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Posts Tagged ‘quality in education’

Zen and the Art cover

The cover to my edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, which I first read as a freshman at BYU in an Honors Colloquium class.

As a freshman at Brigham Young University forty years ago I had the privilege of taking an interdisciplinary class called Honors Colloquium. It was taught by three professors and a graduate student, including Dr. Eugene England (literature and writing), Dr. Larry Knight (physics), and Pro. Omar Kadar (political science). Our theme for the two-semester class was the intersection between Classical and Romantic modes of thought in various disciplines. We had frequent guest professors teach units on everything from international politics to science fiction to Russian literature.

Alto Computer

An Alto computer, the first to truly be a personal computer with the capability for digital drawing, music, and other forms of art. It was developed by the Palo Alto Research Center of Xerox Corporation but was never sold commercially. An article on this system written by Alan Kay titled “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer” was in the back of the Sept. 1977 edition of Scientific American, but I never found it for my paper because there was no Internet back then to do a comprehensive search by keyword. There was only the old printed periodical index . . . I do not miss those days. The article would have proven my point that computers were already beginning to become a tool for artistic expression.

One of the most influential papers I ever wrote was for this class, where I reported on how computers (the ultimate expression of Classical thought) might someday be used to create art or literature or music. When I presented my paper to the class, the professors almost laughed me to scorn. “How could a computer ever be used to do art or write great literature?” they asked. They were wrong; that paper predicted a major part of what I teach now: digital media. I am using a computer to write and distribute this very essay.

The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance

Despite the poor reception of my prophetic paper, I did learn some useful things from that class that have defined my life as an educator. One of our first reading assignments was the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This book sets out the dichotomy between Classical and Romantic ideals through a motorcycle trip across the American northwest, a kind of mobile philosophical Chautauqua. Pirsig defines the Romantic mode of thought through his friend John Sutherland’s approach to his Honda motorcycle: John is after the gestalt feeling of the open road, the experience of riding the motorcycle and living in the moment, and doesn’t know much about the nuts and bolts of keeping the bike maintained. If something goes wrong, he’ll hire a mechanic to solve it.

No Zen on a mountain top

Pirsig’s narrator, calling himself Phaedrus, was searching for the answers on his road trip through the Rocky Mountains. But the book concludes that there is no answer, no Zen to be found at the top of the mountain (the destination) but instead is found on the journey. It is the sides of the mountain as you climb, not the top, that sustain life. 

The Narrator, on the other hand, exemplifies the Classical mode. He drives an older Harley that he knows well and can troubleshoot. During the trip, while driving through Montana, he recognizes that his engine is running a bit rough, analyzes his spark plugs (which are sooty), and realizes that the high altitude is making the engine run too rich, which he easily corrects. The classical mode, therefore, gets into the nuts and bolts and mechanics of a process instead of appreciating the gestalt of the moment.

As we discussed this book in Colloquium, I came to see that it explained the two warring sides of my own personality. I had always considered myself a logical, rational, scientific kind of person (I identified the most with Spock on Star Trek) and had discounted my emotional side, yet I was continually drawn to art and music and theater, which are all romantic modes of expression. Later in the year I got myself into an embarrassing situation by not seeing the irrationality of questionable actions, which were brought on by sleep deprivation. I was a bit surprised to find out I had strong emotions after all.

Pattern of life

I have always been pulled in two directions: towards the logic and reason of science and toward the creativity and self-expression inherent in the arts. I can see these two forces clearly as I look back on my life.

I am still pulled in both directions, and this is why computer art appeals to me – both classical and romantic at the same time. I can tell you how the Color Picker in Adobe Photoshop uses 24 bit graphics, meaning each primary additive color (red, green, or blue) can have 2^8 or 256 colors, or 2^24 total colors in an image. It is all very logical, digital, rational. But I can also tell you how to blend photos seamlessly, create any image desired as a form of self-expression, and visualize what has never been conceived before. This is all very romantic and artistic. Whenever I go for too long focusing on science, I start longing to work on a nice hand-drawn art project. I’m working on a mixed media painting of Utah’s Delicate Arch right now as an illustration for a book I’m writing.

