Exploring Situated Learning

I no longer remember when I first came across the term «situated learning» — likely it was in connection to my exploration of theories of experiential learning, starting with Dewey, and continuing through Kolb and Schön & Argyris. But in the past few days I’ve been reading more closely, starting with the excellent introduction on Infed, Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger and communities of practice.

The notion that learning occurs when the learner is placed in situations that closely resemble the situations where the learning is later to be applied, and that this furthermore is part of bringing the learner into a community of practice resonates with my approach to film school education. Effective education at any practice-based film school will always create situations for the students to learn different aspects of filmmaking through practical work in real-world problems. Furthermore, a school such as ours, where the faculty are also active filmmakers, will ensure the students are not only learning through instruction but also by being included in what is most definitely a community of practice.

One question I am wanting to explore further is how this relates to the other educational theories and pedagogical approaches we employ at the school.

[image from “Situated Learning Theory” by Sandra P. Mina Herrera, https://opentext.wsu.edu/theoreticalmodelsforteachingandresearch/chapter/situated-learning-theory/]

Decolonizing myself?

Decolonizing. As is the case with most people, I hear the word a lot, and I hear it used in different ways and in different contexts. As an educator, I cannot avoid the notion of «decolonizing the curriculum» and, in both my own field of art and in the arts in general, people talk about «decolonizing practice». I see in the film school and art school networks I am a part of that the topic is coming more and more into the forefront.

I must admit I struggle with using the word in this context. Can I «decolonize» myself? Does it mean anything when applied to a process of analysing myself, my own prejudices, and privileges, and working towards becoming a more active participant in the process of breaking down systemic oppression and creating a more just society? The word «decolonize» is ridiculed on many front, particularly by people on the right but also by some on the left. 

I have, however, been engaged in social justice my whole adult life, and cannot avoid the topic. I believe I have — as a white, male academic in Norway with personal, professional, and cultural privilege — a responsibility to examine how I can use my privilege to effect change and create conditions where those voices that have less privilege than I do are lifted to the forefront and can achieve the same power of definition and control that people like me have held for far too long.

I learned, while volunteering in support of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter in the 1990s, the importance of being a political ally by, among other things, letting those who have been the subject of oppression lead the struggle for emancipation and to take their lead as I work actively to support the struggle and use my privilege as a tool in that struggle. I will attempt to apply those lessons to the work I will need to do now.

It will be a journey, and part of the reason I am posting about it here is to hold myself to account — a struggle undertaken in silence and in private will not be as effective as one undertaken in openness and in public.

Picking up some threads — film school pedagogy

I’ve got some time on my hands these days, and it’s time to pick up the film school pedagogy thread again. As I’ve posted earlier, I worked with a group of faculty from Nordic film schools in 2015 & 16 to develop a training programme for filmmakers teaching at film schools. Subsequently, I translated this to Norwegian, and completed a first cohort among our own staff in the school year 2018-19. I am now working on taking that experience and developing a curriculum for a second cohort.

The intro module from the Nordic version is still a good starting point, and so I’m posting it here and will endeavour to follow up with some thoughts and new ideas.

The intro module looked like this:

The Artist as (Film School) Teacher

Pedagogical development for filmmakers teaching in higher education


Introduction to the training programme
mandatory for all participants
1,5 ECTS – 5 weeks – approx. time usage (including own time) is 8-10 hrs. per week.


This module will introduce all the participants in the “The Artist as (Film School) Teacher” pedagogical course to several aspects of film school pedagogy, basics of online learning, principles of peeragogy, and to the approaches to teaching practiced at the participating Nordic film schools. The module will combine video hangouts and webconferencing, synchronous and asynchronous online discussions with readings, videos and reflection assignments.

Module 1 is not a standalone course, but serves as the introduction for all the filmmakers working at the NORDICIL schools who need – either due to formal requirements or personal interest – insight into and practice with pedagogy and didactic methods designed for film schools. This first module will introduce the series of modules that make up “The Artist as (Film School) Teacher” and, most importantly, ensure that all the participants have the same level of comfort with the online environments, the vocabulary of film school pedagogy, and the principles of peeragogy.

Completion of this module is a prerequisite for participating in further modules.

Learning outcomes.

By the conclusion of the module, the candidates will have achieved the following learning outcomes:

Knowledge: The candidates will have attained

  • An overview of the approaches to pedagogy practiced at the participating film schools
  • An overview of various tools for online learning and interaction
  • An understanding of peeragogy and the importance of personal learning networks in online instruction.
  • A good understanding of “pedagogy” and “didactics”, “scaffolding”, pragmatist educational practice, constructivist educational practice, other commonly used educational practices.

Skills: The candidates will be able to:

  • Critically reflect over and place own personal approach to education and training within a larger context
  • Choose, setup, and maintain online identities for use in future training modules
  • Build and use a personal learning network (PLN) and personal learning environment (PLE)
  • Support other participants in a PLN
  • Understand the uses of pedagogy and didactics.

