The frustrations of an art teacher…seeing it for real

You hear it often enough, ‘You have to see the real thing, it so different’. As an art teacher you know this well, the days of scratchy slides in a half darkened room may be long gone, replaced now by large scale digital screens at the front of the classroom.  The possibilities on offer to an art teachers (and all teachers of course) have improved enormously during the last decade. But still, the chance to see art, design, architecture, theatre, dance, music and other cultural forms for real, first hand, offers so much more.

A fabulous case in point is an exhibition of the Dutch fashion designer Jan Taminiau that I have visited today.  I’ve referred to his work in my lessons at school in the context of a fashion design assignment that I use with my groups of 15-16 year olds. Examples and cultural references are important in my work as a teacher. Not in the sense of showing pupils what I expect them to do. It is more a question of firing the imagination and showing them the possibilities; possibilities that often go way beyond their wildest imagination. There is so much that I’d like to show and share with them.

But the limitations of the classroom, even with its generous display screen at the front and pupils with tablet, laptop or phone screens available to them, can’t match seeing the real thing.  What it would mean to be able to bring my groups of budding fashion designers to the Centraalmuseum in Utrecht to see Taminiau’s exhibition?

The exhibition oozes qualities that grab your attention. The elegant silhouette’s that he creates, the rich use of colour and the, quite literally, dazzling textures and structures of the surface of the fabrics. This would have been the most amazing teaching aid to the above mentioned assignment.

I have photographically documented as much of the work as I can.  I’ll be using it next school year I’m sure.  Teaching fashion design is just a little outside of my comfort zone, but I do like to do it once in a while.  But oh, how I would like to let the pupils see such an exhibition. But then the same is true of so many of the shows that I see.  The museum world in the big cities, certainly in Europe, is booming. The challenge is finding a way to be able to get pupils to visit them in the context of the educational programs that they are following.  More often it seems to  happen in a rather detached sort of day out to the city that often seems to have rather vague educational aims……the fully focused and contextualized field trip is a sadly underused and rather squeezed out aspect of contemporary education. But the detail of that is a post for another day.

Street art in the classroom, or just outside it

Teenagers are fascinated by graffiti and street art, they love the scale of it, they love the youthfulness of it and they love the illegality of it. To find ways to draw on this enthusiasm is a challenge for educators. Obviously that last point is something of a problem for education. The moral code of teaching doesn’t really accommodate defacing other people’s property! So how to circumvent this restriction?

Is painting on large sheets of paper the solution, spray painting canvases or seeking permission to use a specially designated wall somewhere? These are possibilities but none of them really engage with the way that this form of art engages with a location, a real location that was there already and has been added to by the artist, or in the case of a school, by the pupil.
It is with this in mind in have been doing a kind of site specific/street art project with my youngest pupils (age 12) this week. It’s a little bit of street art with a site specific content, a little bit of Michael Craig Martin and maybe a little bit of Claus Oldenburg or Roy Lichtenstein too, but above all it is about working together, working on a large scale and changing the way a familiar place looks through the addition of a creative intervention.
Working with coloured tape the group work receives a unity through its consistent quality of line. It’s a rapid approach (two ninety minutes sessions in my case), that gives fast results but also allows for adjustment and corrections.
But above all the two fantastic qualities this work has, and that it shares with most street art, is that it is large scale and that it adds to an existing environment. Both qualities bring with them a kind of element of surprise for the pupils and an excitement that is quite different to working on a sheet of paper at a table.

Update:  Some comments form a question I had on Facebook as to how I approached the assignment practically….

It was all relatively intuitive. First a little drawing work on a sheet of paper. My requirements were that it had to be an object that had something to do with the art dept and that it had to have a three dimensional appearance. There was no too conscious scaling up, it was more a question of just starting. The great thing about the tape is that it allows easily for corrections, if two lines aren’t parallel when they were meant to be, it’s just a case of pulling one of the lines off and repositioning. As I say above, just make sure that the tape isn’t too sticky. School won’t thank you for stripping the paint off the wall! Working on a glass wall would be great too…..from inside and out. I think that looking at Michael Craig Martin’s work helped quite a lot too.



Do you trust your device in a classroom?

