Creativity without content

D-Ed Reckoning’s Ken DeRosa is a grinch.  He looks at a nice, little story about children’s creativity in a National Engineers Week Future City Competition and asks whether students are learning anything.

The competition challenges middle school students to design a city of the future with a focus on water conservation, reuse, and renewable energy. The students use the game SimCity (Deluxe 4) to help them build their three-dimensional models to scale. They have a semester to dream up and then construct their miniature cities entirely out of recycled materials. Supposedly, this inspires them to consider engineering as a profession.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describes one entry, called L.U.R.E., set in New Mexico:

School is free for everyone, brought into individual homes via a holographic teacher. Nearly everyone in town is gainfully employed as an engineer.

Mountain goat racing and sand surfing satisfy a yen for sports and leisure. And if, for no apparent reason, you need a getaway, there’s the Space Shuttle Gilligan to whisk you on a four-month vacation to the moon…

Students used a Starbucks frappuccino cup to model a coffee shop; they made office buildings from paper towel rolls.

Students were supposed to be learning “how engineers turn ideas into reality.” But they didn’t need any engineering knowledge to build their models, DeRosa grumps.

It’s not as if they built a teaching hologram or used recycled materials to build a real building or designed systems to conserve water and use renewable energy.

My husband, born to be an engineer, built a color TV set when he was in high school.  It worked.  His father, also an engineer, built model planes as a teenager. They flew.

My first husband, a math-physics guy,  designed an atomic bomb in fifth grade for a school project. “It probably wouldn’t have worked,” he said. But he’d studied the science and the math.  It wasn’t an art project.

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Comments

  1. It is a shame that anyone now that demands standards and honesty in educational pursuits is a “grinch.” Ken’s blog is full of well-reasoned bits about how we are going in the exact wrong direction. The named project wasn’t an appropriate science project, although would have been fine for a create project. Worse, it is certainly not age appropriate for middle school.

  2. Some schools have done projects in which kids design bridge & make them out of cardboard & then see how much weight they can carry. That gets a lot closer to actual learning of something with relevance to science & engineering.

    But why the endless “arts & crafts” fascination on the part of so many K-12 teachers, at the expense of true academic knowledge? I get the impression that a lot of these people would be happier running a picture framing shop, or running one of those scrapbooking places, than doing what they’re doing. Not that there’s anything wrong with those activities, but we need people doing teaching who actually place some value on intellectual activity.

  3. The kids aren’t learning about engineering, where the crude measure of success is that the bridge doesn’t fall down and neither does the airplane but about public education where the measure of success is appealing to the conceits of those who sit in judgment.

    Maybe a corollary to the observations about builders and programmers is in order: if builders built buildings the way the public education system educates kids you be reading this in a cave, if you could read.

  4. David – I think it’s normal human laziness and procrastination, two faults I suffer from a great deal. Ever since the takeoff of modern art in the early part of the 20th century, “arts and crafts” have appeared an easy option for teachers because there is no clear basis for evaluating quality.
    Now, a good arts or crafts teacher does work very hard and intellectually, and knows well that while Picasso and Cezanne were painting non-realistically, part of what made them great was that they had fabulous technical skills and knew a great deal on an intellectual level about art. I had a very good design teacher in high school, the contrast between his level of thinking and that of the arts teacher I had, or my primary school teachers, was just phenomenal. Teaching arts or crafts is not the easy option for a strongly-self-driven teacher. Arts and crafts is however an easy option for most of humanity, including I suspect me if I became a teacher.

  5. Tracy…

    “It is often said that great achievement requires in one’s formative years two teachers: a stern taskmaster who teaches the rules and an inspirational guru who teaches one to break the rules. But they must come in that order. Childhood training in Bach can prepare one to play free jazz and ballet instruction can prepare one to be a modern dancer, but it doe s not work the other way around. One cannot be liberated from fetters one has never worn; all one can do is to make pastiches of the liberations of others.”

