Sunday, October 7, 2012

If it's Visual, is it Automatically Stupid?

I recently saw an item in Education Week about an effort by the group Reading is Fundamental to incorporate the arts into the teaching of the STEM disciplines--that is, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Early childhood literacy is vital--but what happens later?
I let my imagination play with that idea for a while, and quickly thought of many ways we could have developed arts-based explorations of these disciplines for high schoolers in any of the places where I have taught.

The things I was thinking about would not have "diluted" the teaching--indeed, some of them would possibly have invited greater depth of thinking than some of the assignments I knew were actually being given in STEM classes at that time.

I was a bit disappointed, therefore, when I realized the RIF arts-integration program is targeted only for early-childhood literacy in the STEM disciplines.

It's not that I have anything against early-childhood literacy! I am a strong supporter of the 2000 Book Movement, which promotes the reading of at least 2000 books to all children before they are 6 years old.* Early childhood literacy is vitally important, and worth a great deal more investment and interest than we currently give it in the US.

But I balk at the idea that preschool is the only place where an arts-based approach is a valid gateway to learning. Simple picture books and preschool jingles can have quite grown-up analogs, though we too-rarely see them. The potential for richly-engaging Arts/STEM experiences for students (and their teachers) is truly vast at all levels. If managed well, such an effort could be a major game-changer for many people of all ages.

This is how many students feel about STEM.
Why? Because the deep psychological need that the arts fulfill for human beings is to provide access to new or difficult ideas. The arts give us an instinctual "vocabulary" or "set of tools" for thinking about confusing or unknown things. That's the deep-level reason why we do them at all: because the arts are an essential survival tool.

When the world confronts human beings with things we don't understand, what do we do? We hypothesize about them by telling ourselves a story about them, or creating a visualization, or singing or dancing how we feel about them, as seems appropriate.

How does that translate to the question of how we teach the STEM disciplines? Well, we seem to have trouble getting students to feel attracted to them, for one thing!

Generally, STEM materials look pretty dry. It's a consistent turn-off that
is totally unnecessary, in my opinion. We have ample ways to improve,
the teaching of Science Technology, Engineering and Math, using the arts.
Why do students resist the STEM disciplines, even when they are "required"? The reasons I hear most often tend to be that "they're hard," or "I don't understand them," or "they're boring!" (that last is often said with rolled eyes and a bit of a whine).

How better, then, to make them more accessible--even to those whose "primary intelligence" is not the "math/logical" one normally associated with those disciplines--than by using the tools that humans have developed over the ages as a survival necessity, precisely to help us successfully "fathom the unfathomable"?

How better to interface with the STEM disciplines, on ALL levels, than through the arts? Yet I can already hear critics attacking the idea for higher grades and college, for fear it will "lack rigor."

I long ago came to the conclusion that what most laypersons mean by "academic rigor" has little to do with in-depth critical thinking, and a great deal to do with memorizing longer lists of facts, dates, and equations, but it really seems to me that there is a prejudice in our culture, to the effect that if it's visual, then somehow it's been "dumbed down."

Roots of Human Behavior has unexpected depth--but
also "sells itself short," I fear.
A better realization of the depth that is possible with a visual-along-with-verbal approach came to me recently when I read/viewed a book titled Roots of Human Behavior by Viktor Reinhardt.

Published by the Animal Welfare Institute and clearly aimed at a popular audience, Reinhardt presents some basic--and not-so-basic--ideas about human and animal behavioral parallels, gleaned from his years of research, and he does it in a series of fascinating photos.

Unfortunately, the editorial staff for AWI seems to have bought into the idea of visual-as-dumbed-down, because Roots of Human Behavior sometimes reads like those sappy feel-good emails people send that end "if you care about someone pass this on to them" (you know the ones: they tend to have sparkly angels and animated GIFs).

However, the images themselves in this book are a great example of pictures conveying far more than could be explained with a great many un-illustrated words. I came to the end of the book with a weird feeling of having read something much deeper than it seemed to be--yet not as complete as it should have been.

I'd like to see a textbook on this subject, illustrated with exactly the same images. I bet even high school kids would be willing to put up with what they might otherwise have considered "boring" equations, tables, and technical definitions, if the textbook was illustrated with such a profusion of telling images.

As more educational materials go digital and interactive, I think we inevitably will see more and more visual and auditory approaches to material, in an effort to make them more interesting and accessible. We must guard against the tendency to "dumb down" the visuals, however. Let's use the arts (all of the arts) to help us get to the deepest thinking and the most profound understandings. After all, that's what they're designed to do!

*Note: Read more about the vital importance of early childhood literacy, especially as it applies to the African-American community, in the informative book, African Americans and Standardized Tests: The Real Reason for Low Test Scores, by Dr. Veda Jairrels.

IMAGE CREDITS: The image of the little boy with the early childhood literacy materials on the floor around him is courtesy of the award-winning Bernardsville (NJ) Library! Belated congrats, guys! (the award came in 2009).  The "math is hard" cartoon is from the Bilerico Project blog: an image worth 1,000 words, and aren't you glad I saved you reading them all? The collection of "dry stuff"--books, pages of equations, chemical formulas, etc., is composed of images from several sources. See the links in the previous sentence! Many, many thanks to all! I looked and looked online for a cover shot for Roots of Human Behavior, but eventually had to scan it for myself.     


  1. Thank you posting this, Jan. I'm on the Women in STEMM committee for the Central Exchange and I shared this on the Central Exchange Facebook page.