We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits

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Froebel Gift #3

In the book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (2017), Mitchel Resnick asserts that the playful and choice based curriculum typically employed in early educational settings should be the foundation for life-long learning. He says that educational models should focus on a materials based exploration and student-driven projects that employ creative problem solving skills. He argues that a great way to do this is by strategically incorporating digital manipulatives and computer programming into the curriculum. Resnick is a distinguished educator, computer scientist, and researcher who is currently the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, Director of the Okawa Center, co-founder of the Computer Clubhouse, and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, the latter of which contributes insights into ways that technological progression can benefit pedagogy.

Resnick is optimistic regarding the embrace of technology as the catalyst for teaching to the whole child. He has first hand insight of the benefits gained from creative play within collaborative technological environments because of the positive results he’s experienced creating and implementing the Computer Clubhouse and the programming language Scratch. In 1993, Resnick and Natalie Rusk co-founded the Computer Clubhouse in order to provide a safe and collaborative space for youth living in underserved communities to learn programming and explore original ideas for tech based projects. The Computer Clubhouse empowers 25,000 youth each year to build their computer skills, become creative innovators, and develop self esteem and efficacy through their work.

Scratch is a child-centered visual programming language, which makes it easier for kids to develop their own animated stories, video games, and interactive artworks. Scratch programming has inspired ambitious child-centered initiatives (many good examples are mentioned in Lifelong Kindergarten) and the creation of a global community where new ideas for projects are posed, creative templates and technical strategies are shared, and peer-to-peer critiques offer constructive support. Through a playful and interpersonal embrace of technology, Scratch and the Computer Clubhouse are educating and emboldening the future innovators of the world.

The arts, science, engineering, mathematics, and education are just some of the many domains that have been affected by technological progression. In the visual arts, the advent of different types of paint significantly influenced the way individuals communicated and even profited. During the Northern Renaissance (15th century Europe, north of the Alps), the embrace of oil paint on a wooden substrate (oil on wood panels), signified a technological revolution (see: paint technology) because it enabled artists to explore techniques like glazing and layering paint. In the later half of the 15th century, canvas was introduced as an alternative to the portable but still expensive and cumbersome wooden panels. The advent of canvas as a surface for oil paint was a strong boost to the artist/patron relationship and by around the 16th century, oil painting was established as a commodity (see: Berger, 1972).

Traditional oil painting was a stable form of aesthetic technology that artists used to depict the world around them until the introduction and embrace of photographic medium and processes in the mid-19th century. As a result of photography, some artists who remained devoted to painting, developed new techniques and explored subject matter that was indicative of contemporary technological interests such as industry, scientific theory, the machine, and the sequence of movement (i.e. Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, and Viennese Kineticism). American painters such as Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, and Elsie Driggs, were incredibly enthusiastic about the technological advances during the early 20th century, and subsequently invented an aesthetic mode called Precisionism, which championed modern technology such as factories, bridges, and skyscrapers. Art in the 21st century includes digital video, interactive games, sound sculptures, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.

As evident from prior history, the idea that education, the arts, and technology should compliment each other is not solely a novel objective that reflects our digital age. It is true that we are experiencing an increased interactivity (far more than ever before) with digital technology throughout the world, which makes exploring, learning, and enjoying the possibilities of technology all the more beneficial. However, technology has a longstanding relationship with learning and the two disciplines have largely been symbiotic partners, enabling many important breakthroughs in each field. Throughout the decades before and after the industrial revolution, art was an important subject for students to learn in primary, secondary, and university settings. In previous posts, I have described the way the arts were seen as a counterbalance to the dehumanization of the worker in light of industrialization (see: Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World). As John Ruskin aptly put it: “Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality.” Even before machinery dominated the American landscape, Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest proponents for art education, specifically drawing, to be included in the Colonial school curriculum. Drawing programs in schools were often centered on technical rendering skills that could be useful in designing modern architecture and industrial mechanisms. Specialized trade schools were established for industrial laborers and the curriculum incorporated artistic techniques and artisan principals that celebrated craftsmanship and good design. In fact, vocational training prior to World War II was known as “industrial arts,” and developed a mutual (albeit on and off again) relationship up until the end of World War II (Sterling & Burke, 1997).

