2B or not 2B? Art and Cognitive Science

Of all subjects, Art has made me think most deeply about cognitive science.

My specialism is English, but I’m lucky enough to line manage the Arts department. I’m also participating in the Science of Learning Programme with Evidence Based Education alongside our Head of Arts, Catherine Johnstone (@Lshs_art). This blog post is an attempt to record some of the discussions we’ve had. My hope is that it might also interest others who are curious about the role of knowledge and memory in creative subjects.

I apologise in advance to any Arts specialists if I misrepresent your subject – please set me straight if I do!

Developing Skills

The Science of Learning Programme states: “Debating ‘knowledge versus skills’ is a fool’s errand because proposing an either/or question is incorrect; rather it’s a question of sequence”.

The more we have learnt about cognitive science, the more we see how important curriculum planning is. Art is a good example of this. If artistic skills depend upon a foundation of prior knowledge, then sequencing really matters.

I asked Catherine to explain how this works for our year 7 curriculum at Long Stratton High School. She showed me how we begin with what we call ‘The Foundation’, in which pupils learn about the formal elements as outlined below:

The rationale for this curriculum sequence is that through deliberate practise and explicit teaching, pupils will come to know and understand the formal elements. Repeated practice will strengthen their procedural memory (of how to do something). Explicit teaching using modelling and retrieval practice will strengthen their declarative memory (concepts and known facts).

Catherine showed me how this progresses so that by year 9 they are ready for the unit below:

In this unit, students must recall the formal elements of line, colour, and mark making that were taught in Year Seven. Now they must also apply them as expressive artists, learning how to convey emotion and create meaning. Working memory is limited, so to think in this way requires certain skills to be automatic. It is hard to use colour symbolically if you’ve forgotten how to mix it.

Thinking about art in this way makes us realise that skills only become automatic through a process of consolidating prior knowledge. This is something Niki Kaiser has written about in her blog ‘Meaningful Memory’. Reading her blog and discussing our Art curriculum, we realised how much students need to know and remember in order to become creative. When people question the relevance of memory and knowledge in creative subjects, this might because experts take their declarative memories for granted. Mixing red and yellow makes orange. A 2B pencil is softer than an HB pencil. What seems obvious to an art teacher, might not to be to a novice.

2B or not 2B? Even choosing a pencil requires knowledge.

Episodic Memory

Discussing Art and Cognitive Science has also led us to realise that even the best laid curriculum plans will encounter the thorny issue of episodic memory. Episodic memory can be defined as memory for events in one’s life, including the context in which they occurred.

My son in his happy place.

My two-year old son provides an interesting example. During lockdown he made many memories in relation to art. At two, he has no concept of art as a subject discipline but when he draws and paints he is likely to be creating memories that he will bring to an art classroom later in life.

These experiences include:

  • Seeing his big sister being home-schooled, with pens and paint in her hands.
  • Being given pens, paints and paper and being encouraged to make his own marks.
  • Watching his Dad take up drawing as a hobby.

I am struck by how long my otherwise wriggly son can absorb himself in art and how much more interest he shows in it than his sister did when she was his age. Perhaps he is a ‘natural’ artist but the more I understand about cognitive science, the more I think other processes are at play. I suspect that he has a strong sense of Art being playful and collaborative. His schema of art includes positive associations and experiences. During lockdown his world narrowed enormously, but here he is with his sister enjoying himself:

I asked Catherine whether there was anything in her upbringing that might have allowed her the advantage of building early memories of art from a young age. She told me that yes, her parents are both artists and her brother was at art college, her dad was also an art teacher. We wondered whether this was evidence of how some people might have a head start, building an early schema that they later bring to the classroom.

Of course sometimes the reverse is true. In art, there must be pupils who are far less at ease with the physical act of drawing and painting. Some will come to the art curriculum with little sense of how much pressure to apply to their pen or pencil, or how to position their paper on the desk. Some will have spent less time seeing and observing the world as an artist does.

We can see how this relates to the disadvantage gap. Catherine and my son were both lucky to live in a home with paints, pens and a table to sit at. Not all students are so fortunate. For all the rhetoric around laptop provision for home learning, we know that many students simply lacked stationary. This has real implications for our classroom practice.

Ultimately, the lessons we can learn from looking at Art through the lens of cognitive science are enlightening for teachers of all subjects. Kirschener tells us that ‘learning is a change in long term memory’ but let’s not mistake that for meaning simply rote learning of facts. So-called ‘traditional’ views of education do not preclude creativity.

We might conclude that to teach creativity, we must:

  • Sequence our curriculum carefully
  • Model the process, make the implicit explicit, and break down the component parts of all skills.
  • Build lots of opportunities for spaced practice and consolidation.
  • Be mindful of the preconceptions and misconceptions that pupils might bring to our classroom.
  • Be sceptical about notions of ‘natural talent’ and alert to the gaps caused by disadvantage.