Saturday, 30 July 2011

Thomas Ablett at BGS

As promised in ‘Ability to draw’:

Thomas Robert Ablett (1848-1945) lived long enough to see great changes in the nature of art education. As a young man he taught art at Bradford Grammar School and, choosing to depart from the contemporary practice of hard outline drawing in pencil, encouraged the children to draw freely from memory and imagination, maintaining that the so-called Freehand Drawing of the Department of Science and Art was not freehand at all, but rather attempted geometrical drawing without instruments. His success at Bradford led to his appointment to the London School Board in 1882.

In 1888 Ablett read a paper to the Society of Arts on drawing as a means of education, and he was encouraged in that year to found the Drawing Society. Lord Leighton, Holman Hunt, Lewis Carroll, Sir John Tenniel, Viscount Bryce and Lord Baden-Powell were early supporters ; and Princess Louise, the artist daughter of Queen Victoria, was the Society's president from its inception to her death in 1939....

Ablett also organized graded art examinations and, by this means and by its exhibitions, the Society has since discovered and assisted many budding artists from Britain and abroad with awards and advice. Out- standing artists who received early encouragement from the Society included Sir William Rothenstein, Rex Whistler, Sir Gerald Kelly, P.R.A., Edward Halliday, Claude Rogers, A. R. Thomson, Robert Austin, and Anna Zinkeisen. Drawings by Whistler submitted from the age of five, and 'Babyland', are still in the possession of the Society.
Ablett made two notable contributions to methods of art education. One of these, 'written design', arose from his conviction that a child would get delight from drawing and arranging letters freely, and consisted of using letters of the alphabet as motifs for design. The modern practice of letter patterns for juniors and Marion Richardson's 'writing patterns' stemmed from Ablett's written design.

'Snapshot drawing' was Ablett's other innovation. The child was encouraged to observe an object carefully but quickly, say a plant or figure, and then draw it when removed from view. It was one variation on Boisbaudran's system, others being Catterson Smith's 'shut-eye drawing' and Marion Richardson's mental imagery. Lord Baden Powell took up this method from an early age and later introduced 'snapshot drawing' for tests for the Scout's artist's badge, appointing Ablett as examiner.

Both Cooke and Ablett arrived at their views on child art primarily from the current new theories of child education and psychology, rather than from a special appreciation of the aesthetic merit of child art. This is evident from the phrases used by Cooke in his paper of 1885: 'exercise of function . . . to evolve expression . . . to stimulate voluntary mental activity' ; and from the words of Ablett, such as 'freedom' and 'muscular sense is the element'. Ablett arrived at his methods by grasping a psychological principle. Like Bain, he believed that art must arise from an instinct of which the fulfilment was pleasurable emotion. Ablett called his system 'Drawing from Delight', and his belief that art must be primarily delight led him to seek appropriate media, such as brush and paint, for the child, suitable for easy and natural manipulation.

Both Cooke and Ablett pioneered investigations into children's scribbles and were deeply interested in the theories of Sully, which were made known to a wide public in the nineties.

From MacDonald, Stuart, History and Philosophy of Art Education. U of London Press, 1970, 327-8 -- excellent book I found when trying to find out why Britain, uniquely in Europe and America, had a respectable art school/college in nearly every significant town. Turns out it was the efforts of one man, Henry Cole, the man behind the Crystal Palace. (Other good books turned up in the same quest were by Carline, Draw They Must : a History of Teaching and Examining of Art, and Bonython and Burton, The Great Exhibitor: The Life and Work of Henry Cole.)

Does art education any longer have a connection with child psychology, let alone with the Boy or Girl Scouts and the Royal Family? (Prince Charles, perhaps?)

Incidentally the inspiration behind these guys -- Ablett and, before him, Ebenezer Cooke - and the first to take up arms against the Science and Art Department that controlled the art exams and grants -- was Ruskin.

Bradford Grammar School has, or had, a Delius Music Room and a Rothenstein Art Room.  If the second art room hasn’t been named it should clearly be the Ablett Art Room.