Unfortunately, as Sterling and Burke (1997) described, the relationship between the arts and technology faltered in the period following World War II. The school curriculum gradually shifted towards a heavy focus on common core subjects (in preparation for colleges and universities and corporate jobs), standardized tests, and quantitative assessments, which resulted in art and vocational programs being cut and underfunded in schools. While this is still a major issue today (see: The State of the Art…In Schools), the arts have been making a steady comeback as a key educational component in tandem with other academic areas of study.

The utilization of technology via the artistic process has led to educational curricula that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) learning. STEAM signifies the importance of fluidly combining creative and collaborative endeavors, which stem from our desire to understand and interact with the world in a more meaningful and productive manner. Contemporary artists have been at the at the forefront of collaborative projects with scientists and engineers (see: E.A.T – STEAM & Experiential Explorations, Discoveries, and Insights), therefore it makes sense that STEAM learning is employed in educational settings because it combines rational thinking and scientific processes with inventive and mindful uses of technology. This combination can be beneficial in designing and implementing expressive, empathetic, and sustainable approaches to address major aesthetic, sociocultural, environmental, and economic issues (see:Activating Art and Education for Activism). Some educators have even suggested the addition of R (reading and research) so that STEAM becomes STREAM. This addition is appropriate because literacy and research methods are essential in the arts as well as in science and technology.

Perhaps the most important breakthrough in education was the advent of Kindergarten, a sociocultural revelation, which foresaw the importance that play and materials based exploration has on innovation. The contemporary version of Kindergarten (and Pre-Kindergarten) was the design of German educator Friedrich Fröbel. Fröbel was a mentee of the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose approach to “Learning by head, hand and heart,” led to a sweeping modernization of the educational system in Switzerland. Like his mentor, Fröbel believed in a strong social, emotional, and embodied approach to teaching. His methodology incorporated Pestalozzi’s idea of teaching to the whole child, which means that every facet of a child’s life has a vital impact on the development of their personality, identity, and cognition. Fröbel realized that the best way to educate the whole child is through activities and play. He stated:

“The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.” (Published in an issue of his magazine Ein Sonntagsblatt für Gleichgesinnte (A Sunday Paper for the Like-Minded) (See: http://www.froebeldecade.com/sonntagsblatt/)

Fröbel was especially devoted to early childhood education and opened a school for young children in Bad Blankenburg, Germany in 1837. He recognized that children from infancy to age three experience dramatic cognitive development, although prior systems of education had been lacking for this age group. In 1840 he invented the word ‘Kindergarten’ to describe his school’s curriculum. The methods of embodied learning taught at Fröbel’s inaugural Kindergarten included singing, dancing, gardening, and playing with a new technological breakthrough he created called Froebel Gifts. Froebel Gifts are educational tools that inspire active learning through play and choice-based projects. Each of the Froebel Gifts was given a numerical value by Fröbel, which signified the order in which they should be introduced to the child. The gifts build upon the child’s prior knowledge and experience and enable the child to create and understand spatial relationships through artful activities.

The original gifts are still produced and used in classrooms and are the link to digital manipulatives such as LEGO Mindstorms, as well as other digitally programmed building toys that inspire self-directed play, which Fröbel coined as ‘Freiarbeit’ (free work). While the original Froebel Gifts are seemingly simple in their design (see: Intro to Froebel Gifts), they are highly advanced in the way they promote social, emotional, and cognitive development. Froebel Gifts were one of the most revolutionary innovations for early childhood learning, because they provided young children with a means to playfully explore, manipulate, and make insightful connections to the world around them. The influence of Froebel Gifts is highly noted by the visionary architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was given a set of Froebel blocks as a child and has stated the influence that playing with these blocks had on his work as one of the most innovative architects of the modern era. Wright stated: “For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top . . . and played . . . with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks . . . All are in my fingers to this day . . .” (George, 2000).

