Information Age Education
   Issue Number 193
September, 2016   

I (David Moursund) am very sad to report that Bob Sylwester, my good friend, long-time professional colleague, and IAE Newsletter co-editor, died on August 5, 2016, at the age of 89. His obituary is available at http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/registerguard/obituary.aspx?page=lifestory&pid=181070511.

Bob requested that any memorial contributions people might wish to make be given in his name to Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, and/or the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Should you ever want to communicate with one or more members of his family, please send your messages to his son Lawrence, lawsyl@hotmail.com. He will pass on such messages to the appropriate members of the family.

Bob had a very long and highly successful professional career as a teacher, writer, and speaker. I thoroughly enjoyed his stories about his initial years of teaching in a one-room school, and his successful endeavors to become an income-producing professional writer and speaker.

Bob Sylwester and I began to work together in the mid 1980s. He taught me about brain science and I taught him about computers. Bob became co-editor of the IAE Newsletter beginning in December, 2009, with the 31st issue. He suggested the idea that we develop single-topic sequences of newsletters and then publish books based on the newsletter series. Thus, we jointly edited/published six books.

A seventh book, based on the Joy of Learning series, will be coming out in a few months. It will be dedicated to Bob and will contain a number of short “in memorial” comments. Please send such comments via email to moursund@uoregon.edu.
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On a much happier note, I am pleased to report success in creating a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE). AGATE contains and is a continuation of Information Age Education
Thus, AGATE will continue the four major IAE publications: IAE-pedia, IAE-Newsletter, IAE Blog, and IAE Books. There will be an increasing global emphasis in these publications. In addition, AGATE will strive to raise funds to support its long-term endeavors and existence.
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This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications. All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Joy and Satisfaction in Natural Learning:
Creative Improvisational Explorations

Rebecca R. Burrill
Independent Scholar
Movement-Based Child Developmentalist
Arts with Literacy Integration™

I find that the joy and satisfaction in learning is in its creative, improvisational aspect. This kind of learning is explorative. It is instinctual and natural. Its essence is play. It is amplified in open-ended art making. This article and its accompanying 29-minute video describe an arts-based after-school program in which creative exploration and improvisation are central. The article also discusses ideas that support the value and importance of creative improvisational learning.

It is highly recommended that readers pause here to see the video, Wood and Arts Project, available at https://vimeo.com/144686169. The 29-minute video tells the story of a community-based project that began with a national park historical landscape restoration in the surround where I grew up. This entailed a large area of trees being cut down. I have a personal relationship with the trees and landscape of this place and was deeply disturbed by the tree cut, so I investigated.

I learned from the park personnel that the intent of the restoration was chiefly ecological—to reestablish disappearing grasslands in a concern for certain wildlife species. The park personnel learned that I wanted to honor the trees and landscape of my native place. I submitted a proposal for an arts project concerning the cut trees. It was accepted.

The intent of the project, through art, is to express empathetic human relationship with Nature. I—dancer and teacher—teamed up with a local after-school program, ten interested middle school students, and a wood historian and artist. The park gave us cut wood for the students to sculpt. The finished sculptures where installed in the wilds of the restoration site for one year. The video documents this process from my beginning investigations with the park, through the exploration, learning, and sculpting processes of the students, to finished and installed sculptures.

As part of the sculpting process of honoring the trees and landscape, the students and I visited the restoration site to move—to “dance place” (1). We were looking for Nature’s communications to us through various non-verbal gestures of sound, textures, shapes, color… whatever we sensed around us. We responded to Nature’s gestures through movement improvisation, which gave us an embodied experience of value and meaning—an empathic process. We translated this gestural conversation into ideas for sculpting.

Back in the classroom, Dick, our wood artist, introduced sculpting tools and the use of them to the students. The students began the difficult task of using adult tools with minimal technical instruction to sculpt their own vision of what would emerge from their block of wood. These were a dedicated and inspired group of young people. As Dick says, “These kids took something and made something really good out of it, without being told what to do or how to do it. We showed [them] how to use tools but I didn’t really tell them how to carve: work with the grain of the wood, work with what you have in there, but what you see in that block of wood is your idea.”

