The Brighter Side of Education

Drawing Thought: A Discussion on Art and Cognition with Artist Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz

November 16, 2023 Dr. Lisa R. Hassler Season 2 Episode 28
The Brighter Side of Education
Drawing Thought: A Discussion on Art and Cognition with Artist Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz
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Ever thought about the profound role art plays in education? Get ready to be enlightened as we join Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz, an artist, researcher, and educator, in an enriching conversation on the impact of art on cognition. Taking us through her significant research findings, we delve into the surprising correlation between an integrated art curriculum and elevated mathematical skills among students from Bronx and Harlem. Dr Kantrowitz masterfully sheds light on the power of art in fostering spatial reasoning, an essential skillset for excelling in STEM fields.

We also turn our attention to the intriguing journey of drawing and how it can help us experience the world in a more profound, mindful way. Dr Kantrowitz presents insightful excerpts from her book, Drawing Thought, equipping us with exciting activities to amplify cognition and mindfulness. The conversation then shifts to how arts education can pave the way for equal opportunities in society by nurturing creativity.

If you've got a unique experience about arts education in schools, we're all ears! Find out how you can contribute to this vital dialogue and make a difference by joining our podcast community on Facebook at The Brighter Side of Education Podcast Community.

The call to action is to emphasize arts education and the creative mind as key components to equalize opportunities in society.

To learn more about Andrea's work, go to www.andreakantrowitz.com.

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Want to share a story? Email me at lisa@drlisarhassler.com.
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The music in this podcast was written and performed by Brandon Picciolini of the Lonesome Family Band. Visit and follow him on Instagram.

My publications:
America's Embarrassing Reading Crisis: What we learned from COVID, A guide to help educational leaders, teachers, and parents change the game, is available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and iTunes.
My Weekly Writing Journal: 15 Weeks of Writing for Primary Grades on Amazon.
World of Words: A Middle School Writing Notebook Using the Writing Process on Amazon....

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

Welcome to The Brighter Side of Education. I'm your host, Dr. Lisa Hassler, here to enlighten and brighten the classrooms in America through focused conversation on important topics in education. In each episode, I discuss problems we as teachers and parents are facing and what people are doing in their communities to fix it. What are the variables and how can we duplicate it to maximize student outcomes? In this episode, I discuss art and education. How is student learning experience and outcome increased with art integrated instruction?

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

According to the National Arts Education Status Report of 2019, art class interest and participation decrease in K-12 schools by almost 40%, from the elementary to the high school levels. 86% of elementary schools participate in art classes, compared to 69% of middle school students, which then drops to 47% of high school students. Now, this coincides with the decrease in art class requirements for high schools and the competing advanced level courses needed to get accepted into colleges and earned scholarships. In this way, arts education is often misunderstood as a fun break, despite research proving its ability to increase cognition in the core content subject areas and improve students' social, emotional well-being. President Kennedy even stated as a great democratic society, we have a special responsibility to the arts. For art is the great democrat calling forth creative genius from every sector of society.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

Joining me today to discuss the importance of art in education is Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz. She is an artist, researcher and educator who has lectured and given workshops internationally on art and cognition. She is the director of the art education program at the State University of New York at New Pals and the author of Drawing Thought, published in 2022, which is an investigation of drawing, cognition and creativity that integrates text and hand-drawn images. Welcome to the show, Andrea.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate this opportunity.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

Can you talk about your background and how you became interested in art and cognition?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

Well, it's hard to remember when it began. I think it's something that I've always been interested in what kinds of thinking we do when we make art and how artist's ways of thinking could be useful across disciplines and really for everyone, not just those who identify, think of themselves, as artists. I think that art does unlock and allow us to see our own thinking in unique ways, and we can play with our ideas and uncover ideas in very open-ended ways that I think it's hard to do when we're using words alone. So I think that's one of the things that really makes art and drawing special. I've always made art since I was a little kid and I've always been really interested in thinking, and when I was in college, I created my own major in art and cognition, looking at the relationship across disciplines through courses in sociology, anthropology, psychology and philosophy of science, evolution, all that stuff and seeing how it all connected, and also just kept painting. So my main art practice is painting and drawing.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

