The Promises of Learning on Our Own Time (and In Our Own Way)

The conference in which this paper was delivered took place in London just as the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics ended.  Anyone who saw not only the performances of the athletes, but also the opening and closing ceremonies of these events will remember the extent to which the arts, sciences, and cultural history were celebrated. Much that took place there derived from ‘artful science’ generated and sustained by strong can–do spirits.

In the opening of the Paralympics, scientist Stephen Hawking gave a capsule summary of the combined powers of spirit, faith, and hard work linked with ‘artful science’. He urged that we not just look down at our feet but remember also to look up at the stars and wonder what it is that makes the universe and us exist. Hawking’s words apply not only to those who would be athletes, but also to the audience of the conference and to readers of this website.  All of us want very much to keep looking up and to urge those with whom we learn and create in museums, studios, and classrooms to keep in mind the question of what we can be and do in this universe when we push ourselves beyond past records and given equations. 

I have crafted these comments to breathe a fire of enthusiasm for theories from research that impel us to recognise the power that derives for humans from learning through creating art. This learning has the added advantage of generally being sought out and pursued voluntarily from early childhood through to our final days of life. Young and old find in the arts reason to look up and to find joy. 

Making claims about the arts

It is easy to make grand sweeping claims about the arts. Yet we seem unable to get our heads around the small bits that make the big claims happen. For scientists who study learning and human development, this state of affairs is frustrating, for their work tells us a great deal about how immersive and sustained participation in making art alters neuro-structuring in the human brain. Thus, grand claims about broad outcomes from the arts can be there only because any foundation these claims have rests in the small bits, the moment-by-moment repeated practices of looking, listening, shaping, sketching, moving, and imagining.

We make and hear broad generalisations about the arts that say things like: ‘Experience in the arts will raise children’s reading marks across the board in subjects more important in their lives than the arts.’  But even when we know some of these generalisations hold under certain circumstances, we find it hard to point out just what lies behind these claims. We do not often know the evidence from across the social sciences and neurosciences that explain the little bits.

Moreover, our enthusiasm for the arts leads us to exaggerate consequences of learning in the arts without thinking deeply about the conditions necessary to bring about such learning. We exaggerate for several reasons.  We believe that what we want our claims to accomplish is simple. We find the arts generally easy to love. Finally, by claiming more and more for the arts, we hope to keep policymakers and budget controllers from denying the arts in school curricula and from curtailing arts funding for museums, theatres, dance projects, botanical gardens, and historical sites. Our enthusiasm leads us to make statements such as the following:

  • Children who take part in making art are more likely to read on their own than those who don’t have art in their lives.
  • The study of art raises marks in subjects such as mathematics and even science.

Such claims put arts at the service of something else. Advocating for the arts because they do something else (such as enhance reading or math skills) leaves the arts auxiliary, vulnerable and positioned far down in a constructed hierarchy of learning.  

 Art is not a crude instrument to be valued primarily as a functional tool.

Learning in the arts requires highly specific conditions to bring about claims of the sort noted above. Though some of these claims and many more are indeed the case, any consequential learning that is sustained and transferable to other fields will come about only when we learn art under three conditions.

  •  Participation must begin early and be sustained across the years.
  • Arts participation must involve artists who are themselves creators of the arts. They must know what they know by having produced art forms that have gone before viewers, audiences, and critics.
  • Finally, arts participation (including practice as well as seeing and hearing models and exemplars) must be held to high expectations; therefore the practice of art must be intensive and demanding.

The argument that follows asks that we replace our instrumental and exaggerated claims about the arts with clear specific outcomes drawn from interdisciplinary research on learning in the arts. Several disciplines, such as cognitive neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, neurology, and health sciences study individuals as they learn through doing art. These studies inform specialists about the ways in which art-making affects memory, language, vision, health and well-being and emotional development, as well as other specific kinds of learning. 

Such research gives us the small bits that explain the foundation that under-girds all learning with and through the arts. As we bundle some of the small bits, three generalisations about the arts provide guidance.

Art is hand work

 Art is hand work. Art is play. Art is science at work.

Biologists and historians have much to say about the fact that humans imitate, and in doing so, they make and use tools. In the evolutionary history of humans, making and using tools first set us off from other higher-order primates, such as chimpanzees and baboons.

