Ten Lessons the Arts (and STEM) Teach

In researching my talk for the Arts & Education Symposium last week I ran across Ten Lessons the Arts Teach from the National Art Education Association. Since my talk was about the intersection of arts and STEM education, I thought it might be interesting to look at these lessons in that light. The ten lessons are in italics, my comments follow each one.

1. The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevail.

It is not just in art that children need to make judgments about qualitative relationships. I know that many people think that math and science are all about “right answers” and cold logic. However, real problems (not textbook problems) are often messy and need to be solved with insight. Models of the real world aren’t perfect, but can be used to explain and predict the world in useful ways. Neat textbook problems give the false impression that judgment is not important, and in turn, teaches children that their own reasoning is not valid. The real world of science and math needs people who have learned to trust their judgment to solve problems that don’t have obvious solutions.

2. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.

Again, math and science have traditionally been taught in a way that emphasizes one solution and one process. It’s not that simple.

3. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

When children are allowed to think through math problems, they will come up with many different paths to a correct answer. The purpose of school should be to encourage children to develop these skills. Instead, we spend a lot of time telling children they are wrong, and then expecting them to just accept that and try again. Lessons that allow a child to rethink and revise give a child autonomy, and the ability to trust themselves to be problem solvers, even if their path to success is different than everyone else’s.

4. The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and a willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.

This is especially true in science – the history of science is full of serendipity and mistakes that turned out to be great advances. Being open to these unanticipated possibilities is what makes a great scientist. We do children a disservice by pretending that the “scientific method” is a step-by-step recipe that they just follow from beginning to end.

5. The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.

One of the problems with math and science education in this country is that we teach the end product first. The history of math and science is full of interesting problems that people have tackled over centuries. Often, people solved these problems with brute force methods, building buildings that collapse or launching voyages into unknown lands with little information. Some problems were solved with elegant solutions that seemed impossible to translate to the real world, yet centuries later these solutions became concrete. The world is full of crazy, weird, seemingly unexplainable things that push the boundaries of imagination yet some child living today will figure out the answer. Yet we teach as if all problems are solved and the steps are fixed. It’s as if we taught music theory but never allowed them to hear or play actual music.

6. The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtleties.

This is why I believe it’s so important for arts and STEM to be combined. The arts traffic in subtleties and sometimes there are subtleties in the world that can be manipulated to your advantage. I think that when learned together, students have a greater chance of making things that are beautiful and lasting for themselves and others.

7. The arts teach students to think through and within a material. All art forms employ some means through which images become real.

The arts focus on the use of materials should be incorporated into STEM learning as well. “Doing” is learning, and the materials we allow students to work with allows them to go further into making learning real. This is why I believe in using computers for all subjects. The computer is the most important “material” of so much of what makes up the world today. It’s a “protean device” that can be used in every subject area to give students the ability to make or do almost anything.

8. The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.

I know some people don’t believe this, but for many people who love math or science, making things work is a poetic experience. Programming is as close to making a work of art as anything else in the world. Combining the arts with STEM means that children can express themselves in even more variations.

9. The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

Experiencing the profound joy of creating something that has never existed before is not only found in the arts. And I think that when you allow children to experience this feeling, we do them and the world a great favor.

10. The arts’ position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.

The arts’ position in school is slowly being eroded by an emphasis on what’s being called math and reading. However, much of this is simply out of context skills in numbers and letters. True numeracy, scientific thinking, and support for esthetics are all being eroded in a push for “achievement” (code word for higher test scores.) We are communicating that adults value “accountability” over all – that all we see in children is a balance sheet where money goes in and future economic success comes out. The arts are not the only thing we are losing in this accountability madness.

Let’s put the A in STEM – STEAM is a good thing!


Arts and Education: Experiential Learning

I had the opportunity last week to participate in a symposium on Arts & Education last week in Harrisburg, PA. I spoke on a panel about Experiential Learning. My main contribution was to connect the arts and sciences through a hand-on approach.

So my point of view is not focused on technology, but uses technology as a lens to change the culture of a school – to encourage collaboration between teachers and students where the learning is being co-created – to give students opportunities to do meaningful and important work, and what schools can do to encourage those kinds of learning environments.

A prevalent view of education is that young people are empty vessels and schools simply open up their heads and pour in knowledge. Unfortunately this is a vision of education that is not serving us well in the 21st century. For a few students, this clearly works, but for many, this is a futile effort — made worse by an increasing focus on testing a few subjects at the expense of high-interest subjects like art and music.

Project-based and experiential learning has been around for a long time. You might say that the classroom is the new-fangled technology here. You certainly don’t see lion cubs sitting in desks in rows. For thousands of years people learned skills through apprenticeship and showing that they could do simple tasks, and gradually more complex ones until they became the masters.

Projects are not simply longer versions of traditional school-work, nor are they crafts. The presence of glue and scissors does not create a project. Nor is a project simply following a recipe.

It’s interesting that the word “project” is used both for the process and the finished product. And it’s important that it remain true to both. The process – the planning, production, construction, sharing is crucial. A project needs to be personally meaningful to the student – more than just for a grade. Having an audience that extends beyond your classmates and teacher is great for this. A project should not have a right answer (or one answer).

One question from the audience asked how arts could be incorporated into projects. My response was that students will naturally incorporate their own aesthetic into projects they care about. Respecting that is crucial.

Arts teachers know this, but it’s hard to articulate. Our culture places arts on a lower level than “academic” work. Like art, projects require judgment to assess, which means that the teacher has to be trusted to make those judgements.

Our experience with Generation YES  is that when kids are challenged and guided with expertise, they rise to the challenge and exceed expectations. In our schools we ask students to shoulder the burden of changing education with technology. It’s not a surprise to me when these students step up and regard this responsibility with great seriousness. PBL needs to be a school-wide culture shift – don’t forget that students are the key stakeholders. You can’t change culture by just telling teachers to change.

One problem with PBL is it can get very burdensome to the teacher. Share the burden. Allow students to help with the logistics, planning, even assessment. Don’t let yourself be the bottleneck that leads to being overwhelmed and then to failure. Good intentions go out the window when you have 300 projects to grade and you are the only one looking at them.

Students should be asked to be allies, advocates and leaders in our collective effort to make civilization better. They want to help. They need our guidance and wisdom, and we need their enthusiasm, passion and buy in. We make each other better.


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