In 1986, the Australian philosopher Frank Jackson wrote a treatise entitled Epiphenomenal Qualia. Its subject was the phenomena relating to our consciousness of the world that cannot be explained by the instruments of cognitive and neuro sciences. The following thought experiment was at the center of his treatise:
“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?” (Jackson, 1982)
Jackson’s answer was rather unambiguous: “It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then it is inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete.“ (ibid.)
With this thought experiment Jackson contested physicalism per se, and the physicalist epistemological position in particular, that claims to deduct all knowledge from physical facts. We quite obviously don’t acquire all our knowledge in that way. However, physical data has never been collected and processed to the degree that they are today – all fueled by the hope to learn as much as possible about reality. These data are the basis from which theories, models, and constructions about the world in which we live are developed. They are administered by way of huge encyclopedias and databases which make our knowledge about reality accessible on demand. The availability of this knowledge appears virtually boundless.
The production of knowledge is often tied to our ideas about the standards that the knowledge, which we access, has to comply with: it has to be correct to be seen to be valid, it has to be universal and therefore capable of being reproduced, and it needs to go beyond the individual case in order to be objective.
But what about the kind of knowledge that cannot readily be retrieved, as it is closely linked to our experience; that which is locked within our individual consciousness? What about the knowledge that Mary can only acquire once she is released from her science lab and experiences red tomatoes or a blue sky for the first time? Finally, what about the wealth of knowledge that can only be unlocked by way of our attention, participation, and presence; knowledge, which we can gain no certainty about as it is not easily reproducible or quantifiable, such as the beauty of a sound, the irresistibility of a situation, the gripping nature of a scene, or the intensity of a moment?
Scientific disciplines that are not confined to physically measurable facts but also encompass subjective experiences that enable us to relate to the world need to answer these questions. So, is there a didactic that allows access to the kind of knowledge that is not available as such – a didactics of elusive knowledge?
Each day, in my work as teacher, I attempt to access this kind of knowledge – but the step from action into the abstraction of language, in order to talk about it, is an enormous one. This touches exactly what this presentation is about: the transition between action and methodic availability, between implicit and explicit knowledge.
The problem of the didactics of elusive knowledge not only concerns higher education degree courses in the applied arts; it fundamentally touches the core of artistic practice in the processes of development and change. These processes dwell more in the realm of the undefined and uncertain than that which can be spoken about with certainty.
Implicit and explicit knowledge
I would like to begin my approach to this issue by way of a metaphor and, from there, draw a possible outline for a didactic of elusive knowledge.
What is to be understood by implicit and explicit knowledge in the context of artistic/art therapeutic teaching and what kind of dichotomy does this imply?
The German scientist Hans Dieter Huber (2015), who focuses on media theory and visual culture, differentiates both forms of knowledge by describing implicit knowledge as knowing how or skill and explicit knowledge as knowing that or cognizance. He uses bicycling as an example to illustrate implicit knowledge: I cannot learn how to ride a bike by reading a book about it (knowing that); I have to try it out. I am learning by trial and error (knowing how). If I want to get to a certain destination on that bike however, trial and error won’t get me very far. I need to have the way of getting to my destination explained to me or else use a map for assistance (knowing that).
Rather broad-brush, this hints at the subject to be investigated here: which parts do the learning targets in our curricula play (knowing that) and what kind of didactics are necessary for students to be able to proceed with their studies (knowing how)?
If the metaphor of cycling were to apply to a particular destination, the greater part of the study course would cover cycling itself (knowing how). Accomplishment of the aim however would entail following a given path that leads to the given destination (knowing that). This notion corresponds to the classic understanding of teaching and learning as a mechanical ways of respectively conveying and appropriating knowledge both path and destination are largely predetermined, so that students need only progress along a predetermined path in order to achieve a certain destination. Such an idea presupposes a deterministic view of human beings that defines “development” as successfully attaining their predetermined destination. If this notion were true, us teachers might just as well carry our students to their destination and save them the effort of covering the distance on their own.
As an art therapist I have learned that the course of an individual is not simply fashioned by moving directly towards a predetermined goal. That would only be possible by way of enforced conformity and incapacitation. The processes of individuation do not follow predetermined paths. We evolve because we want to know where the journey goes. A course of study is part of our individual development, geared towards a more or less determined professional future. This future however, is no different from a journey to a location we’ve never been to: although we might have a destination, it is not yet known to us.
