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A knowledge-rich art curriculum

Thank you to all the people who have shown interest in how we structure our curriculum here at KRS. I thought I’d share my curriculum map, it’s a work in progress and I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts.

Here’s the link to our mapping document:

And below are some really rough notes around our thinking. There is loads more to write about and hopefully I’ll return to this topic soon, but for now I’m hoping this is useful to some and sparks some interesting discussion. We are always looking to improve so would really welcome people’s feedback.

The thinking behind our art curriculum

I thought I’d write a post to share the thinking in our knowledge-rich art curriculum. The term “knowledge-rich” is a bit weird in art – I’ve taken it to mean “we have thought very hard about our subject, about what it means to get better at it, and what kind of teacher input and student practice can help students to really learn loads and get a lot better at art.”

I’ve been strongly influenced by the work of people like Christine Counsell, Ruth Ashbee, and Josh Vallance, and I decided to start my thinking by analysing the types of knowledge in art. I didn’t get very far with substantive and disciplinary knowledge, so instead I imagined myself transported to Renaissance Florence, Picasso’s Paris, Pollock’s New York… what kinds of conversations might these great artists have been having? In particular, what kinds of exchanges might there be between master and apprentice?

After discussion with Ruth Ashbee, I decided on the following categories:

Accuracy – being able to faithfully draw, to create lines and shapes that show what we want them to show, to be able to show how light falls, and to recreate colours and textures. There is quite a bit of formal theory here, such as perspective, anatomy and geometry, and also this is the area where student misconceptions are most important: most students come to art, for example, drawing stylised or prototypical facial features, rather than being able to look and observe the composite shapes and tone that make up a real image of a face. I think that David Didau’s idea of noticing as a key skill in English has a lot of value for us in art as well. We can imagine Michaelangelo remarking “see how the light falls on the cheek here…” or da Vinci: “The bone of the ankle protrudes just so here…”

This category seems to be not mentioned at all in the Key Stage 3 National Curriculum, and only coyly or obliquely referred to in GCSE specs. I don’t know why it’s not mentioned, but it’s essential for students to make genuine progress and to be able to produce high quality art in the areas that these documents do specify. Maybe it’s assumed as a given – I guess the geography specifications don’t stipulate that students should be able to read, although it’s essential to success in geography? I worry about it though because I think a lot of schools don’t consider it as essential, and don’t put the necessary thought into how we can teach students to get better at this aspect.

Media and mark-making – an ability to effectively use the artist’s media, a knowledge and skill in their handling and techniques. We can include handling colour in this category. We can imagine the conversations: Picasso: “It is just a whisper of charcoal on the paper here” or Cezanne: “See how you might push the paint about on the canvas so that the colours come alive!”

This aspect of knowledge is mentioned a lot in the NC and specs – there seems to me to be an emphasis on “experiment” which again I think is well-intentioned and not wrong, but has been interpreted in a way which has hindered student progress. It is a fact that there is a body of knowledge in the world about how to handle media in art. This is how you should hold your pencil. Here is how you can avoid smudging your work. You can move your hand like this to achieve this effect. Students must try out these techniques for themselves – you can’t learn them without using your hands – but the best experimentation comes from students trying out techniques they have been shown, through good-quality modelling and demonstration from the teacher. (The role of feedback is very important here as well, though it’s a pedagogical rather than a curricular issue, so I’ll save it for another blog.)

Habits of working and developing work – this is the sketchbook stuff, the experimenting, annotations, reflections, bringing things together etc

History of art/ the work of great artists – this hopefully speaks for itself, I think it’s really important that students learn about art through history so that they can appreciate it, both through analysis of pieces and also through understanding their context, I also think it’s really important that students learn from the great masters, developing their understanding of accuracy, aesthetics, meaning, use of media and the formal elements through studying how great artists have approached these things through time.

Art theory: formal elements and semiotics  – It’s important for students to understand the formal elements of art, so that they can interpret the work of others, and plan their own work, effectively. Take this painting, for example:

Our appreciation of it is dramatically deepened when we begin to analyse it in terms of line and movement. Look at this:

When we see the repeated rise and fall of the line, the extension of the line of the first woman, into that of her hair, and then that of the second and the echo of this line in the curtain above, we see into this picture in a way that was not possible before. A student who is able to think in the language of line in this way is better able to plan their own work – to notice Powerful or interesting lines in the world, to capture them faithfully, to emphasise effectively, and to compose with balance and drama. The same is true for each of the formal elements of art.

Notice that it is not quite the case that to get better at art we get better at the formal elements of art. Rather, we get better at using the language of the formal elements to help us analyse, appreciate, develop and plan. We can get better at our execution of things like handling of tone, or expression of line, but these skills are not the same thing as the language itself.

