October 6, 2022

I want to share something that happened today. I’m currently doing three weeks of supply work in Year 2 class at a really lovely school in North London. One of our lessons today was drawing and painting seahorses. I’ve always found drawing really difficult and as a child, I remember the frustration when the picture I’d drawn looked nothing like how I’d imagined. In the past I would have set up the paints, shown the pupils a few pictures of seahorses, and modeled how to draw one. Then I’d have sent the children to their tables where the paint would have already have been out and told them to do their own.

Today I tried something slightly different. I still showed them pictures of seahorses and we discussed the colors etc… then I showed them these instructions:

I then modeled how to follow the instructions by drawing my own:

Then, as I would have done in the past, I sent the children to their tables however this time there was just a piece of paper and a pencil in each place. Then step-by-step we went through the instructions and drew our seahorses as a class:

“Ok the first step is a small dot in the middle of the page. Will you all do that now? Hold your pencil up in the air when you’re ready to move onto the next step.”

We continued like this, stopping after each step to check everybody had done it, until everyone in the class had drawn their seahorse. Halfway through the lesson some parents on a tour of the school walked in and commented on how quiet the room was which is not something that can normally be said of my art lessons.

The children were completely focused on their drawings. In just 15 minutes every single child had drawn a seahorse and I was blown away by the quality of their work. There was no one upset because they couldn’t do it or getting frustrated because their picture didn’t look right. There as the occasional request to use a rubber but that was about it. I didn’t take a photograph of their pictures before they painted them so this one will have to do:

I tell you this fairly mundane story because in the past I would have dismissed teaching art in this way in favour of, “letting them get on with it.” I would have been worried that having the whole class follow step by step instructions one at time would make the lesson sterile and dull. After all, art is meant to be creative and isn’t it one of the few opportunities pupils get to express themselves without worrying about the “right” way? However by the end of this lesson every pupil had a painting they felt proud of because it looked how they’d imagined it would look in their head. It looked like a seahorse.

I’ve always been a big fan of the Austin’s butterfly video. I’ve used it in a number of INSETs as an example of the impact effective feedback can have. After today I’m starting to think that Austin’s teacher could have saved Austin a good eight drafts if she’d just told him how to draw a butterfly in the first place.

There will always be a place for enquiry and discovery in my classroom. I still believe there is a case for the teacher stepping back sometimes and letting children lead. But I think sometimes we need to just tell them.