Teaching problem solving

The great potter/teacher/blogger Kelly Kessler has been asking some great questions in recent days. I found today’s post extremely provocative. In it she delves into the issue of artists finding their own truths. This is a complex issue and becomes even more tricky in situations where the artist is still in the early stages of learning their craft.

One of the great obstacles of learning anything is a fear of the unknown. Its easy to get intimidated by what we don’t know and there is often an insecurity in our attempts to deal with it. But where fear holds us back confidence will set us free. I am not talking about the blind confidence that says you can do anything you can imagine. That is always a foolish arrogance. Rather, I am talking about the confidence to make the attempt, the confidence that says trying is what counts and nothing is lost if it doesn’t work out. I am talking about confidence as an antidote to fear, as a permission to give it a go, to not hold back, and to not be shattered when you can’t pull it off.

And so, I would say that an artist’s ability to find their own truths is a manifestation of their sense of adventure. It is their ability to problem solve, to take on new questions and to find new answers. And as such, it is more about an attitude than it is about particular skills. We are willing to risk. We wager that things are not yet set in stone and that the future is an open and mysterious terrain, there for us to explore. There are no rules except what gets the job done, and those are always only provisional. Our path is an intrepid sense of adventure and discovery.

Students need to believe its alright and important to try new things, to figure it out on their own. And this means learning that they can do something a particular way, but that they don’t have to do it only this way. This can sometimes be difficult for students to remember. I have found that keeping students open minded about their options is difficult when their confidence seems to hinge on the mastery of a particular technique. They have discovered something that works and they cling to this. They use it on all their pots. A pet technique. It starts as an answer to a particular problem, becomes a habit, and ends up limiting their willingness to explore new ground. They have found one way of doing things and they stop there. And instead of that technique being one stepping stone among many it becomes the isolated island that they live on. What they do is circumscribed by what they already know how to do.

So the question is how to keep that open mindedness alive. Problem solving means you don’t already know all the answers, but that this uncertainty is a good thing. It is the spur that drives progress. It is a discomfort with the way things are, an uneasiness with the given. The ones that already know all the answers are done growing. There are no new questions because all the problems have already been solved.

And in this way knowing can become dogmatic. Instead of seeing that the more we know the more we know how little that is, the self satisfied artist has closed himself off. Anything outside the way of doing things he has learned, the techniques he has mastered, is irrelevant and/or uninteresting. And in this way the artist with all the answers is the antithesis of a problem solver. There are no new questions, only old answers. And the safety of already knowing what we are doing becomes the excuse to not step outside that comfort zone.

So I would say that problem solving is definitely an attitude about our place in the world. It is a fearlessness in the face of the unknown. It is an acceptance of the challenge to discover new things, to break old rules and habits, and to tinker with possibility. But exploring doesn’t mean forgetting or rejecting what we have learned. These are merely tools in our toolbox, to be used or discarded as necessary. And so it is always also a balance between the new and the foundation of the things we are standing on. Are we using that knowledge to launch ourselves forward or are we forever stuck where we are at?

So, how do you help your students keep that sense of adventure alive (How do you keep it alive in yourself)? How do you teach them to get over their fears of the unfamiliar, to not be intimidated, and to not settle for the easy answers (How do you overcome them yourself)? How do you nurture their desire to be problem solvers (How do you nurture this in yourself)? These are all questions I struggle with in my teaching and in my own work. I have seen it play out in so many different ways, and I’m always looking for new ideas for keeping that open minded optimism alive. I’m not sure if its true, but I sometimes believe that the students who really stick with it are the ones who are more successful in cultivating that spirit of invention and learning to think for themselves. What do you think? What are the ways you go about teaching this or cultivating it in yourself? I would love to get some feedback. And please share this with others if you think it might interest them. Thanks!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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4 Responses to Teaching problem solving

  1. john bauman says:

    The classroom seemed to be divided generally between the students who asked “will this be on the test?”…. These were the students — often at the top of the class — who learned by a certain assumption that everything could be learned by rote and therefore there must be a technique or rule for everything…

    …. and those who pretty quickly noted patterns to the information and learned the concepts.

    I was an over-thinker on the multiple choice tests that those rote learners favored. I was a blue book guy. I killed essays.

