Art as Cross-curricular Tool

Art is a discipline not a subject. It is a way of looking at the world around us, of asking questions and developing ideas. Art is about investigating.

Contemporary artists have eschewed the obsessive dedication to one particular medium or subject in favour of a more eclectic practice, involving a plethora of different approaches and interests. In particular, those pursuing more socially engaged practices are open to exploring radically different modes of working when responding to specific projects or commissions. This openness to developing ideas has parallels in the potential that art has within the school curriculum. Rather than viewing it as a stand alone ‘subject’ to be ‘taught’, it is possible to see art as a tool with which to explore other subjects: A method for investigating other areas of knowledge and education. Contemporary curators are developing new ways of thinking about exhibitions; by bringing objects together and drawing interesting and unexpected links between them; crossing over previously understood boundaries between ‘art’ and other areas.

Artist: Curator
Francis Alÿs is a Belgian artist who now lives and works predominantly in Mexico. His work covers the interdisciplinary spaces of art, architecture, performance and social practice. Many of the pieces he makes have political references and much of his practice explores notions of the flâneur. He has created work inspired by historical incidents, geography and myths. Alÿs cites walking as being central to his practice.

He begins many of his projects by walking, intensely observing and recording the social, cultural and economic conditions of a particular place. An early example of this was his 1995 piece “The Leak”. In this action Alÿs walked from an art gallery in Sao Paulo, around the city and back to the gallery trailing a dribbling paint line from a can with a hole drilled into it’s base. In 2004 he was to reprise this by walking the border in Jerusalem, known as ‘the green line’:

Green Line refers to the demarcation lines set out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its neighbours (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The Green Line is also used to mark the line between Israel and the territories captured in the Six-Day War, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula (the last has since been returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty). The name derives from the green ink used to draw the line on the map while the talks were going on. (Wikipedia 2013)

On this occasion the action takes on further meaning beyond simply a beautiful aesthetic. Indeed Alÿs acknowledges the transformation in re-titling it as “Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic”.

In another project he actively engages a local community in collaborating on a major undertaking. The project, entitled “When Faith Moves Mountains”, involved employing 500 volunteers to help move a gigantic sand dune a few inches by shoveling the sand. This action took place just outside Lima in Peru. The project manifested itself through its documentation. Alÿs recorded the action through video and photography, but also included the interviews with the participants alongside the drawings, notes, maps and so on that were involved in organizing and developing the project in the first place. By choosing to display the entirety of the project in this way Alÿs undertakes a role similar to the anthropologist. Although he calls himself an artist this form of practice is more akin to the social worker or teacher. ‘Art’ here is a vehicle for something else. It has become a way of engaging with other subject matter. In this case the resulting project became a physical manifestation of Alÿs’ response to the physical and economic situation in Peru. The action, at the same time both heroic and ultimately futile, is both poetic and political, as was the previous piece in Jerusalem.

An important aspect of Alÿs’ practice is the role that myth, rumour and story-telling play in the dissemination of his work. He actively encourages the recounting of the stories by those involved in his projects. In the videos accompanying “When Faith Moves Mountains” participants talk about how the project changed the way they felt about their community and about the almost mythical status that they acquired by being able to say “I was there, I was a part of that”.

In the publication that accompanied “Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic”, Alÿs carries out a series of interviews with a number of individuals connected to the project as a whole. These include the son of the man who drew the original green line on the map, an anthropologist, an art historian and political activists. Alÿs turns the role of the artist on its head by becoming a curator in bringing together the thoughts and opinions of a group of related but disparate people. These interviews open up a range of ideas and viewpoints about the political and social situation in Jerusalem, allowing the audience to develop an understanding of what is happening there. The project has an educational purpose but Alÿs does not set out with this intention. As is evident in the slow evolution of the idea, from the initial, poetic gesture in “The Leak”, to the politically resonant film and accompanying publication nine years later, the educative aspect is something that has grown through the investigation.

Contemporary art practice is blurring the definitions of the artist and the curator. Many contemporary artists have become curators in the manner in which they ‘put together’ exhibitions. In a post-Duchampian art world the practice of selecting and displaying objects is both art and curation. The artist Jeremy Deller, self-professed as someone who does not make things but “makes things happen”, has this year (2013) represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale with an exhibition, entitled “English Magic”, in which his act as an artist has been to bring together existing objects, such as stone age tools, commission new ‘works’, such as a mural of William Morris throwing Roman Abramovich’s oversize yacht into the lagoon, and organize performances of a steel band covering David Bowie and Vaughn Williams. Deller acts as the curator in organising all these different elements to create an overall statement.

