Schools like quantifiable results, they are institutions that are judged on outcomes, and senior staff and teachers are under pressure to evidence progress for each student. I believe that the subjective nature of Art and Design poses a challenge for the school environment because art is not easily assessable by teachers, and if it is assessed, it needs a different approach to that of other subject areas.
In my role as an art educationalist and art advocate I often consider the role of assessment in the primary art classroom. I am interested in how, as art teachers and teachers who have to teach art, we can incorporate assessment without dampening creativity and negatively impacting the environment conducive to making art.
In my regular part-time teaching post, the children use sketchbooks and I never mark/grade their work. I often feel guilty about the time and energy that ‘normal’ class teachers spend marking compared to me, but my not defacing the children’s art or interfering with their books, is a deliberate art teaching approach. I have discussed this ‘no marking method’ many times with the children, I ask them how they know they are making progress in art without my grades, ticks, crosses and written comments in green pen. The children always report back that they like not having their work marked, that they know they have made progress because they feel it and they gain confidence using the relevant medium. The children that I have spoken with about art assessment say that they like being in the art room because they feel free and that they are not better or worse than anyone else, they say this is a contrast with other subject areas.
The art room environment is a special one and it feels like a safe space where children gain confidence in their own time, through exploring different materials and processes. They use their own ideas, experiences and imaginations to create art and that work is individual to them, like real artists. It is not my place to say what is right or wrong and to do so could do harm to the children’s self-esteem, rather than building their confidence in art.
As a specialist primary art teacher, I am fortunate in that I teach all children every year, this means that I can play the long game. I am not limited to one year with each child. So, if Tommy doesn’t quite get the proportions of the face right in his self-portrait, but he is enthusiastic and happy in his art lessons, I don’t need to worry (or worry him) about it. I know that there is time and he’ll get there at some point with my help – not all children develop at the same pace and that is okay.
The other important element to this no marking method, is that I am constantly modelling how to use the materials and teaching the children new techniques, I do this when I, as the teacher, can see they are ready for this input. In the classroom, I am continually responding to individual children, or as I call them, artists, as they are working. This is the best way to develop their skills and help them to manifest their ideas i.e. as they are in the act of creating. Feedback given during the lesson means they can implement changes and review and refine work in real time. The primary art classroom can and should feel like an artist’s studio, with artists working away, engrossed in the creative process, experimenting with materials and evolving works of art.
None of this is to say that I don’t know whether the children are making progress. I know that they are because I plan all their art lessons, and I believe that good planning is key to pupil progress. I map the art curricula out across year 1 – year 6 and I ensure that there is progress built in across key skill areas i.e. drawing, painting, collaging, sculpting and printing, of course I include other mediums but these are the main areas that I tend to cover. I also know they are making progress because I see it in their work and I give them specific praise about that e.g. ‘I can see the way you have used different brushstrokes there has been really effective at showing the movement in the water. Would you mind showing the rest of the class how you did that?’
I believe that primary children should keep the same sketchbook all the way through school, unless it gets so full of art that it needs replacing. With this in mind, if you were to look at a year 1 child’s sketchbook you would see progress in their drawing, but better still, if you looked at that same child’s sketchbook in year 4 or year 6, you would absolutely see progress. Furthermore, if you sat with that child and discussed their work as you flicked through their sketchbook, then you would hear a genuine understanding of how that child overcame challenges with media, how they developed their ideas and in which cases they were inspired by other artists.
As far as I know, no one in government is asking for grades in primary Art and Design, and I have not really heard of parents asking to see Art and Design results. I have however, repeatedly seen parents, governors, Ofsted inspectors and all manner of visitors walk into a primary art lesson and respond to the uniquely calm, focused and creative environment with awe and wonder.