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My Professional Learning Need

Posted: 28.06.11

How can I make Students more Reflective in Art & Design?

Rebecca Ashford

My Professional Learning Need

Reflection is an integral part of both art and learning. It forces us to focus intently on what we are doing. Encouraging students to take the time to reflect on their work allows them to better understand their progress. Allowing them time to reflect on other artists and students allows them the opportunity to make judgements about quality. It is an integral part of the enquiry process and is an area that is assessed at GCSE and A Level.  ‘Reflection provides possibilities for nurturing reflective cultures and communities’ Hennessey and Burnard, 2006, p. viii.

Assessment for Learning (AFL) is an area I have been focusing on as part of my professional development. I have looked into assessment and feedback as part of my areas of progression. Both these issues are areas which I can control ─ they rely on me offering  students an informed opinion or a reflection. In a recent departmental audit it was noted that AFL was a focus for development. AFL is the process of assessment but is bound up in the act of teaching. It involves me planning assessment opportunities as part of the lesson so students can review and refine their work. In the audit it was observed across the department that time was not given up to AFL.

Two areas that were picked up on in the audit were:

  • Build in reflection time and make it less of a bolt on
  • Embedding AFL in SoL for all year groups

This observation reaffirmed what I already knew. My Key Stage 3 and 4 teaching has never routinely promoted AFL. I have always had a desire to facilitate a flowing presence of assessment and reflection in my lessons but my lack of confidence with how to achieve this had always relegated it to a ‘bolt on’ in a plenary that does not offer value to the lesson. The somewhat banal nature of my questions and the answers offered by the students had little value. Students gathering round a table to point out good features of work is not a useful process in isolation if its purpose is to highlight a predictable outcome of a lesson’s work.

Reflection is an area that I have always felt less confident in promoting. Art is a subject that  naturally offers scope for review and comment. I can set open ended tasks and students can review their process as they develop. The problem comes from the over reliance on teacher appraisal. In a visual subject, students need a lot of reassurance that their outcome is valid and has merit. I need however for this process to become more intrinsic.

If I am to go any way to achieving my goal of generating a more reflective classroom and if I want students to consider their own methods and outcomes I cannot just bolt it onto the end of the lesson. I need to give students time to reflect. As a teacher it is always being stressed that teaching needs to be pacy. Ofsted expects to see ‘pacy’ lessons that are broken into chunks. However this pace can sometimes be mistaken. It was noted by Alexander in his research on dialogic teaching that unlike many continental teachers we do not seem to understand the difference between ‘mere organisational or interactive pace and cognitive pace, or the speed of thinking and learning’. Alexander, R. 2004 p.20. This unease about giving students time to think about the questions I am posing them is a consequence of trying to maximise time and keep pace. In an ideal world I would have students who are confident to share their ideas and reflections, which are constructive with their criticisms but I am not creating a culture where this is possible. ‘The challenge of education lies at the heart of the arts educators who strive for reflective spaces to nurture reflective cultures’ Burnard and Hennessy, 2009. A reflective culture is an ideal; it is an environment I strive for.

Reflection in Art

I believe reflection needs to go beyond having a look at what we have achieved. It needs to be a multifaceted approach which offers students a range of opportunities to review and refine their work and their ideas. It needs to be a chance to build self-esteem and to encourage students to accept constructive criticism. One question I have is should reflection be verbal or written or both? Robin Alexander states that ‘classrooms may be places where teachers rather than children do most of the talking: where supposedly open questions are really closed; where instead of thinking through a problem children devote their energies to trying to spot the correct answer.’ He goes on to say ‘Clearly if classroom talk is to make a meaningful contribution to children’s learning and understanding it must move beyond the acting out of such cognitively restricting rituals.’ 2004, p. 14. I agree with this sentiment, I feel that as a teacher reflection can be a sequence of me looking for the right answer offered by the students. The questions I ask do not demand a huge amount of cognitive activity; instead they are routine and predictable.For example I often find myself asking students to ‘find a good example’. If given time to consider this question I feel the students have the potential to make connections with previous learning, e.g. highlighting the skills or the techniques demonstrated. They may throw up an interesting idea of why something holds value over something else. They may begin a dialogue about how they feel about a piece of work and begin to understand methods of how they could develop their own work and ideas. Such a simple starting block has the opportunity to promote a wealth of ideas. Sadly however I allow very little time for this process. The same more confident students will always offer an articulate answer which I will congratulate and then in my desire to promote an inclusive environment I target a question at a less forthcoming student and prompt them into a ‘correct’ answer. Students are given a short time to consider their answer before I move on to the next person. The questioning tends to fall at the start and end of the lesson to form part of the starter or the plenary. Alexander notes that ‘in British classrooms, in the interest of maximising participation by as many children as possible, interactions with individuals tend to be briefer, more random and scattered.’ Alexander, R, 2004,p20.

