In their survey of learning theories and modelling in the 1970s, Bandura and Walters observed that “virtually all learning phenomena resulting from direct experiences can occur on a vicarious basis through observation of other people’s behaviour and its consequences”; they also noted that due to technological progress, much of what children acquire today is the result of “observing filmed or televised models” (Bandura, 1977,p.10). They predicted that “with further developments in communication technology...teachers and other traditional role models may assume a less prominent role in social learning” (Bandura, 1977,p.10). The authors argue that most learned behaviour comes from the influence of example..and that “some complex behaviours can only be produced through the influence of models...where novel forms of behaviour can be conveyed only by social cues, modeling is an indispensable aspect of learning” (Bandura, 1977,p.5). I would argue that ‘learning to be’ an artist is a very complex and novel form of behaviour where modeling is ‘indispensable’. Furthermore, as Bandura and Walters predicted, communication technologies have advanced to the point where video recordings of models can take a prominent role in learning.
One of the major benefits of an online archive of peer modelling videos is that students do not have to rely on their memories of things observed, but can replay as necessary, “A person cannot be much influenced by observation of a model’s behaviour if he has no memory of it” (Bandura, 1977,p.5).
It was only in 1977, the year of Bandura and Walters study, that the VHS recorder was introduced, and it would be years before many had access to this in the classroom. Certainly, students did not have ready access to educational videos that they could watch ‘on demand’ until many years later. Practically speaking, I would argue that universally accessible video on demand has only developed since the introduction of YouTube.
Another early and influential advocate of peer modelling was the educational theorist Paulo Freire. In his seminal work, ‘Pedagogy of the oppressed’, this revolutionary educational theorist could see the problem with traditional modes of education:
“Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into "containers," into "receptacles" to be "filled" by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.” (Freire, 1970, p.71)
This is particularly apt in connection with the teaching of visual art. Learning the practice of art, how ‘to be an artist’, is not like learning algebra. It is a mistake to think that we can simply learn some rules and definitions, even some art history, facts, and theory and go away ‘knowing art’. Art is not simply a matter of downloading content from some great curriculum content creator. In ‘Pedagogy of the oppressed’, Paulo Freire advocates for the curriculum as space for students to carry out their own inquiries:
“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other .“ (Freire, 1970, p.72)
Artists learn through inquiry, and student artists at school are no different. They make sense of their world through ‘hopeful inquiry’ and they do this ‘with each other’. A student’s ‘art practice’ is their ‘hopeful inquiry’. And they model this practice in collaboration with each other. Paulo Blikstein (Director of Transformative Technologies Lab at Columbia University) analyses the work of Freire, and proposes that Freire’s vision of ‘dialogical education’ can become a reality through the use of technology as an emancipatory tool. Blikstein argues that computers and ‘digital video’ are “protean machines” that enable diverse and innovative ways of working (Blikstein, 2008, p.2). Using data from a project in Sao Paulo in 2001, and building on the work of Freire, Papert, and Piaget, he proposes that “construction of knowledge happens remarkably well when students build and publicly share objects” (Blikstein, 2008,p.4) In this project, where students used computers, videos and arts materials, they found their own themes and created a generative space where the teacher became a facilitator, and a true democratic dialogue between peers and teacher took place.
This model of ‘democratic dialogue between peers’ is particularly suitable in the learning of visual art. The student or emerging artist is no less an artist than their more experienced peers. At the same time, there is much that can be learnt from the peer artist that has had time to develop their own art practice.
For the ‘construction of knowledge’ around the development of art practice, it is critical that the artist ‘build and publicly share objects’, as Blikstein notes. The ‘art exhibition’, hanging work at a gallery, is a very simple example of this sharing.
However, for a deeper ‘dialogue between peers’, there needs to be a sharing of the process behind the ‘object’ or product of the art making. As Blikstein found, ‘digital video’ can be that emancipatory technology:
“The Freirean dream can become a reality: the rapid penetration of new technologies in learning environments is an unprecedented opportunity for the dissemination of "Freirean aesthetics" ….Digital technologies offer "protean machines" ...which enable diverse and innovative ways of working, expressing and building. This chameleon adaptability of the computational media promotes epistemological diversity...creating an environment in which students, in their own voice, can concretize their ideas and projects with motivation and commitment...Not only did students become more autonomous and responsible, they learned to teach one another.” (Blikstein, 2008)
This notion of dialogue with peers is further explored by Johnston et al in “Voices we want to hear and voices we don’t” (Johnston, 1995). The authors recognise the problem that many students have come to believe that school is simply about knowledge created by authority, a collection of facts to memorize. These beliefs are then strengthened when all they ever do is work from textbooks, worksheets, and write standardized tests, based on “non-controversial knowledge”. As Johnston and Nicholls would say, “their voice is not heard”.
This is a real problem for the emerging-student-artist. If a student believes that art is simply learnt by memorizing facts or imitating the skills of an authority figure their creativity will be inhibited and they will not come to experience art as individual inquiry, and as a practice of unique and personal sense making and exploration of their own identity. Johnston et al propose the solution of “democratic talk” where there is a space for students to share ideas with their peers in a collaborative spirit.