An intriguing aspect of such practice is the degree to which the various participants register a sense of authorship. In a work, such as Deller’s pavilion for Venice, he is unquestionably the artist, but the work could not exist without the collaboration of numerous other parties. The volunteers involved in Alÿs’ ”When Faith Moves Mountains” articulate their own sense of authorship in the video interviews that form part of the manifestation of the resulting work. Here Alÿs operates as the facilitator, in much the same manner as the progressive teacher does; instigating and orchestrating an event where expected and unexpected things might occur.

There are other recent examples of this engagement with curation by contemporary artists. In 2009 the Hayward Gallery invited Mark Wallinger to put together an exhibition. The result was “The Russian Linesman: Frontiers, Borders and Thresholds”, a clever journey through Wallinger’s take on identity and his ideas about a range of subjects. The exhibition included examples of Wallinger’s own work as well as that of other artists, but also (as with Deller’s contribution to Venice), ‘non-art objects’. As with Alÿs, Wallinger also put together an accompanying publication which, as stated in the afterward, “is not a conventional catalogue, a supplement to the exhibition, but is conceived as an independent book in its own right.” (1)

Wallinger adopts a role that transcends that of the idea of the artist as a ‘maker of things’. Instead he is acting as an investigator of the world around him, finding a range of ways to explore and present his “unique, highly imaginative vision of the world”. (2)

Cross-Curricular Tool
Art has a unique position within the school curriculum. In engaging with art as a discipline we can use it as a tool with which to explore and investigate other subjects. “Art and Design has always focused on what can be described as two broad major themes: first an interpretation of self and the human form, and secondly a representation or reinterpretation of the world in which we live”.(3) Art offers us the opportunity to engage with and explore a wide range of issues that tackle every other aspect of the school curriculum. If we accept that ‘art’ is a discipline or tool, then the subject can be almost anything else. This has long been an accepted practice for art teachers in schools. Issues-based and thematic projects have been the staple diet of most art education, certainly in secondary schools, for the past few decades. Seminal art education texts, such as Rod Taylor’s “Educating for Art” (1986), made a case for art teachers to engage with social issues and enable students to create work inspired by them. Within the context of the art classroom and art lessons, the notion of art tackling other subject areas is not a new one.

The division of the school timetable into different subjects is a broadly accepted practice. The National Curriculum lays out expectations for schools and lists the subjects that are expected to be delivered. These subjects are the same for key stages 1 and 2: English, Mathematics, Science, Design & Technology, History, Geography, Information & Communication Technology, Art & Design, Music, Physical Education and Religious Education. There is little change at key stage 3, where the list of subjects remains the same but with the addition of a modern foreign language. The division of these areas of study into separate subjects inevitably makes some things easier, such as timetabling, staffing and assessment. When one defines subjects in such a way, the measuring of progress is far simpler and quantifiable, but there are, of course, no such clear divisions in life itself.

Just as argued above, where it is difficult to clearly define a given practice as being ‘art’ when it has aspects of so many other areas of research or knowledge, it is also difficult to catagorise everything neatly into one of these prescribed subject areas.

As a specialist visual arts school, at Welling we have developed different ways of delivering the curriculum and investigated approaches that utilise the visual arts as a way in which to explore other subject areas: Literally employing art as a cross-curricular tool.

Following a difficult Ofsted inspection in which the school had remained as a grade 3 (then Satisfactory) and the science faculty had been highlighted, once more, as an area of weakness, a conversation took place between the head teacher and I about what we could do about science. We had, for many years, struggled to attract good science teachers to the school, and when we did, we struggled to retain them. The students’ overwhelming view of science was that it was boring, that they did not feel able to engage with it, that it bore no relevance to them. The conversation led to a passing comment about the value in continually filling curriculum time with a subject that was failing to such a degree. The head teacher asked me what we should do with the time if we were to free some of it up, my answer was ‘anything we liked’. A few days later the conversation resumed. The head teacher, obviously having reflected on the original discussion during the interim period, suggested that the extra hours could go to the visual arts, the school’s specialism. I agreed but on the condition that they remained focused on science.

SciArt focuses on the relationships between the different disciplines of science and art. Historically they have overlapped, one need only reflect on the work of Leonardo Da Vinci and his explorations into anatomy and engineering alongside his inventions and artistic practice. In recent years a growing number of projects have emerged that involve the collaboration of scientists and artists. Indeed the University of the Arts, London now hosts an MA course in Art and Science at Central St Martins.

