Making Sense of Teaching Science and the Arts in a Human Context


I was a very poor student. I was in the lowest reading group in a very blue collar community. My mother was a reading specialist and my older brother was an academic genius. I was on fire on the playground and bored in the classroom. Since I was born to Jewish parents at the beginning of WWII it was painfully clear that the world was crazy. By age eleven I knew I wanted to help heal our hurting world. When I heard Freud knew why the world was crazy, I decided to become a psychoanalyst. Instead, I became a psychotherapist and studied community mental health, curriculum design, and English.

By accident, while in graduate school at UCLA, I wrote what became a somewhat popular children’s book. It was called Beautiful Junk, A Story of the Watts Towers. That book, without my knowing it, was to become both Bible and Blue Print for my life. It was about a black boy who travels from breaking things in anger to finding beauty and creating things. But to move from anger to love he has to climb the fence that would keep him in school.

That story brought me into classrooms as an author, and later as a writer-in-residence. Around that time I started the Community Design Studio with my Step Sister, who is a gifted architect, at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. The premise was that design is an inside job inspired by being on-sight or in-residence, not by sitting in a cubicle at a drafting table. I also taught the psychology of design, which involved thinking about how intuition joins cognition to bring forth the best possible form and function, aesthetics and utility, in a design.It was the book, Beautiful Junk, that led a Foundation provide seed money to bring other artists into an inner city Los Angeles School. Together we created a design studio to work on curriculum. This was known as The Artist-in-Residence Reading Project.

From the Artist-in-Residence Reading Project I learned that children are unbelievably beautiful, and pure when they are in the early grades, but by grade four, in the inner city we begin to loose far too many of them. I learned that to become mentally healthy a person has to discover their voice and to connect their voice to their symbol making process. I learned that we are herd animals, or tribal, and that our didactic approaches to learning stifles everyone’s social and expressive needs. I learned that the artists were able to light beautiful subtle fires in classrooms and the teachers, with all good intentions, too often were persistent in stifling those fires. Finally, I learned that our team of artists was profoundly inspired by the children, and by the more open teachers. The artists got as much from being in the project as the children did. That was an effect I did not anticipate.

A Humanistic Approach to Teaching Science

I have always cared about the arts, science with an ongoing interest in emerging technology. Science is the art and discipline of observing, caring, wondering and asking questions in order to explore and discover. Science looks to go more deeply into the design of the creation. Science asks how the world works, how people function. What is most important within a given context.

Science is also the source of so much that we value in our culture. Science has made engineering at the level we now know it, possible. That engineering is now driving science, which in turn is improving our potential to avoid and treat diseases, process and communicate information, and discover the nature of the society and the universe — pushing our knowledge to ever more subtle levels that stimulate more questions, more inquiry and reflection, more measurement based observation and fertile uncertainty.

At heart, science is curiosity stimulated by observation, hypotheses joined to experimentation. It is wonderfully rational and incredibly intuitive and productive. The best in our society is a product of science joined to technology. And, of course, both science and technology are profoundly influenced by mathematical insights.

But science without aesthetics, without idiosyncratic inquiry, without personal symbol making, which art is largely about, risks becoming sterile. Where scientific inquiry is motivated by objective questions, objective observations, usually about the outer world, artistic inquiry is more motivated by a quest for self- or at least expressive knowledge. Artists experiment in self-expression, in finding their unique voice, in gaining insight into the unfathomable depths of being in this place with these people and with nature.

Both the arts and sciences are motivated by curiosity and pursued through focus and discipline, but they explore different realms. In the end, the arts document our struggle to achieve our sanity and humanity or identity. The sciences pursue more objective knowledge of the creation.

That said, science can turn the light of its tools onto patterns in human intelligence, intuition and so on. And the arts can provide an intuitive view of the horizons where objective knowledge dissolves into subjective awe and wonder.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) provides the methods and tools to bring public education into the 21st Century in the very best sense. Personalized learning can now realize its potential if we apply the sciences of management, learning, personality development, and diversity to how we design, diversify, and then publish our curriculum. And we should be interested in teacher diversity and personalized staff development as much as we’re interested in these for students. This is a whole new field of Research, Development and Design.

Our current technology provides an unbelievable curriculum design environment, whether we’re designing for on or off-screen learning, and it has inherent within it entirely new research potentials that span all the factors that both inspire and limit our learning.

Finding the Right Balance

I think a lot about what the Arts have to offer STEM and visa versa. Are they co-equals? I’m not sure how to equate Apples and Cucumbers. The Arts are a somewhat different form of inquiry and expression. Let’s say they are complimentary. What the arts offer to curriculum design is sensitivity to aesthetics, and aesthetics are the Velcro that helps ideas to stick. So, when I think about forming a curriculum design team, I want to see lots of fine scientists and researchers, joined by artists, working together with software engineers.

I’m much less interested in the “application of STEM content” than in figuring out how schools begin to function as STEM studios or workshops or laboratories. The classrooms are where the students and teachers are. This is where the design action is.