Archaeologists and other social scientists, as well as neurologists, now have the technological means to understand what the making and using of tools has meant through the development of human life. We know that beyond simply making tools, early humans crafted their tools. In trying unique designs as they made their tools, early humans watched others around them craft their tools. As they did so, they made judgments about the efficiency and effectiveness of what they made. Beyond the tools, humans then told stories of their uses by creating wall paintings that portrayed not themselves but the animals they pursued with their tools.

Moreover, as humans made tools, they did so through their innate capacity for mimesisthe imitation of actions and forms of expression that others undertake. This foundational primate skill evolved early.  Humans took the skill to new levels that other primates do not achieve. They performed rituals and spectacles so that observers could learn to do what they saw. Humans crafted objects, sketched and drew, and they gradually began to redesign their environments and the objects of both their everyday lives and their rituals. In copying what they saw, however, humans also created, added, adjusted, and redesigned what others had modeled. Among primates, only humans use their mimetic capacity to move beyond pure imitation. They do so because they not only mime, imitate, and gesture, but also gradually come to rehearse internally the skills they see at work in the crafts and behaviors of others. With language, humans learned to describe, explain, and question what they had created.1

Fundamental about tools, however, was the fact that they extended and specialised what human hands and forearms could do. Tools we hold in our hand also become part of the hand. The hand is no longer just a hand when it grasps a tool in order to extend the power of human intention, discovery, and imagination. Our haptic system, located most centrally in the hand, gives us the tactile capacity to gain information and knowledge about objects and materials in the world around us. The haptic system allows us to learn through touch. It extends what we can know, for the molding and changing of substances we work with ‘tell’ us more than we can learn from the simple act of a mere touch. 

Here it is important to ask a vital question. What difference does this bit of human history make for children today in a world where technology requires less use of the hand and much more of the fingers, the digits? The answer lies in both evolutionary history and the development of a child from birth throughout lifelong learning. From infancy, the brain responds as we engage our fingers, hands, and arms. Both evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists link use of the hand to the human ability to grasp, retain, and use structured symbol systems, such as language and numbers. There is a strong relationship between doing and knowing, between doing and representing through language or numbers, for example.2

The mechanical capacity of the hand in tool-making, manipulating the environment, knowing the texture and nature of materials, and creating art forms as well as gestural sign systems shaped the brain’s circuitry across our evolution. This growing capacity of the hand in harmony with communicational systems enabled humans to live in groups, develop products and trade, and generate ways of moving and exchanging objects as well as recording interactions. 

As the individual human develops from infancy, the hand is the primary instrument of both exploration and representation. A considerable part of the control apparatus of the human brain is specialised or dedicated to skilled use of the hand. The infant reaches out the hand to express desire; the infant learns to grasp in order to lay claim for the self that which is beyond the self – an object or a finger of another.  With their hands, young children learn to mold, shape, draw, and create motion. As they do so, they re-enact and re-present fundamentals of the physical world, such as line, shape, colour, and motion. Moreover, our signs and symbols have throughout most of human history been quite directly created and replicated through hand movement either with or without tools. Neurologists have now concluded that language, numeracy, and object combinations develop very much in relation to the use of the hands and forearms as infants and young children create and construct beyond the individual self.3  These activities of exploring using the haptic capacity of the hand ensure that individuals learn to develop a sense of autonomy as they mature. 

Though we speak or write to show what humans know, the bulk of what we know and feel will never be expressed to others in language. Instead, we think, imagine, envision a scene, fret, and fear within our heads and hearts. We know that we know even when we cannot or do not articulate in speech or put into writing what it is that we are thinking.  It is hard work to convert our thoughts into language. We see this truth at work most easily in young children, but the same point pertains throughout the life span. Thought and language have different neurological origins. This means that fundamental to human learning is the fact that we shape thought in our minds and can gesture, sketch, draw, and model with our hands what we are thinking often before we can express ideas verbally. We can better articulate our thoughts when our nonverbal interior mental work has clarified and censored what we might then go on to express through the use of structured symbol systems, such as those of sign language, speech, or writing.

This reality results for us because the hand’s symbol–structuring capacity runs along in front of the locomotors operations that support speech. Recent research, for example, has shown that individuals who ‘know what they are talking about’ use gestures that correlate appropriately with the thoughts they wish to express.4  These gestures, however, are not necessarily structured symbol systems (such as sign languages are).  The gestures we use to punctuate and elaborate our spoken language can be interpreted by viewers only quite broadly, with little specific agreement as to their meaning, for such meanings differ across cultures and languages. 

