Mnemonics lack depth for Art

Deep Water

Are there essential facts that every student should know? What would you include/exclude? Knowledge-based curriculum is on the rise; what is it? Does this apply to all subjects (including visual arts)?

A knowledgebased curriculum is about harnessing the power of cognitive science, identifying each marginal gain and acting upon it; having the humility to keep refining schemes of work, long term plans and generating better assessments. – Nick Gibb, 2017

Tom Sherrington¹ suggests four components summarised here:

  • Providing an underpinning philosophy
  • Specifics in detail
  • Remembered, not merely encountered
  • Sequenced and mapped deliberately

He goes on to conclude: “It’s way beyond some reductive idea of rote learning and regurgitating facts for no purpose.   It’s about ensuring students always have a secure knowledge platform allowing them to reach the next level.”

What would be the underpinning knowledge for Visual arts?

I have been struggling with this idea for the past couple of months as I have been asked to provide an answer to this by my regional MAT (multi-academy trust). In my last blog post, I put forward some examples to be critiqued (Aunt Sallys), and I am awaiting feedback from a reviewer/QA. Essential, my hypothesis was that the essential formal elements of artistic practice were only understood through deep understanding, ie. practice. Likewise, art historical developments in the visual arts (major movements in Western visual arts like Cubism, Surrealism etc) are more deeply understood through practice too.

It was put to me that key knowledge could be encoded in Year 9 for retrieval in Year 11; set deep into the memory then recalled when needed if the memory encoding can be done in a fun, entertaining and appealing way. Not rote-learned but entrusted by way of mnemonics. Could visual arts be mnemonically encoded too?


Well, we do it with colour theory all the time… or do we? The ROYGBIV mnemonic helps us remember the order of colours in a rainbow/spectrum but tells us nothing about complementary contrasting colour, mixing tertiaries etc. In a practical sense, even this most basic artistic mnemonic lacks depth.

(W)e need to seize opportunities to broaden curriculum content out into much more than a series of well remembered facts. That’s the bottom line – the lowest common denominator. While I accept that perhaps we haven’t even achieved this as well as we might in the past, it is still no more ambitious a goal than getting the kit on a footballer without aspiring to put him on the pitch. When I teach the Romans, I firstly accept one thing:- I’m not going to have the time to teach it all. These historical periods are massive. So you have to focus in on the key areas and things you want them not just to KNOW, but to UNDERSTAND. – Debra Kidd, 2018²

Providing an underpinning knowledge for art is an abstraction from actually undertaking the making of art. There can be no deep understanding of creative, practical subjects without practice. Students approach learning in one of two ways: either in a kind of utilitarian, surface manner, wanting only to memorize as much as possible, in order to pass exams; or in a deeper, more meaningful manner, wanting to understand the material and relate it to their personal lives.

Alfred Korzybski introduced and popularised the idea that the map is not the territory (1913). In other words, the description of the thing is not the thing itself. The model is not reality. The abstraction is not the abstracted. This has enormous practical consequences when we are looking into knowledge-based curriculum for the arts that I have posted about before here and here.

Limitations of Abstracting knowledge

There are mnemonic systems out there made popular by world record holders and gamblers alike. The Memory Palace, Loci, Major system, PAO and other linguistic/imaginative systems have been used for centuries in one form or another. Books like How to Pass Exams (1995) by Dominic O’Brien, a world memory champion, use an accelerated learning technique (based on PAO) to memorise key facts.

These mnemonic devices lack context, don’t guarantee understanding and are time-consuming. All well and good if I want to commit to memory the names of the world’s longest rivers and have a few hours to memorise and practice recall. Does an ability to recall from memory the names and lengths of rivers give me a deep understanding of fluvial processes? Erosion, deposition and transportation might better be understood through fieldwork. In my Geography GCSE, do I show my understanding of processes through the names or will I just maybe get a few extra marks if I can recall names and lengths?

In practical terms, mnemonic techniques might eat into valuable curriculum time for the visual arts, time better spent doing than encoding facts to memory. I am open to dialogue though; take a look at memory techniques here to see the Art of Memory, and if these are relevant in conveying knowledge of the visual arts.