Nice, I've seen some of your work on your website, beautiful, and so you do showings and stuff like that galleries, yeah?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

I actively exhibit my work as well as think about all this other stuff.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

Yeah, and you're very active in the research end of art and education. You co-organized 10 years of international drawing and cognition research symposia and workshops, and your study Framing Student Success, Connecting Rigorous Visual Arts, Math and Literacy Learning demonstrated the impact of an integrated art curriculum for students growing up in poverty. Can you talk about your study and the key findings?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

Sure, it was federally funded by the Federal Department of Education Art and Education Model documentation and dissemination project with partnering studio in a school, private non-profit organization with New York City Department of Education and it was five years of research with 800 students in third to fifth grade in the Bronx and Harlem, randomized control. So like gold standard study with an integrated curriculum. What really we were really looking at what specific cognitive skills can art teach children that children need? And it was really targeted for impact. So I want to, I want to take a step back with it.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

The previous year my son was a Teach for America teacher on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and we went to visit him and he was complaining, actually because his students were so below grade level but they had an hour of art a day and he said what a waste when they can't read or do math. So I was really interested in this AEMDD study, the study in New York City, to see if we targeted instruction in art, if we could have more of an impact, and we found that we could. So we paired schools that had with a high poverty population with the school actually that I was primarily in was a failing school in New York City that was on the verge of being closed because the children were not at grade level, and we work with the math and literacy coaches to develop specific curriculum that targeted the things that those children really needed, and what we found is that they scored better on the state tests. It's a rough measure but it's something, and we found even more of an impact in math than literacy, which was not what was predicted.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

Like we think of artists being about self expression and sort of emotional stuff, but really we saw more of a difference in their ability to do math, and I think there's some really interesting reasons for this. We never were able to really dial down to the item analysis to figure out why, but it's my best guess that it has to do with spatial reasoning, the kind of spatial reasoning that is cultivated through art making and that is so important for success across disciplines, particularly in STEM fields. So that's something that's very exciting was about that project and also the collaboration. I think that you know forming a team between the classroom teachers, the math and literacy coaches and the and the art educators was was really key.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

You gave an example when we were talking earlier with the tissue paper and fractions, right?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

So Bob Seagler at Carnegie Mellon has done some really interesting research on what are some key benchmarks that we look for in terms of the development of mathematical thinking and it turns out that if children don't get fractions by grade five, it's really a problem for them. It's a really a strong predictor later on in terms of their ability in math. So we developed this really fun game using tissue paper, so it was transparent to get across the idea of equivalent fractions, so the idea that you know two quarters make one half. You could actually see it. You could do it physically through different pieces of of colored tissue paper and see it, and it was incredibly effective. Kids loved it.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

I remember we had we developed this whole bingo game and the kids were so excited that the assistant principal came in and he was afraid something was going on in the classroom because you know he heard so much excitement. I think we underestimate children often, we don't give them the tools they need and then we think it's their fault and not ours. And I remember that in a 12 to one to one special ed classroom the teacher said oh, you know, my students will never get fractions. It's just learning about equivalent fractions is not something they can do, but we did it. We played the game and I would walk into the classroom when it wasn't art time and see the children taking out the game pieces that we made and playing with them.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

And what a big difference it is between non-intentional art, when it comes to take out a pack of crayons and just draw something that comes to your mind for an art class, versus intentionally pairing a lesson plan to meet certain standards, whether it's an art standard or it's a math standard.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