Delicate Arch-s

This is a preliminary scan of my Delicate Arch illustration for a book series I am working on. It turned out fairly well, but I need to get myself re-motivated on this project.

Another way of looking at this that is more relevant to my career: the Romantics are the Apple Macintosh people – they are after the experience and the creativity and what they can do with the computer. I am very much this way, and love my Mac. The Classicists are the Windows people that custom build their own computers and know all the components and technical details such as how to overclock the CPU, etc. This is my oldest son, who is a technical expert on video cameras and audio systems for a camera rental house in California.

Now, after more years than I care to think about, I realize that the dichotomy between Classical and Romantic is false. I find that I can both love the technical/classical aspects of a subject (such as the process of doing science, analyzing data, working with numbers, and rational reasoning) and the artistic or romantic side of education, the satisfaction of a well-taught lesson where students are moved. This is why I am a major proponent of STEAM education – to bring the arts, history, and humanities into STEM fields to ignite the creative spark and provide the context or gestalt viewpoint necessary for STEM. It is possible to be both classical and romantic at the same time; therefore, it is not really a dichotomy.

The Resolution: Quality

The Narrator of Zen and the Art, calling himself Phaedrus, tried to reconcile the two sides of this dichotomy through the concept of Quality. I never understood, at that time, exactly what he meant by Quality. I realize now that he deliberately left it undefined, except to compare it with the ancient Greek concept of arête (the Good or the Truth). The needs of the situation define what Quality must be and how to measure it. However, it must blend the technical requirements of a project (the mechanics or nuts and bolts emplaced by the grading rubric or teacher expectations) and the romantic aspects: What did the students learn, how deeply, and how have they applied their knowledge or skills? What are their overall feelings about the project, including their enthusiasm for it? What level of professionalism was achieved? These aspects are not measurable and can’t be tested at the end of the school year, but are every bit as important as the technical knowledge component. As teachers, we tend to do well at teaching the mechanics but not well at the gestalt, or overall quality of a project.

Blue-orange Jupiter-s

A sample from my current STEAM class. My students have marbled paper using oil paints diluted with mineral spirits and floated on water. These colors are swirled, then lifted off the water on paper and dried.

An Example

Let’s look at the idea of quality through an example that my STEAM students are currently completing. I will describe this course in more detail in my next post and the types of art-infused science we are attempting, but for now I will describe the central project. Each student has chosen a topic related to the history of science and the science of art, including dyes and pigments, the iron age, weaving, Native American petroglyphs, Chinese pottery, iatrochemistry (alchemical medicine), and more. It is a five-week course during this summer, and they are writing a 1500-2000 word essay on their chosen topic. This essay will become a chapter for a book we are putting together and will add to in subsequent years and perhaps even publish through an online print-on-demand service. I will publish the essays on this blogsite.

In addition to the basic essays, they are creating illustrations on their topics using a variety of art forms including pen and ink drawings using homemade iron-tannate ink, watercolors using pigments we created ourselves (we finally managed to made good red out of cochineal), copper etchings, marbled paper, tie dye, and batik. I will pick each student’s three best illustrations for the final book. They are also writing at least three sidebar articles.

Katie weaving illustration-s

This is a student’s illustration of a Navajo lady weaving a blanket, drawn using homemade iron-tannate inks. The brown ink was made using normal brown tea for the source of tannins and the black ink was made using green tea. This is a good example of the type of quality these students are achieving.