I’ve been working for a year and a half with an iPad in classrooms of children all similarly equipped.  It’s been eighteen months of leaps forward, steps backwards and occasionally periods where I’ve pondered hard as to how best to implement the device into my art lessons.

I should say that I have approached the digital developments with considerable openness, I’ve been part of the steering group at school and I’m quite digitally literate. Added to this the background of my own
arts education taught me always to look and think broadly about methods, tools and materials that may be on offer. A kind of ‘consider everything and use what works for you’ approach.

Now a year and a half in I feel I am starting to feel the experimentation with the tablet and its apps are perhaps starting to become a little more embedded in my lessons and teaching materials. Whilst many of my colleagues have encountered problems with materials and apps provided by educational publishers, in the art department we have always been used to developing our own material and deciding exactly which route to take independently. In this way I’ve discovered apps that are useful and of an appropriate level for the twelve and thirteen year olds that are working in iPad classes up until now. Up until now that’s Brushes Redux and Bamboo Paper for digital drawing activities, iMovie for a film and the extremely versatile Photoshop Mix for digital collage.

This last one, Photoshop Mix, raises an interesting point. I could see that this undoubtedly was a fantastic app that suited FullSizeRender (40)my needs perfectly. However I was rather worried that the complexity of how it worked and the technical opportunities on offer were simply too great and my class of twelve year olds would struggle to get it to do what they wanted. But as it turned out the lesson was a fantastic example of peer to peer driven teaching and learning. Each new technical discovery made by me or any pupil seemed to spread rapidly around the class. By the time it came to hand in the work it was clear that everyone had grasped the content of the assignment and the technical possibilities offered by the app. A note to self, be careful not to underestimate the abilities of the pupils!

If there is one area of concern in all my iPad activities it is undoubtedly a question of how far I can go in saying that I have full confidence in the device to fully function in the way intend it to when leading a lesson.  Lesson situations have adversely been affected by issues such as linking my own iPad to the screen at the front of the room, pupils not being connected correctly to the cloud to allow full use of some apps, Internet connection issues and so on.

On the surface many of these sorts of problems are relatively small and definitely solvable. However, when you encounter them unexpectedly, even if the problem only effects a couple of the pupils in the class the disruption to the main task of the lesson can be extremely significant. It is also all too evident that bad experiences count and weigh heavily on the mind. If you don’t feel confident that your device (an iPad in this case) is going to allow you to simply get on with what you intended to do, is it not better and safer simply to fall back on what you know and have always done and put the tablet back in your bag?

It is a phase that a digital school has to go through perhaps, kind of painful and frustrating at times, but something that has to be experienced a worked through. To do this you obviously need the right technical support, but you also need enthusiasts willing to take chances and experiment, you need leadership prepared to lead by example and to commit to broad digitalization projects and who can take their whole team with them. But maybe above all you need time and patience to develop that all important trust in device and its role in the new classroom possibilities that it offers.

Bilingual education conference, Utrecht – Art and Language


Once every two years bilingual education in the Netherlands gets together for a session of reflection, evaluation and workshops aimed at enthusing all of those involved. As the Arts subject coordinator I am tasked with leading a workshop specifically aimed at the arts teachers present. For those who were there, and those who weren’t, the link below will take you to the PowerPoint that I made use of.

Presentation Utrecht 2015

I appreciate that the images without the explanation isn’t always going to be clear, but if there is anything that you desperately want more information about don’t hesitate to say so, either through the comments option on this blog,  my school email ( or via the contact page on my website:

For those of you who were there thanks for your active participation and enthusiasm. I find myself wondering every time how much to try and cram into a sixty minute session, especially in the context of what is an incredibly intensive day with all the other workshops and presentations. I assume that there will be another subject meeting in a years time, most probably again in Utrecht. That is also likely to be more of an afternoon filling session, with as a result much more time for discussion and sharing of ideas, I hope to see you there!

iPad education and looking for Creativity

A year into the experiment of digital enriched education at the school where I work and I am becoming increasingly interested by the place creativity has in this new form of teaching. As a device the iPad, or any other tablet for that matter, offers so much. Each pupil has on the desk in front of them a camera, a video camera, a microphone and countless apps that seem to open so many doors. The creative possibilities would seem to be so extensive, more than I could have ever dreamed of just a few years ago. And yet I have a niggling doubt, a dissatisfaction at the back of my mind.

ipad creativity

Many friends and colleagues are enthusiastic at the new possibilities on offer in their lessons. But maybe it is the duty of the art teacher to look and ask questions about creativity and whether we are getting the most out of these digital devices. Are we actually developing in ourselves as teachers and in our pupils a creative and critical edge in our judgement of what we are doing and making?

