Episode 28: STEM + Arts Series | Visual Thinking Strategies for SEEd Phenomenon Observations | Heather Francis & Tina McCulloch

Tina McCulloch discusses how arts integration with STEM and inquiry-based learning supports teachers who are overwhelmed. Student-based inquiry forms the basis of the new Utah SEEd standards, and Tina shares strategies for using Visual Thinking Strategies in the classroom to help students and teachers learn to be comfortable with struggle, exploration, questions, discovery, and making connections. Visual Thinking Strategies and reflective listening are easy, effective tools for teachers implementing new SEEd standards to help students practice and deepen observational skills and develop confidence in self-directing their inquiry-based learning. Teaching SEEd phenomena is made clearer by using local, real-life examples. This episode also offers practical tips for teaching SEEd through the arts, including a number of specific resources and examples are offered for teachers to immediately implement in their classrooms. 

Links Mentioned In This Episode:

Don’t forget to peruse the bank of lesson plans produced by the BYU ARTS Partnership in dance, drama, music, visual arts, media arts, and more. Search by grade level, art form, or subject area at www.education.byu.edu/arts/lessons.

How to Integrate STEM + the Arts

Heather Francis and Tina McCulloch discuss a specific arts strategy that Tina uses to help her students substantively inquire about different scientific phenomena. 
As a classroom teacher, Tina was experiencing rapid changes in classroom education: new theoretical models, new curricular materials, new state standards; she noticed herself and others losing their teaching identity. Arts integration proved a lifesaving practice. Her goal for this podcast series is to create a comfortable environment for teachers to move forward in STEM and inquiry-based learning through the arts.

How to Teach to the New Utah SEEd Standards

In 2015, Utah adopted new SEEd standards for the K-12 classroom. The rollout for materials distribution and testing has been slow: state standards testing for fourth and fifth grades didn’t occur until 2021. 

Previously, teaching STEM was based on a more formulaic model: teach facts, present worksheets, answer multiple-choice questions. The teacher presented content and found out what the students’ misconceptions were, then planned another lesson to correct learning or memorize new facts.
Now, students lead the investigation: they ask questions, create their own models, and the teacher facilitates class discussions. Students and teachers are both uncomfortable; the teachers’ instinct is often to jump in and try to rescue the struggling student, but the value of inquiry-based learning rests in the process of student exploration, struggle, perseverance, discovery, and making connections as a class.
To get started with SEEd concepts, teachers can ask students:

  • “What are you curious about?” 
  • “What questions do you have?” 
  • “How can we construct knowledge together?”

Teaching SEEd Phenomena: A Real-Life, Local Example

Tina shares an example of her experience teaching to the new standards using the principle of presenting a phenomena. She explains:
“I showed them this flash flood coming down. People could hear it and they could hear the rumble. They knew that it had rained and you could hear the people talking in the background. Then the flash flood comes through carrying big tree trunks or rocks and just muddy, muddy water. My students didn't understand why that was such an unusual event. They didn't understand what precipitated it and why it was flowing the way that it was flowing; they had never been witness to this type of event. The video wasn’t enough—the students didn’t have enough context and experience to understand the magnitude of what it means to witness a flash flood. Yet, for the people down in San Juan County—and only one of my students who had hiked in that area and seen one—they see flash floods often. So when those flash flood warnings come out of those slot canyons, it's an important thing to make sure you know. So that's when I thought, “Oh, I really have got to come local,” and find better phenomena for my students to see by using events they could witness right here in their backyard that would drive their questions.”
Tina brought the phenomena home by incorporating the knowledge that many of her students’ fathers are involved in construction. She drew their attention to the east bench of the Wasatch mountain range by showing a news clip of a new-build home that slid off its foundation and landed in the street. She also shared how a local high school is sliding off its foundation every year that it’s a wet winter—it’s being rebuilt now. Her students realized that that’s the high school they will attend. Linking two local events that directly impacted her students’ lives made the difference for their learning. The questions began: “‘Now, Mrs. McCulloch, we live down here in the valley. We're okay. Right, my house isn't gonna slide if I leave the garden hose on?”
“I said, “No, your house isn't gonna slide.” Then we talked about why their home was safe. As we finished the whole unit, one kid said, “I'm always going to make sure that I never live on a mountainside.”

Being Uncomfortable: The First Step Toward Rich Conversations

Moving from earth science phenomena—a topic where students can clearly understand the impact—to other types of science proved tricky to maintain a high level of student curiosity. Often, phenomena were just a picture students would observe. 
Tina explains: “The last one I had was looking at a patch of grass, a single blade of grass, then grass underneath a microscope. I got very generic, boring answers (green, green and pointy, maybe three inches long). I wanted them to go deeper. They needed to go deeper. But I, as a facilitator, did not know how to do that.”
Students’ uncertainty played a role in their silence—students don’t want to let their peers know that they don’t know, even as teachers work to increase the equity in classrooms, encourage every voice, and validate each comment. Students want to have divergent views, as well as convergent views. 
Uncomfortableness is something that we need to become comfortable with. Teachers can learn to facilitate discussion, which becomes a rich opportunity for students to develop a whole bunch of inquiry-based questions: “How do we figure out how this phenomenon works?” Allow students to take their own questions and solve that scientific problem. In each classroom space, teachers can make sure students know that it is acceptable to throw out any idea and access your own schema, or reference the evidence in the picture or video by saying what you see.

