Learning about learning from Gertrude Stein

Gertrude_Stein_by_Alvin_Langdon_Coburn Link to source of image

ModPo moves on at a furious pace – a bit too fast for me!  Week 5 has started (with the theme of Anti-Modernist Doubts), but I am still thinking about Week 4 and Gertrude Stein –  and what I can learn from her about teaching and learning. Of course, this was not her objective. According to one of the poets who presented with Al Filreis in the great live webcast  this week….

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/DuPlessis.php
Bob Perelman: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Perelman.php
Ron Silliman: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Silliman.php

….. I think it was Rachel Blau DuPlessis – Stein was the total proponent of discovery. ‘She was not concerned about the future and her legacy, instead her focus was on the excitement of an opening present’ – how refreshing.

But despite this I think Stein has a lot of messages for teachers and learners, never mind poets and authors – so a legacy in spite of herself.

I will try and gather my thoughts into some sort of order, although in doing this I contradict my first point and Gertrude Stein!

1. Thinking spatially, instead of linearly.

A ModPo participant phoned in to the live webcast to say that last year she couldn’t make sense of Stein’s work. This year she had an ‘epiphany’ when she realized that Stein’s work cannot be thought of linearly –  she realized she had to think of Stein’s poetry in terms of spatial relationships. According to one of the guest poets (apologies for not remembering who) Stein’s work proceeds rhythmically. Her writing is very clear but very abstract. For Stein the continual present is what is important – things don’t add up.

For me thinking spatially instead of linearly describes the learning process. We like to think we are working through a curriculum/syllabus linearly, and pretty much everything in education is presented to us in this way (even ModPo!) – but in fact our learning, even the learning of very small children, does not proceed in a linear orderly fashion, but goes forwards and backwards and from side to side – in fact in every direction. This relates to Stephen Downes’ thoughts about learning being the recognition of patterns (connectivism) and Dave Cormier’s work on rhizomatic learning.

2. The role of multiple perspectives

Picasso and the Cubists wanted to see and present different sides of an object – to see the object from multiple perspectives. Stein tried to do the same with words.  Here is a video of her reading her Portrait of Picasso –

There is also a video in which we can see how she goes even further than Picasso. The video puts her poetry to dance (which relates to the point I make about embodied learning below). (This video has been made private, since I initially wrote this post).

For Stein each word was an event. Any word in Stein’s work is a frame. It could mean a lot of different things. Learning in MOOCs has exposed us to a greatly increased number of perspectives in terms of the people we could come in contact with (34 000 in ModPo), than was possible in the small classes and limited access to texts of the past.  It is interesting to think of the different ways in which learners can be exposed to multiple perspectives and the effect of multiple perspectives on learning. For Stein it was about liberation from traditional ways of thinking and writing – putting her mind through a different way of thinking.

3. Risk and transformative learning

It was suggested in the webcast that without the Cubists there would have been no Gertrude Stein as we know her. The effect of the Cubists was to completely disrupt her existing way of thinking and writing, moving her irreversibly into a new relationship with words. The Cubists changed her ‘frames of reference’. As Meyer and Land  would describe it, she passed through a portal

a threshold  has always demarcated that which belongs within, the place of familiarity and relative security, from what lies beyond that, the unfamiliar, the unknown, the potentially dangerous. It reminds us too that all journeys begin with leaving that familiar space and crossing over into the riskier space beyond the threshold. (p.ix)

Stein was seeking a new kind of community and meaning making. She embraced the unfamiliar riskier space. Learning is not always ‘safe’ .

4. Embodied learning

I have always thought of embodied learning in terms of using the whole body. Little children do this through play as a natural part of their every day learning and there are some disciplines, such as dance, sport and some of the arts subjects where embodied learning is an easily recognizable element. It is harder to think about embodied learning in relation to text-based disciplines, but I think Stein shows us how this might be done. Stein treats words as impressionist brush strokes. See for example

Water Raining – from Tender Buttons.  (scroll down to find it)

Water astonishing and difficult altogether makes a meadow and a stroke.

Stein paints poetry and writes poetry as music. It was suggested in the webcast that she uses words for self-pleasuring – a form of intellectual eroticism. She plays a game with herself, not a game with us – enjoying the mechanisms of her mind – pleasuring herself – enjoying herself. Stein threw herself into her world of words as Jackson Pollock threw paint onto a canvas.

There is more, much more, I could learn from Gertrude Stein, but I want to keep up with the linear flow of the ModPo syllabus 😉 – so I’ll have to come back to Stein another time. Would Stein have been a ModPo participant?  I wonder. Maybe too linear for her?

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.

Nude_Descending_a_StaircaseSource: http://www.marcelduchamp.net/Nude_Descending_a_Staircase.php

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.