Are Math and Art Educators Fighting The Same Battles?

by Radhika Zahedi, Co-Principal
I have always considered the problems faced by math educators to be unique to the discipline but a recent TED talk by an art educator made me realise that these might be problems shared by other disciplines too. I was watching this talk while I was in the process of preparing material for a parent workshop at my school - ironically it was in collaboration- with the Arts team to create a session that would highlight the fundamental role of arts education in the 21st century. This talk confused me because I knew I was watching a talk on ART EDUCATION, but every sentence sounded like it was coming straight out of the mouth of a MATH educator!
Could it be that two seemingly polar disciplines are actually facing the same problems in education today? Let’s delve a little deeper to find out!
Cindy Foley is an Art Educator and in her TEDx talk, she begins by asking the crowd of fellow educators to think about the wrong messages that adults - art teachers and parents are sending their students. She shows the audience a line drawing of a horse that is quite realistic looking. She explains that when teachers respond to work like this with ‘wow that is so realistic, you are so creative’ they are really stifling creativity. She goes on to talk about how she hates when adults say ‘I’m not creative, I can’t even draw a stick figure’ because they foster cliched notions of what it takes to be creative. I could easily draw similarities between how I conduct my math workshops, and what she was saying. We always start with talking about the ways the world is promoting false ideas about math. For example when people only tell kids that they are good at math because they got the “correct” answer - this makes them believe that all math problems have one, exact answer - which is far from the truth. I have lost count of how many times I have told adults - teachers, parents, and friends to stop telling their children about how much they hate math or bad they were at math! There is a large body of research that shows us that this can negatively impact their children’s math achievement. How strange that adults around us promote the cliched but false notions about both Math and Art - that they require special talents that are possessed only by a special few rather than skills that can be built.
Foley then poses a question that required the audience to come up with a creative use for a paper clip. She recognizes and addresses the surge of panic that typically ensues every time she asks such a question to a crowd, and the audience laughs as they relate to it. This is a favourite activity in almost all of my workshops too - except instead of the paper clip activity I show the participants an interesting math challenge which never fails to bring out feelings of anxiety. Both tasks, inherently creative problem solving challenges, send most people into panic mode instead of allowing them to feel the rush of excitement that comes with a challenge.
She goes on to talk about the need for more open-ended tasks in arts programs because they allow for greater learning and the resistance faced from many schools against such unstructured tasks because they making grading hard! The math team faces a similar problem- how do we get teachers to have students work on real problems instead of pages of textbook exercises?
She then discusses how real artists were phenomenal not because of their styles or skills but because of their revolutionary ways of thinking. Yup, all our great mathematicians of the past and present too had wonderful mathematical skill set for sure, but it was their mathematical ideas and deep thinking - not their ability to mentally divide two 4-digit numbers in under ten seconds, that were path breaking!
It seems like both, art educators like Foley and math educators like myself, would like to stop people from dumbing down the creativity into a set of procedures and skills that need to be memorized.
We are noticing that our students are being put through the educational system like factory workers, where for the most part they are just carrying out tasks - executing the ideas of the teacher but not engaging in any ideation or creative problem solving themselves.
It seems that we both dream of classrooms full of active explorers who are imagining, experimenting and modelling. We both want this to be fostered in classrooms through open-ended tasks that are designed in ways that reflect the unstructured, messy nature of the real world. Mostly, we both want the dialogue around our disciplines to move away from a mishmash of cliches to conversations filled with curiosity and wonder.
A few days ago, our Language Program Coordinator was telling me that she was trying hard to keep a few parents from turning reading into a dreaded chore for their kids by forcing them to mechanically ‘practice reading’. She was worried that they might kill forever, the opportunity for the children to discover the magical world of books. Maybe these sentiments are not shared just by the Arts and Math educators, but will strike a chord with educators in other disciplines too!
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