(This is another of my immensely reflective posts based on loads of things which run on the tangent with the world of ELT, but which currently serves as a great source of inspiration for what I like doing in the classroom with learners and in my work with teachers.)
I arrived in Liverpool for the IATEFL 2013 conference on a Sunday so that I could have a day to do a spot of sightseeing. It would also give me the chance to go to the TATE Liverpool. Visiting the TATE Liverpool was something I’d set as a personal goal. In 2004, when the IATEFL conference was also held in Liverpool, I found myself without enough time to visit the TATE, much to my frustration (I think the friends I was with then may actually remember this…I wonder if they do, Patricia Blower, Virginia Garcia and Janine Barbosa?).
This time I managed to make it. And we had just about enough time to go upstairs and visit the DLA Piper Series: “This is sculpture” – a retrospective look at the history of modern and contemporary sculpture, sculpture seen from a wider perspective including objects, installations, pictures, video etc. The curation of this display was very innovative. The context in which the sculpture was set out meant there was an intervention in the manner in which we were made to look at the selected pieces. Walls were awash with bright colours, not a simple white wall. This was a 21st century statement surrounding the pieces themselves…the manner in which today we feel this tremendous need to “interact” with everything we see. This also helped us re-frame the pieces of art we were looking at, bringing differing views, differing interpretations and clearly stimulating different emotional reactions.
This feature is in fact highlighted in some of the rooms where there is a screen showing excerpts of the film directed by Mike Figgis which shows people reacting to the sculptures. They filmed the general public, art students, school goers expressing their reactions to the sculptures, some exhibited within the gallery itself, but others set up in challenging and unexpected contexts. Watching these videos is an experience in itself. Wonderful to see how the language we use to express our thoughts regarding any piece of art will also be wildly varied, amazingly rich with a myriad of possibilities of sharing your exact thoughts.
You can see this in probably what is my favourite film out of all the ones shared on the TATE site, based on the Jeff Koons “Three Ball Equilibrium Tank” installation. Some of the things the young people said were:
“No talent went into creating that and the only thing that is imaginative is the idea of putting basketballs into a fish bowl”
“I disagree because I think you need to look at the process, it’s not always necessarily the end product that’s come about it’s like what’s gone into it….”
“A basketball will always be a basketball no matter what you do with it coz I don’t think there’s any other way to look at a basketball.”
What I enjoyed so much about this was their reactions, their ability to listen to each other, to exchange ideas. And if you listen closely, it’s amazing to see how the ideas they come up with feed off each other, they incorporate ideas mentioned by each other in order to argue against them. We have a true dialogue of ideas: of young people looking carefully at something, listening to each other, reacting and interacting. Young people interested in what they were looking at, talking about and listening to. It reminded me of something I’d read:
“Looking is a very positive act. You have to do it deliberately. Hearing is the same. If you concentrate on music, you’re going to hear more.” (Said by David Hockney in: A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, by Martin Gayford, p.86)
As I watched the videos I immediately thought, isn’t this the sort of thing we can do in our ELT classrooms or learning environments? We so often say that our teenage students react with a degree of boredom to the input we provide them with. A series of questions arose in my mind, all without answers…just mulling over them:
Is the input we provide to get them talking and exchanging ideas sufficiently stimulating?
Are we creating the right conditions to really foster interaction and dialogue?
Are we really able to “grab” their attention? How can we do this?
What in fact does interest our learners?
What exactly drives them to participate actively in our classes?
How far can a teacher promote interaction based in his/her own interests and hope that the passion manifest in this actually become contagious and stimulates the learners themselves?
It is exactly because we can almost guarantee that each of us will see the world differently that when we look and hear something we know we are going to conjure up different stories and views. And it’s when we confront these differing views that gaps emerge to be bridged, and it makes the prospect of interactional exchange all the more exciting, real and meaningful. It creates the need to talk, to exchange ideas, to communicate. This is, at the end of the day, what we always aim to foster in our classrooms as we need to use language to learn the language.
(A huge thanks to Alan Seabra for the photo, who in a serendipitous moment decided to take it and then to show it to me. Thanks for a memorable afternoon together just looking at and talking about art.)