Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Why Are So Many Teachers Inarticulate?

I don't know about you, but when I take workshops (not all that often these days), I'm often extremely frustrated by how inarticulate the teacher is.  and it seems to occur much more in art (painting or fiber) than in other mediums.

Recently I took a painting workshop, where the teacher did a demo every day and when asked why she painted a certain shape of a certain size or color, would consistently reply: "Oh, I just work intuitively!  I don't know why I did that!"  then she would take some white paint and erase the first mark - "so, why did you erase it?"  "I don't know, it didn't feel right!"

Other comments:  "I have no rule for compositions; a lot is intuitive, I feel it needs to be a certain way...I choose color intuitively....randomly – "   "I was  torturing myself for days!  "

That's no help at all to the student!  We have to learn to torture ourselves for days???!!

By contrast, when I asked the piano teacher (they go by the wonderful name of pedagogue by the way!  I'd love to be an art quilt pedagogue!), why he would play a repeated notes with several different fingers instead of just the same one over and over, he gave me a very good and full explanation.  (easier to switch fingers than to lift the first one - for those of you who are curious).

How can a teacher help a student if they don't know why they're doing what they are doing themselves?  Working by "feel" or by "instinct" is fine if you're in your own studio, messing with your own stuff, wasting your own fabric....but how can you convey that way of feeling to the student?
Maybe I'm a bit dim, but I've never been able to learn something from someone who can't explain what/why they're doing.

Also if you know WHY, then it's likely that you can avoid, or at least correct, errors - of course I have learned that I can go over an error with white paint!  Or cut out the offending piece of cloth from the quilt.  As long as I know which bits are errors, of course....

It's possible that the idea that you can work by "feel" "instinct" or"intuition" alone, came from the widely held belief  that some of us are born talented and some are not.  I must admit that when I was young I was always hoping that I would discover whatever it was that I had a hidden talent for!!!  But, as old age (sorry, I mean "maturity"!) encroaches, more and more I think it's education, practice, and coaching with articulate feedback for a significant period of time that makes the artist, or skilled performer (whether fine arts, crafts, music, athletics, debate...whatever it is).

We need the explanations....and we need the order to improve.  What tennis player would hope to learn to make those perfect aces by "intuition"?!!!

I'd love to hear from you as to your experiences....d'you find "intuitive" teachers to be inspiring? or frustrating?

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!

Elizabeth, AQP   (art quilt pedagogue!)


Margaret said...

I agree with you; that is, when it comes to giving a clear, 'straight' answer to a student's question! That said, I also believe there's a time to encourage a student to relax and enjoy the process, be a bit more intuitive -- once a solid foundation is laid!

As for "pedagogue"...I'm not sure you really want to be one, the definition is thus: "A teacher -- especially a strict or pedantic one"! (see

Linda B. said...

I think the main problem is that quite a few art or quilt teachers teach because they can make art/quilts not because they can teach! As you know making and teaching are very different things but this isn't always recognised by the people responsible for creating programmes.
I was amazed, then appalled, by the number of invitations I received to speak or teach after winning a significant prize (My one and only!) here in the UK. As it happens I taught for thirty years in primary education but the people who were inviting me were doing so on the basis of one quilt - there is nothing documented on my ability to speak or teach about quilting. I know that I would have been grateful for those invitations if this had been my chosen route but I turned them down because I wanted to make quilts! Others probably have less choice or aren't fellow AQP's!!!

Shasta Matova said...

In my very first photography class, my teacher was like that. Oh yeah, "go take some pictures." There was no guidance as to how to take pictures or what kind of pictures he wanted. He also had another student teach me how to develop pictures. He was very laid back, which was difficult for me because I was in school and I expected more direction - or at least some direction. I think an introduction that explains his teaching style would have helped a great deal. It does help to have space to try out different ideas, but only if you are told that is what you are doing!

