Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Aesthetics: Where Thinking Originates

My well worn and underlined copy of Art Costa's collection of articles 'The School As A Home For The Mind'. Art has been a leading proponent of the explicit teaching of thinking to be infused throughout the curriculum. Art has been an enthusiastic educator since the mid 50s and is a living example of a life long learner. His book features his 'habits of mind' which many schools have introduced. His 'habits of mind', or dispositions, are aligned with the 'key competencies' of our 'new' 2007 New Zealand Curriculum. Guy Claxton, an United Kingdom educator, also aligns his 'learning power' approach with Art in his latest book. Such approaches see the 'mind as a muscle'- able to be amplified through experience and practice; able to grow intelligent behaviour rather than seeing intelligence as 'fixed'.

Visit Art Costa's site for further information.
Article at Leading and Learning

Art Costa places premium on developing our greatest human resource, the human mind.

The second essay in his small book introduces the notion of aesthetics, an area not mentioned much by those academic 'best evidence' researchers so loved by the Ministry of Education who have a narrow view of cognition - worrying only about what teachers can gain data and evidence on and measure. Such a narrow approach demeans the work of creative teachers who know that many learners are transformed by powerful experience that literally change their minds.

All information, Costa reminds us, comes through the various sensory channels.Those, he writes, whose sensory pathways are open are able to absorb more information from the environment than those whose pathways have withered through neglect. Too many children today suffer from sensory deprivation it often being substituted by more limited virtual experience via computers and TV. Our more cosseted world does not encourage children to freely explore their immediate environment nor are many parents, or their teachers, knowledgeable or confident enough to take children to explore such places.

Developing aesthetics through sensory experiences is vital to all learning and the basis of developing all sorts of language and creative expression. Children who do not experience such rich sensory experience will come to learning with restricted language acquisition facilities. Before the word must come the experience.

The aesthetic dimension permeates the spirit of inquiry and is inherent to creativity and a prerequisite to discovery. For all this such important ideas have not received much emphasis from cognitive academic educators and researchers

Students to learn need the curiosity sharpened by being 'enraptured' with natural phenomena. As Costa writes 'in order for the brain to comprehend the heart must first listen'.

Aesthetics as Costa sees it 'means sensitivity to the artistic features of the environment and the qualities that evoke feelings in individuals. Such feelings as enjoyment, exhilaration, awe, and satisfaction'. It is from this aesthetic beginnings that lead to language and rational thought and questions about the environment.

From aesthetic and sensory experiences come the inquiry 'skills of observation, investigating, further questioning, germinate.' And, he continues ' aesthetics may be the key to sustaining motivation, interest, and enthusiasm to young children, since they must become aware of their environment before they can explain it' - learning becomes, he says, a 'tenacious quest'.

Parents and teachers need to take every opportunity to ensure children 'commune with the world around them'. Children to need time to experience and reflect on such things as the ' opening of a bud and to sense the logical simplicity of mathematical order.They must find beauty in a sunset, and intrigue in the geometric of a spider web'.

'We need' Costa continues, 'to observe and nurture these aesthetic qualities in children. Students who respond to the aesthetic aspects of their world will demonstrate behaviour manifesting in intangible values....Their curiosity will become stronger as the problems they encounter become more complex. Their environment will attract their inquiry as their senses capture the rhythm, patterns, shapes, colours, and harmonies of the universe. They will display cognizant and compassionate behavior towards other life forms as they see the need for protecting their environment: respecting the roles and values of other human beings'.

From such encounters with their environment children can express what they have seen and felt using a variety of media - including the use of digital cameras. They can research their questions and deepen their understanding by digging deeply in what has attracted their attention and curiosity.

And also from such encounters children will develop their What? Why? How" Why? and What if ? questions and from such questions begin writing 'scientific' explanations and personal poetic expressive writing.

Children will need help to explore and express ideas they develop from their awareness. Each sensory mode can be sharpened with parent or teacher encouragement. Children thoughts can be written or scribed for them. Observational drawings are a powerful medium to encourage depth of thought and imagination .

Creative teachers have always valued children's curiosity about their natural environment even if academics take it all for granted.
Both teachers and students need to become 'ardent observers and insatiable questioners. Teachers may be the only ones who develop in young people a compassionate attitude towards the environment, to develop a curiosity with which students will continue wondering through life - a prerequisite for higher level thought.'

Perhaps it an absence of these very qualities that lie at the basis of the so called 'achievement tail' in our schools - children who have been rushed into academic work before the ground floor of sensory experience has saturated their minds to be called on during such things as talking reading and writing.

Developing such an aesthetic awareness is far more important than the current obsession with measuring academic skills many children do not as yet have!

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