Lois Hetland on Researching Arts and Education

On Tuesday, October 28, 2003, I heard Lois Hetland speak at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose. Her talk, entitled, “Studio Thinking: How Visual Arts Teaching Can Promote Disciplined Habits of Mind,” was part of the Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley ongoing lecture series.    (9X)

Hetland’s research centers around the following question: Does arts education make people smarter? In other words, does it enhance overall cognitive capabilities? While her talk reported the most recent results of her research, she also revealed some very interesting ideas about the role of research in general.    (9Y)

Project Zero and REAP    (9Z)

Hetland is part of Project Zero, a program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Project Zero was founded in 1967 by Nelson Goodman, a philosopher of the arts, who — according to Hetland — said, “The communicable state of knowledge of the arts as a cognitive activity is zero.” (I found this quote appealing, because I feel very similarly about what we know about collaboration. The parallels between Hetland’s thoughts on arts education and mine on collaboration seemed to recur throughout the lecture.) One of Goodman’s first hire was Howard Gardner.    (A0)

Hetland led a project from 1997-2001 called REAP (Reviewing Education And the Arts Project), which began with 10 meta-analytic reviews of all studies on arts education starting from the 1950s. Her conclusion was that the research was lacking, with the claims greatly exceeded the evidence. She found only three definitive causal links between education in the arts and certain cognitive functions. Another roadblock she discovered was that there was no shared language for describing the quality of an arts program or for measuring learning in the arts. (Another parallel!)    (A1)

After discussing her findings, she explained her subsequent approach for studying the effects of arts educations on other cognitive capabilities: studying the best practices of great art teachers.    (A2)

Hetland and her research partners identified two high schools in Boston that focused on arts educations, then observed and analyzed the classes intensively. They focused on identifying patterns (parallel again!) and came up with eight “disciplned habits of mind” that the teachers seemed to emphasize: Develop Craft, Engage and Persist, Envision, Express, Observe, Reflect, Stretch and Explore, and Understand Art World. A teacher’s style could be described by how often these habits were addressed during class.    (A3)

There was some disconnect between the first and second parts of Hetland’s talk. In describing REAP, she criticized some of the existing research for failing to establish causal relationships between arts education and cognitive capabilities, but in describing her subsequent research, she failed to do the same. The habits of mind she described are certainly useful for other disciplines, but the teaching of these habits are not exclusive to the arts. What is the advantage of taking an arts class over, say, a history class that teaches and applies the same habits?    (A4)

The Research Quandary    (A5)

At the end of the talk, an audience member asked an interesting question: Why invest money into researching arts education rather than into arts education itself? Implicit in the question was the assumption that we already know that arts education is important, and that we don’t need research to prove it.    (A6)

To some extent, that certainly is a valid premise. If people did not already think that arts education was important, why would they be funding research to study it?    (A7)

Hetland had two responses. First, there are many, many organizations that do fund arts educations directly. Second, research is not about justification; it’s about understanding. Better understanding leads to improvement.    (A8)

Unfortunately, many research firms are in the business of justification: certifying claims that businesses want to make, whether they are correct or not.    (A9)

Another problem with justification is that people believe what they want to believe. Hetland cited two examples of this. One of the causal links she discovered in her research was that listening to music temporarily increased spatial reasoning. Many people misinterpreted these results to mean that listening to Mozart would make people smarter. The states of Georgia and Florida decided to mandate classical music in their classrooms based on these faulty conclusions.    (AA)

Hetland also told a story, which she wasn’t certain was true. Isaac Stern taught a one hour master’s class to 43 New York City school superintendents who were threatening to cut back their programs in music. Apparently, a good number of these superintendents were so inspired by the class, they returned to their districts and reversed their cutbacks. (I’m currently trying to verify this story. This New York Times article verifies that Stern did teach the class, but it says nothing about the results.)    (AB)

Even if the Stern story isn’t true, Hetland’s point is a good one. People are fickle animals. They believe what they want to believe. You are more likely to persuade someone of the importance of the arts by involving them in the arts experience rather than citing research.    (AC)

Hillside Group Annual Meeting

I attended lots of great meetings and talks over the past two weeks. I’m going to start posting some notes and observations in reverse chronological order.    (9I)

Last Thursday and Friday, I attended the Hillside Group‘s annual post-OOPSLA meeting, held at the Anaheim Sheraton in Southern California. Richard Gabriel, president of the Hillside Group and one of our advisory board members, and Dirk Riehle, Hillside Group‘s treasurer, invited me to attend.    (9J)

The Hillside Community    (9K)

My parents recently moved to Irvine, which is about 20 minutes south of Anaheim, so I’m always looking for opportunites to go down south and visit. But that’s not why I wanted to attend this meeting. Regular readers of this blog know that Pattern Languages are central to Blue Oxen Associates‘ strategy for understanding and improving collaboration and communities. This is why I asked Richard Gabriel to join our advisory board in the first place, and is ultimately why I wanted to attend this meeting.    (9L)

Hillside Group was founded a decade ago by a bunch of software engineers (including Gabriel, the Gang of Four, and several other gurus in the field) in order to figure out how to write pattern languages for software design. The group hosts several Pattern Languages of Programs (PLoP) conferences every year, which are loosely modeled on writers’ workshops.    (9M)

When a bunch of engineers model their conferences on writers’ workshops, you know that they’re not your run-of-the-mill geeks. When these same engineers are intimately familiar with the works of architect Christopher Alexander, you know that they’re definitely not your run-of-the-mill geeks.    (9N)

