02: Knowing how to write an awesome art curriculum


16th February 2022

02: Knowing how to write an awesome art curriculum

In this episode we speak to our Curriculum Director, Melanie Moore about how to create an awesome art curriculum. This episode includes tons of practical advice, tips and guidance to ensure your art curriculum is top notch. This episode is just 15 minutes short so you can fit a listen into your busy day!

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02: Knowing how to write an awesome art curriculum


James Marriott: Welcome to the Primary Knowledge podcast brought to you by Cornerstones Education. I’m James Marriott, and today we are taking a look at how to write an awesome art curriculum. I’m joined by Melanie Moore, who is the curriculum director at Cornerstones. Thanks for joining us, Melanie.

Melanie Moore: Hello, good morning.

James: Now, our aim today is to try to explain what a good art curriculum looks like, how to go about starting to write one, and hopefully plenty of other tips and advice along the way. So, first question, what are the key features of a really awesome art curriculum?

Melanie: Ok, well, I think I should probably start by saying that there is no one model. One size doesn’t fit all. But what an awesome art curriculum should have is really clear overarching aims and intentions that meet the needs of the school. And that’s why we say there isn’t one size that fits all, because the best curricula is a curriculum that suits the needs of the children, the context, the community and also the strengths of the school and the teaching staff as well. But saying that, there are some overarching principles that you would look for, well I would certainly look for, in a really good art curriculum. Shall I run you through those? Please prod me if there’s anything that you want me to expand on!

So, the first thing, if a school is looking to create a really awesome art curriculum, the first thing that they need to do is they need to be really clear on what they want that art curriculum to do. So, what do they want their pupils to achieve? What do they want their children to know and to be able to do by the end of their curriculum journey in that subject? And they could be anything from sort of skills based or competency-based intentions, so to develop children’s overall creative competencies. Or they could be quite specific. For example, we want our children to understand and to be able to talk about a diverse range of artists and art movements.

It’s so important that the process of coming up with those overarching aims and intentions is a shared adventure because it needs to take into account the views of the teaching staff, the children themselves, and looking at the community and making judgments on what you know, any school’s particular cohort of children need to be able to know and to be able to do. Okay, so that’s the first thing that I would look for in a really strong art curriculum, is what’s the purpose of it? If you didn’t do it, what would happen by doing it? What will happen? That’s really important.

James: Makes sense.

Melanie: And that’s the same with any foundation subject because, you know, working with schools at the moment, there is quite a bit of concern about the foundation subjects or non-English and maths and science at the core. The other subjects are the foundation subjects and have been neglected for quite a while in the curriculum. And now, of course, the focus on curriculum is looking at all subjects and so foundation subjects are becoming more and more important to schools, and that’s the same principle for any foundation subject, being really clear on the purpose. The second thing I would be looking for in a really good art curriculum is to make sure that the school has thought about the big ideas or the larger concepts that will be taught through their curriculum.

So, by that, I mean, you might decide to organise your art curriculum. Bigger concepts that you want children to know about might be colour or line or pattern or shape, and they would form the backbone of your art curriculum. So you would know that a child would come into the school in reception, and perhaps they’ll learn about naming primary colours and recognising primary colours in year one. Then they’d learn about mixing primary colours and making secondary colours. In year three, they might go on to learn about warm colours and cool colours and so on. So, you’ve got this journey, this thread running throughout your curriculum. Some schools like to organise their big ideas around art genres, so you might have landscapes, painting, collage, figures. It doesn’t matter which way you go, that’s a decision that school has to make, but it’s important that you do know what those bigger ideas are of your curriculum because one of the most important things that it does is it makes sure that you get progression in teaching and learning. If you don’t have those big ideas and larger concepts running throughout your art curriculum, then you’re going to get sort of arbitrary lessons being taught or things not being followed through or gaps in children’s learning. At least if you’ve got the bigger concepts running right throughout, you know when you get children in year four, you know exactly what they’ve done in year three to year one. So, your bit of that puzzle is very clear for you to teach.

James: Yep.

Melanie: And then I suppose the next thing is that I’ve touched a little bit on is sequencing and it’s just common sense James. So, you know, if we want children to be able, by the end of year six, to paint landscapes with competence, with perspective, with some understanding of how famous landscape artists have painted and created their work, then if we work backwards, we need to be able to put in sequence all the smaller steps that will enable children to be able to do that when they’re in year six. And it sounds easy, but it really isn’t. It requires quite a lot of thought and trial and error. And just to let schools know that when, you know, when we created our framework, our progression framework for the sequencing, it took us a year to do that. And that’s a team of people who were working on it full time.

James: Right.

Melanie: And so schools should expect that to be quite a challenge and something that does take time. And I definitely wouldn’t say it’s perfect, it’s always work in progress. And that’s the thing with great curriculum because, you know, you teach it, you find that things aren’t going quite right or it doesn’t quite fit, and you’ve got to have the confidence to go back and change that and improve it.

James: Yeah, yeah.

