How I Use A Visualiser To Deliver Practical Instruction In Art And Design
By Jon Aye
The practical demonstration is a core feature of the Art and Design teacher’s practice. During this event, pupils encounter the materials, techniques and processes they will be using that lesson and they see how to work with these to achieve an outcome. The practical demo can impress, it can be spectacular, but these are not its chief aim: in the first instance, it is meant to be instructive, which is to say that during the demo, pupils are meant to be learning how to do what they see.
The basic, age-old format for the practical demo involves a version of the following: the teacher gathers the class around them at a table, or some other space in the room, where they carry out a version of the process pupils will be engaging in for that lesson. Pupils watch and go back to their desks to practise what they have seen.
The premise of the practical demo is that it is better than simply providing pupils with a verbal or written explanation, and in fact the research bears this out. But how do we distinguish between a demo that is truly instructive, or sufficiently instructive, and one that is insufficiently so? Ultimately, the primary indicator of the success of a demo can be seen in what happens afterwards and the degree to which pupils experience success in producing their outcomes. Success indicators might also be present in how closely pupils’ activity matches what took place during the demonstration and whether pupils are applying the techniques and processes they were shown.
In my experience as an Art and Design teacher, there are a number of strategies a teacher can employ during this kind of demo to ensure pupils are engaged and take this knowledge away with them back to their desks. A teacher can narrate what they are doing, highlighting key steps, or simply demonstrate silently to promote close attention. They can interleave prior knowledge, asking pupils questions about the materials and processes being used – if they have encountered them before – so as to directly engage pupils and activate prior knowledge.
The teacher might deliberately do something wrong, so as to prefigure common errors, or to demonstrate how to problem solve, or this problem solving could be carried out as a discursive process with pupils. At the end of a demo, a teacher might question pupils about what they have just seen, perhaps choosing pupils to recount steps.
My experiments with these and numerous other strategies have allowed me to deliver demos that have seemed to engaged my pupils, where the attention has stayed on me and questions about the process have been answered correctly at the end.
Despite this, results have tended to vary when it’s time for pupils to apply what they have seen to their own work. It’s not been uncommon for pupils to seem to have gaps in their knowledge of the process they were just shown once they start their own work, leading them to engage in a freestyle or improvised version that’s loosely directed at arriving at the same outcome I produced. Accepting this as a facet of the traditional practical demo has normalised the need for follow-up re-teaching of the same processes to many pupils individually throughout the lesson.
This is clearly time that could be more effectively spent, and it’s worth looking more closely at how effective this format is as a teaching strategy, particularly the accessibility of the demonstration when pupils are gathered around the teacher as an audience.
The durational aspect of this demo format must first be scrutinised. A live demo, with pupils gathered around a teacher, can take upwards of five minutes. If we consider Sweller’s concept of cognitive load, then that’s a fair amount of information for pupils to memorise in one go, so as to then apply by themselves. Imagine we delivered a five to ten-minute speech to pupils and then asked them to return to their desks and practice reciting it, perhaps with the aim of putting their own spin on the cadence and intonations they use. It’s fair to say pupils would likely have trouble remembering the content of the speech in the first place, so any experiments with cadence and intonation would be lost.
Moreover, we must think about the spatial dynamics of this set-up from a pupil perspective. In my practice, I’ve taught classes of anything from two to thirty-two children. There’s a significant suspension of disbelief – or perhaps a resigned acceptance – involved in gathering a group of upwards of twenty-five teenagers around a table to watch you produce artwork and assuming they will maintain the level of concentration needed to memorise each significant action you undertake, and that’s if they’re able to see properly as they squeeze in next to their peers and avoid the temptation to interact with each other.
This might be fine, perhaps you don’t want pupils to learn specific steps of a process; perhaps a demo is designed to be more of a performance or spectacle, to provide a general understanding of a practice that pupils will explore and discover more about on their own. That’s perfectly conceivable, depending on your learning objective. But if the process you are demonstrating does contain key aspects that you need pupils to see clearly and remember, so they can replicate these successfully on their own, then this format needs to be reconsidered.
The use of a visualiser presents several solutions to the problems discussed. Research carried out by Richard Mayer and a number of other researchers has made clear the benefits of using video technology when it comes to the teaching of practical skills. Mayer has looked mostly at the use of pre-recorded videos within STEM subjects, but the same basic principles apply to live videos and to practical subjects more broadly. Pre-recorded videos are certainly an option here, but in my own practice I’ve mostly explored the use of live video through the use of a visualiser.
I recently experimented with using the visualiser to teach my year 8s how to draw a hummingbird from observation of a photo. This was delivered at the beginning of the year as a form of baseline assessment, and involved the learning of some new skills together with the practising of skills and concepts learned in year 7, namely line drawing, tonal shading and the use of mark-making to create a sense of texture.
