This week I took an intro to Photoshop class at the Corcoran, and I learned a lot–about the program, about myself as a learner, and about teaching. Here are some reflections:
1. Learning something new is exciting and challenging, uncomfortable and exhausting. For the first time in a long time, I was completely out of my element. I knew how I wanted my final project look, but I couldn’t get it there (buck v. dragon, above, is not the project, I am still working on the assignment)! My project is visually unattractive, sloppy (not intentionally, it’s harder to cut and paste objects skillfully than you might think), awkward and naive. Many in the group had some visual design experience and I was, of course, comparing. I wanted to hide my screen! A sense of humor really helped me here. I could fortunately laugh at myself, but I had to first accept I was in a state of learning.
2. GROUPS: The dynamics of the group were really interesting–students taking pre-requisites, designers wanting to deepen their knowledge, two 65-70 year old women changing over from film to digital photography. One of these women, we’ll call her Beth, was much slower than the rest of the group, and often got lost and confused. She dropped out on day 3. Those of us sitting next to Beth tried to help her out, but I, for one, got lost myself if I tried to give her support. I could see her patience wane, as well as the patience of the teacher, and the other students. I felt badly for her, and after Beth left, I became the one with the million questions. I was self-conscious, but I knew that if I didn’t ask, I would never be able to proceed independently. Thinking about a big classroom of 25 children, how often are questions unasked because children are afraid of being the one who doesn’t know? How does a teacher manage such a wide learning discrepancy? This was an intro class-but intro to Mr. Designer and intro to me and Beth is a different story altogether.
3. QUESTIONS: I noticed how precise I had to be in order for the teacher to understand my question. I had to call on my budding Photoshop vocabulary and communication skills to get my point across. I had to rephrase and ask again if the answer was off-base. Is there time for this in classrooms?
4. THE ZONE: On day 3 when the assignment was announced, I began working, and was the only student who could not put something on the page. I tried and tried for a good 40 minutes to enlarge my image to the canvas size, but it was always blurry. I was unbelievably frustrated, almost to the point of tears. I left 5 minutes early, but before leaving I asked the teacher for assistance and he said to look for higher quality images. I went home, found new images, and came back the next morning–same problem. Luckily Jill,a very nice person sitting next to me, was picking up on my frustration (giveaway: the foul-language spewing from my mouth). Jill watched what I was doing, leaned over and said gently, “press return.” Hours of agony for a simple return key? So obvious, but not at the time. She said the only reason she could offer advice was because the same thing had happened to her. I think this speaks to observing and documenting, and understanding the processes of learning–if Jill hadn’t watched me work, she would have never picked up on the fact that I wasn’t hitting enter afterwards. And this also speaks to that mysterious zone of proximal development–we have to know each and every child’s (or adult’s) edge, and get to them before they fall off, like Beth.
4. CONTEXT: Many times I had to ask the teacher, “so when would a technique like this be used–for what purpose?” We would have been through the entire lesson on the mechanics of, say, creating a path, without me knowing why there would be a need to create a path in the first place. So the knowledge becomes useless its application can’t be imagined. A good example of context and instruction is found in The Ashley Book of Knots. Ashley tells you how to make a knot, but first explains what kinds of situations would require that knot, for example: “The axle hitch may be used for emergency towing.” He gives you the history and background of groups of knots, and these stories help to remember the function and purpose of the knot. How often do we give information without context? This has parallels with the Theory of the Hundred Languages in that learning mechanics and techniques and are necessary to build an alphabet–a vocabulary of a language. A language, though, is (among other things) an expression of those techniques; the story, not the letters. If materials and techniques are separate from experience, from context, the relevance of action is diminished.
5. PROBLEM-FINDING: Learning is about “problem-finding” (to borrow a word from my good friends Jennifer Kesserling and Kacey Davenport from Riverfield School in Tulsa, OK). With every design decision I made, I had new problems to find. These problems make the work interesting, but also very demanding. Without the proper support I would have been stuck. Sometimes after exhausting my own knowledge base, I needed a small key to unlock a new world. That key could come from the teacher, other students, or on-line tutorials and information. When a child hits a road block, how many ways does he know to go around? Sources of information are unique to the scenario-what works in one instance doesn’t work in all.
6. MANNERS: I was shocked at the behavior of many of the students. They checked Facebook or email at every spare moment-and then some. Even while the teacher was explaining something! They could not attend to the teacher for longer than a few minutes. This climate is pervasive in our culture, and it needs to be turned around. Call me old-fashioned, but manners, courtesy, and grace should be part of every school’s–every family’s–values.
7. CRITIQUE: I shared my final project at the group critique. Even though my project was one of the least accomplished, I did not feel anxious about receiving their thoughts. The students had good comments and phrased feedback in beautiful ways, many asking questions: “Did you think about doing _______? ” “What about if you tried ________?” Some gave suggestions: “You might want to try the sponge tool there.” Knowing how to give feedback is crucial to having an honest dialogue, and I will take a page from the students’ book.
In my next post I will share the protocol for a group critique used in my fiber class at MICA.