art student

Quitting Ketamin and Selling Paintings – An Art Student Journey

How do we teach young people to become resilient, creative and imaginative? Jane Parry leads a Higher Education Art and Design course in Bangor, North Wales. Her teaching, research and writing are largely focused on creative learning and innovative pedagogic models for art and design education. Here she reflects on the Art school experience and its relevance to Professor Donaldson’s recommendations for the new Schools Curriculum for Wales.

I work in an Art college. At this time of year we have just finished the Summer Show, where students reach the peak of their creative output. They make all sorts of things – paintings, sculptures, films, installations – every year a car, caravan, greenhouse or tree are driven, cut up, sited and planted in the studio – it’s inevitable. It’s always a spectacle, everybody always loves it and we’re usually a bit tired when it’s all over.

The exhibition is the pinnacle of the academic year, a celebration of the learning journey. As we emerge into the glorious white space and resounding colour, we are slightly stunned, students and staff alike. We smile shyly at each other, quietly amazed that all our effort – our journey into the unknown – has actually turned up with something quite beautiful. In this show each individual student is represented.  Very soon they will all go on to other things, so this is a snapshot of a moment in time as they stand, on the cusp of the next phase of their life.

The journey on the Art Foundation course has taken them from week 1, where they arrive shy and nervous. As they make their way through the course they gradually unfurl, so that by Week 30 they stand perfectly upright and tell you with confidence exactly what they have made, why and how. They might have stopped taking ketamine, started eating and changed their gender identification in the process.

You could describe these young people as ambitious, capable learners; enterprising, creative contributors; ethical, informed citizens and healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society. This would not be an overstatement nor embellishment. Interestingly, these descriptions form the ‘Four Purposes’ which Donaldson outlines in ‘Successful Futures’and which are at the heart of the new Schools Curriculum for Wales.

So how have we, as lecturers and student, succeeded in this transformative experience? What learning strategies have we as tutors employed? One experienced course leader summed it up: “Give them the space and trust them”. This one-liner echoes the sentiment at the heart of philosophies of top PISA-scoring countries such as Finland – ‘Teach Less, More’ – and Japan – ‘Zest for Life’.  The deep pedagogies can get subsumed in the fray of our Art Foundation year, but they are there, underpinning the process, rooted in the Bauhaus philosophies of the early twentieth century.

We are fortunate perhaps, as lecturers on Further and Higher Education courses, to have some autonomy. I have been disturbed this year by feedback from Art teachers in schools. Many are exhausted and depressed, with a marked lack of belief in the system they feel they are ‘inflicting’ on pupils. Pupils are shoehorned into conventions: ‘put through the mincer’.

I had an inkling of this, having seen in passing Welsh Baccalaureate students at college engaged in seemingly endless low-level administrative tasks at the dozens of PCs which have sprung up over the last few years. Captive, they sit in on synthetic chairs in condensed spaces, condemned to write about ‘global citizenship’ into eternity. The heat emanates into the closed atmosphere. Warning signs attest to the dangers of grammatical errors, in both Welsh and English. If the spelling is not right, they do it again. And again. Every time I pass them I shield my gaze because I feel embarrassed that we are actually doing this to them, and sorry for them, with their green hair and baggy jumpers. I suspect they may want to ‘Do Van Gogh’ via sniffing oil paint, rather than Google Images. They learn about Ocean Pollution in an environment very similar to a call-centre. They sit at the screens in silence for five hours – the whole college day. This is just one small example which relates to what the School teachers are reporting.

Often by the time these young people arrive onto other Further and Higher level courses in the department they are petrified of making a wrong move, conditioned into annotating every visual reference. When they find out on our courses that they don’t have to annotate their drawings, and it doesn’t matter if they have spelt every word correctly in every particular instance, their relief is palpable. And as the pressure comes off the words come out – in type, in ink, in pencil. All those students who ‘don’t like to write’ begin to do just that.

art student

The connection with school teachers came about through organising regional events for EDAU, North Wales Arts and Education Network. EDAU is part of Arts Council Wales’ All-Wales Arts and Education programme, another strand of which is the Lead Creative Schools.  The collaboration between Welsh Government and Arts Council Wales has significant investment of £20 million over five years, preparing Schools for the new curriculum.  The policies put in place are in response to Donaldson’s ‘Successful Futures’ Report, which had 68 recommendations, all of which Welsh Government accepted. The changes are fundamental and far-reaching, marking a fundamental shift in the structure and delivery of the new curriculum.

The Four Purposes of the Curriculum for Wales

The new Curriculum for Wales is based on 4 Purposes, These are outlined as attributes that a young person having completed the school education at age 16 should be:

  • Ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives, set high standards for themselves, enjoy research and problem-solving, interpret and evaluate data, use digital technologies.
  • Enterprising, creative contributors, who are ready to play a full part in life and work – that think creatively, grasp opportunities, lead and play roles in teams, express ideas and emotions.
  • Ethical, informed citizens, who are ready to be citizens of Wales and the world, that engage with contemporary issues, respect the needs and rights of others, commit to planet sustainability, consider the impact of their actions.
  • Healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society, that establish secure values, spiritual and ethical beliefs, understand mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, overcome challenges. Live life independently.

These four purposes form the cornerstone to the curriculum, which pupils experience across six areas.