    –Michael J Lewis, an art professor at Williams College

  6. Also…an interesting remark by Peter Drucker–illustrious writer on management and society, professor of subjects from statistics to Oriental Art–writing about his own 4th grade experience (in Austria) in wood shop: “…even Miss Sophie could not make a craftsman out of me…But I took from her a lifelong appreciation of craftsmanship, an enjoyment of clean honest work, and respect for the task. My fingers have never forgotten the feel of well-planed and sanded wood, cut with rather than against the grain, which Miss Sophy–her hand on mine and guiding my fingers–made me sense.”

    Arts & crafts can be very beneficial when taught with a serious respect for craftsmanship, the way Miss Sophy did. But more often, it is probably taught as an “easy option,” to use Tracy’s terminology.

  7. Nicksmama says:

    How we introduce engineering concepts in our homeschool.

    1. Unlimited exposures to JunkYard Wars reruns.
    2. Unlimited exposures to MythBusters on DVD (Netflix)
    3. The History Channel “Modern Marvels” – library and Netflix
    4. Endless library books on medieval arms and modern warfare
    5. K’nex, Legos, rubberbands, and rights to anything from the recycle bin.

    I assign writing assignments and complete lab write-ups for school illustrating the scientific method. You know, the boring stuff.

    The kids can figure out the “arts and crafts” stuff on their own.

  8. My kids’ school has a sholl-wide ‘creativity focus’, which just seems to be an extended home task in which a theme is given and the children decide themselves what to do or make within that theme (creative, huh?).

    The National Engineers Week activity just looks like a weak attempt to enthuse rather than educate. It makes you wonder if any of the engineers involved know anything about middle school education, or if any of the teachers know anything about the process of engineering. (At least here in the UK, there are virtually no teachers of younger children with a math, science or technolohy background.)

  9. I agree that this is more feel-good than actual engineering. Did the kids have to figure out HOW wastewater treatment (an important part of city planning) would work, or was it allowed to be a “black box” (“Dirty water goes in….then something happens….and clean water comes out)?

    Drucker’s point (quoted by david foster) is well-taken: I learned “craftsmanship” (of a sort) from learning to sew from my mom, and from some of the building-oriented classes (Wood Shop). But there’s no need to spill that over into academic subjects, or to have kids be told they’re learning about engineering when they’re really doing a sort of an art project.

    I remember in 7th grade science, we had to build bridges. We were given NO background, NO basics. I build a beautiful model of a suspension bridge which failed totally because the two end-points were not allowed to be attached to anything – when any weight was placed in the middle, the whole thing just collapsed. Most of my 7th grade science class was like that – we were given ambitious assignments without the necessary background or “rules” needed to succeed.

    Oh, and I know this is snarky, but naming a space shuttle “Gilligan”? I hope it doesn’t take any three-hour tours.

  10. True story: one of the questions on my college organic chemistry midterm gave the chemical structure for Sudafed and the chemical structure for methamphetamine and asked the test-taker to turn the former into the latter in no more than 6 steps. I got full credit for my answer but wondered what the heck the prof was thinking in putting that particular question on the exam!

  11. Allen said, “The kids aren’t learning about engineering, where the crude measure of success is that the bridge doesn’t fall down and neither does the airplane but about public education where the measure of success is appealing to the conceits of those who sit in judgment.” Well said, Allen. I would add only that some in private education are not immune from this conceit.

    Ken DeRosa may indeed be a grinch. Calling him a grinch allows folks to demonize him. (Remember the Gingrich who stole Christmas on the cover of Newsweek in the 90s?) But DeRosa in his eternal “grinchiness” has the virtue of being correct.

  12. I have a child who actually did this competition. For “arts and crafts” it was a lot of work, a September through January commitment. The final city needed got some help from one members uncle, an architect for correct scale and a graphic designer mother. The child wanted to do this to avoid his science teachers seventh grade project, design an alien. His older brother had done it badly. It did not help that science teacher was highly erratic. He was happy he did the project.