But being able to have that intentionality is really important when it comes to the end result and whether or not the students are going to be increasing their knowledge base. One of my old art classes that my sons were in they really had no art instruction. It was more of this kind of reminds me of what your son was thinking like oh, it's kind of this waste of time in a sense, because it was like here's a piece of paper, here's a pack of crayons, and it was a space, a time that they were saying this is art class, versus when you have an art teacher that is trained in how to develop skills within students and then be able to do that partnering, like you're talking about that cross-curricular to help boost those other subject areas, to say how can we work together collaboratively to bring art intentionally into the classroom in a way that would help improve their learning outcomes.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

So, yeah, your comment just brings two stories to mind. One is we always think of art in the service of other disciplines and with the same project in fifth grade we did a project with insects. They made up their own imaginary insects, but as part of that we used geometry and we said is this an acute angle or is this an obtuse angle? Is this an equilateral triangle? It's like just really using the vocabulary that they had learned through geometry and applying it to art. So I think the cross-fertilization goes in both directions.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

That is very true, yeah, and I think yeah. Sometimes we just think that we add in art just to make it fun, rather than seeing that art actually has its own learning that is important and valuable for students.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

What is embodied cognition and how can we use it to increase the educational experience for students?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

So I love that question because we treat our children as if they're just brains and disembodied, and I think that that has gotten even more so in the digital age, when they're so glued to screens where children aren't even learning how to write by hand. They just learn how to type right away. But as humans, we've evolved to think with our whole bodies, in interaction with the environment in which we find ourselves, and we have these marvelous hands that are so complex and are so much more than our thumbs and there's some work that shows that the complexity of our hands evolved along with the complexity of our brains.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

Often there's a field of gesture studies I'll just try to be really brief about this that shows that when there's a mismatch between gesture and speech, that the gesture exhibits a higher level of understanding than the speech. The gesture is in front of the speech. So this is Susan Golden Meadow with Piaget's Conservation of Volume Task, which I know a lot of educators will be familiar with. We think and feel our way through with our hands and as we learn new things, sometimes we're kind of indicated through our gesture when we can't put it into words. And if you ask someone a really difficult question, for example, and you make them sit on their hands, they're going to have a harder time answering it and it's really interesting They've also.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

There's a lot of this work is super interesting because teachers who gesture and maybe again targeted gestures in intentional ways their children learn better. And when you allow children to gesture as they're speaking or even guide them to certain kinds of gestures, they'll learn better. So this is related to the idea of embodied cognition that we think with our whole bodies and also, when we make art, we use our hands. We can sometimes put things down in lines and marks that we can't yet put into words.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

Which leads me to drawing as a tool for thought. One of your dyslexic participants in one of your professional development courses said for me drawing has been a kind of special magic superpower. She used drawing when her words failed and encourages her students to use drawing as a tool. So how can drawing be used as a tool for thought?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

I think exactly following up on your last question is allowing us to access embodied cognition, things that we know and understand but cannot yet put into words.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

So I think that that's sort of the magic superpower, that it helps to open our eyes and minds and hearts to see more, imagine and invent more and feel more connected by bringing to light perceptions and ideas that otherwise would stay below the surface of our conscious minds, because we can't always express what we know and understand in words.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

I think another sort of magic superpower of drawing is that, in particular, is that we use uncertainty. I think as humans we always want to be certain things and we tend to be overconfident in our beliefs and ideas about things, and withdrawing the actually the fuzziness of our thoughts can actually be seen as an advantage and opportunity. We can become more comfortable with not knowing and allowing things to sort of bubble to the surface that we might otherwise ignore. So there's something phenomenon called paradoleia, which is how, as humans, we tend to see meaning in random phenomena, like seeing Jesus in the piece of toast kind of thing we just see, or castles in the clouds or whatever it is. We tend to see things that aren't there, and when we draw, we can actually make use of that and to stimulate our imagination and come up with new ideas, just on the basis of, like, looking at the fuzziness and drawing something out of that.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

Now, last fall you published the book Drawing Thought how drawing helps us observe, discover and invent, and in it you wrote about a tap down and bottom up approach. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

