Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning
Essay and paintings contributed by Stewart Hase
About 18 months ago I took up painting. No, not the kitchen painting variety but the art type, although I wouldn’t call what I paint ‘art’, as such. In true heutagogical fashion I mess about on the canvas using various mediums, read about how to paint, watch videos off the ‘net’ showing me how, attend an art group and visit art galleries wherever I stumble across them. You can always tell it’s me at a gallery as I am the only one peering really closely at the works to see how they applied the paint, rather than standing back and stroking my chin in wise appreciation, or otherwise. I also found a teacher, whom I visit when I get stuck although initially I realised that there were some basics I needed to get my head, or rather brush, around.
My teacher is a very accomplished artist, very patient and keen for me to succeed. What she has not done before is teach. So, initially, what happened was that she took a very didactic approach – like most people who don’t know much about teaching given it is their only mental model. She would read up on a particular thing she wanted to teach, take notes, copy diagrams and paintings from books, and then plan some exercises for me to do. She would then guide and give me feedback. Pretty good really and pretty fail safe. But it wasn’t quite the way that I learn best and it seemed probable that she was spending a lot of time preparing the ‘lessons’.
I realised that what we needed was a bit of heutagogy to be injected into our otherwise good relationship that was extremely positive: the first requirement I thought for good learning to take place, what we needed was a bit of technique. The second was that she had the expertise and we were surrounded by evidence of that in her studio.
We were working on tones and I had done some charcoal drawings and used a charcoal rubber to create various shades and tones of black on a still life. This was my homework and I dutifully brought it in. This time, however, I came with lots of questions. This was never a problem as I had zillions of them and they kept increasing as I learned more about this amazing skill. This is what happens to learners who are engaged: their brains create more thoughts as the neurons connect to older learning, to previous experience and new pathways are created. It is an explosion of questions.
When I arrived for our session I asked her about how to improve my homework and also produced a painting I was working on and asked her about how to apply the ideas we had been talking about to that. At one stage I led her to explain how she had developed the tones in her own paintings that were hanging on the walls. This eventuated in her getting some paints out and mixing some tones in front of me. During all this she we talked a lot about the techniques she used, how she planned her painting, composition, shapes, movement, dark and light, palettes, and secrets that artists have in their fingertips: her tacit learning that you can’t find in a book. But it was my questions that guided the experience, and they changed minute to minute.
At the end of the session, which went very quickly, my teacher was quite animated and I had to tell her that our time was up. It was a different experience to her looking at her notes and feeling tied to a plan. She gave a big sigh and said that we had not covered much of what she had prepared. But she had to agree with me that we had covered a lot of ground and that it had been exciting, a little chaotic but full of the essentials that she knew I needed to cover. I still ended up with homework, which consisted of an exercise involving tones and shapes that she had prepared before hand. By doing the homework, I was meeting the expectations of the curriculum. I could be tested on that the following week if we were in a testing environment.
So, teachers can learn too. I haven’t been back for a while but I need to do some work on how to draw people and portraits and she is brilliant at those. This time I’ll ask her if we can do the same as before. I’ll try something and she can give me feedback and show me how, and she can tell me how she went about the brilliant portraits in her gallery, and maybe even one of the old masters if she as one in her big book of painting. I’m sure we can collaborate on how to create a learning experience that will be exciting for both of us. It’s the way learning should be.