GCSE Exam based art, craft & design
So you have this new Secondary, High School exam class sat in front of you; some are switched on with 'I love art', fresh faces, some are wondering what's going to happen and some are down-right bored and fed up with; ‘I didn’t choose to be here, I hate art’ faces on them. The numbers might change, but mix is always the same and your reputation is resting on them passing this exam. It’s not easy especially when art is being squeezed further and further down the curriculum pecking order as Ofsted and government demand ever increasing Core Subject performance. Add to this the fact that Primary art provision is dropping nationally and you have a situation where some pupils can barely draw a circle, whilst others might have considerable artistic talent. And what makes it even more impossible is that the student's art target grades bear little or no relation to their actual art ability.
Perhaps one of the most dreaded aspects of the GCSE examination is annotation. Most pupils hate it and find it a real chore to do. It puts many off art completely.
However, from my experience of visiting schools, many art teachers expect far too much annotation from their students and many students spend long hours copying information from a web page that would be better spent doing art! Read this quote from the AQA Moderators Report 2015:
"In the best practice seen, written work evidently added value to what existed in visual form. Students had made purposeful statements that linked together their ideas and insights. Students frequently analysed sources through brief but purposeful annotation. They explained their ideas whilst taking into account of the direction of their own work."
Notice the words; 'Brief but purposeful'! Try downloading this resource I've designed to help focus your student's annotation responses:
(Adapted from the Art Teacher's Handbook)
For the Secondary teacher this is a real headache, because their department's results rest on how well this uneven blend of abilities will perform in five years time at GCSE art. Most Secondary art specialists are very adept at writing projects for their students. Familiar themes resurface again and again across the country in most, if not all school's art departments; still life, natural form, portraits, identity, cubism, Pop art, Surrealism, Impressionism, to name a few old chestnuts. Now there's nothing wrong with these projects, but what I'd like to suggest is that they may not be the best way of teaching art. That's because the subject matter has been chosen by you - you have dictated what will be taught, when it will be taught and in what manner. Now whilst this teacher-led style works well in more formal, knowledge rich lessons it has serious disadvantages for us in art. You're not hoping all have mastered a standardised set of knowledge as they do in maths or science. By the time they reach exam level in Year 10, you want your pupils to be independent, to be able to devise complex, original ideas on their own and to understand their own level of skill and ability.
It is common to try to achieve this level of independence gradually over the five years course of study. So teachers plan very rigid projects, usually a half term or term long that have very precise skills embedded. Then, usually around late in Year 10, teachers begin giving more creative art briefs or exam style questions to answer, then try to show them how to answer them.
The thinking behind this model is that pupils will gain the skills they need in a more rigid, formal instruction, then, as their skills increase, their ability to conceptualise original ideas will develop. Except this doesn't completely work. It's true that as pupils mature their coordination and dexterity increases, as does their cognition and ability to conceive of complex ideas, but it is extremely challenging to be asked to answer a GCSE art exam style question unless you're very familiar with this way of working OR you are highly intelligent. Most pupils are used to the teacher telling them what to do at every turn, they rarely have to think, and have often been given every artist to study by the class teacher. They're not used to having to think and do things for themselves. Now most schools pride themselves on their students gaining excellent exam results and so they should. But I'd argue that it is largely via the class teacher's incredible hard work and professional endeavours that they achieve them. I wonder what grade students would actually get if there were NO teacher involvement at all, (at least during the Externally Set Task). What I'm arguing is that for most students (even up to A Level) there is a very controlled environment in which they are able to succeed, but once that support goes and they leave the institution their ability to repeat this standard on their own is diminished. I know this because I work with teachers at Further Education level and with Fine Art tutors on Degree courses, who tell me that it is usual for students to come them unprepared for University ways of working.
"Many students come to us with sketchbooks which are more like “presentation books” rather than a real record of their exploration, or a source of personal visual reference. The emphasis on good presentation means that students often have to un-learn habits they have developed before coming to university, such as decorating pages, making elaborate backgrounds and titles, rather than focusing on first-hand visual research, developing and working up their ideas, which is what is required on a foundation course.
Carl Silvester, Art Course coordinator Loughborough University
If this is the case then we can't be teaching art exactly right can we? My whole strategy for Key Stage 3 planning is to show my pupils how to create and develop ideas independently. I want them to know and understand the history of art and even in their chosen field of interest. They should have developed core skills in areas they are good at and are interested in AND they should have other key skills such as research, evaluation and thinking skills. As the teacher, I'll need to ensure that my projects work on different levels according to intellect and ability, but I want to ensure they are motivational as possible, and that means not planning every stage so meticulously that all the pupil has to do is turn up and do as they're told.
My Art Teacher's Handbook takes you through the process of planning a Key Stage 3 curriculum based on Self Directed Learning strategies that I know work because I've developed them from actual practice in the art room. This is a major switch in emphasis from the teacher-led model and is one that I firmly believe is the most effective way to teach art.
I've also produced several other pages that will help you teach GCSE art more effectively:
As an NSEAD registered art consultant, I offer a friendly, professional art consultancy service to schools, from early years right through to Secondary GCSE. I've worked with infant schools to improve art assessment, delivered primary school CPD on skills and progression, worked with Subject Leaders to raise attainment and done whole school, secondary art department audits including formal lesson observations and department reviews. My over-arching strategy is to support the professional development of hard working professionals with positive and constructive advice for improvement.
My consultancy bookings are now being handled by Iain Simper of the Learning Partnership. For enquiries email Iain here
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