Novice and expert learners

Building on a post I wrote a while ago here, and having read a bit more on the subject since, I felt that there might be worth in exploring this a little further within a subject specialism.

This week I’ve been reading @ttdelusion Bruce Robertson’s second book – The Teaching Delusion – Teaching Strikes Back. If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend. I’m a huge fan of Bruce’s work – his knowledge of excellent learning and teaching, and passion for using this is a key driver for improvement is hugely inspiring. I find myself furiously nodding along to what he writes or regularly reading out quotes to my poor husband. So I found the first chapter on Curriculum Delusions particularly struck a chord with me.

Exploring my ‘why?’ as a teacher, I feel strongly that my purpose in the classroom is to allow ALL learners to flourish. Not just those who find it easy to draw, or those who have natural ability in drawing. Not just the ones who go to weekend art classes, or come along to lunchtime art club. Everyone. Every. Single. Pupil. I’ve always been passionate about ensuring everyone can succeed. For me, it is hugely fulfilling to see learners find success in Art and Design, building their confidence and in turn their motivation – even more so when they may not have experienced opportunities to shine in other areas of the curriculum. My track record for this is strong, with many young people achieving much better in art and design than in their other subjects. Now believe me, that’s not because art is a skoosh. Far from it. But I do believe that the way I teach has a lot to contribute to this. Strong relationships and direct instruction, have allowed me to impart my expert knowledge to novice learners to improve their ability before encouraging them to apply this in creative contexts. I believe it is my job to help young people become better at seeing, recording, creating and designing. And to do that I play an important part – not just as facilitator of this learning but in the initial stages as the expert in instruction. Especially in the initial stages. I’ve written previously about the advantage of having knowledge such as colour theory committed to long term memory, and the same applies when we consider the progression of the curriculum.

From The Teaching Delusion – Teaching Strikes Back Chapter 1

But I know this will be met with some criticism, especially from art specialists. Where is the personalisation? Doesn’t this stifle creativity in the BGE? Shouldn’t young people be free to create work in their own way? How creative is it if all pupils are learning the same techniques?

Well yes. Possibly. But I believe there can be room for both. Like I wrote in this post on Dichotomy, it’s not either/or. For me the planning, sequencing and coherence of the curriculum is absolutely vital in order to equip young people with the knowledge, confidence and success they need early on, gradually allowing them to develop the tools and confidence to use these to be creative. Creativity flourishes when we have tools to be creative with. By providing young people with the foundational knowledge, in turn their confidence to be creative and explore the knowledge in different ways, opens up. If we know the rules, we can break the rules. But we need to know the rules first.

However, I think it’s important to look at what happens when we don’t teach like this. Because I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve not always thought like this. And as a fresh faced, early career teacher I did my fair share of creative lessons which had a distinct lack of teaching. When I started out teaching I remember feeling completely disheartened and just rubbish because my lesson on portraits hadn’t gone well. I’d let pupils discover the facial proportions by looking at their classmate, allowed free reign over materials, ideas and approaches. I thought I was allowing them to be creative. But in reality, a very small number of pupils excelled and the rest were pretty disastrous. Those who didn’t have knowledge of how to measure, observe, and understand the properties of different materials were left to flounder. They could experiment, they could explore but ultimately it was the luck of the draw whether they discovered a successful approach. Despite, me the expert, being in the room alongside them.

And pupils always know when their work hasn’t been successful. In S1 pupils are pretty hard on themselves, so if their work looks like it could have been done by their sibling in Primary 2, they very quickly lose confidence. In both themselves and their teacher. This in turn leads to disengagement and behaviour issues.

Now I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for what Bruce Robertson describes as non-specific teaching. Pupils would become bored without the opportunities to apply their knowledge to different contexts. Pupils need to look at the work of other artists and analyse their approaches. But like the way in which a good design brief is written featuring constraints, there needs to be a structure and focus on what we are learning. So it is vital to plan the art and design curriculum in a way which allows for this learning progression and confidence to build – initially through direct instruction, with growing independence and opportunity for non-specific teaching. Otherwise we risk failing the pupils who need it most. If pupils come to secondary with varying levels of knowledge about art materials, the design process, observation and colour theory we do them a disservice if we don’t attempt to give them the strong foundation to go on to be creative. If we focus on creativity alone with unlimited freedom and lack of specificity, very often pupils (and staff!) become frustrated, learning becomes more fragmented and the gap between the most naturally talented and those who struggle most, increases.

And at a time when there is such a focus on ‘closing the attainment gap’ a big part of me, agrees with Bruce Robertson. Those who love and excel in art will continue to do so regardless of the way they are taught, but those who need the most support to build their toolkit will suffer if we don’t allow our teacher expertise to be shared in an explicit way.

For those who worry that designing a curriculum in this way discourages individuality and creativity I would argue the opposite. Some of the most creature design solutions have come from the constraints of a design brief. Pupils grow in confidence when we instruct directly, but that’s not enough, we then need to give them opportunities to apply their knowledge in creative ways. We hold their hand until they are ready to take their first steps. And when they do, they are far more likely to succeed. Instead of narrowing the opportunity for whom art and is a possible career pathway, this curriculum design opens up the possibilities for all learners.

It’s worth noting that despite the need for creative thinking, creative ability and innovation as desirable skills in young people – I agree they are vital – employers, SQA, art schools and colleges will all still ask to see evidence of basic art and design skills within a folio. We can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We must do all we can to help ALL our learners discover their creative toolkit.

Yet again, like so many things in education, it’s not an either/or.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

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