Photo by Teddy Kelly / Unsplash

In this final vodcast of the series, Brad Haseman, Executive Vice President of Kadenze, Inc. discusses the distinctive effects arts-led learning is having on online learning design. Here he introduces the Mastery effect. You can view the three earlier vodcasts – Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

The internet is congested with advice presented in lists of tips and tricks – have you noticed that? Have you also noticed the same approach is used over and over to teach about ‘learning’? From ‘learning to improve your kissing technique’ to ‘learning to train your brain to be smarter’, as though all learning involves the architecture of human cognition in the same ways. Yet we know that this cannot be true; learning to ‘memorise knowledge’ for example, makes different cognitive demands on trainee teachers than learning how to ‘activate the artistry of others’, a key capability for teaching the arts and design.

The Mastery Effect

One quintessential dimension of arts learning lies around the ways learners acquire the skills and techniques they need to become fluent in the expression of a particular art form, be that the visual arts and design, the performing arts, the screen-based arts or hybrid arts. These skills are typically hard-won in the studio. At Kadenze, there has been intense experimentation about how this method of teaching can be adapted for the online learner by addressing the question, “Can skills be learned effectively in the absence of studio sweat?”. The answers to that question provides the substance for the eighth and final effect discussed in this series, the Mastery effect.

Kadenze has evolved an approach to skills acquisition which, while not replacing the value of close scrutiny in the studio, sets out a learning sequence to support and accelerate mastery using the online environment. This learning sequence, outlined in the vodcast, involves breaking each skill into manageable steps, making close and often repeated observations of the skill in action which enables learners to visualise themselves carrying it out.

Offline, deliberate practice exercises are filmed, then shared online and used for critique by individuals and groups. This creates all-important feedback loops on performance and establishes an objective understanding of progress. Finally, the skills are applied in other contexts of purpose, for without such opportunities to apply and transfer expertise, proficiency will only be partial. Interestingly, this sequence to growing mastery was prefigured in 1934 by John Dewey, the great teacher of experiential learning, in Art as Experience.

The Star Power of Cognitive Overload

This series has discussed the way eight learning effects drawn from the principles of arts education can be used to enrich online pedagogy. It is worth concluding this discussion by addressing the principal difference underpinning current online pedagogy and arts education.

Over the past twenty years, Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) has become an established and leading theory in the field of e-learning and online pedagogy. CLT makes a number of assumptions regarding memory systems and learning processes, different kinds of cognitive load, and their implications for learning design. Essentially, it argues that instructors need to attend to the ways in which a learner’s cognitive resources are focused and used during learning and problem solving. It holds that for instruction to be effective, care must be taken to design instructions so as to not overload the mind’s capacity for processing information.

This stands in stark contrast to the way people experience the arts and a number of assumptions about learning which arts educators value. Rather than protect learners from cognitive overload some species of the arts deliberately structure experiences which cognitively overload audiences, readers, and viewers. They intentionally overload the senses and stress neural pathways the brain has set down.

In 1770, Immanuel Kant wrote most tellingly on this in his discussion of the sublime in his Critique of Judgement. For Kant, when we experience the sublime, such as during a raging and violent storm or the vastness of the limitless starry night, our cognitive capacities boggle, they struggle to cope and make sense of the sensory data which is bombarding them. However, this cognitive overload does not result in a loss of meaning or intelligibility. Indeed for Kant it is the most mindful of experiences where the very fabric of cognitive life is renewed and replenished as old concepts are transformed or die and new ones are born.

So arts educators understand that not all cognitive overload is necessarily negative, but rather can stretch the limits of cognition in ways which befuddle the working memory yet at the same time motivate the learner to struggle for meaning amid the excess. This is not to dismiss Cognitive Load Theory of course (it is a potent approach to teaching some kinds of learning), but to remind us that CLT is not a complete or sufficient theory of all human learning and knowing.

Our challenge as online educators is to situate the most compelling from CLT and other eLearning theories alongside the complex operations of mind which can flow from arts experiences. By the end of his life Kant valued the experience of cognitive overload through the sublime as among the most profound moments of being human. His epitaph broadcasts it down the centuries:

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

As the force of arts education increasingly comes to enrich online learning environments, may there be, for students everywhere, limitless opportunities for more ‘…starry heavens above’ learning.

In the video below, Brad Haseman talks more about the Mastery effect of arts-led learning and how it shapes online learning design.