All art, all the time

From Katharine Beals‘ book, Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World, comes the story of a middle-school boy named Josh who tells his father, Ben, that he hates his highly regarded math-science magnet school.

Ben pulls out several sheets and pages through: “Design a Playground,” “Decorate a Tissue Box,” Construct a Diorama.”

“That’s a lot of art homework,” remarks Ben. “What about your other subjects.”

“Dad, that’s the point,” yells Josh. “These are for my other subjects.”

“Which ones?” Ben pages back through. Everywhere the same phrases keep popping up: “Be colorful.” “Be creative.”

“All of them. “Math, English, German . . . The tissue box is for German.”

Ben looks again: “Decorate a box of tissues with German words, drawings, etc. Pick the vocabulary from chapters 1 or 2, and use those words to decorate your box of tissues. Put the number of the chapter you’ve chosen on your box also.”

. . . Ben turns to the next page: “Construct a diorama illustrating the climactic scene of your novel.”

“That’s for English,” Josh says. “The playground’s for math. That last sheet is for science.” He reaches for the folder, pulls out one more page, and hands it to Ben: “Write a three-page paper that includes a description of a movie, television show, or a book that involves a scientific concept, a summary of the scientific concept, and an explanation of the relationship between the actual concept and how it is used in the movie, television show, or book.”

Josh dislikes arts and crafts and is not big on writing. He likes math and science.

The German tissue box assignment seems to have been created by a teacher with a shortage of tissue paper.

Via Catherine Johnson of  Kitchen Table Math.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    And I wonder why so many of my undergrads can’t write.

  2. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    One of the typical edu-defenses for these practices is the assertion that these projects will inspire students to take the subject up in college.

  3. When my then second grade son was struggling to learn to read and I was contemplating homeschooling him, the tipping point came when he was assigned a diorama. Not that a diorama assignment is in itself wrong for a second grader, but he was similtaneously receiving special services at school and seeing a tutor privately. The diorama project cut into acutal learning time. When homework cuts into time that should be devoted to real leaning, it’s time to change the situation.

  4. SuperSub says:

    Ex-PhysicsTeacher
    The problem with inspiring students to take up art in college is that, well, art majors are largely useless to society.

    As for the artsy projects… I think I made all of two dioramas in all my schooling and I could count the number of posters I made on one hand. Book reports and research papers, though, I was doing all the way back in 2nd and 3rd grade. Students nowadays have no concept with how to sift through and judge information… which are skills largely taught by doing book reports and research papers. My 8th graders currently have to do a biographical research paper for English… and the quality of their papers is equivalent to what I was doing in 5th grade.

  5. What’s a German drawing? Durer? How many tissue boxes were decorated with the word “Gesundheit”?

  6. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    Actually, I didn’t mean that art would be taken up in college, but the “other” subject. I saw these “history” projects in the school library that could be best described as sculptures of pyramids and their immediate surroundings, e.g. people on camels and plenty of sand. Some of these were meticulously and beautifully done, but I didn’t see where the actual history came into play. A teacher who believes in this sort of thing defended this saying that these students will be more likely to take history in college.

    A kid who’d gotten a kick out of doing this is not likely to become interested in reading history books (or archived material) and be deprived of arts and crafts.

  7. Girls are more likely to enjoy this sort of thing. that’s why it’s now so prevalent in schools since they’re increasingly run for the benefit of girls.

    Not all girls enjoy substituting art for math and science learning, but a much higher percentage than boys like it. and that’s the point.

    My son is a math, science, computer nerd and HATES all of the silly art stuff. the first week of school he typically comes home practically in tears because for most of his classes it’s the same thing: decorate your notebook cover (extra points for sparkles and feathers). Draw a picture of yourself and the things you like. Make a collage that tells us who you are – within very strict parameters on the categories of photos and how and where you glue them to the paper or notebook.

    During the year, notebooks for some subjects are collected up and inspected and part of the grading rubric involves points for the number of colors used and how many drawings there are. And there are points for the number of colors you use in your pictures. This is not for a lab science course either.

    Next year he will be in 8th grade and the same thing will happen. I can only hope that by HS the teachers will have got the art sh*t out of their systems.

