Curriculum Approaches

Exploring IB Visual Arts, Part One (Ep. 312)

Tim has been wanting to learn more about teaching IB Visual Arts, and in today’s episode, Shannon Brinkley joins him to shine some light on the subject. In the first of two episodes, they discuss all aspects of the IB Visual Arts curriculum and exam, the opportunities it offers students, and the challenges and rewards involved for teachers.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


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.

Now, I have some experience in teaching AP Art and Design. I think a lot of people who listen to this podcast also have some experience with AP Art and Design. But today we are going to explore the world of IB Visual Arts, International Baccalaureate visual arts. There are some similarities with AP, but in all honesty, it is an entirely different world out there with IB Visual Arts, and it’s something that we haven’t covered on the podcast before. When I started exploring a little bit more, I quickly learned how much there was to digest.

I have a lot of questions about what all is involved with IB Visual Arts, and we’re going to talk about it all with Shannon Brinkley over the next couple of weeks here on the podcast. Shannon has an article that was just published on the AOEU website called 5 Points of Discovery to Unpack When You Teach IB Visual Arts. It’s a great article. I’m going to encourage everybody to read it, and I’ll probably encourage you again in the outro to do the same.

But I want to read something from that article that I think sets the stage for the overview that we’re going to talk about today. Quote, “At its heart, IB Visual Art offers an avenue for students to deeply experiment with art making processes, explore and make connections to the world of artists, and create contextual, conceptual, and personally meaningful works of art.”

If you listen to this podcast regularly, you know that process and experimentation and helping kids create meaningful work are all things that I value and that I think we should be working toward in our art room. But there is so much more to it beyond just that art making, beyond just that process, those connections. I’m glad that Shannon is here to walk us through some things. In the episode today, I’m just going to be doing a lot of listening, a lot of note-taking on my own, and hopefully a lot of learning as I kind of rely on Shannon’s teaching experience and her expertise.

I’m excited to hear everything she has to say. I’m excited to learn more. Let me bring her on. Let her introduce herself and we’ll start to explore everything that is involved with teaching IB Visual Art. Shannon Brinkley is joining me now. Shannon, how are you?

Shannon: I’m doing all right. Good morning.

Tim: Good. I’m very, very happy to talk to you. I don’t know if we want to say expert, but you have some experience with a topic that we have not talked enough about on here, which is IB Visual Art teaching. I guess before we dive into all of that though, can you just give us an introduction? Tell us a little bit about yourself. Tell us about your teaching.

Shannon: Yeah. Right now I’m joining you from Leipzig, Germany, which is where I live. I’m just a few hours south of Berlin. In addition to brushing up on my German quite consistently, I also work at The Art of Education University as adjunct faculty in the studio realm. I also maintain my own art practice here in Germany. I’ve just finished wrapping up a series of articles for the magazine that will be published in the future concerning IB Visual Arts, but also a few of my passions, which are creative thinking strategies and nontraditional drawing strategies as well.

I’ve worked and taught internationally for over 12 years off and on. I started at out working in a not-for-profit rural setting in South Africa, and later on taught middle and high school students in international schools there. They were offering the International Baccalaureate diploma program. I started out my sort of international teaching career in South Africa, in Cape Town, and later moved to Cairo, Egypt before returning to the US where I was based in the DC-Baltimore metropolitan area teaching.

I would say that my work in IB Visual Arts has colored a lot of my work as an educator, but also I use my own artistic practice to kind of inform my work as well. Introducing students to global perspectives through contemporary art is very important in my classroom. Prioritizing the process as much as the finished work is something that I like to highlight. Fostering independence and student voice ownership, critical thinking and reflection I think are often at the heart of what I like to guide students through in my classroom.

Tim: That’s all very well said. Like you said, some outstanding goals for your students there. We love to hear that. I guess when we’re talking about International Baccalaureate program here, I would love to just start at like a very base level. Can you explain for everybody what is IB Visual Arts? What should art teachers know about the program?

Shannon: Yeah. First of all, IB Visual Arts is an elective within the IB diploma program, which is also referred to as IBDP. Like all IB courses, student work is externally assessed at the end of the program. Depending on student, they are eligible to receive college credit sometimes, sort of similar to AP, and students who take IB Visual Arts are sometimes enrolled in the diploma program. And if they are, then they’re required to take six subjects. Visual arts would be one of those courses.

I think it’s important to contextualize visual arts within the diploma program because it’s quite a comprehensive program and it’s very rigorous. In addition to the six courses that students take, they also have to write an extended essay, participate in community service, and engage in a course called theory of knowledge. There are all of these sort of through lines and interdisciplinary connections that are happening between those three pieces that I just mentioned.

