The Oxford English Dictionary defines a poster as: A large printed picture used for decoration, and: A large printed picture, notice, or advertisement displayed in a public place.
For those who remember the ‘Athena’ chain of shops, posters are stuck in our memory. Ché or a dubious picture of a tennis player adorned many walls in the seventies and eighties. Posters, few words, striking images. ‘Your Country Wants You’ and ‘Pears Soap’ hint at a bygone age when advertising was in its infancy, but the rules still apply. Striking imagery, few words communicating strongly, a subliminal or, indeed, a clear message. ‘Labour isn’t working’ to Vorsprung Durch Technik’, successful posters stay in the mind. From futurist designs, to kitsch, from communist to fascist and everything in between the poster has had a vital part to play in our history but this is not the whole story.
In classrooms, kids are asked to design posters. Some are trained in the art and some are not. Yet there is another heritage of poster that they might draw upon and that is the ‘academic’ poster beloved of some courses in higher education. These posters are designed to communicate a body of knowledge and spark conversations. I wouldn’t call them posters, they are more like ‘info-graphics’, the compiler of the information and maker of the ‘poster’ stands by it as others walk past, intent on getting into a dialogue with the writer about their work. These ‘academic’ posters are ‘knowledge organisers’, akin to ‘research reports’, that need the person making the poster to exhibit a lot of knowledge but in a way that ‘simplifies’ and organises their research and arguments. This is a very different form to that of the ‘poster’ and could be deemed to have a useful purpose especially if accompanied by an essay, dissertation, speech and other forms of completed work.
When children are set a poster task in school I would expect the task to be specific to the subject and content that they are being set. Whether it is a ‘poster’ or an ‘academic poster’ the expression of learning would involve a great deal of knowledge about what is wanted to be communicated. Both should be eloquent and beautiful and work as piece in themselves, which would require a teaching of the ‘art’ as well as a thorough knowledge of the content.
It is also clear, like so many things in education, it could be taught badly. It could be used as an ‘activity’ to ‘engage’, it could be used too early when the pupil has little knowledge of the subject, it could be used without a thorough knowledge of the form, it could be used as a ‘busy homework’. None of these would be a satisfactory use of the form.
If a pupil has a thorough grasp of the art of the essay and/or can research and analyse, can make arguments and think logically within the context of the subject they are studying then the academic poster has a place especially if the ‘display’ of it is accompanied by the ‘exhibition’ where the maker responds to critique through a discussion about their work. This ‘assessment’ of the ‘art’ then becomes a crucial part of the process rather than just another pile of marking in the in-tray.
If the pupil is creating graphic art then the discussion around aesthetics would be foregrounded but would this be normally about creating second rate display-work rather than great art in the context of most subjects?
Bodil Isaksen has written an excellent piece on posters being used badly, in which she says: “a poster lesson is a desperate measure, not a rigorous first-class education.” This discussion has been triggered by a piece in the Evening Standard in which Tom Bennett is quoted, quite reasonably, as saying that poster tasks can be a lesson in which: “an hour trickles away and bubble-writing happens, and someone back-shadows the title, and four sentences are written while someone else cuts out pictures of ‘crime’ or ‘celebrity’ from the staffroom copy of Take A Break!”