Teach Math with Art


This May, I presented at the OAME (Ontario Association of Mathematics Educators). My session was on combing visual arts and mathematics to create rich cross-curricular learning experiences.

Obvious Math

Albright-Knox Gallery

A lot of art has direct connections to math. You don’t have to look long to find examples of geometry and patterning and, in some ways, number. The art elements shape, form, line, and space are all found in the geometry curriculum.

Calder at the National Gallery of Art

The design principle of balance is connected to the concept of equality and every painting, symmetrical or asymmetrical, can be looked at in terms of equations. The design principle pattern/repetition is ubiquitous in graphic and product design, using colour, shape, orientation and texture to create harmony and movement.

Hidden Math

Behind the scenes, all strands of math abound, especially measurement. An artist cannot make art without knowing and applying math concepts and skills. From preparing a canvas stretcher (perimeter and area) to mixing plaster (capacity, proportion, time) to calculating the shrinkage rate of clay (ratio, percentage), there is math that the artists must do.

Teaching Math with Art

mandala small

When teaching math with art, the goal is to notice the obvious and hidden math, name it, and apply it. Watch this video to see my first project, Mandalas with Geometry and Pattern. The video gives a captioned explanation of each step while the math connections pop up as the video plays. You can pause at certain moments to think about and discuss the math as you watch. Download this PDF for a written lesson plan that goes with the video.

You can use such an art project at the beginning of your unit, letting the hands-on experience be the concrete modelling your students explore before they move to paper and pencil tasks.

Or, you can do these projects to apply the math they’ve already explored in other contexts, spiralling back to previous learning, turning the knowledge into understanding and application.

You can even use these projects to evaluate your students’ math knowledge by observing them and discussing the math as they work. Can they use a protractor properly to make a mandala with nine segments? Can they tell when their art isn’t symmetrical? Note: when doing culminating assessments, you can’t rely on the finished product alone because undeveloped artistic skill might get in the way of showing the math properly–if your student can tell you their folding wasn’t congruent or their rotations weren’t quite equal, then they are demonstrating they know the math, even if they aren’t that precise with the art-making.

Have a clear list of success criteria that covers knowledge, understanding, thinking and application. Pay attention to the students as they work, making note of successes and struggles, intervening when necessary. Use the math language. Apply the procedures. Push understanding and thinking by doing more and more challenging work.

Links to my Art Math videos and PDFs:

Mandalas with Geometry and Pattern – VideoPDF
Tessellations with Geometry and Pattern – Video – PDF (in the works)
Animal Collage with Geometry – Video – PDF (in the works)
Collage with Number Patterns – Video – PDF (in the works)

Please share with anyone you know who loves doing art and math.

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