Monday, April 10, 2017

Seeing Is Understanding

Our high school chemistry teacher, Mrs. Harms, didn’t merely teach chemistry. She WAS chemistry. As she danced under the periodic chart, she became sodium atoms who craved electrons from their friends, the generous chlorine atoms.

The atoms we studied had likes and dislikes, personalities, and families. We almost imagined them as people. When Mrs. Harms taught, she became the atoms we were learning, and because she made the abstract visible, it became easy to learn Bohr’s law, calculate moles, and memorize atomic valences. 

As a result, I found chemistry exciting. So imagine my disappointment when my third-grade daughter found science difficult and boring. For her, learning science meant learning lists of abstract definitions, and little more.

One day as she studied, I heard her repeat over and over,
  • “An atom is the smallest unit of an element,” and “
  • A molecule is a combination of two or more atoms.” 

She was learning the right words, but the concepts remained meaningless. Hearing her struggle, I remembered Mrs. Harms, and suggested we act out the concepts.
  • I played the nucleus and she raced around me as the electron. 
  • Then she and I held tight together as protons and neutrons as my wife—an electron—raced around us. 
  • Next, the three of us stood far apart and named ourselves as separate atoms: I was carbon, my wife was hydrogen, and our daughter was oxygen. 
  • Finally, we left our own spaces and joined together in a big group hug to become a molecule. 
With these simple exercises, the foggy abstractness of the science lesson became a concrete idea. What had made the difference? The obscure definitions now had an image that made them make sense.

Images are vital to understanding. That’s why we often say, “Oh, now I SEE,” when we suddenly understand a new concept. On the other hand,

an idea without an image has little meaning

Images also provide us with the tools we need to create solutions. In the mid-1800’s, the German scientist August KekulĂ© was baffled about the atomic structure of benzene. One day he sat in a chair and dozed off in front of his fireplace. During his nap, he had a dream about dancing atoms! Some atoms twined together twisted like snakes. Then one snake grabbed its own tail and started whirling before his eyes. He awoke with a start, realized that the benzene molecule could only be a shaped as a circle, and worked long into the night to study the implications of his new theory.

If images can be so helpful to learning science, why not exploit this fact when we teach an art lesson? We commonly use art lessons to encourage creativity and to develop a sense of aesthetics. Why not also link art lessons to other subjects so that an art project can become:
  • A springboard that encourages curiosity, or 
  • A motivational tool to learn more about the subject of the art lesson, or 
  • An image that becomes the “hook” to hang information on?

Make art a window on the world!