The math is there, whether we artists like it or not…

“Focus for a moment on an object in front of you. How do you understand its shape? How would you represent it by drawing it? Imagine turning or rotating it. What would it look like then? How could you create something with the same shape?”

This is spatial intelligence, and its fundamental to math, but one of the most interesting places to think about it is in art. Spatial intelligence combines physical knowledge based on visual cues world with abstract thought, and research shows that spatial training improves children’s ability to understand math.

This type of thinking & research helps us understand just how flawed and silly that old “you’re either arts or math brained” thinking really is. Want some real world proof? This summer Marnie and I spent some time in the National Building Museum (which we were not very excited about – we have our own stereotypes to deconstruct I guess). BUT… it was amazing. We happened to catch an aptly named exhibit (Fun House) by a team of artists/architects that reminded us just how entwined art thinking and math thinking are.

When we’re looking at art, or creating it, we’re thinking about space, shape, distance, angles, and design. All fundamental concepts in math. Admittedly this is a different way of thinking about math than our curriculum’s describe (feel free to tell skeptics that students counted the stairs). In museums, we’re rarely doing the math that is most thought of when we say “math class”… we’re doing the math that is foundational to our understandings of those concepts. Museum math is math that helps us understand.

Take, for example… the work of Rebecca Mitchell and Andrea Kantrowitz at the Visual Arts and Sources for Teaching week long teacher institute. During a two hour workshop, they had students study one object, and one dance performance. Each student looked at each piece from their own perspective, and recorded.

“We gathered the teachers back together and placed the drawings of the sculpture on the floor. After a walk around the circle to look at all of them, we discussed the variety of approaches – while some people showed multiple viewpoints in one drawing, others focused on what they could see from their vantage point. Next we looked at everyone’s notes/sketches of the dance, which revealed even more variety. Some people focused on one dancer’s movements, while others watched for overall patterns among all of the dancers. Still others counted steps, traced arcs of the movements, or looked for relationships between the dances and the grid below their feet. All of these approaches yielded successful results, and the variety of solutions enriched the group’s understanding of both the sculpture and dance.”

All this learning, led the group to explore how artists (or anyone) moves from concept to three dimensional work. In other words, how does an object, art, dance etc. get made? How does one move from theory into the physical world? Design thinking, iteration, testing, math.

If that’s not enough for you… there’s actually a Museum of Math, and despite their website’s… uh… ugliness… (sorry. Back to the arts/math issue again), it’s actually got some useful tools (including award winning math lesson plans).

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