Of Jewelry Making and Curriculum Design

In the #LTHEchat above Virna Rossi made an interesting comparison about the durability of good design and relating it to Celtic jewellery, which still intrigues us and has not lost its lustre and appeal. And somehow this comparison kept echoing throughout the days following the chat. When possible I join my mum in silver smithing summer school. We have the luxury to immerse ourselves fully in the creative process. And to me the jewellery captures, encapsulates, manifests processes and experiences. While I wholeheartedly loathe the term learning design (if at all we can only ever design teaching) and prefer to stick with the good old field of Didaktik instead, some aspects from the creation of the jewellery piece below strongly resonates with my teaching methods.

Indian Ocean

Enamel on silver. A pointed oval shaped pendant, covered in enamel, with a tiny piece of coral* laced on top.

Nathalie Tasler, 2018

When making this particular piece I tried to recreate not just a situation, landscape, or object, but an experience. In creative teaching methods, I am playing with the proverbial enamel–colours. Making jewellery is a way of moving spaces and objects, manifesting a visceral experience through shape, weight, colour, and texture. In teaching when creating activities, I feel like an alchemist. The same feeling of excitement emerges when mixing different enamel powders, and watch the heat transform the powder into something akin to an abstract painting. The magic happens once the heat is applied and melts the colours, turns them liquid. The heat translates colours into movement before a new stillness emerges. It’s poetry created through material.
So I am wondering are threshold concepts the transforming heat in learning? Because once the heat source is applied I have not much control over the shaping that takes place in the enamel. Neither do I as an educator once the learners engage in my created activities, challenges, provocations. Play can create heat in learning as well, it makes the engagement with threshold concepts less threatening, in play (gamification) proxies enable a save space for engagement. After all, if something goes wrong, it was just a game. Right?

This particular piece might stand the test of time. If stored carefully and I don’t wear it on woollen clothes. I tried to capture the magic of an unexpected, unplanned, holiday which came on the back of much pain and drama at the time. But there was also much beauty and joy. So this pendant is my interpretation of a tiny area of Indian Ocean I was lucky to experience. A translation of an experience into material form.
This is also my approach to Didaktik. I am trying to create situations that offer experiences. How they turn out once the heat is applied though is out of my hands.

But I began at the end. Jewellery making during our long summer weeks usually begins at the drawing board—literally. What is your curriculum design drawing board like? I am using white board, photos and reflective diary. In the past I have gone back to text books from principles of Didaktik, experiential learning, educational psychology to research papers and SoTL publications. All of which combined turn into a narrative from which ideas emerge. Oh and don’t forget mind-maps!

The next step is working with sheets of metal. Drawing outlines, sawing, cutting, soldering. Or taking you back to the curriculum design perspective, at this stage we are creating the infrastructure for learning. Developing the material, setting up the VLE (CMS), writing course handbooks. This is where all the hard work is in terms of preparing for the new semester.

But the proof is in the pudding, implementing the course and observing your learners to engage with the material. Pushing, coaxing, coaching, mentoring, giving space, being there, hovering, rolling up sleeves and getting stuck in. Depending on what is needed. However, when learners engage in concepts that are threshold concepts for them, I realised something. My role as educator relates back to silversmithing. When hammering silver into shapes, I have to apply heat and cannot change the form more than 20% before heating again. Otherwise the metal will tear.

So when encouraging learners to engage in learning experiences that have the potential to be transformative. Don’t expect or push for too much change at once. Don’t expect to shape learners like the metal sheet into a form you want to achieve. I approach teaching like enamel work not like metal work. I put everything into place (enamel powder) and then apply heat (run course) and see which way the colours melt into something new.

But sometimes when you approach teaching this way, offer experiences, offer different paths to engage, keep a dialogue open, then what ever your learners bring to you can shake up the enamel powder, and turn into something entirely different. You always learn from and with your learners. Never forget you are in this together. Question your motives for some of the curriculum design. When learners challenge the way of knowledge creation you envisage explore, negotiate, be flexible. And like with the last piece of jewellery below, something very different–beautifully different might emerge.
I wanted to recreate an art deco style piece, with the appropriate enamel covering. But the enamel just didn’t work out the way I wanted. No matter what I tried. So I used the gas burner and burnt (oxidized) the failed enamel–resulting in an entirely different piece to what I had imagined.

To come back to Virna’s suggestion that good ‘learning design’ might be able to be as timeless as jewellery. I think this is possible, at it’s core. The bracelet I made is roughly based on ancient bangles we exhibited in the museum I grew up in. Bronze age massive metal torques, which in their shape are still worn today. The core of good curriculum design, which keeps communication open, enables different pathways to engage with the material, stays flexible to adapt to learners needs and input, seems to have withstood the time–in my teaching practice at least. I might have to apply heat to it at some point and change, adapt and shift, but doubt that the core of it all will change.

* The shore was covered in these tiny coral pieces after a massive tropical storm. Asked for permission to take one piece. Also a good time to rethink our use of plastic.

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