working with difficult ideas

This post was written by Pat Thomson on her visit to Thomas Tallis school in Greenwich.

Ana image

student-made image

Studying photography is not just about learning how to make images. It is also learning how the photograph itself can be understood.

On a recent visit to Thomas Tallis, I saw a visiting artist working with a Year 10 class. The artist was Dafna Talmor and her practice involves the manipulation of images to produce non-naturalistic landscapes. Her workshop ran for a whole morning, and the students were to learn a new process –  cutting, marking and re-assembling “analogue” slides to make a collaged image.

Jon, the teacher, began the workshop by revisiting a threshold concept for photography – photographs are abstractions, shaped by technology. This was, he noted, as he started a short discussion, a difficult idea.

The guided conversation covered key points:

  • the photograph is not a mirror on the world. It is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world;
  • the photograph is framed, usually by a rectangle. This is not how we see the world;
  • the photograph flattens and rescales what we see;
  • the camera sees with one eye (the lens);
  • the photographer alters the image through their artistic decisions;
  • what the photographer can do is shaped by the technology they are using.

Students were encouraged to bring these understandings to Dafna’s work; this is more obviously what might be understood as abstract.

Dafna explained that she thought about the photograph as an object that worked with loaded histories of image-making. She was working with images of landscape, but she could not avoid the ways in which landscape had been photographed in the past and was still photographed in the present. She told the students that she wanted to question the ways in which landscape images were often seen as ‘real’. She hoped to make visible some landscape features that photographs often left hidden, as well as making clear the ways in which the photographer’s decisions and actions generally remained out of a viewer’s sight.


Dafna’s artist talk

The students were not only challenged by these ideas, but invited to play with them themselves. For a good part of the morning they experimented with second-hand slides that Jon had bought on ebay. They were surprised at what happened when their tiny slide was projected – colour was changed, composition of formal elements become more apparent.


playing and experimenting

The workshop was an experience not just of learning technique, but also putting a difficult idea, a threshold concept about abstractions and technological manipulations, into practice.



language and literacy in the art room

People often think about art subjects as purely ‘doing stuff’ with paint, pencils and maybe the odd camera. However, there’s a lot of literacy practice which is specific to the art room.

When I visited the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, art room literacies were clearly in evidence. I saw :

(1)   Reading. Students are routinely expected to research artists and their work. This requires them to find a range of sources, including artist biographies and commentaries. These sources are on line as well as in books and magazines. At RGS, students regularly integrated reading into their project work.

(2)   Learning a vocabulary. Like all disciplines, the visual arts use specific terms for particular concepts. The lexicon ranges from descriptions of formal elements to ways of critiquing arts practice and cataloguing artists’ work.  Teachers at RGS taught and regularly used arts terminology with students.

(3)   Talking. Students have regular conversations with their teacher and with each other, Talking helps students to develop the idea they are working on. At RGS they present their work to their class. They might also offer a ‘crit’ of work from one of their peers.  While art classrooms are often quiet places, they are also equally often where lively engaged discussion takes place.

(4)   Listening. Talking also means listening. When students are discussing their work or the work of others, they need to listen carefully to the very many ideas and resources that are offered.

(5)   Writing. Visual art students keep track of what they notice and read and talk about, just like professional artists. They record how they develop an idea, test out approaches, find a line of investigation and produce a work, or series of works. At RGS, all students keep visual diaries from Year 7 onwards. They can record whatever they want in their visual diaries. I was told by many students that they carry their diaries everywhere with them. The students also produce formal documentation related to projects they are working on. Their formal documentation may include on-line as well as analog materials. The writing in the formal documentation always incorporates their reading and thinking/reflecting, expressed in the appropriate art vocabulary. 

 In art classrooms, many of these visual art literacy practices are interrelated and brought together.


At RGS I saw many students who had their visual diaries open at a jotting about an idea – and who, at the same time, were researching on their laptops, taking a screen shot on their phone and had their documentation standing by so they could see where they were up to. They were also ready to discuss their current state of decision-making with their teacher.

It is this combination  that makes the language and literacy practices of the art room unique.

Post written by Pat Thomson


creative arts and wellbeing

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my visit to Lampton School in Hounslow, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of A-level students. Some were taking Drama, others Music, and many were also studying English Literature. What was most interesting about the combination of students I spoke to was the way the students spoke about the health and wellbeing aspects of creative subjects.

The students were aware of the way creativity can help relieve stress, and might help you cope with difficult situations. The idea of arts subjects being stress-relieving (often in comparison to other subjects) comes up a lot in conversations I have with young people (and is one of the findings of our Wave 1 Survey Report which you can find here).

The students at Lampton, however, linked creativity and creative subjects to health and wellbeing in a way that other students I’ve spoken to have not yet done.

So I think what is quite good is the school, within the creative subjects, let’s it be the creative outlet compared to other subjects. They allow it to be individual. They allow it to be an expression for you to express what is going on or to get emotions out or to portray what you want to portray, with guidance of how you do it.

If you go to university and things get too much, it shows you there are healthy ways out there to deal with the stress, to deal with the anxiety which can help. Like music therapy or art therapy or drama therapy. It is a way for you to have an outlet and can help for the rest of your life.

Doing something, escaping your troubles.

The students spoke about how creative subjects are both a potential escape from the stress of life, but also a method to finding one’s way back. One student explained:

It does take you away from problems. But you can use it to your advantage. Put a different spin on it. It’s your escape but it is your route back as well. It’s more like guidance because it’s always there. Even if you have a lot of stuff and you’re really stressed and you can’t think clearly, you can go back to making your own piece of music, go through it, maybe implement what is going on in your life and it helps you to come out of things. I suppose also with Drama, although I don’t do it, it lets you see different perspectives and people. You get to look at how people deal with things. It creates a way to look at something. Instead of looking at one side, you can take a step back, ‘okay that is how I see it but this person will see it like that’ and then put them together and think the best route forward would be to do this.

Another student explained about work they had done in their Drama class and how that helped them see different perspectives on issues of mental health:

In Drama we did a mental health unit and obviously all of us experience mental health in our own ways so in the final performance, we could see the way it affects others.

One student explained what he thought the benefit of taking a creative subject (in his case, Music) at A-level did for him personally.

I’m doing Economics, English Literature and Maths, and to have Music, I wouldn’t say it’s easy; it is something that is challenging. It is something I enjoy doing. Especially if we are rehearsing, it’s great because you don’t have to touch a pen or a book. Do what you like and enjoy doing. It is something that is completely different. I think it keeps you healthy because your mind is doing one thing there and then something completely different. It keeps you on your feet.

The Lampton students brought up an important idea regarding mental health, young people, and the way creativity can help address mental health issues. This is hugely relevant at a time when newspapers are reporting rising mental health issues amongst young people.