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.

IMG_1071.JPG

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.

IMG_1087

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.

IMG_1104

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

SaveSave

when numbers turn into meaning…

This post is written by Dr Corinna Geppert.

2017_12_07_09_37.jpg

As somebody who is involved into “number crunching”, doing statistics, I often wonder: What story will these numbers tell me? What sort of patterns, correlations or differences between groups of people will emerge? And then I start, do the first steps of analysis and realize that there are really exciting results.

I am delighted that the WAVE 1 survey report is now launched. It includes data on over 2300 students in TALE schools all over the country and it is meant to give a first overview on the survey findings, without too much interpretation at this stage.

Some of the highlights are:

  1. Encouragement from school and family has an important impact on students’ engagement in the arts.
  2. Students draw a clear distinction between the arts and other academic subjects. They report that their academic workload often prevents them from becoming more deeply involved in the arts.
  3. Many students report that the arts promote well-being by helping them to express themselves and alleviate stress.
  4. The majority of students surveyed regularly participate in film and music activities.
  5. About a quarter of the surveyed students report that they are planning to study an arts subject in the future, but only a fifth are considering an arts-related career.
  6. Arts activities are important for students with a physical disability – many were active participants in the arts, felt supported, would like to do more and were planning to participate in the arts in the future.

These findings are encouraging because they show that the arts have a meaning to students, but that they sometimes need support to get engaged.

To support these findings and to put them on stable grounds, we collected more data from schools in autumn 2017. I’m looking forward to analysing the data and see how robust our findings are. A report including the WAVE 1 and WAVE 2 findings will be available in summer 2018 and will show us once again that numbers can turn into meaning.

 

Download the Wave 1 Survey report here.

Schoolcopy_WAVE 1 Report

 

an emphasis on performance

Chris Hall reports on her visit to Launceston College in Cornwall.

Bryan Maywood, the head at Launceston College, keeps his old year 10 English folder in his desk drawer. The folder reminds him about his own learning in English, a subject he’s passionately interested in now. He remembers the support and advice he got from a slightly older friend. He remembers a teacher who accurately identified precisely what he needed to know to do well in his literature exam, and then made sure he learned it. He is amused now by the examples in his folder of rather less detailed and constructive feedback from other teachers.

IMG_1385.JPG

The themes of this first-thing-on-a-Monday morning conversation with the head – the value of peer support, how you learn to perform well, the importance of attention to detail – cropped up throughout my visit. For example, Kate Prouse, second in the English department, told me how when she’d first started work at Launceston, she’d been immediately struck by the cohesiveness of the college community and how the students genuinely support and are interested in one another. Kate put this down in part to the emphasis in the college on performance.   She explained how performance is factored in to the annual cycle of the school year: through house and whole school assemblies, an ambitious school production, exhibitions, competitions, a summer term activities week, lively art, drama and music programmes…

Jack Jackson, the college’s executive head, told me about the current adventure learning programme and plans for a new award system that recognises achievement and supports progress across five areas (adventure, performance, curriculum learning, understanding others, skills). Dan Wendon, assistant principal with responsibility for teaching and learning, explained the college’s staff development programme, which challenges teachers to devise and conduct action research projects that they judge will have a positive impact on their own professional learning.

All of the Launceston students I met were hugely appreciative of this focus on performance. They really valued the encouragement their teachers gave them to share their work with their peers, whether this was in assemblies, in lessons or in wider public events. They said they trusted one another. They learned to be more confident, to speak up, to express themselves. They made new friends through working together to get the performance right and many of them said they learned more about themselves. They loved the applause they got at the end because they knew they had earned it. They said they learned a lot from seeing other students perform.

And then there were The Fairies – students from years 7 and 8 who, just before my visit, had performed in the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hall for Cornwall in Truro.

images-1.jpegBursting with pride and plans for a career on the stage, the fairies had a torrent of stories about what they’d learnt from being in the RSC cast and working alongside professionals. But they had even more to say about the impact of the show on their families. They loved the fact that many of their relatives had been so engaged with the details of rehearsals and the planning that led up to the final performances. They said their families were still talking and texting about what they’d been doing. And now they’d heard that some of the fairies were to be invited to an official reception at 10 Downing Street, and timages.jpeghey had a lot to say about why they thought this had happened and how they thought students should be selected to attend.

