If I hear another art teacher uttering these words during the UK Externally Set Test, art exam I think I’m going to scream! It is seriously bad practice and what’s more, it sails very close to the wind of breaking UK art exam rules. And by providing all of these elaborate, sophisticated references to your students you are giving them an unfair advantage.
Exam rules state that: “students should produce their own, unaided work.”
Now you could argue that simply providing a name of an artist is within the rules and you’re probably right, but when I see subject leaders providing powerpoint presentations full of artist references, links and images I doubt this is fair. To be honest, the boundary between simple guidance and what falls foul of exam rules is blurred, even for moderators, but in 2014 the exam board did warn that centres using Pinterest boards for the test was breaking the rules. It staggers me that some wiley teachers are selling Powerpoints for the EST on TES resources! IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE AN EXAM!!!!!!!
I just think that if you’re doing your job right your pupils should know and understand how to answer the Test paper without too much input from you. And that’s my point. It isn’t your exam it’s theirs. The exam is meant to be a test of their abilities and you providing them with the answers is, in my opinion cheating. A tell tale sign of too much teacher intervention is when you see identical artist sources used repeatedly through multiple sets of work. Now some students share sources and this is fine, but when you see a whole set of work from a centre having a particular style then you know the teacher is too controlling and has too much input. Because lastly (and more importantly) the pupils aren’t learning anything meaningful. All they are learning is how to mimic you.
I often see websites and facebook resources of artists grouped by style or theme with little or no underlying explanation of the meaning behind the work. It’s so shallow and fickle and it robs the student of the true value of the learning. The student may use these high quality sources in their own research and it could be argued that they are learning visually. This may be true but wouldnt it be far more effective if the pupils were taught the deeper understanding as well as just the aesthetics?
For example, if you stop simply providing students with pictures of ‘artists who painted ‘reflections’ and start asking the students to identify what it is about ‘reflections’ that they want to portray then use this as your artist focus, you get higher quality understanding and in turn, much more diverse outcomes. Instead of simply focussing on pictures of reflections they might concentrate on the use of colour, geometry, symmetry or light for example.
For me this gets at the heart of what I dislike about the GCSE exam in the UK. It isn’t the exam boards fault, nor the teacher’s I suppose. It’s the relentless pressure teachers are under to get good results and this takes precedence over good learning. Too often it’s; ‘fill in the blanks’ style education and it is poor. It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be like this.
Teachers usually focus on artists who produce work in relation to the theme they’re working in but this teaches the student very little. The real skill of the teacher is to support the deeper learning that they wish to bring out in the pupil. But too often what the teacher actually does is to provide their pupils with artists on a theme. So the teacher plans a project based on Day of the Dead for example and everyone studies artists who have depicted skulls in their work (God help me) usually Mexican, Tattoo or graphic artists etc. This methodology is repeated over and over with different themes and different artists but they principle is the same; teacher decides the theme and researches the artists who worked in this theme. But it’s just wrong! By doing this the teacher is removing all of the thinking and killing the creativity, because personal interpretation is lost. What happens when pupils don’t like the theme? They are stuck for ages (usually a whole term) studying skulls, they get bored and often cause trouble for the teacher.
The key to it is this: ‘personalised projects create opportunities for personalised study’.
The teacher could save themselves a whole lot of research time, printing costs and preparation by working a little smarter. If they simply investigated what Day of the Dead was; ‘a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and in other cultures around the world that focuses on the spiritual journey of people who have died.’ This could lead to activities of a very personal nature; ‘In what ways have artists through time tried to represent the spirit world or afterlife and how might the ways in which they tackled the theme of death inspire you to make art?’ The emphasis now is on a much broader theme; students are free to use any of the previous Mexican influences but now they are free to discover art from a much broader, more exciting and personal range. What’s more you aren’t restricting the style of outcomes to graphic, skull drawing you can open it up to abstract, semi-abstract (Picasso’s final painting is hauntingly spiritual, as is L. S. Lowry’s Obelisk Self Portrait done at the end of his life) digital, film, painting, drawing, print, pattern, the list is endless.
So by working in this way pupils find their own influences and they should relate these influences to the aspect of art that they want to learn or improve. If Pupil A is interested in graphic drawing then they might study graphic interpretations to try to learn their methods and approaches but they might also learn a great deal by studying the way in which the great masters used colour. If Pupil B favours pattern then they might study the spiritual nature of Islamic pattern but they might also study the spiritual aspect of mathematical geometry and try to relate this to their own work etc. In this way, teachers use artists to develop students own technique, the pupil’s own use of the media or the meaning behind the work in order to improve their own personal skills and interests. Good practice comes from the development of planning that opens minds.
