How 'the Art of Math' is raising grades and eyebrows

In a province obsessed with improving student math scores, a one-of-kind program at Oakridge Secondary School in London, Ont. teaches kids math by combining the course with art and the results have surprised everyone.

The bundled program is the first of its kind in Ontario and could help teach math in new ways

Math teacher Jenni Van Kestren and art teacher Laura Briscoe are shaking up the way kids learn math by combining it with art. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

In a province obsessed with improving the way it teaches math, a new program at a London, Ont. high school that bundles art and math together is not only raising grades, but eyebrows. 

"The Art of Math" is a grade nine program at Oakridge Secondary School developed by the head of the school's visual art department, Laura Briscoe, and math teacher and student achievement leader Jenni Van Kestren.

The two women believe its the first time in the history of the Ontario public school system that both subjects have been taught together, simultaneously. 

"Basically what we're trying to encourage is a deeper understanding of both disciplines and encourage students to realize that in the real world, nothing happens in isolation and how you can find different connections between different things, for example art and math," Briscoe said. 

How it works

Math teacher Jenni Van Kesteren helps students work through an assignment that sees them paint a linear pattern on a skateboard that the students developed using a mathematical formula. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Not only are art and math lessons bundled together, both subjects are taught simultaneously by both teachers, with no separation between the two disciplines. 

In class, students in the academic stream work alongside students in the applied stream on the same projects. Recently, students have been learning through working with skateboards. 

"They each have a skateboard," Van Kesteren said. "On one side of the skateboard they've done a landscape of their choice and have been working on their hard skills for painting."

"On the other side they have their math pattern," she said.  "It's a pattern that they've visually thought through, that demonstrates either a linear or non-linear growth and they're representing that as both a pattern and a linear graph." 

Briscoe said, "they're trying to understand how patterns change ... With that they can create with more deliberate purpose in their designs."

'Ive never been that good at math'

(Colin Butler/CBC News)

"For me, I prefer art. I've never been that good at math," said Evelyn Armstrong.

The grade nine student said that before she took the course, she always found math difficult, but when the two subjects merged, she said it changed her world. 

"It's a better and more fun way to learn," she said.  "It's one of those classes that gets you up in the morning and you're excited to go because you never really know what's going to happen."

"It's really fun," she said. "For people who like art a lot more and struggle with math, it's a really fun way to make math simpler and fun." 

'Now everything in math makes sense to me'

(Colin Butler/CBC News)

"It's really cool because I struggle with math and it's nice to have art to learn math from a different perspective," said Hannah McBride, a grade nine student. "It's helped me see math in a different way." 

McBride said she has always preferred art to math because it gives her a chance to be creative. She said combining the two disciplines has changed all that. 

"I guess it just makes [math] easier for me. There's things in math that relate to art, like scales. In art it would be different kinds of pencils, for math it would be different kinds of numbers like negatives and positives." 

"It helped me see that there are similarities between the two," she said. "Now everything in math makes sense to me."

Beyond the books

Art teacher Laura Briscoe discusses the landscape painted on one side of a student's skateboard, while on the other, a pattern he developed using a mathematical equation is plainly visible. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

What surprised both teachers at Oakridge is just how much the bundled course has allowed students to teach each other. 

"They're learning things beyond both curriculums," Van Kesteren said. "They're learning about collaboration, leadership, communication – skills they can take with them anywhere."

The teachers are also learning to look at things differently. 

"Jenni might point to me, 'you might want to do it this way to get a better understanding,'" art teacher Laura Briscoe said of her colleague Jenni Van Kesteren.

"I will do the same for her coming from an arts background in a math space, I say, 'oh you should actually draw that and show how that would work.'" 

Moving forward

Oakridge Secondary School will be watching the results of the class closely and if it proves successful, you can bet they'll be getting a knock on the door from the Ontario Ministry of Education. 

While "the Art of Math" is a long way from being applied province-wide, it seems to be working among the 40 students whom Briscoe and Van Kesteren teach. 

If you ask them, they'll tell you, this course makes math fun – and after a decade of declining math scores in Ontario, that's something you can take to the bank. 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: