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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

#rawthought: The Only Two Things We Should Teach

Forgive me, but I was a bit tricksy in the title of this post.

I’ve been thinking about this for years, probably, but as I see society seemingly crumbling before us in recent months it’s become more of a nagging preoccupation.

I’m a big fan of simplification…abstraction…distillation – of getting to the “ness” of something.

What if our curriculum  – any curriculum in any school – was based on just two domains…lenses through which one can peer and prod at everything?


To clarify, the “Arts” I’m referring to are not limited to the fine and performing arts, but must include poetry and literature as well…in fact, the latter two ingredients are quite integral to my proposition.

My thinking draws from experience…I used to teach History through an art and literature lens as well as stressing the philosophies that shaped Man’s journey (especially his political one) through Time. Whilst working at an International Baccalaureate school I had the privilege of teaching a compulsory course the IBO calls “Theory of Knowledge” – the essential question being “How do we know what we know?” It wasn’t designed to be a traditional epistemology course by any means but big beefy questions of life and learning were at its heart (you can check out some of the great questions in the unit guides here).  It also stressed an interdisciplinary approach – that one could weave “TOK” as it was affectionately called, throughout each academic discipline.

The way I figure it,

Philosophy teaches us how to think and the arts teach us how to feel

But of course, the opposite is true as well. There is SO much critical thinking involved with literary analysis, visual art critique, and even in the creation of original “response” pieces (for more on remix as learning check out this post).

Moreover, philosophy forces us to tiptoe through vast fields of uncertainty regarding humanity, justice (and injustice), living, and death. The questions we consider when intentionally thinking in this way can lead us to a more purposeful existence and an empathic mindset. And the more I read about the progression of A.I. and machine learning the more I think that it is our awareness of our own mortality in particular that distinguishes humans from robots. That and whimsy, at least for now.

All arts, but especially novels, poetry, and painting I think offer multi-layered lessons for understanding the human condition – where we have been and where we are headed (for better or for worse).

I used to believe that History was the “ring to bind them all”.  I mean, every discipline has a history after all and studying the evolution of ideas and practices and significant people who shaped its progression is a worthy framework. But perhaps it is because what I most liked about History as a subject was indeed philosophy (including religion) and art (including, in this case, artifacts left by a civilization – the shards of designers past).

One could write volumes on the benefits of art integration, reading iconic works, or infusing philosophical queries, but I won’t here (it’s merely a #rawthought).

I’d prefer to leapfrog into some practical strategies for implementation.

Why not…?

…Organize curriculum by theme?

What if your course was organized by a theme having to do with a topic in philosophy such as “truth”, “reality”, “responsibility”, “beauty” or “power”? Think about how that broad idea finds a home in each subject area, or try it out school-wide!

…Select common novels?

What if every teacher, administrator and student read the same novel? This works well with children’s books for all levels but to address the different levels each division could choose their own. I highly recommend some sort of reflection or “book club”. I’ve used both G+ Communities and Flipgrid for mine.

…Instill a “Poetry Pause”?

What if there was a designated time in the day or week set aside to encourage the reading, writing and performance/presentation of poetry?

…Post timelines of pivotal artworks, ideas, movements, and literature?

What if the class co-created a “living” timeline they could add to as the course progressed? It would allow students to see the context of what they were studying and perhaps make connections. For example, much of modern art is in response to or a result of political and  technological goings-on.

…Curate discipline-related works of art and literature?

What if in our lessons we highlighted relevant works and discussed them in relation to the current topic of study? For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Science class, Picasso’s Guernica in Math or one of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems for History?

…Philosophy Probes?

These are the “Big Think” types of linking questions relevant to each discipline…Things like “Does the end justify the means?”, “How can true happiness be achieved?”, “What is fair and should we strive for fairness?”, “What makes something beautiful?”. These could relate directly to the curriculum or simply be more general provocations. Imagine tackling beauty when discussing math equations…or fairness with political theory…or justifying the means with earth science? The probe could be posted on Twitter and other social media for perspectives outside of the school community.

…Independent inquiry and “teach back”?

This involves students investigating relevant art / literature pertinent to the current unit of study – either pieces from the contemporaries of the time period (i.e. what painters were doing their thing when Copernicus was doing his?), or those based on theme (i.e. Copernicus? Space? Let’s check out how the stars were depicted in everything from medieval manuscripts to Van Gogh to 1950’s retro-futurism).

There are so many resources to be researched every student could do his or her own thing…then present it in a unique way to the class.

…Social Media Socratic Circles?

This really works! It’s especially fab for introverts or anyone squeamish about volunteering answers aloud. The inner circle chats and the outer circle tweets (or use TodaysMeet for a more private microblogging experience). I loved Twitter with my Seniors because other folks would join in on the conversation. Be sure to use Storify to archive the chat.

…Connection Maps or Journals?

I’ve blogged about this before, but the concept of asking students to articulate connections between disciplines and, within a subject area, between topics, is essential to critical and creative thinking. Mind maps or reflective journals would work well for this, or perhaps a giant piece of white paper on the classroom wall so students could post sticky notes.

…Philosophy Faire?

Like the traditional science faire, but for big questions… The idea is students would adopt a question and investigate it…curating examples to help defend their conclusions. They might not even have a definitive answer, but could explore perspectives…They dialogue with visitors to the gallery walk…I’d love to see lots of current events / real-world contemporary examples of how this philosophy is evident in daily life.

I’d love to hear your ideas …perhaps these ones sparked some? If you try any of these out please let me know.

#school #art #philosophy #artintegration #theoryofknowledge #literature #poetry #education #IB #arts #theory #AI #pedagogy #curriculum #amyburvall #learning

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