The Student as Artist

I just read Jim Garrison's paper on Hegel's influence on Dewey "The Permanent Deposit of Hegelian Thought in Dewey's Theory of Inquiry" (ok, most of it). While the article is a fascinating examination of Dewey's thought, several passages concerned Dewey's assertion that thinking is an art form, an act on par with a musician creating a new piece of music. While I have often thought that thinking required creativity, and as a constructivist have even told students that they must construct their own knowledge, this assertion seemed pregnant with implications for teaching. 

Since Beethoven, the artist has been portrayed as a person wrestling with herself, alone in the wilderness of her thoughts, with the goal of bringing back a new way to look at reality. Her world is a struggle - to weave disparate and new thoughts into a coherent pattern that allows others to see the world as she sees it. And, at least in our culture, the struggle is integral to the process. Part of this is simply the mythology associated with the Romantic era, but I suspect that there is also a recognition that thinking is difficult, and that creative thinking is very difficult. Ask a student. 

There is a strong parallel between the artist and the student. No matter how good the teacher, the student must eventually do the work of shaping her thoughts into a pattern that makes sense to her. Too often, because the knowledge is already known by others, students feel that their own struggle is of less value. I have to admit that I have often lost sight of this. Although knowledge about the parts of a cell or the glycolytic pathway have been part of the known biological domain for many decades, each student is lost in the wilderness and must find her own way to this information. Learning is just as creative an act as art, and it is just as difficult. True learning requires a person to re-evaluate old belief systems, their own sense of identity, and their motivation as part of the integration of the new knowledge. The struggle is real - ask a student. 

What is the role of the teacher? Unlike the artist, who does not know what the result of her creative struggle will be, the student has a tapestry of thought woven by generations of thinkers and scientists that serve as a reflection and guide to her own knowledge structures. This knowledge is not contained anywhere, but is rather in each individual, the same concepts uniquely reflected in overlapping and recognizable patterns. The teacher's role, as I understand it, is to help the student with her struggle: to provide motivation and encouragement, to model ones own thinking about the topic, and to act as a guide through the vast tapestry. 

I like this view of the student as an artist. It reminds me of the deep respect I have for those who take the risk of learning something new, not knowing where it will lead or if they can get there. Students who put their trust in teachers to help them in the struggle.I respect their bravery, and I hope I am worth the trust.