There was a continued energy and openness on the part of the students to explore something new. Debby, art teacher and director of the Art Spark after school program, comments, “I was impressed with [the students’] willingness to just start with a project. That it wasn’t like—what are we doing? What’s it going to look like? And you know, what’s it going to look like didn’t exist. I think the middle-school-age student is open to ambiguity, open to an experience and not having an end result in their brain.” Find this and much more in the video mentioned above, Wood and Arts Project, available at https://vimeo.com/144686169.

I deeply value this project, which could not have happened without the community of people who appreciated my meaning and intent, and collaborated. My educational philosophy is strengthened by the creative improvisational quality, the place-based and project-based learning, and the community context of this project. This philosophy recognizes instinctual and natural learning processes as primary in human meaning and value making. I propose this to be so, not only in general way, but also from an evolutionary and, most importantly, a developmental way. And, through my research and life experience, I believe that in school learning the arts are a best way to allow students an explorative, open-ended way of making meaning of their own learning. I find joy and satisfaction in this process as a teacher and as a learner.

One of the people whose work I draw on to support my position is Paleolithic scholar and artist, R. Dale Guthrie. He writes that first human art-making was improvisational, “… a kind of play that was specifically targeted and specifically dedicated to exploring and sharing new perceptions… Paleolithic art is that first clear spoor of advancing creativity in the human line” (2).

Guthrie also observes that the creative imagination and ingenuity that is characteristic of the first human art-making “forcefully point to an upbringing that encouraged creativity” (3). This kind of development and learning was deeply contextual, embodied in a community of biological, social, cultural, and spiritual interweavings. It is what we would call place-based and project-based education.

This kind of development and learning was also deeply embodied in a relationship with Nature as intrinsically meaningful. As David Orr, environmentalist and educator writes, “We have good reason to believe that human intelligence evolved in direct contact with animals, landscapes, wetlands, deserts, forests, night skies, seas, and rivers” (4). That maturity and full potential of human intelligence is dependent upon rich life experiences with an expansive and healthy natural world.

When the students and I “dance place” we amplify this relationship through art making. Our moving, sensing bodies are communicators. And this nonverbal capacity evolved in relationship with the natural world (5). Its source is pre-human and underlies 90% of human face-to-face verbal communication. It relies deeply on contextual interweavings of cues. It is a creative, improvisational exploration. Our moving, sensing bodies are the basis for communication, relationship, and learning. Instinctual and natural learning processes begin with the body as primary in human meaning and value making.

The value of instinctual and natural learning has been downplayed in conventional public school education. Iain McGilchrist writes that in Western culture we have made decontextualized, theoretical learning more important than contextual, embodied learning (6). He explores this through an understanding of the brain’s cerebral hemispheres—left and right—each with a particular disposition or stance toward engaging with life.

McGilchrist recognizes the recent novelty vs. familiar theory on the organization of brain hemispheric specialization promoted by Elkhonon Goldberg (7). In Goldberg’s view, the right hemisphere processes novel information and the left hemisphere processes familiar information. McGilchrist takes this beyond information processing and looks at the two hemispheres as differing dispositions in relationship with the world. The right engages with immediately lived experience, which always entails an improvisational quality. Its knowings are implicit—hard to pin down. An example of this is the non-verbal communication between infant and mother, which is a choreography of moving, sounding, gestural expressions.

The left translates lived experience into decontextualized bits of information and stores them in codes, symbols, and categories that represent lived experience—makes it familiar, that is, no surprises. An example of this is verbal language that is fixed in its meaning and given explicit definition, such as a list of words in a dictionary. Compare this with the implicit and improvisational meanings of mother-infant communication. Both dispositions, when working together, complement and enhance one another, but it is the right that gives the lived, interrelated context for value and meaning making.

As McGilchrist poignantly demonstrates, Western culture mistakenly identifies the left hemispheric stance to be of dominant importance, while marginalizing and devaluing the right hemispheric life view. This plays out in all aspects of our culture, not the least being education. Joy and satisfaction of learning as a creative, improvisational exploration recognizes the primacy of the right hemispheric disposition when it comes to deep human needs and the learning process (8).