If we focus for a moment on the use of the camera, both video and still. These tools are so immediate and easy for our pupils to use, just point and shoot. Equally easy on their phones too, this is the generation that has grown up totally used to documenting everything in their lives, and why take one photograph or one fragment of film when you can shoot ten or twenty or thirty?

This sort of costless freedom is fantastic, but at least in the hands of the teenagers I teach there does seem to be a creative trade off. Do I observe them making critical and formal judgements in the images they are capturing? Well, no not really.  And this fact is often exacerbated by the apps that are then used to present or rework the visual material. In no time the pupils throw the images and film fragments into iMovie or some other app, make use of the ready-made formats, themes and stencils on offer and have in no time a slick final product. But the question the art teacher must surely ask is, “are they actually being creative?” It is equally true when you ask them to present their photographs, a few filters may be applied to make the image more eye catching in some way, but they don’t even stop to think if cropping the image in some way could actually improve it.

Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely not against working digitally. I am a great fan of working with Photoshop or other similar software. The wealth of choices on offer provide fantastic creative options. And there in that word options or decisions perhaps you have an important distinction. Creativity is about decision making and a critical evaluation. Does too much of the app market rely or a quick fix within a too restricted range of choices? It certainly does seem to encourage and invite an over reliance on essentially ready-made solutions.

There are undoubtedly apps that allow an extensive range of creative possibilities, I have made use of a number in the last year, and seen some good results. There is also nothing to stop a young photographer or film-maker setting about using their camera in an incredibly creative way. There lies perhaps the new challenge for the art departments in schools to stop and consider how they can instruct and encourage the use of the tablet computer or other device to extend creative possibilities. This would seem both desirable and necessary. My observations of my pupils up to now certainly don’t give me the feeling that this will take care of itself.

So in conclusion, a note to self for this coming school year; start to work out strategies and places in the educational material for more creative use of the chances on offer.

If anyone has particular favourite apps that seem to encourage the sorts of options that I am talking about here I would be only too glad to hear about them.

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.

Educational babies, bathwater and standardized testing

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.

150925_510252105673439_1120982677_nAs 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.

Homophones CLIL Art and English assignment

Fed up with your pupils muddling up words that sound the same, but are spelt differently and have different meanings?  These words are called homophones and are often an area of confusion, especially when starting to learn a language.

Technically the definition is:

Homophones are words which have the same pronunciation, but different spellings and meanings.

Some examples:


To help clear up some of this confusion why not get the art department involved in a little design work?


Pictograms that illustrate the differences in homophones words

Pictograms are something that we are all so familiar with in our daily lives. They are visual shortcuts in information delivery.  Images that are designed to inform and instruct in a rapid and clear way that is not dependent on language, or at least not conventional language. Pictograms rely instead on a visual language. Think of all those symbols you see around airports directing us to various facilities, or the buttons on your tablet for different apps or within the app or program on your computer helping you to use it without becoming involved with written text.

A well designed pictogram should require little explanation!

When it comes to designing the pictogram it should meet the following criteria:

  • Be clear and not overly complex
  • Be sharp and graphic in its appearance so that it is easily viewed from a distance
  • Have a boldness that allows it to be reproduced on various scales without losing quality

Sets of pictograms also have a ‘house style’, they look like they belong together even though they may be illustrating quite diverse things.


Design pairs of pictograms that illustrate clearly the differences between homophones. This could be carried out by hand with ink or paint on a piece of paper, or alternatively be set as a simple computer based design assignment.

Text would not normally be part of a pictogram, but in this case it is also important to include the pair of words underneath the design so that viewers can see and appreciate the subtle or not so subtle differences between the homophones.

