Lessons from Art Lessons

The final exhibition; the culmination of an extended learning journey.
The final exhibition; the culmination of an extended learning journey.

I am in the fortunate position of being the line manager for Art at KEGS and over the last couple of weeks I’ve been involved in the Art Departmental Review.  This a process that involves observing everyone in the department, giving individual feedback then team feedback and looking more widely at achievement issues overall.  We are in the second year of the process so we are building on the ideas and objectives we set out last year.  I should also say that my recent thinking about Art has also been influenced by my daughter who is taking GCSE Art and finds it to be, by far, the most rewarding, engaging, challenging subject; the most work and the most fun.

During my period of immersion in the Art world, I’ve started to think that we have a lot to learn from the whole artistic process about teaching and learning and about the process of observing. Here are my thoughts:

1. Teaching and Learning

  •  Art lessons are where students have the greatest opportunity to explore and to express their thoughts and feelings in an extended, deep manner; the conditions allow them to be very personal in ways that other subjects rarely do. Art teachers can learn a lot more about their students’ interests and idiosyncrasies because of the dialogue they engage in.

    Year 12 work that has developed from simple origins into a range of forms. The students love to tell their stories.
    Year 12 work that has developed from simple origins into a range of forms. The students love to tell their stories.
  • In Art, students have a the greatest ownership over what they are doing – the process, the subject matter, the development of ideas over time; Art is the closest students come to experiencing  risk-taking ‘skateboarding lessons’ autonomy and self-direction over an extended period. This is where the seeds of creativity and innovation are sown…and we don’t allow enough of this in other areas.

    Mixed media; a highly academic student who loves the opportunity for personal discovery.
    Mixed media; a highly academic student who loves the opportunity for personal discovery.
  • There is an explicit process of learning from the ideas of others  – great artists and peers in the classroom.  I shared this in my Teaching for Creativity and Innovation blog, showing how my daughter had based a piece on her work of Sir Francis Bacon.  In the lesson shown below, students were showing their understanding of a portrait by recreating them in a photo; the resulting discussion about lighting, character, imagery and composition was stunning – in a Year 7 class.

    Showing understanding through visual representation.
    Showing understanding through visual representation.
  • To an extent I had never fully appreciated, the technical skills are far less critical than the skills and confidence needed to explore, create, experiment, review, re-direct and so on… The technical skills are also important but are often not the source of the creativity..
  • The learning is visible – not just visual. This lends itself to a wonderful range of feedback processes.  Teachers give concrete suggestions in sketchbooks or on post-its that can be acted on; group feedback can be engineered in a large circle or by asking students to offer suggestions individually or in pairs. Students can photograph their work as it develops or reference their work to that of others in order to self-evaluate and seek to make continual improvements. This process of continual reflection and refinement is wonderful. In writing-based subjects we are really just trying to get as close to this as possible.

    KS3 Art lessons where students' ideas develop along with the confidence to put them into action.
    KS3 Art lessons where students’ ideas develop along with the confidence to put them into action.
  • There is so much scope to be inventive with feedback modes. In a Y12 lesson students used Picasso quotes as feedback which generated excellent discussion about students’ artistic thought processes.  The role of the sketchbook is also really powerful and quite different to a typical exercise book because of the personal, exploratory nature of what goes in it, all building towards the ideas embedded in the larger pieces.

So….how could some of this transfer to other areas?

Could we provide more extended learning opportunities in other subjects?  In Physics the closest we get to this is the Y13 practical coursework where students design their own experiments and carry them out over 10 lessons or so.  They have the same sense of ownership and they learn a great deal about Physics as they wrestle with all the hidden challenges of real-world measurement.  I’m considering looking at introducing something like this at KS3…some form of open investigation. Is there an equivalent in other subjects? What about a personal historical study in Year 8 History or a Geography Town Study or a self-selected novel to explore in Year 9 English?

The closest we get to the Art experience in Physics. Individual investigations.. but why leave it to Year 13?
The closest we get to the Art experience in Physics. Individual investigations.. but why leave it to Year 13?

Should we see exercise books more like the artist’s sketchbook – more of a personal learning journal? What about exhibitions of work in other subjects? We invite parents in to see the GCSE and A Level work but why not for Maths, History or DT?  In general we need to do more ‘gathering round’ the students’ work so share it, critique it, learn from it and improve it.  This is what the Gallery Technique and other strategies deliver – we just need more of it.

2. Observing the Learning Arc: Moving away from the snap-shot. 

Something that struck me very clearly during this Departmental Review was that I don’t think you can judge an art lesson properly simply by looking at what is going on within the short time frame of one lesson segment.  Of course you can observe general classroom management issues – you could tell if things were going wrong – but, beyond that, the learning is almost always on a long arc, to use my Learning Arc concept.  When you observe an art lesson or talk to a student about their work..immediately you need to know the full story.  You need to know where their ideas started, what the inspiration was, where they took the ideas to before the abstractions began or what the cultural references are. Without this, the clay figure or the shoe lino cut or the elaborate fabric sculpture or intensely dark painting just seem to have no purpose. Once the back story is told, it all comes to life.  It also helps to know where it is all going too; where is each student going with their ideas? In Art, students are on a learning journey that takes time – and this is clear to see.

