The Goal ...

Last week I told you about the 'guided conversation' method that I used with all my English classes, back in the days when I was a language teacher. It was hugely successful, and I think that most of the students looked forward to their weekly visit to our home. At least they knew they would never be subjected to lectures from the 'sensei'. In our classroom, the students were the ones who did most of the talking!

Well, I began this topic last week by mentioning that this was all going to be about new printer Tsushima-san, and perhaps by now you can see the connection. Yes, I'm taking pretty much the same approach to her training as I did with the English students all those years ago: a minimum of explanation and theory, and a maximum of 'learning by doing'.

I should perhaps be careful of making overly strong generalizations, but it does seems to me that the teacher/student relationship in this culture usually follows a fairly predictable pattern. The student is considered an 'empty vessel' into which knowledge is poured by the teacher - in a carefully controlled, step-by-step procedure. The teacher directs the process; the student is a passive recipient.

This is certainly how my English students were being treated when in their classrooms at school. But once they were 'safe' in my classroom, they were allowed to 'learn by doing', exactly the same method that they used when learning their own mother tongue.

And Tsushima-san? On her first day, a couple of months ago, I prepared some pigment, paper, tools, and a woodblock, then sat down at the bench and pulled a couple of impressions, giving an absolute minimum of explanation. She then took her place at the bench and gave it a try. For the next hour or so we switched back and forth in turn; I printed a few, she printed a few. She realized very early on that this wasn't the sort of skill that could be explained. It would be pointless for me to start talking about "press a bit harder here", or "put more water over here". She simply has to feel these things for herself. Woodblock printing is not an intellectual exercise, it is physical. It is athletic!

I don't mean to exaggerate a lack of communication here. She sometimes asks questions, and I of course answer as best I can. And I do want her to learn as much as possible about the background, history and culture of printmaking, so we have been chatting about that sort of thing endlessly as we work. But the main point is this: each session I prepare the materials - the 'guided conversation' - and set her a task that I know she will be able to accomplish. Does she 'understand' what she is doing? Not really. But at this stage that is irrelevant. First comes the doing; later comes the understanding.

I suppose there may be some of you who read this who are shaking your heads. Surely it is a teacher's job to 'teach' ... to elucidate and explain. Well, as it happens, I don't think so. There are not many things I regret in my life, but one of them is that when I was a teenager, stuck in that ridiculous school system, sitting at desks in neat rows, all reading the same book at the same time, with bells ringing to tell us all to 'start learning now', I didn't (yet) have the strength of character to walk away from it all and strike out on my own.

Basically, I don't think we can be 'taught' anything. Simply we need to be supplied with materials, resources, and examples. We do the rest for ourselves, following the models closely at first, then branching out on our own as we gain experience and fluency.

Tsushima-san - having a (very) good model close at hand - is making wonderful progress, far better than I myself did back at the beginning. Before we get the next trainee here, I think I had better prepare that large poster for the workshop that I have been planning for some time ...

"It is the goal of all the trainees to make Dave the worst printer in the building!"


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