Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Art and Science of Science and Art

Chris is the guy on the left....
I've had an interesting past few days in Tampa the past few days, celebrating the work of our principal Chris Jennings and our school at the NASSP Convention. We're a MetLife Foundation Breakthrough School this year and we're beaming, much more on that later.

I got to spend a lot of time with a colleague, an art teacher with a strong interest on how science works. We talked, and we listened, not so much on what is called science, though he is interested in that as well, but on what it means to know something in science, or to know anything.

We mostly chatted on the edge of an estuary, under the sun, occasionally stopping to watch a pelican or three glide yards over our heads, to listen to a laughing gull squawk trying to steal a crumb from a naive Iowan.

We paused a lot. (I suspect our neurons branch quicker in the silence than in the noise of human--need both though.)

I think the learned folks call this epistemology--we called it human.

We did what we hoped our students will someday do--that they don't that now is to our shame.


We all "know" what an atom is, or at least what the cultural icon we call atom is. When you push the model, it becomes space and energy levels and predictably unpredictable relationships that defy a concrete model.  I did more talking than he did.

We all "know" how to draw a cube, what is should look like, that the vertical lines never meet, and the horizontal ones eventually do. My artist friend drew two sets of lines in perspective--I could tell one was better, but I could not tell why. He did more talking than I did.

We worked our way through our epistemological forest using voices, written words on scraps of conference paper. We talked sitting down, we talked standing up, we talked while we walked, while we ate.

We did it because it matters, true, but mostly because we enjoyed it. The line between our disciplines dissolved a bit, like sidewalk chalk drawings on a foggy morning. The lines are still there, but the edges now blend.

I left Tampa with my neurons connected in altered ways. This is not just a figurative statement. Real learning alters the physical architecture of your brain. It takes a lot of energy, it takes cellular materials your body would gladly use somewhere else with a whisper of an excuse.

It hurts. You're not going to do it for some abstract long-term goal--I'm old enough where a few new synapses will not alter my financial circumstances.

You're not going to do it well if there's no joy.

As we spun our metaphorical atoms and very physical drawings into various hypotheses on how we are who we are, how our environment affects us, how we affect our environment, well, we learned more on how we learn.

Learning how to draw, how to play a trumpet, how to plant a seed, how to make a paper crane, or how to do just about anything for ourselves takes a little pain.

We pretend we do it for the long-term ends, and maybe a few of us do. For me, though, even the awful parts of figuring something out--my first few painful hours blatting on a trumpet also brought pleasure in its joyful noise.

I still have a lot of work to do before I become half the teacher I want to be. I suspect most of us feel the same way, not because we're on some arduous journey to reach the Promised Land of Aypia but because we enjoy getting better.

There is pleasure in creating something new.
There is pleasure in sharing this pleasure.
There is pleasure, real pleasure, in teaching.

 We owe it to our children to know this pleasure before we fault them for rejecting what we pretend they ought to know.

Thanks, everybody!


Susan Eckert said...

Nice post, sounds like it was a brain-altering experience. I remember one day I was telling my students that when you learn something, it can physically change your brain. And then I said, "Isn't it weird that now maybe your brain is a bit different because it just learned about...itself?" I laughed, they stared, they laughed. (But mostly because they thought it was funny that I even find that entertaining.)

John T. Spencer said...

"I still have a lot of work to do before I become half the teacher I want to be."

I can relate to that.

I've been placed in positions where I am considered the expert teacher. I'm still figuring out what I believe about teaching, not just how to become a better teacher.

I am beginning to see that so much of why I do what I do is for the sheer enjoyment of it. I can wax eloquent about the power of story to change lives, but the truth is that I write novels because it's fun. I can talk about a PLN, but I blog because it's fun and because I like the interaction.

doyle said...

Dear Susan,

I suspect we need to spend more energy in the classroom explaining to kids what it means to learn something--should the definition require physical changes in the brain?

I wonder how much of what we do day to day outside our routine cultivates new neuronal pathways?

We've talked about this before, and we'll talk about it again--it's such a fundamental part of what we do every day.

Dear John,

I've no doubt you're an expert teacher, but I've also no doubt that you will always seek to become better. You've learned the sekrit code--the joy is in the journey.

(I think one of your videos was used at one of our sessions--the presenter wasn't sure--do you have a link to one about PLN's?)

Susan Eckert said...

I've always been particularly interested in the science of learning. I think education programs should focus on teaching evidence-based cognitive science as opposed to theories that sound nice/logical but have no real data to support them and are nothing but fluff (Gardner). Not that we really know all that much about brain-based learning, cognitive psychology, educational neuropsychology or whatever it is you want to call it but we know some things. And I want to be better at understanding what we know and using it.

I did talk about this topic in the classroom on several occasions and I found many of the students were intrigued. It's an intriguing topic, how your very own brain works.

John T. Spencer said...

It's possible.

Was it this one:

How To Start a PLN

or this one:
What Is a PLN?

I'm surprised by the number of presentations that use the sketchy videos, #pencilchat (or Pencil Integration) or excerpts from the Living Facebook Project. It's kinda cool, really.

Right now I'm working on a graphic novel (Jesus at Jefferson High) and two children's books (Phil in the Bubble and The Dragon Raised by Turkeys). Doubt that any of those will make their way into the conference circuits.

doyle said...

Dear Susan,

Amen--and it's my hope that upper level admins start getting interested in this as well at the state and national levels. We know what works--why are we still chasing Gardner?

Dear John,

It was the second one. It wasn't attributed, which annoyed me. I mentioned it to the one who used it after his talk--he wasn't sure if it was yours.

Don't get me started....

Mary Ann Reilly said...

When I think about the type of school I would want to make with others, your description of the interaction you and the art teacher had exemplifies what I dream about.

Less schooling, more learning.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mary Ann,

I know these sound like idle words, but if you get close to this, remember me.

I dream of opening the Margaret Donaldson School someday. A place for children to learn about the world.

It's just not that difficult a concept....

doyle said...

Goodness, "Anonymous" is me!