¹Tom Sherrington What is a knowledge-rich curriculum? Principle and Practice,, 6th June, 2018

²Debra Kidd A Rich Curriculum,, 11th June, 2018

Five Things (2019)


Five things achieved this year:

  1. Favourite recipes
  2. NCTJ L3 Junior Journalist registration/Understanding Apprenticeships
  3. Neil Armstrong/Moon landing mural
  4. Set designs and theatre blocks
  5. ‘Tokyo Build’ art project

1  By the end of January 2019, nearly 250,000 people pledged to try a plant-based diet for the month¹; this figure includes around 47% who pledged to continue for the rest of the year. Most trying a ‘vegan’ diet (plant-based yes, but popularly known as vegan diet) were meat-eaters wanting to be flexible and try PBD for health and environmental reasons. The publicity generated was immense (and the flak too) and I decided to blog six of my favourite dishes during January with the pretext of It’s just food…”. It is just food after all and people shouldn’t get too hung up on labels. Try the spicy rice dish next month.

NCTJ Journalism graphic
NCTJ Journalism

2  The opportunity arose at the end of December 2018 to apply for CPD training that would actually be of personal interest. I saw that the list of qualifications included Apprenticeships and as a result thought it would be interesting to find out more. I didn’t do an apprenticeship myself, no one at my school has done one either and yet we are often expected to offer advice to young people as if we are highly knowledgeable about all routes and careers. I have had several post 16 students studying A level Photography with me who didn’t want to go to university but did want to continue studies in the subject. How can I advise other than ‘speak to a careers professional’? CPD places were limited and the process a bit baroque; nevertheless, I passed the entrance interview, exam and procedure to study a Level 3 NCTJ Junior Journalist qualification. Some of my previous media experience and my preferred emphasis on photography enabled me to get started on a course that could lead to valuable PR and communications knowledge. Although I did a few months (regular online and face to face with my NCTJ tutor, who was superb), it became apparent that a trainee apprenticeship doesn’t mesh well with a full-time teacher, despite applied knowledge. The biggest stumbling block was where and how to undertake the essential knowledge tests. Schools aren’t geared up to allow teachers days off (and these are all term time) so funding was unfortunately withdrawn and I didn’t complete. Ironically, I still have NCTJ trainee membership until June 2020 even though I can not actually achieve the qualification! At least I have an insight now into how to apply  and get on a journalism qualification…

neil a.jpgarmstrong

3  To celebrate the anniversary of the first moon landing of 20th July, 1969, our year 8 students worked on small card panels featuring the famous image of Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface using oil pastel and collage. The 280 panels were laid out as a giant tiled carpet in our school quad forming a temporary mural celebration.

Screenshot 2019-02-14 at 20.25.45.png

4  We do lots of performing arts projects and I have contributed designs for sets/props etc for the past few years. I quite enjoyed the idea for this performance which I can be co-credited with… The dance piece was based on a World War One theme and rather than build stage flats with ruins and battlefields, my colleagues and I built the 3′ square blocks. My black acrylic paintings on selected sides could be assembled to make the ruins of a Somme church and then flipped to feature the infamous ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster.

5  Although not yet a completed project, the ‘Tokyo Build’ idea is based on the 1:20 scale models by Christopher Robin; these are exact replicas of Tokyo buildings, complete with grime, graffiti and weeds. For our students’ inspiration has led to cardboard scale buildings, understanding 3D building techniques and in the new year, detailed pain work and Japanese-inspired urban graffiti. As a new scheme of work that unites multiple art disciplines, it may not yet have been completed by students but is all planned and modelled in anticipation. I will post the completed project to share on completion with student examples.


¹According to The Guardian, 31st January 2019 and the Veganuary website.

Top 5: Eco Disaster Movies

Brad Pitt in World War Z

Everyone has their family favourite Christmas holiday movies, from Elf to Die Hard. We watch those too but I do like to throw in a disaster movie or two! Why are these suitable for Christmas holidays? Redemption is the common theme and this is the core of all time favourites like It’s a Wonderful Life, which is actually quite a darkly themed movie. There are so many to choose from and lots of sub-genre; zombie apocalypse (see World War Z, 2013), meteoroids, asteroids and impacts (see When World’s Collide, 1951) and pandemics and epidemics (see The Omega Man, 1971). I prefer the eschatological, man-made disasters… especially for their humour, yes, there are some great comedy moments!

