Math, Art Education, and Risk-Taking

I was listening to the news Sunday morning and heard this story about the importance of the arts in education. I love both art and math, but in my observations, art and math are approached very differently both by students and by their teachers.  The realm of art is generally perceived as a place for tolerance and exploration, while math is too often regarded as rigid and fixed.  Art is living personal expression, while math is stereotyped as impersonal and static.

But I’m not sure that things have to be that way.  I think that math teachers can learn a lot from the approach of art teachers – and vice versa.  The culture of exploration, which is so natural to art class, can be emulated in the modern math class.  The culture of rigor, which is expected in math class, can be useful for artists.  This does over-simplify a complex set of values, but I think that there is some truth to the comparison.  Like painting or sculpture, mathematics is a specific and beautiful way in which we can express ideas to each other, a language that allows us to communicate ideas precisely – and as such can be thought of as a branch of the arts.  Math can be uniquely impartial and intensely personal, and by fostering enthusiasm and alternative perspectives, a math teacher can open the possibilities of creativity.  Possibilities, which are natural for an artist, can become available to students of math as well.

What this looks like for me

I tend to collect intriguing ideas, images, videos, images or descriptions of art, etc.  These will often sit around for a while – sometimes years – before any connection occurs for how to use them in the classroom.  But if something is interesting enough, I’ll keep thinking of it, and when there is the right coincidence, I like to leverage that interest into a lesson hook, and hopefully more.

I was lucky enough to go to take an amazing trip to Croatia earlier this year.  I found a unique landscape, warm people, and great food – and it was cheap – they’re still on the Croatian Kuna! Go now, before they switch to the Euro.  Teachers won’t be able to afford it anymore after the switch.

In Split, I came across this wonderful Mestrovic sculpture.  This striking piece, with a cool back-story, is something I’ve been itching for an excuse to bring this up in class.

Mestrovic Gregory

The statue of Gregory of Nin by Ivan Meštrović

I didn’t have the foresight to take a series of proportion images while I was there, but luckily Google and Flickr came to the rescue for something close to what I have in mind:


BAM.  Enter a ratio and proportion math lesson: How Tall Is Gregory?  I’m planning to develop this idea further, and share it here soon.  But this seemed like a good place to think out loud about my process, and about how to leverage a compelling image like this into something relevant (Hello 7th grade CCSS: 7.RP.A) and useful for my class.  Some mathy ideas around this that come to mind might include: ratio and proportion, percent increase, percent error, writing an equation for a proportional relationship, etc.  This could be extended to How Big Is The Statue Of Liberty,


and this lesson might be great in conjunction with Dan Meyer’s Bone Collector, which Mr. Miller extended in an excellent way HERE

For me, art is based in communication and in ideas – ideas that are made manifest by learning techniques such as drawing or clay modeling, printmaking or performing.  Artists explore techniques and ideas, but also practice skills, a model that readily translates to the math classroom.  Students of math regularly work to develop their technical skill sets and explore conventional techniques, but they are rarely encouraged to take risks or explore ideas in math.  I’m not saying that it’s easy to take risks as an artist either, but it seems like art teachers are more comfortable encouraging mistakes.  Math students should examine and then re-create techniques and methods in order to foster relationships both to tradition and to their own imagination, becoming creators of math rather than passive learners.  And as a math teacher, I get to combine my own interests in and love for the mathematics with ways of making the material both relevant and empowering for students.

Further reading: HERE’s a post at Curiouser and Curiouser that explores this relationship further including some ideas about the contribution of the CCSS to this subject.

HERE’s the link to the recent Weekend Edition story mentioned above.

Image Links

Link to Flickr image of Mestrovic’s sculpture

Link to the Statue of Liberty Toe

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