Pat Klos | August 2013

Math + Visual Arts = Connection

Kids of all ages struggle with math.

The first thing teachers ask me as we start planning sessions for arts integration this year is: what ideas do you have for teaching math? As I’ve worked with both elementary and middle school math teachers the past few years to find ways to integrate art into their lessons—I realized that whenever we connected a math lesson with visual art—the kids seemed to grasp the math quicker and easier. When we think about the fact that students are more often than not (about sixty five percent) visual learners, it stands to reason that connecting difficult math concepts with visual images would help kids make connections.

If nothing else, the visual art will serve as a mental peg for remembering the math concepts.

I will often suggest that math lessons begin or end with a related visual image and an Artful Thinking question such as: what math do you see in this image, and What makes you say that? or Claim, Support, Question: make a claim about the math you see in the image, support it with evidence based on what you know and see and ask a question about what might be left unanswered. I particularly remember using the Creative Comparison routine with students in a seventh grade co-taught math classroom.

We showed a medieval painting in which there was obvious visual symmetry. The students weren’t studying geometry in this case—but equations! They were struggling with the practice of applying operations to both sides of the equation. We asked them what the painting had to do with equations. After analyzing how the painting illustrated horizontal balance the students concluded that it was really was like solving an equation: what the artist did to one side of the painting he did to the other side of the painting to make it balanced and symmetrical, just like they do in math! For these students, the visual art became a new pathway to understanding how to solve an equation and the art became a mental peg that worked.

Not all math concepts are readily (or literally) visible in fine art examples.

However, the Common Core Math Practices (CCMP) certainly can be! Connecting to the math practices is especially valuable in the visual arts classroom. It turns out that the math practices correlate beautifully with the Artists Habit of Mind! The processes and skills that we want students to use with ease in math (make sense of the problem and persevere in solving it, use appropriate tools, look for patterns and structures, etc.) are all attributes of the artistic creative process and what artists do! This week I worked with our county’s visual arts teachers in a session co-presented with Amanda Kodeck, Head of School Programs at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD*.

We suggested that art teachers can help students be more successful in math by making math academic language a regular part of their art lessons. They can do this by drawing students’ attention to the CCMP whenever analyzing, discussing or looking at art. Art teachers could have a pivotal role in demystifying math: showing how it is integral to creating art and not something only used in math class. We talked about a variety of ways teachers could make connections to the CCMP: pointing out literal visual examples of the practices, identifying examples of math practices that the artist might have used in creating the art or by asking critical thinking questions (i.e. Artful Thinking Routines) that explore reasoning, explanation or math habits of mind. We selected art from the museum’s online collection.

Here is an example:
amphora croppedMP 6: Attend to precision.

How would the artist have been able to get the perfect number of feather strokes to fit around the base of this ancient Greek amphora?

Can you support math students by integrating the Common Core Math Practices in your classroom? We hope so. Check out the Common Core Connections newsletters from The Walters Art Museum for more visual arts integration possibilities for both math and literacy:

About the Author

Pat is an arts integration specialist in Anne Arundel County, MD. Having been a mentor teacher and instructional coach, she passionately believes that integrating the arts is the best approach to teaching: it enriches the classroom environment with art, engages students and motivates learning. Her mission is help all teachers realize that they can teach through the arts with a little know-how. Pat appears every Monday. Email Pat.