This is a high expectation for a five-week class, and to turn these essays into a professional quality book that we can publish is by no means an easy task. Many of my students have never written an essay of this length before. To ensure quality, I have set up a series of strict deadlines and checkpoints with frequent feedback and revisions. Most of the students have just turned in their rough drafts. Some will lose points for being late. These drafts were copied for two peers to go through this weekend and proofread (I’ve taught them how to use proofreading symbols) and assess for interest level and readability. Our history teacher and I are also going through the rough drafts looking for scientific and historic accuracy. The students will receive the rough drafts back next week and will make revisions. Ideally they will then be reviewed by other students who are not in our class and final revisions will be written, but that will have to happen during our second summer term when we have English classes. By the time I include the final essays in the book, they will have been reviewed by three or more people and revised twice.

This process of formative assessment and revision is essential for any quality work, be it in school or in professional life. Engineers create prototypes and test and revise them until design specifications are exceeded. School work should follow the same process. Instead of school assignments that are done once, given a final grade, and forgotten, student work should go through formative assessments, revisions, and reworking until a desired outcome of quality is reached. Perhaps not every assignment, but at least one major project per unit or at least per term should require this level of quality. This means fewer assignments but deeper learning. There should also be a public outcome – a blog post, a book, a performance or presentation before parents and peers, etc. that emphasizes the level of professionalism required.

Jazmine Canopic Jar painting-s

A painting of an Egyptian canopic jar using homemade watercolor pigments. The gray is made from soot, the red-brown from cochineal and gray mixed, the blue is Prussian blue, and the purple is a cobalt compound.

To gain professional excellence in student work, they must understand that the amount of effort needed to gain excellent quality is not a linear function.

The Quality Curve

As my diagram shows, the relationship between quality and effort is not linear. It’s exponential. Doubling the effort does not double the quality – it takes twice as much effort to get a project from good quality to excellence as it does to get it to good in the first place, but excellence is not twice as much quality as good. Achieving excellence may require a quadrupling of effort. There is a rule in business called the 80-20 Rule: it takes 80% of the effort to achieve the last 20% of quality, to get a project from good to excellent. In the real world, good isn’t good enough, only professionalism and excellence are acceptable and get your ideas noticed. But that extra bit of polish comes at a high cost in effort and time.

Quality Curve-s

This diagram represents that the relationship between effort and quality is not linear. It takes twice as much effort to get from good to excellent quality than it does to get to good quality in the first place, and perfection takes infinite effort.

At the same time, some people can be perfectionists and not know when to let go of a project and say, “It is done!” As my diagram shows, put into mathematical terms, effort is asymptotic to perfection; perfection can only be reached through infinite effort (meaning never in this mortal world). As teachers we should expect excellence, but not perfection.

I’ve seen too much of the negative side of perfectionism. In fact, is there even a positive side? I’ve seen students who show high levels of stress and anxiety because they expect (or their parents expect) too much of them; students who refuse to try anything hard because they fear to fail, or who give up after even a small setback. People who can’t let go of any mistakes but have to relive them over and over instead of moving on and learning.

As teachers, we need to build revisions into our projects, or, in other words, embrace and plan for the probability of initial failure (although failure is too strong of a word – I prefer to refer to it as “partial success” or “emerging excellence”). We should encourage students to make every project an iterative learning experience through frequent formative feedback with plenty of time for fixing mistakes. We need to help them build, test, and revise prototypes of their projects, always returning to the specifications/rubric until all expectations are met.

Mucker illustration color-s

An illustration of a mucker, a machine used to “muck” or dig up shattered rock after the face of the mine has been blasted. I started this illustration using what I thought was waterproof ink for the lines, then adding watercolor washes over the top, but the dark lines bled all over the place. I had scanned the non-colored version, so I layered the clean lines over the color image, set the blending mode to darken, and used the Clone tool to clean up the mess. I also fixed a few crooked lines. Hopefully it doesn’t look too digitized.

There is more that can be said about teaching quality, but this post is already overlong. This will be a major part of my doctoral program, which I am starting in three weeks. I will come back to this idea in future posts. In the meantime, I think its time to re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m old enough and have enough experience now that I can finally understand what Phaedrus was trying to say.

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