Deborah Netolicky (@debsnet) has written a response to the idea that I shared shared on Twitter that understanding a teacher’s development can be understood through the lens of art. In her post, Deborah reflected on this idea of teaching as art. This post is a response to her post.
Deborah begins her post by asking, “How can we appreciate an artist’s work or know an artist’s worth?”
I’ve been fascinated by this idea of understanding development through the lens of art for a while. At the Perezhivanie Symposium at the beginning of 2015, Michael Michell presented detailed Lev Vygosky’s love of the theatre. Vygotsky’s first PhD was on art (apparently Vygotsky questioned the quality of this research later), and he was also a prolific theatre critic, writing for the local newspaper. What is particularly interesting is that Russian theatre thanks to the ideas of Konstantin Stanislavski, was experiencing a huge shift at the time, due to the development of the Stanislavski Method, or what is now known as Method Acting.
Method acting (or the Stanislavski method) is famed for enabling actors to deliver powerful and compelling performances, as it doesn’t just focus on the technique of acting, but also the emotion of the role. The actor seeks to understand the motivations of the character they are playing, their motivations, their beliefs, and the essence of who they are. Actors who use the method acting technique, famously, might try not to break character between scenes or performances, as they seek to become the actor for the duration of the production or screening.
What is particularly interesting about method acting, is that when the actor takes on a role, they are not just interpreting the role, they are also interpreting the world through the lens of the character. For an actor, say playing the role of a violent drunken abusive character, the actor doesn’t just consider how this person feels and responds, they also consider how the world responds to them, in the present and also in the past. How did they get to where they are? What are the scars? What might have been the pivotal moments in their life? Where did they hope their life might have been? How has the world conspired to get them to where they are? An obviously, the period in which the play or movie is set is also a consideration. What was important then? Why was it important? What does this mean for what we value currently? What have we lost, and what have we gained?
Further, the way this actor understands the world through the lens of this character, gives us insight into how the actor views the real world. While the actor seeks to emotionally immerse themselves in role, experiencing the world through the character’s eyes and anticipating the character’s emotional responses, the actor exposes their understanding of the world. As such this fictitious world, shines the spotlight on the real world.
This lens on development doesn’t just illuminate a method actors development as an actor, but also development of the actor as a person. Something of course, the method actor knows cannot be separated. When we step back and look at a method actor’s career, we might also consider the types of roles they accept. What might the roles they take on tell us about how they understand the world, and how they view their own careers? Looking over a method actors career and the roles they take on and how they interpret those roles, might we be able to recognise change in their understanding, and as educators might this be a window into their development?
Of course, it isn’t just actors whose art and work provides us with a vantage point for understanding of their work. Picasso’s paintings allow us to understand his view of the world, of love and loss, the Spanish Civil War, fascism, Catholicism, and other world events and world views of the time. In music, Bob Dylan’s development as an artist obvious. From the folk singer singing covers, the celebrated pilgrimage to Woodie Guthie, the folk protest singer, the electric sellout, the born again Christian, and lately the celebrator of classic Americana music. Note, like Vygotsky I do not promote the view that development occurs in stages. Though, myself, I am comfortable understand a person’s development through periods that are unique to their development, such as the well-document periods of development of the life of Bob Dylan.
If we sought to understand a teacher’s practice as their art, how might we interpret it? Immediately, we begin to understand, through their practice, what the teacher believes about teacher identity and role. We’d consider what the teacher believes about students, and their capacity. We’d begin to understand what the teacher believes about the role of school and the wider community. Just as for the method actor, their teaching practice, their art, illuminates their beliefs, their world view, and their understanding.
What about the wider environment that influences teachers? Increasingly, we’re seeing a culture of performativity, what does a teacher’s art tell us about this? To other measures of teacher quality? To presence of computers and other technologies? Maybe, rather than seeking to reduce the understanding of who teachers are, and their development, we might seek to understand how they see the world through the lens of their practice. Further, as we get a picture of the period of development (again not maturational stages, but periods unique to their development), we gain a clear understanding for future developmental possibilities.
As such, the teaching environment and how the teacher responds to it, speaks more clearly of their development, than any skills or competencies that could ever be observed in a lesson, or deduced from a test. Particularly, the lens of critical current issues, but not through their response in totally.
For it is in disruption, crisis and the unexpected that defines these periods. Dylan’s visit to Woodie Guthrie. The war around Picasso. The performativity, globalisation, and new technologies around the teacher.
9/11 changed America. How Americans viewed themselves, and how they viewed the rest of the world. Shortly after, in 2002, Conor Oberst through his band Bright Eyes released the song Method Acting. Conor signs about watching this “shocking bit of footage” and “trying to make out the meaning.” But, Conor isn’t trying to make out the meaning for America, he is trying to make out the meaning for himself, as an artist concerned with justice and humanity. Ultimately, Conor doesn’t make sense of the attack, which he doesn’t even explicitly mentioned in the lyrics. Because that isn’t the point, the point rather is how does make sense of himself. He stays determined to “keep the tapes rolling,” and to “keep strumming those guitars” for what is important is to keep a “record of our failures, we must document our love.” For to Conor his life is “not a movie, no private screening. This method acting, well, I call that living.” Ultimately, his response as an artist to this terrible period for America is to understand it, the way he always has, by living it. In his words, it’s not method acting, it’s living.
I’m not that interested in trying to understand a teacher’s worth. Rather, I’m interested in who they are, what they are currently developmentally capable of, and what their future development possibilities might be. Similarly, to Conor, this method acting, well, I call that