Sunday, September 4, 2016

It's Ok to Never Finish

I just listened to a great podcast by one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. He talked about the genius of Elvis Costello, of the famous artist Paul Cezanne, and of the Canadian singer, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen. Gladwell says that there are works of art and innovation that spring to the minds of some and are instantly finished. The song Bridge Over Troubled Waters, written by Paul Simon and now remade by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Josh Groban, hit its author like an anvil falling from an open window and the song wrote itself to completion in a single sitting. On the other hand, the song Hallelujah, now most famously performed by Jeff Buckley, took Lenny Cohen over 5 years to wrestle from within his mind, and yet, upon release, this first version was a flop. It wasn't until Hallelujah was re-written a second time and and performed by a second and a third artist that it eventually became woven into the backdrop of American music, film and television culture.

Gladwell gives colorful examples of innovations that sprang to life and others that drew out over decades, and to each he assigned a value: Picasso or Cezanne. Pablo Picasso often completed a work on a first attempt, he would work on a single canvas until content that his work was complete; Picasso would sign his name to a piece and then explore onto another work of art, feeling content that the signed painting was finished. Cezanne on the other hand would paint the same piece, over and over, refusing to sign his name to many seemingly completed paintings, because to him they were never completed. Cezanne never finished. Cezanne would literally ask subjects to sit for portraits up to 100 times, and go through as many canvass before he finally signed a work. All the works leading up to his eventually signed canvas were simply formative attempts at an eventual innovation.

Neither method is correct and neither is wrong, there is no single path to innovation. These different takes on creation make me look about the classroom through a different lens. Of course we want our students in the classrooms across America to produce, to bring projects to completion so that we may evaluate their eventual Final Product, but I would argue that in every room arranged with 30 desks there must be a handful of Cezannes. Imagine if Lenny Cohen or Paul Cezanne were rushed to finish a work, to turn it in on time, only to receive a final grade based on a work they hadn’t had time to fully revise. How many students never receive feedback because they are unable to sign their name to a work that is just not complete. How do we allow the Cezanne-child to receive the formative feedback that she needs while gifting her the opportunity to reflect, grow and improve?

Of course we need deadlines and final due dates so that we may evaluate student progress and offer important feedback on completed projects. Afterall, we have a lot of content to power through, and we can’t allow limitless time on every assignment. However, when we are designing opportunities for student innovation, it is important to remember that we may have a Cezanne or two among even a sea of productive Picassos.

My advice is this: allow for innovation. For some Cezanes, it may be ok to never finish. A masterful teacher can find the learning within even the unfinished work, evaluate whether the lesson has been learned, offer formative feedback and guide the group on to the next work of art while respecting that each student has a personalized pace for innovation. Above all, Cezanne was a revisionist. Iteration after iteration changed, morphed and improved his work. For Cezanne it was not the product but the process that captivated his attention. Painting was a process and an opportunity to reflect on each new attempt at innovation. Let's make our classrooms a place that allows for learning to happen through a process of reflection.

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