In this context, there is no value in saying that a 30 minute segment is ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’; what you want to know is whether the entire process is going to lead to Outstanding outcomes… which is an entirely different emphasis.  This requires the observer to go deeper; to find out more and to take a long term view. Of course it helps if you can pop in several times or see the finished work later on.

This bit of thinking, inspired by Art lessons, suggests to me that the same also applies to all lessons – or at least most lessons.  The learning arc in many subjects is long and slow; we cannot truly know what learning is happening during a snapshot. At best we get some clues.  I think we need to re-examine the entire notion of lesson observation judgements – because they do not do justice to the real learning process which is slower and longer.  In truth, this model applies not only to lessons but to the whole notion of accountability.  Snap-shots are false.  That is pretty much the end of it.  I will think more and write about just this in due course…  but the ideas will have been shaped by Lessons from Art Lessons.

With thanks to the Art students at KEGS and the wonderful Art Team: Helen, Helen, Rohini and Sue.  Thanks all.

So many possible ways for students to explore ideas....
So many possible ways for students to explore ideas….


  1. I wish my school had had an art department like yours.

    And yes we should be exploring ways to allow KS3 science to include a genuinely open investigation – we are crazy to leave it until Y13 and then expect them to know what we mean by an investigation.
    I would be interested in exploring how we could do this in KS3 science.


  2. As a new Science subject leader, since September, I’m planning to use CREST (or something similar of our own devising) investigations in KS3 curriculum time as a way of doing ‘proper’ investigations. We’re in the planning stages at present for the Summer term. My main concern is practical requirements. We may have to introduce a investigation unit spread through the year for the different classes in a year group. I’d be interested to hear of your ideas too


    • Hi Dan. I’m thinking about a forces and motion unit. Here, with trucks, ramps, clocks and rulers, all kinds of energy, force, acceleration measurements could be devised. It could include a crumple zone test..all sorts really. Basic kit; big ideas! A long term biology ‘crop trial’ might work too… different conditions for plant growth.


  3. Dear HeadGuruTeacher,
    As an art teacher, now in the classroom in my last year of my 45 years in the classroom, I must say how much I totally agree with your observations.Watching Prof Ken Robinson’s short lecture on creativity in education last evening so many resonances were stirring.It has been a case of making the argumnts over and over again to convince ‘management’ of the value to children of creative challenges. Once again,the pressures to reduce creative subjects has been in the news so we can rarely assume that the argument has been resolved.With support and encouragement from headteachers could make all the differnce. Your art department is fortunate indeed!


    • Thanks Phil. In truth we may not currently have as much Art in our curriculum as we could. We’re looking at our options processes and considering some changes. We’re facing financial pressure and the short-term imperative is to protect the creative subjects as much as possible when the voices ‘out there’ are not helping to promote the arts within the system.


  4. Another great post Tom, your blog is fast becoming one my ‘must reads’. Thanks for such an open and honest approach to your writing.
    We’ve had some success in yr 9 with getting students to trace their family tree as a History project. We tie it to lessons about migration to and from Wales and end with students sharing one of the stories they’ve found from their research. Might be a possible starting point for History?


    • I have had this discussion so many times about the concept your refer to as a ‘Learning Arc’. Learning in art happens in episodes of a story and this is the same I think in many practical subjects. Colleagues from Science and PE have discussed this at length but unfortunately the O word is used and 15/20 min progress is quoted as what they want to see and some teachers I know have been given RI purely on the observation of a lesson which was part of a series but was taken as a single snapshot. Totally unrealistic. Thanks for this repost on Twitter, has given me hope!


  5. […] Watching other people teach is a special privilege. Many of my colleagues leave me in awe with their knowledge and skill.  Here, watching my colleague Mark Barrow teach the Pre-U Global Perspectives course is like a masterclass in questioning and rigour;  on the right, is a Year 9 History where extended writing is the end-product of a string of interactive learning activities that probe and explore in real depth. Stunning.  Earlier in the year I wrote about the joy of working with the Art Department in this post: Lessons from Art Lessons. […]


  6. I have enjoyed your observations of the unique way that Art is taught and your clear understanding of how important the process and the thinking is. This is so refreshing and I have shared this with many art educators.


  7. Reblogged this on derfrick and commented:
    Great blog! Why have so many s hools squeezed Art out of the curriculum? Oh yes because of government assessment which governs all education in state schools, including Academies!


  8. At Somervale School art department we have found running art workshops as a way of giving students more opportunity to create works of art collaboratively. In 2015 -2016 I ran our School project internationally, called Icons of Peace and Equality https://artclassroomproject.wordpress.com/. Academically, I believe it is important to demonstrate to students that art does not exist in isolation but draws from all disciplines and subject matter throughout their curriculum. I have also ran other projects where I hope students produce work which inspires them and others in school. It adds to the schools environment and the community where a culture of mutual respect grows. As a department we are hopefully instilling a creative drive where kids start to understand they can create something magnificent. There are so many ways to be creative whether in art or any subject. We are not stand alone subjects…we all feed into one and others.

    If other Schools would like to collaborate let me know as I’m always looking for the next possibilities.



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