Monday, July 21, 2014

On Joyful Education, Art, and Dreams

In 1968, George B. Leonard published his ground-breaking Education and Ecstasy, qualified as "epochal" in the blurb on the back cover. Leonard analyzed the problems of education and schools and not only proposed solutions, but also looked to the new, developing technologies that would enhance the learning process and come to the aid of teachers. As I come from a family of educators who place a premium on education as the ultimate goal in life, this book filled me with excitement and hope and I have carried it with me since 1968. 

Today while rereading Education and Ecstasy, tears came to my eyes and my throat tightened. Tears for the wonderful possibilities that have failed to materialize, for the grinding state of our educational systems and the burden that our teachers must bear, for our failure to make use of the amazing technologies that have sunk to the lowest common denominator of Facebook with a Big Brother lurking in the background, for the dreams that have escaped our grasp. And yet, tears of relief because I have had the privilege of participating in two exciting university programs in language education that may measure up to Leonard's standards, programs that are creative and that make use of new technologies while taking the student into consideration. 

Leonard delivers a blistering critique that remains relevant today pertaining to the state of our school systems: "To learn is to change...Do not blame teachers or their administrators if they fail to educate, to change their students. For the task of preventing the new generation from changing in any deep or significant way is precisely what most societies require of their educators. Perhaps it is enough that schools should go on with their essentially conservative function: passing on the established values and skills of the past" (7). Does this sound familiar? Doesn't the word "school" carry heavy connotations for the majority of us? And as for technology, hasn't the cell phone become a glorified leash with blinders, preventing us from communicating directly and focusing on the here and now?

Several simple yet profound ideas run through Leonard's work. First, that education is a life long process and should be joyful and even make us ecstatic. Educators should be able to share the inspired moments of learning with their students, moments that happen only rarely in the traditional classroom.

Secondly, Leonard places importance on the mastery of technique, giving the example of the violinist who "arrives at the sublime only through utter mastery of technique." He adds, "The instruments of living that are now coming into our hands--rich, responsive and diverse--require mastery" (18). 

And finally, the environment contributes to the learning experience: "Learning involves interaction between the learner and his environment, and its effectiveness relates to the frequency, variety and intensity of the interaction" (19).

Here is what gives me hope, what has, in fact, made me ecstatic: I have stumbled upon a small miracle, finally, the appearance of a learning experience of which Leonard might have dreamed, the online Sketchbook Skool (SBS).  The brain child of artists Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene, the "skool" provides one "klass" each week for six weeks with six different teachers from all over the world with the intention of showing students (from all over the world) how to deepen their creativity and connect to life within the pages of a sketchbook.
My homework assignment--the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

The use of the "k" brings humor and signals that the "kourse" organization has a familiar structure and yet, is not threatening. There are no grades, no critiques, no tests. And yet, the forum for homework assignments, which are voluntary as is posting, shows that students are working enthusiastically, investing time in practicing and doing extra credit as well. 
My homework assignment about toast.
Ruzuku provides the klassroom platform that contains videos and pdfs from each teacher, plus the galleries for student postings. The "playground" is found on a closed Facebook page where everyone can post work, suggestions, and information of interest to sketchers. Not being a Facebook fan, this is the best use of Facebook that I've seen in a long time. The forums are friendly, students help each other, and teachers and students are supportive.

SBS provides not only lessons in a variety of techniques but also in materials,  sketchbook possibilities, and subject matter. In addition, this "kourse" seeks to ground students in daily life by helping them develop a sketchbook habit of drawing everyday in order to see the world more intimately, to see what is real. Danny insists that SBS is not about Art (as in art galleries), but about the intimate practice of art in a sketchbook. 

The SBS motto of "Art for Everyone" indicates that all levels of ability are welcome, that the doors are wide open. Consequently, students range from beginners to professional artists in an atmosphere of camaraderie and creativity. This lively environment contributes enormously to students' desire for mastery, which requires daily practice. This exceptional environment stimulates students and teachers alike to learn and to grow. The attitude of students plus the huge response in numbers has surprised and almost overwhelmed the founders and teachers. Several teachers have noted that the SBS experience has been delightfully unique for them. And to Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene's credit, they have listened to the students and addressed issues that have come up and made the necessary changes, which an experimental program demands.

I remain the Reluctant Sketcher. Although I may not develop a serious sketchbook habit, as an educator and as a lifelong student, I am ecstatic and delighted and I highly recommend SBS for all creative people. If only Leonard could have seen the SBS phenomenon--it would be a dream come true...

For more information see the SBS site (here), an article at "The Art People" (here), and Danny Gregory's blog (here).


Unknown said...

This is a very good description of SBS and it's ability to use internet and FB in a very positive way. For me the course has been a powerful experience and it is amazing to see so many participants from different places around the world.

Hilda said...

You brought back a lot of memories for me. I read Education & Ecstasy while I was still in the public school system along with Summerhill--A Radical Approach to Child Rearing by A.S. Neill. I thought I still had both books somewhere, but couldn't find them. Thanks for the memories--and I need to work on developing a sketching habit.

barbbouk said...

Excellent writing, Nadia!

Julie Fukuda said...

I became a teacher because I hated school and loved learning. I just wanted to give kids the joy of discovery and success that I found outside of that awful place. This sounds like my kind of book.

Ms. said...

Inspiring. i will find ways to share it.

O'Quilts said...

I read that book too...I actually think that I just gave it to the library, not that anyone would be interested..

Mo Crow said...

a thought provoking post as always Nadia
BTW I love your sketches!

Janet M. Atwill said...

I am looking for the book now!