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Pittsburgh Parenting Blog by Sewickley Academy

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A Lesson on Education through Clay

A Lesson on Education through ClayHave you ever been annoyed by the jargon of education, especially when it seems that the writer or speaker assumes you understand what he is talking about? What about terms like “constructivist,” “collaborative,” “problem-based,” or “student-centered?" A recent visit to David LaLomia’s ceramics studio provided evidence of each of these terms in practice, so perhaps we might define these terms by seeing students and their teacher in action.

Ten wheels, ten potters: each one working at his or her own pace. Some students were highly advanced and confident of their skills, and one student, a visitor to the school, was at the wheel for the first time. Students were using their hands to make pots; they were using their hands and eyes to understand how their pots were developing: was the pot not quite centered on the wheel? Were the sides too thick? The problems posed by the clay were many and varied. Each wheel presented the student potter with a set of challenges to be addressed, and Mr. LaLomia moved from student to student suggesting a strategy, asking a question, demonstrating a technique – and then leaving the students alone to experiment, to try out an idea, to crumple a pot and begin with a lump of clay again.

One student might ask another, “How did you do that?” and the other student would explain, repeating the lessons of the master for the less experienced student. The novice in the class was left to explore, to get comfortable with the clay and the wheel and the feel of the wet clay in her hands at different speeds of the wheel. Her neighbor offered a suggestion here and there, and Mr. LaLomia came over to check in and see how the visitor was making out.

One student was asked if he would mind sacrificing his current effort, and soon the pot was cut across revealing its internal structure, and Mr. LaLomia could point to each element and explain what the goal should be with respect to thickness – and why. He related the making of the pot to the later process of firing – the heating and cooling of the clay and the stress that would put on the pot and the likely outcome of a pot with a given profile. Then the student gathered the clay to begin again, centering the lump in the middle of the wheel and ready to use his new-gained knowledge.

During the entire class, students worked independently, with occasional coaching from a peer or from their teacher. They worked at their own pace (some working on a single piece and some completing several pieces during the time of my visit). As they worked, you could see students making discoveries, figuring things out, and then checking in with Mr. LaLomia to verify their new-found understanding. Each student received exactly the instruction he or she needed at the moment he or she needed it. Mr. LaLomia introduced a new tool or technique, not to the entire class but just to a student who needed it for the conditions that presented themselves.

Later in the day, when I heard someone ask our visitor what her favorite class was, it did not surprise me that she said ceramics! This class had all the elements that make for great learning, starting with a great teacher and including engagement; fun; focus; success; failure; second, third, and fourth chances; and determination!

And now back to the jargon of education.  Just for fun, see if you can match the word with the definition that most closely captures its meaning.  

constructivist a. a focus on the needs of the learner
collaborative  b. learners expanding their understanding through independent or collective work,               including trial and error
problem-based c. students working together, sharing their knowledge, and supporting the learning of         their fellow students
student-centered d. learners working through specific, real-world challenges in a process that leads to learning

What was observable in the ceramics studio during my visit included examples of each of these terms. Students, through their interactions with the clay, were building a repertoire of skills, creating their personal store of knowledge about the craft of the potter’s wheel, and constructing an understanding of how to solve particular problems in clay: an example of the constructivist idea in action. Students were also engaged with one another, both asking for and giving guidance on particular wheel techniques, without the contributions of their teacher: an example of collaboration that leads to learning. One student found that he was unable to make his pot do what he intended, so his teacher suggested they dissect (literally) the problem so that the student could see the issues with his pot and receive direct instruction on how to avoid those issues going forward: this illustrates the idea of problem-based learning, which can involve the intervention of the teacher or not but which always involves the student in dealing with a real, authentic challenge and arriving at a workable solution. Finally, Mr. LaLomia, in his management of the class focused on the needs of each learner. Each student was given the specific guidance, feedback, or direction she needed at the moment she needed it. This is one example of what we mean when we say that a class is student-centered.

Thanks to Mr. LaLomia and his ceramic students for so beautifully demonstrating so many important educational concepts in such a compelling way!

Topics: Head of School