What is a complex process or system? Common Principles Yield Diverse and Often Unpredictable Results

We often use art when we work with teachers to illustrate a learning or thinking process. Complexity is one of those concepts that applies to teaching and learning, both with professional development and classroom learning, and its application caused us to focus on principles and expect outcomes that were diverse. By this we mean that if we train a group of teachers about a Learning Principle, like to be recallable, a memory must be retrieved multiple times over time, that what teachers do with that knowledge in the classroom is not predictable. Why not? We are asking teachers to do one thing – distribute memory recall over several days. Shouldn’t it look the same in every classroom? No, and the reason is that learning is complex. The principle may be common to all teachers but the application will not be.

What does that mean – learning is complex? Let’s take our example of memory. When you learn something new, your brain automatically attempts to create an association with something you already know in order to store the new memory. When the association is made both the new knowledge and the existing memory change. Since all of us have different experiences, different existing memories, our new knowledge will vary some from person to person. This is true with adults, teachers, in professional development and in their transfer to classroom practice, and with students in the classroom.

Let’s take a look at Impressionist art for some examples. Very creative people tend to work in groups early in their careers, then often pair up, and finally leave and work semi-autonomously. The Impressionists did this and we will look at one group, then a pair from that group in this blog to see how working with common principles led to divergent results.

In the late 1860s Claude Monet inspired a small group of four artists to forge out on their own. They were Frederic Bazille, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Monet himself. Let’s take a look at their art from the late 1860s to get a sense of their experiences to that time, their prior knowledge, and then move to 1869 and the 1870s, when Renoir and Monet pair up.

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Figure 1 Frederic Bazille, View of the Village of Castelnau le lez, 1868, Musee Fabre, Montpellier, France
Figure 2 Alfred Sisley, Path Near the Parc de Courances, 1868, Private Collection
Figure 3 Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait of the Couple Sisley, 1868, Wallraf-Richartz Museum,Cologne, Germany
Figure 4 Claude Monet, On the Bank of the Seine Bennecourt, 1868

All four of these are painted outdoors, a recent innovation in painting made possible by the invention of the paint tube about 20 years earlier, and painting outdoors is the common principle we will investigate. All four artists paint a person(s) within a landscape, although Renoir’s landscape is a bit of a stretch since it is no more than a background. Regardless, they are working very much as a group and essentially have taken portraiture outdoors with them..

In 1869 Renoir and Monet begin to paint together. They are interrupted by a war with Germany and begin to paint together again in 1872. Bazille is killed during the war, so he will not figure into our future story but the other three artists will.

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Figure 5 Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Grenouillere, 1869, National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden
Figure 6 Claude Monet, La Grenouillere, 1869
Figure 7 Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Duck Pond, 1873, Private Collection
Figure 8 Claude Monet, The Duck Pond, 1873

Now let’s take at look at Sisley, Renoir, and Monet at the end of their careers. They have stayed close friends but their paths have become quite different and in some ways predictable based on their prior knowledge and interests from the 1870s.

Sisley dies in 1896 and remains an Impressionist to the end. He stays close to Monet as an influence and asks to see him in the days before he dies. Figures illustrate the similarities in their work at roughly the same point in time but Monet was painting in a series by 1896 and his riverscapes were very much focused on the light. The two had become quite different.

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Figure 9 Alfred Sisley, Banks of the Loing, Winter, 1896, Art Institute of Chicago, IL, US
Figure 10 Claude Monet, Morning on the Seine 02, 1896

Now let’s forward to just before Renoir’s death in 1919. Throughout his career he had painted nudes and near the end of his life was no exception. He often painted them outside and the background was merely a setting for his figures. He was severely arthritic when he painted, his models would tie the brushes to his fingers. To provide something acceptable to all, we picked one of his few paintings in which everyone was clothed and a Monet from the same time period.

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Figure 11 Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Women in Blouses, 1919, Private Collection
Figure 12 Claude Monet, Water Lilies and Weeping Willow Branches, 1916 – 19

It would have been possible to pick two paintings with similar colors and both with the abstract backgrounds but Renoir and Monet had long gone their separate ways, although still close friends. Renoir was painting people and the landscape was simply the background and an abstract one. Monet was painting only landscapes at this point in time and had been for almost twenty years.

By 1926, the year Monet died, he was working only on paintings in a series, mostly surfaces of his lily pond and his paintings were taking years to complete. Most were murals for L’Orangarie, a museum in Paris housing his murals.

Figure 13 Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1920 - 26

Here are three artists working on the same problem in the late 1860s – painting the outdoors. They were very similar at the time and two of them, Renoir and Monet, painted together , standing side by side, on maybe six or seven occasions for two years and yet they became very, very different artists but both still painting outdoors for the most part.

When we work with teachers, we work from a common set of Learning Principles and a few required or suggested Design Principles but we expect their work in the classroom to be quite diverse. They may be influenced by each other but their work is individual. They have and exercise choice. Expectations of students can often be similar – the principles are expected but so is diversity.

We recommend that as you observe learners, teachers or students, that you stay close to the principles and not wander too far downstream. Keep it simple. There are often many ways to do things well and the more prescriptive we become as observers and graders, the more likely we are to prevent better and more creative solutions from surfacing and, at least in our opinion, the more likely the observer is to get it wrong.

Paintings in all cases from WikiArt – a wonderful resource for art.

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