Sunday, February 28, 2010

Artsy math; what about mathy art?

Here we go again. Yet another breathless report of a right-brain math class, this one out of North Penn, Pennsylvania. It begins with a typical math diss:

If you think geometry is a bit boring, well, you may be right.
Geometry was one of my favorite math classes--and my favorite class at the time. I especially loved the abstract proofs, and the elegant, infinite world you could construct out of a handful of axioms. This class took me places I'd never been before, and, I think, took my thinking to a whole new level. Writing about it makes me smile.

The article continues:
But for one Pennridge 10th-grade geometry class, a hands-on architecture project has made geometry exciting.

Geometry teacher JoAnn Rubin uses a creative architecture project that teaches her students to use the precision of geometry and architecture as well as the freedom of artistic expression to help all types of students succeed in her math course.

"Not everyone is good at math," Rubin said about the project. "Some kids are really artistic."

The project asks students to create a representation of a building that they think is interesting or original.

They can make a model or a poster or any kind of representation of the building using their geometry skills. There is really only one thing curtailing the student's creativity on the project.

"The only restriction was that the buildings couldn't be rectangular," Rubin said with a smile.
This one restriction led students in many different directions and had them recreating all different kinds of buildings, from architectural classics to the downright bizarre.
Rubin's assignment appears to have fulfilled her goals--with flying colors:
Although the project results were all over the spectrum, students of all mathematical abilities consistently succeeded.

"It's about recognizing that we all have our talents and interests," Rubin said about the project that allowed every student to explore their abilities beyond the chalkboard. "I wanted them to look at the geometry of the actual buildings."
Equality of outcome; celebration of multiple intelligences; real-life examples; it's all there.

But I can't help feeling concerned for one of Rubin's thriving students:
One of the more creative projects was built by Brett Saddington, who turned the parameters for the project completely upside-down.

"I just looked up the world's strangest buildings," Saddington said about the Google search that led him to an upside-down house built in Szymbark, Poland.

He said that he one day hopes to be an architect or an engineer, and he showed off his talent with his topsy-turvy creation.
His teacher is hopeful, too:
Most of Rubin's students will not become architects or engineers, but by giving her students a look at the practical and creative side of geometry, she has given them an appreciation that could take them anywhere.

"They really don't know what direction they may be heading," Rubin said. "But who knows? They may become architects or engineers."
But I'm worried that, in this topsy turvy world of math education, where art is math and appreciation is learning, Brett's high school teachers may never teach him the math he needs to pursue an architecture or engineering degree in college and beyond.

Unless, of course, the art teacher is having Brett and his classmates spend the same amount of time doing math problems about the geometry of perspective drawing and optical wave forms.


Beth said...

Here's the line that bothers me:

"Not everyone is good at math," Rubin said about the project. "Some kids are really artistic."

Why can't you be good at math and art too? Leonardo da Vinci sure was. It's part of the complete lack of respect that our culture has for art -- kids who aren't good at regular academic subjects are called "artistic", almost as a consolation prize.

My feeling about this project, as with a lot of constructivist stuff, is that it's an okay place to start, and if it gets kids interested, that's a good thing. But you have to follow up and actually teach geometry. If they did this project instead of actually teaching geometry, as I fear they did, it's not an improvement.

Jennifer said...

What about the kids who aren't mathy and aren't artistic, either? It's not so much the kids who are both, it's the kids who are neither who really get the short end of the stick in these time-wasters.

Aly V said...

What is wrong with us that this is acceptable? How can an educator actual believe that
"Not everyone is good at math?" They stand little chance of ever being good at math with attitudes like this presented by the very people who are meant to change that warped perception. Anyone can learn math as anyone can learn to write. Not everyone will grow up and write the next great American novel, but skills are skills. I am not terribly coordinated but I have taken many tennis lessons and reached a level of proficiency. The only excuse for not being good at math is insufficient practice and ignorant educators who give their students excuses. Using the phrase "not good at math," should become as socially unacceptable as saying "retarted."

KKelley said...

I don't understand why the comment isn't "Everyone can be good at math - some just need to see the real world application." I think that would be a far greater assessment than "not everyone is good at math." Albert Einstein was not good at math - but discovered it was vital to fields he was interested in so he worked hard at it. Wehrner von Braun was not good at math or science in high school, but a teacher pointed out that if he wanted to do more with the rockets that he enjoyed building, he needed to understand the math and science that propelled them... and this gave us the Apollo 11! Of course, I doubt his teacher said "Don't bother with that math proof - instead build a rocket that hits this target and we'll count that as using your math."

I think real world applications that require synthesis and actual use of mathematics and science are vital to helping students learn creativity and higher level thinking. But the projects need to actually use math and science. I can build a model house that uses no rectangles (or draw one) and never once use math. A kindergarten student can do this - because they know what a rectangle is. Projects like this should require actual math - like calculating the load pressure from a structure that is not rectangular - to make it a real instructional activity.