Sunday 3 March 2013

Interpretation and Invention: necessities

Continuing from previous blog:


This is part of what makes us human. In spite of efforts by education to prevent us from interpreting what we see and hear and feel, humans cannot stop thinking about or 'reflecting on' what we perceive from 'out there' and - to make it more complicated - we can't stop reflecting on these reflections! We are in a permanent state of 'inner speech' doing this. It's said, that the process starts from the day we're born, if not before. Watch a new born baby and you can see that it is figuring. Almost immediately it starts to make choices: accepting, rejecting, trying, not-trying, testing, not-testing while we immediately start affirming and not-affirming its demands and actions.Though the new born baby doesn't have speech, we do and immediately start talking in different ways which again the baby starts to 'interpret': tone, rhythm, volume, sequence (like music).

For reasons, which one can only think of as political, we have developed an education system that puts interpretation as an occasional activity. Or, to put it another way, a good deal of educational activity assumes that there is no interpretation to do, it's been done for us already: these are the facts, this is the knowledge. In fact, to think that and enact that on children and students is itself a form of interpretation and inflicted interpretation owing its origins to the top-down view of society and education and is of course highly suspicious of dissent, scepticism, nuance and multiple views of things.

Throughout education, past and present, there are teachers and researchers working with the alternative model, trying out ways in which children and students in structured talk and discussion give voice to their interpretative powers - and that this is itself a generator or vehicle for learning and understanding. There will be people reading this who are doing this, who have the results to show that it works, that it's powerful, that it matters. What is significant about the last twenty years or so in education is the way in which these people and projects have been sidelined, on occasions rubbished, and squeezed out by the test-crazy, league-table-led education system.

In literature, interpretation can be factored in through one fundamental principle: only asking questions that we the teachers do not know the answers to. These include such questions as: does this text (or moment, or scene or person in the text) remind you of anything you (or someone you know) have ever experienced? does this text (part, scene or person) remind you of anything you've ever read or seen (ie another text)? Why and how is this? What would you do if you were that person in the text in that situation? Why? What do you think will happen next in this text? What do you think that person in the text might say if he or she met you at this moment? What happened before this text?

You can ask 'technique' questions in the same way by asking about how the child or student would write the next bit of the text, or the bit they've just read - and asking them to give it a go. You can invite them to go inside the head of protagonists (characters) through freeze-framing and hot-seating or through talk-partner discussion.

For a reference to this approach look at 'Tell Me' by Aidan Chambers (Thimble Press). For people who are interested this owes its origins to the body of theory known as 'Reader-response' and if you google that or put it into google scholar and/or google books, you can see the body of work that gives rise to this approach. Again, a good deal of the UKLA work with pupils arises out of this approach first given full voice in the 1930s by Louise Rosenblatt.

Finally, in reply to the knowledge-skills school of thought, I would say that interpretation is itself both a form of knowledge and a skill. It is another form of know-how and the more you do it alongside your peers and in the company of informed and experienced people, the more powerful an interpreter you become.


That said, there is another range of human activity which complements all this. Human beings are not only interpreters. We are inventors. We constantly plan, create, predict, try out, test, experiment and make. Again, education works quite hard for a lot of time to restrict children and students in the amount of time they can do this, or in the amount of freedom that children and students have in the ways in which they might invent, create, plan, predict, try out, test and experiment.

Interestingly, this too, like interpretation is not seen as a form of knowledge or affecting how knowledge is acquired. Quite the contrary, the experience of inventing or 'being creative' is itself a knowledge and affects how we perceive knowledge or 'the facts'. If we conduct activities that are akin to those who have produced knowledge (eg real experiments, inventing paper airplanes that can fly, trying to paint like Picasso etc etc) we start to be informed about the processes involved in producing science, art, technology, design, history, geography ie knowledge.)

Either deliberately or 'just the way it turns out', this runs counter to much of what we do in education ie we think of the passing on of knowledge as an altogether different process to, say, being artistic, or inventing things. We've compartmentalised knowledge transmission off from being creative. I'm deeply suspicious of this.I have always believed that one of the most important ways to get a grip on the 'what' of a subject, topic, process etc, is to experiment and play with the 'how'....

I can think of many justifications for the arts, but within education this seems to me extremely important.

I could add: the arts have a power to investigate the world by marrying ideas and feelings and attaching them to beings or materials we come to care about. As we experience this 'caring' we start to speculate and interpret about outcomes, reflect on our feelings and move to and fro between these feelings towards ideas about ourselves as individuals, ourselves in relation to the artist, in relation to others - whether around the artist or around ourselves.

This is not trivial. It's not a superfluous add-on to the 'real stuff' of knowledge. This is essential to our survival. If we separate off ideas and feelings so much that the feelings side doesn't matter, we develop ideas that are ultimately anti-human. If we simply sit with feelings, we withdraw from the world of ideas which enable us to be social and progress. It is vital in the arts to explore these processes of feelings and ideas so that we retain the human in the philosophical and the philosophical in the human.

There are strong moves in education to marginalise the arts by making them 'not count' in the evaluation of school 'success'. This will guarantee that in many areas or phases of education children and students will be deprived of the right to reflect through this 'ideas-and-feelings' process on who they are and how they act in the world. This is a restriction on rights and will ultimately increase frustration, anxiety and stress or, to put it in a utilitarian way, to make children and students less effective learners.