In Art I am aiming to encourage individual and personal responses. I want students to engage with the open-ended nature of the work and to create their own path towards a finished outcome. Each student will have their own outcome and their journey will be different to their neighbours. It is an ideal setting for independent thinking. ‘On one hand, this appears to be a fertile territory for assessment for learning. Peer and self-assessment, drafting and reflection are already apparently part and parcel of the picture. On the other hand, teaching the arts seems to be impossibly floaty, the concept of the identifiable progression hopelessly nebulous’ Black, P 2003.  Black’s point is that despite Art having the perfect environment for reflection it still has an ill-defined nature which does not allow for effortless assessment and review. Art is a visual subject which allows for immediate judgement; I believe the difficulty comes from knowing how to judge.

I am guilty of bolting on AFL at the end of the lesson and asking students to tell me good features of a piece of work or to pick their favourite. Not only are these questions general they do not offer students any scaffolding or time to formulate their answer. I need to be supportive with my prompting and questioning. Robin Alexander believes dialogue can be a means to probing children’s understanding: ‘Discover the most appropriate springboard for taking this understanding forward, and – to complicate the metaphor – the most suitable bridge (or of course scaffolding) by which that further understanding might be secured’ Alexander. R, 2004, p.32.  It is this scaffolding that I need to construct through my questioning. How can my questioning be supportive in furthering understanding?

If I want students to truly engage with the process of making art and not just the final product I need to give students the experience of what it means to be a practitioner and in turn a reflective practitioner. Students already undertake a course which requires both the consumption and production of work to fulfil the course requirements. They already explore and experiment but to review and refine takes reflection and this is a skill students do not undertake very independently, especially without teacher guidance.

Pamela Burnard wrote ‘Reflective time engages us intrinsically in a sharply focussed attentive mode of functioning. Artists in particular give themselves over to virtually continuous reflective time, placing reflection at the heart of the creative process.’ Burnard, P, 2009, p.3. What is interesting about this quote is that it is written about the practice of Art teachers. I believe this value of reflection is something that can be transferred to the students. There is a lot of literature on becoming a reflective practitioner or educator. However, these skills are so valuable they should be shared with the art students. As an artist we make critical decisions about the processes, techniques and outcomes we achieve all the time. This ‘critical thinking’ is as valuable as the aesthetic product because without this, an outcome would not have been born. The GCSE and A Level syllabus acknowledges this process and awards a proportionate allocation of marks to the process of making art as well as the final product. The problem is that I feel I do not have a clear method of teaching this review process. I need to clarify the nature I wish this ‘reflection’ to manifest itself. I have highlighted how I believe artistic review to be a largely instinctive process. I now need to decide how I go about capturing and sharing this experience.

My strategy and Enquiry

How can I promote reflection in my lessons?

I need to develop a method that provides the scaffolding to allow students to reflect on their ideas. With this in mind I asked to observe the Head of Beauty Services. I had been told that AFL was a strength in this department. Each student had a tracking sheet which they kept in their folder. They would use this to write down their objective for each lesson and reviewed this and set a next step at the end of the lesson. This process seemed to settle the students and offered them a time to decide their focus for the lesson. In this vocational setting where assessment criteria needs to be checked off I think this method clearly demonstrates to students the tasks that need to be completed to progress. The students I spoke to liked setting their own objectives as it gave them a chance to plan what they needed to achieve in that lesson. This method acted as scaffolding for the students and motivated them to take ownership of their tasks. I liked the way it offered the teacher a chance to check each student’s objective and to support those who had less understanding of how to progress. The downside to this tracking method is that as Art does not have a clear structure like Beauty Services it may become a monotonous task. The Beauty course is a vocational course, deliberately structured to ensure students are competent at the skills taught. Art is  far more fluid and encourages students to choose their own direction. If I adopted this tracking method in its current form it would not provide the opportunity for the creative reflection I have been seeking, however there are elements of this process that would benefit my students.

