Tuesday 15 February 2011

The caress of learning

In a discussion on Friday, the topic of great teaching being like a caress came up again. I want to elaborate on this because the theme of caressing brings together a lot of what I've been thinking recently.

Thinking about a caress - being caressed, or caressing - is very similar to thinking about grace: the gracefulness of motion, touch, elegance and poise. To me, all of these things are fundamentally musical. Indeed, my conversation on Friday suggested that they are fundamentally artistic. The arts - done well - teach grace. This is invaluable knowledge. The sciences are less immediately concerned with grace, although the finest exponents of the sciences know about grace. Much engineering and science tends to be taught in a rather graceless way. Often, our institutions suffer a lack of grace in their management as a consequence of graceless education: they can appear rigid, awkward, inflexible.

The form of a caress is I think tri-partite: it begins, usually softly, it climaxes, and it decays. Possibly this might be expressible as a pattern of 'degrees of variety': for example, something starts with low variety - a simple gesture. By amplifying the gesture and bringing in more gestures, a mini 'climax' might be reached with high variety (a high number of things that are going on, a high number of possible states something can exist in). Then control is regained, and variety is brought back under control - back to low variety.

If I stroke the index finger of my right hand on the back of my left hand, I feel initially a simple sensation. As I move it, I apply more pressure. I feel more signals of increasing intensity. Then I let the pressure go, but continue the motion of the finger, gradually taking it away. This envelope seems to be configurable in many ways - I might have a short attack and a longer decay, but basically its the same process. Sexual touching is I think much of this sort. Indeed, it is interesting to consider what happens at the moment of sexual climax when levels of excitement, breathing, pressure of skin, muscular spasm and mental fantasy all send multiple signals at the same time (obviously it doesn't make me popular to analyse this in situ!!).

In music, I've been wondering about the way this envelope manifests itself. The Forlane in Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin has been fascinating me. It's so sensual - both in its harmony, texture and rhythm. Looking at the extract here:

...makes me think that the first two bars build up tension by gradually introducing new chromatic harmony notes. This is released slightly in the second two bars. I think the climax is the first beat of the third bar. But there's something else going because there are 'mini' caresses happening in the dotted rhythm of the melody.
In the Bach excerpt above, the contrapuntal lines, in their overlapping contribute to a ebb and flow of complexity: caresses are piled on caresses.

These things are revealed in performance. And it is performance which I am particularly interested in with teaching. We perform our knowledge with our bodies, artefacts, our institutional context and tools. I might start talking, but then reach for a resource to amplify what I am saying; or use the resource in conjunction with a tool, or turn the class situation around and get learners to do the talking. The ebb and flow of all this seem to have a family resemblance to musical and sexual examples.

But the most interesting thing about caresses is that this is what is best to do with students who are struggling. The gently teasing-out of where the problems lie is a fundamental skill of great teachers. I think to understand how it is done, we have to understand something about what the teacher gleans from the communications given back by the learner. I think there's some sort of  model-building going on. The teacher works out where the contradictions in the learner are, for that is likely to be the root of the problem: those are points on a map and from there they can work out how to work with the student: metaphorically speaking, it is how they know where they place their hands.

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