    The ONLY class that does not do this sort of thing is math. I pointed that out to my son and he said that in math they have a lot of material to cover in a relatively short period of time and they have homework every day and more testing than other classes. They don’t have time for the BS. He’s right.

    He has a twin sister. She likes the decorating and collages (although she recognizes the uselessness of much of the work). For her, this is fun, relaxing, and most of all – an easy A.

  8. I think the TEACHERS like the artsy-crafty BS. If I don’t count the female teachers over age 55-60 (much more likely to have had limited career choices), most of the ES-MS teachers I have known (few males)loved that stuff when they were in school – as opposed to learning real math, science, history and geography – and they still love it as teachers. They were the ones who played school and played house, as opposed to hatching frog eggs, reading history and biography and making tree houses. I think they also drive the chick lit (feelings!!) diet, as opposed to classic stuff, much of which both boys and girls like. I had all women (old-maid) teachers and we read Jack London, Mark Twain, Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe etc. My kids all liked that stuff and they all LOVED the O Henry classic story “Return of Red Chief”.

  9. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    MomOf4

    Teachers don’t necessarily like it, but it’s among the best ways to ensure that you’ll have a job the following year.

    I hated the artsy stuff, did almost none of it (because don’t even know where to begin when it comes to that stuff), and I am now the EX physics teacher. I didn’t get fired because I jumped ship before they made me walk the plank.

    I had kids do a lot of math, and many of them have since remarked that they got better at it. A former student recently wrote me and said last year’s physics class has helped her with this year’s calculus. Unfortunately, this doesn’t come through in that wonderful teacher assessment instrument known as the observation.

  10. Lord, I am so tired of people talking about how this just won’t work with “left-brained” kids.

    It won’t work because it’s stupid and poorly informed pedagogy. That’s what important. Not whether your kid likes it or not.

  11. tim-10-ber says:

    Cal — thank you!

  12. Well, now that the requisite scats have been hurled, anyone care to venture a guess why this sort of self-evidently wasteful nonsense is popular to whatever degree it is? Why would folks with, presumably, a college education engage in “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy”?

  13. J. D. Salinger says:

    Allen–thank you!

  14. “Why would folks with, presumably, a college education engage in “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy”?”

    Because they believe it to be cutting edge pedagogy? It’s been endorsed, encouraged, and sold by their betters in the ed schools?

    Next question: Why are the folks at the ed schools such idiots?

    See, it’s a circular game. Enough to make a sensible person weep with the stupidity of it.

  15. Why would folks with, presumably, a college education engage in “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy”?

    Because the more subjective the assignment, the more subjective the grading process, and thus the easier time masking the achievement gap.

    All educational policy and all pedagogical “research” is consumed with masking the achievement gap.

  16. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    Allen,

    Most people in the upper echelon of the education hierarchy have backgrounds in English and art, and they see everything through those artsy-fartsy backgrounds.

    During my second year we had a special ed teacher who was teaching some science class and so she would be found hanging out in the science teachers’ workroom. This woman had an art background and she would loathe standardization of any kind and loved creativity of every kind. She insisted that engineers, for example, have no standards or standardization to deal with, because, in her mind, a standard implies that one can’t be unfettered and creative. She prepared her students for a world that exists only in her imagination.

    There are plenty where she came from, with far more power and influence than she had.

    If you want a proposal as to how to solve this, here it is: there should be no one chain of command for teaching. Different subjects, as well as age groups, should be able to define good teaching practices within their own spheres instead of one universal one. During my six year adventure in teaching — three taking ed-school classes and three teaching — I ultimately had to answer to people who never took physics themselves — or who flunked it.

  17. She insisted that engineers, for example, have no standards or standardization to deal with, because, in her mind, a standard implies that one can’t be unfettered and creative.

    I think schools or teachers often try to sell the engineering profession as some glorious high-paying art job. To encourage an interest in engineering they assign art projects in which the student “designs” a car or some other device and then displays it to the class with no requirement that the invention be demonstrably feasible or be based on science any firmer than that displayed by the current movie blockbuster. If the student is lucky, they may participate in the contest in which they have to build a device to safely land an egg dropped from a certain distance using nothing but five sheets of paper and two feet of tape. Unfortunately, this contest doesn’t teach you a whole lot if you don’t know basic engineering principles in the first place.

