The Art of Thinking Like a Scientist
Through the arts, students learn to observe, visualize, manipulate materials, and develop the creative confidence to imagine new possibilities. These skills and competencies are also essential to scientific thinking and provide a strong argument for transforming STEM education by integrating the arts.
Arts Teach Deep Noticing
Exposure to the arts teaches observation, or deep noticing. There is a difference, as you know, between looking and looking closely. When students are asked to draw something, they must look closely to accurately observe the lines and shapes of the object they are trying to portray. Students learn to see tiny differences and to record them. Doesn't this sound like what a scientist does?
The link between art and STEM is not a new idea. Artists and scientists have understood the connections for centuries, from Renaissance artists, architects, and inventors Leonardo da Vinci and Filippo Brunelleschi, to scientists and artists collaborating to create enhanced computer graphics or work on the Large Hadron Collider.
Through the arts, students practice envisioning, or creating an image from an idea in their heads. Scientific thinking requires facility with this skill, as well. It's notable that Einstein, who was able to visualize complex concepts in his mind, attended a Swiss secondary school founded on Johann Pestalozzi's educational philosophy of learning through visualization and modeling.
When students learn spatial thinking, they gain the ability to see three-dimensional space in their heads from looking at a two-dimensional drawing. This is a skill that engineers, architects, and scientists need, but it also allows students to understand difficult ideas. If students see how things fit together and how they pull apart, then they are able to understand how things work.
Arts Emphasize Process
Stanford University's approach to design thinking codifies the process of creative thinking, discovery, and empathy; synthesizing information and defining the problem; ideation or brainstorming; experimenting and testing; and evolution and redesign. I have been using this "road map for thinking" with classes this year, both in art and in collaborating with others on curriculum, and have found that it forces students to slow down. By taking things apart and tinkering or through manipulating art materials, students learn comfort with open-ended questions and process. Students involved in the arts understand that there is not just one answer to a question and that searching for an answer, or the process itself, is important. By grappling with creative problems, students develop habits of mind such as persevering and trial-and-error problem solving.
Students now are so product- and grade-driven that they are not interested in being involved in a process; rather, they hurry through any project to get it done and get the grade. As a result, they become focused on the right answer and cannot seem to persevere when it is not easily obtained. They become frustrated with open-ended questions because there is no one right answer.
Scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and artists need to be comfortable with these types of problems and to be resilient so that when an experiment or design does not yield the expected result, they adapt their thinking and try again. Students who make things, whether it is art or tinkering with tools and different types of material, learn to trust the design process. They learn to adapt their own thinking when something unexpected happens, to ask new questions, and to rethink. Failure becomes part of the process; students learn from it.
Arts Develop Creative Confidence
Students who make things feel satisfied and empowered through the act of making, and they develop creative confidence, which is key to seeking innovative solutions to problems. The "maker movement," sparked by Make Magazine's Dale Dougherty, believes that schools and communities need to embrace making, combining technology and the arts to allow people of all ages to collaborate and explore design issues. When students can observe, visualize, and manipulate materials, they develop creative confidence and the resilience to persevere within the creative process. These skills and habits of mind are a bridge that connects the arts and STEM subjects and can fuel the innovation so desperately needed to address real-world challenges. The arts not only support scientific thinking but also expand and transform traditional STEM curriculum to invite deeper observation, imagining, and revision.
Lisa Yokana is an educator at Scarsdale High School in Scarsdale, N.Y.
ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 9. Copyright 2014 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.