Science ‘could learn more creativity’ from art colleges

If art has become more academic, might it also be able to refresh other disciplines?

August 2, 2016
Splashes of coloured paint on white canvas
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A researcher has argued that science might be quicker at embracing new paradigms if it was willing to learn from art colleges.

When Jenny Waller was principal lecturer in information design at Coventry University, she worked in a department that included fine art. Yet although her colleagues were “very confident about what they did”, the administrative staff often seemed “very frustrated” and would say things like “I have no idea what goes on there”. When asked to fill in feedback forms, “the students would write all over them and refuse to conform to the rules”.

Although Dr Waller spent much of her life as a secondary-school teacher and consultant, at the end of her career she decided to investigate further what it has meant for art schools to be incorporated into universities – and whether other disciplines might have something to learn from them.

She therefore embarked on a PhD at the University of Reading, where she also designed and taught a programme on information design. Her findings have been developed into a book called Art as Extraordinary Science: A paradigm for the 21st century (Clink Street Publishing).

Now that art courses are taught at university, they have obviously adopted more essay writing and other academic approaches. Although Dr Waller acknowledges that there has been a major “debate about whether [such] articulation is necessary or a distraction”, she thinks it is “probably a good thing” that art has been embraced by universities and regrets “there has been no corresponding opening up of the march to science”.

Dr Waller’s book draws on the ideas of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn.

He believed there was something called “normal science”, which offers students an “immensely effective” but also “narrow and rigid” education, designed to teach them the rules of the current paradigm and to allow them to operate unquestioningly within it. However useful, this also proves constraining when paradigms shift and the genuinely fresh thinking of “extraordinary science” is required.

It is here that Dr Waller believes that “other disciplines have got a lot to learn from art colleges” and their blend of academic learning and more imaginative approaches. In normal science, she explains, “education is about teaching the stuff we know” rather than “providing a space where you can find out things we don’t know. That doesn’t feature in educational policy.” 

So what do her theories mean in practice?

On a science curriculum, she replies, they might take the form of “a day a week where you had a clear space and did your own project…It could be an optional module and start the process of backing off, providing the support for students to have a sense of perspective on their discipline. My son is a scientist and he said to me ‘That’s so far from what we do. No one asks your opinion in science. It’s always about what you know.’”

In the long run, suggests Dr Waller, such initiatives might even translate into “hard cash” and “economic investment”.

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