    By effectively mislabeling engineering as “functional art”, I think many “artsy” individuals are led into an engineering major just be be turned off by the fact that, more often than not, creativity has to give way to cold calculation and physical reality. While in school, I was surprised by how many art, drama, and philosophy majors had started as engineering majors.

    As an engineer, I spend much of my time trying to conform to various professional and governmental standards. In fact the origin of engineering as a profession is often traced back to the creation of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) in 1880. The ASME was specifically created to address numerous fatal boiler vessel explosions by creating the earliest boiler codes. They have since created many other codes and standards, as have a number of other engineering societies.

    These standards don’t exist to stifle my creativity, as the teacher mentioned by Ex-PhysicsTeacher might have thought, but to ensure that what I design meets a certain minimum requirement, whether safety, compatibility with other technologies, etc. One of the most sobering moments of my life came when I realized that a calculation error or a bad technical assumption on my part could literally kill a fellow human being. All the unfettered creativity in the world would not be worth having that on my conscience.

  18. To put it briefly, engineering analysis is a consequence of realizing that Nature Cannot Be Fooled.  All the personal creativity in the visible universe isn’t going to change the tensile strength of a cable or the power dissipation of a resistor.  Anyone who teaches otherwise has no business holding a job in education.

  19. Cal wrote:Because the more subjective the assignment, the more subjective the grading process, and thus the easier time masking the achievement gap.

    Ah, a hypothesis.

    Can’t do an experiment to try to verify this hypothesis but history does provide an observational context by which to determine the validity of the hypothesis.

    “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy” long predates concern about the achievement gap so I’d say “busted”.

    Ex-Physics Teacher wrote:Most people in the upper echelon of the education hierarchy have backgrounds in English and art, and they see everything through those artsy-fartsy backgrounds.

    Which might be true but it’s explaining one hypothesis by positing another hypothesis rather then addressing the observation – a “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy”. Is there something about people with an English and art background that leads them to support/develop a “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy”?

    In my humble opinion James edges up on, again in my humble opinion, is the most likely explanation albeit unintentionally.

    Your personal revulsion at the notion that incompetence on your part might result in the death of someone using something you’ve engineered is backed up by professional and legal penalties. Don’t like those constraining engineering standards when designing your objet de art of a boiler? Sorry, the standards resulted from people dying and if you ignore them you’ll be tossed out of the profession and, if someone were killed as a result of your creativity, you might end up in the slam.

    So there are consequences to the practice of stupid and ill-informed engineering that go beyond just feeling bad about the tragic results.

    Which brings us to my hypothesis about the prevalence of “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy”: there are no professional or legal consequences.

    A lousy teacher, lousy principal, lousy ed school prof face no professional or legal consequences for the tragedies their “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy” create. And in sort of an educational corollary to Gresham’s Law, bad pedagogy drives out good.

  20. Tom West says:

    > Ah, a hypothesis.

    Well, I did the unimaginable and actually asked my son’s 6th grade teacher.

    The answer was simple enough.

    Engagement.

    While not going wild on these sort of things (there was coloring your front piece for each science & history section and some math-art doodad), she found that in her twenty years of experience, adding a small amount of arty content helped prevent a number of the “ugh, science” students from disconnecting completely.

    While she was *well* aware of the few (all boys) who didn’t appreciate it, it wasn’t catastrophic for any of them.

    So, Allen, at least in the opinion of this one teacher, whom I respect, my son endured this sort of thing to make it easier for a subset who might have been a lot worse of without it.

    Sounds like a the sort of trade-off that occurs all the time. And as long as my son is not always on the paying side (and he isn’t), then I just live with it. After all, he’s no doubt the beneficiary of other trade-offs that benefit him at the (mild) expense of others.

    No malice. and not even any stupidity…

    (Note, I would have a different opinion for those teachers who seem to almost replace the subject matter with art-related homework.)