Individual artists and art collectives such as Antonio Ballester Moreno, Meow Wolf, and Get Your Life!, take art and play very seriously in their multidisciplinary work. Many of their ongoing projects and creative endeavors embrace the idea of playful explorations leading to insightful lifelong learning and other benefits.

Antonio Ballester Moreno is a Spanish born contemporary artist and curator whose current artistic philosophy and practice is similar to Fröbel’s 18th century pedagogical philosophy and methodology. Both individuals explore(d) the interconnection between creativity and activities, as informed via an understanding and engagement with the natural world. Moreno’s Vivam os campos livres (Long Live the Free Fields) (2018) is a literal ‘garden for the children,’ which is the actual German translation of Kindergarten. The sculptural installation consists of ceramic mushrooms and fungi sculpted by school children in São Paulo, Brazil, which Moreno arranged on the floor in the form of a mandala. It references Moreno’s ongoing aesthetic, social, and pedagogical interest, which manifests itself in his oeuvre of abstract geometric artwork.

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Antonio Ballester Moreno, Mountains #2, 2016, acrylic on jute, 36 1/4 x 28 3/4 inches. Courtesy of Christopher Grimes Projects, Santa Monica, California.

Within Moreno’s body of work, the concept of building on prior knowledge and experience is established through explorations that lead to insights within the framework of abstraction. For example, his large paintings such as Sol (2018), and Mountains #2 (2016) utilize an essential visual vocabulary from the elements of art (shape, line, color, balance, and form) to create archetypal imagery out of rudimentary geometric relationships. These paintings employ the aesthetics of geometry and abstraction to create new meaning and make connections to recognizable forms that already exist in nature. They illuminate how both natural and synthetic forms are all interrelated in our collective lexicon. This is akin to the way the Froebel Gifts build upon each other and enable young children to expand their vocabulary, cognition,  and creativity through activities involving play with building blocks and manipulatives.  The link between pedagogy, nature, and abstract artistic discourse was even more evident in ‘common/sense,’ a group show that Moreno curated for the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo. The exhibition featured his own work – such as the aforementioned Vivam os campos livres (Long Live the Free Fields) – alongside a display of objects from Froebel’s Gifts and mathematical games conceived by Fröbel.

Meow Wolf is a large multidisciplinary collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The group consists of members who have a wide range of unique personal experiences, academic knowledge, and professional backgrounds. Some of the members include artists, architects, computer scientists, designers, film producers, performers, and writers. With such an expansive creative team, Meow Wolf is able to create immersive projects where visitors can interact and fully experience the work of art in a personal and memorable manner. A work of art is meant to be experienced repletely and not just passed over with a quick fleeting glance. The summation of the artistic experience consists of the artist(s) conceiving the work and the viewer’s sensory responses to viewing and interfacing with the work. Because we each perceive things uniquely, Meow Wolf’s work enables an open-ended set of responses from the viewer. In the video above, each of the visitors describes their experience within Meow Wolf’s site-specific installation differently. It is like ‘being inside a Salvador Dali painting’ for one individual, while another person described it as ‘a big mystery’ where you have to put together clues, and yet another person interpreted it as ‘different levels of experience depending on your degree of consciousness.’ Several people aptly said that ‘it’s so cool,’ and mentioned that mere words wouldn’t do the total experience justice.

Overall, there is a unifying element to the installation, which reminds us that art, technology, and life are intrinsically connected. While we each have our own individual experiences, we also share in the collective experience that is possible through art and a cognizant embrace of technology. Meow Wolf’s installations are fun to view solo, but arguably even better to enjoy with a large group.

