Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Past Year

Cleaning up the blog a little and saw that I never finished this post... Nothing like being 8 months late...

Speaking of reflection... though it is past the start of the new year, it is still appropriate to take a look back and how things have went.

-Work has been slow, even though I have taken over rentals where I work in addition to the normal project management jobs. There's been a little theatre, alot of museum work, a little film / TV stuff, and of course a variety of industrial.
-I started on another Masters degree. This one in Interdisciplinary Studies, where I can design my own curriculum. I enjoy learning, and I enjoy teaching and I firmly think that while theatrical knowledge is important, that knowledge from a wide variety of sources is also important. While I concentrated on Technical Production / Leadership & Non-Profit Management & theatre history during my MFA, this time I am expanding into administration, HR, Marketing, Psychology of learning, and curriculum design. One of these days I am going to pursue learning German, because one day I would like to get a doctorate in theatre history (with a focus on the history of stagecraft).

Currently, as of August 2011, I can add more:
-My partner and I are expecting a little girl in a month.
-Owning a home and becoming a parent are dangerous endeavors to technical minded people. We know how to do just enough that the home improvement projects never seem to go away because we know we can make something better....
-that ironically the class I took on the psychology of learning was perhaps the worst class that I have ever took in my academic career. One would think that if you are teaching a course like that, that you would follow the dictates of what you teach.
-I have learned alot in the past year and a half though:
-human development (babies & about how people learn)
-How to tile, do flooring, and other home repair that isn't common theatrical carpentry skills

Life is a mix of continual self improvement (I try..., taking more and more steps to solidify my family (house bought check, daughter on the way check) and burn out. Its hard to work full time, have a fun / busy outside life, see all of the family scattered around the country, keeping up with scattered friends, keep up with routine chores & redo most of your house. Unfortunately, I don't keep up to date as much as I would like on this blog.

The blog is a tricky thing - on one hand I use it as a depository for all of the random buts of knowledge that I find. I often come and search my own blog to find the resources that sells balls or game pieces or fake rivets.... Sometimes searching my blog and not finding a resource leads me to sourcing it on the net & recording what I find here. A goal of mine is to write a book about technical direction, and I am sure that I will mine my thoughts from this sight for that as well. I hope to start focusing a little more on theatre history as well & document that here. So some of my motivation is personal.

The flip side is that I recognize that our industry doesn't do well at recording documentation what what we learn - individually or collectively. I see it in the industry at large and even where I work. While judging and editing the tech expo entries it inevitably comes up that an entry isn't unique, but also not recorded. Ideally, the tech expo - Yale Tech Brief's, the Answer box section of Stage Directions all would only showcase new innovative techniques. But what really is new and innovative. Something that is new and innovative for me might be old news to someone else. How many steps away from "common use" must something be before it is "new and improved". And where does the "common knowledge" get stored. No one is going to read every stagecraft book - and while most contain the same basics, often each author will bring something different to the table. And a stagecraft book only teaches the basics, and often can't or doesn't reflect individual preferences. Do you wrap the muslin on flats or cut the edges? Wrapping can cause bad seams - cutting can allow the fabric to peel up. Many people have a strong preference. I think it would be interesting to see USITT do a rock exhibit where you create a fake rock and explain / document your process. from foam to chicken wire to cnc cut whatever - to which kind of covering you apply, I'll bet you could have a 100 different rocks all made differently. And sometimes one choice would be better than another - smooth or rough textures might be important in one production but not the next. A touring show may need a robust urethane hard coat, while another could get by with white glue / water and muslin cover. One might be the fastest, one might be the cheapest. One might be cheaper in material but be labor intensive, one might have pricey materials but need less labor. Each shop, each production, each use could mandate a different technique. But whats best? It's personal opinion based on your previous experiences.... and that means that everyone has a different answer. How to pool all of this information and make it user friendly, easy to use, to find, and relevant?

I mentioned our failure to document a project where I work to our electrician the other day. The project involved an interactive that had various parts of an animals body light up based on which button was pressed by the guest. One button lit up the intestines, one the reproduction systems and so forth. We tried 4 or 5 different items, and the end result was a very simple one with individual sockets and light bulbs & the LED's were completely eliminated. But we didn't document the process. Why did the product not work - what did it look like, and could it be used in a different situation? While theoretically the people involved in the project know those answers, time changes your recollections & things are forgotten. Remembering what doesn't work is as important as know what does. My coworkers defense was that he remembered the project and what happened and what everything looked like. Yet, I talked to this same coworker about a different project a few days after that - and I asked him to set up two roll drops the same way we did for job X, and though he did the work the last time, he had no recall of how it was done. Hence despite his argument for the lack of need for documentation, he demonstrated the need. Not to mention the issue that comes up when he isn't around to answer a question about a past job.

Ultimately theatre, like some other trades, teach skills based on a cognitive apprenticeship scheme. A mentor takes in younger apprentices and teaches them what they need to know. However this ultimately is based on the skill of the mentor and the available opportunities for learning that the mentor can place the mentoree in. For instance when I was young, many of the places I worked in didn't do a lot of automation, and hence, I wasn't able to play with and learn automation until I was older. While I like the concept of this approach, there are obvious flaws in the system. Plus, technology and the Internet & social networking introduces a vast new way of teaching and learning in today's world. Hopefully, this blog has a place in that new world.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vygotsky & Theatre Training

I have been doing a little research lately on Vygotsky. Particularly with regards to scaffolding being used in mentoring relationships to help with increasing problem-solving skills for ill-defined problems. One of the articles I have been reading (Cognitive Apprenticeship in Educational Practice by Vanessa Paz Dennen) has been pretty interesting. I found the following particularly interesting:
Teaching and learning through cognitive apprenticeships requires making tacit processes visible to learners so they can observe and then practice them...
Modeling... the demonstration of the temporal process of thinking
Explanation: explaining why the activities take place as they do.
Coaching... the monitoring of students' activities and assisting and supporting where necessary.
Scaffolding... support of students so that they can cope with the task situation. The strategy also entails the gradual withdrawal of teaching from the process, when the students can manage on their own.
Reflection: the student assesses and analyses his performance
Articulation: the results of reflection put into verbal form
Explorations: the students are encouraged to form hypotheses, to test them, and to find new ideas and view points.

I find this relevant to the way that we educate young TD's and theatre technicians, because I think we skip a few important steps in the process.
First, I think that both modeling and explanation can be lacking. For instance, when I was in grad school, there were students that believed that 1x3 couldn't be used to build flats because the shop we worked in used 1x4. There were particular reasons that the shop chose to use 1x4 instead of 1x3, but most students didn't think about it and "learned" that all flats should be build with 1x4.

Secondly, I think we skim on true reflection and articulation of performance. There has to be an allowance for things not going perfectly - it is academia after all, but there seems to often be an attitude that failure isn't an option.

With the number of MFA students that continue on to teaching future theatre students out there - I often wish that there was a little bit more focus on how to teach instead of just content.