The hand is also critical to knowledge acquisition.  With fMRI technologies, neuroscientists can learn what happens to our internal visual images when we grip, hold, or touch what we simultaneously see. The haptic or hand–guided feedback that children gain when they grip a crayon, pencil, or piece of charcoal enhances the act of mentally visualising, of envisioning what lies behind or within the surface elements of what they see with their eyes.  Children discover and explore with their hands and thereby supplement their visual powers.5

With maturation, children given opportunities for the hand work of art move into more creative and controlled representations, such as those involved in playing an instrument, sketching architectural designs, and fashioning puppets. As young artists use their hands to create more complex forms of art, they gain practice vital to improving their visual and auditory acuity and discernment of multi-layered details even in the midst of chaos, noise, and confusion. Such acuity in young learners shows up as an ability to focus – to be attentive and alert. 

Cognition becomes grounded as young children gain practice in motor-dependent production of visual representations of what they are thinking, imagining, and planning. The ‘thinking hand’ – as investigator and manipulator of the environment – calls on all the modal systems of the brain to produce representations (such as those involved in pottery, for example) that result from shaping, grasping, drawing, and manipulating materials. As the hand goes about its work, the brain exerts what neurologists call ‘force patterns’ that lead the potter, for example, to seek more information, to be guided by internally asking questions such as ‘hmmm, what if I try this technique?’ or ‘what about trying this mixture, I wonder?’6

The fact that art is hand work carries implications beyond what may seem obvious at the outset.  Denied drawing, shaping, and enacting their thinking through visual, dramatic, and dance and the musical arts, children have to struggle harder to learn to transform their thoughts into language and to hold their visual and auditory focus.  Moreover, moving information into long term memory as well as into imaginative responses to what is going on around them becomes more difficult for them.  A further point merits attention for its relevance to both art and science. As children explore and work less and less with their hands and forearms, they know less about the natural world around them. Thus they rarely take their imaginary pursuits into science and the arts.

A cautionary conclusion necessarily must follow, however, when we read and learn from neuroscience reports we find in the popular media. Though neuroscientists themselves relatively rarely step into the role of popularisers of either the results of their research or implications that could follow from their research, authors of trade books have no such hesitation. Numerous popular works translate neuroscience research for general readers. Reading these with a careful eye on references cited and with an occasional search for the original reference cited is worthwhile.7

Art is play

Infants play before they reach the end of their first year of life. We accept that they do so with little thought about the complex mental operations that play involves or the intimate ties between play and artAfter all, play, like art, is both itself and something other than itself.

Both play and art insist on our thinking and imagining, while we create with our hands and before we put into words what we are thinking and doing. However, once we begin to play or create art, thinking moves with our hands as does the story or the sense of what we are doing. Denied play and art, the facility that we have as language users to bring visual cues to our understanding of narratives develops more slowly than the brain’s potential otherwise makes possible.8

For example, let’s think about the critical role of socio-dramatic or pretend we–are–someone–else–somewhere–else play.9 This is the kind of play that happens when children ‘play school’ or pretend to make cupcakes out of water and sand. Here the practice of putting visual cues together with verbal explication of the imagined narrative turns out to be vital. 

Socio-dramatic play, an art form, puts the hands to work in gesture and use of materials and tools. In addition, planning socio-dramatic play as well as enacting roles demands language use in the voice or character of someone else other than the immediate participants.10

Playing someone else is greatly helped by gesture. Here the brain plays a special trick, for the know-how of gesture for expression is not the same as the know-how of instrumental movement. In other words, the production of gestural expression, as distinct from instrumental action, takes place through linkage to language and emotive centres of the brain. These are not the same neuronal locations or connections we call on when we use a hammer to drive a nail or pick up a knife to cut.  

In such revelations about connectivity in the neuronal work of the brain, we find the small bits that explain how it is that performing other characters’ gestures and words gives young people the vital practice they need to advance their own language development. As hard as it may be to accept, children do develop their own language by hearing other people talk and by saying other people’s words. Again, however, the brain has a special twist on the matter of language learning, for children do not imitate the talk of others, but instead they hear, interpret, and create from and with the words of others. In doing so, they show the special capacity that humans have for hearing language and surmising the structure and components of the system that puts together what they hear to make meaning.11

Socio-dramatic play with words is, of course, unique to humans. But, as we know, learning simultaneously to understand and to produce human language is extremely difficult. Any of us who has studied foreign languages will know this fact painfully well.