    The next year he did a real arts and crafts science project, the National Junior Duck Stamp competition. He had to study waterfowl, draw and paint a duck in natural habitat. He liked it a lot. We also got a free morning at the zoo and a lot less stress with 8th grade science project. I’d take duck stamps over future cities at any time.

  13. When I was in jr. high school, I visited the high school to see the science fair, participating in which was mandatory for everyone in a science class. Of course, presentations were an option, as well as actually building something, and I recall listening to a presentation on electroshock.

    In 9th grade, I had to build a project for the science fair, and since I was taking earth science at the time, I thought I’d build an artesian well. It was about 2 feet long and 5 inches wide and about 15 inches high. The front side (2 x 15) was glass; the rest was plywood. I layered it with gravel and dirt so the water could be poured at one end (rain) and soak down along the gravel layer to the other end, where I had a soda straw sized metal pipe running from near the bottom of the case to about an inch above the top of the soil.

    It actually worked, and I took 3rd place.

    But the next year, it became optional. Participation went down drastically, and I never bothered to enter it again.

  14. anon wrote:

    > I would add only that some in private education are not immune from this conceit.

    No one’s immune from conceit except me. Ba-dum-bum.

    The public education system provides a “performance” umbrella that allows nonsense like this to be seen as not just acceptable but even laudable. Private schools aren’t immune to the influence of the dominant player of course but the responsibility rests with the public education system where professional excellence isn’t rewarded and professional incompetence isn’t a sin.

  15. Clearly very few of you have been exposed to those lovely “differentiation” workshops popular with various public school administrators.

    I rest my case.

  16. When little, my sister and I liked to imagine what heaven looked like. Of course there was candy everywhere, playgrounds, trees, beaches with boats, grassy fields and huge mansions filled with toys. This assignment reminds me of those late nights, except with a new idea of heaven — the perfect egalitarian green city.

  17. Foobarista says:

    I learned far more about engineering in our annual 3 story egg drop contest than anyone would learn in this project. It may be an interesting art project, but Grump’s right – it ain’t engineering.

    The egg-drop challenge was to design a package that would prevent an egg inside from breaking when dropped from the roof of a three story building. Kids came up with all sorts of shock-absorber systems, foam things, and even bouncy balloon contraptions that worked like the balloon landers used to land on Mars. About a quarter of them worked.

  18. When I was in 3rd grade I made a sextant out of a protractor, a couple of pieces of wood, some string, nails, and thumbtacks. The trick, of course, was to calibrate it, and I can’t remember what I did, but when I tested it that night against the North Star, it was dead on. Anyway, I turned the thing in after doing a presentation to the class, and I got an A. Then Miss GrumpyFace, the teacher from the class next door, came in to judge our contest. She awarded first prize to a ‘diorama’ that had Native Americans and dinosaurs in it (the diorama was really a shoebox with plastic toys arranged in it), and she held up my entry as an example of something beneath contempt. She had absolutely no idea what it was, and hadn’t bothered to ask.

    I didn’t really mind her reaction, because the realization that many of the teachers at my crappy rural East Texas public school were too ignorant and/or stupid to understand the work an 8-year-old was something that I, as an 8-year-old, found very interesting. It doesn’t appear that things have changed much, except now they give all the kids a shoebox and some plastic Native Americans and dinosaurs. So the teachers don’t ever have wonder “What the hell is that thing?”.

  19. Nicksmama – how do you teach your kids about that central engineering concept – Murphy’s Law?

  20. One more quote, this one from Igor Stravinsky:

    “You cannot create against a yielding medium…Let me have something finite, definite. My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength.”

  21. Andy Freeman says:

    > David – I think it’s normal human laziness and procrastination, two faults I suffer from a great deal. Ever since the takeoff of modern art in the early part of the 20th century, “arts and crafts” have appeared an easy option for teachers because there is no clear basis for evaluating quality.

