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Art in service of biology?

Image: Nicolle R. Fuller

A critical analysis of Piaget’s categorizations of concrete and formal operations; the implications for GCSE biology students; and the extent to which art might fill the gap.


While working as a cover supply teacher at two state secondary schools in England, I was taken aback by the noticeable lack of understanding GCSE biology students showed with regards to processes such as osmosis, photosynthesis and the workings of the cell.

The national curriculum (Department for Education 2014) for Key Stages 3 and 4 Biology states that,

‘Students should be helped to understand how, through the ideas of biology, the complex and diverse phenomena of the natural world can be described in terms of a number of key ideas which are of universal application…’

Reciting the equation for photosynthesis, knowing this helps in getting through an exam, is different from understanding what’s going on at the molecular level in biology and being able to mentally manipulate the concepts involved in describing the chemical interactions at the heart of the process. I claim this having received unconvincing answers from students to questions such as, ‘What gas do plants absorb?’ after they have recited, or more commonly, read from their book, the equation for photosynthesis. The process is being relayed in symbolic form, but the understanding of that process and its place in the world, seems to be missing. This is corroborated to a certain extent by Dunn’s (2019) research on and interviews with high schoolers struggling with ‘threshold concepts’ as they transition from GCSE to A-level biology, and Moore-Anderson’s (2022 p.2) concerns regarding ‘rote learning (isolated memorization) and meaningful learning (connected knowledge)’ when assessing GCSE biology students. More generally, Bransford et al, (2000 p.24) note that, ‘Many curricula fail to support learning with understanding because they present too many disconnected facts in too short a time’.

Whilst advancing two Piagetian notions, ‘schemata’ and ‘operational thinking’, this assignment provides a critical response to Piaget’s theory of stage development and its application in science classes. It also offers a counter-position to Piaget in the form of Vygotsky’s views on the relationship between learning and cognitive development and how this, along with Piaget’s ‘schemata’ and ‘operational-thinking’ might inform the use of carefully designed art projects to help learners deal with tricky concepts found in biology.

1. Science lessons based on a theory of cognitive stage development.

During the 1960’s Robert Karplus, a well-respected physicist (Fuller 2003 p.359), started teaching science and taking an interest in, what he perceived to be, the shortcomings of high school science students, and the North American curriculum itself (Fuller 2002 p.13). According to Karplus (1977 p.169), ‘Some students are extremely capable, while others demonstrate peculiar and inappropriate reasoning strategies. Sometimes, even after your best efforts, they seem unable to grasp ideas that to you are eminently clear’.

In addressing the problem, Karplus, a self-proclaimed advocate of Piaget’s theory of stage development (Karplus 1977; Fuller 2003), devised a new method for teaching science. Based on Piaget’s theory, Karplus developed the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS) (Kuhn 1979 p.342), a more practical approach to science in the classroom from kindergarten through to the end of primary school, promoting what is now commonplace in science classrooms in the West: a ‘hands-on’ approach to science (ibid; Fuller 2003 p.361). Karplus’s ‘learning cycle’ became known as Exploration, Invention and Discovery (Fuller 2002 p.3). Foundational to Karplus’s approach is the Piagetian notion that, ‘children build, or construct, their own internal mental schemes for knowing science as they experience the world’ (Fuller 2003 p.361).

Piaget (1964 pp.176-178) claims to observe four distinct stages of cognitive development in children comprising of:

1) ‘sensory-motor’, pre-verbal, the stage where it appears young infants progress from not being able to conceptualize the permanence of an object to not only trying to find said object, realizing its permanence, and additionally, according to Piaget, being able to mentally construct ‘temporal succession’ and ‘elementary sensory-motor causality’;

2) ‘pre-operational representation’, the beginnings of language and where, ‘there must now be a reconstruction of all that was developed on the sensory-motor level’;

3) ‘concrete-operations’, ‘elementary’ logic, mathematics, geometry and physics in relation to physical (‘concrete’) objects; and

4) ‘formal-operations’, reasoning on ‘hypotheses, and not only on objects’, the ability to apply thought and reasoning not just to the concrete but to logical and mathematical structures.

