Top 5: Eco-documentary movies

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We live in a predominantly visual society.  I have posters in my art room with a wide variety of visual arts information; arts related jobs, an infographic that illustrates the contribution of the visual arts to the UK economy and all the soft skills that can develop through studying visual arts. Yet, kids still say things like ‘what good is art in the world, generally?’ There is such a push on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), you’d assume that the future can only be shaped by certain school subjects. I find myself pointing out that the products of STEM subject innovation are interdependent on visual input; the difference between a car assembly robot and WALL-E for example. They watch so much video online through social media, much of it devoid of intelligent thought, I suggest they just turn it off (all of it) for maybe an hour to see if their imaginations can be enlivened.

So, to get them thinking visually, I point out that their frequent viewing of You Tube or Netflix should involve something thought-provoking and well-made visually; not necessarily about art or photography or even popular movies. So I suggest an ecology-themed documentary instead! I considerate it part of their wider-education in visual culture. To prepare for an hour without visual stimulation (such as WWF Earth Hour next Saturday),  here’s my Top 5 eco-documentaries:

1 Earthlings

2 Before The Flood

3 Cowspiracy

4 An Inconvenient Truth

5 BlackFish

Hope you enjoyed this little list, and you’re encouraged to make your own Top 5 list. Meanwhile: Support Earth Hour by switching-off between 8.30 and 9.30pm on Saturday 24th March, 2018. Just text EARTH to 70123 to donate £3 this #EarthHourUK.





Half way there


In our art exam season, we have reached the half-way point to the terminal exam phase. The end is in sight!

The exam is currently known as Component 2 (not really terminal at all) but this name changes regularly. Students get the impression that the 10 hour exam in art and design is the final aspect and most important part in that it will culminate everything they have learned and skills developed during their course. This is, in part, true. However, it is the preparation and development toward the 10 hours session that is far more important and worthy of marks. To do well across the four assessment objectives is to hit evidence pointers in the prep (at my academy we are using sketchbooks for this but it needn’t be constrictive). This can really account for 75% of the marks and this is before they sit the ten hours. I think it is a psychological challenge. When they start studying a GCSE in art and design (or looking at information booklets before opting) they almost ask about the dreaded ten hours! Perhaps it is also the idea that exams must be difficult, hard and under restricted circumstances that a ten hour exam sound so scary. It is in fact, just a controlled assessment period; three hours consecutive at the start and the remaining can be chunked.  The exam board like to tell us that they have seen murals submitted as final outcomes with before and after the ten hour periods illustrating what work has been undertaken as part of the controlled assessment.

I have tried the two 5 hour day style and whilst this is convenient for school timetable disruption, it doesn’t work for some students. If they’re having a bad day or week, then they may have just fluffed 25% of the Component 2. It does get it out the way so Component 1 (aka coursework) can be revisited. For the past few years I have chunked it into lessons over a three week period with only the initial three hours having a single cover requirement where they will miss another subject (usually core, much to their annoyance).

Another aspect is that students often step-up to the terminal exam; a bit of nervous adrenaline does wonders for focussing the mind and steadying the hand for some. Mine have a habit of making wonderful final outcomes even if their prep isn’t up to much. That is the point of this post; we are half-way there. They should have a 3/4 filled sketchbook and some study sheets by now with a clear and logical path to their final outcome in a few weeks time.


Let’s see what comes back this week; having a few snow days certainly didn’t help though.


Active/Passive and AI

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18th c. Tranquillizing Chair (L) and Contemporary Virtual Reality Chair (R)

You may have read, as I have, that automation technologies such as machine learning and robotics are potentially taking a greater role in everyday life and that this will one day create a major concern for the human workforce.

In a recent radio interview on Artificial Intelligence and future employment, it was argued that our near continental neighbours employ robotics with AI to make their actual work hours more efficient so that they work less hard and for less hours as a benefit. Surely, said the interviewer, there are less humans employed as a consequence of integrating robotic elements? “Of course!” exclaimed the interviewee. AI/robots will enable us to have more leisure time is the inference, but if we are not gainfully employed, we will not be earning financial credit to spend on leisure activities. The radio article went on to describe the industries where AI is already appearing and some surprising potential areas where AI would be more effective than human counterparts (brain surgery for instance).