I had a quilting class where the teacher had made a quilt. She showed us how she made it, but she didn't think through how to correct the mistakes she had made - so we were led to that same space where we were about to duplicate her error. Some of us figured out how to avoid/fix it, and wound up teaching her.

Sharon Robinson said...

I agree completely with Linda B. Just because you can make a beautiful piece of art doesn't mean you can teach. Teaching employs a totally different skill set, which includes good communication, something that many artist lack, or have never developed, if they pursue a career that involves working alone all day.

Susan Sawatzky said...

Actually I feel the same way about people and conversation. If I ask a question I would like an answer to that question, not an answer or discussion about something entirely different! I like straight forward answers, then if one wants to discuss further there is room for that.

Katie Stein Sather said...

Teachers need to know how to reach people with any number of learning styles. Not long ago, I took an art quilting course from a well-known quilt artist. It was SUCH a frustrating experience for me--a straight ahead, follow the steps, FAST worker. the instructor worked slowly & intuitively, so taught slowly and gave way too much time (for me) to do the steps. There were no handouts so I could work ahead, either.

I have had art teachers who first wanted to spend the whole first day covering the required materials (1 of 8 sessions). Then gave next to no instructions at all--ask me questions! For this newbie, that did NOT work well.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Seems like a lot of people have had similar problems, certainly appreciate you sharing them with me. If you're going to be teaching how to make art, you need to know (in words!) just how you do it! And that can leave plenty of room for individuality....but to indicate that it's some kind of ephemeral mind state that comes over you if you wait long enough (or have "talent" - whatever that is!) is frustrating and puzzling. I can't really believe that art is made by "lucky accidents"!!!! though that probably does happened to the fortunate few!

Melanie McNeil said...

I spent the first several years of my quilting life designing intuitively, and mostly based on traditional (not-art) quilt forms. Once I branched into making medallion quilts, I found the structure had changed so much that my intuition was not enough. There are few medallion quilters out there. As it stands now, I'm a "leading expert." But to get to that point I needed to learn about design. Fortunately I found your books as well as a few others. I studied them intently for design concepts. Incorporating that with what I already knew about medallions, and what few resources are out there, made me a much better designer. Besides that, I CAN articulate my choices.

Thanks for your help on my journey.

Chris said...

Oh my goodness what a great topic. I have been teaching science since 1974 and wanted to do so since I was in grade school. I taught at my last college for 31 years and you know what they say about professors? Some of them are experts in their field, but can't teach. I might not have been a top expert in my field, but I knew how to teach. So teaching is something that some of us can do and others cannot do apparently. And it does not matter if we are talking about science or art. It is frustrating for students when they get a bad teacher whether in science or art quilt making.

Funny you mention about wanting to understand the why of doing things. I always wanted my students to understand why rather than just memorizing things. I think it is much more useful and will stay with them longer.

Some of the bad teaching is because people do not make an effort to do a really good job. It takes a lot of years and plenty of fine tuning to be a great teacher. I was always well prepared for class with a distinct and organized idea of what I was going to cover. So teaching in art should not be any different. But that takes effort to prepare as you well know. I think a lot of teachers just walk into class to teach without preparation. Could be in general that people think that's what teachers do.....such an easy job being a teacher!!!! It is actually an exhausting job. I used to be beat at the end of a long teaching day. Loved it though.

If we all waited around for inspiration to strike us most of us would be waiting a very long time.

Here is a question for being a good teacher a talent or can it be learned? Do you have to have some talent for it to begin with?

Sherry said...

I took a class many years ago with my husband (yes, he quilts too). The woman was a published author. . .I had her book. . . . it was mathematical and antything beyond basic mathematical equations throw me for a loop!

It was obvious that she was a math whiz. . . . but she could not teach me to save my life!

My husband and I were the only ones in the class. . . and this was at a major quilt convention. I don't know why the class was not cancelled.

Anyway, instead of breaking down her instructions to a "mere mortal" she would do the cutting, or pressing or whatever step she was talking about and, to be honest, I never did get the technique to "click" in my head.

