Alexandria Online

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Innovation and Tradition

In a school like The Episcopal Academy, we must maintain a careful balance between innovation and tradition. We are handing down an old and sacred cultural heritage, whether we teach the tradition of story time with kindergartners or the method of solving integrals.

"Innovation is flexibility" said David Sigel, a colleague who teaches visual art. I put down the grapefruit I was carrying on his work table. There was more to this.

"Is rigidity bad?" I asked.

"No," David refined his point, "but innovation is flexibility within limits. If we are completely rigid, we can't move forward."

"Is forward always the direction we want to go? What about tradition?"

"It's about mentorship, apprenticeship. Each generation innovates on the traditions that were handed down to them."

"So tradition is where we are coming from, but not where we are going. It is what we have to work with, but we must make something new out of it."

"Yes. Imitation. Artists learn from their predecessors; they imitate them."

And then they create.

David showed me this video about kindergartners teaching each other to draw through critique.

The presenter is Ron Berger, author of Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment

At first it seemed only loosely related to our discussion: a typical scene of a great teacher who has coached his students to improve their drawing by critiquing each other. On another level, it is a good example of flexibility within limits. It describes what kindergarten classes all over this country do all the time: learn to draw with markers or crayons on a 8.5 X 11 sheet of paper at a table with about 15-20 other 5 year olds and one or two trained adults supervising them. Those are the limits: the norms, expectations and traditions of the culture.

Given those limits, the teacher used a method that suited these kids, in this school, in this country, in the early 21st Century in ways that were brilliantly effective. Most probably, when this teacher was in kindergarten, the instruction he received bore no resemblance to the method he practices now.

I picked up my grapefruit and told David I would be back to continue this discussion.

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