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Key Concepts in Art & Design

Concepts must be linked to the contents or facts that give them meaning’ 

Prof Michael Young 

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These are my substantive and second-order key concepts. For threshold concepts see the websites artpedagogy and photopedagogy

Key Concepts in art and design

A key concept is a category of subject knowledge we feel is important for our teaching. Key concepts are the basis of all curriculums, whether you’ve consciously thought about them or not because concepts form the framework for all knowledge.

In art and design, it may be easier to see key concepts like this: substantive concepts are our core curriculum content knowledge, which are then applied through second-order concepts such as topics or projects. Dividing concepts into sub-categories is helpful to inform high-quality planning for progression.

  1. Substantive concepts are part of the ‘substance’ or core content knowledge of a subject. In 2014, NSEAD set out four areas of attainment; knowledge, making skills, evaluation, and idea generation. I've related my key concepts to these umbrella terms and also added visual language, (formal elements) as a substantive concept. I've also added 'What is Art?' because I feel that is a vital starting point for understanding our subject. 

  2. Second-order concepts shape the key questions asked in a subject and organise the subject knowledge. (For example, subject matter & themes in art, inclusion, ableism, diversity, and creativity). Substantive and second-order concepts often overlap. 

  3. Threshold concepts can modify learners’ understanding and help them to go through a ‘doorway’ into a new way of understanding a topic or subject. While ‘core’ concepts build on existing learning gradually, threshold concepts can open up new ways of thinking. Defining threshold concepts in art is harder because they are more abstract and open to interpretation. In the past, threshold concepts have led to many new art forms; Impressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism etc. all of which open up new ways of thinking. However, with regard to art education; The Académie des Beaux-Arts, the Bauhaus, and the basic course by Pasmore and Thubron stand out for me. 

Threshold concepts are brilliantly expressed by the work of art educators Chris Francis and Jon Nichols who developed the websites; and They are attempting to build pedagogical curriculum models around high-order thought processes; to help their students be better thinkers and practitioners. I do not wish to even attempt to supersede their work and so, for this higher level of art thinking, I’ll simply refer you to their websites.  


In my opinion, teachers of art should weave key concept types within each other, developing curriculum models that deliver core substantive concepts through stimulating second-order concept project questions; but which culminate in, (or alternate between?) threshold concepts that elevate the thinking ability of pupils - because this must be a primary educational aim. I also do not advocate taking the direct route; that younger children need to master substantive concepts first before they are able to access threshold concepts because it is much more complex than that. 


Having taught many primary and secondary art projects through essential questions, I think it’s true to say that core knowledge and skills are vital in order to realise artistic intentions. Without them, outcomes flounder, however good the idea. But, challenging and stretching pupils requires nudging them out of their comfort zones, and exposing them to possibilities they hadn’t thought of. Do this too much, too quickly, and the learner becomes anxious and confused, but careful scaffolding of high-order concepts can really motivate and excite learners. 


What I’m saying I think, is that a well-balanced curriculum isn’t one thing or another. It’s a blend of approaches; teacher-led, direct-instruction at times, facilitating creative responses at others, divergent and convergent. This is the craft of teaching art. 

The art of planning a curriculum is tremendously difficult. It’s why we debate it, why we write about it and why I spend way too much time thinking about it. But here are my outlines of key concept types:


Substantive concepts

  • What is art? There isn’t a single definition of what art is. This uncertainty about its very nature makes it daunting, exciting, and yet highly debatable. Despite this difficulty in defining it, art is not entirely subjective and unmeasurable. We quantify art by several factors; the skill of execution, its ability to convey emotion and feeling, the quality of the concept or idea, and its usefulness or purpose. Art is subject to and dependent upon, the same environmental factors we all are. Its success or failure depends on its acceptance by the culture it is part of.

  • Design permeates every facet of our lives and society. Design is one of the most important, influential factors in humanity. From the clothes we wear, the TV we watch, and the furniture in homes - even our homes. Everything made by a human being has been designed.

  • The history of art has mirrored human development, thought, culture, belief, environment, and civilisation. For as long as there have been modern humans there has been art. We make art in response to a variety of factors and, as these factors change, so does art. Western art history can be broadly divided into the following approaches: traditional, modern, and contemporary, (as set out by Neil Walton). We teach a broad overview of these periods so that art can be contextualised and better understood.