As others have said. . . .just because someone can make beautiful things does not mean that they can teach others how they did it.

Glen QuiltSwissy said...

Oh, no. Quilting too. Anybody who makes a quilt seems to be be "able" to teach it. My pet peeve is people who sell you their pattern/book, then charge you $75 to have you sit there and make it in front of them.

After 25 years in Toastmasters, it really irks me to hear uh, um, you know as every other sentence. Practice your subject, for heaven's sake!

I know you meant other things, but technical aspects of teaching is so important.

glen in Louisiana

Pamela Price Klebaum said...

I think it's unfair to paint these art teachers with such a broad brush and label them inarticulate.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Seems like there's a lot of frustration out there...
I don't paint all teachers with a broad brush....but the good ones are thin on the ground (love to mix metaphors!)..... I just seem to hear the phrase "oh I do it intuitively " so often these days. That doesn't help the beginner at all...and, in the particular class I was talking about, I noticed that all the advanced students were simply working in their own usual way and had completely ignored what the teacher was (albeit inarticulately!) trying to put across!

KrisR said...

I know there are good teachers out there - but I have been burned too many times by mediocre or downright bad teachers. To the point that I rarely take any kind of classes any more. I'd rather spend my money and learn it myself. It might take more time - but at least I save myself the disappointment.

A few years back I spent big bucks to take a class here in Australia from a well known USA artist. She showed up without her microphone and had a 'voice problem' so was unable to talk loud enough for the venue. Then, for the 2 days, she proceeded to just sit at her painting table and do her own thing. Relatively no instruction was offered. No suggestions/critique. If we wanted to talk with her, we could go up to her table - but it certainly wasn't encouraged. Not only did I spend the money for her instruction - but I had 2 days of lodging, travel and food expense in holiday destination ($$$$$).

Ok - sorry to vent. There are a few teachers that I'd love to take a class from, and probably will if the stars align and it works out - but they are few and far between.

I think some artists add teaching to their CV for the money only. Not everyone has the aptitude for teaching. Bless those that do.

Chris said...

You said it yourself, Elizabeth, "the good ones are thin on the ground ". And that goes for trained teachers as well as artists purporting to teach their art. As many before me have said, being a successful artist does not mean you can impart those skills effectively - something I have proven time and time again in my role as workshop co ordinator for a large textile art group. There are a (very) few excellent teachiers out there!

SheilaD said...

That is exactly the reason why I have resisted all attempts to get me to teach, which have been many, especially since I dared to have a solo exhibition last year. People like my work, and are keen for me to show them how I do it. However, I make it up as I go along, and follow my whim. How could I ever teach that? And anyone who teaches that way simply shouldn't. I have pretty much given up on workshops now, unless it is something specific that i want/need to learn.

Really enjoy your blog!

Марина Концевая said...

Hi all! I'm a teacher with a diploma and I'm a quilter. I have a Patchwork and Quilting School in St.Petersburg, Russia, since 9 years. You cannot imagine how often I get offers from other quilters to teach in my school. Asking "Why do You want to teach?" I get the answer "Because I can make a quilt." Usually I say - No, thank You. Or after one year of special course in my group. The most are hurt. This makes me crazy! A teacher is a profession I studied 5 years and continue learning every day.
You are absolutely right!

Elizabeth Barton said...'s obviously the same all over! The brochures for these venues - especially the painting ones - look SO tempting...but many stress the location and the food rather than the I know why! I see a theme here in your comments and that is the importance of checking out whether or not the person is a teacher, have they taught other things in other places? There is a very interesting (though expensive for what it is so don't buy!) little book called Draw with Your Eyes shut. It's about the experiences of many artists in art school and the often very peculiar and usually pointless assignments they were given.
On the other hand, while I think you can learn a lot by studying books and art in general (no matter what your medium), feedback is important. It's so hard to be objective about your own work.

Ellen Lindner said...

I agree. I took a class with a teacher who had us watch him construct a small quilt during a one hour period of music. We were not allowed to talk or ask questions and he offered NO explanation of why anything occurred. Totally useless.