The best learning is immersive, not didactic. Content teaching tends to be dreadfully and redundantly didactic, though gifted presenters provide a wonderful exception.

Being part of a research team, doing an R&D project with scientists and designing curriculum by working with designers, that is an immersive and creative experience. STEM is to be lived, it’s an approach to life and a kind of culture, its not just to be learned about. At its best, it’s to be lived.

Having said that, we should do a much better job providing curriculum that tells the amazing story of the history of science and technology in medicine, engineering, transportation, manufacturing, business, knowledge transfer (publishing) and so on.

The biographies of great Scientists, Mathematicians, Engineers and other people who have contributed to our culture should be well understood by students and their teachers. Our culture is lifted by their vision and hard work.

Thinking About Diversity in Our Teaching

Diversity is one of the great mysteries of the universe (uni-verse means one poem or song) because no two people are ever entirely alike nor are contexts ever repeated exactly. The Latin ideal on our national seal says “Unity Through Diversity.”

But diversity is not easily perceived because our egos tend to think everyone else is pretty much like us and we’ve been here before. We have trouble getting quiet enough to make room for people who are very different from ourselves and for new moments. It may well be that perceiving human diversity much more deeply is one of the frontier challenges we now face. Certainly, educating for diversity is a frontier challenge for so called school reform.

And here is where joining STEM with the Arts associated (STEAM) with great curriculum design is so important. Technology now makes it possible for us to do amazing research about diversity as it relates to learning, motivation, and our social and other drives. If we are serious about achieving personalized learning, we need to build that personalized learning on research into diversity. Prior to computer science there was no way to operationalize this kind of research and then design and publish curriculum in response to the results.

However, I’m afraid that STEM in our schools has fallen far short of its potential because we have seen it as a subject, or set of subjects to teach, while, in fact we have not applied STEM to our teaching and learning, curriculum design and assessment processes.

In other words, we’ve ignored the learning, management, and human development sciences. STEM has become another subject taught from textbooks and uninspired lectures in preparation for tests that serve accountability — a rather dysfunctional management practice.

So, ignoring STEM and STEAM, we have over emphasizing accountability and the content side of the Common Core. But that Common Core, or a survey of our cultural knowledge that is often sadly superficial and aesthetically lacking, has ignored the elixir or source of our learning, the other common core, which is self-knowledge and the quest for purpose, novelty and beauty.

Thinking About Using STEM to Connect to the Community

What is to be gained is our physical and mental health. Learning happens joyfully and efficiently when it is joined to a heartfelt purpose. Gibran said that work is love made manifest.

Well, learning too should be love made manifest. The world is an enchanting place, but our schools are not. Healing the world is hard work that at its depth must be motivated by a sense of enchantment, of wonder, of purpose and team work.

Empathy, service, stewardship, these make us co-creators, responsible for the quality of all life on our earth, in our community, our families, with our peers and co-workers. As soon as we forget our shared responsibility and our power to improve people, situations, environments, we risk becoming alienated, greedy, corrupt, and sad, which of course leads to all kinds of crimes against society and one’s self. Teaching strategies like service-learning help us get to the “heart of the matter.

When we serve, whether other people or the environment, whether we farm or push someone’s wheel chair, we put someone or something ahead of ourselves. We become humble. There is great wisdom in the saying that the meek shall inherit the earth. Why? Because the meek are intuitively connected to love, to empathy, they feel the earth is their mother, and they express their gratitude by serving the creation moment by moment. This is something our corporate, political, and educational leaders need to learn.

Science and service can be very complimentary by nature. And they can both serve our democratic principles in practice. Democracy will not be very successful if we do not apply science to improving our understanding of human nature and human diversity. From the insights of science will come the design inspirations, and the design inspirations will also challenge science to see things in new ways, to ask new questions. For human development, we must discover and apply this science in our schools. This is why the founding fathers, and particularly Jefferson, were so strong on public education.

The fields of positive psychology, human development and happiness, and the management sciences all have a great deal to contribute to how we design public education, health care, and work places. Democracy depends on people with insight, which requires self-knowledge, and self-knowledge requires humility.

We have to understand human development well enough for people to begin to see other people as ends in themselves, as respectable individuals to be served, and not as a means to a selfish end. Science should be at the root of our humanities and our humanity should be at the root of our science.

The Ideal Learning Environment

The ideal learning environment will be open to local and virtual human resources of all kinds. It will have scientists and artists, engineers and math whizzes, business people and healers in-residence in classrooms. students will be in-residence in their communities learning by doing projects that matter to people and the environment.

In the ideal classroom, we will see that the classroom is a design studio, and the work is to design learning opportunities that excite, center and sooth everyone. Our purpose is to awaken to ourselves and the beautiful world onto which we are blessed to be born.

In the ideal world for learning we will continually evolve our sensitivity to each other, continually meet our social and emotional needs, while we learn to apply the tools and techniques that develop our self-knowledge and our cultural knowledge.

Why Is It So Hard to Change the Way We Teach?