The second aspect of art theory is the question of semiotics and expression. Works of art and their components carry and evoke meaning. We have symbolism, allegory, emotion and sacred geometry. Our reaction to a Bacon is different to our reaction to a Freud. When we see the construction lines in a piero fella Francesca, it’s like uncovering a secret map. When we easily identify the real Mondrian in a sea of fakes, we discover something in ourselves that his way with composition speaks to, a language without words. As with the formal elements, these understandings help us to appreciate the world of the greats before us, and to learn form them, and to develop our own work with greater meaning.

Finally we come to art history, or the story of how all these aspects have developed and inter played over time. This narrative, (although it is more than a narrative, and the questions of historiography are fascinating) can be seen as having several levels. We have the movements, the contexts, the artists themselves, and their individual works. Of course each of these interacts strongly with the others. The study of art history can powerfully develop students understanding and enthusiasm for each of the aspects above, and to give them a sense of the importance of art and its place in the world. I would go so far as to say it is unethical to teach students art without learning from the great masters: every great artist throughout time worked incredibly hard to build the techniques, ideas and understanding that exist today as a body of knowledge in art. What is more, art is personal in a way that science and maths, for example, are not. apprenticeship to great masters is a noble model for education.

Having said that, I’ve not based my curriculum around a chronological art history.

Principles of this curriculum

Explicit instruction and epistemic ascent -we teach students powerful knowledge about each of the strands of knowledge in art, and we help them to get better through the activities we choose and the feedback we give. We believe that everybody can learn to draw – it is not limited to those with an apparent innate talent, and it is our responsibility to make sure every single student leaves us having experienced the joy of accurately depicting something in the world.

Apprenticeship to an established body of knowledge and individual masters – copying key works from print and galleries; using knowledge from key texts.

Training the eye and overcoming misconceptions; developing habits of looking, noticing, measuring and evaluating.

Drawing from life – we believe that drawing from photos and use of techniques such as the grid method does not develop students’ ability to interact with their world in an artistly way. There is no replacement for drawing from life, and every unit begins with this as a starting point.

Accuracy and knowledge as the foundation for creativity – We have built this curriculum to develop students’ creativity. We’ve included Secession, abstract expressionism and De Stijl. We’ve structured the stages for students to be creative in a successful way – creating pieces with authentic meaning, and making use of the formal elements of art. Any idiot off the street can make a creative piece by chucking some paint around – it takes knowledge and skill to make something wonderful.

Flooding with inspiration – we study several artists for every unit and I’ve tried to give these a good variety so that everyone will find inspiration.

Books books books – I’ve found that you can get amazing art books super-cheap in charity shops. These are fantastic for students to develop habits of independent research – and they actually love reading about the artists and their (often) scandalous lives.

Annotations – language is power – giving students the vocabulary to describe what artists have done – this allows them to think clearly about what they want to achieve themselves.

I’m lucky in that both design and architecture are covered by our fantastic D&T department, so I don’t need to worry about covering those aspects in order for our school to cover the National Curriculum regarding those areas.

At Key Stage 4, we are committed to maintaining the explicit instruction approach across all the strands, whilst developing students’ ability to explore and develop personal projects and final pieces. I’ve planned more units than all students will have time to complete in all probability, with the idea that all students can join the explicit instruction phase of each unit in order to develop their knowledge and skill, and then focus on personal projects of their choice, including previous ones, in the remainder of that time.

Home work – we expect students to complete high- quality homework every week, this rotates through: observational drawing and copying and analysing an artist’s work. At GCSE this becomes more fluid as students develop their projects, but it is still a key aspect of the home work they are set.

Intervention – We are a completely inclusive department: we don’t exclude anyone from taking GCSE art. However, if a student opts for art and has not yet met the required threshold of skill, we ask that they and their parent/s/carers attend a contract meeting where the student and parent signs to say they will attend drawing intervention. This is an intensive course run during the first half term of Year 10, using key techniques from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and the key ateliers.

Representation matters – I’ve worked hard to ensure that artists from diverse backgrounds are well-represented in this curriculum. I’m sure I haven’t got it perfect yet so I’d be really grateful for any suggestions for this area in particular.

From “In the style of” to “informed by” – I’m not that keen on GCSE work in the style of a particular artist. I think the learning curve should be: copy the artist, emulate the artist, and then incorporate what you want of that artist into your own style. We’ve tried to structure students’ work so they are able to get to the third stage as a standard.

Why this, Why now? – As you can see from the mapping document, we’ve tried to create a sequence of units that allows understanding and skill to build over time. We spent a lot of time playing with the order, and I’m really happy with how not only the skills build to allow more developed pieces over time, but also how understanding of things like art as communication builds. I’m really proud of our placement of abstract expressionism as a culmination at the end of year 9. Students will be able to draw on a great wealth of understanding of more traditional styles and movements in order to develop very well-informed abstractions and expressions, and this is a very rewarding experience.

That’s all from us for now, do get in touch with any feedback, and remember: Knowledge is Power!

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