Chris said...

Is there a site that rates art quilt teachers? I know for my own teaching field there is rate my professor. Although since the comments are anonymous you have to take them with a grain of salt, but at least it is a starting point. At least you can see trends (good or bad) in the comments.

Elizabeth Barton said...

yes an anonymous rating scale would be a good idea...nobody likes to say In Print that this or that person is a poor teacher. Alas, we are all too PC!!

Helen Howes said...

I learned to teach long before I quilted and before I taught patchwork and quilting.. It's definitely an art that requires application, practice, understanding, and hard work.. I know I'm a good teacher and reasonably popular, because I get a lot of "return bookings". I also know that some students dislike improvisation, so they do struggle until they let go a trifle...

When I started out I booked a couple of Saturday classes at my local quilt shop to find out about the style and etiquette of the teaching in this subject.. The stuff I had been doing (Chinese martial arts) is pretty formal, there is a fixed syllabus, and teachers take on a great deal of care and responsibilty for their students (the label"sifu" which I earned after much work, means "teaching father". Eventually I became a Sigong, or teaching Grandfather. )
After 16 years of this I had learned that almost every student needs individual help, explanatory style, speed-of-learning. I hope I carry this through in my patchwork classes

Anyway, that first class was appalling.. the teacher made my neighbour cry (over something both small and crucial) and was arrogant, unpleasant all day about her employer (the shop downstairs), taught something she had not originated from another teacher's book, and failed to finish the syllabus for the day.. When I asked "what about such-and-such" she replied that we would "have to come back another time"
I said, gently "I think not, I don't like you" which left her open-mouthed.. Perhaps it should have been said sooner.. These days, I would leave a class like that after an hour or so, quietly, but my life is busy and my time is precious..

I always think it's a bad class where the teacher does not learn something from the students, even if it has nothing to do with the class..

The second class was superb, and I went on to teach for myself. I really enjoy it, but it is not the money-spinner that some think it should be, and I do not teach more than 1-1/2 days a week if I can help it.. Leaves no time to actually Do The Work

Elizabeth Barton said...

Great comment, oh Sigong! The Art of Teaching is truly an art. Teachers used to be revered and respected...but now (in the USA at least) that is not so, they are paid poorly and told what and how to teach by Powers That Be who often have non-educational reasons for setting the curricula.
I must admit I have left classes early, though was very put off by one teacher bursting into tears as I did so!! (even more reason to leave).
And, I have had quiet words with management!! Who sometimes listen, and at other times say oh but so and so is a big name and pulls in the students!! Ah well, one does what one can...Thanks so much to everyone for recounting their experiences.
Perhaps my next blog should be on What makes a Good Teacher....hmmm...cogitations will ensue....

Anonymous said...

I think part of the this issue is that quilt and quilt art teachers are not trained and certified teachers, as they are in schools and colleges. There is no exam or license for them to teach - thank goodness for that, that would be restrictive, boring, and expensive.

They are more than not often artists first and teach because they like it, they need the profession/money, and they have the opportunity and audience. I think you have to keep that in mind and if you are looking for art classes, take from a certified art teacher. Otherwise, take the quilt, fiber, art quilt class to learn a technique related to fiber, not related to creating art with art rules/guidelines.

Melanie McNeil said...

I read an interesting article the other day about what goes on in the brain during improvisation. Pat Metheny, jazz guitarist, was on a panel with neurologists to discuss the issue. (NYT article) He discussed some of the structural issues with jazz and how that affects improvisation. I'm not a musician, but chords and rhythm and repetition of theme, as well as variation... some of the same things we deal with in quilt design. Yet he said that often he doesn't know why he is choosing a particular variation at the moment he's choosing it. No doubt he could explain completely, after the fact, why something did or did not work. But the speed of making music is simply too fast to be able to consciously make those decisions while playing.

