A teacher can never truly teach unless he is still learning himself.

A lamp can never light another lamp unless it continues to burn its own flame.

Rabindanath Tagore 

in 2018, I was asked to develop my favorite metaphor for my teaching style for a book on phenomenology in higher education:

Teaching as Abstract Art: Neil’s Undergraduate and  Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar [1]

“Art and Organism” (A&O) is a seminar about the “biology of art and aesthetic experience.” In this course, I make extensive use of abstraction in its central sense of selective emphasis on what is most important, often penetrating below the surface of raw stimuli to progressively deeper layers of meaning. For I agree with Gorky, “Abstraction . . . is the emancipation of the mind, it liberates us from the slavery of facts” (as cited in Barco 2016).

I believe that the more deeply one goes, the more likely shared meaning can be found, and when that sense is shared in class we can reexamine older ideas and share our understanding of new ones as a group. The depth I seek for us all is emotional as well as scholarly. I believe learning in such an environment is more enduring and ultimately transformative. In this way, new content becomes part of our personal fabric, and all subsequent things are seen in its light.

We begin this journey when I introduce myself by creating a personal mind-map (a spontaneous and intuitive graphic organizer) on the board. I then ask students to create their own during that first class. They are to represent themselves graphically—key turning points in life, interests, family background, etc. I collect them and return them later with brief comments to let them know I am interested in them.

During class I can see myself transitioning from “sage on the stage” to “guide from the side”-like interactions with students. Disciplinary content often includes obscure but highly relevant terms and ideas that are deployed in the service of course content and student-centered concerns. It is intended that the novelty of the terms avoids traditional baggage of meaning and could enable new frameworks for familiar experiences. Much like Coleridge said of Wordsworth, I wanted to arouse them from the lethargy of customary approaches to the world. I seek to push student understanding of the connectedness of knowledge and ideas from platitude to living reality.

Student responsibilities are straightforward. At the beginning of each class session, I ask students to orally check in with anything that is on their minds they are willing to share. The focus on course content begins each session with students creating mind-maps related to a key concept that will be of focus during that session (e.g., science or brain). Arguably this is each student’s personal definition of that topic and it becomes quickly clear that the same idea means something different to each of us. And, especially when the key concept is a familiar construct, the mind-maps often surprise students. They find layers of meaning and begin to appreciate that different levels have different values for meeting our needs.

The most important assignments are written post-class reflections in which they are to emphasize what they consider stood out from that session. These reflections are handed in, and I respond to each student via email as soon as possible after class. In my response, I request further elaboration, including how their comments might be connected to something else that I suggest they explore, such as a short reading or TED talk or podcast. Often, they initiate a brief discussion related to what they learned during their subsequent check-ins. If someone does not share, I question them about the connections they discovered.

My assessment of student performance is shared by personal, narrative feedback. It occurs in an egalitarian context: when I identify an idea, I urge them to help me find more resources that speak to it, just as I will provide new resources to them to help enlarge or extend ideas. While listening to check-ins and assessing responses to my suggested additional resources, I note the level of attention that students are investing. I try to give written feedback at all times (almost always positive) but do not assign a specific letter grade for students’ work. Term papers are evaluated but not graded. [grading is by “portfolio]

After our first experiences with mind-maps, I urge students to tentatively select a personally meaningful idea or experiences or concern that could be the nucleus of a term project. These projects are to be presented as a summary of their explorations and discoveries prior to the end of the semester. On one occasion, I asked each student what theme of several discussed might provide them with a general direction. One woman said in an indifferent manner, “nothing!” My response was, “okay—nothing it is!” She was embarrassed but then I pointed out the critical position of “nothing” in art (e.g., negative space) and science (e.g., vacuum). My point was that every idea is connected if only we have the patience to follow some very circuitous paths, but that the unexpected things we learn along the way may well be worth it.”


NEW NOTES, April 2020 (Connections Make Meaning), in response to student queries:

  • I hope I have encouraged you to explore their sapient as well as sentient parts of your selves.  Part of this ambition is to relentlessly urge you to find or create the connections between things–between objects, between objects & thoughts, between thoughts…  I sometimes “let myself go” when lecturing or commenting: “If you cannot find the connection between two ideas in my stream of lecture, keep looking.”
    • Looking for connections—creating meaning—is what we are all about, and meaning derives from connectedness.  I comment on this as theory and then demonstrate—quite easily, actually, because I let it flow. Everything in a stream of consciousness is connected. The game is on when connections are hard to find. When, for example, you feel two things are connected but cannot connect them in any obvious way (perhaps some stimulus evokes a resonance with something within you).  Sometimes connections have to be created rather than discovered.  (Canals built when sea-passages could not be found).