Learning to draw in Canada

As promised in the posting ‘Ability to draw’. Two recollections:

Groups of 4th year architecture students at Carleton University, Ottawa, would spend a term in Rome. I heard an account of one such trip from a student who’d been on it. The students made their way independently to Rome and met at a pre-arranged time in a pre-specified square. When the tutor, Tom Dubacanik (not sure of spelling -- Serbian in name, I believe, and un-PC in speech), arrived after all were gathered, his first words were , ‘Draw, you fairies! Get sketching! What do you think you’re here for?’

Their work was every day of the term to complete 4 drawings, double-elephant size, which I think was like A1 in the Napoleonic hemisphere, the largest standard size of cartridge paper. Tom D’s aim was that they should draw as readily as speaking -- no conscious processes between ‘hand and eye’. By all accounts it worked -- whatever their deficiencies they ended up able to draw -- though what they learned about architecture I didn’t gather. The displays I saw over the years in the School of Architecture were graphically stunning. I don’t know how far the tradition continues now design has become such a computerised business.

Second recollected story: Steve Fai had a 1st year group. He set them to draw self-portraits in front of a mirror. Each week one assiduous and dedicated student brought his work in and Steve, recognising the effort, awarded him 2 marks -- out of 20 -- with the instruction to do it again. One week (5? 6? 7? don’t remember) the lad came in and said, ‘I've got it!’ and he had. Steve gave him 18 and there was no looking back.

I don’t know if learning to draw is like that for everyone for whom it hasn’t already come naturally. Perhaps for others it’s incremental; perhaps that kid was unusual. I’d like to know.

Ability to draw

I've always been struck by 19th and early 20th century writers were always doing sketches of each other and of the places they were staying in. Almost every writer whose biographies you look has been drawn by one of his friends or siblings, few of whom are known as artists. I’ve noticed it in English and Russian writers, and none of the drawings I've seen are bad. I’d be proud to have done any of them.
How did they learn? in the sorts of schools these writers went to -- the men anyway -- they wouldn’t have taught drawingl, would they? not in any serious way that would yield the sort of results we see.
I did O level art by going to the Art Club after school and though I wasn’t much good at drawing, I did make a start. But I've made no effort since and now I want to learn. I’d like to put drawings on (blank) postcards from my trips abroad as so many people used to, and do animals and scenes for the kids on letters, birthday cards and the like. And amuse myself in boring meetings or when telly’s boring...
So I've had a look online at evening classes that are offered round my way. There are indeed a few but I don’t think they’re what I need. I know what I need: it’s lots of practice in front of things, scenes and people, with other people so we can motivate each other and with a helpful tutor who’ll set the tasks and give advice.
Instead what I find is the usual course description bollocks that’s perhaps the effect of having to meet government vocational criteria to teach anything at all -- the idea of education for leisure or self-improvement having been expunged from the purposes of colleges and institutes. Thus:

Skills will be developed step by step through a series of carefully designed exercises.
We will start with the basics - how to hold a pencil - and progress at the end of six weeks to drawing a portrait with a difference!

A topic for each lesson follows, with objectives. The first is

Aim:  To realise the importance of objective observation in drawing.

Following an introduction to the course and basic studio craft, students will experiment with the mark making possibilities of different materials.

Then we have Relationships, Negative Spaces, Light and Shade, Making Plans and finally

A Drawing !
Aim:  For students to produce a rewarding drawing using all skills practised to date and testing their skills of objective observation.

Well, it might work -- much depends on the tutor and, as I say, the reality may be much more flexible.

But my instincts and educational experience are all against this approach. I disagree with the philosophy of starting with component sub-skills and only in lesson 6 putting them together. It’s fifty years since we realised that you don’t develop writing ability by first teaching words, then sentences, then connections, then paragraphs, but by having the kids writing a complete piece, even if only a sentence as long as it’s real writing and not a ‘carefully designed exercise’ -- from Day 1.

(Actually art teachers, too, knew this, as long ago as the 1870s, including one Thomas Ablett at Bradford Grammar School -- and they organised to resist the government’s prescriptions -- on which schools’ funding depended then too -- of exercises in drawing cubes, spheres and pyramids. I'll do a separate posting on Ablett.)