  • The materials, techniques, and processes artists use are rooted in long traditions. Art materials are technologies. They have been invented, refined, developed over time, and modified. Even relatively recent technologies have long roots or have been influenced by older traditions. When we learn a technique or process, we are both learning a tradition and discovering its future potential.

  • Art is curious, playful, and experimental. There are no rules, only to say that if you only follow the rules you will struggle to develop as an artist. Art requires you to be curious, risk-taking, and brave. Failure is part of the process of making art.

  • Skills are acquired or developed through practice and resilience. There are no substitutes for repeated practice, and there are no endpoints or final destinations with the acquisition of skills. We are always learning. The skill of making or doing something is called craft. Crafts can enrich our lives and uplift us. 

  • Artists use visual language to communicate their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and ideas. This is known as the formal elements; colour, line, shape, form, tone, pattern, texture, and sometimes composition, depending on the genre. We develop our own visual language through deliberate practice; through making art, but also by the study of how art and artists have used them.   

  • Art is a manifestation of our thoughts, experiences, observations, and ideas. Art reflects what we want to say in response to the actions of the world around us, how we feel, what we see, what we know, and what we want to create. Contrary to popular belief, you can learn how to formulate and shape ideas to make them more original, sophisticated, and purposeful. Creativity can be taught. 

  • Growth as an artist comes from the ability to alter our practice in light of fair and accurate reflection. Evaluating and reflecting fairly on the art we make is an important process in becoming better artists. We need to learn how to be both critical and supportive - to ourselves and to others. We don’t rank, grade, or judge attainment in art. We don’t compare ourselves against others. We only measure our own development and reflect on the journey we are on as artists. 


Second-order concepts

  • Art is built around recurring themes. A theme in art is the central topic, subject matter, or message within the artwork. Some themes are universal and timeless: beauty, death, landscape, portraiture, or mother and child. Some are spiritual, some mythical, and others more abstract. A list of themes in art can be found here.

  • Sources influence and inspire artists. A source in art & design could be an artist, designer, or craftsperson whose work influences or inspires the pupil. But a source can also be a newspaper headline, a current issue, a photograph or poem, a book or a text that inspires visual thinking. Pupils should be able to identify and use sources to inform & inspire their artwork. 

  • Creativity is using ideas and imagination to create new and valuable forms. An idea is a thought or conception that is the product of mental activity. Imagination is seeing the impossible, the unreal, or dreamlike. These require the teacher to provide opportunities for them to occur. They need space in the planning of art activities for the unknown to happen, for independent choices and decisions to be made, and above all, for young minds to have the opportunity and understanding to shape potential thoughts into tangible outcomes. 

  • The function of art dictates its form. The purpose of art is a significant factor in the outcome. Purpose affects the materials we work in, and the time we spend on it. 

  • Participation in the arts fuels social mobility. Cultural Capital is a social justice issue: research shows that children with an arts deficit are disadvantaged educationally and economically while those who do participate in the arts are more resilient, healthier, do better in school, are more likely to vote, to go to university, to get a job and to keep it.

  • Systems must adapt to include disabled people. They should not have to adapt to the system. Taken from the website ALLFIE The Alliance for Inclusive Education: Inclusive education – also called inclusion – is education that includes everyone, with non-disabled and disabled people (including those with “special educational needs”) learning together in mainstream schools, colleges, and universities.

  • Art can be learned experientially and via self-direction. When making art we can learn through, and from the material we are working with as part of an active process, much of which is unspoken, tacit, or intuitive. This process of self-discovery is largely autonomous and self-directed, and as such, implies that art is highly motivational. The desire to want to make art is therefore an important, influential factor.  

Disciplinary Knowledge

‘Disciplinary knowledge focuses on the norms, products, & purposes of art. It has become relevant in the recent Ofsted Art & Design Research Review of 2023. Think of it like the big ideas, meanings, applications and understandings behind art. Essentially,  it's what good art teachers are doing all the time. They contextualise the knowledge and skills they are teaching, making them relevant, explaining why they are important and what you need to learn them for. Here are some examples of disciplinary knowledge in art:


  • What is art?

  • Key concepts of art 

  • How is art made? 

  • How do professional artists work?

  • How is art judged?

  • What is the purpose of art? 

  • How does art affect social, political or moral issues?

  • How does design affect our lives & environments? 

  • What has influenced art across cultures and throughout history? 

  • What are the art, craft & design vocational pathways & industries?

disciplinary knowledge in art
Paul Carney Art Consultant

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