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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!

Art curriculum, art history, and cultural capital

If you haven’t yet read this blog by Sallie Stanton about the curriculum planning that the Art department have done at her school, then I really recommend it – it’s so good!

One of the things I really like about this blog is the way that the head of art has carefully cut up the thinking into sections, and she does the section first that is most important: how students can make progress as practical artists. Then she fits the other things around this, not because they are not important, but because the order of them doesn’t matter as much. So she chooses the project to fit the progression of the students, she chooses the art history to fit the progression of the students.

When I say most important, I hope I’m not offending any art historians! I’m not saying history of art isn’t important. But the subject is art, not history of art. If we had a history of art course (how cool would that be) then obviously the history of art would be more important than getting better at practical art. I think it’s important to make this point because people seem to get pretty emotional sometimes about what’s included in the curriculum, I think some people in discussions I see online seem to think the curriculum is all about them, an expression of their own ideas or something. From my point of view that’s a pretty limited vision, and not really fair on the kids. Also: get over yourself. Teaching doesn’t exist for you to express yourself. It exists so we can educate children in the best material. We can debate about what that material should be but we should be looking to reasons outside of our own preferences and tastes, in my opinion anyway. So it doesn’t matter whether you think practical art or art history is more important – or how about they’re both equally important – but anyway the point is the subject is art and not history of art – so the practical is the most important.

However, I am not saying that history of art is not important in an art curriculum. I think it’s incredibly important for several reasons. First of all, I think it can really help to develop students’ practical work. We can show students examples of work done using a certain technique – why wouldn’t you use work from one of the best artists the world has ever seen? It’s instructive and it’s inspirational. I do think that live modelling from the teacher is important, as well as feedback on how to do better of course, but I think that looking at the work of great artists is key to a good practical art education.

I think it’s also a question of cultural capital. One of the things I’ve learned from talking to colleagues in the staffroom is how unmotivating some of their curriculum is. I mean I would find it unmotivating. I understand all the arguments about success is a great motivator, so great teaching motivates students, and I don’t disagree, but really – I wouldn’t choose to learn the quadratic formula. Ever. Sorry.

I wouldn’t choose to learn most of the stuff actually. I guess that’s why I chose art! But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have been made to learn it. As Amy Chua says in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, if we just let kids do what they want it would be facebook and ice cream all day! We put stuff on the curriculum because we think it’s valuable, we think children are entitled to it, even if they are not motivated to study it without direction.

If I’d been left to my own devices I never would have studied any maths, or science, or German, or ICT… but I’m glad I was made to. If I’m honest I didn’t make the most of the time I had in those lessons, but I don’t think my school was great either – sometimes I wonder how things would have turned out if I’d gone to a proper knowledge-rich school! But I’m still glad I learned those things because it means I’ve taken part in the main disciplines of human thought, if only for a short time. I’ve probably forgotten most of it now but I’ve got a sense of the subjects and that’s something really special. If I have kids I’d like to think I’d be able to help them with any of their subjects, so that they can participate too, and if they would like to choose a different path then they’ll be able to because I was able to help when they needed me…

So all this thinking got me thinking about art history. I think we owe it to our students to teach them art history that makes for the best cultural capital. I don’t personally like classical or Renaissance art to look at but I can appreciate it for its significance in human history. I notice references to things like “Michelangelo’s David” and “Boticellian beauty” in news and opinion articles. These artists and their works are keys to whole worlds of knowledge and understanding, just like knowledge of history, vocabulary, geography, and everything else. If we don’t teach them to our students, we leave them locked out, in my opinion. We can’t fit everything in, but the great thing about art history is you can tag it on without taking a long time, but have a large impact. For example, we have a unit on anatomy and figure drawing. If I make 1 homework and 1 lesson focused on Michaelangelo’s David, that can be really powerful, without taking away any time from practical work. Here’s how I plan to do it:

English: Michelangelo’s David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence)
8 July 2008, 13:11:11
Own work
Jörg Bittner Unna’David’_by_Michelangelo_Fir_JBU002.jpg

Lesson – briefly introduce the statue, point out the features that make it so wonderful (using carefully prepared explanations – in fact I have just lifted this from Wikipedia and it is pretty good:

“David is depicted before his battle with Goliath.[22][23] Instead of being shown victorious over a foe much larger than he, David looks tense and ready for combat.

