Curriculum Approaches

Exploring IB Visual Arts, Part Two (Ep. 313)

In the second episode exploring the teaching of the IB Visual Arts curriculum,  Shannon Brinkley joins Tim once again to share her experiences and her expertise. After last week’s discussion of all the aspects of the IB Visual Arts curriculum and exam, this week they dive deeper into what students are asked to do and how teachers can help their students find success.   Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

In the last episode, we started exploring the topic of IB Visual Arts with Shannon Brinkley. It was an interesting episode. We got a lot of good feedback, and I’m excited to bring you part two today.

As I said, last week, IB visual arts is something we haven’t covered on the podcast, and when I started exploring the topic, I quickly learned how much there was out there, how much there was to digest. I’m not qualified to take that on at all, so I’m very glad Shannon is here with us for last week’s episode, as well as this week’s, to guide us through all of it.

Now, if you haven’t listened to part one, it’s probably worth your time to go back and do that before you jump into this episode. Now, last week in part one, we looked at IB visual arts from a distance, kind of a big overview of all that is involved, kind of an explainer for those of us that are unfamiliar. Then this week in part two, we’re going to dive deeper into some of the different aspects that go into IB visual arts and what teachers need to know to help their students through this curriculum.

Now, Shannon is ready to come back and talk to us, ready to share more of her expertise, and her experience. I, for one, cannot wait to learn more. So, let’s bring her on now.

All right, Shannon. Welcome back to the show. How are you?

Shannon: I’m doing all right. Nice to be with you again.

Tim: Great. Well, we have so much more to talk about. You did a great explainer on all things IB visual arts in our last episode. In this episode, part two, I guess, I want to talk a little bit more in-depth about strategies. I guess to start with, we talked last time about the three assessment tasks: the comparative study, the process portfolio, and the exhibition. I guess I’d like to have you dive into those a lot more here with this episode.

Let’s start with the process portfolio. Can you talk about just more in-depth, like I said, what exactly that is and I guess what teachers need to know about it?

Shannon: Yeah. The process portfolio is not unlike a sketchbook or visual journal, but it does vary from that. It is an externally examined assessment task that’s worth 40% of the student’s overall IB score, but it’s not 40% of the time in that it’s something that should last over the duration of the whole two years of the course. It’s a through line. You can look at it as a unit that lasts the entire two years.

Tim: Okay. Yeah.

Shannon: Keeping a visual journal is encouraged as a part of the process portfolio, but that’s not all it is. I want to unpack that a little bit. The visual journal is a place where students might record their discoveries while they’re exploring and carrying out the artistic process. But at the end of the two years, when students submit their process portfolio, they’ll be selecting key pages from their visual journal to digitize and include within that submission.

For example, a student might fill two sketchbooks, but they’re only going to submit a certain number of pages. Each one of those pages, once it’s digitized, is called a screen. Within that, students can actually retype sections from their visual journal to highlight key ideas, which can be great for a student that doesn’t have great handwriting or if they write very small, but also students can share snippets of their work from various visual journal pages. We all know that sometimes students can get carried away with having to make a single page look beautiful.

Tim: Right.

Shannon: On the other hand, you have some students that put one thing in a corner and then they flip to the next page. This kind of mediates that because a student might take a snapshot of a piece of a page and include that within a screen, but they might share three snapshots from three different pages and tie those together through additional text. That’s something that’s excellent about the process portfolio here.

Then they can also include other kinds of digital work. For example, a student that is working on an animation might be able to take screenshots of their work in process along the way, and then they can include that as a digital format. In some versions, you see students printing pictures of digital images and then re-photographing that. This cuts that out entirely.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: Students can just include digital work in that way. Another important piece is that if a student is making a lot of artwork, but they decide not to include all of their artwork in their final exhibition, anything that is not included in their exhibition can be included in the process portfolio.

Tim: Okay.

Shannon: Yeah. A last important thing about the process portfolio is that students will need to experiment and develop skills using a variety of different media. They will be exploring two-dimensional work, three-dimensional work, as well as digital forms or lens-based forms.