Here’s my Top 5 Eco Disaster movies for the holidays:

1  Wall-E (2008)

2  2012 (2009)

3 The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

4  Geostorm (2017)

5  The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Hope you enjoyed this little list and you’re encouraged to make your own Top 5! What would yours be?


Dystopian visions

Trump blimp

“May you live in interesting times” quoted Robert F. Kennedy in 1966 purportedly based on a Chinese curse. Well we certainly seem to be deeply into an “interesting time” historically. Culturally, there has been a flourishing of dystopian visions in pop culture as a result. From radio to TV and Fine Art, here are a few suggestions for your perusal and to inspire your thinking.


Forest 404 (BBC Drama 2019)

First World Problems (BBC Drama 2018)

Dangerous Visions (BBC Drama – upcoming, not yet broadcast)

Plus a selection by Popular Science of Dystopian Drama podcasts here.


Black Mirror (Netflix)

Years and Years (BBC Drama)

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu/Ch4 UK)

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)

Fine Art

Talking Presence, 1987, Sonia Boyce.

Talking Presence, 1987, Sonia Boyce.

Bad Dream, 2019, AC One.

Lea Kannar-Lichtenberger’s ceramics and installations here.


V for Vendetta (2005)

Brazil (1985)

Children of Men (2006)

Idiocracy (2006)

Plus a list of IMDB’s top 100 Dystopian movies here.


1984 George Orwell (1948)

The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood (1985)

The Road Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Plus a list of ABE Books best 60 Dystopian novels here.

Further Reading

Making Art in Dystopia

Changing times in a contemporary dystopia: How does art respond to politics?


Five Things (2018)

2018 calendar

Five things achieved this year:

  1. Pirate Faculty Head
  2. 35mm Photo Project
  3. Studying is brain expansion
  4. Sober for October and alcohol awareness (not punishment!)
  5. Back pain ≅ Minimalist living

1 At the start of the academic year (September 2017), our faculty leader went off to have her baby and as second, I was expected to step in. Being a creative and performing arts faculty (art and design, music, drama, dance and photography), we have a range of talents and abilities as well as the usual internal frictions. When asked if I would interview for the post, I said no, I either am required to do it my way or someone else can! Yo ho ho and the start of the ‘pirates in charge’ after a few very orthodox years of well-meaning and highly efficient younger faculty leaders, now they had Ol’ Grey Beard and chaos ensued… or did it?

A successful pirate ship is the perfect example of a well-oiled team. The Captain is the leader, channeling the team’s efforts towards a common goal. … He translated that vision to his crew by giving focused direction in the form of orders and inspiring his crew to adopt that vision as their own.

Alright, there were moments of total rebellion, face-offs with senior management and refusals to conform but if you can’t have creative rebellion in the arts faculty, where can you?! I’d remembered the Better to be a Pirate than join the Navy motto of the early days of Apple from Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography and the great photo of the early Apple team:

Screenshot 2018-12-29 at 17.28.24.png
Image credit: Forbes magazine

On the return of our boss in June, from some of the younger team members there was a collective sigh of relief and a return to normalcy. They obviously liked the structure and super long emails and conformity... they didn’t like being considered a bit rogue by other staff! Why not say something though? On the positive side as a result of putting pirates in charge:

  • We got a new music teacher, who is brilliant
  • Everyone in the faculty scored either good or outstanding in lesson observations
  • Without our ‘normal’ leader we pulled together in a way that we hadn’t before leading to a successful school production and some internal promotions shortly afterwards
  • We achieved our best ever results as a faculty in every subject.

Of course, it could be that the forward planning of my hyper efficient predecessor made all this possible despite the chaos so that there was less to fix on her return..!

2 I have a Pentax P30 SLR and in January sales I managed to get some half price 35mm film. I started the year with big plans to do loads of analogue photography but ended up just with two 36 films between January and May. It is very expensive to send films away to develop (always has been really) and for experimentation in analogue it’s probably best to process them yourself if you can set up a dark room. Maybe a future project? For my experiment, I scanned the 35mm print and photoshopped then started an A1 sized acrylic painting that I will return to at some point.

3 I have been thinking that as you get older sometimes there is a bit more room in your brain for extra things to learn! This is why people go to night school to learn a language, advanced astronomy or how to throw a pot! Literal open-mindedness can expand your brain power and I spent some of 2018 building upon this. I did some qualifications at level 2 and 3 and plan to start some exciting new qualifications in 2019 to expand my brain!

