Avoiding a cultural backwards step

A few weeks ago I posted about the British government’s plan to scrap Art History as an a-level exam subject for eighteen year olds:

Culturally stepping backwards

I would like to claim that my post made all the difference to the debate. But the truth of course is that the likes of Simon Schama and Anish Kapoor weighing with their hefty opinions has led to a rethink. Surprising? Well yes, in the world we seem to be living in of intellectual dumbing down. But good news non-the-less for the British cultural climate.

Art history a-level saved


Opinionated pupils….unlocking and articulating a standpoint?!

Teenagers have an opinion about everything it would sometimes seem. A teacher who is unjustly tough on them, why the training session at the football club is more important than their homework, how their timetable could be better organised and well, how Susan is wearing something that she just shouldn’t wear.


However trying to squeeze an opinion out of a pupil about matters of lesson content is sometimes a lot harder than you might think.  It is quite a central part in much of the teaching that I do. Cultural education involves a great deal of subjective evaluation, you are allowed to have an opinion, and I positively encourage it.

And yet, within a large part of secondary education we neglect this important ability of giving our opinion and being rewarded for how well we articulate it.  Instead we focus on testing that proves we know something or understand how to use it. I understand of course why and how this situation arises as we aim to test and measure academic abilities and understanding, this in an educationland that is constantly driven to record and classify pupil performance. But in this rush towards producing hard documentation the value of encouraging young people to give their own view and interpretation often gets completely snowed under.

In my own work as a teacher I often find asking pupils to step outside of this system is sometimes surprisingly difficult. There is often a nervousness to open up and simply to say what they think, even when we are on quite familiar ground to them, like giving an opinion about a film that we have watched in class. There is the constant “what does the teacher want me to say?” question lurking in the background. In a sense what is most often important to me is that they stop waiting for me to ask them questions and start asking themselves questions and discovering how to develop and manoeuvre a line of thought into interesting areas where they can present their own ideas and articulate them.

To help reach this point I’m noticing that my lesson material is increasingly built upon collections of short, open questions that help them to discover for themselves what sort of questions are useful to ask and which ones take them into areas that help them to formulate and justify their own opinions. The questions are often quite generic, but that’s perhaps the point, they have to discover for themselves which ones are more relevant and fruitful when trying to explain a standpoint. Ultimately I hope that the pupils will have the ability and confidence to ask their own questions, an ability that will serve them well as they move from being teenagers to young adults.

Incidentally, if there actually a Susan in one of my classes with interesting fashion sense, it might well be interesting one day to try and write a similar list of generic questions to analyse her choice in clothes.  That way we might discover more about the basis for such strong and judgmental opinions in this area!

The loneliness (and rewards) of the long distance examiner

Around April and May each year I am reminded of a stressful few weeks I endured in my last year at school as a eighteen year old doing my final art exam. A three hour drawing paper and a twelve or fifteen hour painting paper that came on the back of two weeks preparation time if I remember correctly. The end result was C grade, it was OK, but it wasn’t the A or B that I hoped for.


Now, quite some time later, I’m an examiner for the visual arts exam of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma program. I’ve done it for years (and they don’t mind my C grade a-level!). It used to mean that each April I would go and visit a couple of schools, interview eight or ten pupils per school, be wined and dined at the school’s expense when necessary. Each pupil mounted an exhibition of their work, presented their work books and I would interview them for thirty to forty minutes. It was all very interesting and enjoyable, and also, it has to be said, quite an experience for the candidates.

All this changed two years ago when the IB switched to a fully digital examination system. Nowadays, for each exam candidate I am supplied (online) with the following:

· A fifteen minute interview or a 1000 word statement

· A 300 word statement about their work

· 30 pages of documentary photos from their research workbooks

· Up to eighteen photographs of studio work.

That’s quite a few documents for each candidate……and I have 69 candidates to work my way through, mark and write a short report about. That is quite a few hours staring at the computer screen. But on the positive side, working as I do in a secondary school in Western Europe, it is incredibly interesting to see work made by pupils from all corners of the world. This year for me it England, Norway, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the US and China.

Although I don’t actually teach the IB Diploma course myself I am a pretty big fan of the possibilities it offers, in particular the way it interweaves the practical work of candidates with their art historical and contextual studies. It is interesting to see what the candidates have produced during the two years that the course takes, but it is almost as interesting to read a little between the lines and see how different teachers in a variety of countries approach the curriculum.

Yes there are definitely positives about doing this examine work, but it is something of a relief when you reach the end of your allotment of candidates, a point that I have just about reached.