Remember, each pair of pictograms should in terms of drawing and style look like they do belong together!

The resulting artworks could subsequently be reproduced and make excellent decoration for the language classrooms at school.

Word smuggling….CLIL continued

Someone who read my previous post asked me to expand a little on the Word Smuggling language learning idea that I mentioned at the end. In a way it’s a variation on the better known word game known as Taboo, where you ask someone to talk on a particular subject without actually using certain obvious and important words. Others listen and try to guess what the subject was. For example, explain the term ‘primary colours’ without saying red, yellow, blue, colour, mix or mixing. It forces you to think of alternatives and other more unexpected routes you would take in language in order to make yourself clear. All very good for language development.

Word Smuggling is in a way kind of the reverse of this game and well suited to any subject area. You give the participant a subject to talk about, this is likely to be in some way connected to your current lesson content, the idea is to use the language game to strengthen and deepen the understanding of content.

rembrandt clil

In my own lessons it might go a follows:

  • give a pupil a particular artwork to describe and discuss, or maybe the experience of a recent trip to a museum (others in the group may see this example or theme for themselves)
  • Give the same pupil a word on a piece of paper (this word must on no accounts be disclosed to the others in the group). The type word you choose to give to the pupil is very important to how well the game will work.  It should not be directly or obviously related to the subject they are talking about. For example if the pupil has been given a Rembrandt self-portrait to talk about, try giving them a word such as ‘boat’ or ‘shopping basket’
  • They then have to talk for a while to the others in the group about their theme or subject and somewhere in amongst all of what they are saying they have to try and use the word that they were given. They must try and do this in such a way that the others in the group are not likely to notice it as being particularly obvious.
  • When the speaker has reached the end of what they have to say the rest of the group have to try and guess what the secret word was.

There are a couple of extra points to make about the game, it is of course forbidden to include lists of random words in what is said in order to conceal the word that way!

This is actually a relatively difficult language game for learners of a younger age. If I try it with the twelve year olds I teach, in their first year of learning English, their limited vocabulary is rather a restricting factor. Although having said that, with twelve year olds perhaps an even bigger restricting factor is their inability not to give the word away simply through the look on their face when they say it!

A chance to talk with colleagues… educational luxury

The fact that I haven’t posted anything for a month tells me something very clearly, I’m working my way through a very busy period. Weeks are flying by towards Christmas and schedules are packed with countless activities, preparation, planning, plus of course simply giving lessons. Most people who work in education will recognize this.

matisse quote

We encourage our pupils to reflect on their activities, to learn from their successes and failures, but as a teacher there often seems so little time to step back and think about what we are doing, and even less time to do this with colleagues of our own subject area.

The value of such an opportunity was made clear a week ago by an annual meeting I chair of art teachers, teaching in bilingual education in the Netherlands. On the agenda, with the twenty-five other art educators present were three main points:

  1. CLIL – the bilingual teachers educational mainstay of Content and Language Integrated Learning; that is to say, how do you teach the content of your subject whilst simultaneously teaching a second language (English in my case).  As coordinator I am expected to throw some good CLIL practices into the group.
  2. Digitalization in the art room
  3. Resources – Where do we draw our ideas and inspiration when developing new material

I’ve been doing these meetings for a few years now and find it a tricky balance to strike between leading the meeting and trying to get discussion going (between a group of teachers who don’t really know one another). I prepared some material but went into the meeting hoping that the others present would be open and willing to contribute.

Was I nervous? Well maybe just a little bit, but I certainly didn’t need to have been, what a fantastic meeting we had. Three hours flew by. What a luxury three hours of open and constructive discussion felt. So often I sit in meetings crammed onto the end of the school day with colleagues who are worn out and, let’s be honest, wanting to head home to get on with some marking, pick the children up from school, do the groceries….etc. But this occasion was different, rarely have I sat in on a discussion session with such a group of people wanting to participate, share and learn….all together.

I left the meeting feeling invigorated and enthusiastic. It was three hours of pure subject content and there is perhaps a lesson for all in education. There is a time and a place for meetings concerning planning and organization, that’s important stuff. But don’t let it dominate every meeting….it is the love of the content that brought many of us to education in the first place and it is engaging with content that recharges our batteries.