Where science and art meet

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Challenging teachers from two disciplines to take each other's lessons opened their eyes to their own unrealised potential - and that of their pupils. Reva Klein reports

For some, it is the stuff of nightmares. Imagine it: you're an art teacher asked to teach science, or a science teacher directed to teach art. The last time you even thought about the other subject was for your GCSEs and the experience was not a happy one. You find yourself in the science lab or the art room full of unfamiliar bits and bobs that make your heart sink.

The class is sitting there expectantly. You wake up in a sweat.

Except you don't. Because this was the scenario of the teacher-exchange project at Thomas Tallis specialist arts college in Blackheath, south-east London. Before they embarked on the class swap, teachers from the art and science departments spent nine weeks over lunchtimes collaborating, swotting up each other's subjects and devising lesson plans. Far from being a nightmarish experience, they found it eye-opening, stimulating and rewarding, not only for the teachers, but for the pupils and indeed the rest of the school.

The project, which took place last year , was a collaboration between Creative Partnerships and the Helen Storey Foundation, an organisation set up by the internationally renowned former fashion designer to promote creativity and innovation in schools. Reflecting the symbiotic relationship between art and science, Helen Storey and her sister, Kate, a developmental biologist, worked with the school to launch the pilot.

The concept behind it all was inspired by in-service training sessions at the Creative Laboratory in south London where Helen, commissioned by Creative Partnerships, has developed projects that provide workable models for cross-curricular, creative work.

For art teacher Kate Callighan - now moved on from Thomas Tallis - the prospect of teaching science was daunting, to say the least.

"The last time I did science, I was the age of my pupils now. The first time I walked into the science lab, I was a little bit nervous. It made me aware of how safe you feel in your own environment."

The two science teachers, Alex Gibbons and Laura Harris, worked with Kate on relevant principles and then devised lessons that would fit in with each other's schemes of work. Colour was chosen as a fitting topic because, says Laura, "it has such strong links with both art and science". The science lesson taught by Kate focused on colour in light, using a prism to split the light. She sprayed water into projected light, which acted like a rainbow. Pupils then painted what they saw.

The science teachers, working in the art class, asked the children to identify a highly magnified image on a screen. Once the class worked out what it was - a pollen grain - they were invited to create three dimensional models of pollen shapes using brightly coloured plasticine.

Helen Storey is on a mission to introduce creativity and imagination into learning at all levels. "In science, the tendency is often 'Don't use your imagination too much. Keep to the facts.' But the best scientists are interested in areas that they can't prove. So there's something in all this about imagination and the question of whether it's the same imagination you're using in art as in science."

For the Year 7 pupils in the pilot, this more holistic way of teaching proved stimulating and popular. "At first, I felt it was kind of weird, a science teacher standing in front of an art class," says Tom Norton. "But then it started to come together. The lesson was very different and I experienced art in a completely new way."

Charlie Curtis, in the same class, agrees. "I looked at science in a different way. It was more fun."

And for Sloane Scott, it opened up other possibilities. "I thought it would be good to swap maths and English teachers, too."

Breaking down the pigeonholes that subject specialists are put into was, for Laura Harris, the science teacher, "liberating because you can use skills you have in other subjects as well. Since the teacher-exchange pilot, I've done projects to make my lessons more creative, like integrating model-making into the work."

Alex Gibbons has found that this work has raised her awareness of the different skills that children have throughout the curriculum.

"They really impressed me. It's so easy to ignore the fact that a pupil who is weak in one subject could be talented in another, because they're using different skills. And overall, their behaviour was better."

The pilot had an impact on the way the whole school approaches the curriculum, says Jon Nicholls, the arts college manager at Thomas Tallis who helped get the teacher exchange running.

"The project has been an important stimulus in how we've reconceptualised our new role as art college. After the school staff saw the film that was made about the project, an art practitioner was brought into the maths department for a residency and we had a whole school conference on creative connections across the curriculum. It's actually transformed some of the learning."

Helen Storey Foundationwww.helenstoreyfoundation.orgpro4.htm Creative Laboratory www.creative-partnerships.com

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