    I think that something else is going on.

    If one student’s bridge falls down while another’s stays up, that undercut’s a teacher’s ability to judge the one that fell down as superior.

    If someone knows best, they won’t like being second guessed by Mother Nature.

  22. This probably has a lot to do with sexual politics. Women, on the average, care more about how things LOOK and men, on the average, care more about how things WORK. So given the dominance of K-12 education by women, this approach could be expected.

  23. Also, women tend to care a lot about doing what is expected by those in authority, and “reuse and renewable energy” are now things that people are definitely expected to believe in.

  24. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Mr. DeRosa. I’m a professional electrical engineer and have been a “technical advisor” (for lack of a better term) to a high school teacher who teaches a robotics course. I’ve been doing it for about four years now.

    From my experience, many high school students are not taught how to think about a problem but what to think about it. This leads, in my opinion, to the facile exercises that DeRosa describes because the “what to think” model emphasizes ease and superficial knowledge. The “how to think” model offers deep knowledge that leads to the ability to be creative by understanding how one’s [unique] ideas can or cannot work. Deep knowledge gives you the ability to evaluate options. Being told what to think encourages rote copying of past ideas without a look towards creating new ones through intuitive leaps.

    I see very few students with that drive to understand or inquisitiveness these days. Its sad, really. A far cry from when I was a kid and that wasn’t *too* long ago.

  25. Margo/Mom says:

    OK–it looks like time for someone to defend arts and crafts as a teaching tool. As most of my teaching has been in afterschool groups and out of doors in the summer–and as someone who had a bent in that direction–let me suggest that it’s far more a matter of the way in which the tool is used than the tool itself.

    I spent a short time once at a camp that was very proud of its “zip line.” They used it during free time as a recreational toy. I was unimpressed. This highly attractive item could have been used for much more. As the camp had a religious bent, it could have been used to illustrate the power of faith (stepping off that little platform knowing that something would hold you up), or the encouraging power of peer groups (facing fears together). It could also have delved into the immutable laws of physics as evidence of a creator. But it kept kids entertained for a while in which counselors didn’t need to plan any formal activities.

    I can’t really tell enough about the particular set of activities that were illustrated by the student projects that this article deals with. If the city builders merely threw together “black box” dreams of ecologically improved cities, the end result was likely little more than germanation of the idea that urban planning is a possible career path (not altogether a bad thing). They may have been able to do some more sophisticated modelling of the interaction of ideas using SIM City, that they illustrated with their models. Again, not necessarily engineering per se–but still inclusive of things that engineers might need to be aware of.

    I happened to run into a former camper on a recent visit back to the agency that runs the camp where I spent many years–and carried out lots of craft lessons. I remembered her–since I knew her parents. She was sure that I couldn’t ever have been her counselor. I finally took her over to the place where our cabin’s project was still displayed in the building. She said–“Oh, that was you?” We had constructed a rug–using a complicated (and scientific) process using raw wool. But more important, we had incorporated into the rug the initials of a number of famous women we studied over our session together. I am sure those histories got woven into her later pool of knowledge. But what she remembered, long after, was the art project that served as a tool for learning.

  26. If the city builders merely threw together “black box” dreams of ecologically improved cities, the end result was likely little more than germanation of the idea that urban planning is a possible career path (not altogether a bad thing).

    However if the end result was germination of the idea that it’s dead easy to build ecologically-improved cities, and we don’t need to worry about how the people living in them might react or what they might think, or think about any resource constraints, then that’s definitely a bad thing.

    They may have been able to do some more sophisticated modelling of the interaction of ideas using SIM City, that they illustrated with their models. Again, not necessarily engineering per se–but still inclusive of things that engineers might need to be aware of.

    The number of things that engineers might need to be aware of is infinite. It is impossible to teach every single thing that an engineer (or any other person) might need to be aware of. And if the best justification a teacher can come up with for a project is that “you might need to be aware of this”, it’s time to find a better project.