This idea of dialogue and collaboration is explored by Sydney Walker, with specific reference to understanding the artmaking process or ‘reflective practice’. In her paper (Walker, 2004), the author analyses a 10 week university art education course and uses evidence from this to argue that student artists learn best when they have a ‘reflective practice’. Working with Donald Schon’s idea of a “reflective conversation with the materials of a situation” (Walker, 2004, p.2), the author acknowledges that it is difficult when the artist or designers work has the defining characteristics of “an open-ended situation directed by ongoing dialogue” (Walker, 2004, p.2). The problem is that without knowledge of what this looks like, it is ‘elusive’. That is why, the “practice of artists...should serve as models for classroom instruction” (Walker, 2004, p.3) The author quotes Edgar-Heap-of-Birds Hachivi:
“The first step in teaching is one of informing and inspiring the student with various methods of artistic practice concentrating particularly upon the conceptual themes of artists...This examination of the artists' notions is best done through video-taped artist interviews” (Walker, 2004, p.3)
It should not be a surprise that the video recording of artists - the documentation of their process, and ‘hearing their voice’ - is a recurrent theme in the literature of visual art education. Besides first hand observation and dialogue with an artist over many hours, how else can we truly understand their practice?
In this way, the development of video technology can be seen as a revolution in visual art education, or at least it should be.
Walker goes on to discuss the ‘big ideas’ conceptual approach to art, “elaborated by other elements such as personal connections, knowledge, art making problems, and boundaries” (Walker, 2004, p.3); but, only by observing other artists can “the range of strategies and methods with these different elements” be revealed (Walker, 2004, p.3). The study suggests that a complement to this modelling of good practice, is the maintenance of “reflective documentation as the process evolves” (Walker, 2004, p.4).
Psychologists have long observed that role models are important in developing student creativity. Sternberg et al, for example, argue that profiles or case studies of creative people “gives students powerful information that exists independently and complements previously stored information” (Sternberg, 1996, p.39) They also observe that “students benefit from seeing the techniques, strategies, and approaches that others use in the creative process” (Sternberg, p.40). Additionally, they contend that “students absorb the enthusiasm” that creative people “exude as they go about ...making” (Sternberg, p.40). Another benefit of observing other students at work, and which helps the creative process, is learning to “see the world from a different point of view” (Sternberg, p.41).
In highly structured domains, such as the teaching of algebra, it has been found that ‘expert models are to be preferred over advanced student models’ (Boekhout, 2010). This could be because in these domains, the ‘worked example’ has a single or best solution. Or, that the subject area relies heavily on the retention of ‘facts’, as opposed to exploring different processes. However, learning to work like an artist is not like learning algebra. The artist’s work is about making sense of the world for themselves, and asking questions to explore; it is not about a consensus of problems and solutions. The emerging artist cannot simply find an expert-master-teacher artist, and then simply imitate their thinking, their values, their ‘sense of the world’. Indeed, it could be argued that an advanced art student is an ‘expert’ of sorts, but not in the sense of ‘master’ of the subject (as in master-apprentice relationship). Through the course of their practice they have developed a competence in process complementing a special and unique knowledge of sets of interconnected ideas and themes. Interestingly, in the Boekhout study (Boekhout, 2010), it was not a teacher that was compared with an advanced student model, but a ‘practical expert’ in the subject being taught (in this case, physiotherapy). I would argue that a student that has carried out an independent art inquiry, and effectively documented it, has a particular area of ‘expertise’. In some ways, each artist is uniquely expert, in terms of creativity and originality.
But this is not a simple matter of copying one artist’s process and adopting their ideas and values. This would be the antithesis of becoming an artist. Instead, it is a case of comprehending what an art practice ‘can’ look like, and the infinite number of ways that this could manifest itself in the individual emerging artist. As Bandura and Walters observed, modeling need not be about facsimile copying or straight imitation, “in addition to transmitting fixed repertoires of behaviours, modeling influences can, contrary to popular belief, create generative and innovative behaviour as well”. (Bandura, 1977,p.10) This is partly because observers naturally select more than one model:
“Observers...may select one or models ...but they rarely restrict their imitation to a single source, nor do they adopt all of the characteristics of the preferred model. Rather, observers generally exhibit relatively novel responses representing amalgams of elements from different models...paradoxical as it may seem, innovative patterns can emerge solely through modeling” (Bandura, 1977,p.11)
In her survey/interview style study of the modelling of art in university courses, Kylie Budge argues that “learning to be an artist...is a complex process of becoming” and that having practising artists (as opposed to traditional didactic methods) model practice is important because “witnessing and interacting with such modelling is a process of students learning the shared discourses, views and practices...it enables students to access the tacit and nuanced behaviours, languages and cultures that constitute contemporary art” (Budge, 2016, p.243)
Budge surveys the literature on art education and concludes that little research has been done into the importance of ‘identity formation’, and argues that “trying on the identity of artist...is a core part of ‘learning to be’ an artist, and that close observation of other artists as models is essential in this process. Budge is careful to define ‘modelling’ here not as ‘role models’, but the “acting out a practice and the behaviour and activity associated with that” (Budge, p.245).
