Monday, December 22, 2008

What science education really needs: the arts

We’ve all heard the stories that children can hear and remember music in the womb. Prenatal exposure to classical music is said to help the development of a baby’s brain and may make them particularly adept at math. Studies have found that adults score better on IQ tests after listening to classical music and that pre-school students who took piano or rhythm lessons did better on math tests. These are only small connections between art and science, two huge spheres of human culture. Is it possible that art and science are more connected than we think and that one can help us with the other?

Carl Sagan - a distinguished popularizer of science in the seventies, eighties and nineties – had broad influence across science reaching all the way to education. He noticed something funny was happening with science students over the course of their education. Children in the first grade, he noticed, were particularly enthusiastic and curious about the world. They asked tough questions like, “Why is the moon round?” or, “When is the world’s birthday?” They had no notion of what we would call a “dumb question” and would ask any and every question that crossed their fertile minds. When Sagan spent time with high school seniors, however, he noticed an entirely different dynamic. “The joy of discovery has gone out of them,” he writes in his book The Demon-haunted World, “they’re worried about asking dumb questions.” Something happened between the first grade and the end of high school. What was it?

Sagan thought that children were encountering parents or teachers who were irritated by these questions and may even ridicule them with answers like: “What did you expect the Moon to be, square?” He thought this would teach children that some questions are dumb and shouldn’t be asked in the first place. I don’t think Sagan is wrong with this reasoning but I don’t think that this is all there is to this story. Another great, complementary explanation to this problem comes from an unlikely place: a expert on drama and theatre education. And the best part is that I don’t think he even knows it.

Sir Ken Robinson is an expert on creativity sought by international agencies and private companies alike. “We are educating people out of their creativity,” he says. It’s a bizarre idea but one that explains a lot once borne out. Education systems are run on an idea that all mistakes are bad and that, he thinks, is indescribably detrimental to creativity. Many people’s initial reaction would be to think, “Of course mistakes are bad!” After all, aren’t we always trying to avoid them? He makes it clear, however, that he’s not suggesting being is wrong is creative but, “if you’re never prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” We shouldn’t strive to be wrong but we also shouldn’t be scared of it.

Although Robinson is suggesting this because he feels art is under-appreciated in our education systems (he inquires why students do math everyday but don’t dance everyday) his idea has consequences across all of education. This is what I think is happening to the science students in Sagan’s experience and most likely students of all disciplines. Students are constantly avoiding being wrong because they will lose marks or be ridiculed by classmates. They become conservative with their imaginations, afraid of making large, adventurous leaps. Despite my fondness for science I’ll freely admit that, without any imagination, it’s boring. The fun is not necessarily knowing what is but also what could be. We must find a way to keep the creativity in the students we’re educating!

Some forms of art are places where there is literally no way to be wrong. Many visual arts like painting or sculpture offer places where children are free to explore their imaginations as far as it will take them. They don’t have to worry about doing something wrong, there’s no way they can be! This is the type of attitude the first graders that Sagan encountered had towards science; they weren’t afraid to be wrong! Other forms of art like music require that some rules be followed but still leave a lot of room for creativity. Maybe that’s why music students do so well in math. They follow the rules of math but use all sorts of creative ways of getting their answer.

Einstein was quoted as saying, “anyone who has never made a mistake, never learned anything new.” Even Einstein, who is often held up as the epitome of intellect, made mistakes. The biggest one he made was his proposal that the universe was not expanding because of a mysterious force he called the ‘cosmological constant’. When he found out the universe indeed was expanding he called it the biggest blunder of his life, not because he was wrong about the ‘cosmological constant’ but because he wasn’t imaginative enough to think that the universe might be expanding. It’s a lesson to us all that one of the greatest minds to ever exist wasn’t afraid of being wrong, it was afraid of not being creative.

As appeared in the December 10, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

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