In establishing the course we wanted to investigate how we could encourage students to embrace science in a different way, allowing them to ask questions about the world around them and undertake genuine experiments exploring the things that they experienced. One of the principle issues with so much school science is its focus on content. The science curriculum is packed with facts that students need to learn and be able to regurgitate. In focusing on content in such a way, the wonders of science, its facility to support enquiry and questioning, is getting lost. Students are being ‘switched off’. The intention of SciArt was to re-introduce this questioning approach. When the subject is stripped back to this element it bears a striking resemblance to the approaches that the visual arts faculty already use in teaching art. Our primary intention in the delivery of the art curriculum is a focus on the generation of ideas. Art lessons are built around discussion and this dialogic approach is something we put at the heart of the SciArt project.

Initially we introduced SciArt as a pilot with year 8. The students lost one of their three allocated hours of science and we replaced this with SciArt. The lessons took place in art rooms instead of science laboratories and with visual art staff rather than science teachers. Our intention had been to match the subjects and themes with those that the science faculty were also covering. This proved extremely difficult to manage. In the early months the science team were both resistant and sceptical about the new course, probably understandably. Rather than seeing it as an opportunity to re-invent their subject and renew students’ interest in science, they appeared to view SciArt as a threat. There was a considerable degree of misunderstanding about what the intentions of the course were too. The science faculty thought that SciArt lessons would be about ‘illustrating’ content that had already been covered within the science lessons; an early example was the suggestion that we could get the students to make models of cells once they had covered the content in science. Our intention, to teach scientific principles through SciArt, was difficult to explain.

In the pilot year, then, SciArt operated in relative isolation. Whilst we developed projects that dealt with the same themes and areas that we knew the science lessons were also covering, there was little direct relationship between the two. Inevitably the results of this experiment were mixed. One of the most successful projects was the first one where we began by providing the students with lambs’ hearts. The students were encouraged to handle the hearts and then make observational drawings and paintings based on them. They immediately began to ask questions about how the hearts worked and this led to discussions about anatomy. The students were encouraged to ask questions of their science teachers too and this led to the first important development of the SciArt project. We became aware that the students could become the conduit through which the relationship between science and art could be built. We had provided the students with small (A6) notebooks, a perfect size for keeping in their blazer pockets at all times. We encouraged them to use the notebooks much as Charles Darwin would have done; to record the world around them, keeping a record of their observations and questions. We showed them examples of Darwin’s notebooks as well as contemporary practitioners such as Kerri Smith and her “How to be an Explorer of the World” publication. The intention was for these notebooks to be the starting point of any lesson, whether that be SciArt or science.

The lambs’ hearts project moved into discussions about disease and the way that certain diseases can physically affect the body’s organs. The students were given examples of different organs from which they made their own drawings. Then they ‘diseased’ their drawings, manipulating the surface of the drawings to physically alter the appearance of the organ as a result of the disease the body was suffering from. This was an important early development. The act of drawing became a metaphor for the disease process itself. We encouraged the students to think about what they were doing to the surface of their drawings and the way in which that represented the development of a disease.

On occasions projects would grow organically. One of the most interesting aspects of the SciArt project as a whole has been the way in which it has encouraged us to rethink the way in which we are teaching. Having to investigate unfamiliar areas has meant taking a different and enlightening view about what teaching may be about in the first place. An excellent example came about when thinking about ways of tackling the subject of the differences between elements and compounds. The students were divided into groups. The studio was supplied with a variety of different materials, each designed to represent a different element from the Periodic Table. The groups were charged with the task of utilising the different ‘elements’ to create a sculpture or ‘compound’. They then had to consider its placement and title in order to explain the qualities of the new compound. The point of the lesson, to enable the students to understand the difference between an element and a compound, had found a perfect manifestation in the language of sculpture and, specifically, assemblage. By approaching the exercise from an ‘art’ perspective we were able to encourage a greater understanding of a scientific principle.

Whilst the initial pilot had difficulties, particularly in the relationship between the science and art faculties, the successes meant that we decided to expand SciArt the following year. Feedback from parents and, especially, students had been overwhelmingly positive. The course was extended to include both years 7 and 8. Again we tried to ensure that the structure of the SciArt and science lessons tessellated. This proved marginally more successful, with the science faculty beginning to embrace the project more fully. They had also noticed a marked improvement in the students’ engagement with the subject and noted that many students spoke positively about areas they were covering in SciArt, bringing questions and comments into the science lessons.

