Lessons on Learning

143By Dr. Alice Waagen

I admit it. I have been living a double life.

My professional life is well documented on my website, www.workforcelearning.com.

My other life, however, is something that may come as a surprise to many. It is my passion for the visual arts. The only evidence of my artistic life is the mention in my bio that I have a doctoral degree in art education.

How did I make the transition from art teacher to business owner?

That is a long and complicated story, but suffice it to say that as my business has grown, I have increasingly felt the need to bring the two parts of myself together. So earlier this fall, I participated in a 12-week intensive study at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). Beginning in January, I will be a videoconference docent, presenting interactive art-appreciation talks with schools throughout the United States using artworks from the SAAM collection.

I am so excited about this accomplishment, for being a student again after all these years was humbling. It was also invigorating, life changing, and has inspired me in ways that have yet to play out. I share more details below about the lessons I have learned from this experience.

Back to school

Above, you’ll see a photo of Susan Nichols, the Lunder Education Chair at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She uses videoconferencing equipment to connect with students around the country and the world.

The work that she and others at SAAM do was so intriguing to me that I gave up much of my time this fall to become a docent. It wasn’t easy. Having been a management-skills teacher for so many years and being used to teaching an adult audience, I was pretty rusty on the ins and outs of art appreciation.

Mind you, I have not participated in a semester-long learning program in more years than I can remember. The experience of intensive learning this fall really opened my eyes to some fundamental issues of being a lifelong learner.

Here are my top five lessons learned:

1. Learning is hard work. It is exhausting and stressful, especially for adults who have been full professionals for a number of years. Adult learners take very little at face value. Every new idea or concept is mapped against past experience, beliefs, and values. How does this fit with what I know? Does this contradict or complement my views and opinions? Learning is exhausting when we feel the need to vet the content. When I teach managers, I need to remember that fatigue and exhaustion block learning and try to make the experience as easy as possible.

2. Learning is physically demanding. How can sitting in a chair and listening for four hours be physically demanding? I do very little sitting in my job and a lot of walking around and movement. I doubt I am very different in that way from the students in my classes. Even those with desk jobs can be up and moving to meetings and other offices throughout the day. Sitting for extended stretches of time can be a killer on the back and neck. Note to self: Give program participants opportunity to move around to keep them engaged.

3. Learning is humbling. I spend most of my days being the expert in what I do. At the beginning of the videoconference (VC) docent program, my knowledge of American Art was miniscule. To go from expert to rookie, sometimes in the same day, was quite a shift. As a teacher, I need to make sure that my interaction with learners supports what they do know while getting them to understand the new.

4. Learning is communal. The SAAM program used a cohort group structure to support the learning. Nine of us participated in the program; we each had a segment teaching a portion of the class and we provided peer evaluation of presentations at the end. I felt that I learned as much, if not more, from the interaction with my peers than from the more formal instructor-led parts of the program. There is a social element to learning that has a double reward: not only can peers help each other acquire information and concepts, a good cohort group can continue to learn well past the boundaries of the program. Indeed my fellow VC docents and I have agreed to meet monthly to share our experiences in the program.

5. Learning is rewarding. In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink cites mastery as one of the three key forces for human motivation. Although I cannot claim mastery in my knowledge of teaching American Art, I can attest to the fact that setting a learning goal and then achieving that goal is a phenomenally rewarding experience. But the experience will only be rewarding if the mastery is challenging yet achievable. In my own teaching experiences, I need to continuously challenge the learners while ensuring their success at their endeavors.

The bottom line

Needless to say, I now have a much better appreciation for the experience of those I face in the classroom in the business world. But am I any closer to bringing art into my professional life? I do feel that my two life pursuits — managerial teaching and art — are getting closer together. And clearly, there is common ground in the teaching side of both of my lives. Now if I can only figure out how to get managers to draw and paint.