Curriculum, Assessment and the Arts

Substantive and disciplinary knowledge have become the words around which curriculum is being organised in some schools. Pro forma’s are filled in enthusiastically, or not so, to justify curriculum choices to line-managers. And whilst these terms seem to work well in some subjects I’m not so sure the distinction works so well in the arts. There tends to be a ready made distinction in the arts between theory and practical (maybe declarative/procedural?) The distinction isn’t just a small one either, it can affect how pupils are taught and assessed.

Theory is more ‘deductive’ in nature and ‘practical’ more ‘inductive’. This entails theory being taught in a more teacher-led way and the practical being more child-centred, in that the child and their engagement with the subject is that of an active participant, learning how to create within the art form with a differing amount of freedom and constraint. In terms of assessment the former can lend itself to a teacher judging the work in a more ‘objective’ way than they can the practical, where ‘judgement’, a more ‘subjective’ dialogue between the pupil and teacher takes place.

Pupils make progress in the arts in two major ways:

1. By learning about the art form, its history, its cultural and social interplay and relevance, its aesthetic qualities, and knowledge about how it is/was made, by whom and why.

2. Through the process of learning the practical discipline and making their own art.

Teaching takes a different form in both of these areas.

In the former the teaching and learning is more deductive, teacher-led, from the general to the specific and, in the latter, teaching and learning is more inductive, pupil-centred, from the specific to the general. The inductive approach is open-ended and reliant on the development of aesthetic knowledge and awareness, a sensitivity and awareness of the historical and ongoing dialogues in the arts and the wider culture(s) both in the art-form and in its interplay with wider society.

If we think about the two ways pupils make progress through the curriculum we can also think about how assessment is different in each case. In ‘theory’, the knowledge can be assessed in a more traditionally ‘academic’ way. In ‘practical’ the knowledge is far more subjective and whilst the teacher can ‘judge’ technical prowess to (quite) an extent this becomes more of a dialogue with a pupil as they become more adept in the art.

As assessment takes a different form in both of these areas, schools need to be aware of the balance between practical and theory in each curriculum stage and therefore in the type of assessment taking place and what conclusions can be drawn from that assessment.

In a mainly practical course hard ‘grades’ will be more difficult to award, and whilst there will be some pupils better than others at many things within the ‘art’ it is ludicrous to award percentages to the work. Similarly 1-9 will not be helpful to pupil, teacher or, indeed other ‘stakeholders’. Fail, Pass, Merit, Distinction should suffice as comparative judgements can be made, used sensitively, and pupils can get practical feedback on how to improve and also, no doubt, often see, hear, experience the work of their peers in situ.

This need for pupils to be able to make judgement is an important part of the development of their work as an artist, a critic of their own work and that of others and that of an informed member of an audience or onlooker. Judgement is not the same as judging. As Alva Noë puts it, in his book ‘Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature:

“It is a mistake to think that our responses to works of art are ever only mere responses. They are more like judgements… they are thoughtful… they are shaped by our knowledge and background and experience and the larger culture… and the ongoing dialogue…”

Pupils learn from each other as they work together in the studio, workshop or space and develop the sensitive art of ‘judgement’. Not percentage, not, ‘oh that is definitely a 6’ but a more emotional, ‘that feels, looks, sounds, right.’ ‘That works better than that.’ ‘That didn’t feel right even though it is technically better than the thing that felt better.’ ‘You did that better than me.’ ‘I performed really well… yesterday, today, not so well, why?’

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