Melanie: So that would be another feature, really, wouldn’t it? I mean, the fact that it, you know, treat it as a living, breathing entity, it’s not something that’s finished and put on the shelf. You know, a good curriculum is one that’s never done, really. That’s always evolving and…

James: Yeah, always changing.

Melanie: Always changing.

James: Yeah, that makes sense.

Melanie: And then I suppose the last point I would say in terms of sort of planning the curriculum would be that it’s got to be coherent, and some of that comes with the sequencing, but I always like to think of it like a story. So, you might say to me, “So what’s the story of pattern in your art curriculum?” And you know, a good curriculum, you should be able to tell that story of pattern. Think of a story, you know a really good beginning, really firm, then sort of, smaller component parts that happen in the middle, and a really good ending. And a really nice way for, sort of, teachers to think about the curriculum is, “Tell me the story of landscape in your curriculum, tell me the story of collage in your curriculum.” And it should be a coherent story like any other narrative.

James: Yeah, that makes sense. So, I mean, art is quite unique as a subject in terms of the fact that, you know, it’s more creative than a lot of other subjects. So that leads me to wonder whether or not this is that bit more challenging or daunting than other curricula. Is that a fair comment?

Melanie: It’s interesting you say that because it depends who you are. So, for me, it’s a labour of love, I love it and I know it inside out. But ask me to write a music curriculum, and yeah, I’m going to need quite a lot of help to do that because it’s not my specialist subject. So actually, I don’t think it’s particularly the subject of art. I think the trick is knowing your subject matter well. Because knowing your subject matter well, then you know, a person with a science background can tackle the science curriculum really well.

James: Sure.

Melanie: But you’re right in saying that there is a lack of confidence quite often with the arts, particularly because people feel like, you know, to be able to teach art well, you need to be a good artist, you know, to teach music well, you need to be a capable musician. Yeah, that helps. But you know, as primary teachers, we don’t have that luxury. We are trained to teach all subjects, and that’s a lot of knowledge and a lot of skill you’ve got to have. So, although it may seem maybe to you or you’re not an arty person, I don’t know…?

James: Probably not.

Melanie: Yes, so for you, maybe you think, “Wow, that’s kind of a really incredible task to do.” But it is about identifying the strengths of the teaching staff in school and people supporting each other and looking out for help and guidance where that exists. You know, that’s what we do. So, if you were a school who didn’t have the expertise in house, it may be that then you might look for a commercial curriculum package like many schools do, for support with one subject, two subjects, or the whole thing.

James: Okay, so if someone’s kind of at the start of this journey in terms of drawing up this curriculum, what’s a good starting point? What’s the first thing that they should think about?

Melanie: I think the first thing to do is to look at what you’ve already got in place. Because even though it might not be written down anywhere or it might not be sort of formalised in any sort of scheme, there will be good practice in the school in that subject. And for me, the first thing is always to look at what exists already and then you can draw out what the strengths are and what the weaknesses are or where the gaps are, and then that gives you the knowledge for a good starting point. And then really, it’s sort of following that process that I kind of outlined there, which is then going back to saying, “right, if this works well and this doesn’t work well and this is in place and this isn’t in place”, starting at those key concepts, setting out what we want our curriculum to look like, what it will help children do and be able to know.

James: Yeah, brilliant. Ok, so from your experience there, Melanie, what are the kind of the pitfalls that we need to be aware of and avoid?

Melanie: There are many and we’ve touched on one which is not having the subject knowledge. And there are ways around that, as I’ve described. I mean, there are so many, really. The first is having really good plans in place, but then not considering the resources that you would need to deliver that curriculum. So, you can have really fabulous plans on paper, but if you don’t have the right resources to engage and support and develop children’s knowledge and understanding and skills, then it’s pointless. And I’ve seen many curricula really suffer from a lack of good resourcing. And by that, I mean, you know, your more academic sort of resources. So having the presentations, pictures, but also having the practical resources. You know, quite often we expect really beautiful work from children and we’re giving them really rubbish resources to use, like really old blocks of paint and really rubbish paint brushes. And you know, it does require some investment and some careful thinking about where you’re going to allocate your money for resources. I suppose another sort of pitfall would be not thinking about the diversity of your art curriculum. So, you know, there’s a lot of white dead males that are prominent in a lot of art curricula and seeing the same artists in every school without much thought of who might interest their children, your children. And you know, we’ve done a lot of work on our curriculum to make sure that we are representing diverse cultures, diverse traditions, old and new artists so that art doesn’t become something that was done in the past by a particular sort of white, middle-class male. And that is hard, particularly in things like getting access to modern artists, and it’s really hard to get permissions to use their work, so teachers have to be creative about how they can use online resources. Or again, you go for a commercial scheme which has done that work for you.

James: Yeah. Well, there’s been some incredibly useful stuff in there. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge with us today.

Melanie: Oh, you’re very welcome.

James: Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s episode. We have handpicked some extra resources and content, which we think you’ll find useful. Just head to the show notes for this episode to find those links. There’s lots more information, and you can find all our other episodes at cornerstoneseducation.co.uk. Thanks for listening! And see you next time.

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