Brain-Based Learning

The Choreography of Calculus: Using the Arts to Comprehend Content

January 23, 2008

I recently attended the Juice Conference here in Maine on the effort to power up the state's creative economy. The discussions focused on how craftspeople -- potters, weavers, dancers, musicians, metalworkers, woodworkers, and their ilk -- contribute to the bottom line. As I listened, it occurred to me that the conversation -- and the definition of "creative economy" -- needed to be far deeper, far more foundational than that. We must be more creative in how we think about creativity.

Which brings me to the title of this post. As I sat in a session about how K-12 schools can best support the development of young adults and prepare them to drive the creative economy, it struck me that the room consisted mostly of art, music, and dance teachers or practitioners. There is little need to convince them of the power of the arts in developing agile minds, so I asked the question, "Rather than thinking about how to get more respect and encouragement for high-quality arts instruction in schools, what about supporting creative thinking by looking for ways that the arts can become a formal part of mathematics, science, language arts, history, and so on?"

Then I blurted out, "What if we asked students to demonstrate their foundational understanding of calculus not only by solving algorithms using it but also by choreographing a dance that shows deep understanding of what calculus means?"

My memory of calculus, based on two courses -- one in high school and one in my freshman year of college -- is that it is all about approaching curves and points and never really getting there: closer, always closer, but never arriving. Whoa. That sounds like a ballet I once saw. Or was it a poem I read? Or a song I heard?

So, I wondered, would a student who choreographed and performed that mathematical dance develop a kinesthetic, a body memory he or she would never lose? And would a learner who mastered the algorithms and the dance be better prepared to apply calculus not only to mathematical problems but also to complex human or mechanical ones? And isn't the latter -- the ability to resolve complex issues -- what an economy needs to be creative? It seems to me that the creative thinking that comes so naturally to the arts could well serve students in other content areas.

What I want to know is, has anyone tried this? Has anyone asked students to create a jingle for the Continental Congress or to write the algorithm for gossip? Are students anywhere demonstrating their understanding of mitosis on stage, in character, through dialogue, showing that those phases can be modeled in human relationships?

And about that choreography: Does anyone have some ideas?

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