Academic Rigor through the Arts
Arts integration has ebbed and flowed in American schools since the 1940’s, in various forms. I read a recent grant proposal that pointed out the challenges of the arts in service of other subjects versus the arts as equal too all subjects. The tension between STEM and STEAM demonstrates ongoing discomfort with integrating subject areas. But intellectual rigor and intense creativity are not mutually exclusive.
While in Washington D.C. last week I had the pleasure of seeing the “Man Ray--Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare” exhibit at The Phillips Collection. This elegant intersection of art and science was the perfect reminder that the most interesting learning happens when both sides of the brain are engaged. Here’s the history:
In the 1930’s the artist Man Ray discovered a set of 19th century geometric models in the studio of mathematician Henri Poncaré. Man Ray photographed them, using light and shadow to transform the shapes. Nearly twenty years later, he revisited his photographs and painted them into a series exploring the themes of Shakespeare’s plays. The Phillips exhibit showed the original models, the photographs and the paintings. It was a brain-stretching exercise to take in the diverse media and a treat to glimpse into the iterative art-making process over time.
The culmination of the exhibit was an interactive bit at the end: three mathematical models, similar to the ones Man Ray photographed, were available for photographing. Knowing that most museum visitors would come armed with a smart phone, #InstaManRay encourages visitors to explore filters, angles, shape, and shadow to create their own images.
Just three shapes produce an infinite array of viewpoints. What do you notice in the images from #InstaManRay?
I’m fascinated by the photographs that put the shape in the foreground, out of focus, and capture a wall corner or a table edge in background focus. Some photographers put the focus on the other museum visitors studying the shapes, while others got inventive with their filters or flashes, to dramatic effect. It was an elegant illustration of the diversity of human perspective.
The other interactive experience was a computer display of several three dimensional mathematical models. Below each model was the corresponding algebraic equation. By manipulating dials on the console, visitors adjusted the equation and transformed the model. After moving through the exhibit, which tracked the transition from math to art, this was an opportunity to see the connection from art back to math.
The exhibit struck home in a powerful way: I was in DC with a student from the Academy of Arts and Academics in Springfield, Oregon as she participated in the National Poetry Out Loud Competition. A3 is a special place—where students work to “explore-design-create-refine-own” their learning. Applied project learning is the foundation and proficiency-based demonstrations of knowledge are the goal. A sign in the school lobby proclaims “Academic rigor through the arts.”
As I talked with Gypsy, a senior theatre major with a scholarship to the University of Oregon next year, about complex issues, her keen interest made her wise beyond her years. Part of that is her natural personality, but her instincts have been fostered by her education. Her school prioritizes student voices, is founded on the idea of integrated subject area study and relies on demonstrations of proficiency to assess student progress. This is not an unattainable ideal. As the A3 motto states, the arts can be academically rigorous and highly creative at the same time.
The experience has left me wanting more: more depth, more interaction between subject areas, more connection to student perspectives.
How can we help students explore creative thinking and intellectual rigor simultaneously? What examples of meaningful integration of subjects have you explored? How can we involve students in making content decisions? How can we bring young voices to the conversation about the future of arts education?