Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dealing with Resistance to Change: Notes from Day 2 of the Art, Science & the Brain Conference

Following on yesterday’s post, today I’m compiling notes on a couple of sessions from Day 2 of the Art, Science & the Brain Conference organized by ArtsSmarts at the MaRS Centre in Toronto.

The presentations ranged widely over brain structure, pedagogy, curriculum, and educational institutions. Here’s the points that stood out the most for me in terms of thinking about contemporary art, contemporary art education and related programming at public museums and galleries:

- Change coming from within educational institutions, and other institutions, is thought by many experts as being in the highly-challenging-to-well-nigh-impossible range of plausibility. As speaker Stan Kutcher put it, “Changing a university is more difficult than moving a graveyard.” As a result, several speakers said, change on educational and other fronts must be initiated outside the established institutions. To me, this recalled the development in decades past of Artist Run Centres in Canada, an alternative exhibition model that grew outside of museums. And perhaps, in more recent years, it points to the growth of the web as a place for exhibiting art outside of the museum and ARC structure. Still, I wondered -- must all change come from outside? It's a depressing thought for me, even if it's a realistic one.

- Some educational theorists are excited about the idea of moving from a top-down, lecture-based model of teaching to an interactive and shared model of teaching. Again, it’s worth wondering how this could apply to art institutions today. Though many museums offer “interactive” features of one kind or another, the general feeling in many art museums is “we are conveying or presenting important art knowledge to the viewer,” not “we are collaborating with the viewer on generating art knowledge and experiences” or “the viewer might have something to teach us or share with us about art knowledge and experiences.”

- In terms of using new technologies, all the presenters agreed that integrating resources for training educators in those technologies was crucial. Many institutions provide the budget for tech equipment, but not the budget to teach educators (and perhaps, in the museum case, curators and directors) how to use it.

- Even fewer resources, at times, may be devoted to much-needed testing, whether it’s of paradigms old or new. As Kutcher pointed out, he has been trying to do research on the effectiveness of certain technologies in education and teen mental health, but has little comparative data, as the effectiveness of traditional educational and mental health strategies had not been thoroughly tested in the first place. In terms of art museums, this prompted me to wonder what ideas of value in exhibitions have become accepted as status quo through the centuries without any data on viewer learning to actually support them.

- Again, collaboration between divergent groups is key for moving forward in technology and education, including arts education. As Matt Thompson, a representative from Mozilla put it, “The geeks are getting it. We know now that the Internet is not going to save the world. But it’s the dawn of a more interesting age” where there are hybrids between technology and other fields are growing more useful applications. As an example, he discussed some tech-ed programs Mozilla had developed in intensive collaboration with teachers and curriculum advisors. The upshot here for arts institutions is, again, to reach out to teachers (and, as necessary, programmers) when looking to develop appropriate and useful arts-ed technologies.

Also, here’s a few of my thoughts on the conference in general:

-Next time, please allot more time to speakers and panelists, or focus the topics so that they can be addressed in the allotted time. Many of the topics at the conference could have had full days devoted to them. Instead, each panel speaker was given four to five minutes to cover that topic. I’m all for conciseness, but there’s a limit to condensing useful information. It’s also annoying to go see a single-speaker talk that runs out of time in terms of getting down to the nitty gritty. That’s partly the fault of the speaker, but could have to do with unclear timing expectations.

- In a conference that has a lot of buzz around “new ways of learning in the 21st century” I was left wondering why so few 21st century tools and approaches were being used in the presentations I saw. I’m talking about webcasting the talks and panels as a basic minimum, which didn’t happen. I’m also talking about revamping the traditional top-down speaker approach. There’s few things more annoying than hearing a speaker expound on the benefits of “non-broadcast, non-top-down models of learning” while they absolutely engage in broadcast, top-down modes of communication.

- Be sensitive to the ways a sales pitch can alienate your desired audience. I overheard at the conference that some attendees were annoyed with the sales-y ness of the presentation lineups. Next time, to improve its usability and integrity, the conference might want to consider providing some tips for educators that don’t require buying a book or software program or consultant time to put into action.

Overall, I found the conference an interesting experience, especially as a non-educator myself, and I’m sad I’m not able to attend this afternoon’s panel featuring Sally McKay of Digital Media Tree. Good luck Sally!

For more information about the conference, please visit 21c-learning.ca.

