The Art of Instruction

Lately I have been thinking about the art of instruction – that is, the precise role language, behavior, and course materials play in achieving desired course results. Educators can walk into a classroom and go through the motions (and so can students) and it will probably work well enough. You can move through a class like this and some of your students will love it simply because they like you or the material, some will feel ambiguous, some may not like it so much. In your evaluations you will probably see a basic bell-shaped curve. But what if you started to tweak the language that you use for a few small tasks to communicate with even more precision? The benefit of teaching a course repeatedly is seeing student achievements and evaluations and using this information to modify part of the course the next time around. I have found myself calling this revision process the art of instruction.

I googled “Art of Instruction” and found only one book (a trip to the library is in order, and I hope there are other resources out there) about the art of instruction in 17th Century France. I will look into it, maybe there is something good there, but not until I am on campus again later in the day.

On my shelves I have Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War. There must be a relationship between training soldiers and leading students. Sun Tzu says, “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame” (72).

Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” is governed by the following five constant factors: The Moral Law, Heaven, Earth, The Commander, Method and Discipline. Below is a brief summary of these factors and my translation of them for educators in the 21st Century.

1. The Moral Law “causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives” (113). In the classroom, the people are the students and the ruler is the instructor. My teaching style is authoritative rather than authoritarian, so this constant factor is a bit harshly worded for me. I do not wish my students to follow my rules regardless of their lives; however, I do want my students to maintain an interest in the subject matter beyond the duration of our class. I also want my students to trust my ability to lead them through exercises that will develop their personal relationship to the subject matter. The Moral Law translates to Classroom Unity. If the class is unified by our interest in the subject matter – more so than any personal interest, I believe the students will operate in accordance with the course schedule, policies and practice.

2. Heaven “signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and season” (114). Sun Tzu understood that weather would play a factor in governing war. A literal translation of “weather” does not often speak to the classroom, but since I am teaching with technology I relate Tzu’s notion of “Heaven” to all of the pros and cons of technology in my classroom. The Role of Technology is the second constant factor of the art of instruction. Technology is a tool that should always to be used to achieve a specific purpose. We never learn how to use a tool simply for the sake of using a tool. We learn to use tools in order to achieve a desired outcome, often related to a design principle or theory.

3. Earth comprises “the chances of life and death” (114). So far I haven’t had a student die in my classroom (although I did have a student’s pants split all the way open – for which I performed a sewing surgery, something I am sure felt a bit like death for my brave student). The extreme spirit of this factor is pleasurable. My translation is RISK TAKING (yes, in all caps). I mean this for both myself as the instructor and the students in their own experiments. Students should feel free enough to take risks and supported if the risk does not result in a desired outcome. As an instructor, I aim to be motivated to radically modify each class, classroom, structure, method, and patterns. If I am not taking risks, I am modeling a stifled, passive behavior to my students.

4. The Commander “stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness” (114). Balancing Freedom and Strictness in the Classroom is one of my roles, and it is a way in which Tzu’s virtues are related and performed. Wisdom relates to my knowledge of the course material and my interest in updating or further developing my knowledge and skills. Participating in workshops, attending events, or maintaining a reading practice helps me stay invested in course material. This practice creates the behavior of courage required for RISK TAKING. Strictness is an interesting virtue and one that is required in order to balance the freedom of spirit and experimentation in the classroom. I do want to see the students mature into responsible citizens. The ability to follow a detailed set of rules and procedures is an important skill that students are better served learning in school rather than in the work place.

5. Method and Discipline are understood as the ways in which the army and ranks are controlled. How does an instructor control a classroom and maintain the type of free environment that fosters creativity for art and design students? I want my students to learn a set of principles, theories and skills, but I also want them to think critically, experiment in their practice, and allow their experimentation to result in a final product (rather than the other way around, which is visible when a derivative product is the result of a lack of experimentation). I always include rules and specifications in quizzes or assignments coupled with writing assignments in a way that suggests each visual challenge can be resolved by multiple interpretations. Method and Discipline is translated into Balancing Freedom and Strictness, but this time in regards to the way assignments and projects are written or explained.

In short, my transformation of The Art of War into The Art of Instruction results in the following constant factors that I negotiate as an instructor of digital design:

1. Course Unity (classroom, students, instructor, material)

2. The Role of Technology (in the classroom and course material)

3. RISK TAKING (students and the instructor)

4. Balancing Freedom and Strictness in the Classroom (environment and dialog)

5. Balancing Freedom and Strictness in Written Assignments (course materials)

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