General competence:

At the conclusion of this first module, the participants will be prepared for further participation in “The Artist as (Film School) Teacher” by both enabling them to attain a level of comfort with the online tools and environments that will be used and helping them gain insight into the role of the educator as distinct from the filmmaker.

Course Structure

WEEK 1 – Introductions

In week one, the participants will receive an email with instructions on how to create an online account with the chosen PLE for this module[4] . At each of the 8 participating schools there will also be a designated resource person[1] the participants can go to for assistance getting online. Once logged in to the PLE, participants will see the syllabus for the course, will be able to download list of fundamental definitions, and will have access to some readings and videos.

Tasks for the week:

  • Log into the PLE and create a full profile
  • Read and reflect on pedagogical approaches from the different schools
  • Share reflections on own approach to teaching in the PLE
  • Read and reflect on “What is peeragogy?”
  • View and reflect on selected videos (TBA)
WEEK 2 – Environments

In week two, participants will start to become familiar with the various online tools that will be used throughout this and future modules. Several tools will be presented with both pros and cons, and the facilitators will explain why some have been chosen at this point and how they will be used. These include tools for online discussions (eg. Slack, Google+, Twitter, etc.), for video interaction and webinars (eg. Skype, Google Hangouts), and for creating and sharing documents (such as Google Drive, Dropbox, blog tools such as Blogger & WordPress).

In addition, week two will see the introduction of basic learning theories and their application to the training of creative talents in filmmaking. Key questions include “What does it mean to be be developing creative talent and how does this differ from professional training?”, “What is an experience-based educational approach?”, and “To what extent does training artists /filmmakers rely on tacit knowledge, and what are the educational implications of this?” These questions are introduced at this point, but developing answers to them is a project for several modules.

Tasks for the week:

  • Participate in the first video hangout
  • Participate in a synchronous online discussion using Slack, Twitter, or Google+.
  • Comment on reflections from week 1; if necessary update own reflection based on feedback
  • Read selected readings introducing basics of Pragmatism (Dewey), Constructivism (Piaget), and Social Constructivism (Vygotsky). Max. 20 pages total.
  • Start a self-reflection/criticism of the selected readings.
WEEK 3 – The Personal Learning Network

Peeragogy depends, as the name suggests, on interaction with and support from peers, and in this course the peers are film school teachers spread across 4 countries with different languages, representing 8 schools with different approaches in 6 cities. Reliance on online tools for building and supporting a peer network is absolutely necessary and a primary goal for week three is to help all the participants become more familiar and comfortable with using interactive online tools for establishing and building relationships in a learning network.

Tasks for the week:

  • Participate in a video hangout
  • Participate in a synchronous online discussion using Slack, Twitter, or Google+.
  • Search for useful resources related to the week 2 readings and share any found to a central repository.
  • Read selected sections of the Peeragogy Handbook and participate in an online discussion of peeragogy.
  • Continue self-reflection/criticism of the selected readings, and begin referring to the additional resources found by module participants.
WEEK 4 – Towards developing a film school pedagogy

In week one
of the module, participants were asked to read and reflect on the pedagogical approaches of all the participating NORDICIL schools. At this point, they should feel comfortable enough to reflect critically on the approach of their own school and compare it with the other schools. In week four, the expectation is that participants will start to place their own pedagogical practices and thoughts within this larger context and engage in discussions with other participants in order to exchange thoughts and reflections.

Tasks for the week:

  • Post own self-reflection/criticism in a public forum where the other participants can read and comment on it.
  • Read, reflect and comment on the self-reflections of other participants, both from one’s own institution and from other institutions.
  • Participate in online discussions (possible video hangout may be organised).
  • Fill out self-assessment of course progress to date
WEEK 5 – Conclusions and final reflections

Module 1 is the launching pad for the subsequent modules, and a key metric for success is ensuring the participants are comfortable with both the technological environment and the foundational philosophies of peeragogy and film school pedagogy. The contents of week 5 will be very much determined by the results of the self-assessment survey completed at the end of week 4.

The goal for week 5 is to ensure the participants are familiar with their PLN and the tools for interaction and communication, and have developed a critical awareness of their own pedagogical practice and how it relates to a larger community of practice at the Nordic film schools. These are the key competencies that will form the foundation of the further modules in the course.

Tasks for the week:

  • Participate in online discussions summarising the key takeaways from the module
  • Update own self-reflection/criticism based on total feedback from others
  • Complete online skills assessment
  • Identify gaps in skills and knowledge and share a plan for filling these gaps
  • Where applicable, offer peer support to others who share their learning gaps
  • Complete final self-assessment and sign up for next module.


Each of the
eight participating institutions has provided a participant in the NORDICIL working group that has developed “The Artist as (Film School) Teacher”. These 8 individuals are also the peer facilitators for Module 1, and will support each other in leading the various elements of the module.

There is no grade, and at the completion of the course participants will receive either a “completed” or “not completed” based on their active participation in all facets of the course over the 5-week period. A mark of “completed” is required in order to continue to the next module.

Three thoughts as I transition from reading to writing…

At some point one has to stop reading and start writing… This is a hard one for me, as I – as a “non-academic” academic – do not have the training for this.