Because we think that we need to teach, to impart knowledge, to be didactic, to cover curriculum for a test rather than to explore the beauty of the world and the beauty of ideas and people and enjoy discovering how they fit together. Thoughtful teachers know better of course. But they are often surrounded by a system that says otherwise.

I have two favorite examples of Science and Art coming together. Back in the 1980’s people were designing keyboarding programs. I saw that students were being asked to begin their learning by typing nonsense, by typing the home row. Now this is nonsense because the only two letters that come together in words were the first two A and S. D and F, and J, K, and L almost never get joined in a word in the form they appear in the home row. So, I wondered, could we begin by typing actual linguistic patterns that would also be kinesthetically easy? Sure enough, right there in the home row were actual words like AS ALL ASK A LASS or A LASS, ASKS, AS, ALL, ASK, A, and LAD. And so on. Thus, our little software company published the first linguistically and kinesthetically based touch-typing program.

Another example occurred when my six-year-old granddaughter announced that she hated school — in response to being asked why she said she hated learning to read. So, I put on my artist-in-residence hat and went to observe her reading class. Quickly I realized why she hated reading. She was subjected to an hour and a half of drill and kill direct, didactic instruction based on memorization with the more sterile opportunities for self-expression and no chance for rewarding social interaction.

I left thinking how strange it was that no one had ever written a children’s book that explained to children what they were going to learn when they learned to read. We had written books about what to expect when being toilet trained or losing teeth or going to the dentists, but nothing about learning to read.

I thought about this some and less and less over time. Then one day I sat down and found myself writing about Rabbit and Tortoise after their famous race. Tortoise is sitting in the shade reading and Rabbit with feet a hopping, tail a bopping, ears a flopping stops to ask Tortoise what he is doing.

A Tortoise and Rabbit Tale

Reading Tortoise answers. “Oh, you’re looking at the pictures of our race,” says Rabbit.

“Yes, and I’m listening to the sounds these squiggles under the pictures make.”

Rabbit looks at the squiggles. He leans closer to the page. Finally he puts his long soft ear right onto the squiggles. Then Rabbit says, “Tortoise, you’re mistaken. Those squiggles make no sounds. They are silent as stones.”

Tortoise responds that there’s a secret trick to hearing the sounds the squiggles make. And thus, begins Rabbit’s journey into discovering what reading is all about.

So, I responded to the problem that I saw, as a children’s book writer. Strangely and wonderfully that led me to discover something about the science of learning to read. You see in the last episode when Rabbit has gotten the hang of it, Rabbit and Tortoise go through the forest printing the names of other animals on Tortoise’s shell.

When I did that in the story, I saw something fascinating. It turned out that simply by arranging the animals names in the grid of Tortoise’s shell, I saw two things that are basic to early math education. Each animals name, and by extension every word, is a set of letters placed in an ordinal sequence. Thus, learning to read is mastering a particular set of mathematical concepts — set theory and ordinal organization.

This raised the question, why not move away from didactic drill and kill, away from memorizing the alphabet, which like the home row rarely provides linguistic meaning, and move toward a discovery approach by having the names of children in the class placed on the grid provided by Tortoise’s shell.

Suddenly I saw that the grid provided the matrix in which to explore set theory and ordinal concepts and to train word perception and linguistic analysis.

So, we could put different children’s names on name tags and the children could move around the room finding classmates who have the same letters in their names. Soon they would be looking for the same letter in the same location. And they could ask if the letter was making the same sound in both names. Thus, letter sound correspondence would be discovered rather than taught and the students would be practicing science — a natural instinct born of observation and curiosity.

This is an example of how art led into a scientific and mathematical insight and how we discovered that learning to read could be a discovery and social process for youngsters. They could do the complex work of linguistics, or the science of how reading and word formation works.

Putting Science and the Arts Together for Larger Purpose

As an artist-scientist I discovered a means to use literature to scaffold students into observing/perceiving letter patterns in words and letter sound correspondence. Now we’re working with computer scientists to figure out how to provide the engineering to enable teachers to use these insights to facilitate perception of word patterns and to encourage students to discover the rules of letter sound correspondence as a function of location within an ordinal pattern.

Science and the Arts can make for very powerful partners. STEM and better still, STEAM, can do this in the classroom and community connected projects if properly designed by educators who have developed a confidence and skill in the process. Project Based Learning and Service-Learning offer a process and a purpose for introducing our students to practical applications of the science (and arts) skills and content that we value as a society. But best of all our students can learn the intrinsic reward of contributing to improving people’s lives, and our society as a whole.

Jon Madian founded Humanities Software with his wife, Karen Jostad, in 1983 — sold to Renaissance Learning in 1999. Jon also founded the Artist-in-Residence Reading Project in the Inner City of Los Angeles (1976–1979). Foundation, state, and federal grants capitalized R&D to create one of the first learner-centered, computer-assisted curriculum design programs. A consultant for Apple, IBM, Capstone, and Microsoft and for schools and curriculum publishers, Jon is also a psychologist and children’s book author. He helped developed over 100 reading and writing software programs and has written extensively on technology, curriculum, and school reform.

more articles from Community Works Journal

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