Tuesday, January 31, 2012

More on Teachers: Socratic or Sophist?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA          City of Garlic and Sapphires (60 x 60)

So many quilters I know take lots of classes and really look forward to them as the highlights of their year.  They certainly are tremendous social events, it’s great to be in a room full of high energy folk all doing the same thing and that activity being one that they all love to do.  Where else in life d’you come across that?!!

But what else do people hope to get from their workshops?  Certainly a new technique is one thing, a new process,  an actual object, something you can carry home with you (the thousand dollar pot holder!), but how do these really help you to draw out of yourself your own creativity?

In Ancient Greece, Socrates described education as the drawing out, or leading out (from the Latin e (out of) ducere (lead) ) of that which was already within the student:
"I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think."

Of course, this comment (though apt!) is wildly out of context and his pupils already had a lot of basic skills and he was teaching philosophy not quilt making!!  Though maybe the world would be very different if our “leaders” (generally leading us into trouble rather than out of it, alas) did get together to make quilts.

In Ancient Greece  (about 5th century BC) there were also peripatetic teachers known as Sophists whose aim was much closer to that of many colleges today i.e. to teach students the  knowledge and skills needed to obtain power, money and high political office.  Commanding high fees from their students, they promised them they would impart to them the skills to be successful and productive.

So  should the quilt teacher in planning his or her workshops  be thinking along Socratic lines, or Sophist ones?  Should workshops be about encouragement, support and fun?  Should they be about drawing out of the person that which is already within her/him?  Or should they be teaching the students to make quilts like their own award winning work? (with the unspoken promise that thereby they will be gaining the skills to get a quilt accepted into Quilt National or Paducah or Houston.)

Let’s look at what some art teachers have written (I hope quilt teachers will write in with their opinions!):

Robert Liberace feels that it is essential that teachers help their students to learn the ideas and traditions of the great artists of history “as a path to creating the most interesting and relevant art – for the powerful ideas of the past can point to revolutionary ideas today”. Certainly all those students who learned about the improvisational work of the Gee’s Bend Quilters, the Oakland quilters, Anna Williams and the African banner makers in Benin and adjoining countries,  and aboriginal cultures did exactly this.  They took older ideas and with them created quite revolutionary quilts.  People in small country towns and guilds are still horrified by them!!  Those “old” ideas definitely formed a path to quilts that are extremely interesting and relevant. I, myself, was being quite stultified by the repetition of symmetrical tradition in dull calico prints and was very happy to be lead out of that dusty hidebound arena!

Susan Lyon, on the other hand, stresses preparation when she teaches.  She feels its important to approach your work with “good habits, to guard against mistakes” – this does sound a bit  like my Catholic school education! But, as she points out, preparation at the outset will help considerably to avoid waste, frustration and loss of time when you have to fix basic mistakes as you reach the end of a project.  The “good habit” of looking before you leap shouldn’t stifle creativity if, in that looking, you allow yourself wide open thinking eyes!  She observes that “most students want to jump right in, without patience, without deliberate thinking”. In a culture which largely encourages buying on impulse and rote learning you can certainly see how this happens.  However, I find that while some students in workshops are really impatient to get cutting and sewing, others are hungry for a more reflective approach, they would like to know what they are doing.  For myself ,it was the continual frustration of having to undo, of bouncing up and down to the design wall trying this color and that and the other, that led me to consider that there might be another way.

But we must not be so cautious that we proceed only upon the well trodden path.  Sharon Sprung thinks that it is most important to help the students gain  “respect for the somewhat ineffable but critical Art of Seeing – to encourage an inquisitiveness into both the known and unknown – and to make a commitment to hard work, risk taking and tenacity”.

So, which do you prefer in your teacher?  The Socratic approach – a thoughtful drawing out of what lies within you  and being able to evaluate it along logical and critical lines?  Or, the Sophist premise that if you gain all the techniques and processes you will have the tools to reach the top? It’s a puzzle!  Do write and let me know what you think, and also your feelings about what you see happening in all this quilt teaching that is going on.

As always, if you have been, thanks for reading!  And, by the way, the quilt at the top is based on my thinking about my images of Oxford, a major city for education and industry and is based on a particular process (deconstructed screen printing) – an amalgam of both thought and technique!

The comments from art teachers were drawn from an article in the February 2012 issue of International Artist.

Elizabeth

14 comments:

Jackie said...

It's all about balance, isn't it? Over and over. I need an inspiration, one that is uniquely mine, but I also need skills and tools. Just took Jane Dunnewold's class in November and am discovering how those tools fit into my world. I want a teacher to help me delve into myself to engage and develop my unique point of view as well as a teacher to teach me new tools to express that vision! I'm greedy, I want it all! Thank you for all the stimulation you give me through this blog.

Gerrie said...

I suppose it depends upon whether you are Apollonian or Dionysian!! I have been told I am the latter and so I think the Socratic teacher would be my choice.

LC said...

Does it have to be either/or? In Canmore, you encouraged each class member to develop their ideas, but also offered techniques and skills so our efforts were not frustrated by lack of knowing how to assembly them. I vote for both!

Liz Kettle said...

