Some tools common to art and science

Some tools common to art and science

Nelson, Mike

Acts of representing are the ways people share and react to each other and work through problems (Fowler, 1994; Wurman, 1996; Greeno & Hall, 1997) . In art and science education, teachers and students make representations to: express their thoughts, feelings and perceptions; show relationships and changes; and make explanations and predictions (e.g., Novak & Gowin, 1984; Mayer & Gallini, 1990; Glenberg & Langston, 1992). Both Mayer and Gallini, and Glenberg and Langston used pictures in concert with textbook narratives to influence students’ inferences. They referred to students’ inference-shaping systems as mental models.

Novak and Gowin introduced concept mapping as a visual way for students to represent mental models they use to understand words commonly associated with concepts. Roth (1994) depicted emancipatory qualities of concept mapping by asking secondary physics students to make and then to negotiate concept maps for an academic year. A majority of the 46 students said the process helped them to (a) visualize confusing ideas, (b) resolve confusion by publicizing their doubts and questions, (c) justify and then rethink their ideas, and (d) come to agreement on the meaning of concepts.

This study looked at how students construct and represent their own mental models. Events of a seminar served as a format for exposing and exploring inservice teachers’ machinations. The seminar was designed to create curiosity for a more integrated approach to teaching art and science. The integrating thread for the activities considered Eisner’s (1978) argument that, “the mind draws upon a variety of forms of knowing to give birth to ideas and those ideas . . . need not be expressed in modes within which the conceptualization has occurred” (p. 619). Olson (1992) discussed the important relationship between verbal and visual thought and its influence on imagination.


During the seminar participants constructed representations. To stimulate metacognition, these teachers were urged to use and reflect on strategies of their own choosing (Nelson & Narens, 1994). As Tobias (1982) suggested, we wanted to see how participants clarified their confusion. Because the participants’ experiences were open and fairly uncertain, they maintained journals. Through regular note taking and recording they vented their frustrations, shed their inhibitions, and revealed their sources of impetus. The sum of this activity offered direction for their growth (Carter & Anders, 1996).

Participants’ struggles in part revealed symbolic, affective and imagic thinking (Martino & Cook, 1994). Symbolic thinking uses words and numerics, activity commonly encouraged in classrooms. Perhaps less common to classrooms, affective thinking uses emotion as the impetus directive of one’s inquiry. Imagic thinking shows how one perceives their experiences. For example, one might consider images generated when listening to The Star-Spangled Banner performed by Whitney Houston and then Jimi Hendrix. We wanted to find out more about what potential sharing representations provides. This paper shows (a) what directed participants’ perception, and (b) what affected their attempts to interconnect the subjects of art and science.


Eight art teachers and two science teachers participated in this 3-week seminar. During the first week, participants explored images from photography, art, and statistics. The discussion revealed some of their perceptions. For example, a photograph of a spike-headed katydid (The Nature Conservancy, 1992) raised stories about fictional characters. One participant said, “I loved this little guy. He reminded me of a Dr. Seuss character.” Because the image was enlarged and out of context, some participants did not recognize the image as an insect. A reproduction of Goya’s painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, stimulated personal stories for what the image portrays, and then led to recollections of participants’ gender issues and personal histories. Participants viewing a scatter plot showing a relationship between SAT scores and the percentage of seniors taking the SAT by state (Gnanadesikan et al., 1986) took some time before engaging in discussion. Eventually the scatter plot raised concerns about competition embedded in educational culture. One participant’s comment about viewing these images might have represented the classes’ beliefs about the difference between the nature of art and science. He said, “I realized that I perceived objects (pictures, slide, etc.) in a programmed, scientific way compared to most of the class (artistic-creative way).”

During the subsequent weeks, participants worked in three different habitats to construct representations: a neighborhood close to a small university, a wayside, and a main street. For an explanation of the intrigue habitats might provide, Cox (1991) cites Kaplan and Kaplan’s Humanscape: Environments For People. Kaplan and Kaplan (1982) suggest “open spaces provide landscapes with legibility. Legibility . . . is characteristic of an environment that looks as if one could explore extensively without getting lost” (p. 19). We wanted participants to “sort out their own reactions and articulate them through the medium at hand” (Fowler, 1994, p. 5).

We considered the activity of engaging students in constructing and discussing representations in an authentic manner. Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) clarified the term authentic by distinguishing activity of just plain folk OPF) and practitioners from the activity of students. JPFs’ and practitioners’ activities strive to alleviate uncertainty in their everyday problems. Based on a causal focus, their uncertainty is mediated through negotiation and interaction with tools. Students, on the other hand, typically solve well-defined problems using teacher-directed, preconceived strategies (e.g., developing a color wheel in art or solving “word problems” at the end of the chapter in science) .