This tracking method made me consider what sort of scaffold I could instil in Art lessons. After a lot of thought I recalled methods that I have used to reflect on my own work. As a trainee teacher I was encouraged to keep a reflective journal of my practice. This was a means of remembering the incidents that happened during the day and offered me a chance to connect my thoughts and evaluate the outcomes. It was a means of recognising my strengths and setting myself targets over a period of time. I believe offering students in my lessons a means of recording their thoughts, aims and reflections may open up the opportunity for further discussion.

I have begun to offer students their own journal to use as their ‘reflective journal’ or their ‘book of ideas’. It is theirs to decorate and take care of and I will ask students to record thoughts, ideas and questions within it. Students can write in each other’s books and they can also be used for visuals if required. They may be prompted to write in their books or they can use them as their own independent method of recording. Reflection could be private or public. I can ask the students to share their thoughts with the class or I can allow them to keep them to themselves. I believe both of these methods are an acceptable means to which to generate ideas and thoughts. I need to create a supportive environment for the students to feel secure to share these ideas. I need to give them time to formulate their ideas and I need to ensure I am confident to probe for answers and not move on if I do not get the answer first time.

Initial review of my practice

Before I started the journals with my Year 9 and 10 classes I asked a colleague to observe a lesson that I taught on 14thMarch 2011 with a Year 9 GCSE group. I asked her to comment on my use of questioning, the classroom climate and the opportunities for reflection.

The key points noted were that in general my questioning was targeted and referenced previous learning. I showed good knowledge of each student and what they were doing so was more able to probe them on their next step and these next steps were referenced in the plenary.

The observations of areas that I could develop were that not all students could remember the aim of the lesson as it was not explicit and that the students needed more time to think about their next steps.

I found this observation very useful. It reiterated what I suspected was the case. I feel I know my students well enough to target my questions appropriately and I feel the classroom climate is a positive one.

The Journals

I have trialled the journals for four weeks now and we have used them every lesson with Years 9 and 10. I introduced the journals and explained to the students what the purpose was for them and for my own assignment. I told students that these books were for them to decorate and use both at home and in class and that they needed to be brought to every lesson. The students seemed intrigued about keeping a journal and to have something personal that they could write or draw in. Some students were hesitant and concerned that it would just be ‘extra writing’. I explained that it wouldn’t need to be long paragraphs unless that was a method that they were comfortable with. I explained that they could just write bullet points if that was a better way to communicate their thoughts. The students also asked if they could draw or stick photographs in. We discussed as a class what they wanted to use the journals for and although at this early stage they were not too sure they did like the idea of including sketches and photographs in there too.

The journals have made me plan my questioning and the methods of reflection I would like students to engage in. I have tried to vary these methods and also the purpose of the reflection process so that it does not become simply a ritual.

I have asked students to use the journal at the beginning of the lesson as a way to record a personal objective. This allows students to consider what they wish to achieve in the lesson and once again gives them time to think about what they did last lesson and what they need to do to meet their goal. It also allows me to time to identify and speak to those that are not sure of where they are going. Students find it very easy to say they know what they are doing if they are not challenged to write this down. By asking them to write a quick aim for the lesson I can ensure students are focused and have direction. This also allows them to review their progress in the lesson. I feel it is important to use the objective as a starting point but it is more important to review how this objective has developed. The objective in a creative subject is a flowing activity or process and the outcome emerges from the experience. Whether this outcome is anticipated or not is worthy of reflection.

I have differentiated the way different students use their journals. Those who are more confident, for example with a particular material, may use their journal to write down the method they have used and explain the benefits of the process. Other students who are less confident were asked to write down two stars and a wish about their neighbours work. Giving each student different methods of recording their thoughts has kept students engaged with this process. Sometimes these methods have been suggested to them as I felt it was an appropriate prompt in the lesson, other times I gave students a choice of what they wished to record in their journal.

I have asked groups and pairs to perform peer assessment. I have used fun methods of swapping ideas, for example asking anybody with a birthday in June to swap with anyone with a birthday in September. This method has kept the process fun and students enjoy finding another partner to swap journals with and to write about their work. It has also given students the chance to see others student’s work they wouldn’t usually see as they do not sit close or share a social circle.  I have also asked pairs of students to select ‘good examples’ ofwork from a particular category, for example a good example of mark making or experimentation. Students went around the room and photographed a number of examples which I printed and gave to the authors of the work. I then projected these images onto the whiteboard to discuss as a class. I would question those students who selected the work as I knew they had already had time to think about why it had value. This then prompted other students to offer their thoughts.