I have the luxury of slow decision-making while I'm building a quilt. I can try a variety of things before choosing, and even then I can unstitch or applique over or make a variety of changes to "fix" something I don't like. And partly because of my slow speed, I can articulate why. And AFTER I've made a quilt, I spend quite a bit of time assessing what worked and what didn't, and why.

Perhaps art teachers are caught somewhere between Metheny's jazz and my slow build. The better ones can explain their choices, but for the others, it is going too fast, and the only way they can explain it is "intuition."

Here is a link to the article from 2011

Elizabeth Barton said...

to anon: alas some "trained and certified" teachers are no better! I recently went to an art lecture given by an exceedingly well known and important professor from Yale - and he was Dreadful!!!
Melanie: sounds absolutely fascinating! Thank you for the link...I'm headed right there....

Unknown said...

on the topic of why you would play a same note on the piano with a different finger, is it gives the note a fresher sound. They say if you play the note twice with the same finger the second time is a bit dead or flat but if you play the same note again with a different finger it is more alive because of the new approach, attack etc......................................... food for thought

Leigh in Portland (we are not burning down) said...

I rarely take classes anymore. I borrow the book and usually that is plenty. Usually the teacher teaches too slowly, and the material just isn't that hard.

Not only does a good teacher teach well, they also do not allow the Attention Pigs (extra needy students) to monopolize their time. Two in 10 can do one or the other, 1 in 10 can do both. I've had many classes ruined by students who whine "I caaaaaaaan't..." and then the teacher spends the next 30 minutes cajoling them to try, building up their special snowflake self-esteem, and wasting the rest of our time on some basic thing. I actually told one woman, "'Can't' never did anything."

Interesting about the piano playing and the fresher sound. I bet that idea works for other things too. Same 'note', different approach, better result. Hmmm.

I think that once you've gotten good at something, it's difficult to see the decision-making process. It feels like intuition, even though there are steps that are being followed. When one works alone, that's fine. To teach it, I think there needs to be a lot of self-reflection and breaking down of those steps. To simply claim 'intuition' is intellectually lazy, imo. It's a lot of work to teach even simple things to newbies, but when you really teach something, you learn an awful lot too, both from the self-reflection and preparation and from the perspectives of the students.

Linda said...

A little off the topic! I love the piece at the top of this blog post. Did you do it?
It's awesome!
Linda G

Elizabeth Barton said...

Leigh - I so agree with what you wrote...especially that last paragraph...people are following their decision pathway but because they've been down it so many times, they're no longer aware of it.
And yes, one of the reasons I started many of the teaching projects I do is because I wanted to know more about that subject myself and was very frustrated with what was available from other teachers.
and the whiners...oh yes!....I give everybody equal time...because not only are there the ones that call for attention, but there are also the very quiet ones who never ask for help maybe shy, or other reasons, it's immaterial - but they too should get equal time. I calculate the time available, divide it by the number of students and tell them they're each going to get 6 (or whatever number) minutes of my individual attention - whether they want it or not!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Linda - thanks!! It's actually just a section of a bigger piece...which isn't as good as that section!! What can I tell you?!!!!

Gerald Green said...

Hello Elizabeth,

We may recall we met when you attended one of my painting groups in Devon in the UK some years ago.
Anyway here are my thoughts on the questions you raise in your blog post.

In my opinion creativity doesn't work to any plan, it has no structure and it isn't intellectual, so from my own point of view I work intuitively, with the non-analytical part of my brain, so what I do I do because it feels right. To do this I have to let, (in my case) a painting take me on its own journey, so I find it better to let go of the outcomes. In other words I don't really know exactly what I am doing other than having a general plan. My results always fall bellow my expectations and progress generally follows the pattern of a sine curve. Beginning well and improving then gradually reaching a point where it all seems to get away from me and starts to fall apart then I have to work on bringing it all back on track up to a positive conclusion.