Key to Piaget’s theory is the idea that there are four interrelated processes that children undergo in order to develop (Piaget 1964 p.178): maturation (physical and psychological growth), experience, social transmission, and ‘equilibration’, which Piaget saw as ‘self-regulation’, or as Bjorklund (2015 p.15) interprets as, ‘a state of cognitive balance’. Crucially for Piaget (1964 p.176), ‘development explains learning’, and he is explicit on being against, ‘the widely held opinion that development is the sum of discrete learning experiences’ (ibid). This stance will be revisited and challenged further below.

Karplus (1977), in applying Piaget’s theory of stage development to his methodology gives particular weight to the importance of transitioning from concrete- to formal-operations—he sees this as the key to understanding science. An example of the emphasis on this transition can be seen with Lawson’s (cited in Kuhn 1979 p.343) application of Karplus’s learning cycle, while introducing the concept of the ecosystem in high school biology. At the Exploration phase, Lawson has learners physically build an ‘ecosystem’ with a plastic box and an aquarium in an effort to move concrete thinkers from the hands-on (concrete) stage of understanding to being able to use symbols to represent and abstract the processes involved (formal). But Lawson’s, and by implication Karplus’s, approach relies on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development as being valid, which raises the question as to how valid it really is.

2. The problem with ‘concrete’ to ‘formal’ and the epistemological gap.

Brainerd (1978) argues that Piaget’s four stages are descriptive rather than explanatory, that there is little to explain howcognition develops, and that Piaget doesn’t outline how a behavior at a certain stage is derived from its antecedents in previous stages (ibid p.174). Lourenço & Macheda (1996 p.152) add that other critics view Piaget’s stage development as the theory that, ‘describes much but explains little’, even though he is quite clear about the need for an orderly progression from one stage to the next—as Lourenço & Macheda (1996 p.153 citing Inhelder et al. 1974) share, ‘according to Piaget, the learning of a new operational concept depends heavily on the child’s previous level of cognitive development’. Although supported to some degree by Case’s (1992) work on frontal lobe development, and Sapolsky (2017) mentioned below (although neither endorse Piaget’ theory), Piaget’s position appears unnaturally linear and inorganic. Donaldson (1978 cited in Pritchard 2013 p.19) shares, ‘discreet developmental stages are not nearly as simple to describe, nor are they as rigidly linear as Piaget, on the surface at least, seems to suggest’. Baltes (1997 p.369) rejects, ‘any conception of development that is unilinear and based solely on the notion of growth as a unidimensional advance in quantity and quality of functioning’.

In an attempt to provide context to prop up Piaget, Lourenco & Macheda (1996 p.152) bring up his ‘functionalist concerns’ as always being informed by his ‘structuralist framework’, but, while this provides a reason as to perhaps why Piaget would think in terms of progressive, structuralist stages, it does nothing to detail, firstly, the mechanics of development at each stage and, secondly, how each stage informs the next, apart from, say, insinuating that the beginning of language acquisition in the pre-operational stage is foundational for communicating ideas in the following stages (Piaget 1964 p.176) or claiming more explicitly that the ‘interiorization’ of sensory-motor mental structures leads to an ability to internalize mental representations further down the line (Kuhn 1979 p.349). As Brainerd (1978 p.174) comments, ‘statements of the form ‘children do x because they are in stage S’ merely say ‘children do x’’.

I think Piaget suffers from setting forth a bold proposition at a time when the technology in brain science wasn’t as it is today. As a biologist, he bases his theory on ontogeny and genetics observed in a pre-genome-project, pre-big-data, pre-fMRI era, as is almost painfully apparent in his 1971 book, Biology and Knowledge. Compare this to how the field of contemporary neurobiology approaches the subject of maturation (one of Piaget’s four must-haves affecting stage development and something he has been accused of giving too much emphasis to (Akplan & Kennedy 2021 p.138)). For instance, compelling evidence now exists that at the start of adolescence there is a pruning of grey matter in the frontal cortex to produce a more efficient brain in adulthood, and observations suggest that this affects adolescents’ ability to detect irony, measured by the extra activation of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex in adolescents compared to adults (Sapolsky 2017 pp.156-157)*. Here we have a strong indication that cortical maturation might induce a specific behavior—that it precedes and is responsible for a behavioral characteristic. Supposing Piaget had posited that, ‘At stage 4 (formal-operations in adolescence) children lack the ability to detect irony’, this would have been a scientifically verifiable claim about physical development affecting a specific ability to process something (in this case irony). But for Piaget to gain full credibility today, this would only be half the story. In reverting to his own framework, he would not only have to demonstrate how maturation in adolescents’ brains causes, say, the ability to think in abstract or logical-mathematical terms (formal-operational), but would also have to show how this is a progression—a cognitive development—from the concrete-operational stage.

