Progress in Learning – lessons from painting and poetry

I am once again amazed by how I keep coming across poems (in the ModPo MOOC) that resonate with the research I am currently working on with my colleagues Roy Williams and Jutta Pauschenwein.

This week we have been discussing, in relation to a paper we are writing, how difficult it is to succinctly describe emergent learning and how difficult it is to capture it. (My last post relates to this). We attempt to do this through our visualization methodology – footprints of emergence  – but we are aware that each visualization is only a snapshot of a brief instance in time. (See our open wiki for examples of these visualizations).

We have found that if we tell our workshop participants that the footprint they have drawn of their learning experience could be different if drawn the next hour, day, week, month – then they question the value of the process. The idea that progress in learning can’t be pinned down is so counter-intuitive. But this week I feel I had confirmation of the constantly changing nature of student progress in learning from a number of sources.

1. In week 3 of ModPo,  we have been introduced to Ezra Pound’s poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’. In this he tries to represent what he sees in a moment and in so doing acknowledges how fleeting that moment is. I discuss how this resonates with me in my last blog post

2. A book chapter by Ray Land and Jan H.F. Meyer. I was trying to find out more about what we mean by transformational learning. On page xvii of the book (or p.18 of the PDF document) they describe a student’s progress along the transformational journey as like a ‘flickering movie’.

3. This reminded me of Eadweard Muybridge’s book – The Human Figure in Motion, which I have had on my bookshelf for about 40 years.


Through his camera, Muybridge captured what the eye could not see as separate movements, just as the imagist poets sought analogy with sculpture, and just as educators try to capture the dynamics of the learning process and progress in learning, usually through assessment, but in our case through Footprints of Emergence.

4.  And finally coming back again to ModPo – Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, which was used to explain that with prolonged exposure motion can be captured in different frames.


This painting is viewed in ModPo alongside William Carlos Williams’ poem, ‘Portrait of a Lady’

Williams tries to find the language to depict a portrait of a lady. He and Duchamp tried to rebuke traditional depictions. Duchamp attempts to depict multiple perspectives at different points in time and Williams shows how difficult it is to do this in words. Both Williams and Duchamp are saying that if you look at a portrait a 100 times you will see something different each time.

This is exactly the problem we have with capturing the meaning of learning, because it is in constant motion. Not only do we not have adequate language to describe it, but we also cannot fix it in time. These are the issues we are struggling with in our work on Footprints of Emergence, and what we mean when we say that a Footprint depicts a snapshot in time. For us the value in this is in a recognition of the dynamic complexity of learning and therefore the need to surface deep tacit understanding of the learning experience.

Imagism, interpretation and education

In Week 3 of ModPo we have been introduced to the Imagist movement in poetry, focussing on the poetry of Hilda Doolittle (or H.D. as she liked to sign herself) and Ezra Pound. The Imagists wanted to escape the wordy floweriness and blurry, sloppy, careless thinking (as they saw it) of their predecessors. They wanted their poetry to depict precise, clear and sharp visual images, which were devoid of sentiment and economic in the use of language. They attempted to isolate a single image, and reveal its essence as we see here in Ezra Pound’s poem

In a station of the Metro jpgSource of image:

The imagists felt so strongly about this that they even wrote an Imagist Manifesto.

They aimed at ‘clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images’.

How successful they were is the subject of much debate in the Week 3 ModPo forums, and the question of whether it is ever possible to write in such a way that your writing is interpreted exactly as you mean it to be and depicts exactly what you saw has been on my mind all week.

Somewhere in one of the videos this week, I can’t recall where, a comment was made to the effect that it is only in poetry that you would see an attempt at condensing language in this way.  Evidently Ezra Pound started off without about 30 lines for his poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, before he condensed it down to two (three with the title). But my sense is that this is something that all writers, and indeed educators, have to deal with. For example, one of my colleagues, when writing up her research, writes as a stream of consciousness and then has to reduce 10000 words to 5000 for submission to a journal. Researchers are very often asked to be more succinct and concise in their writing. In a recent review of an article I submitted for publication, the reviewer shouted at me FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS! – I say shouted because it came to me just like that – in capital letters. S/he was right though 🙂

I don’t think I am alone in finding it incredibly difficult to be succinct and concise – to condense writing from a stream of consciousness to a short piece.  It has been pointed out in the forums that the nearest thing that could be likened to what the imagists were trying achieve is scientific writing, where, for example, nominalization is often used to condense writing and make it harder, more precise and more formal.

In scientific writing, techniques such as nominalization are aimed at clarifying definitions and bringing readers to a common understanding. The focus of the imagist poets on condensing their writing seems to me to have the opposite effect – it completely opens up the poem to an infinite number of interpretations.

It struck me that this is a dilemma faced by teachers, educators, authors and researchers (and maybe all artists) all the time, i.e. how much information is the right amount to keep the message clear. It seems to me that both too much and too little can lead to mixed messages and problems of interpretation. This is something I have known for a long time. I just hadn’t expected it to be confirmed by poetry!