaching and learning. It elicited ideas about how we should be observing classroom phenomena and understanding its meaning. I hope that you see the associations that I did.
Findlay uses the metaphor of “peeling an onion” when viewing art. He points out that our system of education stresses accumulating information at the “expense of experience” (p.15). He asks us to go on a “journey” and discard our “theories, learned behaviors, preconceptions, and props, which manifest themselves as ways to access, understand, and enjoy art . . .” (p.15). Furthermore, Findlay suggests as part of this journey that we “examine those attitudes and opinions and remove them layer by layer until we reach a place of clarity, receptivity, and honest judgment” (p.15).
One of the elements that Findlay mentions as interfering with viewing art with an open mind is what he calls “visual distraction”, the labels under the paintings, the analyses and interpretations in the recorded guided tours, which remain in our heads as we observe (p.27). As teachers, we begin our preparation with both our own experiences and how we interpreted them and which usually go largely unexamined, and when we enter teaching, the culture and practices that are imposed on us, somewhat like the video guided tour. They tell you what your classroom should look like, how you will faithfully follow the script/guide of the mandated curriculum, and often what your classroom environment should look like. And as Finlay states, this is really hard to ignore. It is always in your head. These guidelines and instructions affect how life in the classroom unfolds. For most, they remain largely unexamined. They are not looked at slowly and then peeled like an onion for full understanding. They are unquestioned and unexamined by most teachers.
As Findlay says, children are more in touch with their feelings than most adults and not fearful of expressing them (p. 36). And he expresses what research has shown is the way that most children learn – through play. This is the way children experience and make sense of the world, which leads back to the idea that children need to directly experience the world to learn about it. They must be active and curious, able to ask questions and pursue answers to those questions.
And we as teachers need to set off on a journey to learn to observe deeply what children are doing and what they may be learning from their experiences. We need to “peel the onion” and go deep underneath to be able to provide the best learning experiences that will drive forward each child’s learning. As Ellen Langer, who Findlay references in his book, says “the focus of schooling is usually on goals rather than the process by which they are achieved” (p.39). As he points out, Langer explains we should be capitalizing on a child’s natural, exuberant desire to explore without creating anxiety about success or failure (p.39).