In the second year we began to explore how we might go about assessing SciArt. Having reduced the curriculum time for science, as a stand-alone subject, it was obviously imperative that we ensured that we were enabling students to continue to attain within the subject. Tracking proved that students were not making less progress, despite the reduction in ‘science’ lessons. We experimented with reporting on SciArt as a separate subject, providing students with grades for both subjects. This involved creating bespoke National Curriculum (NC) levels for SciArt. This was an interesting exercise in its own right. We looked at the NC levels for both art and science and discovered a tremendous amount of common ground. The emphasis on investigation and using evidence to explore and explain is paramount in both fields.

One of the key intentions of developing the SciArt course was to inspire students to re-engage with an interest in the world around them. We decided to utilise the school’s on-site gallery and set up an exhibition that would operate as a research space. The exhibition was entitled “A Brief Introduction to SciArt”. It served the purpose of acting as an interactive research space for the students, at the same time as showcasing the subject and raising its profile in the school as a whole. Many other staff had begun to question what this ‘made-up’ subject was and how it worked in the curriculum as a whole and the exhibition was intended to answer some of these questions. We decided that the exhibition should include examples of work the students were making, alongside resources that they could use to extend their work and respond to homework tasks. We borrowed items from the science faculty; animal skeletons and jars of preserved specimens; put together a small ‘science’ library; and created bespoke postcards that the students could take away with them, each with a specific task for them to respond to, as a homework exercise. The gallery was equipped with a trolley with materials and work-spaces so that the students could spend break and lunch times there, working on their investigations and we employed the visual arts technician to be on hand to assist them. The exhibition proved tremendously successful and was very well attended throughout its run. The specimens and other objects borrowed from science proved particularly popular with the students, obviously very excited by the opportunity to view such things up close.

The two faculties have now begun to work much more closely together. We have moved to utilising an assessment structure that brings together the assessments from both the SciArt and science teachers, amalgamating them into one overall science level. Finally, in the third year of the project, we are seeing the intention; that the students use their notebooks for both lessons, and are a conduit between the disciplines; begin to come to fruition. Indeed the approach of the science lessons has shifted and, whilst they are still more focused on content, there is considerably less distinction between a SciArt lesson and a science one. The two faculties have begun planning together and this is where the distinctions become even more blurred. In a recent collaborative planning session the science and SciArt lessons became confused. But as one of the science teachers expressed: “It’s all the same thing.”

The Canon
Literacy is one of the overriding concerns in contemporary education. At Welling School levels of student literacy is one of our most pressing issues. In analysing the problems surrounding literacy it became clear that whilst students did struggle with spelling and decoding language, they had more difficulties with understanding what it was they were reading or writing about. We realised that the most overwhelming issue was a lack of general knowledge and the inability to contextualise. There is a question about the role of such knowledge in a world in which we are able to access facts at the press of a button on a smart phone and much current argument within education is centred on this battleground: The importance of students being able to learn and retain a given set of facts. Should we be teaching skills or knowledge? The two are difficult to separate and for good reason. Acquiring a set of un-related facts is of no more use than having skills, without an understanding of the context in which to use them.

Regardless of this philosophical, educational or ideological debate about the role of factual recall within learning, there is no doubt that an inability to contextualise what one is looking at, reading about or discussing, hinders a student’s ability to access and engage. Having established that many of our students were finding this difficult, we set about investigating ways in which we could use our visual arts specialism to tackle this.

We had introduced Art History as an A level a few years before and had little success with it. Whilst students were excited by the possibilities and had a genuine desire to learn about the history of art, their lack of general knowledge proved an incredible stumbling block. We found ourselves, during discussions, making references to events such as the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution or the First World War, only to find that the students did not even have a basic understanding of what these were or when they occurred. We became aware that the students were finding so much of the course inaccessible as a result and that, if we wanted students to be able to investigate such fields we would need to address this ‘general knowledge’ issue much earlier.

The Canon is then, principally, an art history-based course that we have introduced in year 7. The fundamental focus of the course is to enable students to develop an understanding of the chronological history of the last 1000 years, connecting it to a series of iconic images, whilst at the same time being able to link events in art to events in history and generate a contextual understanding about the way in which art might be made and why. Alongside this, the course focuses on building their confidence in discussing and writing about visual imagery.

In developing the course, we worked very closely with the Faculty of History. We approached them to enable us to have an understanding of what they were teaching in year 7 already and how we could ensure that Canon lessons tessellated with the areas that they were teaching. In fact the history teachers saw this as an opportunity to change the way that they delivered their own curriculum. In discussions it became apparent that they were experiencing exactly the same issues with students having little contextual understanding and almost no chronological awareness of historical events. They opted to tear up the current curriculum and write a new one for year 7 that would operate alongside the Canon lessons.