So top down is what we ordinarily think of as conscious thought, planning, judgment, strategizing, analyzing, and that's very often the common understanding of what constitutes thought. But there's so much more that goes on in our minds. So the bottom up are perceptual processes, habits and routines, kind of what we act on spontaneously. Sudden epiphanies or even sometimes negatively intrusive memories also come from the bottom up. All kinds of biases, innate and learned biases, such as confirmation bias, always looking in the world for things that confirm what we think rather than being open to contradictory information.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

That's bottom up. The bias that we overestimate our own intelligence and underestimate the intelligence of others. That's something that we do as humans, really important to become aware of as a teacher, that we underestimate the intelligence of our students sometimes. That's all bottom up. And I think through drawing and other forms of art making we can become more conscious, more aware and more in control of all that bottom up stuff which might otherwise operate out of our view. We can play with these ideas and perceptions, we can sort them, we can keep what's useful and correct what is not useful.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

How would you suggest to you like? What would that look like? The top down versus bottom up? Like if I had a piece of paper and I'm I don't know I'm thinking about drawing something? Is it within that process that I have something planned and that now I'm allowing innovation and creativity to come into what it is that I'm doing? And is that way the bottom up or is?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

it a plan? Yeah, I think of not being too sad. I think people get frustrated with drawing because they think it's a simple act of putting something that they see or imagine on paper and hitting the target. And we never hit the target. No, I can do drawing and paintings since I was a little kid and I don't hit the target. But that's not even that interesting. It's sort of the journey that you go on to figure things out because inevitably what you think you see or what you think in your head, you have in your head is not completely accurate or doesn't make complete sense. And once you start to put it down on paper, you can see where it doesn't make sense, where things don't connect, and figure it out. For example, in science class it's been shown that students' visualizations really help them understand systems better than verbal descriptions, because they can see it and they can see where something doesn't connect, which is you can't see with words, in that same way.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

You have a YouTube video Thinking About Drawing and you said "drawing helps us not to escape but instead engage deeply in the present moment. Where do you believe drawing can lead us?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

These are such good questions. You ordered them perfectly. So exactly what I just said that you can draw. As you draw, it takes you on a journey and you begin to see things that you didn't even know were there. And this you know.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

I've been drawing for 50 years or more probably 60 years. I was a real little kid and I'm always amazed that there's so much more, as soon as I start to draw, than I thought when I was just looking. So I think, if you go in expecting to be surprised and welcoming shifting ideas or overturned assumptions, that's really exciting and you'll find that you can. If you draw what you see, what you hear, what you imagine, that you know less about it than you think you do, but at the same time more than you might realize.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

So there's this very famous drawing teacher, Simone Nicolides, who wrote a book, the Natural Way of Drawing, way back, you know, and he was teaching in the 1930s. He said what he noticed about teaching drawing is that students will be surprised that there's much more in their drawings than they even knew, that they saw. You know that there's just details and that they weren't even aware that they were observing, but it's in their drawings to draw. And then I think the other magical thing about where drawing can take you is after you've been sitting drawing and maybe it's just like the flowers on your tabletop or some idea that you have in your head, or you just start to doodle, even Go for a walk and notice the world around you and if you've been really engaged you might notice that it seems more vivid, the mundane details of your life seem more magical. It just kind of wakes you up to that sense of being present in the moment.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

That's beautiful. Sometimes I do that where, like you know, I have this idea in my head and I'll try to put that out onto a canvas. And it's frustrating because this idea of what I want it to be is not what it is. And then, like you're saying, you go out and what I've noticed is walking. Even I live near the beach. We'll sit at sunset and I'll look at the sky and go those are amazing colors. How would I blend that? Look at that cloud, look at the depth in that. It looks like I could, like it's a snowball, like I could crunch it. And the other ones are like you could tell the different levels of the stratosphere and stuff. And you're saying, wow, that one's so much higher and the one below is moving. And how would I? How would I depict that? What colors would I use? What medium would I use? And that's it. You know that's amazing. So I look at it and I'm always saying like to myself I love the color combination or the textures or the shape of something and wonder how is it that someone could actually duplicate that beyond my skill immensely. But I'm always in awe of the nature and the natural world around us and how others have the ability to take that and actually represent that or duplicate it in different ways. That could just be magnificent.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