In his book Art as Experience (1934), Dewey stated that there is a continuity between works of art and everyday life. Engaging a work of art from an experiential and socially relevant  point of view is more fulfilling than bestowing it as an idealized object of “high art” (art for arts sake) placed behind a glass frame or high upon a pedestal. In other words, Dewey is arguing that art should serve a utilitarian purpose through its relative usefulness in reflecting and supporting our daily lives and activities. This philosophy makes even more sense when viewing Meow Wolf’s work, which can be summarized as a type of ‘art for the masses.’ Meow Wolf’s work is complex, however, it is open, inviting, and stimulating to viewers from all walks of life.

Dewey’s idea of democracy and socialization through the arts is elevated in the fun, playful, and socioculturally conscious work of Get Your Life! (GYL!) This youth-led collective/production company is made up of middle school students who harness art’s ability to empower individuals and communities. GYL! utilizes both traditional and digital materials to make a variety of art work that speaks to the current experience of the student artists. They reflect upon topics that have significance in their lives, as well as overarching themes (like consumerism, technology, education, politics, sports, etc.) that are experienced throughout the society they are a part of. The students collaborate with a wide range of professional studio artists and art organizations to realize multidisciplinary and multimedia driven projects. The consistent adult in the collective is Lee Heinemann, an artist and educator who helped develop the concept along with youth participants at 901 Arts in Baltimore, Maryland’s Better Waverly neighborhood.

One of the central projects that GYL! focuses on is video production, which is an in demand skill for today’s professional environment. The videos that GYL! creates address issues that are both highly personal as well as significant of a collective conscious among the middle school age collective. The themes in the videos are topics that are largely of interest to young adolescents, such as fashion, games, phones and electronics, and television programs like Empire (see: KARISMA: The Karisma Daniels Show). They also delve into some deeper concerns such as equality, equity, and social justice, which is playfully expressed in the video NIA: Queen Chastity Chrystal Enchantment II.

While viewing the recent Get Your Life! exhibition, titled Commons Collaboration: Get Your Life! at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I happened to have my copy of Dewey’s Art as Experience in my shoulder bag. The enchanting student art work was aptly reflective of the statement on page 132 (page number might vary depending upon the edition):

“Whatever path the work of art pursues, it, just because it is a full and intense experience, keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness.”

The exhibition was a refreshing way of validating that artwork within institutions remains connected and committed to the human experience.

Overall, the use of technology by artists, educators, and students (of all ages) in mindful ways can be extremely beneficial to their social, emotional, and cognitive well-being. The keyword in the previous sentence is ‘mindful.’ Technology for technology’s sake and art for art’s sake isn’t the answer. We all need to focus on incorporating these disciplines into our daily lives in a productive and egalitarian manner. As evident in the theories and work of Resnick, Fröbel, Dewey, Moreno, Meow Wolf, and GYL! experiential learning through engaging social and meaningful processes empowers artists, techies, and laypeople to maximize their creative pursuits and enjoy a fulfilling life. As our collective society becomes more dependent on technology, we need artists and educators to reveal the enormous learning potential that technology can have when it is utilized in a both a utilitarian and highly expressive manner.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Berger, John. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Brosterman, Norman. (1997). Inventing Kindergarten. New York: Harry N. Adams Inc.

Butler, Richard. & Oldham, Elizabeth. (2007). Digital Manipulatives as Froebel’s Gifts in the 21st Century? Pre-Service Teachers Report on their Experience of Using Lego Mindstorms with Children in Irish Schools. In R. Carlsen, K. McFerrin, J. Price, R. Weber & D. Willis (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2007–Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 1417-1424). San Antonio, Texas, USA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved November 21, 2018 from https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/24762/.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience. New York : Minton, Balch & Company.

Efland, Arthur D. (1990). A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hersey, George. (2000). Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 205.

Pietrowski, Amy. “The Differences of STEM vs. STEAM Education (and the Rise of STREAM).” EdTech. https://edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2017/08/history-stem-vs-steam-education-and-rise-stream.

Resnick, Mitchel. (2017). Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sterling, Carol. & Burke, Fred G. “Vocational Education and the Arts Education: An Important Synergy.” Counterfocus, n17 Apr 1997.

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