Un-expecting the Expected

This semester, I’m teaching a class called Principles of New Media. It’s part of a cluster of three courses prescribed to all incoming freshmen who wish to pursue a major within the school of visual arts. One of the goals of PONM is to establish a baseline proficiency in several computer programs that are used extensively in upper level art and design courses.

As technologies are apt to do, these programs are in a constant state of mutability. From year to year, changes are implemented to update their functionality and interface in pursuit of optimization. This creates a learning environment analogous to the description provided by Thomas and Seely Brown in Chapter 3 of A New Culture of Learning. As an educator, it’s challenging to introduce students to these tools knowing that their imminent restructuring is liable to render the specifics of my lessons obsolete. To best prepare my students to use this software in the future, I must be mindful in how I teach them in the present. It requires an approach that acknowledges the fluid nature of digital tools. Teaching with this in mind de-emphasizes the need to master a specific tool and places more importance on cultivating students’ ability to determine what it is they want to do. For example, rather than motivating an assignment through mastery of the specific functionality of a program, instead prioritize the students’ ability to think through the goals of their project, identify the skills and tools they will need to realize those goals, and use my lessons help them feel comfortable working with technology. Importantly, that comfortability must transcend the specifics of any particular tool or method that I demonstrate in the classroom. The reading by Langer showed how something as simple as the language I use to describe and explain these tools can have this effect. Using mindful language can open the door to finding creative solutions and facilitate students’ ability to adapt to changing technologies. Going forward, their ability to do that is much more important to their success than any particular mastery they could gain from my class.

Another challenge centers around expectation – specifically my expectations as a teacher. There is implicit bias in the programs that we use on computers and other devices, built in to their functionality and interface by the people that created them (despite whatever efforts may have been made otherwise). Similarly, as a person who is (in theory) familiar with the capabilities these tools, when I assign a project that requires the use of a particular software, I inherently hold an expectation for what the result of that assignment will be. Undoubtedly, this informs the way I teach, regardless of whether I consciously acknowledge this preconception or not. So, how do we as teachers disengage from our expectations in a way that is still dutiful to our obligation to share our knowledge without impinging on our students’ creativity? Once more, I think the article by Langer is useful in addressing this question. Being mindful of how I teach digital tools directly affects how creative students are when they use them. Teaching students how to use tools in a mindless manner will lead to work that meets expectations but will never generate work that is unexpected.

In some fields, expected results may be a good thing, but in art, the opposite is generally true. Art that shows us something we don’t expect tends to hold our attention longer. It changes our perspective by subverting something familiar and providing it with new context. I believe that this is more important than mastery of any particular skill or technique and imparting this idea to my students likely begins with how I approach my lessons.

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9 thoughts on “Un-expecting the Expected

  1. I appreciate your insight. As a scientist, especially in science lab courses, we usually have expected results, and if the results differ from our expectations (hypotheses), then the student must have done something wrong. I took a course, Quantitative Analysis, where half of our grade was how close we got to determining the correct value in lab. Your comment “Art that shows us something we don’t expect tends to hold our attention longer.” really spoke to me. In the sciences, when we make a hypothesis and the results do not support it, we are generally disappointed and explain it by saying “the sample size was not large enough”. However, when we formulate a hypothesis based off previous knowledge and the hypothesis is disproved, that can be more exciting that when the thing you expected to happen happens. The downside to that being that there are some journals that are less willing to publish a paper that has non-significant results.

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    1. Hey Sarah,

      I know what you mean about research & publishing. I wish more people were interested in the null hypothesis. It can be cool to discover the thing you thought would happen, didn’t. For me, I’m hooked, I wonder: “Ok, what happens next?”

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    2. Thanks Sarah. I definitely agree that unexpected results are often more exciting. That stimulation of stumbling onto something we didn’t expect is likely what motivated us to continue studying our fields for as long as we have!

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  2. Hey Carter,

    Thanks for your insightful post this week. I have wondered before about how other programs teach (and measure) their students’ technological competencies, so I am really interested in what you are doing in your PONM course! Because you know the programs will change, you have to teach in a very particular way that helps the students “see” what they want, then analyze the media and tools in front of them, and then make it so.

    I realize I’m simplifying a lot, but when I read your post it really spoke to me. I was a TA for a Computers course in Landscape Architecture during my MLA and it was my job to assist students and help them learn to use their software. It has always been an area of interest for me as I continue to explore new design software for my discipline. Thanks again for the interesting perspective on teaching and learning in the arts!

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    1. Thanks Sarah. Your summarization sounds exactly like what I’m doing now! It’s definitely important to stress consistency and standardization regarding certain aspects of working with computer programs (such as workflow efficiencies and file organization — especially when working as part of a team or collaboration), it’s important to not box students into particular methodologies. Part of what makes programs such as the Adobe suite or Maya so powerful is that they have such a wide range of functionality. There are many paths that can lead to the same result. Being comfortable with finding the one that fits best with a particular project is more important than mastering a singular “standard” approach.

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  3. I appreciate that you made note of the importance of teaching students how to think through the process of using a tool when using technology rather than just teaching them familiarity with a piece of technology.

    That note makes me think back to my own experiences learning programs throughout high school and in my engineering program as an undergrad. So often, I was just given a specific list of steps to follow along, but it always felt like busy work. Though it was frustrating, the real-world experience of playing around in software and having to figure it out was far more valuable. Even in learning a simple tool like Excel, which isn’t prone to much change, I retained far more by playing around in the software than reading a set of steps.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Jake. My experiences are similar. While step-by-step instructions can be useful, I tend to autopilot my way through them. Freely exploring a tool (such as Photoshop, which we’ve been using in my class) tends to leave behind a more memorable cognitive residue.

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  4. Hi Carter, thanks for sharing your story with us! I major in social science so in most cases, we are not required to have “expected results”. But there is no doubt that the combination of science and art is very interesting. As for the
    course, Principles of New Media, I think this is essentially an art course, and technology is just a tool. On the contrary, some purely technical courses can also be artistic.

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    1. Definitely true. The field we are in motivates the way we employ the tools we use. In my current case, I’m less concerned with optimization and efficiency (though both of those things are still important) than I am with openly demonstrating the capacity of the tool and (hopefully) inspiring students to be creative with how they use it.

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