Tim: Okay. Very cool. Now, my next question for you, I guess, is more about your own strategies as a teacher with helping students with this, because I think this is something that teachers everywhere struggle with, how we help kids maintain a quality sketchbook, a quality visual journal. I guess, what is your process for that process portfolio? How do we help students understand how and why they need to document their process on a regular basis, and what do you do to ensure that they are doing that?

Shannon: Well, I guess I start out by sharing with my students that a visual journal is sort of like the laboratory. It’s the place where you get to make the messes. It’s a place where you get to explore ideas. I think what’s important is that students need to understand the why before you get into any procedures and routines around visual journals. If students don’t understand the overall purpose of it, why is that important, you’re going to end up feeling like you’re nagging your students constantly.

Tim: Yeah. Yeah.

Shannon: I think a really wonderful way to kickstart the conversation is to look at examples of visual journals and different approaches. I’ve seen different iterations of different types of curricula that utilize visual journals. In some cases, it might be a single book, but I think because of the way the process portfolio is outlined, students might not always want to work in their visual journal, so they might practice on larger pieces of paper that don’t fit into a sketchbook and that’s okay. But then that’s still part and parcel of the same set of ideas.

Tim: Right.

Shannon: I think contemporary artists’ sketchbooks will heighten students’ interests. But it’s also always amazing to look at Leonardo DaVinci’s work-

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: And some of the oldie goldies. I also encourage, once you’ve taught an entire year of IB visual arts, invite your seniors to let you keep their sketchbook for a year. This is beautiful, because then students in their first year will know the work of their graduating seniors. They will have seen their exhibition.

Tim: Right.

Shannon: It’s a chance for them to make those aha moments and understand how that work allowed them to get to where they were, to see the starting point and how that’s documented across time.

Schedule in time for visual journaling is point one. Document everything is point two. Research often, revisit old ideas, use the visual journal as a place to ask burning questions and to reflect, these are, I think, the core principles for developing really good habits around visual journals. I think the first one that I mentioned, scheduling in time, is that sometimes visual journals are relegated as homework. In which case, as an educator, you don’t have a lot of control about how students are working within that. You might not see evidence of that work until way later. You want to really encourage your students to document and record their learning process on a routine basis. That could be the first 10 minutes of a block schedule, or it might be that you choose to dedicate a set number of minutes at the start of every week or at the end of every week for students to tackle specific processes such as reflection, or it could be art analysis. But there’s a variety of different ways you can structure that time. It could also be a place for play and just giving students a break for whatever it is that they’re working on. But nonetheless, you’re teaching students through those routines that they need to do this on a routine basis.

Those scheduled times, that’s just a starting point. It shouldn’t be all the time that the students spend in their visual journals, but at least you’re creating that space for students where if they’ve forgotten to document something, they can go back and jot it down.

As far as documenting, everything goes. At the beginning of the year, the beginning of the first year, make sure your students know how to take quality photos.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: Once they know how to do that, then routinely check in with them that they are taking good photos of their work in process with really good lighting and good visibility, because those are the images that eventually that they’re probably going to use in their process portfolio. Work that’s taken from an angle or in a dark corner of a hallway is not going to translate very well, and that’s not going to help them.

Tim: Right.

Shannon: That’s one thing. Then as students are document learning how to organize what they’ve documented is also important. We all know our phones are swimming with images. We need filing systems and folders to keep tabs on what it’s we’re doing.

Just the one other point that I had made about researching often, the visual journal can be a place where you can look at art with your students and use visual journaling as an activity to help students create links and connections between their work and other artists’ work.

I know that it’s not always easy to get students to buy in at the beginning.

Tim: Right.

Shannon: But at the end of an IB visual arts course, students treat their sketchbooks like they are gold.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: I actually had a student that lost his sketchbook right before-

Tim: Oh, no.

Shannon: … the exhibition. Oh, my goodness. That was tragic. But the point is that it becomes really special and sacred, I think, to the student by the end of the two-year process. The good thing was that student did find his sketchbook.