However, the time alloted for the NORDICIL working group to develop a film school pedagogy course is nearing a temporary end, and now is the time to produce. I have managed to create a draft outline for an introductory module (2.5 ects, 5 weeks) which I hope to receive some feedback on at our meeting in Stockholm at the start of April. The next module to tackle is the one on assesment I was assigned at our last meeting.

In addition to this, it’s time to review the descriptions of our BFA programmes and introduce several new teachers to the arcane business of teaching at the Norwegian Film School.

So, what I have I learned in all my reading the past months (well, years)?

1. While no one has really written about film school pedagogy specifically, there are many resources out there

An obvious place to start is John Dewey. The pragmatist approach, so well summarized in the quote “Learning to know by doing, and to do by knowing” is very apt for our programmes.

Experiential learning is another key for us. The Kolb learning cycle (or spiral, as it is also described) is naturally a simplified model of learning but it is a good model to illustrate how we want our students to learn.

In addition, both constructivism and social constructivism provide useful tools for understanding our own pedagogical approach. Also valuable is Danish learning theorist Knud Illeris’ work on developing a comprehensive and contemporary theory of learning.

2. Measuring artistic development is challenging

Which is probably why we do not measure it at all! Central to this is that we are working with tacit rather than explicit knowledge. While many forms of explicit knowledge indeed are necessary for filmmakers, especially when it comes to the technical aspects of the different disciplines, we are not a technical school and do not measure technical aptitude.

I would contend that what we do “measure” – how the students develop and reflect on their own artistic expression – is very much in the field covered by tacit knowledge.

3. Continual feedback and assessment is key.

We spend a very large amount of time on feedback and formative assessment, and these are integrated into various teaching activites. As an art school we firmly assert that we must constantly check that the activities we plan are in fact having the impact we plan, and the students are developing both their technical skills and their artistic abilities.

This is an area where much has been written in recent year, notably by John Hattie and Paul Ramsden (the latter in his book Learning to Teach in Higher Education)

Considering “Personal Learning MOOC” – aka. #NRC01PL

As part of the "The Artist as (Film School) Teacher" project, I intend (time permitting!) to take the Personal Learning MOOC offered by Stephen Downes starting February 22. While taking a course like this is personally interesting to me given my longstanding interest in connectivism and MOOCs, the particular insentive for this course is the focus on the "personal learning environment".

In the intro to the course, Downes writes:

Course objectives: participants will develop an appreciation of different models of online course delivery, ranging from the traditional LMS through connectivist MOOCs to potential future models of personal learning and performance support. (my emphasis)

This is a key as I see it in developing a distributed course for Nordic filmmakers. We are attempting to create a learning environment that not only will give filmmakers working as teachers the formal competence they require in order to teach at higher educational institutions, but more importantly provide filmmakers in 4 countries (and 8 film schools in 7 cities) with a peer network for ongoing discussions and support.

There are some premises to be considered:

  • Given the geographic and linguistic challenges involved, online technology is a necessary element.
    • Given the increasing requirements for formal qualifications imposed by European education bureacracies, some form of standardised outcomes are necessary
    • Given the vast gap between individual experiences and pedagogic competencies among the filmmakers teaching at the different schools, a focus on creating a personal (as opposed to personalized) learning environments as well as fostering the development of PLNs is key.
    • Given the lack of formal expertise in this area – film school pedagogy – the course will in large part have to rely on peer learning. To me, this is an advantage rather than a handicap, as I have previously elaborated on.

Structurally, the course will end up being a bit of a hybrid between a personalized and personal environment. We will design modules with pre-defined learning outcomes and leading to some form of assessment that yields standardised ECTS points. This may be easier if we start with some pre-determined "content" the particpants have to "master". On the other hand, the actual need is for an ongoing framework of peer support, where the participants can build their own personal learning environment.

Our challenge will be to marry the two. I don’t know if the Personal Learning MOOC will help me towards this goal, but even if it doesn’t I am sure it will provide interesting new insights and, hopefully, connections along the way.

Initial Thoughts on Artistic Research in Film Schools

I had the good fortune to attend the seminar “Research in film schools” at La femis on April 16th and 17th. Good fortune because it was a marvellous opportunity to discuss artistic research with international colleagues and, not least, visit Paris in the springtime…

Artistic Research at the Norwegian Film School

The Norwegian Film School has participated in the Norwegian Programme for Artistic Research since 2005. In that time was have seen 3 fellows – two screenwriters and one director – successfully complete their research periods and achieve the official title of Associate Professor (“førsteamanuensis”) although the programme does not presently confer a Ph.D. (or any formal Doctorate). We also currently (spring 2015) have a cinematographer in her first year of a Fellowship, and have recently submitted an application for a Fellow working with visual effects.

Artistic research is a new beast for film schools. In part, this development has come about through the Bologna process in Europe, where formal credentials have become increasingly important, even in arts schools. One can debate whether this is a benefit or not (personally, I am sceptical as the focus increasingly seems to be placed on form rather than content) but it is a fact of life for all of us who work at institutions classified as part of higher educational systems and we have to adapt to it.

