Why switch to a ‘Choice Based Art Curriculum’?

This term in our department we have switched to a choice based Art curriculum for Key Stage 3 students, which we are very excited about.

When training as a Teacher, I was intrigued by alternative, liberal, democratic & choice based models of education, as a means of engaging students and giving them more of a stake in their learning. This led me to discover examples such as Sumerhill School in the UK, Waldorf/Steiner Schools, the Montessori method, Sudbury Valley School in the US and a host of other examples in Denmark, Germany & Finland. One that really captured my imagination was Ny Lilieskole in Denmark, which John Holt wrote about in “Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better” (1976), there is a quaint old black & white film about it here: http://youtu.be/VKcHsKBkhN4. Mixed responses and the lack of main stream conversion to such methods dampened my initial enthusiasm, but I have always tried to incorporate a large element of student choice into my practice.

My time out of a full time position last year, following the big move from London to Bristol, offered plenty of time to reflect on my teaching practice and approach. I visited around 20 different schools, colleges & educational establishments in a variety of capacities: supply teacher, casual lecturer, volunteer, artist & consultant. What really struck me was that there are a lot of establishments out there not making the most of the Arts. There are various arguments I have heard put forward for this, “government funding cuts”, “E-BAC”, “Teachers’ workloads & moral” etc… all worthy debates, but these I feel sidestep the main issues.

I attended a fantastic #openspace event in September 2013 organised by @situationsUK, @_SpikeIsland & @ArnolfiniArts hosted by @paintworks_ called “Visual Arts Bristol: What future do we want?”. Meeting with creative professionals, educators, curators, artists and alike, there was a general air of self-determination to proceedings in a move away from ‘top down’ approaches. This I found really refreshing, it was a penny drop moment, of course Artists should be leading new ways of thinking & working! That’s the whole point right? The full report from the event is well worth a read: http://visualartsbristol.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/visual-arts-bristol-what-future-do-we-want-discussion-reports.docx and further discussions can be followed under #visartsbristol. Whilst there I convened a meeting about the engagement of young people in the Visual Arts where I was asked “Is Art at school too prescriptive?”. My response was:

“The curriculum is not really (It’s worth reading the national curriculum if you are not familiar with it: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-art-and-design-programmes-of-study), but teachers’, departments’ & schools’ interpretation & delivery can be. It all depends on the culture, history and ideology of Teachers, departments and schools. The busy nature and pressure on staff in schools can often inhibit the scope to which teachers work. Quality, resourcefulness, energy, creativity, experience & skills vary hugely between different teachers and schools…Opportunities to regularly re-energise, train, support & inspire teachers are one of the most useful areas to focus on…(there is also) a need to communicate what Art can lead to in more exciting, relevant & engaging ways.”

These notions were strengthened by my visits and work last year and prompted me to search for solutions. The discovery of Twitter as a professional research, ideas sharing and networking tool lead me to:

Tony Wagner’s (@DRtonywagner) ‘Creating Innovators’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Creating-Innovators-Making-People-Change/dp/1451611498;

Katherine Douglas (@twoducks) & Diane Jaquith’s ‘Engaging Learners Through Artmaking: Choice-Based Art Education in the Classroom’ http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_2?ie=UTF8&field-author=Diane+B.+Jaquith&search-alias=books&text=Diane+B.+Jaquith&sort=relevancerank;

Diane Jaquith & Nan Hathaway’s ‘Learner Directed Classroom: Developing Creative Thinking Skills Through Art’http://www.amazon.co.uk/Learner-Directed-Classroom-Developing-Creative-Thinking/dp/0807753629/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1419938419&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=The+Learner-Directed+Classroom%3A+Developing+Creative+Thinking+Skills+Through+Art+%5BPaperback%5D+Diane+B.+Jaquith+%28Author%29%2C+Nan+E.+Hathaway+%28Author%29

Jim Smith’s (@thelazyteacher) ‘The Lazy Teacher”s Handbook’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Lazy-Teachers-Handbook-Independent/dp/1845902890;

Zoe Elder’s (@fullonlearning) ‘Full On Learning; Involve Me And I’ll Understand’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Full-Learning-Involve-Ill-understand/dp/1845906810

These experiences, discoveries and learning journeys, combined with constant challenge of making our curriculums relevant to students’ futures, have prompted my full switch to a choice based approach at Key Stage 3. Key Stage 4 & 5 courses naturally use many these approaches, some more fully than others depending on group dynamics. That said, I’m really interested to see how the students who experience the fuller choice based approach at Key Stage 3 impacts our approach to Key stages 4 & 5 when they get there.

There are all sorts of interesting debates and discussions to be had around these ideas, and I look forward to being part of the conversation. In my next post I will talk more about how we are implementing this approach, for now you might like to explore some of the links below, from educators in the USA who have been using these approaches for a good while:




– Teaching art or teaching to think like an artist? | Cindy Foley @CindyMFoley | TEDxColumbus

– Creating Authentic Studio Experiences | Andrew McCormick @aojomccormick | AOE Conference


4 thoughts on “Why switch to a ‘Choice Based Art Curriculum’?

  1. Pingback: STEM + Art = STEAM | infinitypie blog

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