Saturday, December 4, 2010

Artsy science; what about sciency art? III

From an article in last month's Education Week:
Photosynthesis may be an unlikely topic to inspire an opera or ballet, but in a 2nd grade classroom here recently, the children were asked to use dance to help them learn about that process.
“Do you think you’re ready to use your whole body?” teacher Katie Wright-Sabbatino asked near the start of the lesson, which featured learning objectives in both science and dance.
Small groups of pupils in this class at Fort Garrison Elementary School brainstormed to come up with dance movements to convey elements of photosynthesis, including water, sunlight, carbon dioxide, and chlorophyll. They leaned, they reached, they flowed, sometimes with surprising grace.
From Wikipedia:
Photosynthesis changes the energy from the sun into chemical energy and splits water to liberate O2 and fixes CO2 into sugar.

[Photosynthesis] begins when energy from light is absorbed by proteins called photosynthetic reaction centers that contain chlorophylls. Some of the light energy gathered by chlorophylls is stored in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The rest of the energy is used to remove electrons from a substance such as water. These electrons are then used in the reactions that turn carbon dioxide into organic compounds. In plants, algae and cyanobacteria, this is done by a sequence of reactions called the Calvin cycle.

The general equation: 
2n CO2 + 2n H2O + photons → 2(CH2O)n + n O2 + 2n A

Carbon dioxide + electron donor + light energy → carbohydrate + oxygen + oxidized electron donor
Hmm... Wouldn't it work better to integrate dance into P.E.? 

If you're going to teach photosynthesis as something more than "plants using chlorophyll to change carbon dioxide and water into energy" (a statement that by itself is so arbitrary that to learn it requires that much-maligned process of rote memorization), wouldn't cinema (molecular animation) be a better artistic medium than dance? 

Here's Edweek again:
The idea of integrating the arts, including dance, into the broader curriculum is not new, but it appears to be gaining a stronger foothold in public schools, proponents say, though national data are not available.

The growth comes as arts education advocates struggle to ensure adequate time and support for the arts in schools—whether music, visual arts, theater, or dance—amid the financial straits facing many districts and other challenges, such as pressure to boost test scores in core subjects like reading and math.
“It’s a way of keeping arts in the classroom,” said Laura M. Smyth, a senior associate at the Washington-based nonprofit Arts Education Partnership.
Dancing classrooms may still be rare, but anyone who thinks the visual arts haven't yet permeated the core curriculum hasn't spent enough time observing today's most trendsetting classrooms or reading today's most enthusiastic, front-page education reporting (see herehere, here, here, here, and here).

The argument for dancing across the curriculum is all too familiar. In Edweek's words:
It’s seen as a powerful way to promote creativity and critical thinking, among other skills.
Whether children benefit from it, of course, depends more on empirical facts than on how "it is seen":
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has found the overall research base regarding the impact of arts education on student outcomes in other subjects to be “inconclusive.”

Research examining the effect specifically of arts integration on student achievement appears to show mixed results as well. For example, a 2007 research overview of studies from 2000 to 2005 suggested that while there are “many advantages” to arts integration, there was a “lack of strong empirical research” to support the notion that it boosts student achievement.
There are, of course, the all-too-familiar objections to this research:
The study in the International Handbook of Research in Arts Education, argued that focusing chiefly on standardized-test data is “misguided” and fails to fully capture cognitive gains and other benefits, such as improved student motivation. well as the all-too-familiar "proper implementation" hedge, voiced both by the Handbook of Research in Arts Education:
For arts integration to succeed, it requires a strong commitment from classroom teachers and close collaboration with arts specialists, a point made by many dance advocates.
and by Jane Bonbright, the executive director of the National Dance Education Organization:
“You really need to have a dance specialist who knows what they’re doing,” said Ms. Bonbright. Effective integration, she said, should be done with “mutual support of both disciplines.”
But motivation to dance isn't the same as motivation to learn science, active engagement isn't the same as bodily kinesthetics, and there's much more to photosynthesis than "plants using chlorophyll to change carbon dioxide and water into energy." No matter how you choreograph it, this statement is, without a great deal of directly instructed, unchoreographable scientific knowledge, inherently arbitrary, meaningless, and scientifically uninspiring.


Anonymous said...

The fact that professional choreographers use thematic material to communicate ideas doesn't mean that kids learn content through dance. No, no, no. The people who are running this program are confusing the fact that the children are using themes in their dance experience, with the (mistaken) idea that they are deepening their knowledge of photosynthesis.

Hainish said...

You know, if this were actually sciency art, i'd be all for it.

It would be a good way to make things like dance exciting for nerdy kids.

As it is...not so much.

Hainish said...

"plants using chlorophyll to change carbon dioxide and water into energy"

This isn't even correct, not even as a simplification for this grade level.

Plants use the energy from the sun to change carbon dioxide and water to a form of energy they can use. Chlorophyll let's them do this.