The notion of “artistic research” is also very new in the film community, but in the 10+ years of participation we have seen an increasing awareness among filmmakers in Norway. This includes our teachers, who are all working filmmakers, hired at NFS on fixed-term contracts. Most work part-time and maintain an active career while teaching.

At the same time, support for artistic research can be a very liberating thing. Film can be a very commercial art form, with large amounts of money involved, and it can be difficult for artists to find the creative freedom to experiment and explore while making a living. Doing artistic research gives filmmakers the time and freedom to experiment and reflect on their own practice in a variety of different ways, even when this practice is connected to commercial projects. One example of that is the work of director Erik Poppe on his theatrical feature film “1,000 Times Good Night”.

Critical Reflection

At the Norwegian Film School (as at all the members of the Programme for Artistic Research), the key to artistic research is critical reflection. For us, this is the idea that the artists are able to clearly articulate their creative intentions in a way that can be used – both by themselves and by others – to learn from their successes and failures, and clearly show the ways in which they are expanding their own horizons as artists in addition to pushing the boundaries of their art. This is a skill we start developing at the BFA level.

Critical reflection is a requirement of the Programme for Artistic Research, although there has never been a very clear definition of it. In their guidelines, PAR describes it as:

Reflection is part of the artistic work. Material shall be submitted that communicates this
reflection, particularly in relation to:

  • the process (artistic choices and turning points, theory applied, dialogue with various networks and professional environments etc.);
  • the research fellow’s personal artistic position/work in relation to the chosen subject area nationally and internationally;
  • how the project contributes to professional development of the subject area, including any artistic innovations.

It is up to the research fellows themselves to select the medium and form in which to
submit material that communicates the reflection aspect of the work and any other
documentation. The institution decides which languages can be used for the reflection and

In this description it is apparent there is no formal requirement for the critical reflection to be presented in the form of an academic paper. It has been quite important for the members of PAR to allow artists to find the best mode of presenting critical reflection themselves rather than conforming to the conventions of an alien academic culture. The rationale is quite simple: artists are trained to to their art, not to be academics, and as such they must be given the freedom to present their work and reflections in a way which makes sense within the context of their art.

This does not mean writing a paper is somehow forbidden. On the contrary, many chose to present their reflections in a written form that is quite recognisable to members of academic disciplines – but often this has more to do with convention than conviction. It is interesting to see how other media are starting to make an impact, through things like the video essay, performance, podcast, and also influenced by currents like #remixthediss.

One controversial aspect of the critical reflection is the question of “theory applied”. Different art forms have radically different approaches to theory – so different is can sometimes be challenging getting a productive discourse going between practitioners of the different arts. PAR gets around this by avoiding a definition what constitutes “theory applied”, but every new group of research fellows encounter this issue the first time they attend a meeting of all the fellows.

At the Norwegian Film School we have developed a somewhat pragmatic attitude to theory. We are not associated with an academic film theory department, and this is by conviction and choice. Theory becomes simply that which is useful to the filmmaker in the making of the film and development of the self as an artist. Reading Metz, Mulvey or Deleuze, for example, may be useful for individual filmmakers but need not be part of a filmmaker’s education. The only necessary theory is that which is useful for the artistic development of the filmmaker and the artistic project.

Or, as one of the participants at the “Research in film schools” seminar stated during one of the discussions;

It is the artist’s prerogative to abuse theory.

Comparing Artistic Research to academic research

One of the ongoing discussions in many parts of the world is the relationship between academic research and artistic research. We are lucky enough in Norway to have a situation where artistic research is recognized as something separate yet equal to academic research by law. This formal status, which came to pass in 1995, is what has allowed artistic research to grow and flourish. Artists do not have to conform to or compete with academics when seeking support for research projects, as we have our own research council in the Programme for Artistic Research.

At the same time, the definition of artistic research has remained vague at best both in Norway and internationally. The present Norwegian definition, from 2007, can be simplified as “artistic practice combined with reflection on that practice” (it should be noted there is a working group with a mandate to, among other things, update this definition in the spring of 2015). That means, for example, that when one of our teachers works on a film project, that counts as artistic research and can be registered as such in the national research database CRIStin. This is a huge benefit for institutions where the majority of teaching staff are practicing artists, as it allows us to log research that falls within the natural activity of the milieu.

Not everyone is as lucky as we are, and many of the film- and arts schools I have encountered are subject to academic departments with a much more narrow understanding of research. Often it seems the crux of this is the traditional notion that research, for it to be valid, must produce new knowledge. In the present European environment of standardization and bureaucratization this requirement of producing knowledge has become more rigid.

This has led a number of prominent voices to proclaim, as Henk Borgdorff does in his seminal The Conflict of the Faculties, that

In sum, the knowledge embodied in art, which has been variously analysed as tacit, practical knowledge, as ‘knowing-how’, and as sensory knowledge, is cognitive, though non-conceptual; and it is rational, though non-discursive. The distinctive nature of the knowledge content has been analysed in depth in phenomenology, hermeneutics, and cognitive psychology.

