Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Constructivism in museum

Went to a thing at the art museum, a discussion of a Hopper painting, and he did a lot of "landscapes" in the 30s which kind of present man-made elements (like a railroad track) as part of the natural environment, and that kind of fit in here... we don't think of an old steel mill as "wilderness," but that's what we'd call a stretch of nature that was let go. So urban wilderness, not wasteland, I guess? In England, they of course do this better-- but then, they have tin mines the Romans abandoned in 300 AD, and yes, they look pretty cool now. Maybe Detroit will look that great in 2300.
Anyway, the husband afterwards said he enjoyed it but would have liked more "lecture," and I realized that the instructor (one of the curators) was engaging in "constructivism". 

Woolfolk (1993) defines thus: "The key idea is that students actively construct their own knowledge: the mind of the  student mediates input from the outside world to determine what the student will learn.
Learning is active mental work, not passive reception of teaching."

The curator said that they were trying this "closer look" model out, following the Frick example, where they led a discussion of a single painting. There was a cognitive element too, that is, we were being led to the skill of art analysis, to figuring out (especially) compositional elements. But it was mostly constructivist, with the curator asking questions, like "What strikes you most about the colors here?"

I say it's constructivist rather than, say, collaborationist, because there was, in that grim new term, a SME (subject matter expert) in the curator, who led the discussion. In fact, she said afterwards, if anyone had mentioned, say, how this resembled Wyeth's painting Christina's World, she would have led into a discussion of influences, but "the topic didn't come up." I found that interesting, because she would direct us to observations and questions and then answer them, or discuss them, but she wouldn't start a topic.

So the husband (we met at a university that prided itself on great lecturers, and we both love a good lecture) said he felt like we were learning how to "read a painting," but not really much about this painting itself, and "I don't really want to hear what the other students think because what do they know."

I mentioned that it wasn't really "the blind leading the blind," as I used to term that pedagogical trend in the 90s that forced the instructor into the role of another student (and a rather silent one at that), while the students fumbled their way to understanding something, which might be okay with a poem, but was pretty useless when it came to comma usage rules (they never did seem to find their way to the rules). At least now, the instructor was leading the discussion and answering the questions, not just prompting students to do the work.

Anyway, it was interesting to see this in action, and I did think it was constructivism really, as the learners did work together to get a comprehensive understanding, and shaping the learning, but with the subtle and expert facilitation by the curator.

New York, New Haven and Hartford
The painting in question. I noticed that the "shelf talker" or whatever they call the description/bio/title card on the wall next to the painting gave far more explicit "lecture-type" information, and so does the page on the website:
"This painting, named after an East Coast railroad line, was created during the Depression and depicts a landscape and desolate house. The prominent track evokes Hopper’s recurring themes of transience and the loneliness of the traveler."

The frontal view and the broad horizontal line of the railroad suggest a stage, underlining the separation between the viewer and the scene.
The crisp lines and sharp angles of the house are softened by the rounded, natural shapes of the trees, and the dark green balances the bright sky. Hopper’s compositions are often based on oppositions like this that unite to form a harmonic whole.
Which is a "better" pedagogy? Neither, I suspect, is "better," but the curator's discussion was probably better at teaching us to understand painting, and the information "lecture" was better at teaching us about THIS painting. Both work together, but maybe they have to be in different environments? Like the website is the "lecture," and the "classroom" is more discussion-oriented?

As a novelist and a fiction-writing teacher, I labor under the illusion that everyone else is fascinated by our creative choices, you know, why did you choose to hide the secret for 11 chapters and reveal it by accident rather than protagonist decision, or why did you choose that title? (Like the painting above is named for the railroad line that owned the tracks in front of the house... did Hopper want to call attention then to the railroad tracks particularly?) So I think one effective path of this constructivist approach could be learners asking questions and speculating about creative choices

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