Assessment Opinion

When Learners Get “Stuck,” Try Thinking Like An Artist

By Jal Mehta — June 17, 2018 7 min read
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This post is by Jacob Watson, a theatre artist and educator from Chicago, IL, and a recent graduate of the Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Recently I heard an educator talk about a student who had “failed” an assignment in his class. I asked how the student had failed, to which the teacher responded, “well, he just didn’t do it. He was supposed to come up with something that interested him about science and he got stuck.” I found this strange. As someone who works professionally in the arts, getting stuck didn’t sound like failure to me. It sounded like the second step of my creative process -- right after deciding to do something, and just before having a great idea.

Coming to education by way of the arts, I am often surprised by how divorced the activity of “doing school” can be from the actual practice of most disciplines. Scientists get “stuck” just like artists do; the real skill is in knowing how to move forward anyway. After all, deeper learning is not just about the successful acquisition of knowledge; it’s about understanding how best to deploy that knowledge and in which contexts.

Artists learn this by necessity, because there’s no roadmap for creating. The painter who lacks inspiration won’t find it by memorizing the color wheel any more than a musician can look up her next song lyric in a textbook. It’s only through doing that the process can begin to make sense. In this vein, I believe that are several aspects of what professional artists do that can support a culture of deeper learning in the classroom. By bringing these practices into other content areas, we remind students that learning is a continual process of experimentation and discovery:

1. Artists think about big ideas

It’s impossible to write a song without thinking about rhythm and melody. These concepts are so core to the practice of music that they pervade all aspects of it. Yet in the classroom we often spend more time talking about the content of a particular lesson (e.g., “The Civil War”) than the real, underlying concept that begs understanding (e.g., “ideological conflict within nations”). A good song could be about anything: what makes it worth listening to is the effective use of musical sounds and structures.

When I was in theatre school, I had a directing teacher who liked to ask students what Romeo and Juliet was about. We would usually mumble something about a boy and a girl from feuding families, tragic suicides, etc. and he would correct us by saying, “no, you just told me what happens. What is the play about?” Really, Romeo and Juliet is about the relationship between love and violence. Or it’s about parents and children. Or any number of other things that have mattered to people over time. I think of learning like that, too. The specifics are important, of course, but they’re there to illuminate something bigger, more profound, and ultimately more human.

2. Artists focus on what is compelling -- not what’s “right”

Despite what award shows would have us believe, there is no such thing as a “best film.” There are films with great use of mis-en-scene, or horror films that excel at provoking fear, but there is no objectively successful formula that I know of for producing a compelling film. It all depends on the context. As Goerte famously said, there are only three questions to be asked of any work of art: what was the artist trying to do, how well did they do it, and was it worth the doing. In truth, there are an infinite number of ways to solve the problem of telling a story through moving images and sounds. So, too, in the problems of most disciplines.

Something I say a lot in rehearsal is that there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong” when it comes to the choices we could make as actors -- only more or less compelling. Part of becoming a skilled artist is sharpening your eye for what is compelling to you, and hopefully, to your audience. Usually this can only come after what my collaborators like to call “throwing spaghetti at the wall” (to see what sticks). It can be refreshing to remind ourselves that any problem or idea worth considering has many possible solutions, even if they don’t all make sense within a particular context. In this way, we can come to see all the possibilities in light of their purpose, audience, and historical moment. This seems so different from how much of school is designed around an assumption of static, universal truths. I think if we talked about what was “compelling” to us in school, we’d have a lot more joy, to say the least, and probably a few more insights about how we got to the answers we consider “right.”

3. Artists allow their work to develop in layers over time

One of my favorite moments in high school was when we learned about atoms, and I realized that the ideas I had carried over from middle school science were just one tiny piece of how atoms actually worked. When we allow ourselves to revisit concepts over time, we find we are able to go deeper than we originally could.

A good director knows that you can’t stage a scene the way you want it to look in the first rehearsal. It’s not just that the actors need time to “practice;" it’s that rehearsal is about layering meaning and skill over time. An actor who is still figuring out her blocking or getting off-book with her lines can’t possibly attend to the nuances of her vocal quality. Similarly, learners in all disciplines figure things out in unpredictable and non-linear ways. In theatre, we wait to give “notes” (feedback) to our collaborators until we can be sure they are ready to implement them. I had a mentor once who said that to be a director you have to be willing to watch the play wrong, because if you try to fix something too soon, you may risk disrupting the groundwork that the actors are developing -- or worse, leading them in a misguided direction. When I worked with Project Aim at Columbia College, we used the concept of a learning “spiral” to map the ways in which artists -- like all good learners -- create, revise, share, exhibit, and reflect upon familiar concepts throughout a longer period of study.

4. Artists measure success through performance

Finally, I want to consider the question of what is worth measuring in school. In a practical sense, what we measure is what matters, although the reverse is not necessarily true. (There is, of course, much about teaching and learning that cannot -- or should not -- be measured.) And while assessment and testing can be seen as enemies of deeper learning I believe that, when used thoughtfully, assessment designs can actually support more authentic or meaningful engagement with content in the classroom. In the arts, for instance, it’s common to look for mastery in moments of real performance. The measure of successful learning in music, for example, is a concert: not a worksheet on quarter notes and half-notes. If we want to shift the culture of learning we first need to shift the expectations for success to which we hold students accountable.

One of my favorite writers about improv, Patricia Ryan Madson, talks about how some of the “wisdom” of improvisation is in the rearranging of the phrase “ready, FIRE, aim.” In her estimation, it is the actions we take that give us the information we need in order to know how to move forward. This is why artists often think in terms of whether or not something in their piece is “working.” The idea is that it’s not enough to know what might work -- we have to actually try it out. By reminding students to focus on what’s “working” we reinforce that knowledge is what you do with it.

I should add that my point here is not to collapse the wide variety of practices that different artists engage in, nor is it to suggest that these are the only, or even the best, ways to think about what it means to learn deeply. Rather, my hope is to invite you to consider what ways of thinking and doing are normalized in your discipline. What is the “real work” that professionals in your field do? How do they get “unstuck”?

Personally, when I have the opportunity to go into schools as a theatre artist, I love the moment of “stuck.” I love it because it usually means we are on the verge of finding something very interesting. Maybe we are about to re-stage our performance entirely through gesture; maybe the story actually needs to be told backwards; or maybe there’s another more compelling story hiding inside the one that’s stumping us. Either way, I know we will discover something compelling. And for me, discovery is what learning is all about.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.