*Sapolsky (ibid p.155) mentions the West but does not explicitly note this as a Western phenomenon.

I think this discrepancy is reflected in Karplus’s approach, even though he himself states that teachers, ‘should not expect that each student’s entire behavior can be classified neatly as reflecting either concrete or formal thought’ (Karplus 1977 p.172). Nevertheless, the weight placed on the need for a shift from concrete- to formal-thinking is implicit (Karplus & Karplus 1970 pp.3-4; Karplus 1977; Fuller 2003 p.10 and p.361), in my view, in Karplus’s justification for going through a mock concrete-operational stage as seen with the ‘ecosystem’ above, to pave the way for abstract reasoning at the formal-operational stage.

I posit that this simply can’t apply to getting to grips with certain aspects of biology during the introductory (GCSE) stages of the subject. Even if Piaget’s theory is to be accepted, it’s inconclusive, as Kuhn (1979 p.344) notes, to suggest concrete-operational thinkers become formal thinkers through mere activity. But I think Kuhn’s observation also misses a bigger point. In my view, there is an epistemological gap in Piaget’s theory and Karplus’s work that I suspect Karplus himself is aware of, indicated by his probing of Piaget when he acknowledges that although there might well be a more ‘advanced intellectual functioning than concrete thought’, it is not as reliable and universal as Piaget’s writings imply (Karplus 1977 p.171). I think there is an over-emphasis on logical-mathematical reasoning (see, for instance, Wavering’s (2011) Piaget’s Logic of meanings: still relevant today; Piaget (1971 p.54) on biology to be thought of in terms of mathematics before other methods of approaching the subject; and Karplus & Karplus 1970), although I accept that once a certain level of knowledge and understanding has been reached, mathematical reasoning, and the ability to think in terms of equations in biology becomes the hallmark of expertise.

While it’s possible the hands-on approach may enthuse learners at the introductory phase, perhaps engaging their brains in different ways, does it / can it really instigate deeper understandings of biological processes? Karplus (1977 p.172) himself, in trying to justify his method, inadvertently highlights this very issue when he observes that there is a difference between experiencing a phenomenon such as temperature and understanding the concept of temperature in terms of molecular kinetic energy. The tricky aspect of teaching this material lies in relating two seemingly unrelated domains, or as the philosopher Marcus Gabriel (2015) calls ‘fields of sense’: on the one hand students can detect that, for instance, this water is ‘hot’, and that water is ‘cold’, and on the other hand they are being told that this is because invisible particles are vibrating faster in the hot water than in the cold. However, experientially, there is no logical link between these two domains. Learners are being asked to contemplate and assimilate two completely different worlds, or fields of sense. As Gabriel (ibid p.310) points out, ‘we have to acknowledge a potential divergence between the object as it appears to us and the object as it really appears in the field under its objective conditions’.

Gabriel (2019 p.155) brings further attention to what I consider to be this epistemological gap when he speaks of the standard definition of knowledge as follows: knowledge is justified true belief. Logical-mathematical knowledge justifies itself, for instance the statement ‘1+1=2’, in the domain of mathematics and physics, is itself, a justified belief. This method of thinking is effective and viable when dealing with mathematics, physics and, to a certain extent, laboratory chemistry. In biology however, things get messier, logic slips and slides, and truth claims often need justifying: ‘1+1 can in certain circumstances equal 1’, for example, if I add one drop of water to another (example curtesy of Gabriel 2015 pp.269-270).

The ability to isolate variables is fundamental to Piaget’s formal-operational thinking (Kuhn 1979 p.345). In biology however, the variables often become unyieldingly complex and illogical. For example, in a clear-cut, clinical, logical-mathematical context, before squirting adrenaline into a petri dish holding another chemical I can predict, assuming I have sufficient prior knowledge, and by isolating the variables and calculating the physical properties of the chemicals involved, that such-and-such reaction will take place. But in biology, if I inject that same adrenaline into a person—a complex biological system—I lose all predictive power. The person might punch me as an aggressive response, or they could faint in shock, or they might run out of the room in ecstasy (or distress), or they could do nothing (example curtesy of Gordon Sanson, Emeritus Professor of biology, Monash University).