(Image of an old-timey classroom -- with the same layout as many new-timey classrooms -- from elearninggr14)


sally said...

great notes Leah!

I learned quite a bit at this conference. The over-riding message that I took home is that teachers on the ground are keenly aware of the benefits of art and arts-integrated education, but they are hand-cuffed by overwhelming curriculum demands and top down policies that prevent them from running their classrooms the way that is most conducive to learning. Contemporary neuroscience on learning strongly supports arts and arts-integrated education. So there is an opportunity now for leveraging the authority of neuroscience to exert positive influence on education policy at the top. This is good!

But. {cue rant}

My main concern with the conference was an overall lack of critical thinking about neuroscience itself. There was a tendency to treat the science as a more authoritative mode of knowledge about teaching than the experience-based knowledge gained from practice. Stuff like -- neuroscience shows that stress is bad for learning, while positive emotional connections while learning enhances long-term retention of content -- things that teachers already know. Teachers are happy and relieved to have neuroscience back this up, but their knowlege should always be given at least as much weight as the science, which doesn't happen in a classroom, but in a lab.

To my mind, especially if something as important as childhood education is at stake, it's a really good idea to remember that neuroscience is a fast-changing, critical, contingent and negotiated field of research. Some neuroscientific studies are better than others, and you want to be really really careful about what you are codifying into curriculum and practice.

Mariale Hardiman from Johns Hopkins is developing curriculum based on neuroscientific studies and I have to say it sounds really fantastic. She is working in close collaboration with neuroscientists and she is also reading and evaluating the original studies herself. She's an extremely exeperienced eductaor, sharp, clearly a critical thinker, and someone that I'd trust to take on the overwhelming task of assessing what neuroscience to implement and what to set aside. Go Mariale!

But I sure don't wouldn't want someone less rigorous with a different agenda, like say John Snobelen, reading the latest sensationalised neuroscience stories on Fox News and insisting that they get incorporated into the classroom. I wanna say be careful, when working with the top-down policy makers, that neuroscience doesn't get pitched as a quick-fix for education. Or... yike it could get real ugly real fast.

My biggest worry in all this is the way that people invoke neuroscience with the plural first person pronouns. "Our" brains do this and "our" brains do that, "we" respond like this and "we" respond like that. Or the term "the brain" is invoked, as if the brain was a universal standard to which we all adhere. But everyone's brain is different, and what neuroscience produces is information about statistical averages. Certainly there are many broad generalisations that can and should be made, but the awesome social authority of neuroscience makes it dangerous, because it can very easily be invoked to support normative, deterministic claims about 'human nature' as if we were all little robots and our brains were mass-manufactured CPUs, and if we deviate from the norm then we are broken or deficient (or, maybe worse, invisible and our realities unexpressed in the larger social fabric).

Right now, the findings of neuroscience converge with the needs of educators who want to be more effective, and that's wonderful. But I just think it's a good idea to proceed with caution. {/rant}

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Sally,

Wow, thanks for your indepth analysis! It is scary the way that teachers may not be believed until "science proves them right". Also sobering is your note on how neuroscience discourse generalizes human identities and ignores differences.

I also appreciate your note on the limitations teachers feel are imposed on them in terms of teaching arts. I know there are a lot of great teachers out there (I've had a few!) and I have no idea how they do their jobs given all the administrative pressures, let alone managing the growth of more than 30+ individuals under their care at any given time!

Robert said...

You GO Sally! I'm wondering, what did you talk about at the conference?

Aurelie said...

I could not attend due to other commitments (Art Toronto 2011!). Thanks Leah, for your summary and thanks, Sally, for your well considered response. (By the way, I didn't think that was even close to a rant.) Webcasts would have been so appropriate given the topic at hand. Maybe next time.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Aurelie,

Yes, I found the timing awkward as well, given the fair. I wonder what other types of conferences might be out there. This organization, the Canadian Society of Education through Art, seems to have a regular conference, though it is less neurologically oriented:

Leah Sandals said...

@Robert, I don't know exactly what Sally spoke on, but she was on a the closing keynote panel. So sorry I missed it!

sally said...

I talked about my experience teaching neuroaesthetics to art students at the post-secondary level, but I didn't say much. Each person on our panel had 6 minutes!

Leah Sandals said...

Teaching neuroaesthetics to art students... would like to see the results of that! It's so great that you're doing this kind of research, Sally. I look forward to hearing what the conclusions of your thesis are.