  21. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    >Is there something about people with an English and art background that leads them to support/develop a “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy

    It’s also possible that it’s a stupid and poorly informed pedagogy for fields outside of art and Language Arts. If you were to ask me how to improve ballet education would my certain incompetence be evidence of a generic “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy” or just the result of me being out of my element?

    My problems with the educrats is not the fact that they know nothing about STEM or its teaching, but in the fact that they keep insisting on being in charge.

  22. “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy” long predates concern about the achievement gap so I’d say “busted”.

    You really don’t know much at all, do you? And you’re not terribly honest. Not too bright, either.

    While not going wild on these sort of things (there was coloring your front piece for each science & history section and some math-art doodad), she found that in her twenty years of experience, adding a small amount of arty content helped prevent a number of the “ugh, science” students from disconnecting completely.

    It’s not “adding”. It’s substituting. And this comment confirms what I said–they add this stuff because they believe it will be easier for low skilled kids to do, and thus they will be more likely to do it, and so grades (but not scores) increase.

    All educational policy involves the achievement gap. It has done so for a very long time. For the past 30 years, the achievement gap of concern is the racial one, and since the gap has proved immune to increased access (which wasn’t true when the gap of concern was income), they are trying to rig the results by increasing “engagement” and making the tasks easier and more “accessible”. They don’t care about what it does to bright kids–in fact, to the extent that bright kids learn less, so much the better. Makes the achievement gap smaller.

  23. arts correction: Ransom of Red Chief

    eng’g correction: revelation, not revulsion, that lives depend on good design; I had the same insight on my first engineering job.

    achievement gap is (should be) secondary to high achievement: take literacy as a starting point. The goal is to have universal literacy, not the same rates of (il)literacy across different demographics. The competitive standard is set internationally, not just within a state or nation.

  24. Well Tom, that’s a nice story but unless you’re trying to edge up on the implication that your story isn’t just an anecdote but the common reason for filling science classes with time-wasting collage-making then try to be more brief. Nonsense doesn’t become more credible by being drawn out.

    You really don’t know much at all, do you? And you’re not terribly honest. Not too bright, either.

    I just wanted to repeat your comment in case anyone missed it. It’s so instructive. About you.

    And as I wrote, the achievement gap’s been an urgent item for rather less then the thirty years you offer. It’s been known about for longer then that and wasn’t an important policy element beyond about the last fifteen which coincides nicely with the arrival of charter schools. But edu-crap, the substituting of various forms of nonsense for instruction, long predates both the reconnition of the achievement gap or it’s elevation as a policy item.

  25. Math Teacher says:

    Actually, the achievement gap (some call it an opportunity gap), has been a policy issue for much longer than 15 years. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was enacted to provide compensatory funding to schools serving low-income students, many of whom were (and continue to be) students-of-color. This act has been reauthorized many times, most recently as No Child Left Behind, which as readers of this blog know, places greatest emphasis on standards, accountability, and sanctions in an effort to close said gap. Likewise, efforts going back to the 1950s to racially integrate schools were in response to educational inequities (or gaps, if you will). And as everyone here knows, those efforts were incendiary in their time.

    Some believe that the current laser-like attention to the achievement gap, an intractable problem, is the way to discredit public schools, paving the way for the dismantling and privatizing of public education (something that many readers of this blog may be delighted to see happen). After all, the very existence of the achievement gap must mean schools are doing an inadequate job anyway, and funding them is a waste of tax-payer dollars.

    And yes, thanks to NCLB, there are consequences for the outcomes of “lousy pedagogy”. Those consequences are in place at schools serving large numbers of low-income students. I work in a Title 1 school, and because we are under pressure to bring up scores and improve outcomes, artsy projects at my school have been in decline for years. Which in turn leads me to wonder if the arts & craft science/German/math projects are happening more commonly in schools serving mostly middle-class students.

  26. Tom West says:

    > Nonsense doesn’t become more credible by being drawn out.

    You asked why do teachers use “time-wasters”, I provided a data point. You then dismiss it in favor of… what? That’s right, assumption and hypothesis.

    > “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy”

    Wholesale replacement of large amounts of the curriculum with ‘collages’ is, I think we can all agree, not good pedagogy. But then again, how prevalent is that really?