In terms of learners and the learning of biology, how best, then, to proceed? I submit that the epistemological gap might be addressed by tapping into students’ visual imagination. This will be explored in section 5, but first I will foreground this proposition by looking at the counter-position to Piaget’s claim that development precedes learning, and that there could be a more organic and less linear way of understanding cognitive development.

3. The case for learning driving development—moving away from Piaget.

Vygotsky (1978 p.81), citing Koffka writes, ‘the process of maturation prepares and makes possible a specific process of learning’, a position supported, as mentioned above, by some of the work done by Case (1992), Sapolsky (2017), and of course Piaget: children won’t be able to learn certain things at a specific age. But Vygotsky (ibid), again citing Koffka, then goes on to say, ‘The learning process then stimulates and pushes forward the maturation process’, a position not just congruent with present-day neurophysiology (Bjorklund 2018 pp.2291-2293), what is referred to now as neuroplasticity, but harks back to Hebbian Theory from the 1940s (Hebb cited in Hawkins 2021 p.38), broadly summed up by Hawkins (ibid) as, ‘When we learn something, the [neural] connections are strengthened, and when we forget something, the connections are weakened’—as Koffka (cited in Vygotsky 1978 p.81), says, learning is itself a developmental process.

In a starker refutation of Piaget’s position, Vygotsky (1978 p.90) states that, ‘developmental processes do not coincide with learning processes. Rather, the developmental process lags behind the learning process’ (my italics). Vygotsky (ibid p.85) suggests there’s a stalling phenomenon if educators, while presenting a problem to a child, give too much emphasis to that child’s current level of development—his concerns lie with the ‘process of maturation’, the “buds’ and ‘flowers’ of development rather than the ‘fruits”, in the context of social and cultural experiences and interactions (ibid p.86). The emphasis placed upon the socio-cultural context is one of the main factors in distinguishing Vygotsky’s theory from Piaget’s (Woolfolk 2013 p.51). For Vygotsky, it is through learning, supported by a mentor or teacher within a social context, that enables cognitive development (Pritchard & Woollard 2010 p.14). As Nicolopoulou (1993 p.8) shares in expounding upon Vygotsky’s stance, ‘A child learns and develops in a social context that includes more knowledgeable and capable peers and adults who pass on the cultural heritage’. From my understanding of Piaget’s theory, there seems to be a key contradiction embedded within, that supports Vygotsky regarding this point. Two of Piaget’s four conditions to be met for cognitive development to occur are ‘experience’ and ‘social transmission’ (Piaget 1964 p.178). But is experience not a form of learning? And do we not learn from social interactions?

Vygotsky (1978 pp.84-91) terms the area of potential growth the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) and defines (p.86) it as:

‘… the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers’.

Necessary to negotiating one’s way to and through the ZPD is the concept of ‘scaffolding’, a term coined by Wood et al. (1976 p.98), where a teacher supports the learner in ‘achieving an intended outcome’ (Bruner cited in Searle 1984 p.480). This form of intervention might include resources such as a word bank to work from or even simplified instructions on how to progress (Pritchard & Woollard 2010 pp.38), the purpose being to ‘support the learner in an attempt to achieve higher levels of development’, the teacher playing the role of prompt, critical listener, provider of feedback, simplifier, highlighter, model and even motivator (ibid p.39).

The next question then becomes, what kind of scaffolding is most appropriate for GCSE biology students—what does this look like in practical terms? This is discussed in section 5, positioning Vygotsky’s ZPD as foundational, but first, I consider two Piagetian concepts, that I believe to be relevant to the subject of deeper learning and understanding: ‘schemata’ and ‘operational thinking’.