I want to be in a group that sits by the Thames and draws the ash tree opposite, or the bridge and buildings down the river or an old chap on a bench -- and myself, that too, as included in the exercises on the course. As for mark-making and how to hold a pencil, let the tutor show me the possibilities when I'm struggling with the foliage or the hairy surface of a coat. Knowledge at point of need, is the slogan for this sort of practical learning, not ‘front-end-loaded’ as David Layton used to say when talking at Leeds University about design and technology education.

I want to be able to sit down in front of something, or just with memory and imagination, and draw something that looks like it and is nice to look at.  How's that for sophisticated?

There’s another way to do it, one I was aware of in Carleton University (Ottawa) School of Architecture, where the standard of drawing was out of this world. But that calls for a separate post. Another separate post.

Private or public ownership 2

A response from John Medway (MSc Econ), together with a chat, have made things somewhat clearer. He draws attention to the big thing I’d missed out, the market.

John kindly allows me to quote his email:

No, there isn't a simple answer. However...:-

1) In a well-functioning free market a Darwinian process operates. Efficient companies evolve through natural selection - the inefficient ones go to the wall. This doesn't automatically happen in the public sector, though governments can intervene to rectify the grossest inefficiencies by replacing staff etc.

2) In any organisation there is a "client-agent problem". How do you get your staff to perform well and in furtherance of the aims of the organisation? This was Jim Hacker's problem with Sir Humphrey, who was usually able to bend decisions in favour of his own and fellow mandarins' interest. I think this happens in the private as well as the public sector but the Darwinian process in the private sector keeps it in check.

Perhaps we there have the makings of a simple answer. By allowing a private sector to flourish, we allow a process of evolution to take place to ensure that producers become ever more efficient.

However where there are natural monopolies this Darwinian process can't work effectively. Furthermore, if we try and create artificial competition (eg through bidding for railway franchises) we may gain something but we may lose something along the way. It is said that Switzerland runs its public services very well as purely public operations and in doing so has created a public service ethos in its workforce that others envy. The French experience is less clear cut. French railways seem very good by our standards but are also reputed to be overmanned and very heavily subsidised. No simple answer there.

And poor service on French railways, I’d add -- offhand officials, terrible at communications when there’s a holdup. Contrast DeutscheBahn, in my experience (never been on a train in Switzerland).

As John added when we talked, a considerable and critical slice of British organisations is natural monopolies to which market forces can’t readily apply.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Private or public ownership

I'm constantly realising basic things I don’t know about economics.

Here’s one. Why do we have private firms? Shouldn’t public organisations be better because they don’t have to make a profit so all their takings can go back into the enterprise? and because they can be run entirely for the public good and not for private profit? Just think of those cases when public/private are clear alternatives, such as utilities and railways.

Is it because public organisations are inherently inefficient (badly run) that they’re so out of favour? And that it necessarily takes the profit motive to get people to run things well?

Public companies (which aren’t of course public in the sense that the NHS is -- or was) have shareholders. The money people have paid for the shares is what the company runs on, as well as its takings. The reason people buy the shares is that their value may grow and that the company pays dividends. A public enterprise doesn’t have to pay dividends.

A public enterprise does, however, have to have money -- the equivalent of the money a company gets from the sale of its shares. The money comes, most likely, from loans on which the interest is paid out of the takings, if any (from train fares, for instance) and taxes. (A company, too, of course, may borrow money, on which interest has to be paid, but for simplicity let’s leave that out of account.)

Are companies deemed to be more efficient because the sale of shares does away with the need to borrow money and hence the cost of interest? and because the cost of paying dividends is less than that of paying interest?

If I don’t understand stuff like this, the case for economics in schools seems clear.

If someone enlightens me, I'll gladly post their corrections.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Hyderabad/UK: call centres/models of education

On two occasions a year apart I've had to call Technical Support about interruptions to my broadband. The first led to a protracted nightmare of communications in which the main problem was the inability of the person at the other end of the line in India to understand what I was talking about. This wasn’t a matter of language in the narrow sense of linguistic forms or accent but of a lack of the experience that would enable them -- there were a number of them on different days -- to envisage my situation, resulting in the successive dispatch by email of the same irrelevant questions after each call. Finally I got, also in India (I think) a more senior person with experience of what was involved in grappling with computers in real situations.

