Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Art in academics, revisited

In the last couple of years, more and more evidence has surfaced that the best way to learn things is by actively attempting to recall the material (a.k.a. "retrieval practice") rather than by passively rereading texts or studying notes and concept maps. Standard recall exercises include the much-maligned use of flashcards, the much maligned use of practice tests, and the much maligned taking of actual (closed-book) tests--the last of which turns out to be a learning experience unto itself. Other, less maligned options are closed-book, oral or written summaries or retellings. Or, in when it comes to foreign language learning, oral and written production, which are more effective than passive listening and reading--including, as my collaborator and I have found, for language-impaired autistic children learning English.

Yet another medium for retrieval practice occured to me a couple of months ago during my day in New York City with my daughter. It was a sunny, mild Boxing Day afternoon, with many people out and about. We walked northwestwards through Central Park and stopped for some time to watch a charcoal portraitist flesh out the lips and cheeks of a smiling and dimpled young woman. We enjoyed watching how specific lines and shadings would capture her likeness on page, and especially when the those lines took unexpected paths, highlighting micro-features we hadn't picked up on.

My daughter had her brand new sketch kit in hand, and was anxious to put her own charcoal pencils to paper. An hour later she had her chance. We'd continued northwestwards through the park to the Natural History Museum, and, after shuffling through the tremendously long lines, found ourselves sitting before dioramas of East Asian ruminants. And as I watched her sketching first the Asian deer, and then the water buffalo, I got out my own notebook and tried sketching them myself. Unlike her, I'm a terrible artist, and I struggled to render the correct proportions and angles of legs, flanks, horns, and muzzles.

As I attended to these anatomical details as never before, I realized for the first time that there is a place for art in academic subjects. Not collages, not dioramas, not abstract express-yourself art, but representational sketches. And not in math, English, or Spanish, but in subjects whose content is highly visual, like biology, chemistry, geology, geography, or engineering. Here, drawing the organelles in the cell, or the organs in the body, or the shape of a water molecule, or the tectonic plates of the Pacific, or a map of Africa, or the components of an internal combustion engine, are great ways to master material--especially if you close the book (or simply look away from the diorama and down at your sketchpad) and try drawing from memory.

Suddenly I remembered how much I learned about the foliage of Chestnut trees from the drawings I made in a 6th grade biology class in France. For all our "creative" and "colorful" science posters, and Lorax-inspired skits about endangered species, and dance performances about photosynthesis, I've never seen art deployed in this way here in U.S. classrooms. If only our education world cared as much about the content students remember as it does about how "creative" they are, what an effective exercise in visual retrieval practice this could be.


Rivka said...

When my first-grader and I do nature study, I always have her try to draw the subject under study. I am impressed with how well it is training her powers of observation, description, and visual memory.

If she's going to draw the strange posture a downy woodpecker takes at our bird feeder, she needs to notice exactly how his feet and wings are placed. That sets her up to discover (from our bird book) information about how his wings differ from the birds we're more used to seeing. Observation, drawing, and research all reinforce each other.

FedUpMom said...

Representational drawing used to be a universal skill that was taught to every educated person. Today, people are under the impression that it's a magical talent that some people have and some don't.

This is a shame for so many reasons. One that I think about a lot is that it leads to a poorly educated audience for art. Learning to draw means learning to look. An audience of people with basic drawing skills is much more appreciative of art than an audience of people with no serious art skills.

Anonymous said...

This is so true. And drawing, which can take a reasonably short amount of time, is ordinarily much better than making models. My kids had to make a model of a cell using jello and fruit. To begin with, many of the parts of the cell do not resemble any known fruit, and the wait time was inordinate.

Katharine Beals said...

Great points, guys! True discovery learning, as Rivka says, enhancing art appreciation, as FedUpMom writes. And a much, much more convenient and efficient way to internalize visual stuff than model making is, an Anonymous observes!

Catherine Johnson said...

Did I tell you about Phyllis McGuinness's account of suddenly being able to read the printing on illuminated manuscripts BECAUSE she had to copy it by hand?

The library she was working in wouldn't let her make Xeroxes, so she had to painstakingly copy each character. As she copied, she suddenly became able to tell where each one began and ended & to recognize each letter as well (I think that's how the story went).

I think this principle probably works with sentences, reading, and grammar, btw. If a student copies a sentence word-for-word, I **think** he or she is going to start to see the chunks.

That would be an interesting experiment, actually.

ChemProf said...

Catherine, that's basically the approach taken in "Writing with ease." You start, with a first grader, having them copy well written sentences, then move onto dictation, and only then have them writing paragraphs, etc. starting around fourth grade.

This does assume they are also doing narration, telling Mom or Dad what to write about something they've read.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

I completely agree! I still remember all the microscopic things I had to observe through the microscope and then draw and label in High School biology (ah, the lovely mitochondria...!)