4. Learning leading to true understanding.

Before continuing, I acknowledge the hard problem of consciousness (Nagel 1974; Chalmers 2007) as the elephant in the room regarding this section in particular. How can anyone claim to understand the relationship, if there is one, between measurements of neural activity in the ‘physical world’—quanta—and our subjective conscious experience—qualia—expressed below as ‘mental structures’, ‘schemata’, or ‘reference frames’? For the sake of this assignment, I take the materialist’s ontological position, one that posits that conscious experience is derived (somehow—we don’t know how yet) from matter, which I perceive to be the most commonly accepted stance in mainstream academia and science. From what I have read of Piaget, I consider him a dualist (see for instance Piaget 2000 Ch.1 ‘The Development of Object Concept’), and a constructivist (Woolfolk et al. 2013 pp.402-403; and sections 1 and 2 here), which I see as compatible with the below.

‘Schemata’ are the building blocks of Piaget’s stage development (Woolfolk et al. 2013 p.38). ‘They are organised systems of actions or thought that allow us to mentally represent or ‘think about’ the objects and events in our world’—‘mental systems or categories of perception and experience’ (ibid). According to Piaget, schemata are modified, ‘adapted’, ‘in response to changes in the environment to achieve a state of cognitive balance, or equilibration’ (Bjorklund 2015 p.15), and which provide the grounding for new knowledge to be ‘assimilated’ (Piaget 1971 p.9 and p.56; Nicolopoulou 1993 p.3), also in order to reach equilibrated states in cognitive development. Schemata run through Piaget’s stage development model, from stage 1, sensory-motor, involving rudimentary schemes such as mapping where a hidden ball might be, to stage 4, formal-operations, involving complex and abstract schemes such as manipulating mathematical objects (Piaget 1964 pp.176-178). Rather than argue against this idea and while acknowledging the broader problematic nature of Piaget’s stage development theory, I would like to use and develop it further.

Neuroscientist Jeff Hawkins (2021 pp.50-55) speaks of ‘reference frames’—mental structures produced in the brain. I see Hawkins’s reference frames as synonymous with schemata, albeit more thoroughly described at the granular level of neurobiology. Hawkins at al. (2017) explore reference frames at the realm of the ‘cortical column’, a slice of the neocortex packed with neurons, about 2.5mm in thickness, that runs vertically from the surface of the neocortex down (ibid p.1).

In explaining what a reference frame is, Hawkins (2021 p.59) uses the analogy of the grid of a map, building from O’Keefe’s work done in 1971 (2014 lecture cited in Hawkins 2021 p.251) that suggests ‘place cells’ in the brain enable rats to locate themselves in physical areas in the laboratory. Hawkins (ibid pp.65-89) submits that ‘place cells’ and ‘grid cells’ are involved in creating reference frames, not just for temporal-spacial contexts (think Piaget’s schemata at the sensory-motor level); but for finer level physical activities such as picking up a cup of coffee (assessing the location of the cup, weight, best target location on the cup for grip, etc.); right through to manipulating language, and mentally exploring complex abstractions such as language, concepts in mathematics, politics, economics, etc., which brings me to Piaget’s notion of an ‘operation’.

Piaget (1964 p.176) explains an operation (the ‘operation’ in concrete-operation and formal-operation) as:

‘To know an object, is not simply to look at it and make a mental copy or image of it. To know an object is to act on it. To know is to modify, to transform the object, and to understand the process of this transformation, and as a consequence to understand the way the object is constructed’.

Here, I think, is a helpful way to determine where GCSE (perhaps all) students need to be headed in terms of understanding objects and processes in biology (and of course other subjects)—where learners need to be able to applytheir deeper level of understanding rather than reciting surface-level symbolic representations. While I was critical of Piaget’s regimented stages as an explanation for cognitive development, as well as the lack of support concerning stage-to-stage progression, the above definition is, in my opinion, instructive and useful for coming to terms with what understanding something actually means. Piaget’s operation emphasizes the importance of being able to act upon, modify and manipulate either a physical or mental object. In helping us distinguish between learning an equation and understanding a process, Piaget (1971 p.6) states, ‘Knowledge does not really imply making a copy of reality but rather, reacting to it and transforming it’.

My own view is that Piaget’s ‘operation’, isn’t just a description of understanding, it also describes the very process of learning—really learning—something. It can be applied to gain deeper understanding through mental manipulation and the application of disparate concepts and processes, as long as these are presented to the learner in the appropriate fashion. But it also ties in with Hawkins’s notion of arranging facts and observations into reference frames as a means of achieving higher levels of mental complexity and expertise (Hawkins 2021 pp.87-89).