As they rolled off a list of employment that can be better performed by AI/robots, I sighed a huge relief when they said creative industries (and educational sectors where creativity is inherent) are difficult to provide necessary algorithms and programmable behaviours. Art, drama, music and dance teachers may well be safe in employment  where maths and English teachers may not! This may have more to do with learning models than programmability.

Active Learning: involves the learning by being engaged in the instructional process by means of such activities as exploring, analysing, communicating, creating, reflecting, or actually using new information or experiences.

Practical lessons are inherently active in their structure and I would include physical education, design technology and the sciences to the arts list above as active practical subjects. There is a bit of chatter recently about chalk-and-talk, drill-and-kill methods of delivery for knowledge-rich subjects. This has been championed by a certain leading free school whose book has become a defacto stand-in for the mysterious ‘what Ofsted wants’. Unfortunately, passive learning models only fit in with some E-Baccalaureate subjects.

Passive learning is a method of learning or instruction where students receive information from the instructor and internalise it, and “where the learner receives no feedback from the instructor”.

There’s a contradiction. When you talk to many teenagers about how they spend their self-elected free time, they don’t spend much time in front of a TV, playing computer games or out and about mischief-making as some would expect. Many teenagers don’t venture out (certainly not after dark due to perceived dangers) unless sanctioned by parents (some examples: dancing, rugby, swimming, the gym are a few suggested by my Year 9 and 10s). At home, they might have a TV in their room but more likely they are on tablets and phones, usually social media, frequently on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. The addictive nature of instant feedback (through likes) is a hidden world of popularity contests and peer pressure, also frequently the darker side too of bullying and coercion. But also, students tell me how they have learned specific new things in their view. One said she taught herself biology watching You Tube. Another demonstrated her new skill of playing the ukulele; again via You Tube videos. The mysterious You Tube teachers who are educating our kids in the ways of professional make-up are also teaching them maths and demonstrating art skills. This crosses into all curriculum subject areas at times. It is necessarily passive though as reliant on a screen/device. Virtual reality and haptic devices that simulate feedback will be more immersive, just as the Wii controller was replaced by the Xbox Kinect.

Haptic or kinaesthetic communication recreates the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions.

As predicted by Pixar’s Wall-E

Scroll back up to my original illustration for this blog post; a comparison of the passivity inherent in the tranquilizing chair and a current VR chair. Interesting then that the tranquilizing chair may look absolutely fearsome, but it was actually created by Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) as a more humane alternative to the straightjacket. So, a possible dystopian future where our well-behaved youth are willingly strapped-in to haptically enabled VR delivery system could lead to fulfilling leisure time for teachers who can run rings around ’em.




Crackpot conspiracy theories

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“Don’t look at the eclipse without safety glasses, Mr. President” via CNN

Is there any use to daft conspiracy theories? I used to have a ‘bumper book’ of daft theories when I was a kid; Marilyn murdered by the CIA, Hendrix and Elvis faked their own deaths that kind of thing. I thought it harmless fun (I also had The Goons radio scripts, Monty Python and Not the 9 O’Clock news and Viz annuals). As I am now getting into the long-toothed stage of my teaching career, some of these things are beginning to spook me. The ‘alternative facts‘ of the events of 9/11 and the Twin Towers disaster were grumbled about by sulky teenagers in the years that followed. The claims that structural problems were responsible or there were deliberate inadequacies in homeland security negates the witnesses including those watching on live TV. Then there came the Discovery Channel type pseudo-documentaries offering a fair and balanced opinion with the deniers of accepted historical facts. Somewhere along the line it must have seemed good television to air these views but unfortunately, we begin to edge toward darker overtones of historical denial (such as the Holocaust) and there simply isn’t the authoritive perspective that points out the inadequacies of the conspiracy theory. If it is presented at all it is comic (Dara O’Brien delivery) or without showbiz razzamatazz (BBC Horizon etc). These types of programmes are so regular on Channel 5, no wonder ‘real’ facts are pushed to the Open University slot at 11.30 on BBC4.