(my emphasis, from Borgdoff, Henk, Conflict of the Faculties p.49)

In other words, in order to protect the status of artistic research within the academy, it has become necessary to employ the language of the academy to define artistic production as knowledge production.

Borgdorff and others have made this argument convincingly, but I find myself unsure of the ultimate success of such a strategy. For one thing, it seems like one is creating such a broad philosophical definition of knowledge that the entire concept is in danger of becoming meaningless. It also subjects artists to the language of the academy in a way that can be used to enforce critical reflection that is bound to that language; a most unfortunate circumstance.

I much prefer the use of the word understanding. Artistic research gives us an increased understanding of the nature of artistic practice and the boundaries of the art, and it does this both for the individual artist, the community of peers and the outside world.

These are initial thoughts, sure to be developed further both in my own thinking and in the ongoing collaboration with other film and arts schools. I look forward to the continuation.

Returning from Göteborg

On January 28th and 29th, NORDICIL organised the annual gathering of Film School teachers in conjunction with the Göteborg International Film Festival. This forum has slowly grown over the years, and this year it expanded to two days with a focus on film school pedagogy.

Naturally, I could not resist presenting what has become a bit of a pet project lately: an organised course for film school teaching. The title of the presentation was «From Artist to Teacher: Developing a Peer-based Training Programme for Film School Teachers».

The background for the proposal is this: there is suprisingly little in the way of organised training for professional filmmakers who are getting into teaching. This means that filmmakers have to, in large part, find their own way when they enter the teaching profession – with varying degrees of success. In addition to this, film schools (and, in fact, arts schools in general) are facing increasing pressure to formalise their programmes and accreditation of teachers under the unrelenting pressure of the Bologna agreements.

Given this situation, it makes sense both from a teaching perspective and from a «keep the education bureaurats at bay» perspective, for film schools to design and run a formal teacher training programme themselves. And, given the lack of (formal) expertise in this area, it makes sense to adopt the principles of peeragogy.

In the coming weeks and months I will be elaborating on this, as I – along with (I hope) several Nordic colleagues – further develop this idea and plan and launch a blended, distributed, film school teacher training programme.

The connective triangle

At the 2002 CILECT congress in Melbourne there was a panel discussion called «Triangle: Six Years Later». The preamble to the papers presented states:

In 1996, CILECT began to address the issue of communication and collaboration among the creative triangle of writers, directors, and producers. Some viewed the Triangle project as a necessary corrective to the 1960’s auteur ideology that dominated many film schools. Others saw it as diminishing the role of the individual film artist in an increasingly market-oriented system. How has Triangle affected the film and television school curriculum, and what lessons can be learned from the process as well as the outcomes?

Shortly after the original introduction of the Triangle method at CILECT (at a conference in Rome), The Norwegian Film School (NFS) was founded as a film school firmly entrenched in the triangle tradition. This entry will build on a previous article and analyse the way in which the triangle is implimented at NFS, and look at the emerging educational theory of connectivism as a tool for understanding how the learning film school students achieve happens in the connections established within the triangle structure.

The Triangle basics

As can be seen in the transcript of «Triangle: Six Years Later» from the 2002 Melbourne Congress, one of the primary goals of the introduction of the Triangle was to strengthen the role of the producer as a creative partner for the director. The collaboration between these two, in cooperation with the screenwriter, became the focus of this method.

At the Norwegian Film School (and presumeably others as well), this collaboration was taken further, to include all the different departments taught at the school. This has become formalised as the «first» triangle (screenwriter, director and producer), the «second» triangle (cinematographer, production designer, and director and producer; and soon: the digital visual designer), and the «third» triangle (editor, sound designer, and director and producer). All three triangles are used in production exercises as a method for helping the student filmmakers communicate and collaborate.

There are both formal and informal elements in the Triangle; the formal are planned meetings where the members of a given triangle meet with the teachers in the relevant disciplines and discuss their projects. These meetings begin with the students presenting the status of their work at that stage. Depending on the project, this may be very rudimentary or quite advanced. The instuctors then provide feedback and guidance.

The sophistication of the students’ collaboration also increases as they go through the course of studies. In the first semester or two they don’t quite understand how to collaborate, let alone how to maximize each others skills and talents on a common project. It is not uncommon for one or more members of a triangle to complain that they are being ignored and simply used for their labour.

The second year of their studies most often sees a marked increase in the quality of their collaboration, as the students become more confident about their own place and skills, and gain a better understanding of the roles and talents of their teammembers. By the third year the students seek out each other, and and most collaborations work quite well. An observation at the Norwegian Film School has been that at this stage the learn more from each other than from their instructors.

Learning in the the Triangle

The informal aspects of the triangles are more intangible and, in a way, more interesting from a pedagogic point of view. As mentioned above, as the students move through the three years of their programme, they start to learn more and more from each other. And what I observe is that this learning falls in the pattern of

the central claim of connectivism, that the knowledge is found in the connections between people with each other and that learning is the development and traversal of those connections (Downes, Stephen. “E-Learning Generations” in Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. self-published epub, 2012)

The students make many connections as they go through their study. Each discipline (screenwriting, directing, etc.) consists of 6 students, and these students develop close collegial relationships where they support and critique each other. In addition, the students will through the production exercises work in at least 8 different constelleations where each discipline is represented; in these constellations they learn to collaborate and utlise their differing expertises.