    Pottery can be learned either way, seems to me. You can be told, for instance, “never take your hands quickly away from the spinning pot.” And you can never take your hands quickly away, and successfully learn to throw by that hard and fast rule.

    Or….you can understand what is being suggested conceptually — that if you take your hands away from the wheel quickly, you will have done to one “side” of a pot’s circle what you have not yet done to the rest of its circle.

    If you fall into the latter camp, you might then say to yourself, “hey….I wonder if I can purposely pull my hands away quickly and create a lack of symmetry that I might turn to my decorative pleasure?”

    Just thinking out loud with you, Carter.

    • Hey John! Thanks for chiming in!

      Yeah, those are excellent examples, and I agree that things can be learned either way. I’m an over-thinker like you. I tend to worry that students who only learn the techniques and not the reasons for using them are only hemming themselves in. They know how to address specific problems but they have not learned that there are other ways of doing the same job or what else that technique can lead them to. They simply haven’t learned to think for themselves. They can’t see the bigger picture because they are so focused on the particulars.

      So, your example of the rote learners is perfect. My perspective is that teaching technique as an end in itself is great in the short term (it gives students an immediate taste of ‘success’ and helps keep their interest), but it isn’t doing them any favors in the long run if they never develop the ability to think for themselves. If we train ourselves entirely by these small rewards we only ever get to a shallow understanding. Like an addict we become focused on the next fix. And those rote learning aces? Once the test is done they can safely forget all that trivia. They passed the test, and instead of having learned something important or enduring they have merely rented some brain space for a limited purpose.

      I have a whole other post planned on this specific issue, so I won’t go too deep into it here. I am glad you raised this issue though, because it fits perfectly with the point I’m trying to make. Thanks for helping me out!

  2. I was ruminating along the same lines as John. Though I am not a teacher, I was a student just four or five years ago. One thing I noticed was that beginners were often shy of their imperfect work. I believe the instant gratification our world delivers at an alarming rate may have an impact on this, but it was almost like everyone expected to be able to master the craft right out of the box– and the instructors, for the most part, did keep bringing them back to the basics. The right way to center, trim the top if it gets out of round, toss it if it bulges, or collapses. Clay Play was not encouraged. So an interesting shape was never explored, or even seen, and only works that fit within certain parameters were ever brought to critique. I saw many students create perfectly acceptable bowls or cylinders that never made it to bone dry status– never felt the heat of the kiln, or got the bath in the glaze. It makes me wonder if some of that had been encouraged, what new work or artist would be working now, making me go ‘oooh, aaaahh!’ Of course I never wondered much about it until I read this blog and then had all that delicious time in the studio to reminisce. I was lucky. My first pottery instructors were a hippie couple from California, and my next was trained in the south of France, the third a Brit operating a pottery in Germany– so by the time I got to ‘school’ I knew that there were many different ways to work upon the wheel, many clay bodies, kiln temps, glaze options, and more chemistry/alchemy going on than a mind could learn in a lifetime. I love the option now with the internet to see how different people work. It’s made an amazing difference to me in the studio to have that experience available. And then to see what they produce? wow…. it really opens up creative energy and ideas, and once begun, they just seem to expand from there. A teacher’s encouragement to explore the clay, to play, and not to get obsessed about the outcome can make all the difference!

    • Thanks for the great comment Cara! I love hearing about your experiences and I’m so glad you share them with us.

      I am totally with you in wondering what might have been if certain students I knew had been encouraged to explore in more playful and experimental directions. I have seen too many examples of students who have learned just a enough to do some one thing and then focused all their work only on that. Instead of keeping an open mind and continuing to explore other ways of doing things.

      I think that there is a point where that kind of focus is important, but if it comes too early it halts the artist’s ability to become a problem solver. It stops them from growing and it stops them from thinking for themselves. Thinking is an activity. Its not thinking if you are only regurgitating answers. So settling on a way of doing things too early in your growth only means that not only have you not learned very much but you have learned all you are ever going to learn. Kind of sad if you ask me….

      And that’s why I believe it is so important to keep that curious and inquisitive side of ourselves alive. That’s why keeping in touch with our imagination and with our native creativity is so vital. That’s why continuing to problem solve and think for ourselves is crucial. Or, that’s what I believe anyway.

      Thanks as always for your comment!

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