As a teacher I have experienced that learning is not a process where the path is clearly marked out beforehand and one only has to follow a certain route. More precisely, learning happens individually and is especially effective wherever students venture into unknown territory accompanied by their teacher. From this perspective, riding a bicycle – the exploration of movement, the knowing how – is not just the means to an end but an opportunity to appropriate the world through an additional form of knowledge; one that does not fit between the covers of a book.
A didactic of elusive knowledge that understands learning as a process with an open outcome redefines the relation between path and destination: the map or the pursued route – the knowing that – that determines the frame of reference that is the precondition for development and learning. For a course of study dedicated to art therapy, such a didactic relies on references to visual culture and aesthetics. Further, it delves into phenomenological theories and that which is informed by the aesthetics of reception; it takes in the techniques of creative design and – according to the orientation of the course – explores therapeutic models and concepts. This framework provides the context of the learning process without being the actual content.
More so than other disciplines, artistic teaching leads us to the threshold between the appropriation of knowledge and individual experience: the color yellow, a sound, or a gesture, are all fundamentally untransmittable as no curricular grammar applies to them. They only become accessible by way of individual aesthetic experience and are thus reflexively describable (Sinapius, 2015). Accordingly the traditional didactic that is still broadly practiced in higher education is inverted: here, acquisition of knowledge does not happen by way of assimilation but as the transformation of subject matter.
This didactic principle is in the tradition of reform pedagogy, which defines learning not from the vantage point of an encyclopedia of knowledge but from an understanding of its conditions and prerequisites. It proceeds from the premise that thought, cognition and understanding cannot exist without action or operations based on action (Piaget, 1980). That is, reform pedagogy understands learning as an active process, and thought as a method of creative experience (Dewey, 1993). The production of knowledge is understood as something based on physical experiences to be gained via objects or events.
In the following, I draw an outline of a “didactic of elusive knowledge“ derived from a study of my own practice of teaching art therapy and from a non-representative survey I conducted among students of the course Expressive Arts in Social Transformation at MSH Medical School Hamburg. The survey was conducted through open questions answered online and in writing between 8th January and 20th January, 2015. 26 out of a possible 60 students took part in the survey. The following perspectives are illustrated by means of quotes from the survey.
Learning requires the freedom of doing something for its own sake.
„…each day there are new personal experiences, we experience everything with our own bodies, try out everything by ourselves and have the option to direct our research according to our interests…“ (Student 25)
Whenever I improvise with the students we are not looking for right or wrong, good or bad. Rather, we relate to one another and notice: it works, a pattern emerges, it irritates or surprises us. With the word it I point out the so-called aesthetic Third, described in the literature on art therapy; though untransmittable, it can manifest among those who improvise (Sinapius, Niemann, 2011). Improvisation is not unlike the dancing described by choreographer Forsythe: “Dancing is like a living being. You cannot coerce it, you cannot get it. You have to make yourself cognizant and it comes to you.” (Quote according to Odenthal, 1994)
This all seemingly has nothing to do with what goes on in a scientific course of studies: the aim of students writing a term paper and handing it in for assessment is primarily about them demonstrating what they have learned. They then receive a mark in order to measure their success in learning. This process has a significant effect on the understanding of teaching and learning and is often deeply rooted in our own biographic experience. This type of learning is part of a system of reward and punishment that is all about marks and attainment and therefore categories of right and wrong, good and bad. Its aim is a number, which can raise the student’s self-esteem or strike at its very heart. This system produces fear: the fear of failure or that of not living up to the expectations of others.
I consider this system to be absurd. It is based on a learning culture that regards knowledge not as something that arises from a situation but as something in existence just waiting to be picked up and reproduced. But learning is something else: when students are interested in a theme, they want to find out about it for themselves. Their writing of an assignment starts with a burning question about how to access a certain topic. Then they start collecting material, which they can question. They try to understand, make observations and establish connections. This is an open-ended process, often onerous, sometimes exhilarating, during which the students need the support of their teacher. In principle, this process is no different from musical improvisation: the writing of a term paper requires the same openness and focus on the subject.
John Dewey (1993, p.218) mentions five characteristics to describe the conditions, which instigate a type of learning dedicated to an object for its own sake:
- The student is faced with a “real situation befitting the acquisition of experience” which “interests him for its own sake”.
- From this situation a real question has to arise that stimulates thinking.
- The student has to possess the “necessary knowledge” and to undertake the “necessary observations” in order to deal with the situation.
- The student ought to come up with possible answers.
- He or she should have the opportunity to test them in practice to “explain their meaning and to discover their value independently“.