Eventally we see that as teams are set and given a creative task, the very act of collaboration gives them the capacity to solve the task the school has given them. They seem to quite naturally find ways of utilising each others skills and expanding their own knowledge. Where the instructors have to cajole and instruct them early on in their studies, now they find their role becomes more traditinal mentoring with an emphasis on encouragement and support where necessary.

None of this is surprising. After all, we expect the students to improve and gain confidence and become more skillful. If they did not, they should not be pursuing this course of study. But what is interesting is examining how it happens, how our pedagogical approach can help (or, in some cases, perhaps hinder?) the students develop faster and emerge from their studies as more confident and interesting artists.

Film school pedagogics

Some initial thoughts about developing a training programme for instructors in film training at the BFA and MFA level

(originally published Nov. 19, 2012)

In Norway today all universities and høgskoler (University Colleges) provide pedagogic instruction for newly-hired teaching and research staff. Typically these courses will run part-time over the course of a year and yield 15 ECTS points. An example is the course in høgskolepedagogikk provided in collaboration between the Lillehammer, Gjøvik and Hedmark University Colleges which can be found here (Norwegian only).
These types of courses are designed to introduce the newly-hired (and anyone who wants a refreshment) staff to some of the issues and challenges facing teaching staff in modern higher education. They cover topics like «dannelse» (derived loosely from European classical education in the Humboldtian tradition), digital tools in education, ethics and so on.

Central to this type of course is a solid foundation in academia and the academic relationship to knowledge.

A question that has arisen for the Norwegian Film School recently is whether this kind of pedagogic training is appropriate for higher arts education in general – and film school education in particular. The reason the question comes up is that the kind of fine arts training offered by the Norwegian Film School does not have a relationship to knowledge in the academic sense. This form of fine arts training is wholly concerned with developing an artistic talent, and while the emerging artists need to develop certain skills within their chosen discipline, their academic knowledge about that discipline is irrelevant in the context of the training they receive.

What does this fine arts training look like?

The current programme at the Norwegian Film School is an intensive three-year training for artists within seven disciplines in filmmaking: screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, production design, editing, and sound. Six students are accepted into each discipline every second year, following a rigorous admissions process. the students are selected based on only two criteria:

  1. Does the applicant have talent in the chosen discipline? and
  2. Can that talent benefit from the education offered at the Norwegian Film School?

Once accepted, the students enter an intensive programme where they receive training within their chosen discipline – where there is, among other things, an emphasis on teaching them to become storytellers and artists within their discipline. They also work on production exercises with members of all the other disciplines (in teams chosen by the school), and attend classes in subjects common to all the disciplines, including dramaturgy & storytelling, artistic awareness, and visual storytelling (called «cinematurgy»). There are no elective courses; all workshops, projects, lectures, etc., are obligatory.

All of the education the students receive has one purpose and one purpose only: to guide them towards realising their talent as filmmakers. Any knowledge they might gain from, for example, film history is only interesting if it makes them more aware of the context in which their own artistic production occurs. As a result, there are no tests along the way, only evaluations, and – at the end of the third year – a final examination based on the presentation of both group and individual work.

The school is built around some basic pedagogical principles, including «the right to make mistakes» and «restrictions (or constraints) breed creativity» and filmmaking is a collaborative art. The application of these principles is most visible in the frequent production exercises.

Another tool used in these production exercises is the declaration of intent; a document each student in a film team must write before beginning their main contribution to the film. At the final screenings, the finished productions are measured, not against any subjective standard of quality, but purely as to what extent each individual member of the team was able to carry out his or her intentions.

What effect does this have on teaching?

All the teaching staff at the Norwegian Film School are filmmaking professionals, and none come from an exclusively academic background. Most have never taught before coming to teach at the Film School, but are highly regarded artists within their fields. Some have a background from academia but more do not.

Teaching staff in this form of intensive arts training must ensure that the students are closely followed up constantly; the role is much more like mentoring than traditional teaching. Often specific skills will be taught by external specialists, while the teaching staff guide the students to help them apply these skills in the production of their art.

Another challenge comes from the fact that as many of the teachers are working professionals, and continue to work while teaching, they share the responsibility for the students in their discipline with other part-time teachers. This makes it necessary for them to communicate closely with each other in order to ensure each individual student’s progress is monitored and appropriate feedback is given.

The primary duties of the Norwegian Film School teachers can then be summed up as follows:

  • Identify the emerging talents in the admissions process
  • Map out the existing skill level among the students, and use this to construct a training path appropriate for their skills and artistic development
  • Ensure the students take responsibility for their own development and challenge themselves outside their comfort zone
  • Give feedback which helps the students identify areas needing further development, and design and organise activities that will help the students develop these areas
  • Coordinate with colleagues in other disciplines both to identify and organise collaborative workshops and to ensure the common production exercises present the optimal challenge for all the students
  • Give feedback in the group evaluation sessions of the production exercises
  • Throughout all of the above, be responsible for helping the students realise their own potential as creative artists and storytellers

Things like lecturing, assigning readings, setting and marking written assignments, and the like are conspicuously and deliberately absent. However, the teachers are expected to have a solid grasp on their discipline in the Nordic film industry and be able to bring in guest lecturers and workshop instructors as needed.[1]

What training do these teachers need?