I’d already heard about the fairies – from Dan, of course, who fixed up the meetings for me, but also from the older students I’d been interviewing, some of whom had helped out with mentoring and organising. The performances had created ripples in and out of the school.

I could see what Kate meant about the way the emphasis on performance helped build community cohesion.

 

 

 

wanting to join in

A lot of the research I do is ethnographic and that means I generally get to participate in what’s going on – and I get to do a lot of interesting things. However, the TALE project isn’t an ethnography, and most of our data will come from interviews and observations, as well as a very large survey. This form of research can be a bit frustrating if you are used to being involved, as I found out recently.

When I observed art lessons at Rydens Enterprise School, I really wanted to join in. The year 7 class that I watched from a distance were beginning a new sequence of work around the theme of Remix. I watched Nicky Field, the teacher, introduce the topic with a definition and then show some slides of work by the artist Yee So Kyung – a contemporary Korean artist who works with shattered ceramics.

Nicky then handed each of the students a photocopy of a flower pot and a pair of scissors and invited them to remix the image into something else. This was a quick exercise to get the class to understand the potential in the idea of remixing. I understood that there would be more exercises like this in days to come: these would partially focus on skills development. But then students would all choose, design and execute their own remix project.

The flowerpot looked like a fun exercise and I found myself imagining what I would do with the image and the scissors if I had them in my hands. Fortunately, I didn’t dwell on this for long and got back to the task of listening and watching! But it was tempting.

Later that day I sat in on a Year 12 discussion. The group had begun to work around the topic Context. The week before the students had each been given a piece of paper with a description of a person – who they were, how old, where they came from, what their interest were. Each student then had to create a piece of work as if they were that imaginary person. Some of the students found this more difficult than others, particularly if their person was nothing like them. However, each of the students was in the process of producing something which sounded really interesting to me – and again I wanted to try this out for myself. It sounded like a productive challenge to think yourself not only into someone’s shoes but also their imagination and artistic practice.

I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been so interested in these topics if the visual art pedagogy used at Rydens wasn’t so open, and so inviting of ideas and imagination. The students I talked with certainly valued this as the way that art was taught in the school. Without exception they all talked of the importance of being able to have their own ideas, use their imaginations and the sense of achievement that comes from being responsible for your own thinking and making process.

research partnership

One of the purposes of the Arts Council grants is to explore what happens when arts organisations work together with researchers in higher education. In the case of TALE, we have all worked together before, but in different ways and on separate projects. We hadn’t anticipated any particular problems, but we have found a couple of interesting issues already. We think it is worth noting these as we go along.

The first issue was related to what would happen if any of us wanted to apply for further funding for this research, or for a follow up. Because all three partners regularly apply to a small number of funders, we had to work out a process that would ensure we negotiated with each other about to avoid any one partner cutting across another organisational plan. There is now wording in our contract which says that we must all consent to any further funding application related to the project.

The second issue is related to calls on teacher time. One of our organisations offers an intense period of training to schools at the beginning of the school year which requires teachers out of class for a few days. The research team wanted to offer a combined day to schools where we reported on the first year of research results. Because we rely on summer to complete our data analysis we wanted to do this at the same time. This potentially created an additional request for time out for teachers. Our current compromise is that we researchers will add reporting interim results to the organisation’s existing CPD days and we will run a separate small event for the other organisation. We all agree that one big event is a good idea, but have yet to find the most appropriate time and place to do it.

Neither of these issues is big or insurmountable, but did require us to think about each of the organisation’s needs and processes and how the project proceeds without  getting in the way of any of them. Interestingly, we discussed questions of confidentiality and anonymity at our last project governance meeting and we were all in agreement – so it’s the organisational questions that have proved to be our first points of careful thinking through.

 

arts council peer learning

Emily Pringle (Tate), Becky Parry and Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham) attended the first peer learning day for the eight research projects funded by the Arts Council. Every project gave a brief presentation of their work.

We were very pleased to meet with our colleague researchers and hear about some shared concerns, particularly around ethics and impact – things that we will no doubt be thinking about a lot in the next two and a half years.