The recognition of the right hemisphere life view to be of primary importance in learning and development comes up in different ways in education. There is a long tradition in progressive education of that recognition. For example, the work of Alfie Kohn (9) spells out progressive principles to include hands-on learning, multiage classrooms, mentor-apprenticeship relationships, and the desire to nourish curiosity, creativity, questioning, and compassion. These describe a learning environment that makes primary natural relationships in contextual, embodied, learning processes.

Kohn explains that there are decades of solid research data that support the effectiveness of the values and practices of progressive education. Such evidence of effectiveness includes long-term retention of what is being taught, the capacity to understand ideas and apply them to new kinds of problems, and a desire to continue learning—all aspects of creative, improvisational learning. He contrasts this with the lack of data supporting the effectiveness of traditional schooling such as standardized testing, homework, conventional discipline (based on rewards or consequences), competition, and others (10).

Kohn also points out that progressive teachers have to be “comfortable with uncertainty, not only to abandon a predictable march toward the ‘right answer’ but to let students play an active role in the quest for meaning” (11). This implies that teachers must also enjoy learning as a creative, improvisational exploration of the unfamiliar in the teaching process.

Another example of how the right brain disposition plays out in educational practice is Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) (12). VTS is a creative meaning-making and problem-solving approach that draws on visual viewing of fine art to engage students in patterns of thought that turn out to underlie, are the foundation for, academic critical thinking. Phillip Yenawine stumbled upon this approach as education director for a major art museum, and later found the approach to have insightful benefits in school teaching and learning. Yenawine explains that this approach allows for the “permission to wonder” (13)—that is, the permission to engage in open-ended thought exploration, neither inhibited nor limited by parameters of specifically right or wrong answers.

As classroom teachers experimented with VTS, they were consistently surprised at the peaked interest, enthusiasm, and level playing field that the approach inspired in their students. This led to the application of the approach to other academic subjects, such as social studies, math, and even standardize test preparation. Yenawine points out that success in applying VTS across the curriculum requires that students must have learned the process first through viewing art.

From my perspective, VTS is an approach that stumbled upon the primacy of right hemisphere life view in learning processes. It is an example of what I name in my work—Arts with Literacy Integration™. Yenawine observes that learners need to “reconnect with how they learned as uninhibited children, something that schooling may in fact diminish” (14). Uninhibited learning is an intrinsically creative, improvisational exploration, which is amplified in the artistic process.

We can better facilitate the joy and satisfaction of learning through creative, improvisational exploration and the permission to wonder, since wonder really is the appropriate way to encounter the world. Art-making is the amplification of that encounter. It organizes and illuminates. It informs and teaches us to recognize and appreciate something of that great undeniable mystery within and without.

Notes
  1. To “dance place” is to interrelate with the natural place where you are through dance and reciprocal gesture.
  2. Guthrie, R.D. (2005). The Nature of Paleolithic Art. Chicago: University of Chicago, 392, 399.
  3. Ibid, 425.
  4. Orr, D. (2002). The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intelligence. New York: Oxford, 299.
  5. Burrill, R.R. (January, 2016). Dancing our Kinship with Animate Earth. Minding Nature. Retrieved 9/3/2016 from http://www.humansandnature.org/dancing-our-kinship-with-animate-earth.
  6. McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. London: Yale University.
  7. Goldberg, E. (2005). The Wisdom Paradox. New York: Gotham.
  8. Burrill, R.R. (October, 2010). The Primacy of Movement in Art-Making. Teaching Artist Journal. Abstract available at http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ901442.
  9. Kohn, A. (2011). Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling. Boston: Beacon.
  10. Ibid, 26.
  11. Ibid, 28.
  12. Yenawine, P. (2013). Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education.
  13. Ibid, 13.
  14. Ibid, 13.
Author

Rebecca R. Burrill, ED.D, is a dancer, visual artist, and movement-based educator. She is a certified elementary school teacher and professional development provider in Massachusetts. She has published articles concerning movement as primary in child development, learning and art making. She traces the evolution of human intelligence back to primal people’s relationship with Nature, a relationship that contributed to the development of language and art. Her work is based in the experience that learning is fundamentally a creative process, and that aesthetic sense is primary in the development of self, intelligence and wellbeing. Rebecca offers professional services to schools, libraries, dance studios, home schoolers, colleges/universities and social/educational/cultural and arts organizations. See http://horsechestnutwinds.com/.

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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Blog and all back issues of the Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.