I have a simple goal for my students: to help them find their way. I begin by structuring an environment that allows them to take an active role in learning. I believe artistic education is about becoming a whole person, learning to access creativity and use it efficiently to create work. Regardless of conventional wisdom, education is not about the accumulation of techniques or information. It also seems education is becoming increasingly commoditized, something to simply be purchased. Teachers are assumed to provide everything needed for success in the classroom.
My first task is to unsettle this belief, to inspire students to take ownership of their education and, simply put, to learn to think for themselves, indeed, to learn that they should think for themselves. As I often say to my first-time glass students, “I cannot teach you to blow glass… but you can learn.” Or, as John Dewey elaborates in Democracy and Education (published in 1916):
… no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea. The communication may stimulate the other person to realize the question for themselves and to think out a like idea, or it may smother their intellectual interest and suppress their dawning effort at thought. But what they directly get cannot be an idea. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding their own way out, do they think.
It seems paradoxical, but leading students by the hand through complex ideas or processes is often counterproductive; it teaches them to rely on an authority rather than wrestle with the challenge of figuring it out as they go; it teaches them to fear mistakes rather than embrace them as learning opportunities and realize the truth—that they can learn to rely on their own intellectual inquiry to work through difficult ideas.
It seems that teaching and training are often mistaken for each other, by students as much as instructors. I have spent years teaching the techniques required to work glass and I’ve concluded that there is a distinct difference between training and teaching fundamental concepts that allow students to understand the medium.
Training is more akin to learning by rote, such as one might traditionally learn guitar or intaglio or scripture. Teaching, on the other hand, isn’t as interested in technical results as it is in fundamental understanding. That students can display technical prowess without real understanding is one of the greatest frustrations of teaching. As a teacher, being clear about this is essential to foster the patience needed to wait for the sometimes delayed results of true understanding.
Of course, a notable exception is safety. Anyone working with dangerous materials—like molten glass—or tools like polishing lathes and torches needs to first be trained in proper safety procedures and then gradually led to an understanding of safety concerns so that they can anticipate potentially dangerous situations for themselves. I’m not for a moment suggesting that students be left to figure out safe ways of working. This is the purview of training. This example demonstrates why teachers need to be clear about the difference between training and inquiry-based learning.
To return to teaching, there are technical skills that I want my pupils to assimilate, but I see myself as a facilitator rather than a mere instructor. Step by step coaching is fine, and often necessary, but I think it’s more imperative that they learn the fundamental principles of glassblowing, mold making, casting, and annealing rather than memorize a process by rote, or learn my way. And, in the end, these techniques are merely a means to an end, a way of freeing creativity from the restraints of poor technique.
This is why in-class discussion and teamwork are so important to me and such a large part of the learning environment critical to inquiry-based learning. Discussion provides opportunity for the class to help their colleagues along. Only after student discussion will I point out misconceptions or accentuate crucial points. But, I must take great care not to simply give my class the “correct” answer, but rather provoke further inquiry by asking relevant questions. This encourages dialogue and collaboration, both essential skills in many glassworking disciplines, and qualities I feel should be cultivated in both academic and artistic endeavor.
I find that this insistence on interaction and critical thinking is key to engaging student interest. Students begin to want to work together, want to discuss successes and failures, and quickly form a strong, supportive community. Rather than a class of disparate students, individually relying on teacher instruction for success, we have a class of colleagues.
This is what excites me about teaching. It is this engagement, more than the success or failure of specific assignments by which I assess student progress. It is vital to me is that they commit to wrestle with the difficult task of owning their learning process, because that it takes to be successful in the most important aspect of being an artist: creative thinking.
I am very clear with my students about this. Thinking creatively is quite distinct from thinking technically (and even though we might use creative problem-solving to work out a new technique, we can’t use technical thinking to solve a problem creatively). Particularly in the technique-heavy world of glass, I too often see students become ensnared by technique and approach their work through the lens of glass-blowing, or casting, or cold-working or flame-working. My task is to provoke them to recognize mere technical exercises in their own work as easily as they do in the work of their colleagues. Upon realizing they’ve simply been attempting to use technical thinking to produce creative work, they see that is why they’ve felt frustrated. Students want to make their work, and recognizing this difference is a great tool to help them do so.
This is the real challenge of teaching any one medium: you have to facilitate both technical and creative thinking, particularly in a liberal arts program. My approach is to be deliberate in the separation of these ways of thinking, both conceptually and physically. Our classroom discussions are where we exercise problem-solving skills, where we critique the creative aspects of work, and where we practice creative thinking. The studio spaces, on the other hand, are where we technically engage the material.
In such an environment students grow to value the inherently democratic nature of true inquiry (and by inference, true learning), where the twin virtues of frustration and reward as necessary prerequisites for learning are balanced by trust in fellow members of their learning community. They learn to think critically and creatively about their artwork and how to make that work. It is a simple goal, but an endlessly interesting pedagogical challenge
So, I think it is now less important for art teachers to be merchants of technique, but rather to foster the skills and critical thinking necessary to meaningfully use technique and to encourage a multi-disciplinary approach to artmaking that embraces all materials and processes. This is where I see myself as a teacher and where I see art education. I want to be involved in an academic community that has similar pedagogical goals and beliefs.