Monthly Archives: July 2017

Orality in the Classroom

Much has happened with the Artists in Schools Project at Malmsbury Primary School since the end of second term. Specifically our work developing memory techniques to help students with their spelling, and a similar principle applied to learning the Times Tables. At the heart of all these techniques is the profoundly significant application of the Rapscallion figures to the creative exercise of learning how to spell and do multiplication.

Spelling:

The first step is to create characters of the alphabet itself. Students spent an entire art class devising these characters: drawing them in the guise of their newfound personality. The students had so much fun and were so imaginatively prolific that many variations for individual letters were developed. The final step needed in this process was for the students as a whole to vote for their favourite characterisation.

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Molly’s ‘w’ is ‘weird’. Isn’t it weird when they say ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’, but not in this word.

Next is the process of applying these characters to an actual spelling difficulty. An example is the word ‘does’: a conundrum for many students since the rules do not follow the pattern of sounds and letter combinations in other words. The four letters (d as deadly, o as obese, e as energetic and s as sporty), in their specific order, now give us the bones of a story, and so, the activity swaps from a spelling memorisation activity to a creative writing task.

There are many variations of the story that could be devised, so this one below is just a single possibility. Through our research we have discovered it is critical that each and every student creates their own story, for it seems the cognitive process of making narrative sense of the order of the letters is how the technique embeds itself so effectively in memory.

“It is potentially deadly to be obese so be energetic and sporty, because that is what a healthy person does.”

Times Tables:

                The same principle applies to the use of numbers. Change each number into a concrete object and transform an equation into the plot for a story.

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Emerald’s depiction of her Rapscallion Ziggy flying up to the sun (one).

In this instance the method is to devise a rhyme with the number: such as 1 with sun; 2 with shoe; 3 with tree; etc. We have found that despite the importance for students to create their own number/word associations, there is a strong enough link between the rhyming words to make it obvious which word relates to which number. The critical step is for each student to create the stories that make sense of the numerical equation being learnt.

For instance, 4 x 6 = 24 becomes door x sticks = plenty of doors. Once more the lesson changes from being an overtly mathematical focus to one of creatively devising a story about a door, some sticks and the end result of plenty of doors.

Rather than giving an example of our own it would be a wonderful exercise for you, the reader, to reply below with your story about the ‘door’, the ‘sticks’ and the resulting ‘plenty of doors’.

Rapscallions: 

Central to everything explained above is the Rapscallion of each student in the school. The stories devised in maths and literacy class all use the Rapscallion as protagonist. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the Rapscallions serve as a ‘step removed’ from the individual students themselves. For many children there is a high level of emotional baggage that they bring into a spelling or mathematics class. Previous negative experiences imprint themselves upon the student and they are lead to believe that “I can’t do maths” or “I’m lousy at spelling”. By using the Rapscallion as the central character we circumvent these preconceptions about the student’s own ability and make it about the Rapscallion instead. Thus the negative internal dialogue of the student changes into, “I’m not doing the maths my Rapscallion is doing the maths for me”. If the final answer is found to be wrong then it is the Rapscallion who failed, not the student themselves. This is a profoundly significant outcome in our work using Rapscallions in the classroom and how it relates to student self-image as learners.

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Natalie’s Rapscallion “Paul”. Why is he so cranky?

Secondly, the distinct character of each individual Rapscallion, (friendly, evil, Ninja, sporting hero, bully, demon, etc.) gives the students somewhere to start when devising these number/word or letter/character associations. It is their Rapscallion who has to eat healthily, or who is doing the thing with the door and the sticks. Further still, as these many stories with the Rapscallion build up over time more qualities of the Rapscallion’s character continue to develop in tandem with the student’s learning and development as they grow themselves. In a sense, the increased sophistication of the Rapscallion’s character mirrors the increasing sophistication of the student’s own self-understanding.

Thirdly, by making the Rapscallion the central figure in all the various stories: from a literacy, second language (LOTE), history, geography or maths class, the segregated curriculum of the modern classroom becomes re-integrated through the Rapscallion itself. Thus a story devised to help a student learn a new word in French, for example, may apply to a story related to a maths or literacy lesson. These new associations that result can only serve to strengthen student learning across the curriculum, setting students up for a lifetime of seeing the interconnectedness of all areas of learning and knowledge, which then gives rise to a better understanding of the world in which they live.

Finally, the Rapscallions give students a concrete form with which to engage their internal cognitive dialogue. They legitimise this internal conversation and serve to develop the mental facility of thinking more deeply about a subject. The Rapscallions allow students to simply continue on with the pre-existing propensities they bring to school when they engage in imaginative play with their toys. In a sense, the ultimate purpose the Rapscallions serve is to teach school children how to focus their playful and creative imaginations upon the increasingly refined subject matter of their formal education.