    In the case of engineering, I’d say that while it might be useful for an engineer to be aware that SIMCity exists, an engineer most definitely should be aware of the limitations and dangers of modelling, and the differences between a game like SIMCity and a model meant for professional use (this is not to say that every model meant for professional use should be used professionally, or at all, just that SIMCity is designed first and foremost as a game to make money for its producers by providing an entertaining experience for users, and thus should not be regarded as an engineering model).

    Engineering is about designing and maintaining stuff that works in reality, not playing around with models. If you want to introduce kids to engineering, far better to start off with getting something to work in reality, and then go to the modelling, while giving them a lot of experience in the limitations of models.

    We had constructed a rug–using a complicated (and scientific) process using raw wool.

    Really? What was your hypothesis? How did you test it? What was your control group?

    But more important, we had incorporated into the rug the initials of a number of famous women we studied over our session together.

    Weaving in some initials of famous women was more important than testing your scientific hypothesis? I think your value system’s stuffed up.

    Learning the critical thinking involved in science gives you a tool that is applicable to a wide variety of situations, from professional careers, to housework (eg formulating hypothesis as to why your oven isn’t going, and testing them), to citizenship (should I vote for or against a plan to test the environment).

    Learning the histories of famous women is important as we can learn from the history, and a broad-based knowledge of history is useful for critising all sorts of hypothesis and theories.

    Weaving is a valuable tool for making threads into a material that can cover a wide area with a number of desirable properties, and may be turned into some innovative use in some other area (I can’t think of a direct example now, but origami has been used in the design of space satellites to allow them to unfurl neatly once launched, who knows where else weaving might be useful.) I’d say that knowledge of weaving is less important than knowledge of the scientific method, but still valuable.

    But I don’t see anything important about weaving in some initials of some women. You didn’t even weave in a record of what those women accomplished. Just the trivial detail of their initials.

    I am sure those histories got woven into her later pool of knowledge.

    And I am not at all sure that they did.

    But what she remembered, long after, was the art project that served as a tool for learning.

    Did it actually serve as a tool for learning? Can you tell us if she remembered how to test scientific processes? And does she apply that in her day-to-day life? Can you tell us what she remembered about the lives of famous women, and if she’s found that useful in her life? Can you tell us if she remembers how to weave?

    If all she remembers about the project was that she wove a rug, that’s an argument against using crafts as a tool for learning.

  27. I should say, that I have no general objection to teaching crafts at school. I am very glad that I can cook and sew as these are practical skills I use very frequently, and on a more general level I think that crafts teaches a lot about how different materials behave, and provides a lot of knowledge about what can be done that raises the possibility of the student then using them in innovative ways.

    But when it comes to using crafts as a way of teaching other subjects, I think it is wise to be skeptical about their value. People remember what they pay attention to, so someone who is paying attention to the materials work of say, building a model castle, may well wind up learning far more about the compression strength of cardboard than medieval Europe. There’s also the possibility of focussing on frivolous bits that are easy to incorporate into a crafts model, like famous women’s initials, as opposed to the serious and often more abstracted intellectual material that’s more generally useful. And substituting computer models for real materials strikes me as a very risky teaching practice.

  28. Arts & crafts are fine and can be very valuable…see the Peter Drucker quote in my comment above. What I object to is the tendency to turn **all subjects whatsoever** into either arts & crafts, “social studies,” or some mix of the two.

    Regarding models, it is very important that people have an understanding of the usefulness and especially the imitations of simulation models, and not regard them as Oracles of Dellphi. (A big part of the current financial crisis is due to excessive deference paid to models of collateralized debt instruments) This can’t be learned purely by working with a simulation, but only by comparing the results of the simulation with the external reality that it supposedly represents.