Budge points to the relevance of Polanyi's theory of tacit knowledge - “we know more than we can tell”, and hence the need to carefully observe practice, rather than simply listen to a teacher.
Budge identifies the two central aspects of art learning, both of which are best addressed with modelling practice: “how to do” (make and talk about work), and “how to know” (the development of conceptual processes). In this study, students had access to observing artist practice first hand, and reading the artists’ blogs where they documented their work (Budge, p.249). Budge concludes that “modelling of practice...was a key element” (Budge, p.254) in the learning of art.
The important point here is that the artist-model is not a ‘role model’ in the sense of a person to be simply imitated; neither are they a ‘master’ of the subject, in the traditional sense, as if the subject can be ‘mastered’. These are ‘peer models’, artists that the student artist can relate to. This means that often what is most useful is the observation of hesitations, tentative steps, uncertainty in the practice of others.
Braaksma et al (Braaksma, 2002) surveyed the literature on learning environments in which learners learn from models, and found that the effectiveness of ‘observational learning’ (the key learning activity in peer modelling) depended on a number of factors including ‘perceived similarity in competence between model and observer’ (Braaksma, p.405), and the fact that the peer model did not have to be considered a ‘master’ of the subject, but could be ‘coping models’ showing hesitation and ‘errors’. These are two very important reasons for a diverse archive of peer modelling videos. This is also supported by social learning theory, and the importance of ‘self-selection’. Bandura and Walters point out that whether or not “people choose to perform what they have learned observationally is strongly influenced by the consequences of such actions”. However, social learning theory demonstrates that response to modelling is also regulated by “self-reinforcement” and that the greatest influence is seen “under self-selection conditions”. (Bandura, 1977,p.10) “Innovative patterns can emerge solely through modeling” because observers, given the opportunity (e.g. an online on-demand diverse archive of peer modelling videos) select from many sources, and their learning represents “amalgams of elements from different models” (Bandura, 1977,p.11) This is supported by Schunk, who hypothesized that:
“...multiple models presumably increase the probability that observers will perceive themselves as similar in competence to at least one of the models...Especially when subjects doubt their capabilities for learning or performing well, they may discount the successes of a single peer. Observation of diverse instances of peer success may better promote subjects' self-efficacy.” (Schunk, 1987, p.152)
Schunk reviewed 29 studies of peer models and found some evidence that “peer models can enhance children’s self-efficacy for learning cognitive skills better than adult models” (Schunk, 1987, p.153). Sometimes the artist-teacher model can fail because children “wonder whether they were capable of becoming as competent as the model” (Schunk, 1987, p.153). There is perhaps a paradox with the situation where, on the one hand, the presence of an ‘expert’, ‘artist-teacher’, in the classroom can engender confidence in students; but, on the other hand, their competence might be interpreted as so far removed from the students experience that they do not find it directly relevant to their situation. This is not to discount the teachers practice as a model, but to suggest that multiple and diverse models are preferable, particularly where these are perceived as ‘peers’.
Recently there has been some interesting neuroscience research relating to observational learning that might also support the peer modelling approach, and suggest best practice in the production of the videos. It has been found, for example, that not only can humans encode how a goal is achieved when observing another human, “thereby enabling imitation”, but also they have a role in “understanding action, that is, in inferring of actions” (Van Gog, 2009, p.5)
This means that a student watching a peer modeling video has the potential to understand the ‘why’ of the artist-students practice. This is critical for ‘transfer’. Studies on babies have shown that they can interpret observed action in terms of context and goals, and then achieve similar goals without direct imitation, but through ‘rational imitation’, doing it their own way (Van Gog, 2009, p.5) If the observed actions are accompanied by the observed’s ‘thinking aloud’ (e.g. video narration by the artist-peer), then it is also possible that the mirror neurons are responsible for observational learning of cognitive skills (Van Gog, 2009, p.11)
Abrahmov, S. L., & Ronen, M. (2008). Double blending: online theory with on-campus practice in photography instruction. Innovations in Education & Teaching International, 45(1), 3–14.
Aldred, M [Mathew Aldred] (2019a, November 2019 ) AJ on the making of Excavations #1
Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/1mtoYbR6_Bg
Aldred, M [Mathew Aldred] (2019b, December 2019) Landon’s Art Project
Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/hfRQHht73mc
Aldred, M [Mathew Aldred] (2019c, October 2019) Peer Modelling (Transforming Pedagogy for Emerging Technologies Project)
Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/-NspjqshESs
Aldred, M [Mathew Aldred] (2019d, July 2019) Voices we need to hear
Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/vTwaFVexodw
Aldred, M [Mathew Aldred] (2019e, June 2019) Making a Blended Visual Art Classroom with YouTube
Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFgiCY0Rg4Q
Aldred, M [Mathew Aldred] (2020a, February 2020 ) Jackie’s “Dreams & Nightmares”
Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/Tc6Q0v4RETI
Aldred, M (2020b) Transforming Pedagogy with Peer Modeling Videos in a Blended Visual Art Classroom
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