Teaching at an arts education is not a matter of ensuring the students achieve learning outcomes at certain levels of skills, knowledge and understanding, as outlined in the international guidelines relating to the European Qualifications Framework. The learning outcomes are much more intangible, given the primary goal is to develop each given student’s creative abilities. As a result, while there must be standards in use to measure the progress and development of each student, these standards are highly flexible as they are based on the starting point of each individual student rather than a more objective standard laid out in a permanent lesson plan.

At the same time, there must be some permanent standards by which the students are judged to have passed their studies and qualified are qualified to receive their BFA degree. This is done, not by judging the quality of the final films they make in their third year, but by measuring their own intentions for the films up against the final result and also by examine the process that led to the final film.

In order to achieve this, there are four areas in which teachers at the Norwegian Film School must be proficient.

  1. How to use their own experience
  2. Scaffolding the creative artist: theoretical frameworks
  3. The triangle method and connectivism
  4. The role of the mentor: tools, challenges and ethics

All four are naturally closely related, but could still be considered distinct topics of study for the new or potential film school teacher.

1. How to use their own experience

In all arts eduction, teachers are expected to be practitioners of the art they are training emerging talents for. They may or may not have attended some form of formal training at the start of their own careers, but the most important thing they bring with them to the institution is their own practice and experience.

In 2005, the Norwegian Film School published a series of booklets and DVDs by Professor Richard Ross called Training the Trainers (there’s a review of the booklets on p. 11 here). The main thrust of this publication is to assist members of all the key creative disciplines of filmmaking become more effective teachers and communicators of their accumulated experience and knowledge.

This publication is aimed at one of the main challenges facing instructors at film schools: how to take the knowledge and experience gained through a career in the film industry and use it to assist emerging talents start building their own experience and confidence. This is not easy, especially for those who may not have attended film school themselves. There is a world of difference between telling «war stories» and being able to use hard-won experience to guide students through their own process of making mistakes and developing their talent.

This must form the foundation of any pedagogical instruction aimed at helping film artists becoming proficient at teaching emerging talent. At this level, arts teachers must be able to know when to show something, and when to stand back and let the student try (and possibly fail) on their own. In the film world in particular there is an ethic of «getting the film made», where the temptation is to do whatever it takes to get the shots needed for the film. This ethic can lead instructors – particularly when mentoring in production situations, but also in discipline-specific workshops and instruction – to step in and assist the students. Sometimes, however, the students will learn more from not being successful, and the instructors’ challenge is to stand back, allow the mistake to be made, and help the student see what led to the mistake and how to avoid it in the future.

2. Scaffolding the creative artist

In her 2009 article Constraints in Film Making Processes Offer an Exercise to the Imagination, Danish researcher Heidi Philipsen[2] writes,

I would like filmmakers interested in thinking «outside the box» to recognize that they can benefit from being placed «inside a box.» In others words, to work with the help of the didactic tool «scaffolding,» which in short is defined as support through constraints applied at different levels (Wood, Bruner and Ross 1976). The scaffolding employed at The National Film School of Denmark helps the students to cope with the pressure of creating film, find inspiration, and attain a flow experience (Csikszentmihaly 1996).

Like many other film schools, the Norwegian Film School operates with constraints (or restrictions) as a method for promoting creativity. The students are never given an production assignment where there are no constraints, although as they progress through the course of their studies the constraints become fewer and looser. At the most basic level, the constraints are designed to remove the panic of «What shall I do?» from the students, and instead get them thinking about «How do I do this?».

Philipsen has clearly explained how the deliberate use of constraints in a film school can be understood through Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the further refinements of this through the discussion of scaffolding. Very simplified, the students are given a defined space in which to test their own boundaries, and the teachers act as mentors who assist the students in acquiring abilities and skills they did not have before.

Because these constraints are given to the students in their production exercises, they are tool both for developing the individual and the group; at its very core, filmmaking is a collective activity and all members of the collective must operate under the same restrictions and understanding. This places a special onus on the teaching staff, as they must be unified in their understanding of the constraints placed on any given exercises and able to apply these constraints in a consistent manner.

At the Norwegian Film School, the teaching staff discuss the parameters and constraints of each given exercise before it is given to the students. While there are pre-determined guidelines and themes that are followed from year to year, the exact assignment is determined based on the perceived need of the particular group of students at their particular level of skill. The key is to design a set of constraints and challenges that will fall within the zone of proximal development; that challenge the students to attempt things outside their own comfort zone, but are still achievable.

