Thursday, January 26, 2012


Metacognition--a big word for "looking at what you're doing and understanding why you're doing it." In a way metacognition is thinking about your thinking. I have studied, written, and presented on metacognition, which I think is an interesting approach to engaging students in scientific problem-solving. The idea I've worked up is that scientists, who build models, visualize the natural processes they study. The models are a tool for communicating their ideas to the rest of the world. A couple of weeks ago I compared this with the way artists produce work that represents their way of thinking about the world.

For the past few years I've asked my non-major students to "model" scientific concepts by creating short videos that they post on YouTube. The results are varied. Some students seem to "get it," and their videos reflect time, energy, and thought that they put into the project. Most students seem to make videos that don't reflect much time or energy and the results are disappointing.

I've changed my outlook a bit and I still have students do videos, at least during one semester, but my work in the clay studio has taught me a thing or two.

Students in ceramics are taught to do pinch pots, coils, and slabs. All of these recall the human origins of working with clay. They are the bedrock of traditional ceramic practice and they are thousands upon thousands of years old. Since ceramic work must have started as a way to make vessels, these traditional methods are perforce ways of making pots. Glazing is another technique that is essential to making useful vessels. But are any of these methods necessary to building ceramic sculpture?

I'll get back to that question in a second but it brings me to another, connected thought. Why must science learning involve the orthodoxies that people in high school and college struggle with in order to master biology, chemistry, and physics? Aren't there ways that we can educate people about science without putting them through the paces of classic science practice? Not that these aren't useful, and they certainly are historically important, but are they necessary for a grasp of the processes of nature?

Back to clay. The student results of coiling, slabbing, etc. are very often cutesy cirliqued confections, hearts, squids, flower petals. Then they get glazed and they look like an 8th grader did them. I know students put "time" into them because I see them at work. But the results are something like the unsatisfactory videos many of my students make.

Why don't we train students in a ceramic sculpture class to look long, hard, and deeply at nature before we even have them touch the clay? Similarly, why can't science training be based first and foremost on observation of the natural world? And I don't mean laboratory.

Why this screed on science and art learning? It seems to me we need to encourage a different kind of learning for non-majors. This applies to students like mine who are in their last required science course for the rest of their life. I think it applies as well to students who are in their final semester of college-now finished with their requirements and finally taking an art elective that happens to be ceramics.

We need to let students engage our disciplines at a level by which they can observe their world, take it apart through their own eyes, connect nature with practice, and create work that's both original and mindful. It doesn't matter whether these students can balance an equation or throw a pot because these students may never be scientists or ceramicists. But by leading them through a process of self-conscious observation and practice, albeit informal, we will let them discover their own voice, perhaps leading them to understand why they do what they do. Metacognition.

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