    Now, as a parent, I hated those projects with a fiery passion because my kid did, but realistically, there weren’t all that large a part of the curriculum. Do we have any figures? 50% of the curriculum is missing, replaced by art assignments? No? 25% How about 10%. Okay, 5%? What sort of figure are we talking about?

    So let’s tackle what I think we can all agree *is* widespread: *some* use of ‘art’ in non-art subjects. Is this really “stupid and poorly informed pedagogy”?

    Well, if you define successful pedagogy as transferring knowledge to *all* your students, not just the one’s who want to learn, then I’d disagree. Sometimes you spend a little time building interest.

    [As an aside, my experience with school students certainly made it clear that what makes a successful teacher is not just the ability to clearly and carefully transmit information to an interested audience. Even I can do that (I’ve taught a number of adult education courses). What makes a successful teacher is the ability to make children *want* to learn about the subject. Something that is far rarer and *far* harder (and one that made me realize I’d never make it as a teacher).]

    A successful pedagogy involves making *all* (or as many as possible) successful learners. And so, my son has to grit his teeth when there’s another science unit cover to draw. And the other students get to grit their teeth as the teacher wastes their time answering my son’s obscure questions about the minutiae of some subject that helps keep his interest in a subject.

  27. Nice little rewrite of history with regard to ESEA, Math Teacher.

    You did, however, omit the overwhelming, bi-partisan support of the reauthorization, popularly known as NCLB enjoyed which undercuts your thesis that it was done to lead to a “dismantling and privatizing of public education”. Ted Kennedy’s beyond questioning but John Kerry’s still around. Perhaps you could ask him why he wanted to engage in a “dismantling and privatizing of public education”? Kerry, Kennedy and a host of other Democrats more commonly associated with voting at the behest of the NEA voted for NCLB. How’s that fit in with your “dismantling and privatizing of public education” hypothesis?

    The much better hypothesis for the passage of NCLB is that it came about because of the GAO report that found widespread abuse of ESEA with money being spent in total disregard of the terms of ESEA. That’s why a mommy and daddy had to threaten to a sue school district to get the special transportation arrangements needed for their blind son and paid for by ESEA money. School districts just had so many better uses for the money then wasting it on kids with problems that the court system was required to make them live up to their obligations.

    Tom, how do you know what’s a good a approach and what isn’t?

    Is teaching skill like, ironically, class – you know it when you see it and it’s inherently beyond measuring? That’s certainly a convenient view for folks who’ve never had to work to any standard, commit to any result or exhibit professional skills but for the people asked to foot the bill it’s just not acceptable any longer.

    So if you want to posit “a spoonful of artsy-fartsy helps the science go down” as a worthwhile approach then there ought to be some commensurate measure to prove that it is. Otherwise, how can it be determined whether it’s not just a waste of tax payer’s money and student’s time?

  28. Cranberry says:

    “Well, if you define successful pedagogy as transferring knowledge to *all* your students, not just the one’s who want to learn, then I’d disagree. Sometimes you spend a little time building interest.”

    The commenters so far agree on one thing, although they may not realize it. The use of art in non-art subjects is driven by heterogeneous class placements. It is a method to give good grades for something to students who don’t understand the academic matter at hand, or can’t keep up with the faster students. It is notoriously open to parental meddling, unless the project is done during class time. It shouldn’t be permitted for all those reasons–it’s a red flag signaling that some students are floundering.

    The market for people who understand German is pretty good. The market for people who can decorate kleenex boxes is abysmal. As an adult, I’ve never had to professionally decorate a kleenex box. I know that middle class housewives enjoy scrap booking, but dinging some student’s German grade because he doesn’t own a hot glue gun is perverse.

    Look at the grading scheme for the kleenex box project Joanne linked to!

    “Creativity: 20 unique 17 average 14 nothing special
    Craftsmanship:
    20 very carefully done 17 okay 14 thrown together
    Spelling: 20 0-1 mistake 17 2-5 mistakes 14 6+ mistakes
    Effort:
    15 very neatly done 12 adequate 9 minimum effort”

    What does artistic craftsmanship have to do with the subject this teacher is supposedly teaching?

