Experiencing Teaching & Learning Assumptions at the National Gallery

Written by Dr Marian McCarthy and AHEAD Summer School participants

At 15.15, on the 27th August 2013, Day 1 of the UDL Summer School for Health Professionals Working with Students with Disabilities, we left the UCD campus in a fleet of taxis bound for the National Gallery, where our workshop on exploring our assumptions regarding teaching and learning was to take place. Prior to departure, participants had been briefed on Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), which claims that we have a variety of intelligences, rather than one generic intelligence or intelligence quotient (IQ), which we bring to bear on our problem solving across the disciplines and in real life contexts. In line with the promise of the abstract for this workshop, the theory was then aligned with the central concepts of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which also underlines the importance of having multiple means of representing knowledge, of engaging students and of providing opportunities for multiple ways of expressing that knowledge, if all students are to have the opportunity to make the most of their learning.

Conducting the workshop in the Gallery provided an appropriate setting to engage with MI and UDL principles: All participants were in a new classroom space –that of the gallery- which re-defined the learning experience, literally opening it up to new ways of representing what learning is (through experiencing the art works), new ways of engaging with the work (through close observation of art, defined by the variety of Entry Points to learning provided by Gardner’s theory) and new ways of expressing the experience (through negotiated, discursive learning defined in the group work experience of peer observation and discussion).

National Gallery - Image shows 5 paintings

In this Project MUSE approach, where museums and galleries are harnessed as sites that provide us with valuable learning experiences, participants were invited firstly to explore the exhibition in the wing devoted to Modern Irish Art for themselves, in groups of five or six. Participants were then encouraged to select one painting which they were all happy to work on and to spend thirty minutes using a variety of ways in (or entry points) to the paintings, such as narrational ways into the work through story, or experiential ways in through role play, or social ways in through group work and discussion and so on. Gardner names at least seven ways into any learning experience and invites teachers to explore these over time; hence, the focus on a variety of ways of representing knowledge and of engaging students in their learning. Such approaches inevitably lead to students’ multiple ways of expressing their learning in the light of the variety of their engagement with the learning experience.

Reactions to this process were positive and multifaceted. Participants commented on the fact that they had never spent such a long time in front of one work of art. Such a point gave rise to discussion regarding the time needed to really explore a topic, in this case a painting, and led to discussion regarding deep, as opposed to surface, approaches to learning. It was also interesting that groups chose a variety of paintings; a range of portraits, for example, were chosen. One group examined Colin Davidson’s portrait of Michael Longley – which they saw as a dramatic portrait with strong brush strokes and a larger than life effect– like that of the poet.

Another group focused on Yeats’ Men of Destiny and its characterising of the heroic in its bold use of colour. Other groups worked on the new exhibition in this wing entitled The World of Performance: Dance, Theatre and Song and its portraits of actors like Muriel Brandt’s Micheál Mac Liammóir and Sean Keatings’ Jimmy O’Dea. Regardless of the work chosen, what was common in discussion afterwards, over coffee in the gallery restaurant, was that no two people interpret the work in the same way; each brought a unique perspective to the work, which was borne out of their own experience of life and of the disciplines in which they were immersed.

Another key point that emerged was the nature of and the effect of the group dynamic: as a member of the group it became important to listen to the other and to take on new perspectives. Participants also noted that though there were divergent views there was also coherence and common threads in the discussion that emerged. The longer the group worked together the more they were able to listen to and accommodate each other’s perspectives. In a nutshell, exploring a work of art on its many levels is another way of talking about and experiencing the meaning and implications of a universal design for learning approach. The gallery provides us with that magic space where we can begin again to experience learning in all its richness, complexity and variety.

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