Tim: Okay, good. You had me worried for a minute there.

Shannon: But that’s also why you want to document everything.

Tim: That’s true. I’m glad we have a resolution to that though. That’s awesome.

Okay, so let’s move on. Let’s talk about the comparative study. If you have time for a quick explainer for that, that would be awesome, too. But I guess my question for you is what does the comparative study look like in your classroom, and is there a specific process that you have students follow as they are developing that?

Shannon: I have developed a process over that, so I can share that. Also, I’ll just give a quick recap and overview of what the comparative study is.

It’s worth 20% of a student’s final score. It’s not unlike the exhibition and the process portfolio, which are valued a little bit higher. This particular part of the curriculum might not run over the entire two years, but you can definitely scaffold the learning opportunities that are needed, so that by the time the students conduct this study, they have a better understanding of art analysis.

At the base, the comparative study wants to stretch students’ observational skills and their higher order thinking skills. They will pursue research and analyze artworks and make informed connections between artworks that are made by different artists, from different contexts.

The outcome of the study will end up being a digital presentation like with the process portfolio. It also needs to be visually enticing, include subject-specific vocabulary, and be able to break down specific theories. These lines of inquiry that are utilized in the comparative study can also be woven into the work that’s happening within the process portfolio and the exhibition, because, as we know, artists are often a point of inspiration for work that we want to produce. We also like to look at artists to see how they work when we’re experimenting with materials or learning new techniques.

I like to spend the first semester of the first year getting students to learn about and look at lots of work by different artists. If students have taken Art One or Art Two with me before, yes, they might know some artists that they’ve been introduced along the way. But I really want in an IB visual arts first year course, I want students to start asking deeper questions about artists, looking not just at technique or use of materials, but also thinking about concepts and also starting to think about this concept of context. What does it mean to make a piece within a certain time of history? What does it mean to make a certain type of work in a certain location?

I talked in the first episode about structuring the first part of the first year with a few scaffolded projects. Alongside those scaffolded projects, I might introduce curated lists of artists that tie into the particular idea we’re working through. By curated, I mean a one-pager with a list of 20 to 30 artists that might connect, that I know have a lot of good information available about them online that students will be able to access, that also feel appropriate for students to look at. Then I’ll require students to connect to the work of at least two artists for their initial projects. I get them started with those lists, but, of course, inevitably a student will come to me, “I found this artist,” and we’ll look through the work together and talk about the quality of the work and also the quality of the information that’s available about that work. That’s an important piece.

Occasionally, we’ll come together as a class to analyze artwork together, offering students a chance to employ their subject-specific vocabulary or for us to work on deepening critical thinking skills and questioning strategies. Once students start working more independently, I want them to discover more artists on their own terms and according to their interests.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: This might be by December of the first semester. By this point, they’ve gotten warm, their feet are wet, they’re starting to get a sense of where they might want to lead their exhibition work towards. There’s a lot of talk about students developing a theme or selecting a theme at the start of their IB art experience. That’s a whole rabbit hole that I’m not going to go into, but what I will say is students might start developing work with an interest in a set of themes or a set of ideas. One thing that I’ve developed over the years is a list of artists by themes and by different genres to help students use as a starting place. That can often be quite helpful, just because a student might choose a theme on conflict and they find when they start Googling artists conflict, the list is quite limiting.

Tim: Right.

Shannon: I like to bring in my own knowledge to support them in that way. By the time spring rolls around in second year, I ask students to start proposing artists and artworks that they want to study. We’ll have spent all of the first year with students looking at some structured possibilities for artists and then starting to inquire off the list and look for artists that connect to their ideas. Then it’s, okay, which direction do you want to go in this study? What do you want to know more about? How do you want to deepen your artwork through the study of other artists? Students usually have a few ideas at that point of who they want to study. It’s important that for higher level students, this has to connect to their art practice somehow. That’s an important consideration. If a student is studying work that they think is cool, but doesn’t connect to what they’re doing, then it’s going to create problems down the line.

