If illegality is involved, then we’re interested

Whilst evaluating the various art and culture modules I’ve taught to my groups of fifteen and sixteen year old’s this year, an interesting point has come up. I’ve taught across a variety of themes, but there is no doubt, that three in particular have stood out in the eyes of the pupils, and they all involve, in some way, questions of where the line lies between legality and illegality. I’ve looked at copyright and the remix in the cultural sphere, and how it impacts on artists and other creative practitioners. We’ve covered the question of artists and filmmakers engage with the extremely newsworthy theme of illegal immigration and we’ve spent time looking at street art and its place on the fringes of artistic production.

These links with illegality in various ways has on my part been a completely unconscious decision, but is the preference expressed by pupils in relation to these themes more than just a coincidence?


In the eyes of many young people the world of art and culture exists in many ways as something of a detached entity, particularly when it comes to visual art.  You go to the museum to see it and often it seems to boil down to a question of whether you like it for its aesthetic qualities or not. If there is an accessible narrative, for young people it is a narrative that is often a huge distance from their own world of experience.

Maybe in this context it isn’t that surprising than a cultural theme that engages with a relatively straight forward distinction of legality and illegality does provide a point of access. Most children and teenagers are quite interested in a sort of natural justice, things that should be allowed and things that shouldn’t.  All three of these modules have played into this area in different ways. The response of my pupils in all three cases has been incredibly positive. They feel we are engaging with the real world, they tell me that it’s helping them understand complex issues better and they are learning to appreciate that artists and other creative people have important and relevant things to say in these areas. In short it is a win, win, win situation!


I suppose in a way it still reduces down to being able to link up with narratives and stories. Stories of the artists and musicians working in areas of dubious legality and being pursued by multinationals who own copyrights, illegal immigrants struggling to cross (or stay within) borders and the nocturnal world of the illegal street artist all have their own narratives, and better still they are narratives based on reality.

For me there is perhaps a lesson and an opportunity here, playing into these sorts of narratives must be possible in other areas too. More emphasis on the personal history of a particular artist, designer or architect perhaps or seeking out dramatic social contexts or dramas behind a given creative work. Once engaged, it never stops to amaze me, how far you can go, but opening the door is the challenge and finding the route in is oh so important.

Peer Instruction, a first experiment

After writing enthusiastically last week about the presentation by Eric Mazur that I had attended in Utrecht I thought a follow up was necessary. I couldn’t possibly leave it at just an interesting and new bit to the selection of ‘activating lesson forms’ that I and every teacher walks round with. It was an idea to be used and experimented with.

Mazur is a physics professor and the example he used last week in his presentation was a real physics one, with hard and definite answer.  That was my first slight concern, would this peer instruction approach work so well in the more subjective and opinion based nature of my arts subject area? With this in mind I set about earlier in the week trying to formulate a series of questions that generate discussion in my class and initially at least not simply lead all the pupils to pick the same answer.

What I came up with was a lesson plan for my third years (14-15 year olds) that was intended to launch a series of lessons with theoretical and practical assignments all based around the central theme of war and conflict as it is presented in art and the media.

The basic approach was as follows; I would start by showing an image of conflict from the history of art and ask the pupils to consider the following question, “what is the most significant aspect of this artwork?”

They could choose one of five possible answers:

a)  To document an incident or event from history

b)  To show the dangers of war

c)  To show technical skill

d)  To make us feel sympathy for the victims of war

e)  To show the participation in war as a kind of heroic act

Using the pupils’ smartphones and the Socrative app they were able to vote for their chosen answer. Thereafter I gave three or four minutes for discussion and persuasion of each other, before allowing a second round of voting.

This process was repeated for three images, the Bayeux Tapestry, David’s painting of Napoleon and Goya’s Third of May, all three are shown here below.

war and conflict

The basic idea of the lesson was to illustrate to the pupils that both the motivation for making the artworks and what they actually show us has changed during the course of history. In the five answers they could choose from there are no definite right or wrong answers, it is all a little softer than that. However I think that it is fair to say that there are perhaps more prevalent and active answers from our 21st century perspective, and it was those that I was hoping the pupils would move towards after discussion.

I was generally relatively satisfied about the way the lesson proceeded, the technology worked well in recording the voting and I really only had to add extra instruction to one small group who seemed to think that winning a discussion was simply about shouting “answer c is the best answer”, “no, answer d is the best answer”!

The results

The three ‘dominant’ answers I was hoping beforehand to see coming out were the following:

Bayeux tapestry – answer (a) to document an event or incident from history

David’s Napoleon – answer (e) to show the participation in war as a kind of heroic act

Goya’s 3rd May – answer (d) to make us feel sympathy for the victims of war

As I said earlier I see these as the ‘dominant’ answers, not the only possible answers, but nonetheless I was extremely curious as the conclusions my class would come to.  As it turned out, after the first vote (with absolutely no discussion beforehand), all three of my dominant answers were the most selected, although it should be said that for the Bayeux tapestry there were three answers that all gained a similar number of votes.

The results of the initial vote were kept secret, and a second vote was conducted after the pupils had discussed amongst themselves their own answers (and without me, the teacher, giving any further input).

Mazur’s theory is that the pupils with the strongest insight, understanding and backup ideas to support the right or dominant choice will win out in the discussion phase and lead to an increased support for the best answer. What did I see?  Well I saw exactly that, a strengthening of the support for the perspectives I outlined above. The instruction the pupils had given one another had focussed attention and paved the way towards a discussion around the differences in motivation for making artworks about conflict through the centuries, but also artistic developments and our emotional involvement with what is shown.  Mazur’s other point, and that is the most important one, is that pupils will be more engaged in learning if they are being challenged to think about their own position in relation to material, rather than simply ‘receiving’ material in lecture form.