Lessons from Painting for Teaching

As FYS is a fall event, there’s little to say in this blog-space during the spring. Yet once and a while I have a thought about teaching and learning that I want to share.

I was painting last weekend and, as always, struggling with getting the colors right.  After offhandedly commenting to Siggy, Betsy, and Richard about teaching myself about patience (vs. color blending), Siggy retorted that it sounded a lot like teaching.  I think she has a great point.

Painting (or any art) is a lot like teaching. Which I suppose reinforces the idea that teaching is an art, much like painting.  In that spirit, I offer five lessons about teaching, from painting.

The first lesson – something I must re-learn at every sitting – is that you cannot rush the process. A teacher-artist needs patience. Painters achieve depth by layering thin layers of transparent color to build the final effects. It requires each layer to dry before applying the next. In a similar way, students need time encode into memory what they’ve learned in a manner that facilitates retrieval in multiple contexts.

Lesson number two is that art requires a bit of planning, and discipline. We tend to think that creativity as a competing value to discipline, but it’s not. While I am always open to pursuing unexpected opportunities, I do start with a plan: what do I want people to see in my art (what do I want my students to know after spending 14-weeks with me)?

Lesson number three: the hardest stuff remains hidden from the finished product, but the finished product wouldn’t be the same without these hidden details. The painting you see is the end result of a painstaking process of layering. I start with a sketch, add an underpainting to set tone, and only in the end do I add the subtle layers of color.

Learning demands a similar sequence: students read, discuss, and write, but these products do not constitute the final learning. What they see in the end depends on these things, but they’re the sketch and underpainting, not the final product.

Lesson four is about tools: each has a purpose and works best when used properly. In the same way I don’t use power point to teach creativity I don’t use a 2” brush for detail work. Similarly, effective teachers know when to apply the tools of learning (from pedagogy to technology) to achieve the desired effect.

Lesson five is the the hardest to learn – but it’s the most important. I learn something new each time I paint and I apply what I’ve learned to my next painting. I must remember to do the same when teaching.


1 Comment

  1. Thomas,
    Not only does your description of the learning process relate to your “art” but also in so many other creative endeavors. Whether it’s writing a book (or a blog), composing a symphony or a rap song, rehearsing for a play, practicing shooting a basketball or fielding a ground ball, one has to be prepared to work and to practice. One must deal with mistakes, not by ignoring them but by studying what went wrong. When we stand in front of the freshmen on the first day of class, it’s important to realize there may be as many as 20 different learning styles to test our expectations and our expertise. Actors and musicians “play”, poets and playwrights write, painters and sculptures work with their hands but we should never forget how there other senses are at work for these artists. The actor and musician speak and listen, the poet and the playwrights see, speak, and listen, and the painter sees; all reflect on their work. Learning is an action verb just like seeing, hearing, listening, speaking, and, yes, reflecting.

    Liked by 1 person

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