When students decide to take IB Visual Arts as an advanced elective, they often know that this is going to be a course that will be something they’re going to dedicate a lot of time towards. In theory, any student can take IB Visual Arts without prior art knowledge, but that will depend on a school and their policies. Within each IB course, including visual arts, there’s always two levels. One is called standard level or SL, and then the other is higher level, which is HL.

There’s different amounts of work and even different amount of hours of contact time that’s technically required for each of those different levels. Although for the most part, a student that is scheduled as SL or HL will still have the same amount of time in the class to work on their pieces. What I can say about visual arts in particular is that there are several key strands running throughout the main assessment tasks.

These are the visual arts and context, visual arts methods, communicating visual arts theoretical practice, art making practice, and curatorial practice. What I like to think about with a lot of these strands is how they relate to contemporary art practices. For example, informed artists consider the world around them when they’re making art. They often select and apply materials that support the communication of their ideas.

They consider how their work will relate to the audience that is going to interact with their pieces. Artists will also take the time to learn about other artists and to review their ideas as a source of information for how they might pursue materials or other concepts. On top of that, artists need good work habits to support their artistic production and that includes critical reflection and experimentation.

I think these are all kind of obvious ideas I think when we think about artists, and it really maps very beautifully with a lot of the different pieces that IB Visual Arts is asking students to do.

Tim: Let me ask you about that because I guess I’ve been trying to learn a little bit more. I’ve been trying to research and just looking at all of these strands, looking at the curriculum guide, all of that really… It can become overwhelming very quickly. Like you said, it all makes sense. It’s all best practices, things that we’re asking students to do, things that when we’re looking at artists, we value tho those traits. But putting it all together can, like I said, become overwhelming very quickly.

Do you have advice for the best way for people to approach the curriculum guide or just sort of approach IB Visual Arts in general?

Shannon: Yeah, definitely. I have to just say off the bat, I remember the first time I looked at the guide, this was before the current curriculum revision, but I know how overwhelming it can feel. I think one important feature just to note is that IB is designed to be delivered to students over two years, and that’s the last two years of high school. That might change according to different situations or a new admission into a school in their senior year. However, for the most part, it’s a two year curriculum.

If you think about the guide and that it’s running over a much longer period of time, that kind of helps people to just take a deep breath. But there is a bit of a misnomer, which is that students do have to submit their work for examination in April of the second year. They don’t quite have two full years to complete the work. I think like with any curriculum, it’s important that as educators, we consider what students need to complete and work backwards from there.

I highly recommend drafting a pacing guide that will help you to re reach your curricular goals more effectively. For example, let’s look at the exhibition. Students need a maximum of 11 artworks, but they will probably need to make more than that so that what they submit is their best work. You can kind of divide the number of weeks that you have in your specific district, but roughly it would be about five weeks that students would need to complete each artwork in order to leave enough time for other tasks.

But I’ve also seen educators that give students four weeks, and I’ve seen educators that give their students six weeks. It’s going to sort of vary from teacher to teacher. Honestly, the part that I think is a challenge for most teachers is that the framework of IB is so loose and open.

Tim: Right.

Shannon: There’s no predetermined rules. The guide makes suggestions for how you might structure it, but it even says in the guide the content and focus of which is not prescribed. I think this sort of loose framework is intimidating at first, and that’s why I really think that drafting a pacing guide will at least for year one for a teacher that’s new to IB at least help get a sense of how to lay out things for month to month. I mean, just to kind of go on with a few recommendations, I’ve seen many approaches.

Because it is so open, there are a variety of ways to interpret the guide. But my sort of first recommendations in terms of teachers who are new to this curriculum, the first one is that you just need to know your students. Consider the backgrounds that your visual art students have, what prior knowledge are they bringing to the course. It’s possible that you’ve been teaching your students continuously since ninth grade, and you already know them very well, but it could be a student’s first art class.

If there’s any reteaching that needs to happen, that needs to be taken into account. Kind of measure the tempo of student confidence and student independence. Do they have the confidence and independence to start working on their own from day one, and likely not. They will likely need some scaffolding to kind of get there. My second recommendation would be to focus your students through two or three or maybe even four structured projects in the first year.

You can use these initial projects to help students learn how to manage their time, work through processes like idea development, understand how to experiment with materials. That may not be intuitive for every student in your classroom. And then you can structure and scaffold these projects in such a way that over time the framework kind of loosens up and students have a better sense of how to manage their time.

I would also in these first couple of projects make sure that you’re requiring students to do research as a part of their work, asking them to intentionally self-reflect, build in critiques where peers can weigh in on each other’s work and to provide peer feedback. I mean, this just goes back to thinking about how this particular course fits in within the IB diploma program if a student is enrolled in that. Students often say that visual arts is the one class they spend the most time on.

