By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—For Anne Allen, professor of fine arts, learning begins with unlearning.
Through classroom strategies involving exploration, creativity and play, she helps students shed the constrictions of traditional education and become independent lifelong learners and global citizens.
A distinguished record
Allen joined the IU Southeast faculty as the institution’s first art historian in 1994. Her focus has been indigenous art traditions of the Pacific. She is editor of Pacific Arts, the journal of the Pacific Arts Association, of whose international board she is a member. Her teaching also encompasses Native American, Northern European, Pre-Columbian, Baroque, and Japanese art, among others. Her excellence in the classroom has earned her five Trustees Teaching Awards and an IU southeast Distinguished Teaching Award (2005).
Allen’s teaching philosophy is at once simple and universal.
“Teaching isn’t about imparting knowledge or skills,” Allen said. “To me it’s important that we create global, national and local citizens.”
This means overcoming inherited or imposed mental constructs that divide the human family into tribes, nations, races. It means overcoming the ignorance that begets fear, and the fear that begets hatred. The goal is respect for and empathy with other human beings and their cultures.
Critical thinking is key to achieving this goal.
“My objective in every class is to help students take information, think critically about it, and leave with a comprehension that carries over into their lives,” Allen said. “Through this process, three elements have become central to my philosophy of teaching: connecting students to material, assessment, and mentoring.”
For Allen, it’s not what you learn, but how you learn, that matters.
Like many colleagues, she began as a traditional lecturer, but became disillusioned by the lack of engagement on the part of students.
“Learning is an active process, not passive,” Allen said. “Those students were falling through the cracks.”
She developed more and better discussions and assignments that challenged students to compare and contrast their beliefs with those of the cultures they were studying.
After learning of the flipped classroom, she transformed her classroom process. Lectures are recorded and accessed out of class, there is quiz before morning meetings to make sure students have read the material.
“Once in the classroom, I am there as a mentor, a facilitator, while the students work together in various ways to construct knowledge,” Allen said.
No two classes are alike. Students collaborate to answer conceptual questions about the material, sometimes reporting to the class. The entire class may discuss the material together, or individuals may contribute information on the board, with the class offering discussion.
She has many ways to engage reticent students.
She lines her classroom with large sheets of paper to create graffiti boards where students can draw, write questions and offer comments.
“Students are encouraged to create mind-maps there,” Allen said.
This helps students who are less likely to publicly ask a question.
So does the Muddiest Point technique, a quick assessment device in which students anonymously write down questions they have about confusing parts of the material.
The value of play
“Incorporating of play as a means of facilitating learning is vital to my innovation strategy,” Allen said.
In one role-playing exercise, students are handed a card at the beginning of class with their social status within ancient Hawaiian society. For the rest of the period, they adhere to behaviors appropriate to their station; for example, commoners avoid all contact with sacred chiefs. After having studied the Samoan kava ceremony, students are randomly handed cards with their role in the ritual. They then organize themselves based on the appropriate protocol and re-enact the ritual of preparing and serving kava in a chiefly meeting.
“In these scenarios, students must assist one another for the task to be completed and thus no one is left behind,” Allen said.
For a different course, students also use their bodies to create rounded and pointed arches, thus experiencing the actual stresses that gravity places on these forms found in Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
“Using their bodies to play, and thus learn, is basic to the way children create their knowledge of the world,” Allen said. “Somehow, that process gets lost along the way to higher education.”
Engaging the other
In one of her most effective innovations, Allen asks students to define their world view as simply as possible.
This is a novelty for most students. While some arrive with rock-solid points of view, perhaps cherished assumptions, maybe even prejudices, others struggle to coherently articulate where they are coming from.
Once the world views are expressed, Allen introduces her students to other cultures, through contact with artistic expression.
She hopes they will cultivate a habit of encountering the world on its own terms.
They come to see in art the language through which the people of world express their world views.
Travel is the ultimate form of world-view game, and the most effective learning experience. As a graduate student, Allen developed a relationship with a village in Samoa, and was adopted by a leading family. The village of Fagamalo has become a second home, and the location of a study abroad opportunity for IU Southeast students, who benefit from Allen’s family ties.
The travel experience is a true immersion, an encounter with “the other” that cannot be achieved in the classroom. In Sala’ilua, students stay with the village bark-cloth maker. In Fagamalo, they stay with Allen’s brother, one of the chiefs. His wife teaches the students traditional basket-making, and another of Allen’s sisters teaches mat-making.
To be successful, students need to shed their American preconceptions and live the Samoan life on its own terms.
“You slow down, decompress, put up with boredom, read, paint on bark cloth, help in the house, play with the kids—go back to some of the older ways we used to interact,” Allen said.
This transformative impact is not limited to Allen’s students. As co-president of the Office of Study Abroad and Global Awareness (SAGA), she is able to leverage her deep international experience for students in all areas.
The study of people
Allen accepts that students will forget most factual information, but hopes that the mental discipline and the ability to think critically remains, and that it leads to understanding, unity and respect.
“That capacity to analyze is fundamental to what I hope students take from my courses,” Allen said. “At its core, History, including Art History, is the study of people: why we do what we do and how we change the world for better or worse.”
Homepage photo: Dr. Anne Allen weaving on a Navajo loom.