Taking the Leap: The road to innovation is often paved with uncomfortable experiences-- but award-winning educator Ken Van Rees is glad he stepped out of his comfort zone

It’s a pretty nice feeling, accepting a prestigious teaching award while the audience enthusiastically applauds.

It’s the exact opposite, standing in front of a group of students not knowing if you’re about to totally embarrass yourself.

Ken Van Rees has experienced both, and says the former would never have happened if he hadn’t been willing to risk the latter, after getting “this weird idea” that painting and soil science might go together.

“Going in, I had no idea of how the students would react,” Van Rees says of the first time he added painting to a soil science field trip. “I never asked, but I suspect some of my colleagues wondered what the heck I was doing, too. I was definitely way out of my comfort zone.”

Of course, it all worked out, which is why the soil science professor has added the Desire2Learn Innovation Award to a long list of teaching awards, including the university’s Master Teacher Award. It shows how taking a creative approach to teaching can pay dividends — but also how unnerving it can be setting out on a new path.

Van Rees’s journey started with a visit to his mother’s in 2004, which included a tour of the McMichael art gallery north of Toronto, home to many paintings by the Group of Seven.

“I can’t remember if it was an A.Y. Jackson painting or one by Tom Thompson, but it was one of the larger ones at the back of the gallery,” recalls Van Rees. “I was just overwhelmed by what the artist had done. I thought, ‘The landscape he depicted is so wonderful. Why couldn’t my students try to do that, too?’”

At the time, Van Rees was preparing a new course called Soils and boreal landscapes. It would include a field trip during which students would dig soil pits, study vegetation, and look at how the two were related. Adding a bit of painting wouldn’t be a logistic challenge. But teaching it would.

“My life was totally devoid of art,” says Van Rees. “I knew nothing. And I mean absolutely nothing. I had heard of the Group of Seven, but I never went to galleries. I knew nothing about painting or drawing, or even what primary colours were.”

Still, the idea wouldn’t go away. So he turned to his sister-in-law, a high school art teacher, for advice.

“She said, ‘Go for it. Just keep it simple.’ She said to get oil pastels because they could be used in any weather conditions, and gave me some paper and a few rules.”

Her primer was very basic — why you should use both thick and thin lines; the difference between shapes (which have width and height) and forms (which are three dimensional); and complementary colours. Van Rees didn’t do much with the notes — he was still too uncertain to be talking the language of painting — but took to heart her advice to keep it simple.

Bringing oil pastels was a good move, and so was bringing a big tarp — which was hastily erected on the second day when snow began to fall even though it was only the first week of September.

“But the students were very gracious and enthusiastic, and I thought there was enough there to take it further.”

But again, the fear factor came into play. Van Rees decided he’d better take an art class and he still winces at the memory.

“It was intimidating and it was embarrassing,” he says. “I’m in this room with all these people who are painting up a storm and I didn’t even know how to mix colours. It was a big stretch for me because I’m a guy that likes to be in control.”

These days, it’s Van Rees who is painting up a storm. He has painted hundreds of landscapes (and abstract versions of them), become part of a painters’ group (dubbed Men Who Paint) which regularly mounts shows, and also sells his work online (kenvanrees.com). And he’s become a fan of creativity experts such as Sir Ken Robinson, who advocates a broad educational experience, and Steven Johnson, who talks of how “collisions” between different academic fields can spark innovation.

This is why Van Rees and art professor Allyson Glenn came up with a course in which soil science and fine arts students create art from paint made with pigments they have forged from soils and bones.

Although his teaching career spans 24 years, Van Rees says he still has much to learn about how to foster creativity and exceptional learning experiences. But he’s discovered a few of the elements.

First, he says, don’t be afraid to try something different. Plunging into art was a big scary leap, but little jumps are also important.

“I don’t know where that idea came from, but the other day we had a classroom debate on what is the biggest global issue related to forestry — deforestation, global warming or something else,” he says. “We did a ranking and had a discussion and then I said, ‘OK, pull out your phone, text your friends, and ask what they think.’”

The students loved it (“Alright, we get to use our phones in class!”), but Van Rees just wanted to see “where it might lead.”

Pulling people out of their usual environment is another thing that fosters creativity. At the Desire2Learn Innovation Award event in June, the five winners spent a morning sharing insights into teaching. And then they did something completely different.

“In the afternoon they took us to the Kingston Penitentiary for a tour. It was very different, believe me. It goes back to the Steven Johnson thing — that when you immerse people in a completely different environment, sometimes creative ideas happen.”

In this case, Van Rees wasn’t inspired to create some sort of soil science and criminology course, but that’s not the point, he says.

“Before they paint, I always tell the students, ‘Don’t have any expectations of your work. Just have fun,’” he says.

And that’s the other key element.

“This is something I’ve learned from other artists. Just go out and play. I think we’ve lost that ability and I think that needs to be part of the student experience — learning should also be about playing and having fun.”

- As published in the April 2015 edition of AgKnowledge

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