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Kenneth R. Conklin, "Teachers, Writers, Actors, Artists: Why They Learn From What They Do," JOURNAL OF AESTHETIC EDUCATION, XIII, 2 (April, 1979), pp. 103-110.
Teachers, Writers, Actors, Artists: Why They Learn From What They Do
KENNETH R. CONKLIN
It is obvious that teaching, writing, acting, and creating works of art
are psychotherapeutic activities: people who ply these trades can learn
about their own personalities and as a result may change their inner
feelings and outer behaviors. Something else professionals obviously
learn through experience is how to improve the effectiveness with
which they deliver service.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that cognitive content or subject
matter is learned through the act of simplifying and organizing it for
presentation. Subject matter is learned through the prodding of student
questions or audience criticisms. Discoveries in subject matter
and technique are fostered through the natural momentum of ideas
leading to other ideas in the midst of vocal, written, or manual expression.
A teacher can learn more from his introductory-level courses than
from his advanced ones. Introductory-level students ask questions and
make criticisms that are startlingly simple and naively profound. One
must ponder subject matter deeply and analyze it precisely when preparing
to reduce it to its simplest elements for presentation to beginning
students or lay consumers. The purpose of this essay is to describe
all these phenomena in greater detail and to offer the outlines of
explanations for them.
We expect that students will learn from their teachers. That is why
we have schools and pay salaries to teachers. But there is something
KENNETH R. CONKLIN teaches mathematics in Norwood High School, Massachusetts.
He received his Ph.D. in the philosophy of education and has contributed
to such periodicals as Science Education, Educational Theory, and Educational
© 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
[end page 103 / start page 104]
besides pay which motivates teachers. Just as students learn from
teachers, so teachers learn from their students. Since any living creature
learns from any experience it has, there is nothing surprising about the
fact that teachers learn from the experience of teaching. What might
be surprising is how much and what kinds of things the teacher is
Sometimes a teacher learns from his students the same things an
actor learns from his audience. Teaching is a performance which can
be analyzed aesthetically./1 Students respond to a teacher's personal and
pedagogical style as displayed in dress, tone of voice, candor, openness
to conflicting views, lecture or independent study format, etc. Students
also respond aesthetically to the cognitive content of what is
taught: a sequence of ideas may be appreciated for its simplicity, elegant
economy, reconciliation of apparent opposites, or heuristic facilitation
of an unstated discovery. The students' response to their teacher's
performance informs the teacher how that performance is being received.
The teacher is in effect being praised or criticized for his personal
or pedagogical style or for his selection and organization of content.
Teachers do not often distinguish between personal and pedagogical
styles. They tend to use a pedagogical style that is a spontaneous or
"natural" manifestation of their personalities. Thus, they are likely to
respond to praise or criticism of style witn personal satisfaction or distress,
since they regard it as a reflection on their human worthiness.
By contrast, an actor exercises more conscious control over style. He
tries to adopt a style befitting the character he portrays. He also gradually
develops a more subtle and general style of acting which comes to
characterize his public or professional image and which remains a
stable, recognizable underpinning for the widely different roles he
plays (e.g., type-casting is one possible consequence of this process).
An actor can regard criticism of his style professionally: perhaps the
audience dislikes the character, or the way the actor renders the character,
or the actor's professional image. But such criticism need not
touch the actor's sense of selfhood.
This comparison between actors and teachers leads to some conclusions
about what teachers can learn from their students. To the extent that
a teacher's pedagogical style is "natural" or not chosen deliberately,
it is an authentic outgrowth of his person. Thus student response
will be taken in a deeply personal way. Teachers may be elated or
crushed by student response far more than actors may be affected by
audience response. In this way teachers can become aware of their
[end page 104 / start page 105]
values and personality dispositions. Since youngsters are notoriously
direct and honest in showing feelings, teachers have an excellent source
of feedback. In a sense, then, teachers can learn from students some of
the things that patients learn about themselves from psychiatrists.