All of this was evident throughout the meeting. Those in attendance (about 40 people) were thoughtful and highly self-reflective. Many of them had written books, and many more are writing books. More than anything, I was delighted to see the quality of meta-thinking within the group and a general inclination for action. These are folks who have recognized that Pattern Languages are a wonderful tool that can be applied to many other things besides software design, and have done exactly that. For example, the Hillside Group has a pattern language for shepherding (mentoring new writers), patterns for Pattern Mining, etc.    (9O)

I was struck by the group’s overall camraderie and openness. The interaction was light, easy-going, and usually accompanied by laughter. Shared Language was strongly evident. When meetings were about to begin, self-described group “den mother” Linda Rising would shout, “Group sneeze!” Everyone would stop in their tracks, shout “Hishi,” “Hashi,” or “Hoshi,” and then there would be silence.    (9P)

Hillside Group felt like a community with QWAN. This was not totally unexpected, given that Hillside Group is one of the few communities that are familiar with the term “QWAN.” In addition to being a valuable repository of knowledge about pattern languages in general, Hillside Group is a community worth studying.    (9Q)

Odds and Ends    (9R)

A topic that came up throughout the meeting was how to better leverage asynchronous tools for collaboration. The consensus was that the face-to-face meetings were extremely important and valuable, but that they could be made more efficient with the right tools. One of the key problems raised was that face-to-face meetings often generated a great amount of energy that promptly dissipated once the meetings adjourned and people went back to their busy lives. I think about this problem constantly. I’ve touched on it briefly in a previous blog entry, and hope to discuss it more soon.    (9S)

A tool idea that came out of this discussion was “Cyber Shepherd.” Inspired by Cyber Chair, a tool for managing the conference submissions and review process, Cyber Shepherd would be a tool for managing the pattern language submission and shepherding process.    (9T)

Husband and wife team Tracy Bialik and Russ Rufer introduced the Silicon Valley Patterns Group, which meets twice (!) a week to discuss software patterns. The group has been going on strong for five (!) years. I plan on attending one of their meetings when I return to the Bay Area, but it already seems to be a very good candidate for studying sustainable grassroots communities.    (9U)

Hanyuda Eiiti, a leading Japanese advocate of software patterns, entertained the group with his “Pattern Dance,” a live enactment of the MVC pattern.    (9V)

I got a chance to chat for a bit with Ralph Johnson, one of the Gang of Four, who explained how the Design Patterns book came about, and how Christopher Alexander‘s ideas began seeping into this community. I’ll post tidbits of that story here when the opportunity arises, and I hope to write a full-length article about this at some point.    (9W)

Sustainable World Symposium

Got an e-mail from Vinit Allen yesterday announcing the Sustainable World Symposium, to be held Saturday, June 14, 2004 at St. Mary’s Cathedral Conference Center in San Francisco, California. From the e-mail:    (9F)

The Symposium is a dynamic, intensive one-day conference for the general public on the most critical global issues that we face, their most viable solutions, and the actions that we can take — both individually and collectively — to achieve a peaceful, prosperous and healthy world for all.    (9G)

More information is available at the Sustainable World Coalition web site.    (9H)

Appreciative Inquiry in Baseball

During last Saturday’s playoff game between the Cubs and Marlins, Tim McCarver raised an interesting point about baseball players. He noted that when a player was hitting well, he would usually just shrug his shoulders about it and not try to analyze it for fear of jinxing things. However, when a player was in a slump, he could give entire dissertations on everything he was doing wrong — elbow too high, stance too open, swinging under the ball, etc.    (9D)

What does this say about baseball players? What does it say about human nature? Would ballplayers be better off if they focused their energies on why they were successful, and shrugged off their slumps?    (9E)

The Value of Models

Nathan Rosenberg, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, gave a talk last Thursday at PARC entitled, “The Endogeneity of Technological Change in 20th Century America.” Endogeneity, as defined by Rosenberg, is the process of responding to changes in market forces.    (97)

According to Rosenberg, up until recently, economic historians viewed technological innovation largely as an exogenous process; that is, independent of market forces. Rosenberg argues that not only is much technological innovation endogenous, but that in the last century, scientific and technological innovation in the U.S. has been especially endogenous.    (98)

Rosenberg made an interesting point about how this endogenous view contrasted with the traditionally linear view of technological innovation. (Donald Stokes explores this topic extensively in his book, Pasteur’s Quadrant; see my previous reference to Stokes.) Engineering disciplines are often thought of as “applied sciences,” whereas in many cases, scientific research is actually an application of engineering disciplines. For example, solid state physics was rarely taught until after the transistor was invented in 1948. Following the transistor, investments in solid-state research increased dramatically, as did the number of physicists who specialized in that field. Similarly, basic research in polymer chemistry at Dupont in the 1920s (which eventually led to the invention of nylon, among other things) didn’t occur until after Dupont had made several advances in chemical engineering. The latter convinced the company that it had the capability to develop advances in polymer chemistry into marketable products.    (99)

Why We Need Models    (9A)

Rosenberg’s topic was stimulating, but something he said early in his talk caught my ear. He stated that he was skeptical that we could derive rigorous models of technological innovation, but that we could derive a great deal of valuable knowledge by considering these models.    (9B)

A group of us at Blue Oxen Associates are currently working on another community case study, and one of the topics we’re exploring is the effects of tools and processes on these communities. One of the researchers asked about how we could set up properly scientific experiments. I responded that I didn’t think it was possible. There are things you can do to make a study more “scientific,” but those things don’t guarantee rigorous results. That said, I don’t think a study has no value if you don’t have a control group. At the Hypertext 2002 Workshop on Facilitating with Hypertext, Jeff Conklin had this memorable line: “All abstractions are wrong, but they can still be very useful.”    (9C)