Then in the second year, right off the bat when we get back from summer, we’ll start dedicating a focused portion of the year, of that fall, to finishing up the comparative study. There might be some tweaks that happen over time, and it’s possible that a student develops a new connection a couple of months after they finish their study, and so they might rework some of the study to bring in those new ideas.

But yeah, that’s generally how I focus it is that we spend almost the entire year taking in art, taking in ideas about artists and context, and learning the vocabulary. Then by the start of the second year, the students are ready to sail.

Tim: Okay. Now, that is a great way to do it. I appreciate the explainer on that.

So I was going to ask you, Shannon, I feel like you just answered the next question all about letting students hear from you first and then branch off on their own. Do you have more that you want to add to that or should we just skip to the last question?

Shannon: Well, I will say just a short thing about context.

Tim: Okay.

Shannon: Just because this one is something that gets asked about a lot. In the comparative study, students have to select three artworks to compare from a minimum of two cultural contexts.

Tim: Right. Right.

Shannon: Just to highlight, different cultural contexts could include different time periods. But also geographic locations. It can also include different artistic movements. It could also include socioeconomic factors like race, class, culture, religion. Those are understandings about the world that will help students to draw conclusions about the impact of the artist’s world upon their work. For different classes, for different students, there may need to be extra time dedicated to really thinking about the impact of culture and the impact of time on how we read a work of art. What did the Mona Lisa mean when it was made? What does it mean today, now that it’s all over mugs, and t-shirts, and postcards? It means something completely different. We need to spend some time really looking at what that might mean.

Tim: Okay, so finally, the last of the three tasks is the exhibition. Again, if you can quickly explain that, we would love that. The question going along with that, or multiple questions, I guess, there’s obviously a lot of work that goes into the creation of the artwork from the students, but how much work goes into the exhibition part itself? What do kids need to learn about exhibiting? For you, is this ongoing learning or is it geared at the end just toward putting together that final product?

Shannon: Okay. Those are a lot of questions. Let’s see.

Tim: I know. I put a lot in there. I’m terrible about that.

Shannon: Okay. Well, as far as the basic requirements for the exhibition is that, and I explained in the first episode that there are internal assessments and external assessments, and the exhibition is internally assessed, which means the educator gives the student’s work a score. Then that is later moderated by an examiner. But the real reason for this is because the teacher will have seen the work firsthand. There’s something that we all know about seeing work firsthand that’s very different from seeing it digitally represented.

Tim: Yeah. Yeah.

Shannon: That feels fitting. But at the end, students will submit photo documentation of their work. The number of works looks different for higher level students and standard level students. The photographs will be of the individual works. Students will also need to take a photograph of their overall exhibition. In addition to that, they’ll have a written statement called the curatorial rationale, which goes alongside their work and they’ll have exhibition text. That would include the title, the medium, size, and their intention. If there were any sources that they used to inform their exhibition, then that might also go into that text.

It’s a little bit academic in that way, but otherwise it’s basically a photo portfolio of work that is submitted, image by image, with the addition of the exhibition overview. I think there’s a few important points just to point out in terms of not all schools have spaces for large exhibitions. It’s important to know that students are not evaluated based on the quality of their exhibition space. An educator might actually… I know this is sometimes done, is that the educator will work with students over a weekend and they’ll install their exhibition in shifts and document it that way.

Tim: Oh, okay. Interesting.

Shannon: I have a former colleague who did that because of corona reasons. It’s going to be different in terms of how that all comes together. If it’s possible, a public exhibition would be wonderful, but it’s not required. That’s just to put that out there. I think it’s also important to notice that students who are displaying their work in a gallery style, in a private school, are not prioritized differently than a student who’s putting up their work on a set of tables in their art teacher’s classroom.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: Yeah. I just wanted to point that part out. But this does go into how much work goes into the exhibition. I say all of that because the exhibition might look different from school to school.

