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Direct Instruction art teaching

November 12, 2017

 

You can improve the level of skill and quality of outcome from your art students by teaching your lessons in a direct instruction method. I used to do it myself (pictured) and got an outstanding Ofsted lesson grade by doing it. I would pride myself on before and after photos of students' outcomes. In an educational world of GCSE results and the requirement for tangible improvement it might seem tempting to teach in this way all the time. The direct instruction teaching theory goes something like this: 'it's straightforward, its less stressful for the teacher, it gets good results and some children seem to prefer learning in this way'.

I don't disagree with any of that. But the problem I have with teaching this way in a whole department approach is that it is too teacher led and it's very one dimensional (well actually two dimensional - knowledge & skill) It also places other, equally important curriculum areas such as personal expression, exploration, metacognition and creativity lower down the list. Teaching in this way does not deliver a well balanced curriculum, which emphasises the need for all areas of art to be taught just as equally. 

 

Skills? Which skills?

Whilst skills are indeed important, the issue I have with how skill and control is taught in this way is: 'which skills are most important?' In the direct instruction approach YOU have deemed realistic drawing & painting skills to be the most important but art isn't like that. Realism as an art form was superceded, first (arguably) by Turner then by the Impressionists and Cezanne. A whole plethora of wonderful art forms have emerged since then that open our eyes to new ways of seeing and thinking. And if we can make art in so many different ways, why would you want to limit your students to one? A potter doesn't necessarily need to draw or paint in that way, nor does a photographer, and what about a digital or abstract artist? These realist skills you've chosen as being most important will hinder the progress of many other types of artists in your class.

 

Skills first, creativity later

Proponents of the skills/knowledge approach argue that you can't practice expression/experimentation until you have the skills to do it, therefore they must come first. This has a ring of truth to it; I can't creatively apply shading until I know how to shade, I can't make my own, personal ceramic pot until I know how to coil or throw clay.  I would never doubt the need to learn skills and techniques. But what this argument misses is that the skills you have chosen are only one way of making art. You should be expanding possibilities, not limiting them. By enforcing a 'follow me' approach you're saying there is a right and wrong way of doing it and this has a negative impact on many. Art courses at Further Education level aren't full of people who can draw realistically, or who want to. They are full of photographers, ceramicists, designers, digital artists, textile artists, fine artists, craftspeople and sculptors. They all draw in different ways for different purposes. So your course isn't preparing them for that, in fact it's hindering them because they usually need to be taught all over again, (I speak to many University Lecturers and course leaders who tell me the same thing). 

 

Preparing students for exams

One argument used to support the approach of delivering a heavy skills led curriculum in key stage 3 is that it (is argued) prepares them for key stage 4 and enables them to produce more creative work because they then have greater means of expression through higher skill level. But it doesn't work like that in art. What actually happens is that pupils struggle to be as free and creative as they need to be because they are hampered by the notion of skill and a right and wrong outcome. You end up with very one-dimensional outcomes that look superficially good to the untrained eye but that the lack intellect and metacognition of the best art (usually with a high emphasis on figurative realism). There's limited thought processes behind the work and while there's nothing wrong with observation or skill, it's the principle that it's the only form of art being made that is the problem. Besides, study the GCSE art specification for A star grade, there's nothing in that specifies realism; it's all about the synthesis of ideas. I see lots and lots of superficially skilful art, but that doesn't make it good. 

 

When I meet a class where everyone is of the same ability I'll teach them all in exactly the same way. 

If everyone has to follow my lead then I'm letting down the ones that can already do this task in their sleep and the ones who aren't ready to learn it. Thay said, direct instruction teaching does actually work to a degree, or you wouldn't get the outcomes, but it's superficial because your best students are actually being slowed down by it and the less able need more time and support. 

So no, I'm not a great fan of direct instruction learning ALL THE TIME. It might look glossy but there's so much your pupils are missing out on.

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