These methods were not isolated to the start or the end of the lesson. Instead I would integrate them into the lesson. If a student wasn’t sure of their next move I would ask them to either reflect on their own work or review what others have done. I didn’t want this to distract from the lesson so I would ask different students to reflect in different ways at different times. I could then discuss any interesting thoughts or ideas at the end of the lesson knowing that students had already had time to digest their thoughts.

At this stage I have made a decision not to write in the student journals. I have made this decision based on a number of reasons. Firstly, the students receive regular written feedback in their sketchbooks and I believe further written feedback is not required as the comments are not intended to be a formal piece of work. Instead the intention is for students to develop their own method of keeping and using their journal. If I start writing my thoughts in their book students may feel it is yet another assessment and it will lose its autonomy and spontaneity. Another reason I have not started adding comments is that I think this would become a very time-consuming task that I could not justify with my marking commitments. Finally, I believe that these journals should stimulate ideas and provoke conversation. I have never intended for these journals to provide a dialogue on paper between teacher and student. However I believe there is a place for peer comments and self-assessment as it is a sensible place to record a comment outside of the sketchbook (which doesn’t really lend itself to a free flow of comments as it forms part of the formal assessment at the course end).

Student Feedback

I asked a number of students who had agreed to take part in my research to complete a questionnaire (a copy can be found in the Appendix). I wanted to know what the students felt the purpose of the journals were and whether they liked keeping an Art journal. I wanted to know if they found the process beneficial and if they liked sharing their journals with their peers.

All the students I asked thought that the point of their journal was to record ideas and help them plan for their next step. All the students enjoyed writing in their sketchbook and felt it helped them remember good ideas. One student liked how portable the journal was. All the students felt the book helped them organise their thoughts. When I asked them if they liked other students commenting on their books they all said that they appreciated other people’s comments and felt that these comments help them know which areas to improve on. The students really liked having their own personal journal as they felt they could be open and honest, one student commented ‘I can write all my ideas and no-one can tell me what to write’ student from 9B2, 2011.


The journals have provided me with a catalyst for AFL. I am thinking more creatively about how the students can review and reflect on the ideas and processes they have generated and learnt. Although it is still early days they have started to provide the scaffolding I was seeking for my lessons. The students in general have responded well towards the journals and have accepted them as a vehicle for their learning. The quantity of writing in the journals has differed depending on the type of student and their inclination to write. Although the quantity and quality of writing is variable, I have been delighted that some students have started to engage with the reflection process. I have had students who will never volunteer any comments in class happily offering written feedback to their friends which has then sparked a conversation about the direction of their work. In contrast the more vocal students have longer to think about their answers to ensure they were thoughtful and fluent.

Creating reflective students who can make critical judgements about their work and processes is a very big task that will not be achieved overnight with any single method. To work towards this goal I need to have manageable expectations of what can be achieved over a period of time. I need to open up the door to reflection and step by step offer students the opportunity to reflect.

Due to the initial success of the journals I intend to continue this method until the end of the year. In reality the long-term commitment to the journals may be reserved for certain year groups and the current form is likely to evolve over time. However the process of reflecting is something I want to make integral in my teaching. This enquiry has encouraged me to review my present limitations and to think creatively about how I can develop reflection in Art.


Alexander, Towards (2004) Towards Dialogic Teaching, Rethinking Classroom Talk, Dialogus UK ltd.

Black, P, et al., (2003) Assessment for Learning Putting it into Practice, Maidenhead, Open University Press.

Black, P J and William D (1998), Inside the Black Box, London, School of Education, Kings College.

Burnard, P and Hennessy, S, ed (2009) Reflective Practices in Arts Education, Dordrecht, Springer.

Dix, P (2010) The Essential Guide to Classroom Assessment, Harlow, Pearson Education Limited.

Spalding, E and Wilson, A, (2002) Demystifying Reflection: A Study of Pedagogical Strategies That Encourage Reflective Journal Writing. University of Kentucky

Spendlove, D (2009) Putting Assessment for Learning into Practice, London, Continuum International Publishing Group.