What ‘appropriate fashion’ above means, I think, varies from subject to subject, but in the last section I submit that, based on Vygotsky’s ZPD, with the right degree of scaffolding, and along with reference frames and operational thinking as ways to think about piecing together knowledge in the learning process, well-structured art projects could be an appropriate means of helping GCSE students gain a deeper understanding of objects, concepts, and processes in biology.

5. Art in service of biology.

Even if we were to accept the distinction between concrete and formal operations, and then have it inform a mode of pedagogy, when it comes to something like photosynthesis, there is no ‘concrete’ form to begin with—human beings can’t experience photosynthesis ‘concretely’. Photosynthesis exists in different domains, different fields of sense, than what we experience. Visual imagination is required to enter the fields of sense of photosynthesis, osmosis, or cell membrane activity. Visual imagination becomes the tool for exploration and learning.

Common to most biology textbooks, be they for children (CGP Books 2016) or university students (Campbell & Reece 2002), are ample pictures and diagrams (see Appendix 1). This gives a clue as to the level of importance educators place on visual reference when trying to communicate biological processes. But as Piaget (1964 p.176) says, ‘To know an object, is not simply to look at it and make a mental copy or image of it’, to know something is to be able to act upon it, control it, manipulate it. A picture could be of use as a primer, but does it complete the job of building a functional, enriched reference frame in the mind of the learner?

My conjecture is that there needs to be a move away from the ‘concrete’, ‘hands on’, Piaget-inspired approach towards a more creative and conceptually engaging method of pedagogy. The fact that making art is a physical process should be of no distraction—there will be kinesthetic, sensory-motor, and ‘concrete’ aspects to the approach—but the value lies in the analytical, critical thinking, and creative processes intrinsic to the act of artmaking. As Kuhn (1979 p. 349)citing Piaget notes, ‘Children can manipulate physical materials in a passive, thoughtless manner; conversely, they can be ‘actively mentally engaged’ while not doing anything with their hands’. The main point is to enable conceptual—‘artworks are conceptual’ (Gabriel 2020 p.65)—movement* akin to true operational thinking, the instigation of accurate reference frames followed by the further enrichment of those reference frames, through art.

*Movement, in both the physical form, but more importantly here, mental operations too, according to both Piaget (1971 p.9; Efland 2002 p.27 citing Gruber and Voneche) and Hawkins (2020 p.19 and 34) is fundamental to the formation and strengthening of schemata or reference frames.

As seen in section 1, Karplus’s Exploration phase in his learning cycle sometimes involves the creation of something, the example in that case being an ‘ecosystem’. However, the premise for this creation (the progression from concrete- to formal-operations) is not only unconvincing as discussed, and not only attempts to conflate unrelated fields of sense, it brushes the surface and stops short of how creating something can enable the exploration and experiencing of concepts such as an ecosystem or photosynthesis. The case here is being made for art ‘as a research process in itself’, with research extended throughout a continuous creative process, as advocated by Sullivan (cited in Marshall 2016 p.17).

In shifting the focus from learning to teaching momentarily, what should such art projects look like in practical terms? Kuhn (1979 p.349) warns, not specifically with regards to teaching biology but more generally, against too much ‘self-directed activity’. Certainly, there needs to be an avoidance of an artistic free-for-all, or even, in my view an ‘ad hoc’ intervention style of scaffolding (Pritchard & Woollard 2010 p.38). I value art as a subject in its own right, but the proposal here is art in service of biology. When it comes to navigating through the ZPD in this case, I think there needs to be a more rigid, biology-plus-art-teacher-led structure, whilst bearing in mind Searle’s (1984 pp.481-483) concerns regarding control and influence when scaffolding. This balance of getting the scaffolding just right is especially pertinent with regards to the proposal of trying to teach biological concepts through art projects—learners need to be processing accurate information and reaching conclusions and creative solutions in their work that are scientifically viable, as opposed to painting or sculpting random blobs that may or may not represent certain chemical processes.

Going into the detail of what these projects might look like is beyond the scope of this assignment, but a strong example can be found in Marshall (2010) and Geiser’s art project with high school students tackling science and technology. Appendix 2, a diagram showing the overview, is extracted from Marshall’s article (ibid p.18) and shows the break down of their process into 10 distinct phases integrated within four over-arching areas: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification, grounded in Marshall’s (2011 p.13) tenet, in the context of art serving other subjects that, ‘making art is understood to be less about producing aesthetic objects and images and more about exploring a topic or idea, responding intellectually and emotionally to it, and interpreting one’s impressions artistically’.