In the few short months of experimenting with the Rapscallions in class – students playfully engaging with them as learning tools and, as teachers, carefully observing the various educational outcomes that arise – we are only just beginning to fully realise the true potential of the Rapscallions in relation to student learning, student self-image and their overall cognitive development.

CreativeVictoria_logo-printWe gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Creative Victoria in the funding of the Malmsbury Memory Trail Project.

Art and Aesthetics

There are many ramifications of Dr Lynne Kelly’s research. Foremost is the impetus to question our modern ideas about the level of knowledge and intelligence of indigenous people.  As with any historical inquiry the insights derived often tell us more about ourselves than the traditional cultures under examination. In particular, exposing the level of hubristic self-importance we attribute to the technological advances of the modern world and our condescending attitudes towards those we deem as less sophisticated, ‘primitive’, and therefore inferior. We tend to equate the ‘modern scientific wonders’ that surround us with the teleological notion of progress and the inevitable improvements in the human condition.  As if the slow unfolding of human history is akin to the dawning understanding and maturation of a child as they grow to adulthood. In a sense we have conflated the notions of the natural ‘state of grace’ of childhood with the concept of ‘the noble savage’.

Dr Kelly’s research not only refutes this view of ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures, but inverts these concepts entirely. It is our present day globalised Western culture that acts as the child, while the adults among us are those many cultures that precede our own by millennia. Cultures with their own highly sophisticated non-literate technologies, knowledge and profound insights into the natural world. And yet, like petulant children, we refuse to accept how much we have to learn from them. Blinded as we often are by the arrogance of our own self defined cleverness.

For myself personally, the primary insight relates to matters of (capital A) Art and how it is currently perceived within the context of the modern Western world. Much has been written that both praises and derides current manifestations of Art and artistic practice. This short blog is not meant to recapitulate these issues, rather to overstep them entirely by acknowledging the different purpose Art serves, and the context in which it is created, in ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures. A purpose that offers much to us in the modern world by grounding art (with a small a) within the concrete reality of every person’s life.

As Dr Kelly puts it herself,

“In the western context, the primary measure of art is aesthetic. In non-literate contexts, the primary motivation is didactic.” (Page 41, The Memory Code, 2016)

Or to put it in less measured terms, in the contemporary world art serves little more purpose than decoration, whereas in traditional cultures art has always been a means of teaching and aiding them in their learning and understanding of the world. Contentious as this may seem, since there are many examples of Western art that serve the purpose of didacticism, it draws the broad brush stroke of delineating the different purposes art serves in these different manifestations of human society.

With these thoughts in mind let us turn our attention to how we, as modern Western citizens, have been taught to look at the art of ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures.  Trained as we are to look for variations in line, the juxtapositions of colour, or the compositional elements of symmetry and balance, we have no conception of the artwork’s meaning beyond the parameters of these limited aesthetic considerations. An analogue of this is to consider a masterpiece of Western literature in the same light. Just imagine a book collector buying the complete works of Shakespeare based entirely on their attraction to the decorative attributes of the binding! Never is it imagined that there is a meaning and purpose that lies deeper than the mere appearance of the object in their hands. In a similar sense, ours is a culture that judges art only by its cover. Of course a magnificently bound book is a beautiful thing to behold, but this aesthetic experience is incidental to the essential purpose the book serves in the first place.

The artworks of indigenous cultures across the world certainly are aesthetically beautiful, but they are also purposeful in their creation. Just as those who have no knowledge of literacy cannot possibly conceive of what lies between the covers of a book, we too are unable to conceive of the rich seam of human knowledge and understanding that is hidden beneath the surface of these artworks. Yet even the illiterate are aware that a book’s primary purpose is to be read, regardless of their inability to read it for themselves. As a modern Western literate person myself, I am only just learning the same is true of much ancient and contemporary indigenous art.

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“Pod”, by Paul Allen, 2010. How would you associate this artwork with the Unites States of America?

As a result of these musings I was intrigued by the observations I made of how attendees at our first workshop related to the artworks used as markers for the preliminary memory trail. Sculptures that had been made for the sake of aesthetic consideration were being utilised solely as a visual or conceptual link to the piece of information that needed encoding. Aesthetics had very little to do with the purpose these artworks currently served. Thus there was no question of being able to appreciate or comprehend the Art, and so no preconceptions tainted the experience of actual observation.  The viewer’s gaze was seemingly more objective and I wonder, as a consequence of this type of contemplation, if the sculptures acquired more meaning, more relevance, and were thus more memorable?

 

In the contemporary world we may never be entirely certain of how to correctly ‘read’ indigenous artworks, but we can at least learn to acknowledge the alternative purposes they serve in the cultures from which they derive.

Paul Allen