Where's your head at?

Project based learning, thinking on learning and amazing Art projects

March 16, 2014
by Pete Jones

Developing Mastery through critique: Stolen Ideas

Cy Twobly, eat your heart out!

Cy Twombly, eat your heart out!

Having two kids of my own and with a bit of useful research under my belt, I have looked at how kids make sense of drawing faces. Funnily enough, for most of us, after inane scribbles, come two distinctive dots. Eyes, like little raisins. Our way of making sense of the world- as eye contact is such an elemental piece of early life. Putting these two raisins down on a bit of paper is a real breakthrough for the early artist.

My family and other freaks

Next comes the head. Again, the eyes are often drawn first, with the head, often a huge ball with the eyes sitting somewhere near the top of the head. Again, as little people, we see these huge people (adults) and looking up we see their eyes at the top. Makes sense eh?

Anyway. Eventually, we all start adding detail. But all of this comes from our memories, not from first hand discrimination. This continues until we are suddenly taught the power of noticing. For most, this is an incredibly difficult habit to break.


Last week, I introduced my students to the incredible work of Kelvin Okafor. He works with pencil, graphite and charcoal and has been stunning the art world with his hyperrealist drawings.


Starting the lesson with an introduction to how we all draw as kids, from 2 to 12, looking at all the habits we develop as we grow as artists. Pointing out these habits really helps students address their current practice. I speak about the fact that these habits will not be broken without deliberate practice, a belief that they can improve and that without significant effort, mastery of drawing cannot happen. Students see that I can draw with relative ease. If their own drawings went wrong in the past, I would be the first port of call. ‘Sir I cant do it’, ‘it’s too difficult’. I would always look at their work and explain what was wrong, often showing them how to correct it, and so prolonging their learned helplessness. Then I read this post from the Learning Spy himself, David Didau, where he states; “ If we insist that pupils annotate every piece of work with the mistake they are able to spot, our clarification can then be applied with pin-point accuracy at the exact they have identified as where they are ready to learn. They will receive feedback only on those areas they’ve identified as containing errors or misunderstandings.”

Get in! I decided to give students about 30 pieces of orange paper I’d cut up. Each time they noticed a mistake, they would write it down, take a photo and correct what they’d done. Within twenty minutes, several students had used all these bits of paper.


In the past, often students would have carried on regardless and ended up with a seriously dysfunctional drawing that would scare the majority of Year 7s. But now, due to their own diligence and critique they were now constantly and consistently addressing the flaws in their work AND doing something about it.

IMG_0583Having the photographic commentary of their mistakes has been really useful in analysing common mistakes and provides great visual journey of their progress to mastery.

It allowed me to be far more nuanced in my own feedback, commenting on more delicate errors. The path to mastery has just gotten that bit more student driven.

As Paul Klee once said, ‘A line is just a dot going for a walk’, and as Mr Jones said ‘So jog on then kids!’


Since writing this post, I know a few wonderful teachers have developed this idea and made it their own. I thought I’d share a couple.

The unbelievably brilliant @Jobaker9, developed the idea of using an A3 print out of a brick wall, where students commented on each brick about the mistakes made and developed understanding. She wrote;

The kids (the group I dread the most) were really keen to fill in the boxes, it too no time to explain what I wanted them to do, so they just got on with it – we were drawing out their large composition, ready to start painting next week.  The work is based on Sarah Graham’s sweets.

Tyler said ‘I wanted to alter the little errors, you know, the ones you’d normally just ignore, well, I I wanted to change them’.

Georgia said she felt more confident, like she wasn’t worried about how many times she had ‘gone wrong’, she didn’t feel frustrated, and each time she wrote something down, it was like a worry had gone from her head, rather than bottling them all up, and then saying ‘I can’t do it’.

Others said they liked it as they could see others were refining too – they felt like everyone around them just effortlessly does good work, and it made them feel more comfortable knowing they also have to work at it.

brick 2They said it was nice to SEE others refining their work, as they just assume they do it perfectly first time etc.  Fabulous eh?

And @ewenfields, remarked on a lesson study observation where @rachel_young84 adapted the ideas and made this excellent PPT to develop the thinking of her students.

March 2, 2014
by Pete Jones

A Manifesto for Excellence: Work in Progress

A key part of my new role is to help develop ‘A curriculum of excellence’ at Key Stage 3. When I think of excellence, I think of the most successful examples of excellence I can think of. Being a bit of a food snob, I wrote (albeit superficially) about Heston Blumenthal’s Manifesto for excellence at the Fat Duck restaurant. Being a lover of great football, excellence also makes me think about the Tika-Taka mastery of Barcelona FC. It makes me think about the culture that these giants of the food and football world respectively have worked tirelessly to develop, which has seen them held up as the very best in their fields. Then I look at our school system. The opportunities within our curriculum for excellence, our school day, the expectations of the teachers, the parents and the students. What is it we are here to deliver? What are we here to create? And what should be the experiences of our 10 plus years of schooling? These views differ from school to school, from teacher to teacher, and from student to student.  The national curriculum has little consistent impact once it is delivered into every classroom. We all read it differently; we all have our passions and our beliefs on how it should be taught. There is a big difference between the achieved curriculum and the actual curriculum dictated by the government as Dylan William stated here. There is a mismatch amongst us all. That will never change.


The opportunities the curriculum offers is something I care deeply about. I want students to have the opportunity to deeply explore content. To get truly immersed. I want students to be used to redrafting, critique and mastery. I want students to develop an ethic of excellence through the design of the curriculum.


