Tuesday, October 19, 2010

performance and skill

Diane Ravitch has offered an essay on the Myth of Charter Schools that some of my readers will find interesting. It is in response to the movie, Waiting for Superman that actively promotes charter schools without noting that 83 percent perform no better or worse than public schools as measured by standardized tests.

I have been reading The Arts and Cognition, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977, and in particular an essay by Vernon A. Howard, "Artistic Practice and Skill." Howard describes two conventional views of what an artist does... the first he calls the Athena Theory which usually "emphasizes the artist's spontaneous imagination, inspiration, creativity and the like." The other, the Penelope Theory, "stresses more the honed skills and abilities that are also necessary for the making of mature works of art." For the greatest works, both are required. The Athena Theory, is most easily witnessed in its finished product, while the other can be witnessed as it unfolds in the classroom, or in the hands and the senses of the artist at work. Howard says of these two theories,
The Athena Theory is at best, a flimsy first-line defense against faulty accounts of artistic endeavor and at worst a last resort of aesthetic Platonists who would make of the artist a blind seer of his own works.

Unlike the Athena Theory, the Penelope Theory is less an inheritance from philosophy than a distillate from the artist's work experiences. It depicts the artist in his studio as a kind of devoted weaver of works, doggedly repeating the same sequence of motor acts, parts or wholes of works or performances until he "gets it right."
Can you see that dogged determination is what we too often miss in American schooling? And hence why the the development of skill through the arts is essential?

It is interesting being in a wood shop with kids. Even in the isolation of my own shop, as I hone skills and practice the work of making things from wood, there are aspects of performance to it as I observe myself in action and as I bear witness to my own growth. In the school wood shop, the dramatic effect of performance is even more prevalent as students demonstrate their development of skill and artistic vision to themselves, to their teacher and to each other. The "child as craftsman" metaphor sees the child as being someone motivated by the need to demonstrate skill and be acknowledged for its expression. With the recognition of the importance of skill, each classroom in America might become a place in which all children find artistic expression and engagement. Perhaps the superman we wait for, is waiting within each child, and not perhaps what we would expect to find on the silver screen.

Today in the css wood shop, 7th, 8th and 9th grade students began making band sawn boxes using the wood blanks shown above. Each student drew a slip of paper numbered to match a specific blank from the pile of woods. Some are sycamore, some red oak, cedar, or mimosa. Starting with unusual woods will guarantee many possible creative outcomes in making boxes.

The following is a bit more from Vernon A. Howard in his essay, "Artistic Practice and Skills."
"Among the cognitive aims of practice is knowledge not only that one has succeeded or failed to perform up to a given standard, but why. Even where achievement artifacts like a score, sketch or print (or a box for that matter) can be examined at leisure for the levels of skill they reveal, further scrutiny of certain intrinsic features of the skill activities themselves, such as fluency in the use of a notation or improper handling of a brush or chisel, may yield important insights into the causes of one's success or failure."
The important thing here, is that Howard is talking about reaching standards, but known, observable ones, inherent in the task at hand, that can be grasped and seen as relevant to growth of skill, technique, artistry, and more. How different that is from the standardized testing that has become the dominant feature of American education. Imagine standards that also provide evidence of exactly where and what can be improved. The arts have it, hands down. Make, fix, create.

1 comment:

  1. "You teach kids how to succeed when they successfully foil the educational system."

    Arlo Guthrie

    My son sent this quote to me, thought you might enjoy it.