The value of ambiguity

The value of ambiguity

Something I have always loved about art is that it resonates in naturally unpredictable and diverse ways. When something is “in the eye of the beholder,” interpretation and subjectivity are in play. These moments, I believe, are conducive to rich pedagogy, as this post will discuss.

.    In the video below, renowned neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel (as cited in Big Think, 2013b) explains in layman’s terms a phenomenon called “the beholder’s response,” also known as the “beholder’s share”: “You have a painting. That painting is not complete until the viewer responds to it” (n.p.). In other words, what the viewer sees is not objective; it must be interpreted before it can be grasped. Viewed from this lens, the responsibility of creation belongs to both producer and consumer, and the work is created anew with each different beholder. There can be no denying that although a painting may be physically painted only once, the diversity of interpretation (and thus, the complete painting process) will happen with innumerable frequency. This plurality, brought on by subjectivity, is why the early psychologist Ernst Kris (whom Kandel speaks of in the video) said, “Great works are great because they’re ambiguous. They allow for alternative readings” (n.p.).

.    Besides fostering plurality, ambiguity has another advantage: It prompts discovery due to the fact that what may be present is not made readily apparent. As noted in the second video installment of Raising Creativity, which provides a review of relevant literature, our brains are hardwired to pursue discovery and surprise (Tulley as cited in bigideasfest, 2010; Kandel as cited in Big Think, 2013a; Eisner as cited in VanderbiltUniversity, 2009). The search for that which is unknown just beyond our grasp is a powerful intrinsic source of motivation that engages the mind and nurtures the desire to learn (Tulley as cited in bigideasfest, 2010). However, this is not typically how students in mainstream schooling are permitted to approach their education. By contrast, in keeping with the metrics-obsessed ideology of our time, I have repeatedly been advised in a professional development context to “teach with explicit instruction.” This means: Teach in a way that minimizes any opportunity for the beholder’s response; that objectifies children and views teachers as machinists; and that attempts to take the flavour, joy, and humanity out of a fundamentally sentient process. Fortunately my philosophy of education has been informed by several perspectives, not just that of the Ontario Ministry of Education. For example, Holt (1982) observes, “The spirit of independence in learning is one of the most valuable assets a learner can have, and we who want to help children’s learning, at home or in school, must learn to respect and encourage it” (p. 132). Similarly, Gray (2012) expresses, “Ultimately, the purpose of education is that of finding meaning in life, and each person has to do that for himself or herself” (p. 2). Needless to say, I choose not to follow the “professional advice” at my school, but instead employ the Socratic method, whereby I withhold conclusive responses and prompt my students with questions that can inform their own conclusions—conclusions derived from the beholder’s response.
.    Paradoxically on the other hand, while “great works are . . . ambiguous” (Kandel as cited in BigThink, 2013b), it is also true that the arts make things noticeable. In other words, if an artist showcases an issue or a phenomenon (e.g., the status of creativity in education) through some kind of artistic representation (e.g., video), it is inevitably done to draw attention around the given cause, usually for a transformative purpose. Eisner (1995) writes, “works of art . . . make empathy possible” (p. 4). What’s out of sight is often out of mind, so if an audience’s attention is directed to a topic by means of an artistic format, they may be more likely to pay attention and address the topic in real life as well. In putting together this documentary, I aim to capitalize on the widespread dissemination capability and engagingness of YouTube while respecting multiple truths and the beholder’s response. I anticipate that everyone who views these videos will come away with differing opinions, which is great. For this reason, I will not offer my own conclusions at the end of the series, but rather I will lean towards ambiguity in prompting the viewers to think and decide for themselves. The point is, people need to see the videos first before they can come to that. If and when the moment arrives wherein many members of the general public are jostled into considering this important issue from an illuminated angle, then my research will have accomplished what it set out to do.

 

References

bigideasfest. (2010, February 28). Gever Tulley: Turning curriculum design on its head:
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      Engage first, then look for learning within
.  Retrieved May 10, 2013, from
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.       http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sckY7cmmkOU
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Big Think. (2013a, March 18). Eric Kandel: Creativity, your brain, and the aha! moment.
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.       Retrieved May 10, 2013, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugFQaxIsm5I
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Big Think. (2013b, April 8). Eric Kandel: How your brain finishes paintings.
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     Retrieved May 10, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IoubVUSk7h0
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Eisner, E. W. (1995). What artistically crafted research can help us understand about schools.
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.       Educational Theory 45(1), 1–6.
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Gray, P. (2012, December 14). Can you measure an education? Can you define life’s meaning?
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.       Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/

.       201212/can-you-measure-education-can-you-define-life-s-meaning
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Holt, J. (1982). How children fail. New York, NY: Delta/Seymour Lawrence.
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VanderbiltUniversity. (2009, November 4). Prof. Elliot W. Eisner: “What do the arts teach?”.
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       Retrieved May 10, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h12MGuhQH9E

Posted by Rebecca Zak

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