This section uses excerpts from participants’ journals and selections of their representations. Their documents demonstrated Gibson’s (1969) notions of perception and Freire’s (1973, 1993) explanation for the value of dialog. According to Gibson (1969), representations are planned perceptions of events. She suggests that perception is an abstracting process, where an “invariant relation is discovered over a number of varying objects or events. The relation must literally be extracted from the confrontation by non-identical pairs or cases presenting a contrast, or from cases embedded in different contexts” (p. 108) . This section is divided into two sub-sections: (a) Perceptual Tools, and (b) Marination: Attempts to Interconnect Art and Science.


In Cox’s (1991) discussion of landscape, he points to our preference for paths. Paths invite us to uncertain places we probably wouldn’t go into otherwise. Cox suggests that paths, “give the impression that one could acquire new information if one were to travel deeper into the scene” (p. 19) . This section explores how the participants made their paths. One participant’s initial response to the activities is again representative and describes how students sought not to be lost within their habitats. She said, “It was hard for me to figure out what stimulus to focus on or relate to.”

We hoped participants would show how they opened these habitats to make them legible. As the following suggest, a combination of personal experience and affect seemed facultative.

I began to relate these homes to homes on the street where I live and tried to judge when they were built. In the end I saw three distinct cultures; student housing, old Victorian and private homes from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. The contrast on one city block was amazing.

I began to search for an interesting combination of plants. I discovered a dandelion puff that had been broken, but it still was green, it survived. Next to it another plant had been broken as well, it also survived. It appeared to me that nature is often fighting for its life.

Obviously, participants’ themes varied. However, the term viewfinder, became both common and interchangeable with theme. Some viewfinders emerged through perceived contrast, others could be associated with participants’ passion for their observation. Invariably, however new questions emerged.

I enjoyed having an excuse to “stare” at homes on the block. I couldn’t help thinking about the contrasts of the lives of people who live there. Contrast between students in the sorority house and the rentals on Prairie. Contrast between homes on Esterly and Main compared to Prairie. What happens in backyards where those contrasts meet? Can students have pride in ownership or must one truly own something to have pride in it?

One participant constructed a list of observations (see Table 1). Gibson (1969) insisted that perception is a selfregulatory, filtering process driven by the impetus to convert uncertainty into a more orderly state. The participant’s initial perception shifted from sounds, sights, smells, and movements of the block to humanity’s influence on nature at both the city block and the wayside. Gibson believed perception moves from a fixed to a more exploratory, but selective activity. Her comment on a shift in perception points to beliefs she used to construct her representation.

I put parentheses around nature because after contemplating the environment of the wayside, it wasn’t really being out in nature. There were just as many visible signs of mankind here as there were natural items. Had I not examined the whole thing with this slant or interpretation, I might have just concluded I had a lovely day out in nature. WE ARE FOOLING OURSELVES. The impact of man [sic] is EVERYWHERE.

One participant raised the question, “How do we connect perceptions in our life?” Because perception is a thought process, and thought, albeit quite complex, is also practiced through how one views a task (Greeno, 1989), students should have the opportunity to share and clarify their perceptions to realize the potential they offer (Greeno & Hall, 1997) . Participants talked with each other about the representations they constructed. Their journals noted an awareness of differences and attributions of others’ viewfinders.

Each person’s presentation allowed me a little view through their “viewfinders.” I know I didn’t see it exactly the same way as they did even after each presentation but it did allow me to look at each of their trips in a different light. It is kind of an “I see what you mean or I never saw that, it is neat how you picked that up from the experience.”

Walking with her I realized we both look at the stimulus quite differently. I try to maximize stimulus where she tries to simplify stimulus. I believe she said that she was trying to focus in on detail and keep the busyness out. Sometimes I may overlook details when trying to identify the overall picture.

It was interesting to see the narratives by the two science people. In both, the information was not familiar. I had seen/perceived the same stuff, but our personal cultures so affect the narratives. Their charts and graphs were such a different approach. Maybe it is more like I noticed some of the same information, but I can’t say I followed that path of thought to seek out a way to organize and interpret it.

These comments suggest metaperspectives participants started to show for one another. Dialog is the social act that reveals one’s commitment to perception, an activity through which individuals sort and negotiate information and make meaning. Freire (1993) described the importance that dialog had on the development of his educational beliefs and theories. Committing his beliefs to words was a way to move his thoughts from the inactivity of silence; it was a method to “marinate” his thoughts with reality (Freire, 1993). Dialog provides an opportunity for participants to relate their actions with their beliefs and perceptions. Making these comparisons influence an awareness of agreement-disagreement and understanding-misunderstanding (Miell & Miell, 1986). These ideas are characteristic of the empathy Freire (1973) associated with dialog. Figure 1 shows a participant’s representation. The caption, however is another participant’s comments.