To make matters more complicated, when we produce language, imitation will not take us very far. Each one of us has to learn to be creators of each one of the languages we learn to speak. Otherwise, we would be parrots.  We must create language that will work appropriately and effectively in highly specific circumstances and for different purposes. But to do this creative linguistic work, we must build up reservoirs of bits of language that we can then practice rearranging in different combinations to express variations of emotions, ideas, and personalities. We do so in sometimes unexpected ways.

Child language scholars have found that during the moments just before sleep, toddlers alone in their room replay verbally what they have heard and seen throughout the day.12  When they do so, they articulate the talk of others with vocabulary and syntactic constructions that exceed the linguistic competency they themselves produce in their everyday reality. Re-playing or re-saying does not even need an audience for the fluency factor to kick in, for the monologues of these children have no known immediate audience. Second-language learners achieve the same advantages when they take on roles in dramatic re-enactments. Within the body of another, language fluency tops that which we can portray when we are acting or communicating as ourselves.

Portraying the emotions, state of being, and words of others enhance not only oral language development, but also fluency in written expression. Shakespeare may give the best example of this fact. We know that Shakespeare acted on stage before he began to write. After some years of acting, however, we believe that he wrote each morning before he left his desk for rehearsals and performances that afternoon and evening.  What this bit of information suggests is a truth that lies deep within the heart of the arts. The effects of playing a role, practicing, and performing someone else’s words stretch far into the cognitive and linguistic work of creativity. 

Since Shakespeare’s time, other writers and actors, as well as visual artists, dancers, and musicians have discovered the fact that once they have literally acted a role, moved through the words, motions, and emotions of a work of art, they can then transport that embodied knowledge more successfully into related art forms than had they simply sat down to write. Thus when a writer of dramatic scripts mingles acting within roles with words from other writers, that script writer finds that words flow more richly onto the page than is the case without such embodied prior role-play. Fluency increases, as will use of metaphors and detail; flow of action moves more steadily in the written piece than would have been the case without the prior embodiment and enactment central to the dramatic arts.

What is often not noted about socio-dramatic play and opportunities for young people to play roles and say the words of others is the extent to which doing so helps develop what psychologists call ‘a theory of mind’ or recognition of the intentions, plans, and desires of others.13  Children who have ample opportunities and encouragement to take part in socio-dramatic play, readers’ theatre, and performance within plays written by others illustrate in maturing ways from about eighteen months forward their sense of prediction and understanding of the general rules that others use as they interact not only with the child but also with other humans and objects in the environment. As the young develop a theory of mind, they also develop theories of action, causation, and consequence. The suspense built within great drama of the precise consequences that will follow specific motivations and actions enables the young to roll over and over in their minds different courses of action and possible outcomes that may follow each of these courses. 

Here I draw a point critical to understanding one of the reasons participation in the arts must be sustained from early childhood through adolescence. Teenagers receive harsh criticism for appearing unable to formulate plans for their own futures and to project the consequences of their risk-taking actions. But take note of the fact that research across several disciplines shows that arts participation builds within adolescents a reservoir of strategies for managing anger, forecasting outcomes realistically, assessing consequences, and avoiding circumstances likely to bring them into trouble. 

But when we look closely at this research, the findings deepen our understanding of how such planning skills develop. Close examination of the young people who reflect these positive outcomes reveal that being within studios and rehearsal zones gives them innumerable examples and opportunities to practice the language of thinking ahead, reasoning with hypotheticals, and knowing the consequences to their work of ‘not thinking’ ahead. Rehearsals and studios are places where individuals practice language they have heard from others and that they themselves have had to internalise in order to do their artwork. Thus, it is not only the dramatic arts and the precise opportunity to play roles within plays, but also the foreshadowed thinking that comes with all types of art performances and exhibitions that help adolescents wisely put action behind their intentions and consider consequences.14

Art is science at work

My final generalisation, bundling thousands of vital little bits: Art is science at work, or as the premise of this paper suggests, all science is artful. For both scientists and artists, much of what they achieve comes from their sense of play within their work.  Art and science exist within the arc that runs from initial planning and preparation through practice and development to completion and meaningful sense of satisfaction and critique. Art and science both involve variables, conditions, and possible interactions and consequences. Mae Jemison, a doctor, dancer, and the first African American woman in space, has said: 

‘The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the coin… or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing.  The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.’ 15

Before the Eighteenth Century, art and science came as duo; they were inextricable. The evolution of mathematics, for example, evolved in the play of not only inventors and experimenters, such as Isaac Newton, but accelerated with the rise of the middle class who had increasing leisure time to create puzzles of the mathematical and cartographic sort. Public entertainment sometimes came in the open performance of science experiments. Natural history – both entertaining and enlightening – drew spectators. From the Fifteenth Century forward, communities came together for parades of wagons that included not only dramatic performance pieces, but also public experiments. Juggling, acrobatics, magic shows, and mime evolved in many ways as experiments that brought together scientists and artists, artisans and experimenters, performers and questioners.16

Art inspired science; science relied on art. Both drew technology into their web of appeal. We are gifted then with a history that affirms repeatedly the tightly knit interdependence of art, science, and technologies. 