Using Arts-Integrated Strategies to Help Students Articulate Rich Observation

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) help take students out of a scripted, right-or-wrong answer framework into a place of imagination and critical thinking. Typically used with works of art, Tina used VTS to create a bridge between observing artwork and studying science phenomena. 
To warm students up, Tina used Visual Thinking Strategies with Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, creating a great discussion in the classroom. Topics of discussion included agreeing to disagree, building curiosity and practicing observational skills. Students can use sentence stems, like “I noticed,” or “I think,” and then another person will make a connection with that and say, “Oh, and I see.” 

What Are Visual Thinking Strategies?

Philip Yenawine, an art educator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, began bringing in classes of patrons and students to view curated artworks. Together with a cognitive psychologist, Abigail Housen, Philip developed Visual Thinking Strategies. This series of open-ended questions expand students’ interpretation of artwork. Using Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie as an example, the class discussion might look like this (teacher-asked questions are bold; potential student answers are italicized):
“What do you see?” 
“Anybody, what do you see?”
“I see some yellow and red squares.”  
“I see some blue and black lines.” 
“I see some big blotches of colors.”

“What makes you say that?” 
(Students get more descriptive in their answers)
 “I think it looks like city streets.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, it looks like all those red and yellow, small squares are at intersections.”
“What more can we find?” 
(This passes the question baton to a different student, inviting someone else to share their observations. At the very beginning, this process can be really slow (and uncomfortable). Teachers need to wait for students to answer. As Tina explains, “All of a sudden, once students realized I'm just paraphrasing what they're saying, they're getting more and more accepting of divergence.”)
“I wonder…”
(This bridges the gap between VTS in art and VTS in science phenomena.This question helps ready students to take the next step once they are facing a science phenomena question. Visual art is a comfortable place to start using VTS and practicing classroom dialogues; once science phenomena are introduced, teachers can use the same questions to guide students toward self-directed inquiry and investigation.)

Practical Classroom Tips for Effectively Using Visual Thinking Strategies

Students move from ‘reading’ a work of art toward ‘reading’ a phenomena. Here’s what that looks like in Tina’s classroom: When observing water condensation, students really couldn't see what it was. Tina asked “What do you see?” and always followed up with “What makes you say that?” with the same student who offered an observation. This helps students think deeply about the why, create a “because” statement, and generate text evidence for their observational claim. After observations are made, teachers use reflective listening to paraphrase student statements—this helps the rest of the class understand what others observed, if they couldn't hear them that well, and it validates students’ observations.
Visual Thinking Strategies are most effective in an environment of non-judgement. This means that when students offer an idea, value-laden statements like, “That’s right!” “Good job!” are less effective in spurring a whole-class discussion. Validating students’ ideas looks like repeating back to the student what they said and adding, “What makes you say that?” This non-judgemental approach encourages all students to participate. In order to pass the baton to the next student, teachers can say, “Now, what more can we find?” and another student will speak. This strategy allows the eager students to talk, then after they have had a chance, the more reticent students will start talking. Tina reiterates the importance of teachers waiting: “If you are smart enough, you'll just pause. Usually, you can get that one reluctant speaker to finally make a comment, because he's been thinking this whole time. He's learning his voice is valid. Then, offer “Now, what do you wonder?”

Incorporating Divergent Thinking of Phenomena Using Visual Thinking Strategies

Works of art are created from an artists’ individual interpretation of their lived experience—science can be more straightforward and less open to interpretation. What happens when students offer a unique interpretation of a phenomena? Unlike a work of art, is there a right interpretation of a scientific phenomena?
Phenomena offer an anchor during the VTS discussion: the focus of the conversation is for students to direct their inquiry in uncovering what actually happens with the phenomena. At the outset, yes, students may have lots of misconceptions. Students will need to come up with some ways to test those hypotheses. The inquiry comes from the students’ observations, ideas, and questions, guided by teacher questions like these:

  • What would we need to study?
  • What kind of texts would we need?
  • Or what kind of experiments are we going to need to perform in order to figure out how this really, really works?

When considering a phenomena like density (and what happens in real life when putting a Gatorade or soda bottle in the freezer), students can think about questions like these: “What does density really mean?” “Is density the same as weight?” When Tina showed students a glacier, students can see that giant ice floes are mostly sunken in the water. A student observed, “So it's definitely very dense. It's denser than water.”
Another student made a connection: “We just did history and learned about USS Arizona, and how it's in Pearl Harbor. The ship sank…but how can it float?... but it sank.”
These kinds of observations are exactly what teachers want students to think about when exploring the world like a scientist.
Next week, tune in for an episode featuring Mr. Dance, an instrumental figure in thousands of people’s lives, nationally and locally. He integrates dance and science, dance and mathematics, into classrooms. Recently, he produced the Provo City School District dance concert. Some listeners in our BYU ARTS Partnership community know who Mr. Dance is. Listeners who don’t know—come and listen next week! You won’t want to miss getting to know Mr. Dance.
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