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Getting education down to a fine art

How are independent schools driving innovation in education? Farlington School's Prep Head, Frances Mwale, addresses the importance of visual literacy

Posted by Julian Owen | June 30, 2018 | Teaching

Farlington is fortunate to have the amazing Penny Huntsman, author of the first A-level History of Art textbook and fervent campaigner for widening the understanding of art history, teaching an understanding of visual literacy throughout the school. 

Great schools focus on nurturing articulate, confident pupils who can give presentations and produce excellent written accounts. Numeracy and literacy are key foci and in the independent sector, adding richness in other areas is a given. In a media-savvy, technological age, the importance of being able to read, interpret and make sense of the visual is vital.

For this reason, Penny Huntsman is delivering an innovative Art History programme to Year 5 pupils. Introduced to a formal analysis toolbox, pupils now speak with great insight and confidence about what they actually see in canonical works of art, and also about the artist’s probable intentions. To some it may seem like stating the obvious, but children are really learning how to look: how to observe, make comparisons, decipher subliminal messages and bring meaning to what is around them. Pupils are developing invaluable skills for more than just looking at masterpieces.

Starting with Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, there was plenty of learning about symbolism: colours and brushstrokes conveyed opulence, with fruit and a small, faithful dog depicting fertility and loyalty.

Paintings are often so much more than just a single, fleeting moment; a linked narrative as in the Execution of Lady Jane Grey and The Armada Portrait leads learners to delve into history. So interesting that the girls saw things differently to adults: not looking directly at the executioner’s block meant that the ladies-in waiting-were somehow disinterested; pupils could not initially appreciate how dreadful an experience it would be to witness, so you have to look away. Visual literacy encourages individuals to see events from another perspective, to test the emotions.

Often the way we portray ourselves is not as our real self but rather the image that we want the world to see. This notion led to in-depth discussions about the ways people dress, brand awareness and how to make an impact.

Pupils’ practical skills have also been put to the test. When considering sculpture, they used a reductive method to carve Easter Islands heads from soap and additive processes to make Brancusi birds from playdough: the ‘essence of a bird’ now a firm phrase in their understanding.

Work will culminate in a mini ARTiculation competition later this year. The whole journey has revealed so much more than we anticipated. Visual literacy builds an awareness for life, an appreciation of the beauty around us and an understanding of what can be conveyed in small marks and gestures.  

Better attuned now to reading facial expressions, pupils’ social awareness is heightened. They see more easily the impact of a kind word, or occasionally of a careless comment. There is also an effect on non-verbal reasoning performance as pupils look at patterns and sequences from many different angles, seeing beyond the obvious and testing what they think they can see.

At a time when an arts-squeeze is being well-documented, how wonderful it is to be able to emphasise such important life-skills within our more flexible timetables.

While in the senior school, five students had the opportunity to compete in the Discover ARTiculation Challenge competition devised by The Roche Court Educational Trust. The aim is to engage KS4 students in expressing their opinions, thoughts and ideas about art with confidence, and to enjoy researching their chosen piece. The students had to choose, research and ‘articulate’ for two to three minutes on any piece of artwork, e.g. a painting, sculpture or a building.

Sahara Coles, Year 11, has been chosen as a national finalist. She was one of five entries submitted to Leeds University, who judged all of the entries from across the country. Each of our students spent time with Penny Huntsman discussing their proposed artworks, their final entries were filmed and uploaded, and the girls delivered their presentations to the school in a special assembly.  

The adjudicators were impressed by the time, effort and engagement shown by all of the participants. Sahara has been invited to speak during the ARTiculating Art and Culture Day for KS4 students on 11 July at the University of Leeds. She has to give an extended version of her original presentation – Ai Weiwei Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), to last five to seven minutes and will be one of eight finalists. 

Farlington is passionate about the arts in all its forms. This week we are holding an arts week featuring a ‘song and dance’ show, cinema-themed workshops, drama and dance festival and a fashion show. We are very proud to have been awarded the Artsmark, a badge of excellence which recognises schools which champion the arts and culture and look forward to offering Arts Award qualifications in both the prep and the senior school. 

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