What I will speak to here is a typical scenario is putting up an exhibition in a gym, or a library, or in an atrium, a public space within the school, and that exhibition is going to be a lot about thinking who goes where, and that’s maybe more of a teacher role of deciding how space gets broken up. But once you have a sense of where the exhibition is going to go, then you have a sense of how much space students are going to have to exhibit their work. That might inform scale of work and that might inform how work is installed. That will also obviously inform whether or not an installation will work within those kinds of spaces. Those are important to know because all of the work has to be installed in the exhibition.

Tim: Right.

Shannon: The student is including an installation. That’s sort of an important consideration. Also, if student is producing video work, how is that going to be displayed? Those are important considerations just to think about as an educator before setting up students for those exhibition opportunities.

As far as scaffolding learning so that students can learn more about exhibiting, there’s a few strategies that I want to share. I think first is, as much as possible, get your students out of the classroom and into art spaces.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: It might not be possible on a school day. I definitely have spent many Saturdays taking students with parental permission to different galleries. Galleries are great because they’re free.

Tim: Yes.

Shannon: Also, often the gallery owner or an attendant will be able to speak to the work that’s there. Often the work is by a single artist. Often the show is smaller and more digestible.

I think those are great opportunities because then you can start to talk to students about, how is this work arranged? Why is this the first piece that we see? What is the first artwork that you notice that calls your attention? Is this arranged in a narrative? Are we supposed to read it from left to right? Just looking at these different curatorial decisions. That’s important. What is the title of the work? How does that inform the artwork?

You can work through a lot of these really important facets of curation in a smaller scale exhibit. But if you don’t have galleries nearby, we’re also in an incredible digital age where galleries are presenting work online in a way that’s quite accessible.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: Curation can still also… We can talk about that through digital means.

But the other strategy that I like to include is going back to those slightly structured projects that I offer at the beginning of the first year, when students are critiquing their work at the end of a project, I like to have them curate a group show. They get that experience from the beginning. When I say curating, I don’t mean thinking about installation or putting up a permanent exhibition or anything like that. But let’s arrange work in such a way that we put work together that functions well, or that creates an interesting juxtaposition. Which pieces are speaking to each other? Which pieces play off of one another aesthetically? Which pieces are made of similar materials or feature similar genres? There’s a lot of different considerations that we can look at together with that. It gives students practice and they need that. They need the practice to start making those decisions themselves.

That first semester and the first year is a really great time because also when students are working within a slightly more structured basis, you will also know that students will be finishing up their work at the same time. That makes critiquing process a little bit easier for that reason.

I have seen some educators also produce an IB art show for the first-year students at the end of the first year. I will say, that’s a lot.

Tim: Yeah. I was going to say, if you need more work . . .

Shannon: It’s a lot to take on, but it depends on your course load and what’s available within your school. That can be great practice, but I found that going through those processes with students at the beginning of the year got them to start thinking about how work is arranged and how that might inform an audience’s read of work. Ultimately, within the exhibition component, students need to write a curatorial rationale and they need to be able to speak to why they’ve arranged the work the way they’ve arranged it, and why have they made specific curatorial decisions. Going through those modes of practice is a way to build students up towards that thinking.

Tim: Oh, that all sounds really good.

Shannon, thank you so much for all of this. I appreciate both episodes, all of your expertise, sharing all of your strategies and resources. I think this will be fantastic for people who are not only looking into IB visual arts, but maybe looking to make their practice a little bit better. We appreciate everything you’ve shared. Thank you.

Shannon: Thanks. It’s been a pleasure to join you for these last couple of episodes.

Tim: I hope you have enjoyed these past two episodes about IB visual arts, and I hope you have learned a lot. I am grateful to Shannon for coming on and sharing her experience and her expertise. Of course, listen to part one if you have not done that yet. Also, if you’re looking for a little bit more, read her article called “5 Points of Discovery to Unpack When You Teach IB Visual Arts”. That can be a huge help with both explanations of some of the things we talked about today and visuals, if you’re looking to learn a little bit more. I believe Shannon will be publishing additional articles in the coming months about IB visual arts, so keep your eye out for those if you want to learn even more.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you, as always, for listening. We will talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.