When teaching others, I see my role as quite different, as I am there for the people in the group, not myself, so I have to put myself into analytical mode. For me teaching is about sharing what I do with others for which I treat everyone else as my equal, I am not there to show how clever 'I' may be but to encourage people to get the best out of themselves, as we are all on our own individual journey.

Principally I do it because it forces me out of my shell and I find it scary and I like seeing other people achieve.

I believe that with painting the answers to all your questions lie in what you produce so I suggest that you try to become your own teacher. May I suggest that you try to recognise what you do well and also those things that you might wish to improve and think of each painting as a step to the next. So it is about the journey not the destination.

Some years ago I took over a painting class from someone else. On the first session a man thrust a painting under my nose and said, "Crit that for me". I said in all paintings there would be things that he felt he had done well and other things that he might wished to have done differently. I asked him what he thought he had done well. He pointed out a couple of things that I agreed I also thought he had done well. He then went on to list five or six other aspects of the painting that he thought he could have done better. He thanked me for my good advice. In truth I hadn't told him anything as he had answered all his own questions he just didn't realise it.

Teaching is an art in itself, some people have a natural teaching energy others don't.

A girl I know once attended a week's painting course by a well known and very capable artist. He looked at her palette on the first day and said, "what a mess" and threw it down on the table and never spoke to her again for the entire time she was there.

Interestingly over the years I have had a number of psychologists in my groups.

Best wishes,

Elizabeth Barton said...

Gerald! of course I remember that super spot in Devon and the painting was the highlight of that trip to the UK - and actually I've not been able to get back there again, alas.
Thank you so much for your very thoughtful comments, particularly addressing both the artist's practice and that of the teacher - as you say two very different journeys. And few can do both well! But you did!
I've made a little progress with the painting, and even tried some acrylic - as well as many more quilts....and I'm teaching a lot, but as both you and my piano pedagog note, sometimes you have to undo in the student's mind problems or ideas put there by other teachers. The idea that you can make art "intuitively" with no solid foundation either of theory or of experience/practice (better yet, both) seems to be widespread though and it's a difficult one to overcome.
and yes...those darned psychologists are everywhere!! Elizabeth

Rebecca said...

I read this shortly after a friend told me she was attending Empty Spools at Asilomar with a teacher she had taken a shorter class from. Therefore, she knew the teacher is good. I've often been tempted by Empty Spools, but have taken enough workshops through my guild to know that teacher ability is highly variable!

Elizabeth Barton said...

It's always a good idea to get a short class with someone as a tester, or ask people who've taken from a teacher. The venues book teachers that fill places, their motivation for hiring is different from the students.
The worst class I ever took was at the recommendation of a very Big Name in a very popular location where the classes filled within hours of opening. The teacher actually was extremely articulate, but not interested in teaching a class! the 30 hour class week was divided up with each student getting a one on one private critique, nobody else allowed in to listen. I had expected a teaching class and had not taken any work with me for critique. For the 29 hours you were not with the teacher, socializing in restricted groups seemed to be the main activity!

Anonymous said...

I work as a teacher in art quilt and traditional quilting. When I do a class I always try to do my best and I think most teachers do. But what I miss is classes like how to improve being a quilt teacher, how to write good material lists and things like that. Sometimes I think a seminar is maybe a better form, a time were we all (teachers) work together in different workshops, listen to speeches and learn how to use different tools and other things which could improve us.

Elizabeth Barton said...

I think nearly all teachers do work hard and try their best...but some (as I describe in the blog) have not thought through and analyzed their process so that they can convey it to others - you can't tell someone to "do as I do" if you don't really know what you're doing!!
A seminar for teachers would be a very interesting idea; when I've been teaching at large venues I've really enjoyed meeting other teachers. However I usually prefer to work for an individual guild or business rather than some large corporation - an entirely different topic!
The best people to tell you about supply lists, however, are the students themselves.
In short, everything they need, and nothing they do not need! also not too much - one student told me she'd taken my class for one reason only: it has the shortest supply list!!! I myself would be completely put off if I had to buy a whole lot of gear, yards and yards of fabric etc.....