During the seminar, art and science were not emphasized as declarative knowledge. The strategy was to use representing and dialog to illuminate tools of perception and representation, processes common to art and science. One of the more confusing issues that emerged during conversations about representing in art and science focused on participants’ beliefs about abstract and concrete. These teachers engaged in questions about what makes us think that abstract and concrete exist. Interestingly, our teachers thought some representations in science were very concrete. For example, they thought graphs and plant distribution maps (The Great Plains Flora Association, 1977) were concrete. They believed these representations to be complete pictures. Because of the ambiguous way we handled this issue, participants asked many questions. Their questions in turn were left open for discussion and exploration. Initially, participants reciprocally maintained rigid ideas about each others’ teaching areas. One said, “I never questioned science. I always felt facts were proven by scientists.” She searched the literature and talked with friends for ideas common to art and science. Her journal excerpts raised challenging curricular issues about the use of symbols and creativity; issues perhaps central to understanding the nature of inquiry.

In the science magazine I was intrigued by a picture that showed a male face + Mona Lisa = a woman’s face. I was so excited about the picture I wanted to read about what was going on! Alas, the written explanation was as if it was a different language from mine. There was a large equation in the center of the page.

A friend says art is more spiritual than science because you are relying on feeling more than fact. Art is inherently more creative because you make something out of nothing.

A series of entries in another participants journal point to the value of providing the uncertainty associated with both inquiry and her development perceptually for making connections between art and science.

I think more could have been said to make those connections firmer. Probably this is due to my own background of learning from a “nondialogic” standpoint. I am used to seeing things in black and white, written out-this is art, this is science, this is how they are the same, an example of such, why this is important. I think I (the class) came to some valid and important conclusions on these topics, and yet again I feel the need to continue to ponder and dialog about such in order to examine more deeply these topics.

She continued to write in her journal about ideas for commonalities, then she constructed a Venn diagram (see Figure 2) . Two circles represented art and science respectively. Common ideas were placed within the intersecting area.

After commenting on the confusion the terms concrete and abstract caused, she expressed her notion of abstract and its relationship to art and science by including the following from No More Second Hand Art (London, 1989):

The object of the mind’s interest is not only objects, sunsets, apples, naked bodies; sometimes its interest turns to other items of attention, such as truth, beauty, meaning, value, hope, sadness, doubt, peace. Very real things that give people and civilizations their particular spin and texture. These very real “things” have no single physical embodiment; rather they impart to physical objects the qualities of meaning, value, utility, and feeling. Such elements manifest their presence on the physical plane by how they make physical things move and how they make people move intellectually and emotionally. Hence the representional objective of art is not to represent things; it is to represent what happens to humans when they confront things. ( p. 39)


This study acted to scratch a surface of the potential that sharing representations provides. Freire (1973) suggested “Integration with one’s context, as distinguished from adaptation, is a distinctively human activity. Integration results from the capacity to adapt oneself to reality plus the critical capacity to make choices and to transform that reality” (p. 4). For example, in art the process of making is an act of manipulating, realizing, and assessing potential of the visual world. Similarly, in science operationalizing is a way to make an idea come alive: observable, testable, negotiable, flexible. Fowler (1994) suggested that in order to construct a more complete image of how people come to know, we need to provide a “multiplicity of symbol systems” in classrooms (p. 5).

The process of sponsoring the class led the instructors to recognize some of the effects when integrating symbolic, affective and imagic thought into the school’s context Since the seminar, various representations provided elementary science methods students, art education majors, and measurement and evaluation students the challenges of realization that, (a) their perceptions might be unique; (b) the tools of perception include their experiences and emotions in concert with their observations; (c) types of representations (e.g., photographs, paintings, and graphs) create different personal images and conversations; and (d) the concepts of concrete and abstract are fuzzy ideas. Griffin and Schwartz (1997) emphasize how important it is for people to understand the nature of visual representation. In their review, they write,

The most fundamental and persistent problem one encounters in teaching visual communication is the routine confusion of pictures and reality, the naive view that images produced by photographic media (i.e., most of the images we encounter) are simply direct mechanical records of the world around us. This confusion takes place on multiple levels: at the level of single, photographically “recorded” still images, at the level of selected and ordered sequences of “recorded” action, and at the level of conventional formats and structures for audiovisual storytelling and exposition.

The most basic misconception is that cameras [and other tools of abstraction, i.e., statistical tools] replicate the processes of human vision, reproducing a sensory record that mimic the way we see. ( p. 41)

Representations possess a point of view, and understanding point of view as a mechanism has the potential of “strengthening students’ real-world perspective taking tools” (Messaris, 1997, p. 50).


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Mike Nelson and William Chandler are respectively science and art educators at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Copyright National Art Education Association May 1999

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