The art of teaching teachers in the arts: An interview with Professor Michael Wilson

Posted on Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Portrait of Professor Michael Wilson

Professor Michael Wilson’s original career path as a jazz trumpeter in Montreal led indirectly to a new career in teaching. But that hasn’t stopped him from becoming an artist of sorts in the classroom. According to Wilson, teaching is a kind of performance art in its own right. As an educator, he has taught aspiring arts teachers to prioritize imagination, creativity and innovation in their teaching — what he calls the practice of “artistry” in his 2012 book, In a Grain of Sand: A New Vision of Arts Education.

After completing a graduate teaching program in London, England, in 1973, Wilson returned to Canada and became a school board drama consultant and arts coordinator. He came to uOttawa in 1989, where he taught courses in integrated and dramatic arts and initiated professional development courses for teachers in co-operation with the National Arts Centre, the National Gallery and the Canadian Museum of History.

He is the founding lead of the Imagination, Creativity and Innovation (ICI) cohort of uOttawa’s Teacher Education program, which focuses on the aesthetic experience, the ways in which the perception, appreciation and production of art shape our identity and our understanding of the world.

He is also founding chair of the National Roundtable on Teacher Education in the Arts, a forum for discussion and an incubator of visions, strategies and principles concerning all aspects of arts education.

In this Q&A, Wilson discusses his career and the future of arts education in a post-pandemic world.

You have had a long and impressive career in arts education inspired in part by an early aspiration to be a jazz musician. Can you share some anecdotes about how your career path led you to teaching? 

MW: I guess my teaching career has been long (since 1965). Not sure about the “impressive” part. Actually, I nearly failed my McGill undergraduate degree in 1964, because I had discovered Montreal and its vibrant jazz scene. I got the chance to play in a club on Victoria St. (across from McGill) over an 18-month period between 1962 and 1964 and learned to survive as a “jazz” trumpeter (mostly flugelhorn) in various sized groups. On rare nights, I thought I played as though reaching to something universal.  More commonly, it was just managing to have all of us in the group finish playing a number at the same time! There were many musicians in Montreal who were better than I was, and they wanted it more. So, I quit. Not knowing what to do with my life, I saw a brochure from the University of Toronto offering an education certificate program specializing in theatre arts. As I had informally dabbled in McGill’s extracurricular theatre program, I thought it might be fun to teach something that I had “played” with over the years. When I graduated from that program, Ontario was begging for teachers. I got three permanent job offers on the first day that school boards were allowed to recruit, in 1965! So, I really unintentionally fell into teaching. Some suggest I have been falling ever since. 

Your graduate studies — both master’s and PhD — focused on the practice of teacher education as “artistry.” Can you tell us more about that?

MW: My doctoral studies focused on the elements of relationships that help determine teacher effectiveness. As much of my experience involved teaching in the aesthetic dimension, I saw parallels in the practice of artists (in any medium) and the almost tacit signals that teachers often employ. A simple gesture or stance, or even the physical relationship of teacher and students, can deeply affect communication power and effectiveness. To be an effective teacher, at any level, with any subject, requires a level of awareness that educational philosopher Maxine Greene refers to as “the art of noticing deeply,” exactly the same prerequisite demanded by most artistic activity. Teaching is as challenging as the performative arts in its requirement for intuition, spontaneity, imagination and risk-taking. In holistic terms, I call this artistry. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was a jolting setback to the arts and to arts education. But despite the cancellation of live events and sudden school closures, creativity and innovation emerged everywhere in response to the global crisis. In the current context, what advice would you offer to in-service or aspiring arts teachers?

MW: The current situation certainly presents challenges. The lasting impression students have of most classroom experiences is that of a teacher’s professional aura, not any particular subject matter. The challenge with online learning is that technology dictates another level of framing — literally a two-dimensional image, framed in a box. In other words, another distancing obstacle to profound communication. So, in teacher education, we must limit the exclusivity of online experience to increase live settings as much as possible. This is critically so in the arts, but also in many other curriculum areas. Certainly, technology provides many avenues of presenting subject matter imaginatively and creatively but we must not totally dilute the power of the live teaching-learning encounter.  Otherwise, the robots take over.

The 2020 pandemic has brought both challenges and opportunities to the education sector. Speaking specifically about the arts and teacher education at the University of Ottawa, what do you hope to see in 2021 and beyond?

MW: I think the pandemic frees us all to examine the possibilities of changing the education paradigm more generally. Public schooling is too formalized, too structured and generally too rigid. Organizational efficiency seems to be the paramount driver. So now, with the challenges to that efficiency through social distancing, classroom ventilation concerns and the new dynamic between live and online learning, we have the possibility to re-imagine school in a completely novel manner. Let’s get the students out of the buildings. Let’s take them to a park, for example, to reinforce and enhance perceptual acuity, as an antecedent to creativity and aesthetic experience. Will we question the necessity of formal classrooms all of the time for live experiences? Could we not explore the same in teacher education? Certainly, we can now be open to placing play, imagination, creativity and aesthetic experience at the centre of our current and future programs for our teaching candidates.

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