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Powerful Knowledge in Art and Design Education: Why history and context are important for practice

Written by: Jon Aye
9 min read
JON AYE, HEAD OF TEACHING AND LEARNING ART AND DESIGN, ILFORD COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL, UK

Ofsted’s recent Research Review Series makes a case for the relevance of three domains of knowledge in art and design education: practical, theoretical and disciplinary (Ofsted, 2023). This formulation is significant in as much as it is contentious because, despite becoming embedded within teaching and learning discourse over the past decade, the concept of knowledge still sits uneasily within art and design education. A brief survey of the landscape of secondary school art and design curricula shows that many educators are firmly engaged in exploring definitions of art and design knowledge; however, the influence of learner-centred paradigms and their continuing dominance within art and design teacher training programmes mean that there is still a perception that knowledge exists in opposition to making, self-expression and creativity – as a supplanting of the practical aspects of the subject with history and theory (Londesborough, 2018). To paraphrase how it was recently put to me by one researcher at a leading British teacher training institution: pupils can learn art history by studying it at university if they wish; secondary school art and design is for making.

Michael Young’s writings on powerful knowledge have served as a key intellectual driver for the ‘knowledge turn’ in education, and it’s worth remembering that, in Young’s original writings, this was explicitly framed as a turn away from a social constructivist model towards a social realist one (Young, 2008). This meant recognising how ‘the structures of our knowledge are social in origin’ (Young, 2008, p. 5) but that we must work within these structures as we extend and develop this knowledge, rather than simply seek to ignore, circumvent or dismantle them. With this emphasis on knowledge being enthusiastically highlighted by Conservative politicians, such as the schools minister Nick Gibb (2021), following the publication of the most recent National Curriculum in 2014, it’s somewhat unsurprising that it has acquired a certain association with a political and cultural conservatism. Bad memories return of an elitist canon filled with ‘Dead White European Males’.

Although rooted in progressive, democratic politics (Young, 2008) and the empowerment of individuals, there is a very real danger that learner-centred pedagogies, such as inquiry-based learning, can be contradictory and self-defeating in their outcomes, particularly when allied with a dismissal of knowledge conceived of as historical or theoretical expertise. It’s important as arts educators that we engage with some of the critical literature on these approaches – for example, the work of John Sweller (2021) – and that we consider their philosophical and political foundations against the wider social landscape within which they function. More specifically, learner-centred pedagogies are rarely those endorsed by the elite, meaning that a dismissal of knowledge in favour of practice can in fact serve to entrench inequality by denying disadvantaged children access to forms of knowledge that the middle classes take for granted (Young, 2018).

Previously, as a head of year in a comprehensive school, I experienced first-hand the fact that there are many children who will simply not encounter certain technical concepts, contemporary artists or historically significant works of art unless this encounter happens at school, because the material conditions of their family circumstances simply do not allow for it. If we believe that our subject is vital, then we must consider what those essential aspects are that young people must encounter, especially if Key Stage 3 (11 to 14) is the extent of their art and design education. We must question in what way art and design education can enable all young people – particularly the most disadvantaged – to move beyond the constraints of their immediate circumstances (Young, 2008) and experience something that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Furthermore, if we are to genuinely prepare students for the possibility of pursuing lives – not careers, but lives in a broad sense – as artists and designers, it would seem that we have an ethical responsibility to diligently consider the landscape of art and design beyond secondary school education and what this landscape demands. This must involve a consideration of the various institutions and structures that shape the existence of art and design in society and the knowledge and skills that they value.

Higher education is a good example of one aspect of this landscape, and my own experience of this has been instructive. As a fine art undergraduate at the University of Oxford in the early 2000s, I experienced significant difficulty in engaging with contemporary, postmodern art practices, which I had not substantially encountered in my comprehensive school art curriculum. The fact that these forms of practice constituted a dominant mode within one of the world’s leading arts education institutions can perhaps attest to their general significance within the broader world of art and design education. From my experience, these are forms of practice that require prior engagement with certain forms of knowledge – historical, theoretical and practical – in order to be sufficiently appreciated.

It is here that the false dichotomy and conceptual misunderstandings at the heart of the knowledge vs. practice debate can be grasped. As Martin Robinson (2022, para. 3) observes, if students are to move beyond the constraints of their immediate circumstances and make progress in art and design, it’s important that, broadly speaking, two forms of learning occur:

  1. ‘… 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. … learning the practical discipline and making their own art.’

 

We can see this being echoed within Ofsted’s (2023) formulation of practical, theoretical and disciplinary knowledge. Crucially, these forms are interdependent, and students must be exposed to the fullness of these domains in order to properly flourish as artist and designers. If students are not provided with a contextual dimension for art-making, they are liable to develop misconceptions about how art is made and how it functions and exists within society (Cunliffe, 2005, in Ofsted, 2023). Students must understand that the practice of making works of art and design has always involved a response to received traditions and contemporary contexts, and it is through this process that something new and vital emerges.