Study other artists’ work to uncover information about technique or process that might inform students’ own practice
You might still have banks of data on artists, but instead of grouping according to theme, group according to technique, formal element or process. It is better if you have lists of: artists who explore bright contrasting colour relationships, artists who use geometric, mathematical approaches etc. rather than simply: ‘artists who painted landscapes.’ So that when a pupil is struggling to create a complex picture with lots of elements to it you might support them like this: ‘Investigate how Leonardo made studies of elements that were going to feature in his paintings, how he taught himself to paint hands, feet, folds in fabric etc.’ In this way the students can learn to break down difficult parts of their work into separate studies. Similarly, if a pupil’s use of colour in their painting is weak you might say; ‘Deconstruct the colours in a Rothko painting to learn how to layer paint, to overlay contrasting colours and sythesise the relationships between the areas of colour.’
By using artists in this way, as a means of ‘study that informs’ you will be using artists’ work more effectively. Methods such as these defy time because the way in which Cezanne distorts the subject with angular shapes can be easily applied to the way in which a graffiti artist applies paint and the way in which Leger uses line might apply to a digital, graphic artist.
Study the process of how other artists interpreted themes, concepts or ideas tohelp the studentsdevelop their own approaches
Often, the student is seeking artists who worked on representing an aspect or idea that relates to what they want to achieve. I’m sure you are fully aware that it very limiting to show artists who have worked on similar themes BEFORE they tackle it themselves because all you do by showing examples is invite mimicry. So you want to let them really struggle with it first, and steer them into trying a range of approaches and techniques. When you see a style or approach beginning to manifest itself THEN you might provide them with an artist movement/name or names to search themselves, but again you want to direct that search with statements such as; ‘look at the range of colours Oskar Kokoschka used to paint skin tones in his self-portraits, might you adapt some of his methods yourself?’
Arrange your resources of artists work by the way in which they used the media
The teacher should help the student to ascertain what medium they are most successful with: pencil, paint, clay etc. Ideally you want them to work in the material they are best with and their problem solving, experimental phase should be trying to resolve their idea using this medium first before moving into other areas if or when required to. I don’t see much point in spending time doing one version in marker, one in pencil and one in paint in fact the exam boards frown on this practice. Why would you do this? It’s shallow and meaningless. The student should be developing their own technique, working the media to try to render it in the most skilful way they can. There is a fear that the student loses marks for sticking with one material and not diversifying but this an old, outdated notion. Exam boards don’t stipulate that students must try out lots of materials just that they should explore possibilities. Who were the masters of line? Who were the experts of light and shade? Who were the experts at applying subtle layers of washed out hues for mood and atmosphere? It’s in your interests to know, understand and group artists in ways such as these, to arrange them according to the learning objectives of your students rather than simply theme.
New approaches to artist links
Since the Eighties, contemporary art has centred more on meaning and the intellectual thinking behind the work rather than the skill or aesthetics of the medium. This implies that You as the art teacher should learn about new ways of looking and thinking about the ways in which artists make art. Apart from anything, it opens up your classrooms to enable students to make art who might not previously have been successful at art because of a perceived lack of skill. It rewards thinking and intelligence as much as anything and in doing so it implies that you, as the teacher need to know and understand contemporary art in order to use contemporary artist links more effectively. Ossian Ward’s excellent book ‘Ways of Looking’ is great place to start and he uses a system of looking at art he calls TABULA (Time Association Background Understand Look again Assessment). For me, contemporary art should the exciting focus of art in schools because it makes art inclusive, rewards thinking, metaphor, expression and innovation instead of pure skill. Skill will always have its place in the art room of course, but the best art teachers utilise a wide range of approaches to making art. They know that they have to open projects out and diversify them, not constrain them. They understand that by allowing pupils to work in a style that suits them they will thrive and achieve much more than if they constrain them.
Those of you who teach a cohort of pupils with lower academic ability may be quite cynical about much of what I’ve written. You know that pupils with less ability need tighter margins in which to work, they need greater direction and support and too much freedom and choice can have disastrous consequences, especially in exam. I agree with all of that, but that does not mean you have to limit choice entirely, nor does it give you permission to deliver those ‘Day of the Dead – colour in a skull picture’ type projects. Less able pupils have just as much opinion about key issues as more able ones, they just may need platforms and scaffolding of skills to express them as well as they’d like to. Providing literacy frameworks can help enormously, as will a ‘road map’ of possible routes in to the topic, support and guidance at each stage without doing everything for them, pointing them to places of support after they have been allowed to struggle a wee while. I’m not advocating everyone is plummeted straight into a world of autonomous, self-directed learning, but i am saying that levels of ability and intelligence should not be an excuse for delivering lazy, straight-jacketed teaching that limits artistic freedom.