With my students in the classroom they would come at something with different lenses. So when you know, if they ever saw something like a nude statue and here I was in second grade and it was like, oh my gosh, it's a butt, you know and then I would say, can you imagine the talent it took to make that butt? I mean, that looks real. Or how would you go about creating something in marble? How would you go about taking clay, you know? And so when you start to look at the skill and the mastery behind those things and saying, come to it with the lens of an artist, even science, come to it with the lens of a scientist. And when you even combine those two to think anatomically, how is that accurate? Or even botanicals that they would draw, would take them out in the garden and they would draw botanicals. We would go to the Selby gardens and be able to watercolor those. But you'd look at the shapes and, after being in art for a while and just dabbling, how much more I appreciate the natural world.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

So great advice yeah, and I think that connection there between art and science is one that's too often ignored or thought of in a superficial way. But I think there's a really deep connection there between developing your powers of close observation and structure and form and understanding the natural world and appreciating it. So I love that you just made that connection so and I think that material engagement right with all kinds of materials is is being human. That's what makes us human, I think, among many other things, but that's that's that's a really important thing to to offer to our students.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

Excellent. Before we end the conversation, can you leave teachers and parents with a recommendation regarding art and cognition?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

So, yeah, may things draw together, make sculptures with cardboard boxes that are out in the recycling bin and other materials. Look at your, think about what your grandmothers and grandfathers made the quilts, maybe cooking, making birthday cakes and Halloween costumes from scratch, rather than just going to the store and Experience that human connection you can cultivate through the physical engagement with your body and mind and heart all together. So that's my recommendation. I think that we've seen. I just want to say one more thing, which is we've seen over the years that I was teaching in K-12, hand strength decrease Because we don't make those things.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

And when I ask my future art teachers, like, does anybody in your family make quilts or, you know, carpentry or whatever, they usually say yes, there's somebody there. Maybe they weren't an artist in you know, with a capital a, but they made stuff. And I think in the general population those kinds of crafts have really Decreased. And when I talked to a general ed population, they don't have, they haven't had those experience. So let's bring them back and enrich our children's lives with those kinds of knowledge and skills.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

Thank you, that's excellent. I'm gonna jump right on that. I love to do all those little things and I think that it's just interesting. It makes life interesting and kind of fun and makes you proud of some things that you've created. So, Andrea, thank you so much for joining me today to discuss art and education and the importance it plays in cognition and mindfulness.

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

Well, thank you so much. This has been a pleasure.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

How would someone be able to learn more about you and where would they go?

Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz:

Well, you can go to my website, andreak antrowitzcom. Pick up my book. You can, it's available on Amazon. You can order from your local bookstore. It might even be there drawing thought and Within that there's all kinds of ideas and also exercises different activities to try. So yeah, and reach out to me, AndreaK antrowitz@ gmail.

Dr. Lisa Hassler:

The call to action is to emphasize arts education and the creative mind as key components to equalize opportunities in society. If you have a story about working in your schools that you'd like to share, you can email me at drl isar ichardsonhass ler@ gmail. com, or visit my website at www. drlisarhassler. com and send me a message. If you like this podcast, subscribe and tell a friend. The more people that know, the bigger impact it will have. If you find value to the content in this podcast, consider becoming a supporter by clicking on the supporter link in the show notes. It is the mission of this podcast to shine light on the good in education so that it spreads, affecting positive change. So let's keep working together to find solutions that focus on our children's success.

Art in Education Research
Dr. Andrea Kantrowitz
Impact of Art Curriculum for Students in Poverty, Study and Findings
Embodied Cognition
Drawing as a Tool for Thought
Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approach
Where Drawing Can Lead Us
Recommendation Regarding Art and Cognition
Get in Touch with Andrea
Call to Action