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Are you teaching art all wrong?

Ok I accept this may be a fairly contentious blog post and that not everyone will agree with me, but here's my two penneth worth.

Outcome driven art Most of the art in schools I see is outcome driven. In Primary schools it is the corridor display that determines the kind of Art that is taught. It used to be that ALL students would see their work displayed but these days it is more common to see only the best work shown. Art projects at this phase are topic driven and so usually the art is also taught in a very limited range by a non-specialist art teacher. By and large art is judged by how good it looks on a wall with very limited understanding of the learning processes behind it or even how much of it is actually the pupils own work. There are some wonderful exceptions in Primary of course and so this post isn't addressed to them.

Exam driven art In Secondary and Further Education art is predominantly taught by expert art teachers and as you'd expect the quality of outcome improves. Yet larger forces are at work that are even more powerful than the primary display. I'm talking about exam art of course and exam expectations pervade almost everything students are taught from year 7 onwards regardless of the fact that a large percentage of students will never study art to exam level or indeed never have another art lesson in their lives. So the GCSE and A level exam criteria mould and shape the art teachers thinking, their ideas of progression and ability. The projects they design explicitly attempt to make students more able to succeed at exam and in this way, quality of outcomes, presentation and organisation dominate our success criteria. Four assessment objectives and an assessment rubric make up what for most of us is our professional working lives, yet are they any good? I'd say they are partly successful but also damaging in equal measure.

Despite the best efforts of the exam boards they still reward realistic technical mastery and good presentation and punish failure. A sound accomplished still life drawing is still worth more marks than a promising idea that didn't come off. The assessment rubric encourages teaching to specific goals and checkpoints in order to measure success rather than a holistic learning experience.

Recipe Art

And so recipe art becomes the norm, teachers teach projects they know will reap the best results and outcomes because the exam system determines that they daren't fail. Is this good Art? I'd say not. I'd rather a pupil draw a picture of his favourite car and be proud of it than make a lame copy of a Picasso painting (or even paint his car in a Picasso style). What it all comes down to is planning. Where planning dictates and controls the outcome you can artificially improve the quality of what the pupils produce but you are impeding their ability to imagine, invent, create and more importantly, you are quashing their motivation.

Skills first, creativity second? So do we (as is often taught) become more able to express our own creativity by being taught skills and techniques first THEN developing unique thinking processes? I would say no. Visit a nursery reception class and talk to the children about their work and they'll usually have bold imaginative ideas attached to a barely recognisable image. Most people have ideas floating around their heads about all manner of things that can't or won't express. So ideas, imagination and thinking come first not skills. The moment you begin choosing the skills the pupil are to learn you are restricting the potential of what could be learned and replacing it with mimicry. Pupils who can replicate what you have demonstrated will have done well, those that can't (in their mind) have failed. In an ideal situation pupils should be developing skills appropriate and relevant to their own intentions. They should understand that they don't have to master realistic drawing and painting skills to make art. They should know that neat, colourful presentation is not as important as the idea itself and they should know where and how to look for artist sources that truly inspire them not you. Above all they should acquire a repertoire of ways to express the ideas that permeate their minds. "In what different ways can I say that?" "How can I adapt and develop my idea in unique and original ways?" "Who has thought of similar things before and how can I learn from them?"

Good art teaching should plan for possibilities and open, diverse responses not duplication or replication. Pupils should be able to work in ways that suit them and build skills in areas of their own interest. This sounds daunting for the teacher but it doesn't have to be. I used techniques of classroom management where all my pupils (from primary to secondary) produced art from sculpture, to textiles, to photography and printmaking all in the same room with minimal disruption. In fact, they became more independent and less needy.

Good Planning

With good planning you can have it all; confident intelligent young artists who know their strengths and work to them. (The side effect of this is that you also get some pupils who confidently assert that they don't like art, but I've always found photography my get out clause here because everyone takes photos these days.)

Art teachers, charged with teaching contextual studies will often design projects around an artist, where pupils learn about the artist then adopt some of their techniques into their own work. This has only limited merit in my opinion. Apart from the fact that it excludes those pupils who don't like this artist it also eliminates the potential for the student to select their own artist and so help them develop their own style and technique. Whenever I see Cubist, Impressionist, Warhol, Liechtenstein projects (and I've taught them myself) I see limitations being set by the teacher. Even when the artist selected is a cool, trendy contemporary artist I can guarantee that only a minority of the class are genuinely inspired by them. Pupils are learning art through mimicry, learning to copy and to imitate the ideals and expectations of the teachers. As I've wrote many times before, look for the deeper meaning behind the art movement and make that your learning objective, not an artists style.

Example Planning

Many centres begin a year or key stage with a still life based project. Common themes are fruit, vegetables, keys, shoes, toys etc. Pupils are required to complete a series of closed tasks designed by the teacher: • Draw some natural forms from observation in a variety of media. • Investigate how other artists have interpreted natural forms and make studies of their work, (these are usually artists supplied by the teacher). • Develop ideas for a; painting, print, clay, photograph etc. • Experiment with different ideas, materials and processes. • Use these designs as a starting points for a final composition. These projects work well for many students and they get good results, but they are closed tasks with a specific outcome designed by the teacher. All the students need to do is complete the tasks as diligently and thoroughly as possible with as much skill as they can muster. The teacher exerts their energy into ensuring that skills are delivered to those who might struggle and to make sure students are completing each phase adequately. However, with a little thought, we can create greater diversity through open planning. We could begin with a big thought provoking question: • ‘What is a still life and why have artists throughout the ages been inspired by them?’

Now you’re likely to get a lot of tumbleweeds blowing through the classroom at this questions, so you allow the students some time to discuss the question in groups to identify what is already known (if anything) about the topic. Then you provide other supporting questions and GRADUALLY introduce stimuli such as visual images, film etc. OR you could get students finding out answers to questions and researching, for example: • ‘In what different ways have artists throughout the ages represented still life?’ • ‘Which artists’ interpretations of still life appeal to you most and why?’ You see could even throw questions like this in to challenge those that are disinterested: Are all still life works of art boring? How could you make still life art more exciting? So you’ll need to scaffold the project stages now, but it is important that you offer possibilities and open responses as much as possible but still control what your expectations are. Now you wouldn’t give all of these out in one lesson, but over time you could ask them to: Produce a piece of art that reflects your thoughts and opinions on these questions. Try to produce your work as a (drawing, painting, sculpture etc.) • You could begin the project by looking at artists that influence you and making records of their work, style or technique. • Or you might begin by looking for still life objects that appeal to you and recording them with art materials or a camera for example. • It is important that you show how you have developed and improved your artistic techniques, so try to show evidence of practising your final piece, trying out other materials, play with the composition, texture and lighting for example. • It is a good idea to show evidence of learning from other established artists, so incorporate lots of artist references. GCSE level Success Criteria: Successful outcomes will show evidence of developing an idea from initial concept to final outcome using a range of exploratory materials. High quality outcomes will be broad and insightful, making reference to how the work of other artists has helped and influenced your decision making. Still struggling? (For less able) You could just select a group of objects you like then draw or paint them! Or you might photograph the still life then turn the results into a print. You can still get great marks for keeping it simple! Often, good work comes out of simply drawing and recording without thinking too much about it.

Summary Working in this way is very different to the first method where YOU are controlling every phase. In the second example you are providing starting points, setting them off then nipping at their heels to keep them on course. What is happening though is that the students have been given a great deal of freedom to interpret Still Life in their own way and because of that, motivation should improve.

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