Model arrangements

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Mervyn Lebor asks what is meant by best practice

What is best practice in art and design? Is this phrase even useful as a description of good teaching? Doesn't it suggest that there is only one ideal of teacher behaviour, when we know that art teachers are constantly faced with situations where a range of possible responses could affect student achievement?

But then how can we judge whether what we are doing is indifferent, good or exemplary? Will it be known merely by results? Or should we be looking at the quality of creative work in the classroom? Would this be improved if students were exposed to more outside artistic influences?

This might mean more trips to galleries, visiting artists (in both senses), research into key pictures in libraries or the internet. Or could it be achieved through exposing students to more reality? This might mean live projects or being outside class, seeking inspiration through urban or rural environments. It might also be the quality of teacher guidance, helping students interpret briefs in clear and imaginative ways.

A better model than best practice might be to create an open-ended list as a resource of possibilities rather than a set of dictums. Best practice might well take as given the norms of teaching such as schemes of work, lesson plans and individual learning contracts. It has to ensure assessments are in place and that appropriate physical and digital resources including e-learning and web addresses are available to expand students' knowledge beyond institutional limitations. It is vital that exam briefs, assessment criteria and board requirements are clearly understood.

But isn't art supposed to be creative? Isn't this deadening bureaucracy counter-productive? This admin, however, could be seen as a kind of fledgling curatorship, the systematic recording, assessing and displaying of student art.

Maybe more elusive aspects of good practice are the strategies for engaging students in the creative process - the electric, unsayable quality of student-teacher relationship, the creative spark that can produce work of extra flair. Is it the result of specific instructions, models, theory or examples used? Or is it the directions and quality of research, stimulus, fun or freedom offered to students in their interpretation of tasks? Different disciplines, individual teachers and the demands of studio, lesson or tutorial provide a range of possibilities. Photography tutors argue for independent learners who go off premises to shoot and create individual responses to different environments. Graphics teachers want to replicate a professional studio, using live projects to enhance the connection with industry, setting high expectations and potential for future employment. In both instances the reality factor raises standards.

But each good practice strategy has its pitfalls. Too much freedom to roam for self-exploration might lead students into just going for a ramble across the city, without end-product. Too much of a studio ethos might lead to conformity.

One motivational key for many students is having their art exhibited.

Displaying their work to peers, family and professionals in an end-of-year show raises the quality and rate of production. The final show is a defining moment, when all students' practice is to be exhibited and judged.

It is also an interactive moment when art is finally out of the studio and into the public sphere to be appreciated and enjoyed.

Mervyn Lebor teachesat Batley School of Art,West Yorkshire

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