So began, an exciting period of research, with history teachers discussing what the most important events of the last 1000 years might be, and art teachers investigating visual imagery from the same period with a view to distilling this into less than 40 works. There was much debate and considerable passionate argument, especially when trying to negotiate which art works we were going to use. What became apparent fairly quickly was that, of course, turbulent periods of history tended to produce a far higher proportion of interesting and engaging art works.

We found many of our initial choices of art that we wanted to use were clustered around particular periods. It was here that the involvement of the history teachers became so important. They were able to come back to us with specific events and periods that they wanted to go through and we, as art teachers, then had the job of working out what would be appropriate artwork to use from that given period.

Engaging with looking at images in this way at year 7 has proven an incredibly positive experience. The focus of the course is dialogical, with lessons centred on talking about what we are looking at and asking questions about it. The idea being; students write up their ideas for homework. Canon lessons are talking lessons: The given artwork playing the role of the ‘object’ that inspires the dialogue. Whilst the teacher begins the lesson with, arguably, a greater knowledge about the ‘object’ than the students, the discussions are not about giving this knowledge to the students, who, in turn, operate as receptacles for receiving it. Instead the ‘object’ gives us a focus for discussing ideas around what it might be and what it might represent, with the teacher bringing their prior knowledge to the debate and being open to discovering new ideas through dialogue with the students. The lessons model what Ira Shor and Paulo Friere have discussed in their paper “What is the ‘Dialogical Method’ of Teaching?”; “The ‘teacher’ may have prior ‘knowledge’ of the ‘object’ but this does not mean they have exhausted all efforts and dimensions in knowing the object.”(4)

As the course has developed through its first year, this discussion-based approach has become more important. What we are doing is recognising the importance of oracy and dialogue within the classroom and using the Canon to provide the students with opportunities to spend lessons talking about things.

Each week the students are presented with a new image of an artwork that chronologically follows the preceding one. Often the teacher begins by asking the students questions about what they are looking at. This generates a discussion immediately with the students asking their own questions, answering one another’s questions and making statements about what they are seeing. Sometimes they are organised into groups and asked to present back their ‘findings’ to the rest of the class. Sometimes they are given specific questions to address, but whatever methods we employ the basic principle remains unchanged. The lessons focus on looking at a given image and talking about it. As the course has progressed, the students have developed confidence in speaking about what they are looking at and are less afraid of ‘being wrong’. Their language is developing too. We introduce them to specialist language and terminology and encourage them to use it. There is an emphasis on using descriptive language too. Many lessons contain unexpected incidences where, as teachers, we learn new things from the students. “The teacher can say in advance, I know the material, but in the dialogical process, I relearn the material when I study with the students”.(5)

This dialogical approach is vital. The potential danger in ‘teaching’ a course like the Canon, is in relying on a lecture-based Socratic approach to its delivery: One in which the teacher passes on their ‘knowledge’ about the work to the students. This approach seems to be the prevailing idea of Michael Gove, the current education secretary. But the Canon is not about doing this. Dialogue is at its centre and is its most important element. It is through dialogue that the students develop their understanding and ability to access language. By developing confidence in oracy and encouraging students to speak about their ideas, in giving their ideas value, the course is having a very positive effect on their levels of literacy.

Art as Medium
Art is an approach to teaching. It is a medium, not a subject. The development of courses, such as SciArt and The Canon, are examples of what is possible when we move away from seeing art as another curriculum area to be ‘taught’. In the same way that developing the ability to write is not the preserve of English lessons but a necessary skill that transcends numerous subjects, the approaches undertaken in the art classroom or studio can be directed in many ways. Instead art can be a tool to facilitate learning. Just as Francis Alÿs uses his art practice to engage with communities and address social and political issues, so the art teacher/artist can use their practice to engage with the curriculum. What the evolution of SciArt in particular has shown is that by using art practice to investigate another area of study we are developing a broader understanding of what contemporary art might be. It is a way of looking at the world and questioning it. A typical art education is focused primarily on the creation of physical objects. But so much contemporary practice is focused elsewhere, on the ephemeral, the transient and the experiential. By designing a curriculum that employs an art-led approach to the investigation of, in this case, science and history, we are literally, utilizing art as a medium. It is a cross-curricular tool.

1. Malbert in “The Russian Linesman”, Mark Wallinger. Hayward Gallery Publishing

2. Malbert in “The Russian Linesman”, Mark Wallinger. Hayward Gallery Publishing.

3. NSEAD 2008

4. Shor & Friere: 1987

5. Shor & Friere: 1987