  29. Wow–Tracy. What I was teaching, primarily, was about the roles of women in shaping history. During our time together we read bios of the women we learned about, we memorized things that these women had said (part of presenting a skit that incorporated what we were learning and sharing it with the rest of the camp). We were employing a rug making methodology (which was not weaving) that was based on a number of scientific principals that others have verified through the scientific method. We dyed our wool with natural elements, using chemical (I believe it was vinegar, primarily) setting agents (which brought about a chemical change in the substance we boiled our wool with). We “felted” the rug using agitation and alternate hot and cold water baths. (if you want a controlled experiment try throwing one wool sweater in the washer and dryer and handwashing the other and drying flat). So–these explanations as we went along were gratis.

    As it happens, when I met with this particular former camper she did still recognize the names–and had subsequently learned more about–of the women we had studied, many of whom were pretty obscure–with regard to run of the mill history curricula. So, yes, we were swimming upstream on the values issue. Intentionally.

  30. BTW, I googled the competition. The requirements for the project are pretty impressive (I thought), apparently developed by engineers, using a key problem faced by engineering today. They also listed skills that engineers need, which include ability to collaborate and perform research. http://www.futurecity.org/docs/2009_Teachers_Handbook_A.pdf

  31. Dictyranger says:

    CrimsonWife: Don’t knock it…you remembered the problem, yes? My class presentation in my Industrial Microbiology class was on commercial brewing of beer, including the side products produced by brewing at high fermentable sugar concentrations and their downstream effects. I had a very attentive audience, as you can imagine, but there was a great deal of biochemistry and microbiology in there.

    One of my friends’ kids participated in the Future City project this year, and her school stipulated that the community had to be on the Moon. For her city, she interviewed me and several other people who have had experience in regions with deadly weather or difficult supply logistics. (I’ve been in Antarctica, which has both.) She wouldn’t have needed that if it was just feel-good arts-and-crafts.

  32. Margo/Mum – I stated above that I saw a lot of value in learning and applying the scientific method, studying history, including famous women, and learning crafts skills. What I objected to was your statement that weaving, sorry, incorporating, women’s initials into a rug was more important than learning the scientific method. I note that you didn’t bother defending that one.

    As for all your description of learning other things about the famous women, how much of what your student remembered was because of reading bios, memorisation, and presenting the script, rather than using the crafts project? Imagine you took a sailing trip in rough weather, with the sort of seas that had made you sick in the past. To combat seasickness, you take a commercial seasickness pill, and wear a rubber band around your wrist. You don’t get seasick. Now, one of the things that a good understanding of the scientific method tells you is that from that experiment you can’t determine what caused you not to be sick, it might have been the pill, it might have been the band, it might have been the combination of the two, it might have been some minor variant in the weather or the way the ship interacted with it. How did you know that the former camper remembered the famous women because of the rug and not because of the other efforts you put in? In my experience, scientists seldom are very sure.

    Did you actually do the controlled experiment with felting the rug? Did you get your students to design the experiment?

    And, out of curiousity, what is a possible non-chemical setting agent? I don’t know much about dyes, I had always assumed that all setting agents were chemical, but your specification here implies that there’s a non-chemical way of setting dyes.

    The requirements for the project are pretty impressive (I thought), apparently developed by engineers, using a key problem faced by engineering today. They also listed skills that engineers need, which include ability to collaborate and perform research.

    And another of the key skills that engineers need is the ability to question other engineers. How did the designers of this experiment test that this experiment was teaching the right skills to students, or encouraging students to enter engineering? I used to belong to the IEE (as distinct from the IEEE), and I remember an old engineer writing in to the newsletter to say that the IEE had been trying to recruit more engineering students since the 1950s with no appreciable effect. I’ve never seen anything that has implied that that old guy was wrong. (Now thinking back, I should have not been so definite in my statement that it’s better to start off with getting something to work in reality, and then moving to modelling, I don’t have evidence to support that, it’s just a plausible alternative hypothesis).

