Tuesday, 13 March 2012


I'm finding myself thinking about teachers this morning. I was reading something in the New Scientist about an apparently new way of thinking about learning as pattern recognition, which is based on 'insights from brain science'. I want to write more about pattern recognition here in relation to another article in the New Scientist about robot creativity, but this morning I'm just thinking about teachers and learning. 

After many years as a teacher and education researcher, I became used to people talking about learning as a kind of mechanism - whether this was seen as behavioural, linked to emotional involvement, to teacher behaviour, to unspoken messages from social and political context etc. And I always found myself getting a bit irritated, because I was thinking, how can we think about the how of learning, when we haven't first asked learning what, for who?

This morning I'm thinking about teachers in relation to art and creativity. I was wondering how often people go in search of an art teacher when they feel lost, as I do, or stuck up and blocked, as I have for so long. Perhaps they don't know why they're looking for that teacher, or what they want, but they've been socialised to believe that if you don't know what you're doing, you should go find a teacher.

Perfectly logical. I wanted to know about Indian Art and Philosophy, and I'm incredibly glad that I had the opportunity to study at Edinburgh and SOAS with some of the most brilliant scholars in that field. I want to learn Tai Chi, and there is no way on earth I can learn that for myself - I can only learn it by watching the body of my teacher, and hearing how she understands it after many decades of study.

But what about creative expression? I can certainly find a teacher who can show me technical things, like how to manage watercolour, or how to put oil paint on 'fat over lean'. But I suspect that when people go looking for an art teacher, they aren't just looking for that technical stuff. They may think, of course, that that's what they want. They may think, I would so love to paint that maple tree outside my door, how can I capture its splendour? I can't draw to save my life, I want a class where someone will teach me how to get those maple leaves, and how to mix the right colour. And perhaps they then begin a long process of trying to learn to 'capture' what they see, and probably of being largely dissatisfied with the results. I don't know, but my guess is that actually some people want something more than this process, and I wonder if art teachers are generally able to help them to find what that is.

It would have made perfect sense for me to find a teacher in these last three years or so that I've been trying to get my painting going. And yet somehow I knew that if I went, it wouldn't work for me. Because, however good, however well-intentioned, that teacher is filtering my art desires through their own - they can't really help, because the only person that can sort out this impulse is me. I'm sure there are many teachers who might believe that they could help me, but as soon as they started to try, they would be influencing my stream with their own. This might work for some people. In my own experience though, every time someone has tried to help (and I have tried classes in the past) it's like they're throwing mud into my little crystal pond. Which may be stagnant, and pointlessly deep, but it's mine. 

After all these years of struggle, the pond has found a tiny outlet a little way down from the surface, and is now gently flowing outwards. It's slow. I could be heading for a rock. I wish someone could get it. I wish someone could be a teacher for me in the way that my Tai Chi teacher is; that I could find someone who would know how to help me loosen off my own shirt collar, to allow my own breath to flow with more ease. 

Even more wonderful, if I found this person, would be that, as they wouldn't be limited by my emotional and cognitive constraints, they'd be able to show me new horizons, help me off the edge of that cliff that I'm afraid even to approach, take me to places that I can't even begin to imagine. It seems to be a bit of a paradox.


  1. Isn't that precisely the difference between a teacher and a guru?

  2. Expand,please! How do you see a teacher, and how do you see a guru?

  3. Yes, technically they’re the same thing but I think, broadly speaking, that a guru is more ontologically oriented – since the things you describe are of that kind.

    I suppose all forms of education come with an ontological dimension – but some much more prominently so. Art education, for example, begins with a dominant technical emphasis but as it progresses the ontological dimension becomes increasingly pronounced. Teacher and student come to know one another over time and this permits space for each to adjust to the agenda of the other. Perhaps it’s a slow drip feed of mud into the crystal pond but I’d like to think that the process is quite the reverse (but then I would wouldn’t I?).

    Learning the technical aspects of art, or even probably Tai Chi, is a gentle way in to acquiring/developing the more ontological aspects of the subject (or yourself) by osmosis. If you’ve already learned all the technical aspects of a ‘discipline’ then it’s probably almost impossible to stomach that process of osmosis especially when it’s undiluted by any mollifying focus on technique.

  4. Stunning response, sir. I like that idea of an ontological dimension - I hadn't quite thought of it like that.

    When you say, in your last paragraph, about developing the ontological aspects by osmosis, are you suggesting osmosing from the teacher, or, in a sense, via the teacher's example? The idea that you might find it impossible to stomach suggests that something is coming from the teacher to you, whereas I read your overall point to perhaps be like the finger pointing to the moon (in the sense that fixating on the finger is missing the point)?

  5. That’s right – I think that most of the transformation comes from the student - the teacher just helps to channel (or provoke) it. However, I think it’s probably difficult for anyone to undergo this transformation quickly especially when they are fairly certain of who they are. Certainly people do become transformed quickly, for example when they are impressionable or overawed but in both these cases I think the transformation probably doesn’t have the opportunity to emerge from inside and is instead simply an emulation of the admired teacher.



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