    Changing to a more challenging, private school also meant an end to artsy projects for my eldest. There isn’t time in a real, college-prep curriculum to add sparkles. I also didn’t need to do art projects in academic subjects, because in the old days, there was real tracking.

    It’s certainly possible to be creative and interesting in academic subjects, but dioramas should be left in early elementary school. As many colleges nowadays need to run remedial classes for their admitted students, I venture to say that many schools need to spend more time on academic topics–and home decor isn’t an academic topic.

  29. Elizabeth says:

    I always thought teachers assigned these to torture parents – they always require either a last minute dash to the store to get supplies or having to dig through storage to find where I last put the *@#$% do-dads. Then the logistics behind getting the project to school undamaged.

  30. The worry ought to be on the part of the “teachers” and administrators who perpetrate this kind of thing getting themselves home undamaged.

  31. Cranberry says:

    Many parents love them, because they can “help” their children.

  32. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Starting in about 5th grade, whenever we had a Diorama/poster/craft project in a class, I’d beg to do a research paper and oral report instead. The teacher usually let me switch, since I was so eager. (I have the fine motor skills of a drunken hippopotamus.)

    I got really good at writing research papers. I cruised through AP English and barely broke a sweat in college while other kids were pulling all nighters and getting Cs.

    It’s almost as if research papers are a more useful pedagogical tool than dioramas are….. naaahhh. Couldn’t be……

  33. Math Teacher says:

    Be a little nicer Allen…
    I said, “some people believe…” so it’s not my hypothesis. But I’ve read enough news and commentary on the subject that it does give me pause to wonder… That said, I hope it isn’t true, but I guess we’ll see. Yes, the support for NCLB was thoroughly bipartisan, no debate there. However, in the present, the brand has become toxic, and those are the words of Arne Dancan, not me…

    I absolutely agree that ESEA funds are misdirected, no question. In spite of NCLB, many at-risk kids do not get the intenstive instruction and support they need. I see that in my own district.

    I agree with Cranberry. I think some parents love these projects. However, as a parent of a middle-schooler, I gather that most parents find them taxing. I know I do.

  34. Tom West says:

    > Is teaching skill like, ironically, class – you know it
    > when you see it and it’s inherently beyond measuring?

    Let’s just say that as a professional in a field (technology) where a company attempting to apply precise metrics usually presages the demise of the company, I’m deeply suspicious of trying to provide one dimensional metrics to an inherently multi-dimensional problem.

    It’s just the usual PHB stuff. People somehow believe that you can effectively manage without actually having any direct contact and understanding of the subject at hand.

    Metrics are useful as information, I’ll agree. But as a substitute for knowledge? No thanks. I’ll take 20 years of personal experience from a professional I trust, over some stats from a student population that don’t match the cultural, intellectual and social characteristics of this particular classroom.

    > So if you want to posit “a spoonful of artsy-fartsy
    > helps the science go down” as a worthwhile approach
    > then there ought to be some commensurate measure to
    > prove that it is.

    Well, first, I’d like to say that my son’s teachers often added a little bit of numerics to their history or arts assignments to help engage my son (and it sort of worked).

    Did she have proof that it worked? No. She judged that the deviation from curriculum was worthwhile and acted upon it.

    But then, she’s a professional, as I am.

    And I can tell you if a customer demanded I provide statistical ‘proof’ that the approach that I was taking to their problem was optimal, I’d tell them to find a different company to work with. As a professional, if you don’t trust my competence, don’t hire me.

    (And of course, the idea that there could be ‘proof’ that an approach worked when there are about a thousand variables is completely laughable.)

    Allen, if you are truly in a position where your management or customers don’t trust your ability enough to allow you to do your job without external ‘proof’ that your approach is viable, you have my sympathy. The idea of working in an environment where you are considered too stupid to handle your job unless you have the ‘blessing’ of some external authority who has no experience with the actual situation you are dealing with would be a whole special kind of hell.

    Are there unprofessional teachers? Of course, same as for every other profession – get rid of them. Should teachers be keeping up on research literature? Absolutely – it’s part of being a professional.

    But the idea of removing the freedom to actually do their job as they see fit? Good God. The only people who would be left in the profession would be those I wouldn’t want within a mile of the schools my children attended.