A second conclusion from the comparison between actors and teachers
is that teachers could choose to distinguish more clearly between
their pedagogical and personal styles as a way of learning from their
students how to improve their pedagogical effectiveness. Teachers,
that is, could adopt teaching styles in the way actors adopt acting
styles. Criticism and praise would then help teachers discover which
elements of which styles are most suitable for which types of students
and subject matter.
Both student and teacher may distinguish between cognitive content,
the way the content is selected and organized, the teacher's pedagogical
style, and the teacher's personal style. Students (and teachers)
may dislike content but appreciate the way it is taught, just as an audience
(and actor) may dislike a villain but appreciate the way an
actor portrays him. Even abstract subject matter has an aesthetic di-¥
mension./2 The teacher cannot take credit or blame for the beauty or
ugliness of the subject matter, but he does deserve credit or blame for
the beauty or ugliness of his presentation of it. By appreciating the
intrinsic beauty of his subject matter, a teacher can obtain clues on
how to present it inspiringly. Even Greek tragedies are meant to be
Although it is true that students rarely boo or hiss and almost never
applaud, they do give clear signals in the form of frowns, smiles, "discipline
problems," punctual attendance, properly done homework, etc.
The thrill an actor gets from the crowd's applause at the end of a
good performance may be emotionally stimulating, but it is not the
main source of what he learns. Good actors say they can feel the changing
mood of an audience in the midst of performing. So it is with
good teachers. There is a feeling of responsiveness and control. Acting
and teaching can be like exercising a creative skill such as painting,
weaving, or pottery-making. Teachers, actors, and artists receive pleasure
from the immediacy with which they learn the consequences of
their actions as well as from the spectator's final applause.
For the visual artist in particular, greater long-term improvement in
competence is gained from immediate consequences in the course of
performing than from any direct or implied criticism that comes later.
The artist is his own most severe critic and will often rip up or fail to
complete something which "isn't going right." Of course artists are
[end page 105 / start page 106]
happy when people buy their work. Certainly artists learn from the
comments of professional critics or even the casual remarks of laymen.
But the process of creation is itself the main source of both enjoyment
and learning. No doubt actors and teachers are more dependent upon
audience response for what they learn than artists, but actors and
teachers do learn from the process of performing even apart from
Writing Ñ especially for scholarly publication Ñ is a form of teaching
in which the students are not immediately present and their responses
remain largely unknown. In this sense writing is like painting
or pottery-making, while face-to-face teaching is like acting. The fact
that an author knows there is an audience, even if it remains unseen,
causes him to take care to write clearly and truthfully, because eventually
he will be held accountable. But the remoteness of a writer's
audience ensures that what he learns from writing must come almost
entirely from the activity of writing and not from audience response.
As a writer, I have often had to wrestle with words until I was able
to express my ideas with some degree of accuracy. The halting, stumbling
character of the present essay may be due to the fact that I am
even now trying simultaneously to convey ideas and to watch closely
so as to be able to analyze the process whereby I do this. In the course
of writing various essays I have discovered things which never would
have occurred to me ahead of time, no matter how long I thought or
how many outlines I made. The act of writing is somehow cathartic
Ñ it draws ideas out of the mind just as paper seems to suck ink out
of a pen. Once a sequence of ideas begins to get expressed, the very
expressing of them seems to lead inexorably toward new ideas that
might not otherwise have been imagined. Artists discover new shapes,
color combinations, or techniques that seem to be required to complete
work already begun.