Time management will be a key feature of students learning to balance the load of this course. That really kind of goes to the last point is that students will need to be developing their own ideas and start connecting their pieces together, but it may be a little bit chaotic at first. I think it’s sort of a teacher that’s gone through a structured curriculum and then maybe moves into a choice-based classroom.

This may be like that for you if you’ve never taught IB Visual Arts before, because you will have students that are working on 10 different media and 10 different sizes in all corners of the room. You might even have students working in media that’s unfamiliar to you. I had a student that was doing animation, and I don’t know how to animate. These kind of challenges sort of arise, but I think just know that it’s okay. You don’t need to know how to work with every single material out there.

Your goal as an IB Visual Arts teacher is to guide your students through these processes, to encourage them to develop the self-efficacy that they can kind of research ideas that they want to pursue. I think this sort of last point here is that as you’re thinking about setting up your curriculum, make sure that you set up a system to help keep your students accountable and on track. And that might look like a checklist, but it could include many reflections or one-on-one conferences, weekly peer check-ins, routine sketchbook submissions, or compiling a digital portfolio along the way.

Thinking about the artistic process and how messy it is, we know that generating original ideas and working through new processes isn’t always predictable. But having deadlines helps and offering flexible goal posts and check-ins will kind of like help guide your students shimmy their way to those sort of more firm deadlines. But there’s also a level of flexibility that you might realize you need to embrace within the IB Visual Arts classroom.

Tim: Yep, yep. No, that all makes sense. And like you said, a lot of that is just kind of best practice as far as reflection and learning about that process. As you were talking all that, I started thinking about the process portfolio and just sort of putting everything together. I guess my next question is about what this looks like at the end for students. Can you explain a little bit about each of the three assessment tasks, the comparative study process portfolio and the exhibition? Can you just give us kind of a quick overview or a quick explainer of each of those?

Shannon: Yeah, yeah. There’s two types of assessments in IB and one is internal and the other is external. Right off the bat, comparative study and the process portfolio are externally assessed by examiners, whereas the exhibition is assessed by the educator. That’s just one thing to kind of note off the bat. I’ll speak about the comparative study first, because it is connected to the other two, but it’s a little bit different. It’s worth 20% of the overall grade. It’s an investigation into artworks of other artists from varying contexts.

It’s a student-driven analysis and comparison of how, when, and why artists produce their works. The outcome of this will be a digital PDF. It could be produced using a PowerPoint or a slideshow program. Every single page in that is called a screen. HL students or higher-level students will have to produce more screens than their SL, standard level, counterparts. But ultimately, these screens are an analysis and an examination of at least three different artworks by at least two different artists.

One last distinction between the two levels of students is that higher-level students also need to make a connection about how their study has impacted their own art making practice. They need to link an understanding of theory back to the sort of practicality of making work. The other two assessments are the process portfolio and exhibition. I kind of grouped these two together because there’s one aspect that you sort of need to know in terms of how these two assessment tasks sort of roll out, which is IB defines three main areas of art production.

2D, which would be drawing, watercolor, printmaking, anything on a flat surface/three-dimensional forms, so that could be fibers, fashion, bookbinding, or sculpture, for example, and then digital and lens-based or electronic forms. That might include digital art, but it could also include video or animation. There’s a variety of different things. Students within the process portfolio and the exhibition will need to kind of play around with forms from these different areas.

That gets back to what I was saying earlier, which is that you might have students doing work in areas that you’re not familiar with, and that is okay. But starting with the process portfolio, it’s worth 40% of the overall score. The outcome will be a digital collection of evidence where students show and demonstrate conceptual brainstorming, how they’ve developed skills, how they’ve experimented with different materials and investigation into artists and their own self-reflection.

The process portfolio might pieces from a sketchbook, but it can also include digital documentation. If students are taking photos of a three dimensional work in process, then that digital documentation can be included in the portfolio. And then students might also submit other forms of evidence such as like screenshots for digital work. There’s a variety of different forms that the process portfolio might take. Ultimately, students submit a digital format, but they’re also called screens like in the comparative study.

What I like about this is just to say that students have the ability to show their sketchbook page, but then they might write additional annotations off to the side digitally to kind of highlight new reflections or insights that they might have in retrospect. The digital nature of the process portfolio is quite flexible. And then finally, with the exhibition, it is also worth 40%. It’s equally weighted to the process portfolio. Over the course of the two years, students will be making work.

At the culmination of the course, they need to select a series of resolved artworks that they’ve made with a variety of materials and to curate a cohesive exhibition. That exhibition might show a connecting theme or a connecting genre that ties the work together. Sometimes students will leave out artworks that they’ve made because they don’t fit with their concept, or maybe they realize that they detract from the overall quality of the exhibition.

