Learning Circle – Interview with Garry Berteig (Updated)

The Learning Circle is a graphical description of the cyclical stages of learning and the qualities that are necessaary to go from one stage to the next. This method has been developed by the artist and teacher Garry Berteig as part of the application of Agile Work to his instruction. What follows is a short iterview with Garry after he attended one of my Agile Project Management / ScrumMaster Certification courses.

The Learning Circle

AA. Why should people be interested in this Learning Circle?

GB. Usually, the action/reflection cycle is one of trial and error… it’s a very common experience for us, say learning to ride bike, through trial and error we actually learn. We also learn by modeling behaviors. We learn to speak, we learn to socialize. So that’s a very short feedback loop. It’s very effective.

What interested me about this model comes out of recognizing that my students didn’t really know how to identify their own learning. And so they expected the teacher to determine what they had learned by giving them exams and other sorts of assignments with marks. Then I came across a development model in the “Building Momentum” document issued by the Baha’i World Center around 2003. There were very interesting considerations that focused on learning by using short three month cycle with reflection gatherings that ended a sequence of action, reflection, learning and planning. I thought it would be interesting to apply features of this Building Momentum document to my art classes because there it would be possible to increase the frequency of the cycle from three months to say six to twelve cycles in three months. Further to increasing the frequency of cycles, the student grouping in my class is quite diverse and it would be a way of testing what the model could generate in a group that was usein the model as a tool for artistic growth.

After explaining it to the students I tried it and applied as best as I could in the context of several art classes. The students were delighted with how easy it was to apply to their own lives! Not only to art. And so they bought into it as a method. Gradually we began to use the Action Reflection Learning Planning model in our method of conducting a critique. This circle was applied to work that the students did based in assignments. It became clear that this model had generated learning attributes in these students – these were exciting for me to recognize. I gradually recognized these attributes were arising from the movement from one stage to the next in the learning circle.

AA. Describe how this learning cycle was applied in your class.

GB. [In my sculpture class we used] a four-step process and in each step we use the circle as a critique method. The first step was to make an egg shape out of clay. Because it’s the first time, it takes them about 45 minutes to make an egg shape about 6” long and 5” wide. Then I had them do it again. And this time it would only take them about 10 minutes. And the third time they did it they could probably make the same thing in about 5 minutes. Clearly, practice was the key learning in that first cycle or iteration. It gave the students an understanding that repetition reinforces learning and confidence. That’s one iteration if you will. Making that set of three eggs is one group of activities that we then applied the learning circle to. We talked about the actions of doing it three times. Their reflection on those actions gave them an insight about learning which was that by repeating something they got better at it and they became more confident. An important outcome was that the first iteration established trust between them and me so they would accept guidance from me.

Then we began to do the second step in making a head and remember the head is based on the egg shape. I then showed them how to make a kind of a blank where you have the location for the eyes and the nose and the mouth in terms of the egg shape where the point of the egg is the chin and the large part is the back of the head. We do that several times. And each time we do it students become more confident in making this generic human head. As before, we have a critique and use the learning circle to help consolidate the experience with the students.

Then the third iteration is to bring a model into the studio, having a blank prepared, and now make a portrait of the model. What happens is that students end up with self-portraits! Because they have a prejudice, unknown to themselves of what the human face looks like. This prejudice of how a face should look is derived from looking in the mirror 10000 times and only looking at the model once.

In the reflection process then, some students resist this recognition of the result being mostly a self portrait. But as the group identifies details of the portraits they’ve made, for example the nose of the model is like a ski jump but the nose the student has made is like a hump… the student realizes they have made a self-portrait. This comes as a real eye-opener… a real revelation to the student! The insight that comes into focus is that they have predispositions. Therefore to make an action reveal it’s true potential, detachment from preconceptions and/or benchmarks is necessary. So detachment is the first condition of really learning.

AA. So is detachment one of the attributes that you mentioned earlier?

GB. Well we haven’t listed them, but it is one of the key learning attributes. Detachment comes into focus through the instrumentality of the group consultation and the role of the mentor in the reflection part of the learning circle.

The next thing that becomes evident is that in order to identify the learning that has occurred, there has to be a search for the principle that arises out of the action and the reflection. Identification of that principle may be quite elusive to the group and the individual at the stage they’re at in the discipline. It may be [obvious] to the mentor, but not to the group. Certainly patience is required in that quadrant. However, when you identify that specific principle, for example the importance of contrast in two dimensional art, you move to the learning part of the circle and begin to investigate what other practitioners have donewith that principle as applied in their work. In our case sculptures or paintings. But it might be some practice in medicine. The learning is accelerated because of the work that other people have done. The acceleration of learning seems to be linked to love of learning. Love of the discipline is an attribute that emerges in the individual. There’s a kind of fire or heat … an urgency that comes along with it to learn more. It causes excitement in the person that is involved and the group that is involved. This love and this learning prepare a space or condition to receive guidance. Guidance comes in many forms but often seems to be a gift and a bit of a mystery.

In the individual [guidance] may emerge as inspiration and insight. In the group it emerges through consultation. It may also come from a mentor. The next thing that happens then is that what was learning now becomes conscious knowledge. This gives people courage. Conscious knowledge and courage seem to be hand-in-hand in the planning part of the process. It makes it possible to plan in a very strategic way and also in a very flexible way. It takes courage to go to a new level of action where you’ve never been before. And that’s the power of this process. It caries people through identifiable stages with attributes that become strengthened as you go around and around and around the cycles. So that’s basically why it’s useful. The iterations generate detachment, search, love and courage. Attributes that give rise to the realization of individual and group potentials.

The term guidance is very significant. Because it’s not prescriptive. It enables people to find solutions …often unpredictable solutions… to the problems, the assignments.

AA. So what does this look like in your media class?

I won’t go into detail, but I have the students do a single movie still a la Cindy Sherman that is a shot indicating a story that came before and will continue after that single momemnt. The first cycle is to develop a story. So the Action Reflection Learning Planning is to develop a story, present it to the group, take their responses and plan a modification to the story. We do that several times so that each student has a story that is coherent. That’s the first step if you will.

Second step is to go and shoot, to photograph, the single shot that is a movie still that represents the whole story at some juncture in the story. Bring it to class, and the group reflects on it and makes recommendations to the author who learns something from the group, plans and re-shoots the still. The learning that emerges is powerful. Again, there’s a kind of amazement at how perceptive individuals are about the image. And how you can’t fool anybody. Of course, this creates in every student a search mode. They have to search within themselves for a better solution… and they do and they find it. It’s really exciting.

The third step is a second still photo that rounds out the narrative of the story and the fourth step is to do a video of the scene, with all of the angles, lighting, make-up, costumes and mis en scene concerns looked after.

Garry Berteig is an instructor at Keyano College in Northern Alberta where he teaches Sculpture, Media and other visual arts. Some feedback from Garry’s students about the use of Agile Work and Scrum has been posted here on Agile Advice before: Scrum Saves the Day for Media Student and A Student Documentary Film Project.

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