  33. Dictyranger: beer at least is legal here in the U.S. for those of us 21+.

  34. Tracy–sorry, I don’t recall saying that incorporating initials into a rug was more important than learning the scientific method.

  35. Margo/Mum, you don’t need to remember saying it, your original comment is still on this post, you could have just re-read it. To quote from it:
    We had constructed a rug–using a complicated (and scientific) process using raw wool. But more important, we had incorporated into the rug the initials of a number of famous women we studied over our session together. [Emphasis mine] This is just a straight copy and paste from your comment up above.

    If you didn’t use the scientific method, what precisely was scientific about your process of rug-construction? I asked you earlier what your hypothesis was, your control group, etc.

    Also, can you please alleviate my curiousity by answering my question as to what is a possible non-chemical setting agent? Is it the application of heat?

  36. Margo/Mom says:

    Tracy:

    When I said, “but more important,” I was not implying a global hierarchy of importance, merely that we were learning about women in history, rather than science. This did not necessitate the exclusion of any scientific knowledge that happened to come up. One such piece of knowledge–derived from science–is that there are various kinds of changes to matter. One kind of change is a chemical change–for instance when oxygen and hydrogen come together to form water. A non-chemical change might be exemplified by a solution of salt and water. The two elements are easily separated back into their origins (through evaporation, typically).

    The point that I was writing to make was not about any relative importance that I assign to history over science (or vice versa)–but rather the use of arts and crafts as useful tools in learning serious content (whether science or history). I have not generally viewed arts and crafts as the “easy way out” or “content lite,” as many writers believe is the case.

    Perhaps I am wrong–but I have always understood that there is a role in the world of science for “applied” science, or the application of what is already known. The scientific method is important. But I have never understood that anything that did not test a hypothesis was not “scientific.” Maybe we have some scientists who would care to respond?

  37. I was not implying a global hierarchy of importance, merely that we were learning about women in history, rather than science.

    Fine. But I think that incorporating famous women’s initials into a rug is looking at history in a very trivial, unimportant, way. I can’t think of any scientific knowledge that is less important than that, although I am prepared to believe that there is historical knowledge that is more important than some scientific knowledge, and indeed, I chose to do history at high school rather than biology on that basis. But in my history class we didn’t spend any time incorporating any famous people’s initials into a rug, instead we wrote essays, did research papers, debated decisions, etc. I don’t find it plausible that if I’d woven a rug with initials like ET, KM, VL, JS, MZ, CS, JS, FD, AH, WC into it I would have learnt any more about those historical characters than I did studying the non-crafts way.

    but rather the use of arts and crafts as useful tools in learning serious content

    Trouble is that you’ve provided no evidence for this hypothesis. You state the example of an ex-student who has woven the histories of the women she studied into her later life, but as you studied them a variety of other ways, it’s impossible to deduce if she remembers them because of the crafts project or if because of the other more academic studying tools. Now it may be that arts and crafts are useful tools for learning other forms of content, but we can’t deduce that from your example. (I assume that you did not mean to imply that arts and crafts aren’t serious content in themselves. While I find sewing very useful, I’ve never found it particularly amusing, and I think that the eye-threatening nature of arc welding definitely puts that craft the serious category – I was scared stiff while learning it.)

    The scientific method is important. But I have never understood that anything that did not test a hypothesis was not “scientific.”

    This is a matter of definitions. I did read you as saying you were teaching something about the scientific method. This was I think a result of my unconscious biases, crafts strike me as potentially an excellent teaching tool for the scientific method. How did you teach chemical changes through the rug-making process? This method of teaching strikes me as more likely to fail than lab work as your students’ attention could be distracted by the rug-making.

    Anyway, hopefully third time lucky, can you please alleviate my curiousity by answering my question as to what is a possible non-chemical setting agent? Is it the application of heat?