4 For the past couple of years I have used November as an alcohol-free month and sent what I would have spent to Prostate Cancer Awareness UK to help raise funds. Some blokes grow a ‘tache for Movember but I have a full beard so alternatives are needed. Not that I’m a massive drinker but I think it is a worthy charity.  This year, I decided to do the Sober for October challenge for Macmillan Cancer support.IMG_0739.jpeg So this was a whole 31 days of sobriety that is much easier than people assume (people who drink alcohol regularly that is).

What I learned this year that was different to other sober months was that it was far from the ‘punishment’ or self-sacrifice that it had felt like before and I actually felt a lot better, slept better and thought more clearly or at least felt like I was more clear headed.

It also made me think more about how teachers often use alcohol as stress-relief, self medication and can get partially reliant on its effects. I do wonder more about those who do have an addiction, dependency on alcohol or are functioning alcoholics too. I know I don’t need alcohol and since October I have had a lot less even on social occasions when it is the accepted known to drink lots. When I do fancy an alcoholic drink, I actually enjoy it more now too as it is more of a novelty. And it has a stronger effect when less frequent.

5 I have had back pain before to varying degrees; a pretty bad one in September 2016 that led to a few days of immobility and a recurrence in June this year that was devastating. My blog post on the subject highlight the frustrations of not being able to move, the medicines and the eventual recovery detailed here. It has taken months to get back to normal but routines and habits have had to change a lot. I had three and half weeks off work (I never usually have longer than a day or two per year with colds etc). Due to the combinations and strengths of pain killers, I couldn’t read a book or sit long enough to draw. TV and movies have been a no-go activity; I still haven’t been back to a cinema and can only watch TV if I lie flat on my back on the floor. I have had physiotherapy which is of course, on-going. I have to stretch or exercise twice per day and have been recommended to find time between lessons to stretch, push and bend!

Screenshot 2018-12-29 at 18.50.26

The realisation is that back pain is approximately equal to minimalist living! You don’t need stuff when you can’t appreciate it; the words on the pages of books, magazines and reading tablets swim around in your vision and the only enjoyable activity I found was to go for long walks! My 46″ TV screen broke and I didn’t replace it… Ok, I put a cheap, spare one in the living room which is 36″ (much to the annoyance of my youngest child) but it is perfectly adequate. It does start to make you wonder about what you actually need and if you could actually say goodbye to things. There are lots of interesting books on this subject, such as Fumio Sasaki’s goodbye, things. I think that although there is a long way to go before I can say we have a minimalist household, we don’t go in for clutter, ornaments and we will shed the things we don’t need, perhaps to those who do through freecycling.


The Insta-Game


I have to confess; I have had more than one Instagram account. In fact, I’m currently on my fifth attempt of what I call ‘the Insta-Game’. Have look here if you’re interested. I am also marking my 400th photo since June and how I am currently playing ‘the game’.

My first account started in 2010 and I thought the idea of a picture-based Twitter was a great one! Trouble was, not all of the people I knew on Twitter were on Instagram so really I was posting random pictures to a few strangers. My second attempt was to use it for my art work as a digital portfolio. Instead of images of projects I was currently working on, I uploaded a whole back-catalogue dating back 10 years (including some awful low-res photos). Attempt three I started in the back end of 2011 and coincided with me getting an iPhone 4 (after they’d been out a while). The camera was so good it became too easy to practise iPhoneography  and the best way to share was via Insta. So, throughout 2012 I did a photo a day as a journaling and creativity hobby. Some were awful but there were also a few gems! I think it did help that I was looking and framing at least once a day and on that level I recommend trying it to anyone. I also managed to use photo editing filter apps like Snapseed for all sorts of quick fixes. The great thing (and game-playing aspect) was that by tagging #365project, I was found and shared by lots of others doing a similar project. I racked up about 250 followers (such fun! Lol). It was very gratifying and I really did get a buzz from the hundreds of likes per day!

When someone likes an Instagram post, or any content that you share, it’s a little bit like taking a drug. As far as your brain is concerned, it’s a very similar experience. Now the reason why is because it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to get likes on your posts. And it’s the unpredictability of that process that makes it so addictive. If you knew that every time you posted something you’d get a 100 likes, it would become boring really fast. – Eames Yates, Business Insider

Then, the unthinkable happened! Facebook bought Instagram for a $1b and there were all kinds of rumours that they ‘owned’ your photos and would be selling them on for a profit… As a long time user of Flickr at that time, I really didn’t like the idea of the silicon valley crew having the fruit of my labours handed on a plate. So I deleted the best Insta account and lost all the 366 images (it was a leap year).