I have discussed my concerns about the reliable presenting of facts on the moon landings by teachers on here before which was incidentally a Year 3 class seven years ago. The teacher said to me (as a visiting school governor), that it was fine for Mary to believe the moon landings were faked if that’s what she wants. Also I have blogged about teachers not critically thinking about the limitations of their own imperial knowledge (like here, a Head of Department who recounted the tale of her engineer dad at Cape Canaveral and said that the Apollo spacecraft “couldn’t possibly fly”).

What has brought this to the fore again? My academy/school library stocks a book entitled Were the Moon Landings faked? or something similar (I don’t want to promote it). Inside are funky illustrations, photos and debunking paragraphs. The kids who weren’t challenged out of respect for personal beliefs are now in their mid-teens and some are reading books that affirm their disjointed understanding of science. Is there a useful reason for that particular book to be stocked? Before my blood pressure started raising, I thought about why it might be chosen as a stocked book. Perhaps the strategy was to question sources. Maybe it was to get kids thinking critically about facts and how the are presented. Another strategy could be educating people to better understand trusted sources, as well as holding public figures to account when they spread misinformation in so-called fake news.  Maybe it’s the widespread click-baiting on social media and instant sharing without reading past snappy headlines that needs challenging. To teach kids to not always believe what we read and hear, especially if something sounds peculiar or contrived, chances are it might well be. If kids are aware of how many conspiracy theories circulate, then maybe they will have a hand in preventing them from spreading further.



Wading through custard (motivating lazy teens at A level)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons CC. Nevit see information here.

I have a good size post-16 Photography group this year of 16 students, a good gender balance with some highly motivated individuals. Unfortunately, I also have an unmotivated procrastinator in there who has approached the exam preparation with all the enthusiasm of wading through custard. This reflective blog post is about my efforts to  motivate him; what I have tried and what has and hasn’t worked so far.

What is In It For Me?

Extrinsic motivation is about outside demands; authoritarian processes and threats to involve year managers, parents and even heads of Post 16 all reinforce the only extrinsic goal and that is to achieve a decent AS grade (we do non-linear A levels so students have to sit an Advanced Subsidiary qualification in the first year). Intrinsic motivation is about personal satisfaction; why choose Photography (or any other A level)? There must have been an end goal in the mind of the student when he did his option sheet.

For this individual I think the intrinsic goal was ‘unfinished business’. He opted to do a short course in Photography at High School but then was taken out to do extra maths to ensure his pass grade in that subject. This is the cultural capital element; where he wanted to show his peers that he was equally adept at technology. Second, when he started he expressed an interest in Photoshop and knew it would feature in the course. He didn’t expect it to be difficult though. Third, romantic interest – a girl in the group who he started dating in the holidays before joining sixth form. Do you separate them? They gravitate back together or worse sulk like lovestruck puppies.

Well, he seemed glad to be there at the start and although not a model student he was keen to fulfil requirements, deadlines and even stay after hours to practice with cameras and have a bit more tutorial in Photoshop. The girlfriend stayed too, so everybody happy? Interest in Photoshop wained as the simple tutorials were developed into more sophisticated ones. I tried to put him on to DVD-based work throughs from magazines like Photoshop Creative but after a few weeks got a response along the lines of “I’ll do it on my afternoon frees” and “I’m going studying around at girlfriend‘s house where I can concentrate (sic)”. Yeah, right. Where next?

Josh Shipp (a youth empowerment expert and teen whisperer) says:

You have to do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.”

This is a helpful in this scenario because it is true in many areas of life. Sometimes we do boring and onerous tasks for no other reason than it needs to be done. Helping stubborn teenagers see meaningless tasks as part of life’s greater goals is a valuable message to pass on.

Let Them Learn From Failure

As the first term came to an end, I had tried to enthuse and inspire mainly through humour but also regular reminders about opportunities open to him to study more. Of the six mini-projects I had set, the first four were done quite well but I could tell they were slackening off in effort, quality and quantity. Incidentally, these photography tasks were based on genres within the subject; portraits, editorial, landscapes, moving images, commercial and documentary/street themes. I had designed them to appeal to individual taste so I knew that some might just bomb out. What I didn’t expect was that with this particular student his interest would decline chronologically. So I let him fail… I set a deadline and expected him to keep to it – nothing wrong in that. I could have tried some different interventions before the deadline and maybe that would’ve been a more sensible option. Instead, I gave him a mark and feedback for his last two assignments that reflected his lack of effort and poor attainment.