In order to encourage the students to focus on their own learning, and to test and expand their own boundaries, the Norwegian Film School uses «declarations of intent». For each and every production exercises, each member of the filmmaking team must write her own declaration of intent: «What do I intend to learn / improve / discover / etc. on this particular exercise?» The content of this declaration is worked out by the student in consultation with the head teacher / mentor for her discipline, and is completed and handed in before the primary creative work begins. All teammembers are expected to be familiar with the declaration of intent of all other teammembers.

At the evaluation of the final film projects, when the whole school is assembled, each individual teammember reads his declaration aloud, and feedback and questions must relate only to the declaration of intent. Judgements of taste about the quality of the film are not permitted. This truly places each student’s learning and development in focus.

This unit focussing on the theory behind scaffolding and the zone of proximal development will give the teachers the tools to be effective at this pedagogical approach, and be able to arrive at a common understanding and approach with their colleagues.

3. The triangle method, nodes and connectivism

Many film schools work according to the «Triangle method», a method of working in film that emphasises the collective nature of the filmmaking process.[3] Sometimes misunderstood as a belitteling of the importance of the director, the triangle method focusses on the filmmaking team as a team of creative artists working collaboratively to achieve the creative vision of the director.

Each student, then, is at any given time in the production process (which occupies a great deal of their time at film school), a member of (at least) three different constellations – they are a member of their own discipline along with the other students of the same discipline; they are a member of a film team along with one member of each of the other disciplines; and they are a member of a triangle focussing on one particular aspect of the film. On top of this may come any other cooperative workshops between disciplines that may place the students in other constellations.

In order to understand and guide the learning process the students are in when in these constellations, it is useful to turn to connectivism.[4] While this theory is designed to explain distributed learning through digital networks, there are some useful elements that can help understand how learning is spread among nodes in a network, where the «nodes» can replace the «constellations» referred to above.

A broader discussion of how connectivism relates to film school pedagogics is a subject for another time, but it is clear that much of the learning achieved by film school students is in the nodes and networks in which they are placed throught their time at the Film School. Not only do they learn directly from each other independent of their instructors, they also learn simply from the fact of being in their different node and networks. They are constantly having to adjust to new situations and relationships and find ways of expressing their creative talents within these situations.

The challenge for film school teachers is understanding this type of learning, and being able to identify when and how it is happening; and using the results of this learning to help the students be aware of their own progress.

4. The role of the mentor: tools, challenges and ethics

At the Norwegian Film School, an instructor works closesly with the same group of 6 students over the course of 3 years. This is a completely different scenario than at almost any other regular academic programme, where the instructors have more students and see them less frequently. Combined with the fact that filmmaking, like any creative process, can be very instensive, the personal bonds that develop between teacher and student is much stronger at film school than at most other programmes.

In addition, there are the same issues of confidentiality faced by all educators and the question how to handle critical feedback of (potentially) sensitive artistic students. Both the close relationships that develop and the fact that the work being evaluated can be of an intensly personal nature places makes a focus on professional ethics and an understanding of the role and tools available to a mentor of prime importance.

This final topic area of instruction for film school teachers must give them the tools to handle these situations, and, more importantly, the tools to handle situations for which there can be no set protocoll but that must be handled on a case-by-case basis.

  1. Launching a proposal to train film school teachers is not a new initiative from the Norwegian Film School. In the booklet «Back to the Future: Where to We Go From Here?» in the Training the Trainers package, Professor Richard Ross makes an argument for a European teachers training institute, which would be responsible for training filmmakers who are entering the teaching profession. The challenge is most acutely felt at the film schools where the teachers are recruited from active careers in the film industry, and expect to return to these careers; in other words – teaching, for them, is temporary activity and the training they receive must reflect this fact.  ↩
  2. In 2004 Philipsen published her seminal study of the Danish Film School called Dansk films nye bølge, afsæt og aftryk fra den Danske Filmskole (The New Wave of Danish Film – Influences and Imprints from The National Film School of Denmark), which examined the effect of the pedagogic philosophy of the Danish Film School on the so-called «new wave» of Danish filmmakers. She places this teaching philosophy squarely within the constructivist tradition of Vygotsky, and the definition of scaffolding that has arisen out of that tradition. This study has had great influence on film schools, among them the Norwegian Film School whose current Dean, Danish film producer Thomas Stenderup, also attended the Danish Film School concurrently with some of the leading filmmakers of the new wave.  ↩
  3. The Norwegian Film School works with three «triangles»: what is called the first, or «story» triangle, consisting of the Director, Producer and Screenwriter; the second or «visual» triangle, consisting of the Director, Cinematographer and Production Designer (and Producer); and the third, or «post» triangle, which brings together the Director, Editor and Sound Designer (and Producer). At the Norwegian Film School, each one of these disciplines is trained as a creative artist and storyteller in their own right but they are also taught to collaborate in order to achieve the director’s vision. The challenge of the director, in this situation, is to communicate her vision clearly and to lead the team in such a way that each member is able to make the best possible creative contribution to the film.  ↩
  4. Connectivism as a learning theory was launched in 2005 by Canadians George Siemens and Stephen Downes as a way of understanding how learning is distributed through digital networks. With the subsequent rise of MOOCs in recent years the theory has found increased purchase, although it is not without critics.  ↩