Sometimes I am asked and told by colleagues something like this “What can your students possibly learn in six weeks?…That’s no time at all to learn anything.” Really?  Six weeks is a short time, but when I think of it, the most intense memories we learned from happened in seconds or minutes; sometimes they are longer, maybe a couple of

John Coumbe-Lilley, PhD Program Leader

John Coumbe-Lilley, PhD
Program Leader

hours or even a day or two. The intensity of the experience stays with us for a time. These moments are often super intense. The purpose of the program I designed this year was partly to engage students how to think critically about things for themselves through their own lens evaluating the evidence and experience they and others around them had. To help achieve this goal I chose visual literacy, thinking strategies and visual research methods to achieve this aim. The process is day to day growth not peaking once but more constant waves of learning so that the experience is not too intense. I see everyday as a learning day; a day to grow and evaluate where we were, where are and where would like to be. This helps set small objectives and complete achieveable tasks. Each student can progress their understanding and capabilities no matter how near or far in their own learning journey.

I doubt most inidviduals could learn the full scope and depth of the healthy cities initiative and all its component parts in six weeks. But we can learn how to think about our experiences and the content we contend with. I said to the class at the beginning of the program, “I cannot teach you al the content there is to know, but I can teach how to think about all the content we cover.”  I started this process in earnest on Saturday June 4 when we recommitted to the course following the transition from Chicago to Barcelona.

The second part of the class introduced the concept of visual literacy and quality photographic research processes. The introduction was partly based on previous work I have done using visual thinking strategies (VTS) at UIC and new work authored by Amy E. Herman concerning visual perception (VE). We learn so much through observation but we often take for granted this experience. VTS and VP helps us raise our awareness and use an inquiry based approach to examine what we are seeing. We are able to engage in the kind of detailing that go beyond looking. These students will not only “look”, they will “see”. The three basic facilitation and self discovery questions are:

  1. What is going on in this picture?
  2. What makes you say that?
  3. What more can you find in this image?

The next step was to invite students by choice to join me at the Museum National de Arts Cataluyna (MNAC) for a VP and VTS session. Nine students chose to come. We are in Barcelona therefore Barcelona itself is part of our classroom. Admission was free and we were early enough our group would not bother too many visitors. I chose the Gothic rooms in the museum to operate in because it was likely none of the students had a background in this kind art and preconditioned responses to a known art might be reduced allowing for a freer approach to the games ahead.

We played three games to challenge the perception, language and recall abilities of the students. I demonstrated two of the three games. The first game was “Curator Expert”. A student stood in front of a work of Gothic Art and

Pablo Ramirez feels the challenge, while Susy Gutierrez (back grouund facing) works through the game 2 process with her partner

Pablo Ramirez feels the challenge, while Susy Gutierrez (back grouund facing) works through the game 2 process with her partner.

interpreted the peice for a group of 3-4 (including me and Arin). The objective was for the presenter to make sense of the image for themselves and present their interpretation in a believeable manner. Let us just say, they did their best! They laughed, improvised and made sense and gave new meaning to the work they saw. You have to be open and supportive to your students when they try things. As there can be no wrong answers in an exercise like this, the most important thing is to support the positive choices and effort students make. This exercise requires students to see details, relationships between elements in an object, spacing, social relationships etc. They show through their interpretation that they “see” the facts, context and meaning in the image.

The second game was a descriptive game. One student looked at a piece of art and their partner had their back to the

Teadora Markovski concentrating and listening to her partner describe the art work behind her. Teadora cannot see the piece. Her partner describes the work without using nouns.

Teadora Markovski concentrates and listens to her partner describe the art work behind her. Her partner describes the work without using nouns.

same piece of art. The person looking at it could describe the piece but not use any nouns only adjectives and verbs. This encouraged students to search for language and communicate using constraints to guide them.  Partners who

listened to the descriptions of their partners guessed what it the image behind them conveyed. Sucecssful descriptions created similar images in the minds of their partners. This was a challenging game because students had to search for language to bring the image to live in the imagination of their partner without naming it. They had to show it to their partner through language. Removing nouns makes the game very hard. Of course, you could vary the game.

The last game we played was a recall game. One partner observed a piece of Gothic art for 1 minute then they turned around and had one minute to recall to their partner who looked at the art work as they heard the recall to check for

Students observe the painting for one minute while their partner waits for them to turnaround and tell them as much detail as they can recall.

Students observe the painting for one minute while their partner waits for them to turnaround and tell them as much detail as they can recall.

consistency betwene what their partner said, and what they saw. The students this was the easiest one because it was fact based and little intepreation was required.

I paused for several moments with fascination and pride as the students committed to the process. Put yourself in their place for a moment. They hardly know me, I inviited them to come to an art museuem (few ever go to one in Chicago) and try out new learning approaches in a foreign country, in an environment that might feel a bit uncomfortable for them and actively learn in public through participation, discussion and debiref of Gothic art making directr links to patient care, specific observations and connecting with people from different cultures. Brilliant! Inspiring stuff. I am proud of the risks the students took during this part of the process. They reminded me not to underestimate the capabilities of the individuals we work with whether they be peers, students or strangers. The experience reinforced that in a study abroad situation, you might not do things you would not do at home. Certainly in my classes of 30-112 students I could not meet them all in the Art Institue of Chicago and pull this off!

The third session supporting this approach to learning introduced students to the comparison between qualitative and quantitative research with a specific focus on conducting visual research. I added an experiential component to

Daniela Padila (center) leading a conversation about the how to conduct visual research.

Daniela Padila (center) leading a conversation about the how to conduct visual research.

this session requiring students to complete an in-class project with added constraints including time (55 minutes) and specific detail (3 elements). Students were given two choices of photographic images to capture. This approach encouraged students to see detail through their camera viewfinders. Then when they returned they were shown how to sort their images into three groups for the purposes of showing an audience their objective and explain with text added why it was important for us to know about this subject matter. They completed the project and posted their work to this blog.

The final session was a three hour photography workshop expertly led by resident photography expert John Frederick “Fred” Anderson.  Fred gave a masterfully simplied technical “how to” session with a guide to discovery

Student Jessica Senko and Fred Anderson evaluating Jessica's project work.

Student Jessica Senko and Fred Anderson evaluating Jessica’s project work.

approach to composition using self awareness exercises to raise student’s consciousness to their preferences. The class finished with the students practising their skills by doing a small street photography project. Several students returned with very strong photographs. You can view their work on this blog.

Over three days with help from Fred the students were introduced to concepts, practiced, self-evaluated their work and their peers, discussed their work and images with a ciritical mindset; they completed tasks and showed creativity, indepdent thinking and action and they presented their work using text and image. You tell me what these students learned in three days let alone six weeks? For faculty leading short term study abroad programs I encourage you to consider the range and quality of opportunities available to you to create the conditions for your students to learn and grow their intellectual and emotional capabilities in the context of your course.