This interdependency becomes clear when we consider postmodern and contemporary art practices. If we agree that these practices form a significant aspect of what it means to make art today, and it is essential for pupils to encounter these practices, then we must consider that many postmodern and contemporary art practices function contextually, as a response to the text of art history. Consider Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) or Michael Craig Martin’s Oak Tree (1973). These two canonical works of conceptual art can seem obscure in their meanings when encountered in isolation, but when contextualised within the artistic traditions that both artists received and responded to, and the art practices of the time, they are more comprehensible. Much contemporary art is like this. Likewise, many of my students have found the eminence accorded to Mark Rothko’s monumental colour field paintings perplexing, due to their apparent simplicity. But when presented with examples of how Rothko gradually derived these paintings from studies of figures on the New York Subway, they make much more sense, as does modernist abstraction per se.

Drawing on these theories and the work of Neil Walton (2020), I have recently created a display in my classroom aimed at developing students’ ability to critically engage with artists in historical and contextual terms. This display is organised into three sections: traditional (pre-1890), modern (1890–1950) and postmodern/contemporary (1950–now). The latter section’s title is more cumbersome than Walton’s original ‘contemporary’, but my inclusion of ‘postmodern’ is meant to evoke a state of flux and the continuing discussion surrounding the precise boundaries of the postmodern era. I would in any case argue that an understanding of postmodernism, in its various manifestations across culture and society, would certainly empower any young person once they leave school: it is a defining, overarching concept of the past 70 years of art history and culture more generally, and so it would seem amiss to simply relegate this to another subcategory of the contemporary.

Despite the inclusion of dates for each section, the display does not function as a timeline. Instead, each section contains a scattering of key words, adapted from Walton (2020), relating to some of the primary concepts and practices that serve to distinguish each era, alongside images of artists’ works that serve to visualise these. To further enhance its comprehensibility, I have included bold terms for each section that serve as an umbrella for the associated concepts: traditional – depicting reality; modern – personal expression; postmodern/contemporary – political, social, conceptual.

The display is intended to visualise a very basic schema for the progression of art-making to the present day and to serve as a heuristic on which students can draw to critically engage with and understand the forms of artistic practice that we encounter, from a ‘theoretical’ and ‘disciplinary’ perspective. It has typically fed into peer discussion, written notes and wider class discussion in response to the work of artists, and students have demonstrated an admirable ability to thoughtfully assess the nuances of an artist’s location within these categories and how some artists can exist within the timeframe of, say, modernism but display stylistic elements that are predominantly traditional.

As students have become familiar with the display, I’ve explored its application beyond the classroom. Within a pattern design scheme of work for Year 7, for example, I created an extended homework task that asked students to create a site-specific installation out there in the world, using their knowledge of pattern. Prior to making and documenting their installations, pupils engaged in some independent research on the work of a land artist, such as Robert Smithson, and familiarised themselves with this art form. As part of their written research, they were asked whether their chosen artist could be classified as traditional, modern or postmodern/contemporary. Students’ responses demonstrated an ability to locate their chosen artist historically and also apply some of the concepts that they have encountered in the classroom. Here are some examples of pupil responses:

I consider Andy Goldsworthy to be a postmodern/contemporary artist as he developed/learnt his style during the postmodern period. His art also conveys simplicity and he uses uncommon materials and tools in his art, which are defining elements of the postmodernism era.

Robert Smithson can be classified as a postmodern/contemporary artist. His work challenges traditional notions of art as something created in a studio or gallery space, instead using nature as his canvas.

I think that Andy Goldsworthy is a postmodern/contemporary artist due to his unique style of art not found in traditional art or even modern art to an extent, which itself is still mostly drawing-based and does not include many other medium.

I think that Robert Smithson was a postmodern artist as he defied the standard style and definition of art and instead explored a completely new style of art.

These responses demonstrate an admittedly superficial grasp of these artists’ practices, with potential misconceptions at play, but these can be worked on and clarified over the course of a scheme of work. The point here is that students are gaining practice with that disciplinary skill of gauging the work of an artist from a historical and contextual perspective, and this is serving as an entry point into deeper learning, understanding and art-making.

Although there are some clear results, this is an admittedly small initiative that needs further development. For example, I am keen to explore whether this display can be generalised a step, with the concepts that define each era applied to the broader fields of art and design, such as architecture and graphic design. On initial reflection, this seems highly possible. It would also ensure that the subject does not restrict itself to a fine art paradigm and that it equips students with the knowledge that they require to take part in the wider fields of art and design beyond secondary school – another dimension to the debate on ‘powerful knowledge’ in art and design education that needs further discussion.

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