In recent years the trend in education has been towards ‘Assessment for Learning,’ which advocates that students are able to learn most effectively when they understand what level they are operating at and what they need to do to improve. Even in a mainstream institution, this poses a problem for art teachers; it suggests that the creative process should be taught in accordance with a rigid framework. In alternative provision, where children suffer from social, behavioural, developmental and emotional problems taking such an approach is even harder to justify. Young people with the aforementioned difficulties present their own barriers to learning, and an uncompromising assessment rubric can exacerbate the problem – particularly in the field of creative education.
The Red Balloon educational ethos is to give students a degree of ownership over their own learning. This is achieved through dialogue with the student, building up a relationship of trust and shared accountability for the young person’s academic attainment. This practice of ‘negotiating the curriculum’ is defined by Garth Boomer as ‘deliberately planning to invite students to contribute to, and to modify, the educational program so that they will have a real investment in both the learning journey and the outcomes’ (1992:14). This method, which subtly alters the implicit power balance between student and teacher, can be a key factor not only in educational attainment but also in the raising of self-esteem. It is particularly effective with students who have a history of disengaging from education.
To return briefly to the subject of assessment for learning, Susan Hodge explains that students learn best when they understand what they are trying to learn and what is expected of them’ (2010:21). There is, however, a tension between this and the practice of negotiating the curriculum in which a student is given ownership of their own learning. How exactly do teacher expectations fit in to a negotiated curriculum? Working at Red Balloon has taught me that this can only be achieved through continued dialogue with the student on the purpose and meaning of artistic practice. In order for both the student and the teacher to agree on a set of expectations for their artwork, both participants must share an understanding on the value and purpose of creative activity. Only then does a way forward begin to emerge.
Before I begin to expound on a set of techniques I employ in my classroom, I feel I should offer a disclaimer. The methods described below have been designed with extremely low confidence students in mind – young people whose educational experience so far has been largely negative. They have no correspondence with National Curriculum specifications or any other external means of judging and accrediting creative work. I’ve developed the following activities in order to make a creative education accessible to young people whose social, behavioural, emotional and developmental problems are quite severe. In the majority of cases, the methods described below will be used as a means of assessment with students who have just started to attend at Red Balloon.
I find that mind maps are a very useful tool. I provide the students with a piece of paper of at least A3 size and a variety of chunky felt pen markers. For many of Red Balloon’s young people, this is their first introduction to thinking visually and it usually yields interesting results. If a student starts with the question ‘what is art?’ in the centre of their page, they can begin to generate their own responses to it. If a young person is struggling with the scope of this question, it might be altered to something like ‘why do people make art?’ or ‘what makes art fun?’ The following mind maps show how a number of different students have approached this task.
From here a student can begin to set out their own criteria of how artistic success can be judged. The pictures below show how the same three students were able to use the ideas from their mind maps to create self-assessment grids for their own work. Each stem of their mind map was modified into a question, which then became an assessment criteria. Students were then invited to mark their own completed pieces, giving each a grade between 1 and 5. By using a different colour pen to mark different pieces, students were able to make comparisons between their completed works.
Low confidence is most student’s first (and often largest) barrier when they begin to attend Red Balloon. When a young person completes their first piece of artwork, the feedback they receive from the teacher is key to their continued development in the subject. At this stage the rapport that has just started to develop between student and teacher faces its first test. When I’m critiquing student work at this stage, I put a lot of effort into giving gentle feedback that still gives the student a clear indication of where they are in their learning. At the same time, I’ve learnt that students easily see through false praise. If reference is made to the mind map activity described above (which should be kept in the student’s folder), the young person is given a greater degree of ownership of this assessment process. They have set out the terms of artistic success for themselves, and can measure their progress against this.
In order to develop student’s creative thinking further I usually try to enter into a dialogue about any completed pieces. I’ll ask students to identify what they think works about it and where they think it could be improved. Again, referring back to the young person’s own assessment grid is key. To take an example from above, one student set a self-assessment criteria of ‘Is the work colourful?’ To this I might ask them more open questions about their colour choices and how they feel the colours work when placed next to each other. From here, the learner could be introduced to colour wheels and colour theory.
The low self-esteem of a typical Red Balloon student can make the above approach difficult, but I have found it to be more successful with new students than using externally developed assessments. A young person with little confidence is likely to respond with ‘nothing’ when asked what they like about their work and ‘everything’ when questioned about what they might improve. It’s usually futile to try to push a child when they give these kinds of responses – that will usually turn into a battle of wills in which the student further digs their heels in and any positive relationship with the teacher is lost. Through continual reflection back to the student’s own definition of artistic success, this barrier can be overcome but it is often a very slow process.
Boomer, Garth in Negotiating the Curriculum Garth Boomer, Nancy Lester, Cynthia Onore, Jon Cook (eds.), Falmer Press, 1992.
Hodge, Susan. The Art and Design Teachers Handbook, Continuum Books, 2010.