The statue appears to show David after he has made the decision to fight Goliath but before the battle has actually taken place, a moment between conscious choice and action – fight and flight. His brow is drawn, his neck tense, and the veins bulge out of his lowered right hand. His left hand holds a sling that is draped over his shoulder and down to his right hand, which holds a rock.[24] The twist of his body effectively conveys to the viewer the feeling that he is in motion, an impression heightened with contrapposto. The statue is a Renaissance interpretation of a common ancient Greek theme of the standing heroic male nude. In the High Renaissance, contrapposto poses were thought of as a distinctive feature of antique sculpture. This is typified in David, as the figure stands with one leg holding its full weight and the other leg forward. This classic pose causes the figure’s hips and shoulders to rest at opposing angles, giving a slight s-curve to the entire torso. The contrapposto is emphasized by the turn of the head to the left, and by the contrasting positions of the arms.”

Then I would set the homework:

Homework: Make a drawing from a photo of the statue using one of the mark-making techniques we have practised

And then next lesson we’ll do a large number of quick sketches of students (on rotation) standing in similar poses. Obviously we won’t be able to do the anatomy but the stance and the meaning conveyed by it can be really effectively practiced, and I think it will be a really strong piece of cultural capital, and practical development, without either taking away from the other.

Michelangelo’s David is not a piece of historical art that most of our students would choose to study, but I think it’s a great example of something that they should study, because of the cultural capital rewards. There’s loads of other examples I want to put into our curriculum, and hopefully I’ll blog about them at some point.

Knowledge-rich Y7 portraiture

When students arrive in Year 7 our first job is to teach them to draw. Here is my Key Stage 3 (2 years) curriculum outline:


Measurement and perspective

Media and mark-making

A brief history of art


Development of a work

In this blog I briefly describe the teaching of portraiture in our knowledge-rich curriculum.

First, we show the children that their brain lies. This can be really fun. We start by showing some optical illusions and talking the students through them: Which line do you think is longer? Now measure them and see! Do you think these lines are parallel? Use your ruler to find out! We talk about the reasons our brain makes these constructions and about why it is important to be aware of them and watch out for them.

Now for the portraiture – after a fashion. We start off by asking students to do a “before” – a self-portrait in monochrome coloured chalk without having had any instruction in portraiture. These are almost uniformly weak. We spend one lesson on this, and use it as an opportunity to introduce coloured chalk as a medium, looking at the very basics of line and tone. More on the choice of medium below.

After students have completed their “before” self-portrait, we teach the basic proportions of the face, the basic anatomy of the eye, nose and mouth, normal behaviour of light e.g. a darker upper lip, and important areas to focus on such as the corners of the mouth and the amount of the iris visible. We encourage the use of blocks of tone to get away from the conception that faces are made of lines. Coloured chalk is perfect for this because it’s much easier to block than pencil, it’s less messy than charcoal so we don’t need to spend as long teaching how to handle it, and students aren’t overwhelmed by the cognitive load of a fairly tricky medium. And it’s way cheaper than Comte crayon.

 Each of these components is taught explicitly by the teacher under the visualiser, modelling a bad one and then a good one. Students are questioned throughout to check for understanding. After each component has been taught, students practise on 3 or 4 exercises. They use a ruler to draw out a face proportions, and then practise from photos of different faces. They copy several drawings of eyes, then photographs, then their own from life. Repeat for noses and mouths. They practice copying very rough tonal drawings of faces using their coloured chalk, then from photographs, then their own from life. These whole-face practices are short 5-minute tonal sketches to engage the students with the shapes of the tone, rather than carefully planned or detailed drawings. During each of these activities, the teacher circulates and corrects misconceptions: “You have missed the shadow under the lip, add that in”; “You cannot see that part of the eye, it is in shadow – go over it please”; “The eyes are not that far up, look again”.