I only returned to Instagram after all the changes and improvements about 2016; a lot of changes including videos and better filters and a different feel altogether. Quite minimalist? This fourth account I used for a daily food blog, mainly as I wanted to keep a record of interesting meals, recipes etc. but also find inspiration from others. The whole phenomenon of Insta-influencers had passed me by… I hadn’t realised just how much marketing was now on there. Apparently, one in four posts is sponsored or is some kind of marketing. I deleted again. My current/fifth Insta dates back to June this year, it is a bit more wary of adverts, merchandise and ‘influencing’. I try to put photos I have taken and not just on an iPhone, a bit of my kids’ art from school and my own stuff too, reposts and food ideas. I hope there is more of a balance of photos now even though fewer people are looking.

The buzz of the ‘likes’ is still there, haunting me though. Maybe I should do a daily photo project again? Is that still a thing or is that sooo 2012? Oh, if you want to know how to be a successful player of the Insta-Game, here are a few tips.


Art lesson resource: Coffee cup art

Here is a great year 7 or year 8 key stage 3 project idea suitable for developing a theme in terms of differentiation and widening the appeal of an expanding awareness of eco-themes. Incensed by the news stories of plastics pollution in the oceans, our students wanted to create an artistic protest that would send a message to a global purveyor of single-use plastic products. I won’t name the store as it’s a stones throw from our school but let’s call it a ‘coffee retailer’. The plastic-lined cardboard cups, stirring sticks and lids litter the central reserve and roundabouts on the way to school; it’s an everyday reminder for us of the scourge of plastic consumption. With the publicity of ocean pollution very much on the students’ minds, we developed our coffee cup art project.


Art by Miguel Cardona

Ever sat in a coffee store and seen someone sketching on the side of the cardboard cup? These mostly plain surfaces lend themselves ideally to doodles, patterns and portraits. Artists like Miguel Cardona have gained some notoriety for their outstanding and inspirational ideas (see this article). There are some amazing examples out there and I have put a Paper cup art board together on Pinterest for inspiration.

selected coffee cup art

As you can see from these examples; some focus on line drawings of the scene around them, others colour is the main factor, still more on bold use of pattern but all have an imaginative use of illustration.

What you will need…

You will need some paper cups. We got 1000 (not lined with plastic) card cups with a matte white surface from Amazon for under 30 GBP. We could have washed out and recycled cups from the local store but didn’t want to encourage them!

In terms of media, we left the choice up to students to use whatever illustrative media best suited their ideas. So we had some mainly in pencil, felt-tip, colour crayon, watercolour of just needlepoint fine-liner or biro! We didn’t want to use a lot of expensive acrylic paints this was our only limit.


Use environmental disaster images as a point of discussion, we talked about the impact on human and animal environments and how to illustrate this using solely monochrome, pattern or abundant colour. We talked also about using an individual animal as a symbol for the suffering of others and how this animals experience could be expressed. As you can see from the examples above, many students wanted to show emotion in the animals’ eyes.

In sketchbooks, different animals were selected for the chosen disaster theme (e.g deer or wolves in a forest fire, turtles and fish in the ocean etc). Resources differentiated between photographic studies of reptiles for example at a complex level and silhouettes of dolphins or turtles at the other. After initial drawings came a use of pattern and design while asking: “How does this highlight and eco-theme?”. We used peer assessment and evaluation to refine the idea before starting on the cup itself.

Some students also used paper-mache for 3d effects on their designs for added realism.

Teacher examples

Biro study from a photo

Kids’ feedback

“This was amazing. I want the St****ck’s to see what we’ve done and do something about their cups!”

“I enjoyed illustrating this idea. It’s so important we do something about plastic for all of our futures.”

“I’ve doodled on cups before but this was a a full scale drawing! It was quite hard on the curved surface too.”

As a way of raising awareness of wider environmental themes and where our refuse goes this was also a valuable topic. Feel free to send a link to any work your students might do on this theme to my Twitter handle: @damoward.