Nurturing student talent in Art at Key Stage 3 in preparation for the challenges of GCSE

An Action Research Project by Tanya Owen (Art & Design)

As Van Gogh once wrote, “…one must never let the fire go out in one’s soul, but keep it burning.”

I began this research project as a direct response to teaching 4 out of 5 Art and Design groups in year 8. This particular year group has an extremely wide ability spectrum, a number of pupils with behavioural issues and one lesson a week to teach them Art in. I felt as a teacher I was not spending enough time with the higher achieving pupils. Even though I would differentiate the work, by the time the rest of the pupils were focused I would only have a limited amount of time to support pupils in developing more technical and refined skills.

I understand implicitly how to teach a pupil at GCSE level to achieve an A*. A lot of one to one work and time inside and sometimes outside of normal lessons is needed; discussing ideas; teaching technical skills and instilling the confidence to experiment with materials and make mistakes. This year, my A and A* students spent a lot of extra time after school or at lunchtimes working though these criteria and stretching their ambitions and creativity in a relaxed and supportive environment.  A trusting and positive relationship was developed with these individuals, which helped them to feel safe and to succeed.

As a response to this, I decided to begin a Year 8 Art Club for pupils who aspired to be talented artists so that they too could have a relaxed space in which to be creative and where I could teach them to a higher level, spark their creativity and tap into their imagination.

What does a talented Artist look like?

  1. They think and express themselves in creative and original ways

Pupils want to follow a different plan to other pupils and have strong personal ideas. They often challenge the tasks given and can extend the work in a fantastic direction.

  1. Have a strong desire to create in a visual form

They are driven by their imagination, flights of fancy, humanitarian concerns or personal issues/subject matter. They persevere with resolving visual problems and complete tasks successfully.

  1. Push the boundaries of a normal process

They test ideas and problem solve. They explore ways in which to depict ideas, feelings, emotions and meanings. They are excited by new ideas and ways of looking at their work and are not frightened by it.

  1. Show a passionate interest in the world of art and design

They are often interested in a particular art form, contemporary culture or youth culture.

  1. Use materials, tools and techniques skilfully and learn new approaches

They are keen to extend and explore their technical ability and can sometimes become frustrated when their skills do not allow them to do what they would like to do initially but they persevere.

  1. Initiate ideas and define problems

They can explore ideas, problems and sources on their own and collaboratively with a sense of purpose and meaning.

  1. Critically evaluate visual work and other information

They make unusual connections and links with the work of other artists. They can apply the ideas/techniques to their own work in a non-linear and innovative way.

  1. Exploit the characteristics of materials and processes

They use and understand materials well and even invent new ways of using them.

  1. Understand the ideas and meanings in their own and others’ work

Their work has meaning and a narrative which they can talk to you about on a very personal level.

As a visual person, I find definitions in words quite difficult and find the use of concrete examples much clearer, such as in the following examples of a current GCSE pupils’ work:

Fig 1

Fig 2Fig 3

Leading ultimately, to the completed project.

Fig 4

So, having clearly defined what a talented Artist’s work looks like I decided to take a very small part of this to tackle with the year 8 group. For me, it was important to inspire and excite the students about the subject. I began by running workshops for the pupils outside of lessons. Although the pupils seemed to be quite happy with this, there were not many participants and they lacked enthusiasm. So I decided to let the pupils take the lead…

Although one or two found this freedom a little difficult, we talked individually about what they wanted to do and came up with some themes and concepts. Most pupils, however, brought in their sketchbooks from home; drawings they had already done and artists’ work they particularly liked and were very excited to show me what they really enjoyed. This brought a whole new energy to the group and many more joined. Many of the pupils were very motivated by Manga Images. Pupils need to have a certain technical aptitude to draw these figures and faces accurately and many were doing this very skilfully. They are nevertheless, quite flat drawings and could be made a lot more exciting by adding various techniques and contexts to them. I did not want the pupils to just continue with creating pastiches of the artists’ work.

The Manga drawings are quite flat and cartoon like….

Fig 5

Other pupils within the group focused on various things from cake prints to make Birthday cards as well as continuing to explore classwork, to which they were be able to add some of the new techniques explored.

Fig 6

I did two weeks of each workshop demonstrating techniques and trying to get the pupils excited about applying more exciting patterns and textures into their drawings and artwork.

Fig 7

The pupils did enjoy this but seemed to do it a bit reluctantly, as most wanted to carry on with and develop their own pieces of work.

I then began to look at evidence about creativity.

Fig 8

‘The real driver of creativity is an appetite for discovery and a passion for the work itself.’ (from an article in the Guardian)

First, creativity, like learning in general, is a highly personal process. We all have different talents and aptitudes and different ways of getting to understand things. Raising achievement in schools means leaving room for these differences and not prescribing a standard ‘steeplechase’ for everyone to complete, at the same time and in the same way.

Second, creativity is not a linear process, in which you have to learn all the necessary skills before you get started. It is true that creative work in any field involves a growing mastery of skills and concepts. It is not true that they have to be mastered before the creative work can begin. Focusing on skills in isolation can kill interest in any discipline. The real driver of creativity is an appetite for discovery and a passion for the work itself. When students are motivated to learn, they naturally acquire the skills they need to get the work done. Their mastery of them grows as their creative ambitions expand.

Third, facilitating this process takes connoisseurship, judgment – and, yes, creativity, on the part of teachers. For creativity to flourish, schools have to feel free to innovate without the constant fear of being penalised for not keeping with the programme.

So, although teaching pupils new skills is effective, it would be more effective to get the pupils to answer technical  questions about their work through a desire to create a piece in a certain way.  As a teacher the challenge then is to facilitate this vision…to answer and give options to creative questions.

How do I give this creature an eerie texture?

Fig 9

How do I make this hair look more lively?

Fig 10

How do I make the paint more dribbly and random on my flowers?

Fig 11

This process has had a powerful effect on the relationship I have with those pupils. There is a greater trust that they will be able to succeed with me as their teacher, which for me is very important, as I feel it has been this group of students in particular who can be marginalised in lessons. They also have a greater confidence in the art classroom as they have a greater ownership of it. Independence and confidence has risen. I am trying to use the club as an opportunity to talk about classwork in a non-formal way so that I am able to have a bigger input into stretching their abilities and ambitions inside and outside the formal setting.

Ultimately, I want pupils to have more ‘attitude’. When I consider what is different between my most able pupils at GCSE and this group in year 8; it is that the GCSE candidates are argumentative, protective and almost stubborn about their ideas. This ‘attitude’ gives them resilience in resolving their own creative dilemmas.

As a consequence of this research I intend to proceed as follows:

My Action Plan

  • Encourage pupils to integrate new techniques into their own ideas/work to make it visually richer and craft a creative final piece.
  • Try to give them the confidence to deal with mistakes. It could lead to a new idea and the pupils may have the courage to go down a creative journey in which they do not know the outcome.
  • Add links on our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) to various pencil and paint techniques so pupils can access them and learn how to do these at home;
    • Watercolour – salt technique, texture and cling film, blurring and wash on wash
    • Creating texture and collage – using tissue paper, glue gun, pva, pulp, newspaper, magazines
    • Pencil techniques – realistic drawing, creating texture using a pencil, portrait drawing
  • Plan an art trip for year 9 next year to raise aspirations further and run another art club based on this.

Featued image: Wallpaper Geometric Art Abstract Waves Background  Creative Commons Zero – CC0

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