The history of artful science tells us much. Consider this, when we go to see a play performed on stage today, we accept that we are audience members.  We are there to hear, to listen.  To be sure, speakers of English think primarily of the auditory response of the role of the audience, privileging text and the ear over scene and the eye. 

Such was not the case, however, in early theatre and, most certainly, not in Shakespeare’s day.  It was impossible to hear all or even most of the words spoken by actors, whether within Greek amphitheaters or theatres of Shakespeare’s day or out in market towns on make-shift platforms in the centre of village markets. Thus onlookers were not likely to be primarily engaged by what they could hear. They were spectators who relied on what they could see to interpret and to narrate internally to themselves the story they saw being played out before them. 

During the rise of public theatre in England, especially during those years when performances took place in open markets with the deafening cacophony of squealing pigs, shouting housewives, and braying mules as background noise, talked with one another to devise the stories and to fill in the blanks. Gradually, as the years went by, they determined that they wanted to read what happened in that play on that stage or platform in the middle of village markets.  Literacy evolved in some part in relation to the spread of open theatre in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. 17  

We are hard-wired, so to speak, for what is at the heart of art and science:  the here–and–nowness of experience. We are hard-wired to be able to observe what is before us and to use all our senses in order to pursue access to what is behind or under what we perceive.

We can do so most efficiently by deepening our understanding of the mounting neuroscience work on visuo-spatial and language development and the role of the hand in thought development and judgment.  We have to make at least two resolutions to work toward in schools, museums, science centres, cultural organisations, and, most important, with the public at large.

  1. Put art and science back together as they were before the Eighteenth century disciplinary split and as they are today in the real world of technology. In this way, the commonalities of the two will work together for the benefit of advancing engagement and learning.
  2. Stop celebrating verbal explication over deep observation and participation in doing, acting, planning, intending, and creating. For decades, schools have given precedence to verbal explication over sketching, drawing, building, and doing. 

Since the Eighteenth Century, museums have tended to follow many patterns of formal education, and they have also separated themselves into museums of science as distinct from museums of art. 

Yet in the past decade, museums of science and those previously dedicated only to the arts, have begun to offer open studios, makers’ spaces, and tinkering studios. These allow individuals of all ages to experiment and explore. Zoos and botanical gardens have also found ways for visitors to take part in open studios and enroll in botanical and anatomical illustration programs. These places emphasise cross age learning through intriguing experimentation, construction projects, and the creation of exhibitions. Some museums now mix not only art and science but also the various arts and sciences from time to time.  Musical and dance performances, as well as theater arts, take place within museums and outdoor spaces.

These learning environments tie closely with occupations of the future.  All will involve both art and science in various ways. We understand the importance of observing, caring, connecting, designing, serving, and inquiring when we think of occupations that range from landscape architects to technicians who interpret x-rays in hospitals, to hydrologists who study water quality and sourcing, to climatologists who analyse and interpret the pictures that come to them of atmospheric changes that contribute to climate shifts. These pursuits require artful science – the making and interpreting of images and the creation of technologies that improve image-making and cross and double check findings presented by these technologies. 

Never has it seemed more important that the young are equipped to be able to find new ways of thinking and working through uncertainty, of developing personally, and of having the skills to engage and to be responsible in their shifting social contexts. We all need to change with the changes, or even better, adapt what we do to prepare for the changes that are unrelentingly (and already) coming our way.

It may well be that the linkage of arts and science, artful science, or science-filled art, whatever we want to call what we are on about, is one of the few places where this conversation can still happen for us and for young people. Artists and scientists engage with the world in which they live, regardless of discipline and increasingly with technological application. The ones we value are those who have something to show us and to share with us, those who make us adapt and rethink how we look, think, feel, and understand change.

This paper is part of a series that are from or in response to presentations made at the Worlds Together Conference at Tate, 2012.