They say that every day in education is different. Generally that’s fairly true, but at the moment it doesn’t really feel like it. Alongside particularly packed timetable at the moment I am ploughing my way through my usual April extra task of being an examiner for the visual arts International Baccalaureate diploma exam. In the course of a month I mark seventy candidates.
The work is all done online and involves a long sit in front of my computer screen at home. Each candidate presents a 10-15 minute interview film where they talk about an exhibition of their work, a 300 word statement, documentation of 20-30 pages of their research/note books and 12-18 images of their main studio work. On the basis of this I have to give an overall grade ranging get from 1 to 20 and write a short report explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the work and justifying how I have applied the marking criteria. All in all, about a forty to forty five minute block for each pupil.
As I said earlier it’s a long sit. But it is actually, as marking of tests and exams go, it’s a really rather interesting test of endurance. The main reason for this is that the IB visual arts exam is perhaps one of the best examples of non-standardized testing. At no point in this exam are candidates tested on predetermined hard information/facts/skills that the exam board passes down as a requirement.
Let’s be clear here, we do examine on technical skill, sensitivity, creativity and imagination in the practical work candidates present, and we also examine on their research and knowledge of their ideas and how they apply them to the practical work. Alongside this we also look that the contextual, art historical and personal references in their work. Not only is the finished product evaluated, but also the working process that leads up to the work being produced.
The fact that this is all examined with a non-standardized test is absolutely right and correct, how else could you examine such a two year process of artistic development? Well there are of course other ways to do this, you could standardize large amounts of the curriculum and also of the test. Tell the teachers and pupils which parts and details of art history they must learn about in order to be able to have a central test for it. You can also have standardized testing for practical work too, I remember doing a, I think, four hour drawing paper at school in the UK and an even longer painting paper spread over a number of days, all based on a series of standardized questions.
The Dutch educational system where I teach uses the variant where the subject teacher in the school examines the practical work and there is a national written paper for the (very specified) art and cultural history syllabus that has to be followed. I have two main issues with this approach, firstly the balance of theory and practical, it’s about 50:50 but I know the pupils end up feeling like the theory work is in the ascendancy. Secondly, and hugely important, the theory and the practical are way too detached.
This is where the IB non-standardized approach shows its strength. Instead of detachment, the art and cultural context MUST be integrated with the practical work. Exactly how, or what, is not specified. If, for example, a particular candidate is particularly interested in environmental issues and has decided to make artworks about such a theme, they are expected to carry out research into this area, the issues involved and other artists who might be making work related to this field. This is all with the aim of stimulating the pupils’ interest by letting them seek out themes that are interesting and relevant to them. Yes, this might mean that they may never stop to study the work of Rembrandt. But does that matter? If a young person and their creativity can be engaged and nurtured into a love and appreciation of art and culture they’ll find out about Rembrandt soon enough.
As I work my way through all my exam candidates (from all over the world) there is great diversity. Diversity in work process, themes and quality. The quality of teaching is important, possibly even more important in this non-standardized approach, as I should perhaps also point out, is the quality of the examining! But the gain is, and it’s a big gain, that candidates have a focus and ownership of their work that is different from a more standardized approach. The creativity, insight and self-motivation that is asked of them is also of huge relevance to them as they continue into higher education, whether that is in an art and culturally related field or not.