Learning to unlearn: What could radically creative education be?

Juuso Tervo is urging us not only to learn new things, but also to unlearn the already learned.
red color making sliding shapes on blue background

Having worked for four years at University-Wide Art Studies (UWAS) at Aalto University, one of the central lessons I’ve learned thus far is to not take teaching and learning at face value. Even though having a background in art education, I constantly find myself pondering not only what learning and teaching are, but also what they could be in a university like Aalto.

UWAS offers what we call transdisciplinary arts-based education to students across the university. Starting in 2016 with only one course, we have grown into a curriculum of over 30 courses per year.

For UWAS, transdisciplinarity means first and foremost transformative teaching and learning; that is, teaching and learning that traverses and transgresses both existing and emerging disciplines. This means that instead of simply teaching art, design, and architecture, we invite both students and faculty from all disciplines to work and think through and with them, and most importantly, with each other.

UWAS’s arts-based transdisciplinary education is, in other words, education that aims to creatively and critically explore all forms of knowing and doing, including art and design.

What if radically creative education was not about breaking the established rules, but disregarding them?"

Juuso Tervo, Director of University-Wide Art Studies

Rethinking foundations

The UWAS curriculum is built around themes and topics rather than specific skills or con-tents. We’ve had courses on darkness, beer brewing and sausage making, electricity in the arts, microscopic images, and creative coding – just to name a few. Students don’t need any previous knowledge in art or design to take our courses, and all UWAS courses are open to bachelor’s and master’s degree students alike.

While UWAS has been warmly welcomed by students, faculty and staff across the university, our transdisciplinary and trans-formative approach to teaching, learning, and curriculum planning does not always fit within the discipline-orientated mindset of higher education.

I believe this discrepancy is connected to the strongly held belief that there are foundations to be mastered prior to advancing into deeper disciplinary or trans/inter/multi/cross/you-name-it-disciplinary knowledge and skills. Or, as the old saying ‘What if radically creative education was not about breaking the established rules, but disregarding them?’ goes, one ought to know the rules before breaking them.

This is all familiar to us in UWAS as well. We are quite often asked to offer so-called foundational courses where students could learn easily utilisable tools and methods of art and design. These range from design thinking to basic skills in photography, and from Adobe’s programs to exercises in creative thinking.

Of course, requests like these are completely valid and show how needed the creative fields are in today’s world. Personally, I’d love to see engineering students immersed in ceramics and business students exploring installation art.

Going back to the idea of transformative education, however, teaching does not have to be simply a means to transmit preexisting knowledge and skills to those who allegedly lack them, but it can offer time and space to question what one presently knows and does. In other words, instead of simply learning new things, one may also unlearn the already learned.

I wish to emphasise that I’m not against foundational courses – on the contrary, they have an important part to play in building a community of discourse and practice within and beyond the university.

All I’m saying is that since transdisciplinary education takes place between established fields of knowledge and practice, it is by nature devoid of stable foundations. Or, if one claims to have foundations for it, they are most likely imposed by disciplinary demands for specific outcomes for teaching and learning.

It is precisely this circular bind be-tween preestablished foundations and predetermined outcomes that UWAS aims to disrupt with its arts-based transdisciplinary curriculum.

Exploring unknowing

That said, what if radically creative education was not about breaking the established rules, but disregarding them? This doesn’t have to mean that everything goes; that students and teachers should embrace some sort of a laissez-faire relativism. On the contrary, it requires careful attention toward what one does not know about the things they know and staying with questions (“what,” “why,” “how,” “where,” “who,” etc.) that initiate every educational inquiry, whether in the form of teaching or learning.

Who knows, maybe someday this will lead to ways of knowing, doing, and making one can’t even imagine yet."

Juuso Tervo

There is nothing mystical about this – I’m sure that everyone knows how it feels not to know or not to know how to do something. I believe that transdisciplinary education allows students and teachers from various fields to share this feeling with others and explore what could be done with it aside from disciplinary hierarchies and rules.

I understand that for some, letting go of established forms of knowledge and specific goals sounds doubtful, even dangerous. I’ve been even told that courses devoid of definite outcomes are always a complete waste of time, or “hand-waiving ” as my dear colleagues sometimes call it.

For the doubtful, I’d like to answer with the words of French feminist philosopher and writer Hélène Cixous: ‘Thinking is trying to think the unthinkable: thinking the thinkable is not worth the effort’. In other words, if all education is reduced to the shortest distance between questions and answers, I wonder where’s the effort.

Indeed, learning to unlearn requires a lot of work. Luckily in a university like Aalto one doesn’t have to take up all this work alone. There are several creative and critical ways of thinking and doing already taking place in every part of the university.

By encouraging both students and faculty to stay with things and thoughts they don’t have answers to, UWAS offers one possible meeting point and testing ground for various creativities and criticalities without forcing them into a set of predetermined, disciplinary rules.

Who knows, maybe someday this will lead to ways of knowing, doing, and making one can’t even imagine yet. Considering the enormous ecological, social, political, and economic changes societies are currently facing, I believe it’s more important than ever to open new possibilities for futures yet to come.

TEXT: Juuso Tervo, Director of University-Wide Art Studies (UWAS)


References: Cixous, H. (1993). Three steps on the ladder of writing. (S. Cornell & S. Sellers, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.


University-Wide Art Studies

Aalto University offers all its students an opportunity to orient in art-based thinking, creativity and culture.

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