Raising drawing skills  or ‘Dumbeldore’s Army and the incredible dancing bears’

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Dumbeldore’s Army and the incredible dancing bears

By Paul Carney


In the Harry Potter book ‘the Order of the Phoenix’ the students resort to forming a secret class to teach themselves the dark arts of magic so that they might defeat Voldemort. Without a teacher as such, they learn by trial and error, practice and by helping each other. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if real-life were like that? Well maybe it can!

We all know how important drawing skills are to success in GCSE art exams. Technically you can pass without good drawing, but it’s difficult. At Primary level there is a skills shortage. Few Primary teachers are trained art teachers and so drawing skills are taught inconsistently, if at all. From about the age of five or six people develop greater self-awareness, they start to look more intently at others’ artwork and begin to compare. Anxiety creeps in and self doubt. ‘Theirs is better than mine, I’ve got that wrong, mine’s rubbish’ etc. From year 2 to year 6 there is an OFSTED identified dip in art attainment as anxiety grows and opportunity drops.

When pupils reach Secondary school a new dawn awakens their creative juices. Probably for the first time, pupils sit in a specialist art classroom and get lessons from a specialist art teacher. And what happens to that enthusiasm? There is another marked dip in attainment from year 7 to year 9 as identified by OFSTED! So much for all those lovely drawing lessons! So what on earth is happening? Well teenage angst must play a part since many young people become ever more self-conscious and doubtful as they grow. So too must simple desire to learn. Many people just don’t like drawing and won’t improve because they aren’t interested in learning the skill. I didn’t want to learn how to play rugby at school either, despite the teacher’s best efforts. Much of the art we do in schools is drawing based and most of that depends on learning accuracy and realism by imitation. At all key stages neatness is rewarded: depiction of form, portrayal of perspective, tonal relationships and execution etc. In short, most school drawing requires increasingly greater levels of skill; fine motor control and knowledge of using drawing materials. It’s like teaching a class full of bears to dance and the problem with this is that most of them aren’t bears. The majority of pupils leave school believing that they are hopeless at drawing and never do it again in their lives!


So what can you do? Well for a start you can look at the different range of drawing styles; realism, abstract, technical, graphic, sculptural, digital, textiles, gestural and experimental. This should tell you that you don’t need to make acquiring realism in drawing your teaching goal. It should tell you that you could be successful in many different ways in drawing. So when you teach drawing you should make your students aware of these different styles of drawing and allow them the opportunity to develop the style that suits them best. Instead of making the drawing look realistic being the only way of succeeding, there are now several. This requires a different teaching methodology than the one you’re used to and at first it might seem daunting to have pupil’s going off on different tangents instead of all sat quietly doing your still life. But I can assure you it works, it’s easier than you think and it raises attainment. All you need do is to have the exercises pre-planned, written down and offered as a choice. They choose which exercise they want to do, follow the instructions and get on with it. It’s actually easier for you because you don’t have to lead it, it doesn’t require you to know any drawing skills and they are much more motivated. For example: “How do you think these objects might be feeling if they had emotions? Draw their emotions using wire and wool’”(Abstract) ‘Create caricatures based on the objects and tell a story with them’ (Graphic) ‘Take a photograph of the objects using an iPad, now use a paint app to help you to create a drawing on top of the photo.’ (Digital) I’ve created a set of contemporary drawing lessons using methods. All you need to do is to print them out and laminate them then you can use them again and again. They contain all the instructions for pupils to follow and they each link to a to a famous artist; Antony Gormley, Julian Opie, Fiona Banner, Yayoi Kusama etc.


You can find it here: http://www.digitalgoodsstore.com/mydgs/QpmwuO Or on my website at www.paulcarneyarts.com

So the secret is not to try to train a class full of dancing bears but to encourage them to develop the animal they really are. Which all leads me nicely back to Dumbledore’s Army. Because you will of course still want to teach some traditional drawing skills. Pupils should know about perspective, light and shade, measuring, proportion etc. because these are fundamental principles however you draw. The traditional method of teaching these skills is that all pupils watch a demonstration then complete an exercise to practice what has been shown to them. Some are better at this than others and ability is defined. I’ve already mentioned that this way of teaching restricts outcomes and hinders drawing styles, but it’s flawed in other ways too. Because it isn’t catering for what the pupils knows and ‘can do’ before the lesson begins. David might be able to do this shading exercise easily because he draws at home, whereas Jennifer might have motor difficulties and simply cannot move her hand accurately enough. Your teaching method favours the most able. So what if you could use Harry Potter’s way of teaching? What if you had a whole set of drawing videos and slides produced by an expert art teacher so that you didn’t have to say a word? What if those lessons were placed in sequential order and you could just place each student at their most relevant starting point so that each student learned to draw at their own pace? And what if those lessons were all online so that you could flip the classroom and allow them to learn at home whenever they wanted? And what if it had a built-in method of assessing their outcomes themselves? Then you would have truly differentiated drawing lessons without having to do a thing! That’s what I produced for my own classes and I can tell you it works superbly. Children in Primary and Secondary loved being able to just do the exercises whenever they wanted and they taught themselves, just like Harry Potter’s class did.

You can find out more information about my drawing programme here http://www.paulcarneyarts.com/drawing_lessons.html


There will never be a day when every student loves drawing and draws easily because creativity isn’t like that. It’s a very insecure process and many will give up. But if you can show young people from an early age that there are many different ways to draw and encourage that individual approach, then you will be making drawing much more inclusive. If you also transfer the ownership of learning to draw from yourself to your pupils so they can learn at their own pace and from their own starting point, then you will create your own classroom army to rival Dumbledore’s.


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