Students will finally write a curatorial rationale, which is something like an artist statement, kind of connecting together the choices that they’ve made and the themes that they’ve put on display. They’ll also title their works. They’re able to write sort of a little exhibition text that goes along with each piece. Ultimately, the exhibition is digitally documented. Students would take photographs of each piece and submit that, as well as submit a photograph of the entire staged exhibition as well.

Tim: All right, that sounds really cool. I would really enjoy putting together something like that with students. I think that would be fun. Now, I wanted to also ask you, you gave us some advice earlier about a pacing guide and putting this together. I want to know if you had other advice that you might give people about developing a curriculum. I guess part of that too, when I started teaching AP Art, it was really helpful for me to talk to other teachers who had done it before and just kind of get advice from them.

Are there good ways for people to connect with other IB teachers? Do you have any advice in that regard as well?

Shannon: There is an element of working as a IB educator that might feel a bit siloing, depending on where you’re based and depending on your school district or the country in which you’re based. When I started out, I was the only IB Visual Arts teacher in my region, and I was the sole art teacher in my school. I had this sort of double effect and felt quite isolated from what all was going on in the rest of the world. For some educators, you’re going to have to work very hard to build up a tribe of peers.

But I will say that one of the best places has been Facebook. There’s several groups of IB teachers there. They’re private groups, so you might have to request to be added. But I find that the questions that are being posed there are very thoughtful. Sometimes people share artwork or share questions and receive a lot of feedback from one another. That’s one place to start. The IB website also offers a forum where you can pose questions, but I would say that Facebook is probably a bit more lively and accessible for people that want to kind of build up their own tribe.

I would also add something thing that I’m really glad that I did at a certain point was I asked to observe another IB Visual Arts teacher. I actually did this twice.I went back to my old high school, because I was actually in IB Visual Arts, and I asked if I could observe the course. That was really, really interesting. I observed my old art teacher teaching, but I happened to be in a city where I knew there was another IB Visual Arts teacher. I asked if she would mind if I can come and watch a class.

That was such a good choice. I had this chance to talk to her about her process, how she structured her curriculum. She shared a lot of resources with me, and we stay in touch to this day. I think you may need to be a little bit creative. In some districts, there might be one school that offers IB Visual Arts. It takes a little bit of additional work to kind of find that tribe. But once you kind of know one person who’s been doing it for a while, they will know other people and that network… You just need that one foot in. And then once you’ve got that, you’re kind of good to go.

Tim: Nice. Okay. And then one last question, kind of related to what you just said about the teacher observed, sharing resources. Are there general resources out there that are accessible to everybody? What kind of resources would you recommend for people who are trying to learn more or maybe trying to improve what they’re doing with IB Visual Arts?

Shannon: Yeah. There are two books that are available. They’re not the cheapest, but they’re also not crazy expensive yet, because they’re not out of print. But in 2017, two different books came out and one is Visual Arts for the IB Diploma Coursebook by Heather McReynolds, and there’s another one called the IB Visual Arts Coursebook Oxford IB Diploma Program coauthored by several examiners. Both texts break down criteria, share examples, offer ways and suggestions for how to develop the curriculum and create purposeful units.

Those are two that are pretty accessible just in terms of they’re available right now and available to find. Any school that is offering the IB diploma program will be required to ensure that the teachers get training. There’s a window of time in which that has to happen, but it’s important that you develop a relationship with your coordinator. It’s called the IB Diploma Coordinator, someone who kind of manages the entire program, and make sure that you advocate for yourself and ask for training.

I would recommend that you do a double training of level one and level two together simply because level one really just kind of goes over the curriculum guide, and I felt like level two is one that kind of goes a little bit deeper and talks about strategies and ways that you might format your curriculum a bit differently. Those opportunities to go to those trainings is also really crucial because you will meet other educators who are in a similar position to you. That’s an important tool.

Tim: Awesome. All right. Well, Shannon, thank you. I know we have lots more to dive into in part two of this, but thank you for the explainers. Thank you for just laying everything out for us. I really appreciate it and looking forward to talking to you again in the next episode. But thanks.

Shannon: Thanks, Tim.

Tim: All right. A lot to unpack there from that conversation. I think it’s going to take me a little while to process everything, to go through my notes, and to think about all of that. Overall though, I’m grateful to Shannon for coming on and sharing her experience and her expertise. And even better, we’re going to have more next week. We’re going to continue this conversation, go a little bit more in depth. In the meantime, feel free to check out her article. Again, it’s called 5 Points of Discovery to Unpack When You Teach IB Visual Arts.

I will make sure we link to that in the show notes, so you have easy access. That article can be a huge help with both explanations and visuals if you’re looking to learn more. Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. As I said, we’ll be back next week with Shannon with part two of our exploration on IB Visual Arts. We’ll talk to you then.

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.