Learning is intrinsically motivated. According to journalist and filmmaker, Reinhard Kahl, learning requires the freedom to do something for its own sake (Kahl, 2014). To back up his point he quotes the sociologist, Richard Sennett (2008, p.9): A “…basic human impuls (is) the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”
Learning requires an object that kindles it and which it relates to.
“A clear task that serves me as a good frame of reference allows me to steer everything in that direction. The time I spend with my task by myself is therefore one of intensive learning“. (Student 21)
Sometimes I invite students to paint sounds or noises. What does a “hum” look like in contrast to a “squeak” or a “beep”? Surprised by the unusual task, the students start experimenting with colors. How does a lemon yellow sound like in contrast to an orange or blue? What do two colors whose surfaces meet sound like? The task leads the students into a dialogue with that which comes into being under their hands. Afterwards we all sit down in a circle and look at the pictures that have come about and try to “listen” to what they convey. The students thereby learn to differentiate their perceptions and to study the quality of the colors closely. This type of learning is not a repetitive but an active process, which has an object it relates to.
This is not a matter of course. In many universities we find learning environments that follow a very different idea of learning: the student is not confronted with an object, a situation or a theme, but with a teacher faced by rows of chairs. The teacher is supposed to be in possession of the knowledge that the students are to absorb. The learning thus follows the notion that the objective is a transmission of content rather than an interaction with it.
The training in art therapy can hardly be described as a mere collection of content ready for effective dissemination. The core of such training rather consists of learning situations that open up a range where content is not disseminated but (aesthetically) worked with and where meaning is developed. The duality of content and dissemination is replaced by an approach to learning through transformation of the subject matter. In this case, didactics as a method of dissemination can no longer be separated from the content that is its object (Sinapius, 2008).
Learning processes require room for discovery.
„To evolve artistically and to express myself, I found it very helpful to learn to pay attention to myself and to become intensely conscious of my surroundings. In this I was also aided by the fact that there was always the freedom to try myself out and experiment.“ (Student 5)
„Those click-moments keep astounding me. That is, most of the time I am not conscious of learning but it happens to me by the way: when I come home and am asked what I’ve done, I always notice how much of it has stuck with me.“ (Student 8)
From 1933 onward, as head of painting at Black Mountain College and later from 1950 as head of the department of design at Yale University, Josef Albers developed a didactic of seeing and put it into writing in his book Interaction of Color (Albers, J., 1963). For his teaching he devised a setting that was as simple as it was clever. I use it as a vantage point when dealing with the theme “relativity of color”. An array of different colored cardboard, scissors, and glue provide the basis for the students to produce distinct arrangements of color to investigate the different ways of how the colors interact with one another. How does a red look on a blue background and how does the same red look on a yellow background? In turn, how do distinct colors appear on the same background? The students work in groups of three and are asked to develop hypotheses that describe observable, recurring phenomena. As a stimulus, I send them on their way with two possible experimental arrangements: try to make two distinct colors appear as one or try to make one color look like two. For this I give them 45 minutes. Then the whole group comes together to compile the results.
No group comes out of this setting without any surprising, stunning discoveries and after their first observations, they come up with the ambition to track down the reasons for the observed color phenomena.
What is so special about this learning situation?
The topic of the lesson does not describe the content to be conveyed but determines the setting, the frame of reference, and the range outlined by the organization of time and space. In this setting, the students can make numerous distinct discoveries and come up with hypotheses about the effect of colors. The subsequent presentation of Josef Albers’ discussion on “the relativity of color”, finally allows the students to recognize their own experiences in his words.
The arrangement of a lesson resembles a stage play. The teacher resembles the director of the learning process rather than a knowledge broker. He or she has to be capable to kindle the interest in a theme and to provide the necessary instruments that the students need to access a certain topic. He also has to be able to come up with the conditions under which discoveries can be made. His task is not to produce knowledge but to open up the space in which it can be tapped.
When everything is clear, there is no more to be discovered. When everything has been said already, nothing more needs to be said. When the curricula of our university courses are misunderstood as a content summary of what needs to be covered and later known then there are grave consequences for learning, which becomes merely a passive appropriation of knowledge. However, when the curricula provide the frame of reference for individual learning processes, the students can use existing spaces to individually experience resonance. Learning thus ceases to be an appropriation and becomes the construction of knowledge (Reich, 2012).
Teaching and learning are all about uncertainty: negative capability.
“… the affirmation that it is ok to try out everything and that everything is possible; the recognition that even seemingly unimportant byways can provide an impulse for something new; that you don’t have to have something prefabricated in your head …“ (Student 18)
When I give an assignment to my students, I prefer to put aside preconceived ideas and assumptions. I’d rather like to be surprised by what the students make out of the task at hand. For example, when a student apologized to me for the dog-ears and coffee stains on her drawings, I suggested she might have her breakfast on her drawings for the coming two weeks and use the markings produced in this way as an incentive to engage with the coincidental traces of everyday-life and so take them as an invitation to deal with uncertainties.