I had to call again a few days ago and this time I got an Irish chap who couldn’t have been better -- I’d use him any time as a model for customer relations. It’s clear that the company -- let’s give them the credit: TalkTalk -- had moved their call centre (back?) to the UK or Ireland. This person knew what I was talking about, made an immediate guess at what the problem might be, gave me something to try, tried something himself while I discontinued the call and called me back when he’d said he would. Meanwhile something he’d said had reminded me that I had a spare microfilter (to go between the phone socket and modem/router cable) and I’d tried substituting it, which had appeared to solve the problem. He agreed this had improved things but because he’d nevertheless noted a problem with my line was going to put in for a full test by the engineers which would report to me within 10 days -- if not I was to call again and he’d nag them.

The following comparison occurs to me. The junior people in India have been trained by the book, learning by heart what to say when confronted with this or that specified problem. When the problem is reported in different terms or isn’t exactly the textbook case they’re lost. Compare learning in English schools to meet specified ‘targets’ or evaluations by precisely specified criteria; learners pass the tests but don’t know the subject.

My Irish expert knew his way around IT. He’d learned by immersion in the field as well as from formal instruction in the discipline. He’d experienced the muddiness of real-world, ill-defined, multi-explanation problems and had the profession’s collectively built and informally disseminated know-how as an unspecifiably extensive web of resources to draw on.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Walworth/Mina Road writing topics: Harvey and Rosen

I've been wondering if there was such a contrast as I’ve thought between the English teaching of Arthur Harvey and Harold Rosen (and successors at Walworth/Mina Road School in the 1940s and 50s).

The impression I've had is that Harvey set titles for writing that were either wild imagings or literary/purple prosish. Examples of the first that we’ve collected are ‘My Wild White Cat’ and ‘The Red-Headed Man with a Glass Eye’ and of the second ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ or ‘Observing the weather through the front room window’. Rosen on the other hand would be after writing about your real life in family and street -- grandparents, uncles, weddings, an adult who frightened you.

But looking more carefully at the information people have told us or sent us I note that Harvey also set the following, which seem exactly Rosen’s sort of topic:

Conversation at the fish and chip shop
At the barber’s
Waiting outside the pub

The last in particular taps into the vivid local experience of kids living in Walworth, Bermondsey or Peckham.

Readers who were there, can you recall more subjects set by Walworth teachers in the period (1949-64) of Harvey, Rosen, John Dixon and their colleagues? Share them by a comment on here, if you can work out how to do it (a pain) or, much easier, by an email to or a comment on our website, Whichever, we’ll be grateful and you’ll be contributing to history!

Friday, 15 July 2011

Swallows, Surbiton & telegraph poles

After writing the last post I went out and realised for the first time that there are no telephone wires, which may be one reason why I haven’t seen many swallows in the past. I'm sure there were wires and poles where I lived in Bradford (tram wire poles as well!), Wakefield, Newton Abbot and Leeds.

Let alone Ottawa. One of the best reasons for returning to England was the ugliness of North American towns, all -- as far as I recall -- disfigured by overhead lines, not only for telephones but power lines.

Swallows in Surbiton

Never seen so many from my back window as this year. Usually it’s the odd one or two at very infrequent intervals, but now I see them often and 6-10 at a time. Is this because it’s been such a warm spring and summer, or have new nesting sites become available or been chosen by them? I’d love to know where they are nesting.

Swallows are for me the most magical bird, for the gusto of their flying and their migratory lifestyle. One of things I envy my sister for, living in rural Pembrokeshire, is that every year she sees them return to nest in the eaves and barns and can watch them wheeling and swooping all summer long, and finally watch them lining up on the telegraph wires read to ‘go back where they came from’ -- to everyone’s regret.

It’s one of the things I’d most like to live in the country for (impracticable idea -- where would I see my Miro exhibitions, browse in big bookshops, hear 20 different languages a day, see big orchestras, consult an Apple Genius bar and attend talks on Adam Smith, new archaeological ideas on ‘the social mind’, Rimbaud and the prospects for the euro? quite apart from getting livened up at least once a week by the company of clever, funny and nice academic colleagues.)

If the swallows decided to nest in the roof of our flats in Surbiton, that would be the perfect solution.