Here is the image pupils studied [TO BE INCLUDED]. For this first task of the year, it was important for the learning experience to be closely guided, for pupils’ activity to closely match mine, so as to ensure everyone is able to build up and practice the skills and concepts required for the later, more advanced, more open and independent work. We therefore all started off drawing the same image. In the past, in my efforts to ensure pupils found the work interesting and engaging, I would have been inclined to provide pupils with a choice of images. I’ve however found that any special engagement generated by this novelty, particularly at this early stage in the learning process, can be quickly undermined by the difficulties pupils experience with engaging with the broader and more complex set of challenges created by having more than one image – before pupils learn how to draw hummingbirds, they first need to learn how to draw a hummingbird. In any case, to generate engagement through novelties like this is a misstep, as can be understood through Mayer’s concept of ‘seductive details’: extraneous elements which essentially decorate a task without actually aiding learning in any way.
The task was broken down into the three lessons and I’ll just outline the format for the first one here, as an example of how the visualiser was applied to teaching this task. The aim was to embed this new skill so as to allow pupils to apply this to other drawings of animals, including other images of hummingbirds, for the later stages of the Scheme of Work.
For the drawing section of the lesson, pupils were seated at their desks and ready to draw, with hummingbird images in front of them, while I worked at the front of the classroom under the visualiser, my live drawing projected on the whiteboard. I worked in steps, stopping to question pupils about what I was doing each time and then allowing pupils to practice the same step. This back and forth, from drawing to then looking at and speaking to pupils, has been shown to be the most effective and engaging format for delivering a video demonstration. It is also important that pupils were able to see my hand doing the drawing and the orientation of the video was first person.
My first step was to draw a diagonal line on my page and ask pupils to think about why I’d done this. By bouncing some questioning around the classroom, we establish that the line serves as a first guide for laying out and judging the scale of the drawing we are about to produce, thus establishing the usefulness of construction lines and shapes.
I then used this to draw a loose oval shape for the head and a stretched one for the body. I modelled my thinking out loud as I did this; explaining that I wanted a basic shape for these body parts that I could refine later, and ovals seemed about right. Pupils then carried out these steps, and as they did this I was able to walk around and check their work, giving feedback individually about proportions and shape. We next discussed what shape would be suitable for the wings and the tail, with pupils correctly identifying a triangle as the most suitable starting point, thus demonstrating their grasp of the lesson’s learning objective. Once these basic shapes were drawn, I demonstrated how to refine the oval shape into a more accurate line drawing of the hummingbird’s head. As pupils completed this step, I was once again able to circulate the classroom, checking work and giving feedback.
From this point, pupils were tasked with working independently to develop the outline of the rest of the hummingbird. During this independent working time there were points where I encouraged pupils to discuss each other’s work and offer feedback. We finished the lesson with a simple plenary: some sentences on the board that pupils were to write and complete, guiding them to reflect on what they had done and why they had done it. Summarising and explaining lesson content in this way is another form of ‘generative activity’, allowing pupils to further consolidate their learning. It also provided them with notes for independent revisiting of this work later.
This format has led to a noticeably higher success rate for this piece of learning and for my teaching in general. Rather than delivering practical knowledge in large chunks, I am now able to break processes down into smaller, more precise steps, with the opportunity for pupils to practice in between – a combination of strategies that have been shown to increase learning.
Despite the guided nature of it, pupils outcomes still showed some variation, particularly in the latter two lessons, which involved the application of tonal shading and mark-making in a layered manner to record tonal and textural details, but the variation was significantly less then when the demo had been delivered with pupils gathered around me and all steps were demonstrated in one go. I was also able to control the pace of development of this drawing to a greater degree, ensuring the class progressed steadily as a group and avoiding pupils completing too much of without getting a chance to understand and apply the necessary principles. The example of note-taking from the plenary continued with each of the steps developed over the subsequent two lessons, giving pupils a self-generated guide-book for this process that they could refer to for later tasks.
Perhaps most importantly, it has led to a higher success rate with later stages of this scheme of work, where pupils are tasked with applying this process when working from a range of images, followed by images they have researched themselves. The first hummingbird drawing, with its annotations, seemed to enable greater independence and self-regulation. To be clear, this is not the way to draw a hummingbird, but one way to do so. Pupils are given freedom to depart from this in the latter stages of the project, but it’s a piece of learning that serves as an important scaffold for everyone to access if needed, and a foundation for further exploration.
The noticeably higher success rate occurring in my lessons more generally, as a result of using the visualiser, has meant it is now an embedded feature of my practice. It is now not a question of when should a visualiser be used for a demo, but what good reason is there for not using one.