Irritations or disturbances can be rather productive for the artistic process. They often are vantage points for new insights. I use them in art therapy as I do in workshops to promote awareness (Sinapius, 2014). If agreed upon beforehand, the intervention in someone else’s painting can lead to surprising results just as much as the mutual observation of a picture viewed from a different angle, such as when we turn it on its head. The act of seeing is no less productive than the painting of a picture.
Just like the later occupational routine of an art therapist, learning doesn’t consist of a succession of predictable events. What is predictable and calculable are the conditions that allow us to get a perspective on individual aspects of the reality that surrounds us. Students are quick to learn that their creative products don’t just follow inner ideas or images but that what comes into being depends on how they look at it. Just like in a conversation, they are constantly oscillating between the production and the reception of images. They learn how to deal with the unpredictable, with disturbances or irritations; to incorporate them as productive elements into their creative process.
I am convinced that intensive research and learning begins at the point where we question seeming self-evident facts and venture into unknown territory. The English poet John Keats calls this “negative capability” – not “inability”, mind you. “Negative capability”, he writes, “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…” (Keats, 1899, p.277). This capability to deal with uncertainties and “perhaps even feel a certain pleasure to have lost oneself temporarily” (Weymann, 2014) is seen by music therapist, Eckhard Weymann, as a resource that can bring about creative solutions.
Without a certain measure of uncertainty, the process of teaching and learning remains an unproductive matter, only capable of reproducing a system that itself is no longer capable of adapting.
Learning requires an environment of benevolence.
“Finally, I managed to have been disabused, something that never happened to me at school. On the one hand, this has to do with me studying something I’m interested in and that I enjoy. More importantly, however, my teachers give me the feeling that I am capable and good. Good in the sense of: I believe in you, you are important.” (Student 26)
“An open, trusting learning atmosphere – concretely: teachers revealing themselves by conveying their own thoughts and experiences, familiarity at the workplace… meeting at eye-level, no more chalk-and-talk teaching, instead a sharing of thoughts and experiences.” (Student 22)
It would appear that the relation between students and teachers in higher education is traditionally defined by study and exam regulations. They sketch out the limits within which students and teachers meet. They lay down educational objectives and define the instruments with which the teachers can check whether the students have reached the learning goals In the end, grades provide the standard that decides whether they have achieved this or not.
Such an understanding presupposes a hierarchical gap between teachers and students and leads to an output-orientated learning and teaching behavior, and a performance-orientated learning atmosphere. From that perspective, learning is determined by what is required to be known in the end; detours and bottlenecks relating to the acquisition of this knowledge are seen to represent failure and success regarding learning and knowledge can be quantitatively measured according to the subject matter that the curriculum stipulates.
Such a hierarchical organization of teaching is not suited to foment learning processes or to facilitate a learning experience that:
- is intrinsically motivated,
- relates to an object, through which experiences can be made,
- contains space for discovery,
- is backed up by uncertainty and the readiness for failure, which are significant catalysts for learning.
The handling of study and examination regulations may sometimes turn out a balancing act. However, study and examination regulations can be understood as merely providing a thematic frame of reference for learning processes. They are no didactic guidelines for lessons. Learning is not a hierarchical event where knowledge is power and ignorance is paralysis. It is the task of the teacher to accompany the learning process and to provide the space and the necessary instruments for the students to trace their questions and find answers to them.
More than anything, it is with regard to artistic or social problems, that learning reveals itself as a process closely tied to individual experience that requires a space in which it takes place. For this, the philosopher Hartmut Rosa uses the term “resonance”, which links a successful appropriation of the world with subjective experiences of resonance: “Successful relations to the world are those, in which the world appears to the acting subjects as a responsive, breathing, and supportive resonance system, which at times can even be benevolent, accommodating, and benign.” (Rosa, 2012, p.10). That such a system must necessarily be distinct from one that categorizes knowledge as right or wrong, and that rates subjective performance as good or bad, is blatantly obvious.
Learning requires a protected setting and an atmosphere of benevolence. That is, we need to view learning processes not from the angle of study and examination regulations but from the perspective of the students. Or, to say it in the words of the educational researcher John Hattie: “If the teacher’s lens can be changed to seeing learning through the eyes of students, this would be an excellent beginning.“ (Hattie, 2009, p.252)
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