Aesthetic experiences in learning: revisiting Sir Ken Robinson

Recently I have been revisiting Sir Ken Robinson’s “Changing Paradigms – How we implement sustainable change in education” lecture for the RSA organization in June 16, 2008. If you have never listened to this lecture, then I strongly urge you to do so. It is a wonderful overview of the issues that we face as educators in today’s world, why we are facing them, and ways we should be thinking about addressing them.

In this post there is one small part of the lecture that I want to more fully develop and explore. Just to be clear about what I am referring to, here are versions of the talk, differentiated for your benefit, with time references for the section I am looking at in this post.

More specifically, this is the section I want to discuss:

I was saying earlier, I have a big interest in the Arts and, if you think of it, the Arts, and I don’t say this exclusively to the Arts, I think it is also true of Science and of Maths. I say it about Arts particularly because they are the victims of this mentality currently, particularly. The Arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience and aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you are present in the current moment, when you are resonating in the excitement of this thing you are experiencing, when you are fully alive.

My thought process: All disciplines, not just the Arts, can address an aesthetic experience, as Sir Robinson defines it. In our larger society, but in education in particular, the aesthetic experience has either been ignored or not communicated well enough to others. This is the reason why so many people hate science, or ignore the conclusions and suggestions that the scientific community put forward. It is this same reason why years of lessons garnered from social, historical, and political experience fall victim to false conclusions and thus repetition. It is the same reason why the trades are looked down upon by the larger society, with technical education being the victim. We could continue adding to this list.

Bringing this issue back to education and putting it more succinctly, there is an aesthetic quality to every educational endeavor we introduce our students to. We have to ask, “Are we molding learning experiences for our students that resonate with excitement and help their senses operate at their peak?”

A successful science lesson for me is one where students participate with excitement. However, maybe equally important, it is a lesson where even if students do not have the same aesthetic experience as me, they are a least able to understand what it is about the material that has an aesthetic quality for others. It is this latter part that is missing from much of education these days. We should not just tell students that “science is beautiful”, we should show them why we believe it is. This holds true for all learning. Let me share just a few examples.

  1. DNA Everything we are comes back to this one type of molecule in our cells. For some of us the aesthetics of the structure itself is enough. But also consider that we are now able to manipulate and change DNA for human benefit. How beautiful is it that we are helping people live better lives through our understanding of the way this collection of atoms works? How beautiful is it that this molecule might actually change (a very cutting edge area of research) based on our experiences, passing down new traits to our offspring? I showed “The Ghost in your Genes” documentary to my students to show them that scientific processes have the ability to turn old theories (the theory of evolution, and genes being unalterable in our lifetimes) on their head. How wonderful!
  1. Social movements People in groups are amazing creatures! We seek out others to grow, to learn (shout-out to my Twitter PLN), to make meaning of ourselves. Consider these photos that I took in 1989 in Warsaw, Poland, of a Solidarity march by doctors. As a teenager I accidentally walked into what then was the tail-end of a long struggle for freedom. Changes were happening around me. The aesthetic beauty of a group of people organized for a single belief, a single purpose, is undeniable.

  1. The Trades Folks who work with their hands to fix and build the objects that we interact with in our lives present some of the most amazing aesthetic experiences I know. Consider the engine to the right. What an astounding mind that can see each individual part, understand its function, and how it interacts with every other part of the system.
  1. Returning to the Arts for a moment. Take a look at this photo of one of the rooms in the royal castle in Warsaw (seen above on the right in the second picture).Take a look at the floor. The actual visual quality aside, what aesthetics there are in the skill it took to build that all-wood floor. Carpenters from all over Europe were called to Warsaw after the Second World War to re-build the castle from photos, after the city had been almost completely destroyed in 1944. There is beauty in the care and detail of human work.

As Sir Ken Robinson states in his lecture, our goal as educators is to make sure that our students are not anesthetized. We must share the wonder that is our world, not just get them ready for an exam. As we go into the summer term, have you considered how to build aesthetic experiences into the learning your students will be doing when they return to school?

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