Actors, and teachers addressing live audiences, also learn from the
natural momentum of self-expression. However, the momentum of
ideas leading to ideas is silent and may be ignored in the face of the
potentially more noisy demands of a live audience. The presence of
the audience discourages the wish to "go off on a tangent." Nevertheless,
actors and classroom teachers do learn and discover things from
the momentum of ideas and can sometimes recall those things after
the audience has departed. Some teachers keep note cards handy to
facilitate such recall at the earliest possible moment; other teachers
tape-record their lectures and save the tapes for a few days "just in
It seems odd that subject matter can be learned or discovered simply
by writing or teaching or making something when there is no external
response. How can a person learn somediing he did not know
merely by writing or speaking what he already knew? One answer is
provided by Plato's doctrine of recollection. In the dialogue Meno, a
devil's advocate suggests that we can never discover anything new. If
we already know something, then it would not be new or a discovery;
and if we do not know something, then there would be no way of
recognizing it even if we stumble over it. To counter this argument,
Plato says that there is a kind of primordial knowledge buried in our
minds from before birth, but this knowledge is forgotten. Experience
or teachers can stimulate us to remember forgotten knowledge, whereupon
we say we have discovered it. It seems new to us, but it is not
really new at all (which is why we can recognize it at the time of "discovery").
What we do by ourselves can jog our memories just as well
as a teacher's lesson or an organized field experience. Plato's doctrine
of recollection, then, provides one explanation of why the momentum
of ideas can help a writer or teacher "discover" subject matter even
when there is no audience response.
Another explanation can be found by examining the relationship
between wholes and parts./3 Every skill, idea, or attitude can be thought
of as a whole entity composed of parts. Although a whole can be
known as a whole, it can only be taught by breaking it down into its
parts. Wholes cannot be transferred directly from one mind to another
(except in cases of "psychic" phenomena). If a person has a skill, an
idea, or an attitude he wishes to communicate, he must break it into
subskills, subconcepts, examples, or individual behaviors. These bits and
pieces are presented one by one in a sequence designed to help the
"student" reassemble them into the whole which the "teacher" is trying
to express. Teaching and learning are therefore opposite processes:
teaching is unpacking or breaking down, learning is assembling or
building up. Teaching is the act of reducing a complex entity into
simple components, and learning is the act of mastering simple components
and integrating them into complex patterns.
A teacher or writer who intuitively grasps the totality of a skill, idea,
or attitude must struggle to analyze it into its constituent elements.
He must struggle further to arrange these elements in a heuristic sequence
that will lead a student to reassemble them correctly. Thus the
act of teaching or writing forces us to take apart what we know and
analyze its inner workings. In this way we come to know our subject
matter more intimately and feel a sense of deeper mastery or control
[end page 107 / start page 108]
over it. We put our knowledge under a microscope and watch what
happens to it when we manipulate its components. Close observation
of the disassembled components gives us an opportunity to reassemble
them into new configurations. Indeed, random reassembly may occasionally
lead to valid configurations even without the exercise of intelligent
judgment. The creative problem-solving technique called
"brainstorming" can be thought of as a deliberate attempt to produce
random configurations of basic elements without interference from
stifling initial judgments. Through intimate awareness of usually inconspicuous
elements or through reintegration of those elements into
new configurations, teaching or writing can teach us seemingly new
subject matter even in the absence of audience response.
As mentioned earlier, the fact that students are being addressed
even when they are not actually present and their responses are remote
or unobservable, makes a teacher or author take care to be clear and
truthful, because he may eventually be held accountable. Even though
an author writes in solitude, he takes pains to break down his subject
matter into easily intelligible pieces to suit the abilities and interests of
his unseen audience; and it is this process of analysis (which would be
unnecessary without an audience) that teaches the author subject
matter that seems new.
An active audience can be a far greater source of learning. With
such an audience, there is not only the (possibly remote) accountability
for truth or clarity involved in writing, but also an immediate and continuing
demand for direct responses to unanticipated, specific questions.