The ‘research workbook’ (Marshall 2011 p.14) is one key facet to highlight: ‘a combination of notebook, sketchbook, laboratory, and repository of research findings that functions as a working document for personal investigation’, with the aim of documenting, ‘creative, non-verbal ways of understanding a subject’ (ibid p.12). The research workbook is a continuous log, is used throughout the duration of all art projects, and is a vessel for what Riley (2019 p.435) terms ‘conceptual intrigue’—fresh insights which lead to new understandings of what’s being studied—prompting changes in how students see themselves as researchers, ‘who consciously follow a research path of their own making to construct new meanings, new insights, and new knowledge’ (Marshall 2011 p.14).

In the context of this assignment, I’d expect these research workbooks to be crammed with sketches of cell walls, lipids, and molecular interactions; printouts of diagrams of molecular structures and drawings of cellulose and mitochondria; notes on the dynamic nature of glucose and light; (relatable) graphs and diagrams quantifying gas exchanges and energy levels; as well as creative interpretations of all these elements in conjunction with the biology teacher’s guidance on scientific truths. In my mind this research workbook becomes the student’s ‘advance organizer’ (Armbruster 1986 p.259 citing Ausubel), their own priming tool—a tool that makes sense to them—for the task of tackling tricky biological concepts. In a bid to counter the issues raised by Armbruster (1986 p.254) and Ausubel (2000 p.68) regarding the lack of appropriate, meaningful, prior mental structures, or knowledge, in order to house new data, and which can lead to irrelevancy, disinterest, and a dearth in understanding, research workbooks help students to start to piece together their own reference frames, enabling further integration of and operational thinking on now-resonant information in the biology class. They would also pave the way for learners to consolidate the material as per Bruner’s ‘spiral curriculum’ (Bruner 1999; Pritchard & Woollard 2010 p.20)—a format that, at different stages, has learners revisit ideas repeatedly, ‘until the student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them’ (Bruner 1999 p.13).


While this assignment lacks a thorough diagnosis of what is taking place in science education today and relies on anecdotal evidence from my experience in a cover supply capacity as a premise, as a qualified ESL teacher and as an art and design teacher-trainee, along with the work by Dunn (2019) and Moore-Anderson (2022) that seems to support my prognosis, I feel confident in declaring that a noticeable percentage of learners are struggling in the area addressed here.

This matters in terms of simply understanding biology better. As a society we talk a lot about climate change, food supply chains, and health issues. Can we really expect to tackle such problems when we don’t understand the underlying concepts?

But it also matters in terms of how educators understand how people learn. Is it right to base curricula off suspect theories of cognitive development? Do we need to get more innovative in how we teach certain subjects? Is logical-mathematical reasoning really the pinnacle of human knowledge and understanding, whatever the subject in question might be?

To me it feels that even today Vygotsky’s (1978 p.79) observation that, ‘the relation between learning and development remains methodologically unclear’, remains true. But it seems that a plausible pedagogical way forward involves the careful balancing and acknowledgement of both sides of the argument, borrowing from each, while leaning more heavily towards Vygotsky’s general position on learning driving development, as is noticeable in the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE) initiative, which draws from both Piaget and Vygotsky (Oliver & Venille 2017 p.378 and p.380), but in my mind also fails to address the problems outlined in section 2 of this assignment.

I acknowledge that the idea of using art projects as a means to aide learning and deepen the understanding of certain biological concepts contains many of its own practical problems, not least that of finding the time in art and biology teachers’ (and biology students’) busy schedules in order for them to collaborate in an effective manner, ensuring that accurate learning is taking place rather than arts and crafts ‘time-outs’, as well as this being unedifying for students who dislike art, but I think it offers an exciting alternative to the ‘hands on’, ‘concrete-operational’ to ‘formal-operational’ methodology as criticized above. Kolb (2015 p.65), citing Dewey, sees learning as a reiterative or, ‘dialectic’ process, ‘integrating experience and concepts, observations, and action’ and, in my opinion, the approach proposed here is more congruent with this line of thinking.


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Appendix 1

Appendix 2

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