The Power of Aesthetics in Learning

an image from the book of hours to illustrate article/post "power of beauty in learning"This article was written for the Rocketship Education Home School.

John Locke, famous British empiricist, philosopher and father of Liberalism, asserted that, “The chief art of learning is to attempt but a little at a time.”

The aphorism seems obvious. But we may or should remember that the excellence of aphorisms consists not so much in the expression of some complicated concept, as in the comprehension of some obvious and useful truths in a few words. The idea is to contract important rules of life into short sentences that may be easily impressed on the memory, and taught by frequent recollection to recur habitually to the mind.

In the same spirit here is an aphorism even more obvious than Locke’s, “An unavoidable rule of learning is to start from the beginning.” He who reads this will no doubt recall one or more instances when he himself may have said, “Let’s start from the beginning.” Perhaps to bring order to an assembly rendered disordered by confusion, or to help an offspring, unable to find the start for a school project.

However, given for granted that in any project we have to start from somewhere, I suggest that the challenging beginning of any learning occurs when any student encounters the first thing that he does not understand – be it an idea, concept, word, description or abstraction. The difficulty also depends, of course, on an unpredictable set of circumstances, topic and peripheral.

Nevertheless, leaving the peripheral circumstances aside, the root of the disenchantment with learning may be traced to a particular moment when the learner felt that he could not acquire the tools for overcoming that difficulty. Which, of course, would make all the following material essentially unintelligible. Nor, in most cases I observed, the learner could articulate for himself, let alone for the educator, why he did not understand.

It is here that aesthetics comes into play. I cannot compress years of research and field-work, mostly dictated by personal interest, into a short article. I will link to a video that is part of a TV historical series I produce, broadcast here by Portland stations, and in several colleges in various states. The video touches briefly on an application I developed to help overcome the type of obstacle I just described.

The core idea in the initial difficulty, as well as in any subsequent difficulties in learning, is to use and appeal to the instinctual attraction of aesthetics, both in understanding and in structured recollection.

“There is a history in all men’s lives,” says a character in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, part 2. In the instance, the history begins with a professor of philosophy at my High School, which in Europe is/was called “Classical Lyceum”. The professor, whose name was Emanuele Gennaro, had invented what he called “Philosophic Painting.”

The idea was (and is) that, though we do not realize it, we do think with images. The professor’s philosophic painting converted notoriously abstruse philosophic concepts into paintings. The paintings changed the structure of words and chains of ideas into manageable visual renditions. In the same context, it is no coincidence how we take it for granted that, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

At the time there was no Internet and the professor further directed his idea towards the development and improvement of his own personal painting skills. Anyway, it would have been impractical and impossible for him to construct – or to teach how to construct by hand – all the paintings and the images required to convert the history of philosophy into a visual experience.

Illustration of a Medieval Fresco from the Cathedral of Anagni, ItalyStill, in a sense, the professor had gone “back to the future” without realizing it, because he could not imagine the Internet. But he had equally taken inspiration from the past. He who has visited any of the older European Romanesque Cathedrals, may recall the elaborate and often awe-inspiring frescoes on the walls. The artists who painted those frescos used the power of beauty to impart religious instructions to the brethren, the majority of whom could not read or write.

I have developed a computer-based application that I call “Mnemonic Frames”, which is inspired by the same principles – principles made it immensely easier to implement thanks to the Internet. The application is effective both with scientific and liberal, non-scientific subjects. Here is the video,

In a next article I will talk about the relationship that connects reading, writing, understanding, memorization, aesthetics and music. It is my finding and perception that this connection is  rarely realized or appreciated by the current educational system as a whole. To help establish and absorb this connection, and the power the connection conveys to the mind,  is one of the concurrent aims of the “Mnemonic Frames” application.

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