Student criticism teaches the teacher that he needs to be more precise
or to break down a concept or skill into simpler elements, and sometimes
criticism forces a teacher to reconsider whether his teachings
Introductory-level classes can be more instructive to a teacher than
advanced ones, because at the introductory level a teacher must break
down his subject matter into especially simple and clearly expressed
elements. The stark simplicity and naive profundity of student questions
at the introductory level pose an exciting challenge, which focuses
a scholar's attention on the most basic (and hence profound)
issues in the subject he teaches. Serious scholars have a way of becoming
so specialized and so deeply involved in their subject matter
that they often forget the most important, simple, and basic questions
that constitute the origin of all their research. To be reminded of such
questions is often a shock that helps the scholar integrate and synthesize
new insights at a deeper level.
For example, I once had divided a freshman college class into
groups, with the requirement that each student give a research report
to be graded by the other members of his group. One student
came to see me privately, complaining that she thought this procedure
unfair. She said she would be doing extensive research into a complex
topic, and her fellow students would not be qualified to grade her.
She thought I should grade her.
This incident stimulated me to think about whether a teacher is
indeed any more qualified to give grades than students in cases where
someone's research work goes beyond the teacher's knowledge. And
this latter question led me to consider whether a "normal" teacher
should grade a "gifted" child, whether professors are competent to
judge the work of a doctoral candidate whose dissertation extends the
boundaries of knowledge, and whether the average citizen in a democracy
is competent to judge which of two disagreeing experts is right.
These questions in turn led me to confront the very deep philosophical
question of whether and how one person can know whether another
person has knowledge of something Ñ especially under circumstances
when the first person does not himself have the knowledge that the
second person claims to have. A year after my student confronted me
with her apparently simple criticism, I finished writing an article about
all these things, and after another year the article was published./4
My concern with grading continued. About a year after that article
was published and when I was teaching at a different university, another
freshman in a philosophy of education class questioned whether
I had a moral right to give her a grade on her philosophy of education.
After all, she said, it was one opinion against another. So I thought
about the issue, wrote her a three- or four-page note explaining my
response, and on second thought made a photocopy of the note in
order to think about it further. A year and a half later I published what
I still regard as one of my most insightful articles, in defense of the
traditional grading system./5 Since then I have taught special courses
on the philosophical, social, psychological, and historical issues involved
in grading and have used both of the articles mentioned above as
"texts." Naive student questions and the catharsis of writing have
similarly prompted thought, publication, and course designs on other
topics, but I will spare the reader any further autobiographical excursions.
This essay has identified several kinds of things teachers can learn
from students or from the sheer act of teaching. Teachers can learn
[end page 109 / start page 110]
about their own personalities and as a result may change their inner
values and outer behaviors. Teachers learn how to improve the effectiveness
with which they help students learn. Teachers learn subject
matter through the act of simplifying and organizing it for presentation,
through the prodding of student questions and criticisms, and
through the natural momentum of ideas leading to other ideas in the
midst of vocal or written expression. Indeed, the only kind of teacher
who could not learn anything from students or from teaching would
be a righteous and wise guru who possesses infallible total knowledge
of himself and his subject matter. Such a guru might still teach, because
he feels a stewardship obligation to help his fellow creatures or
to exercise his custodianship of knowledge. He might teach for the
sheer joy of self-expression, much as a good artist feels a need to
express himself or to create. Why a Socrates or a Jesus or a Buddha
teaches is a deeper mystery than we can probe here, but it seems clear
that only gurus such as these could fail to learn through teaching.
1. Kenneth R. Conklin, "The Aesthetics of Knowing and Teaching,"
Teachers College Record 72, no. 2 (Dec. 1970) :257-65.
2. Conklin, "The Aesthetic Dimension of Education in the Abstract Disciplines,"
Journal of Aesthetic Education 4, no. 3 (July 1970) :31-36.
3. Conklin, "Wholes and Parts in Teaching," The Elementary School
Journal 74, no. 3 (Dec. 1973): 165-71.
4. Conklin, "Educational Evaluation and Intuition," Educational Forum
34, no. 3 (Mar. 1970) :323-32.
5. Conklin, "Due Process in Grading: Bias and Authority," School Review
81, no. 1 (Nov. 1972):85-95.
[end of article]
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