The Six Areas of Learning and Experience

Digital competence joins Literacy & Numeracy as one of the foundations for success in learning and life. The curriculum will encourage creative, connected learning, based on six Areas of Learning and Experience:

  • Expressive Arts
  • Health and Wellbeing
  • Humanities
  • Languages, Literacy and Communication
  • Mathematics and Numeracy
  • Science and Technology

Unlike England, where Arts Education is increasingly marginalised, or non-existent, Expressive Arts is at the top of the list in the Curriculum for Wales. The new Curriculum seeks to focus on the essentials – rather than cramming young peoples’ brains with a never-ending amount of information, we need to concentrate on ‘less, more’ – that is the important elements that will take them towards being self-empowered human beings as outlined in the Four Purposes. In the new curriculum cross-curricular, collaborative ways of working are to be encouraged, in scenarios which develop and inspire creative thinking. The whole premise is that we need to prepare young people for a future which we do not ourselves yet know, to arm them with the skills necessary to cope with the challenges of the twenty-first century. Resilience and imagination will be vital attributes in order to meet the needs of a global workplace, the jobs within which haven’t yet been invented. So how do we teach young people to become resilient, creative and imaginative?

Signature Pedagogies in Art and Design

“We encourage students to make an emotional connection with their work, to inculcate a state of mind that enables them to look at the world differently.”– this ability to ‘look at the world differently’ is important on a socio-economic and personal level, shifting beliefs and reducing the aspirational gap.

Essentially, as Art school lecturers, we engage students in a critically supportive environment where we explore creative risk-taking, a means of going from the Known, to the Unknown. Risk is necessary, as without it you cannot venture into the new. However with risk comes the possibility of failure. It is in the areas of risk and ambiguity that some of the most potent creative elements are at work, and the potential for failure.

Within Art and Design Education the signature pedagogies of ‘The Studio’, ‘The Brief’ and ‘The Critique’ provide the philosophical context for experiential learning. For our purposes here ‘The Studio’ includes ‘The Workshop’ – be that Digital, Print, Ceramic, Textiles and so forth, across the disciplines.

The Studio provides a physical space for students to explore their ideas – materially and conceptually.  Discussion with tutors and peers provides an environment of enquiry, exploration and debate.  The Studio is a constant – a place where students learn through doing. It is a student-centred environment where the vocabulary and values of creative education are fostered and shared. Within the Studio learning takes place in which the student is ‘directly in touch with the realities being studied’

‘The Brief’ provides the student with a framework to apply their skills towards an outcome. Students are directly involved in interpreting the Brief to create real, physical works, drawing from a wide range of materials, processes and media in the process. The Brief may be prescriptive, entrepreneurial, or gloriously ambiguous and wide open to interpretation. It may be short and sweet or long in duration. The fundamental principles of creative design are introduced and reinforced via the Creative or Design Cycle, the essential form of which is akin to Kolb’s learning cycle[6], which provides an anchor and reference point for the student within the evolution of their creative practice. Via this Design Cycle we reinforce the concepts of Ideas Generation, Research and Development, leading to formal outcomes.

Students produce final outcomes for presentation and discussion within The Critique. The process of reflection, analysis and evaluation of one’s own and peer work within this context, draws on aspects of the cognitive domain. ‘The Crit’ is central to establishing formal principles and standards in response to the Brief.  The Crit is an inclusive way to affect Peer learning, effective within an art college ethos of experimentation and creative risk-taking. Within the Crit students present and explain their work to tutors and peers – with a focus on reviewing the process, the tutor can guide the Crit to highlight generic issues (what applies to Jane will be relevant to all) as well as individual aspects (Jane’s work is different to Joe’s because….) Peer and tutor feedback reinforces the process and provides a supportive network, providing students with feedback on how the work could be developed, plus positive aspects.

The process outlined above draws on Gestalt philosophy which asserts that learners have a unique perspective of the world, and the ability to generate their own learning experiences. The creative process that learners follow is empowering and leads towards ‘self-actualisation’in that the students can be the Designer / Artist / Illustrator / Director and so on. This happens within the context of Education and beyond, into their professional lives within the creative industries.

It is the joy of teaching, to see someone transform their experience of life. I’ve been teaching for eighteen years, and it keeps on happening, which suggests that creativity is an infinite well. It is a process, and we will repeat it, of sorts, come September.

Teaching is about empowering others, improving their self-worth and shifting perceptions, raising personal expectations and aspirations. It’s a bit about Photoshop too.

We teach because we love our subjects and we love seeing people connect with their subject, and themselves. We delight in their successes, when they ‘get it’, when they create something that has its own presence, that is bigger than the sum of its parts: is more than we imagined. There is a cognitive leap through space there, to another, new level, with further connections to be made. That is creative education.

My own take on a ‘Zest for Life’-style one-liner is one word which is not new:- Belief. Continued belief in them, and their worth. Even when this gets sorely put to the test, keep the small flame glowing. If you believe in them, eventually they will believe in themselves. ‘It is often very hard, by rational argument, to change a belief, precisely because beliefs are something that’s been influenced by the emotions’so our unwavering belief in them (as potential artists, designers, movers and shakers) is absolutely vital, if they do not as yet have this concept of themselves.

Perhaps in order to believe in them so essentially, we first have to believe in ourselves. Our values underpin what we teach. Sharing these values – not training people in them – is a more effective way to promote creativity and sustainability. Feedback from teachers shows that many are gasping for meaningful Staff Development opportunities – indeed any opportunity to re-connect themselves with their own creative practice, which seems so far away from them as to appear almost mythical. In order for teachers to shape the new curriculum this belief is central to its success – teachers’ refreshed view of their own creative practice and professional worth will add value and impact to the learning experience