After all of the component parts have been practised in this way, students begin their “after”: their new self-portrait using the same coloured chalk. These are A3 size and are completed over about four lessons. Students begin by constructing the face proportions – at this stage they use the standard ones rather than measuring their own as we don’t teach measurement until a later unit. These proportions are checked by the teacher before students can begin to work on the face. The room is lit dramatically to allow bold tonal shapes to be seen to discourage over-use of line. Students apply their knowledge from all of the practice they have done, and bring it together in a single piece. The results are incredible! The transformation between the “before” and “after” is so impressive, and it shows students a) what they are capable of in terms of rapid improvement and b) why it is so important to study the theory and rules of art in order to be a successful artist. After the final portrait has been completed, students write a reflection on the differences between their first and final efforts, identifying the misconceptions that were present in the initial work and how they worked to overcome them in the final one. This allows us to introduce some critical language and writing conventions as well as encouraging students to be reflective artists and think explicitly about their practice.

Knowledge-rich art: We have to teach children to draw

I’m in the process of planning our art curriculum and I thought I’d write about my thinking. At my school we’re committed to ambitious, knowledge-rich curriculum that is true to the subject. We have high expectations for our students and we believe they are entitled to learn the most challenging and rewarding material possible. We also believe that they can do this. We don’t mess around with games or starters, instead using Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction to make sure that all students are explicitly taught and given lots of opportunity for practice.

For some reason this means that I’m a Nazi according to most art teachers I interact with online. I’ve been told that if you teach perspective it kills creativity, and that learning to measure is outdated and boring. Instead I should be getting kids to experiment with media and not worry about accuracy in drawing. This is weird. Wasn’t it Picasso who said “You have to know the rules before you can break them”? Every single great artist I know of has had a classical art education, either apprenticed or self-taught. Some go on to non-figurative work but the reason that they pull this off is because they have learned to draw and therefore they have learned to see.

Art is about visual things isn’t it. Line, shape, colour, tone, texture, pattern, composition. The semiotics of objects and symbols. The feelings and thoughts evoked in the viewer are all caused by the visual elements of the piece in question. The expression by the artist through the artist’s work comes through these visual elements. To master the visual, you have to learn to see.

You’re probably wondering what I’m going on about. Almost everyone can see. But this isn’t really true. Humans construct so much of what they see using their brains, and what we think we see actually doesn’t match the details of the image projected on our retina.

We’ve all seen good drawings and poor drawings. I would say that 75% of what separates a good drawing from a poor one is the artist’s ability to look and really see, to overcome the constructions that the brain creates and accurately notice the way that things really look. (I would estimate that a further 15% is the ability to transfer that information accurately to the page, and 10% in the quality of the mark-making/use of the pencil. This is not a scientific claim and please don’t turn this into a pyramid!)

If you compare a novice drawing to an expert’s you can see all of the misconceptions writ large. Line features much more heavily than tone – novices draw objects rather than the way light falls on objects. Proportion often reflects importance – features on the face are often drawn larger and more fully than the other areas. The subject wrenched up to the page and flattened across it: with little foreshortening objects get laid out in their entirety across the surface.—portrait-workshop

If you can teach a student to draw then you are teaching them to really look, and to tell their brain “No – you will not trick me – this is what I see.” Why is this important? To be able to draw well is a joy. It is satisfying and at times meditative, contemplative, even spiritual. It is incredibly rewarding to see one’s own progress. Who wouldn’t want all of these things for their students?

And whatever art these students will go on to create, being able to look and to see gives students a connection with the visual world that they didn’t have before. If we believe in art as a visual discipline, then we have to teach children to draw, and to see. This isn’t killing their creativity, it’s their entitlement, and it will allow them to be so much more successful in their creativity later on.  Everyone can learn to draw, and in my next blog I’ll describe how we do this.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.