Great post. I myself prefer a Socratic approach. I teach the skills and techniques and then ask my students to bring their own spirit into the work. Use their voice. Many students just want the technique but those who are looking for permission to work from the heart find a freedom of expression that is so necessary to create art.

June said...

I think it's about balance, but even more about where you are in your artistic journey. Many paths lead to nirvana, and for me, what I need at any given time is likely not to be what I needed two weeks before or two weeks later. So, techniques, of course, but only in the pursuit of whatever I'm pursuing. This can be frustrating, since one doesn't know what one doesn't know (to paraphrase an infamous statement about war). But as adults, engaged in the mysterious art of making art, frustration is just one more tool to be used. When I'm frustrated, I figure out what I need to overcome the frustration -- next time I'll think through presentation before I start making the work, for example -- and place it in my tool bag.

I no longer have time to do the methodical study of things I mostly won't have to know, so I learn as I go, and make mental notes about what I didn't know. I have to jump into projects while they are fresh and fun, but I know I'm depending on a huge amount of learned skills to make my way through the intermediate tangles.

So like some other commenters, I think it's clearly a kind of balance, but not one that is stable. It depends on who you are, what you already know, and where you are on your artistic highway.

Linda said...

Socrates rules OK!

I'm doing a good on-line class at the moment which is expanding and improving my technical skills. But can I put those skills to good use to express what is within me, not yet (Or at least i hope it's not yet!) because I can't make a satisfactory link between the skills and the ideas.

orkaloca said...

I'm definitively a socratic teacher... of course I teach skills but I want that my students learn how to apply those skills to express what they are. I work to teach them how to realize their own idea and visions.
But sadly I've seen that most of people, at least here, want a sophist teacher, they want to learn how to do that quilt, that pattern, and sometimes they are so "blind" that after taking 5 classes on hand applique they still want to spend money to attend a "baltimora" class, just because the pattern is different :(

Elizabeth Barton said...

thank you for your comment orkaloca...I think many students here also want the step by step - do this and this and so on - approach. they're afraid to think...perhaps it will be too hard...they are not (for the most part) taught to think in school, rather to memorize and regurgitate. It's sad. thinking is SO good!

Jean S. said...

I teach my students the basics, but then encourage them to fly. I like to have them play with small projects without worrying about the outcome. Some they will like others not, but they've learned something from each one and will use these observations in their future work. I encourage them to keep these small forays as a reference library on techniques and design as well as a growth chart.

Iris Lorenz-Fife said...

Why take a workshop? To experience a particular teacher whose work I admire -- perhaps a one day workshop to see how we fit. If one day its more for whatever new techniques I can learn; but if its five days, which I MUCH prefer, then its to be helped, encouraged, pushed, whatever to did deeper into myself. Long workshops are usually with a teacher whose work I admire, but not to do my version of her work. Its more a sense of if I admire her work we must have some connection . . . That's why I took your Tahoe workshop and, yes, I got some techniques but mostly I god to see a direction I hadn't seen before. So thank you.

Iris in California

Iris Lorenz-Fife said...

Why take a workshop? To experience a particular teacher whose work I admire -- perhaps a one day workshop to see how we fit. If one day its more for whatever new techniques I can learn; but if its five days, which I MUCH prefer, then its to be helped, encouraged, pushed, whatever to did deeper into myself. Long workshops are usually with a teacher whose work I admire, but not to do my version of her work. Its more a sense of if I admire her work we must have some connection . . . That's why I took your Tahoe workshop and, yes, I got some techniques but mostly I god to see a direction I hadn't seen before. So thank you.

Iris in California

Tien Chiu said...

For me it depends on where I am in the learning curve. When I'm a novice I prefer skills-oriented (Sophist) classes because I need to build basic skills. As a more advanced practitioner, I look for Socratic learning because it enables me to find and build my artistic voice.

So I think it depends on the level and interests of the student. I wish there were more Socratic teachers out there, though! Sophist teachings seem much more popular, perhaps because it's easier for anyone to take advantage of them.

I'm still sorry I had to drop out of your class on design, and hope to take it again soon!

Dee said...

thought provoking post... I like to think that I'm helping students to trust their instincts and to develop their own approach to fabric. AND, I talk a lot about ironing, cutting, design, stitches, thread, etc. There is a lot of sharing of resources, pictures, and websites in my little winter class, too.

Renate said...

So here is my thought on this insightful post. We usually first crawl, then walk, and then run. when I first started quilting, I needed to know how to use a sewing machine, what thread would be best, how to use a rotary cutter, etc. It was fun to attend workshops that showed you how to do something specific, provided you with tips for more efficient construction, and gave you the opportunity to see what and how other quilters were constructing their quilts. But eventually one can only make so many 9 patches, "on point" settings and so on. That's when I look for workshops that are going to show me a specific technique that I can add to my creative toolkit and draw on when attempting to do something entire of my own mind. Much like a carpenter that learns to handle a coping saw and then recognizes when and where to use it when creating a cabinet of his/her own design.

In other words show me how to do a particular embroidery stitch but then let me decide when, and where to use it and/or how to add to it to create something new.