Re-connecting with our inner artists

12 October 2018

Jon Nicholls, Director of Arts & Creativity at Thomas Tallis School, tells us how they have embraced practice-based research as a tool for empowering their arts teachers

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Thomas Tallis School is a large, mixed comprehensive in south east London. The school has been a specialist arts college, a Leading Edge school and one of the first thirty national Schools of Creativity. Having achieved Artsmark Gold status in the first phase of the programme, we were delighted to be awarded Artsmark Platinum status in July 2017.

Our two-year Artsmark plan was a bold combination of high profile arts partnerships (primarily with Tate Exchange), the development of student leadership in the arts, the development of a national network for teachers of photography, and the exploration of practice-based research across the arts. We felt that arts teachers could make a particular contribution to research-informed practice; one that focused on making as a form of research. Much of the debate about research-informed practice has been influenced by cognitive psychology and ‘what works’ in the classroom. We were interested in the specific kinds of knowledge generated in the arts, the relationship between the cognitive and the haptic, the habits of mind nurtured by artists and the relationships between teachers as artists and the students in their classrooms.

In recent years, the school has embraced research-informed practice in a big way. Each year, all members of staff engage in a form of research as part of their annual appraisal. We initially partnered with the Expansive Education Network, the Royal Greenwich Teaching School Alliance and Greenwich University to develop our understanding of action research. We have since explored collaborative research, linked to the school’s development priorities, lesson study and distance learning approaches. However, practice-based research has proved to be the most popular form of professional development for colleagues in the arts.

Why?

Practice-based research offers the opportunity for colleagues to immerse themselves in their discipline from the perspective of a practitioner. We are fortunate to work alongside colleagues across the arts who are passionate about their subjects, highly qualified, and dedicated to passing on their knowledge and experiences to students. Some have had careers as professional artists. Many of them trained at leading arts institutions, and some have postgraduate qualifications. However, the demands of the job often mean that teachers can lose touch with the business of making art. Those with families may lose their studio spaces or rehearsal rooms. Curriculum design, lesson planning, marking and assessment absorb both time and energy. Our flexible programme of professional development provided us with a means to gift both time and resources to these colleagues so that they could reconnect with their inner artist.

The programme takes place during early close sessions every two weeks. These two hour-long slots combine whole school, curriculum-focused and personal research opportunities on a rotation basis. Consequently, there are six two-hour sessions that colleagues can use for their practice-based research over the course of the year. This gesture of time and trust has proved to be very effective. It can’t possibly account for all the time colleagues need, but it has provided valuable space for thinking, making, reflecting and sharing. A handful of colleagues were engaged in practice-based research in 2017. Last year, we reached double figures.

What are they required to do?

A research-focused appraisal target means the following:

  • All colleagues engage in research each year. This can take a variety of forms and topics. They are identified by the individual and negotiated with the appraiser.
  • The outcomes from this research are shared with all colleagues, either as a written report or in some other suitable form.

For those engaged in practice-based research, this means that colleagues have an opportunity to:

  • Connect with an aspect of their disciplinary practice
  • Consider the relationship between their artist and teacher identities
  • Create a performance or artefact
  • Share this with colleagues

The results of this research so far have been fascinating and varied. Last year two colleagues, a musician and a dancer, collaborated on a performance entitled ‘Motion Sickness’ which explored their separate but connected interest in restricted movement. A member of the music department composed a sound collage featuring recordings of ambient noises made in and by the building, while members of the art department curated a pop-up exhibition at a local community venue featuring each of their projects - gestural abstract paintings, ephemeral projections, sculptural installations with sound, flower paintings made with dress pins. Our talented arts technicians, both practitioners in their own right, also took part alongside their teacher colleagues. I spent my year creating a variety of photobooks, working alongside Year 12 students and sharing them with visitors to Offprint London, the annual art book fair, in Tate’s Turbine Hall.

The impacts of these projects have been significant. Colleagues report feeling more connected to their artist identities. One reflected on experiencing real empathy with her students during the creation process, particularly the frustration that often accompanies a sense of being stuck or restricted by particular tools and materials. Colleagues have discussed their research with students and even collaborated with them. The line separating in and out of school creativity has softened. Students appear to enjoy working alongside their teachers, discussing their shared experience of the creative process. For some colleagues, myself included, practice-based research has allowed us to think of ourselves as artist/teachers for the first time. The process of making and sharing creative work within and beyond school, as an integral part of our teaching job, has been incredibly affirming.

Last year, the art department led a project with several other community schools, working with a local arts centre to curate an exhibition featuring work by students aged 4 to 18. I am convinced that the confidence, collaboration and ambition expressed by colleagues during this project was closely linked to their practice-based research. If you feel like an artist/teacher, you are more likely to think and behave like one. We talk a lot in the arts about our signature pedagogies and the importance of encouraging students to think and behave like artists. Practice-based research has allowed us to embrace and celebrate our own artistic identities.

Where next?

This year we are exploring the theory of practice-based research in more detail. How does the process work in higher education? What can we learn from academia? How can we translate this higher level research into our secondary school context? How might we make our approach more rigorous? We are interested in further developing collaboration between colleagues. Would it help to have some time for practice-based researchers to meet together, share their projects and seek feedback? We need to take care not to eat into the valuable but limited allocation of time for the research itself. Nevertheless, we wonder whether collaboration across the visual, media and performing arts might not yield even more exciting disciplinary conversations and practice.

Our Artsmark journey has been challenging and rewarding in equal measure. We set ourselves ambitious targets and we have made good progress. The feedback from the review panel was encouraging. They were particularly interested in our practice-based research initiative and they were keen to know how we might share the experience with other colleagues. This blog post is the start of that process. We know there is more work to do. We would love to discuss our experience so far with other colleagues across the country.