This means creating learning which truly involves the students. A curriculum of excellence to me means deepness, responsibility and value. Students should have the opportunity to do something more with the deepness of their learning than just answer questions in their exercise books or making a poster. I want students to be able to create truly valuable products from their learning and this should be recognised further than giving a level or a grade. I want that learning to be celebrated, judged by experts, reflected upon by their communities. I want that learning to be something that is carried by that student for the rest of their lives. A personal trophy cabinet of hard work which reflects their constant struggle for excellence.


What do we do with so much of what we learn? The exercise books stashed at the bottom of the school bag, or fester under uneaten sandwiches in lockers. It’s not good enough! We are all so passionate about learning, and getting students to value our subjects as much as we do, but why would we value what seems redundant at the end each year, each term, each topic. You only have to look at the start of a new exercise book and then the last page to see how much value students place on learning in your subject!


So what can we do to ensure the curriculum has greater value? Having started to read Ron Berger’s latest book; ‘Leaders of their own learning’, one thing that really struck me as a beautiful idea were ‘Passage Presentations’. Ok so the link to that clip is very ‘Americany’, and I know we cant keep student’s back a year, but the idea of presenting your achievements at school, how you’ve grown as a learner really struck a cord with me. Building a portfolio of beautiful work as we grow through school, talking about our work in front of teachers, members of the community and parents as we pass through the end of an important school age. It just makes so much sense to me. This is what I would like to see happening at my school.



Passage Presentations


  • Collate a portfolio of best work from all subjects to publicly present
  • Students present a narrative of their progress over a particular schooling period
  • Students discuss both academic and personal growth
  • Present to community body; made up of staff, students, their parents and members of the local community
  • The presentation should explain why students are ready to move onwards and upwards, reflecting on their learning achievements
  • Students should pass or have to retry after feedback from the members of the panel


Recognising and rewarding an ‘Ethic of Excellence’


We have been toying with ideas to replace our ageing reward system at my school. The ‘Q’point has been going for years and seems to be rewarded for the most predictable of reasons. It became a race to be the first to get 50. The novelty soon wears off and students and staff alike tire of having their planners signed for ‘good work’.

My loyalty and excellence cards as requested by Y11

The other week, in consultation with my Y11 class, we came up with this- rewarding true excellence, a star would be gained every time a student produced work of excellence from a starting point of something which may seem impossible. If no more could be done to improve it or that the student had shown a excellence when it came to their work ethic, then students would receive the star. Rewarding the process and approach as well as the content ties in well with Dweck’s Mindset work and reinforces what we should value as learners.


the new prototype for departments

the new prototype for departments

Rewarding Excellence:


  • Departments/School provide students with an ‘Ethic of Excellence’ card to be stamped or signed at any time a student produces work of excellence or has demonstrated an exceptional work ethic despite level of difficulty
  • Student’s work, which is awarded this ‘stamp’, is automatically recorded in student’s portfolios
  • Students can receive junior and senior ‘Learning Excellence’ awards
  • All students should expect to receive this award by the end of KS3 and 4 respectively
  • Students can request work to be awarded an ethic if excellence
  • Any work which is recognised will have a letter sent home and a copy will be placed in the student’s portfolio


This still provides a dilemma. How do we value an ethic of excellence in subjects where there appears little opportunity to develop work of excellence? My answer is simple- we must provide opportunities for students to create work of excellence in all subjects. Developing mastery, depth and real challenge. I do feel that this is something which can be developed through nurturing the culture of excellence with all stakeholders (I hate that word too). Each department needs to question what an ethic of excellence would look like in their subject area. What would students be doing? How might they be learning? What would the expectations be?  Once this has been agreed, departments will need to address how the curriculum will enable this to be delivered. They will need to pass on what excellence is to their students and design learning which helps develop the content and skills needed for excellence. It is a change in culture, and a change which will be quite a challenge for many, students included.


Designing opportunities for students to pursue excellence within the curriculum


  • All departments/projects should design learning opportunities, which allow students to pursue work of excellence
  • The curriculum should be defined by this, using clear criteria
  • Certain projects or elements of the curriculum should be specifically designed to develop excellence and mastery further than the everyday
  • Work should be expected to be as perfect as the student can create and be publicly displayed
  • Multiple drafts of learning or heavily critiqued work should be the norm


One thing which I am hoping will be ready by Easter is the creation of a ‘Corridor of Excellence’. You may have seen the pictures I tweeted a while back with the idea. It sparked a good deal of interest at the time and I know some other schools are taking up the idea too, which is wonderful. If a culture of excellence is to permeate the school, we need to surround ourselves in our best examples of excellence. We also need to display this as inspirationally as we can. Celebrating excellence with excellence in display. No curvy corrugated borders here! The frames came from a Framers in town, which would have been chucked out. A bit of spit, spray can and polish and they look great. The students in my class are buzzing to see this is really going to happen after I mentioned it in an assembly.

IMG_0452 IMG_0450

The ‘Corridor of Excellence’


  • Will be somewhere where work of excellence can be displayed by all subject areas
  • It should be a source of inspiration for both students and teachers
  • Departments could bid to use the space to display what excellence looks like in their subject area


Imagine what the school would be like if we surrounded ourselves in excellence in everything we strive for. We all say we do it, just look at our mission statements, but what if it really permeated the daily lives of us all. What kind of students would leave us after this kind of experience? The ideas above are the beginnings of my manifesto towards this happening at my school. Some things are happening as I write, some things may take a while, but I for one am determined to create a curriculum of excellence at my school. Fancy joining me?

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