  • If I push for personal connections it is because they create the greatest depth of meaning [you, then, as an artist might evoke it in others] .  In this seminar I hope we get deeper than a mere meeting of minds.  This, of course, is the art of teaching.  The selective emphasis grounded in a well-informed commentator’s love of their subject provides a  point of view you can respect even if you disagree.    I love connections, and feel that levels of organization are important (for the depth as well as the breadth of connections) and the language of my discipline serves me very well.  Ethology in its description of behavior is situated halfway between the imperceptibly small and imperceptibly vast and emphasizes the level at which natural selection acts.  Although the metaphors of tension and competition apply from chromosomes to cosmos, it is the emergence and prospering of innovation that has forged our motives, from physiology to fitness, and some believe: beyond.  At all levels, transcendence marks enduring change, why should it stop at self-actualization?        


NEW NOTES, January 2021 (Reggio Emilia).

Beauvais Lyons suggested Pablo Helguera’s book on Socially Engaged Art, which is a handbook for teaching about social practices (and available as a 107 page PDF). Helguera includes comments on the Reggio Emelia Approach to pre- and primary school, but their central tenets resonated with my ambitions for students of any age. As I read, it was clearly a phenomenological, student centered approach.    

  • Pablo Helguera wrote: [In 1991] “I noticed parallels between the processes of art and education.” …  “Shortly after the end of World War II, in the Northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia, a group of parents led by an educator named Loris Malaguzzi started a school for early childhood education that incorporated the pedagogical thought of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and others. The goal was to reenvision the child not as an empty container to be filled with facts but as an individual with rights, great potential, and diversity (what Malaguzzi described as “the hundred languages of children.”  Based on the curriculum they developed, the Reggio Emilia Approach calls for sessions are spontaneous, creative, and collaborative in nature, and children play a critical role in deciding which activities they will focus on any given day. For the Reggio Emilia pedagogisti, “to participate is not to create homogeneity; to participate is to generate vitality.”* The visual and the performative are central in Reggio Emilia activities. The atelieristi, or workshop teachers, play a key role in being attentive to the interests of the group but also in integrating those interests and activities into the curriculum. In this way, the learning experience of every group is different and it functions as a process of co-construction of knowledge.” … “nuanced understanding of the individual’s cognitive abilities and potential for learning through experience.”


[ a biological metaphor: I urge my relatively advanced students to “back-up” & try to restore a sense of “childlike wonder” that enables creative inquiry into the world but also into themselves, not least their own assumptions (biases);  In therapeutics of adaptive growth, it is often important to return cells (as much as possible, if at all) to an earlier more potent stage in development–before the current function was firmly–generally irreversibly–consolidated in its “mature” form. ]


PEDAGOGY:  There are many “schools” of customs and traditions, but prospective teachers will, developing their skills in good faith, forge a personal style that supports their ambitions for their students (training, socialization, critical thinking, creativity) and their beliefs about the cognitive competencies that students bring to the classroom–and these can be strikingly different in different individuals, and at different ages and levels of experience.        


Constructivist framework for active learning

Learning works when student experience is coordinated with the principles of constructivism (cognitive, meta-cognitive, evolving and affective in nature) This process of knowledge construction is dependent on previous knowledge of the learner where the learner is self-aware of the process of cognition and can control and regulate it by themselves.[10] There are several aspects of learning and some of them are:

●   Learning through meaningful reception, influenced by David Ausubel, who emphasizes the previous knowledge the learner possesses and considers it a key factor in learning.

●   Learning through discovery, influenced by Jerome Bruner, where students learn through discovery of ideas with the help of situations provided by the teacher.

●   Conceptual change: misconceptions takes place as students discover knowledge without any guidance; teachers provide knowledge keeping in mind the common misconceptions about the content and keep an evaluatory check on the knowledge constructed by the students.

●   Constructivism, influenced by researchers such as Lev Vygotsky, suggests collaborative group work within the framework of cognitive strategies like questioning, clarifying, predicting and summarizing.[11]



[1] excerpt from Chapter 8 in The Phenomenological Heart of Teaching and Learning NY, Routledge (p. 153-154).