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Learning from the Impressionists

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

Take a look at this painting by Monet of Venice's Grand Canal. Imagine yourself being there, standing by the water or sitting in a gondola. What is the atmosphere like? What sort of place do you imagine Venice to be?

Claude Monet's 'Grand Canal, Venice' (1908)

Monet, like other Impressionist artists, did not attempt to paint scenes with high precision. He was not bothered by being exact or mimicking colours and lines in a way that a photograph might show. Instead, he wanted to capture the essence of the scene and the sensations it evoked.

From fellow Impressionist, Charles Francis Daubigny:

"I try to paint as directly and as rapidly as possible what I see and feel."

The National Gallery of Victoria has recently held an exhibition on Impressionism. The exhibition made clear that, for this collection of artists, their approach to capturing life was a statement about what is important. Despite the rough brushstrokes and unusual colours, the Impressionists deemed their portrayal of life to be more accurate and more meaningful than carefully depicted works that came before them.

Standing in front of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's painting, Dance at Bougival, I was taken into a lively dance scene from an outdoor French cafe. Look closely at the eyes on each individual. We know that eyes, as they exist in reality, are made of a pupil, cornea, iris and so forth. But, in the context of this cafe scene, they don't matter. The detail of the eye doesn't add value to the scene that Renoir has so vividly brought to life.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir's 'Dance at Bougival' (1883)

After stepping out of the gallery, I realised that this message about interpreting and conveying what is meaningful in our environment stands as true today as it did in Monet and Renoir's time, over 100 years ago.

Take a look at a classroom, full of students. What captures your eye? Why is it important? Maybe you notice the set-up of the classroom, the interactions between students, the tone and manner of the teacher or the 'feeling' of the space. Again, consider why this might matter for a student and their learning.

Yet, today in education (and indeed elsewhere), we are so busy with measuring what's going on. We want to know every last detail of where a student is at, what they know, what they don't know, where they fall in relation to some constructed trajectory. This helps us to paint the next line - to know precisely what students might learn next.

But, at what cost?

Incessant measurement forgets what the learning environment itself is communicating to students and how students view themselves as learners. It also forgets why what each student is learning might be important, thought-provoking and enjoyable. This is the world that students are in - the sensations that the Impressionists so purposefully evoke - and it is a world that hyper-focussed measurement risks ignoring.

By taking a step back and shifting our focus to each student's experience of and drive for learning, consider what more we might help them to gain.


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