  38. Andy Freeman says:

    > Perhaps I am wrong–but I have always understood that there is a role in the world of science for “applied” science, or the application of what is already known. The scientific method is important. But I have never understood that anything that did not test a hypothesis was not “scientific.” Maybe we have some scientists who would care to respond?

    You seem to think that “using the output of” is “doing”.

    When I eat a tomato, I’m consuming the results of agriculture. However, I’m not farming and I’m not doing anything that teaches me about farming.

    The “we used scientific methods” account of the rug-making exercise seems to suggest that that I’d gain different knowledge about agriculture eating a genetically engineered tomato than I’d gain eating an heirloom variety. I’m a philistine – I only gain knowledge of the taste, texture and color and can’t say how any of those relate to the production methods.

  39. Margo/Mom says:

    OK–I surrender. Arts and crafts are nothing but a silly time filler for lazy teachers. Anyone who attempts to utilize them (as the engineer’s society has) in demonstrating or teaching any serious content is merely looking for the easy way out–as hypothesized by many writers here.

  40. Margo/Mum, I’ve said many times over that I find a lot of value in teaching arts and crafts for their own sake, I find some arts and crafts subjects serious in all senses of the word (unamusing, dangerous, and useful to the world’s economy, eg arc-welding, sewing) and I think it’s plausible that arts and crafts could be used as a tool for teaching general skills about arts and crafts. I had an extremely good graphics teacher at high school – he certainly did not strike me as lazy.

    I’ve also said that I think that teaching arts and crafts is very hard intellectual work for a teacher who is self-driven. And I try to avoid making sweeping, nasty, assertions about the motives of everyone who tries to do something, like your assertion that “Anyone who attempts to utilize them … is merely looking for the easy way out”. I may sometimes do that out of emotion, but it’s against my principles. (I do think that it is valuable to consider procrastination and laziness in understanding people’s behaviours, for a variety of reasons I don’t think those character faults are unique to me, but there’s a big difference between saying “a significant number of people are lazy” and “everyone is lazy”). Please don’t take that sort of ad hominem argument up yourself.

    And I guess that your response here means that I will never learn what is a non-chemical setting agent.

  41. Margo/Mom says:

    OK Tracy–I do not know of any “non-chemical setting agents.” The process by which fiber takes on color using a setting agent is a chemical process. It cannot be washed off (think peroxide), because the fiber is actually changed. Other coloring agents (think rinses) would merely coat the fiber with a color. The fiber does not change. The coloring over time can wear off. I was not avoiding the question. I attempted to answer it when I first explained the difference between chemical and non-chemical changes.

    Again–the science questions here were all irrelevant to the point that I was attempting (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) that the presence of arts and crafts within a project does not negate the possibility of other content lying behind it. If one judges the learning value by the fact that initials were recorded in a rug, or that a Starbucks cup was used to build a coffee emporium, one is likely to have missed everything that led up to the construction of that project. I will continue to use this medium when called upon to teach serious content, whenever appropriate to the age and inclination of the group and the time, setting and resources.

  42. Margo/Mum, thank you for answering my question about setting agents.

    I am glad that you now agree that it is a bad idea to judge the learning value of a project by the fact that initials were recorded in a rug. I hope that in the future you come up with some real evidence that it is possible to use arts and crafts to teach serious non-crafts-or-arts-content, and furthermore some specific, testable, guidelines on how to use arts and crafts to do so.

  43. Andy Freeman says:

    > Anyone who attempts to utilize them (as the engineer’s society has) in demonstrating or teaching any serious content

    I’ve no doubt that one can use arts and crafts projects to demonstrate or teach scientific principles. (Faraday did a whole book of science teaching around a candle.) However, the question was how this project did.

    “We used chemicals with certain properties” isn’t demonstrating or teaching scientific principles.

  44. Andy Freeman says:

    Note that we don’t know what happened in the class. All we know is what Margo has told us.

    Maybe there was teaching about science as she’s repeatedly asserted, but none was, or has been, mentioned.

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