The year the swallows don’t return will feel like the end of the world.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Education needs to be long

In order to flourish, some people need to continue in education beyond 18, but the education that group needs is often neither of the alternatives on offer in England: vocational, for trades or professions, and academic, for induction into university disciplines.

A case in point. In Canada I was able to take over and run for ten years an undergraduate course in which I had considerable freedom. It wasn’t a required element for qualifying in my department’s discipline of linguistics and it was taken by students from a variety of programmes, from second year to fourth. The course was called ‘Writing: Theory and Practice’. You could summarise it as Writing: What it is, how it’s done, what it does, how it’s learned.

Though elementary school teachers on day release from local schools had been the original intended clientele, they had (thankfully for me) stopped being released and no longer attended in any numbers; instead, regular undergraduates flocked in -- a far more appealing group to work with. Gearing the course primarily to the teaching of children in classrooms no longer seemed appropriate so while retaining the material on research into the writing process, together with theories of writing, I tried to make it relevant to students studying university disciplines and, above all, to enable students to understand and extend their own writing, and realise how writing can be a means of making ideas come and getting thoughts into order. That is, to experience the heuristic function of writing.

I devised occasions and tasks that would get the students writing in a variety of genres. Some students claimed at the end that this had resulted in their papers/essays in their other courses improving, while some discovered a talent for short stories. Most significant, I think, was my encouragement of the regular production of unspecialised informal writing on the content of the readings and lectures. Such productions are often called logs or journals but what I was after was something more intellectual and more intelligent than the familiar work that comes under those labels, having had a bellyful of the usual wordy and self-indulgently expressive gush in too many summer courses. I was after ideas and thought.

Some found this sort of writing liberating and claimed it was their first experience of doing writing into which their thoughts could flow. It seemed to accompany an intellectual awakening, a broadening of vision beyond disciplinary boundaries and a taking hold of education as something one was doing for oneself -- though I realise it’s easy to claim too much and there was no proper evaluation.

This relatively unregulated writing, while it had its moments of sparky perceptiveness and rhetorical brio, was not what anyone would call ‘good writing’. It was, however, good mental activity and educationally valid in that students began to learn to connect their writing to their minds. The experience started to make writing an intellectual resource -- with effects, too, I thought, on how the students read the prescribed texts.

As tends to happen with me, I found that I continued to have contact with students who’d proved particularly interesting or on a roll, the ones (by no means all) for which this sort of course was just right at this point in their education. It was right because of those features that made it not a conventional university course, though I’d claim it was just as intellectually demanding. What it didn’t do is teach people how to write the approved political science or English Literature or psychology essay.

One student for whom the course apparently worked went on to take one or two graduate courses, having time on his hands over the summer. One was taken by a professor (North American usage: = any sort of university teacher) for whom I had great liking and respect, as did his students who had a good time with him and learned a lot. Having flourished throughout the course with my colleague, this student did his final assignment which was predictably lively and personal -- along the lines I’d been hospitable to -- but got back, along with an appreciation of the thinking, an adverse comment on the writing: observance of conventions, referencing, marshalling of evidence and arguments. All absolutely valid points to pick up in a graduate course -- but baffling to the student who legitimately asked, though not to the teacher and perhaps not explicitly to himself: ‘Who but a specialist in a discipline, which I'm not trying to be, would care about such stuff? what matters is the ideas and the thinking I do around them. I'm not submitting an article to an academic journal.’

The prof did his job superbly, to teach a Masters level course in Applied Language Studies. The young man, though, was into getting a broad education, and developing as someone who could use writing to further his thinking and learning. As someone for whom the world of ideas with its vistas and excitements was just opening up, he was back with the sort of mismatch that had characterised his experience in all his academic courses: they simply weren’t what was needed by a mind developing as his was after emerging from a narrow high school curriculum and needed, above all, free play in the domain of ideas and knowledge. The suggestion that he conform to academic writing standards was simply irrelevant to someone who was a way off from even contemplating a higher degree of the sort the course was located in -- though he found the ideas and texts in the course stimulating and mind-enhancing.

There thus needs to be a way for young men and women who leave high school -- and indeed, in England, who leave year 9 or 10 (at 13 or 14) -- to do something that is not a disciplinary induction and socialisation but yet is rich in ideas and knowledge. Does such an education anywhere exist?