This is where the extrinsic motivators move back in due to centre tracking of student performance. Heads of centre, year managers and then parents were informed and my poorly motivated student limped back to class with his proverbial tail between his legs and a thousand apologies for ‘letting me down’. Of course, I said he hadn’t let me down only himself in terms of motivation and things had better change next term. Six weeks later, this change in behaviour I can see was short term to keep ‘the man’ off his back and he is back to his old ways. I won’t be letting him fail without a fight again though. It just didn’t work as a motivator.

Make It Achievable

Some tasks can’t be linked to a larger outcome in a way that motivates a procrastinator. For someone who lacks confidence and/or natural ability, the motivation to do better in certain subjects can be very hard to find. Like a lovelorn puppy, my student goes through the motions on the easy tasks and avoids those that don’t motivate him, choosing instead to stare across the art studio at the ‘love of his life’. (Is wishing she would dump him bad? The girlfriend is doing well, has developed more fluent skill and trying to the best of her ability. What would the effect be on him though?).

So I created a timeline with suggested activities and deadlines, including assessment points so the students could see what should be done as a minimum. By breaking down (chunking) into smaller tasks they seem less overpowering and a bit more achievable within the timeframe. I thought that maybe he struggled with self-organisation and his some of his peers didn’t and this was a demotivating factor? I have considered incentives within the timescale too; meet the deadline, stay for an after hours studio session and choose from tub of sweets… the ‘star chart’ was rejected as too childish by the group and I got less staying behind than before. Not motivated by sweeties then. I have done the postcards home incentives but my target student isn’t bothered by that either. I intend to give him the responsibility of coming up with an incentive, something that would encourage the competitive but not discourage anyone else.


Apart from the systematic take down our academic tracking provides for the under-performer, there are quite a few responsible adults involved. Initially, the class teacher, the register/tutorial group leader, a year manager, finally a head of centre. Not to mention peers and parents. I am six weeks in to this term and now need to utilise the valuable agents of change to mentor my target student. Perhaps by sharing the cheerleading/coaching duties with others he might get to eat the elephant¹ instead of reacting like the boiled frog². I will update progress in six weeks and review which aspects may have worked.


Stupid Fables referenced above

¹How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time… via Beth Buelow

²How do you boil a frog? In very slow increments… via Forbes


Flying starts

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Students’ first ideas based on secondary source images on day 1 of their exam

It is the time of year for us art teachers to begin our preparation period for the Unit 2 external exam. This reflective blog post concerns launching the fine art exam at GCSE; the potential pitfalls, successful methods and what ifs.

How to do it? Many teachers start with a Powerpoint of inspirational ideas, or work through a mind map for each of the 7 themes, or alternatively present students with a blank page and instruct them to draw something/anything just to get off to a flying start.

After discussing the hour long lecture method with my students on what each theme means to me, I decided to go with the ideas and images that first come to mind for just one or two of the exam themes. I’ve fallen into the stand and deliver method in the past and it just doesn’t work. Kids don’t have the attention span and anyway it just sounds like the teacher out of Charlie Brown to them (“wah, wah, wah”). Students can explore the others at home in more detail but I like to get straight in to a visual response on day one. To do this, I prepared monochrome photocopies of images collated on Pinterest. First task: select two images, cut out and place in sketchbook then reproduce in part or whole using a mixed media approach. Combine any two or three media methods to make a visually interesting response.

Extrinsic motivation doesn’t always have to be another person, but it is some outside demand, obligation, or reward that requires the achievement of a particular goal. Intrinsic motivation, however, is an internal form of motivation. You strive towards a goal for personal satisfaction or accomplishment.


Students who lack motivation often want spoon-fed resources and this method of getting them started didn’t alleviate this issue. Anything provided as a secondary source needs to engage the viewer and what if none provided the necessary spark? A handful of students picked ‘any’ image and their visual response was just as disengaged. Their follow-up task was to research their on secondary or primary image and similarly make a transcription or reproduce elements in part or whole on an A4 sketchbook page. Likewise, if not motivated by the art theme then this might not get done.

