Rewarding creativity and technical skill ‐ a pupil’s choice

vermeerThere are plenty of art teachers who will recognize the following situation, it’s one that I see particularly in the younger pupils (aged 12–‐14) that I teach. A painting assignment is finally finished and is being handed in after several lessons work. There are a number of immaculately made paintings, extremely neatly and carefully completed. However the works lack imagination and creativity. Pupils have relied very much on the approaches they know well and haven’t explored other possibilities as well as they could have done. There are also other works made by different pupils that are rather untidy and perhaps carelessly made in terms of technical execution. However this second group shows great evidence of creativity and invention. The pupils have thought hard about the assignment in relation to content, but the technical facility of the pupil has let them down in the final finished quality of the work.

The problem I face as teacher is one of where to I lay the emphasis and weighting when I mark the work? Is technical ability to be rewarded the most or creativity and imagination? The truth is, as a teacher, you would probably like to have both in a piece of work. I have often designed marking rubrics that give a sliding scale of grades for both qualities. This way you can at least make clear to the pupils that you are interested in both areas.

But a recent workshop on differentiation in the class has set me thinking in a different direction. The workshop focussed on the fact that within any given class you have pupils both with a range of abilities but also with a variety talents or skills. This would certainly seem to be the case in the example I have described above. My own feelings are that pupils who lack a certain dexterity in the way they use their materials (even if their ideas are imaginative and ambitious) generally get short changed during this early stage of secondary education.

Greater emphasis on specific judgment criteria in a marking rubric certainly goes some way to helping in this area, but in a way I would like pupils to look even more critically at the work themselves and in doing so identify for themselves their own strengths and weaknesses. In order to try and reach this goal I am considering adjusting my marking for a couple of forthcoming assignments. My plan is to continue using a marking rubric to produce say, two grades that are marks out of ten, one for technical skill and one for creativity and imagination. These two scales will be accompanied by the normal descriptors explaining the sorts of standards in both areas I am looking for.

The difference though would come in allowing the pupils themselves to decide what the overall weighting between the two grades should be. They could decide for 50–‐50, or 30–‐70 for example, anything up to a maximum or perhaps 20–‐80 or 80–‐20. Obviously I would ask them to make the decision for the weighting before they get to hear the grades that I have given the work. The whole point of the exercise is to get them to look critically at the strengths and weaknesses in their own work and to help them to identify areas where they could improve and to give them the feeling that they are able to be rewarded for areas that they are successful in.

I’m not sure how often I might use this approach to marking, at this stage it is very much an interesting experiment. However, I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has experimented in similar ways. I am of course also interested to know and see for myself if it has any effect on the qualities of the work pupils produce.

3 thoughts on “Rewarding creativity and technical skill ‐ a pupil’s choice

  1. Here in Finland we have requirements for number 8 defined in the national curriculum in every subject (on a scale from 4 to 10 8 equals good). Without seeing the work I would say that in your example the neat and careful would be the 8. A student knows what he/she is doing, knows the tools used and can make individual judgements about the work. An experienced art teacher can tell if there’s some exceptional skill beyond that. And you can also tell if there’s any development happening. If a student works continuously on a standard level he’s not learning anything.

    (BTW: Most of my “good” students would be ecstatic if they got 8 in maths but in the arts they are generally disappointed with it. That’s because the grade in the arts is more personal.)

    I tend to “belittle” the importance of technical ability just because this is the weak spot with many of our students. Technical drawing skill is still regarded as a gift you are born with although the case is entirely opposite. That’s why I try to encourage unexpected and original solutions also in evaluation. Of course the technical execution&skill is always a criterion but that’s not the most important. I also give students an opportunities to choose between media – according to their skills and likes.

    I have an evaluation discussion with every student and I always emphasize that the number is an approximation, what I tell them during this evaluation is the most important thing.

    In the future I’ll propably give two scores also and explain them to students. I like the slider idea very much. Because we can’t give two numbers I have to decide the weighed average. How would you decide that?

    • Thanks for the reply Pasi, I think that we are pretty much on the same lines here….your 8 for maths remark is an interesting one. I know some of my pupils think that I mark too hard at times but such remarks generally come about when I’m looking for them to be a bit more inventive.
      The evaluation discussion is so important, as pieces of work are made and at the end. I’d love to be able to give a lengthy piece of written feedback on the back of each piece of work, but we all know that that is so often not possible because of time restrictions, so a good classroom discussion/evaluation is a good alternative.
      I often feel that a quite explicit mental switch has to be made with a class. A clear instruction has to be given…..’I’m looking for imaginative, interesting and creative solutions here’!! The trick is then to try and explain what you mean by a creative solution without setting out a clearly defined route you want pupils to take…the risk being that the creative solution becomes a prescribed route that they all then try to follow. My thoughts on offering the two grades stems from this…time will tell as to whether it helps at all!
      Sir Ken Robinson has written and lectured a lot in this area, I’m sure you’re familiar with his TED talks, but this is a particularly nice short and simple one in this area:

      • Thank you for the Ken Robinson link – I’ve missed this guy completely?!

        The problem with the grade 8 in the arts is connected to the stereotypical idea about artistic skills as a gift, something you’re born with. Lower grade=no gift. That’s what makes it more personal compared with something you can learn with hard work and reading. Here in Finland art education is voluntary after 7th grade and I have lost many talents because of this during my years as a teacher (I asked). I tell my students about this before evaluation.

        How to foster creativity and unconventional solutions? Every time I find traces of original thought and visual experimentation I try to notice them and give credit ( most of my students are not even aware of what they did but they are very pleased with the smallest attention to their work).

        One of my favorite examples from last year was this: the assignment was to make a comic strip with 3-5 images&text if needed. One girl could not fit her story to 5 frames. She made a strip with four frames but when you turned it upside down the story continued for another four frames. She had to solve visual problems with the characters. The work is not visually stunning or technically perfect but she showed visual thinking skills and problem solving. She got a 9 from me.

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