Possible solution

Make your own resources with their input. Get them to select from a website, set of images or put a camera into their hands. Stand over them and direct if you must but they have to make a visual they can then start to work with. Discuss these images with them and draw out further possibilities. Mind maps will only work with someone bursting with ideas and trying to get them all down on paper. Blank pages are for students with good visual memories and the skills to represent them. An hour long lecture won’t help anyone but the teacher get their own ideas across. The extrinsic motivator is fulfilling exam requirements and prepping for the ten hour session. The trick is to provide an intrinsic motivation; personal satisfaction in having completed something worthwhile. As can be seen from the broad range of responses above, getting anything down on paper that has a visual cue gets them off to a flying start and will motivate for at least the next few lessons.

Next issue: motivating disengaged AS level artists.



Further reading

Eight motivational theories and their implications for the classroom, The Language Gym, 2015



The Ebb and Flow of Plastic Waste


Video: Independent Newspaper/Caroline Power Photography

The PM this week announced a 25 year plan for the UK to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042¹. Plastic waste such as the carrier bags, food packaging and disposable plastic straws that litter the country and pollute the seas would be abolished. Much was made of supermarkets stocking plastic-free aisles (and interviews with retailers complaining about damaged food and odours; the primary functions of the plastic trays and coatings).

“In the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls.” – Theresa May

Can we really be prepared to wait 25 years for legislation and compulsory action? The shocking video from The Independent (see above), BBC’s Blue Planet II and environmental studies featured elsewhere illustrate a vast sea of plastic pollution but what about the hidden plastics buried in land fill sites? A manufacturer on Radio 4’s Today programme was challenged on his production of single-use plastic; his response was “We’ve tried to make biodegradable products. They don’t look as good and they’re expensive.”

So it is a consumer and economics issue? Do we really need to pay more or are we bothered by blue rather than black plastic trays protecting our giant Italian pears? If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building (source: National Geographic²).

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cc Ben Kerckx

You may be interested in the attempt by my family and I to live plastic-lite for a month (read about it here). We attempted the plastic challenge (encouraged by the Marine Conservation Society #plasticchallenge) for the whole month buying only packaged goods in HDPE, PP or some PET plastic that my local curb-side recycling will take! Our five supermarket shops during the month took place at different stores and we pledged not to buy rather than compromise from the very start. The rationale is that consumers can insist on packaging that is widely recycled, then big corporations can be forced to adapt to our (and our planet’s) needs. You may be interested in trying something similar, so here is my advice…

Product Alternative Source
Multiple use shopping bags Jute shoppers Unicef – includes funding for 2 measles vaccinations for children per bag
Plastic for loose vegetables Paper bags Amazon – various sizes about 40p each
Plastic toothbrush Bamboo toothbrush Ethical superstore UK – eg. medium bamboo
Single-use water bottle Washable/reusable multi-use bottle Three value 1L Tritan bottles from Amazon
Toilet rolls/packaging Recycled paper and compatible plastic packaging (no, not reusable paper!) This was difficult to source but Suma produce this which can be acquired through Amazon
Storage for berries, meats and cheeses Glass, metal and other jars and boxes Often jars/metal storage comes with a plastic lid which you would take to loose produce sections, deli counters or traditional butchers. These have a BPA free lid and use a small amount of plastic but are reusable and washable.

Greenpeace’s solutions for plastic packaging:

  1. Prioritise reusable packaging and develop systems based on reuse
  2. Make sure packaging is 100 percent recycled, as well as recyclable or compostable
  3. Share information about the plastic they use, reuse and recycle, so progress can be measured
  4. Support bottle deposit return schemes, where a small deposit is added to the cost of packaged drinks, which can be reclaimed when the container is returned.

This problem isn’t simply going to disappear. We cannot wait 25 years for legislation to force retailers and manufacturers as change is only one decision away.

Further reading

¹The Independent – Theresa May vows to eliminate UK’s plastic waste by 2042, 10th January 2018

²National Geographic – 91% of Plastic Isn’t Recycled, 19th July, 2017

BBC News – UK faces build-up of plastic waste, 1st January 2018

BBC News – What are supermarkets doing to fight plastic? 14th January 2018