Threshold Concepts for Art (and possibly the best CPD ever).

Recent blog posts here have been few and far between, partly due to the enjoyable distractions of our Photopedagogy project. Working with Jon Nicholls to develop our Threshold Concept resources has been a real treat (if you haven’t come across them yet you can dip your toe in here).



The benefits of kicking about challenging and troublesome ideas to shape something of value should not be underestimated. Thinking hard about Threshold Concepts (for photography) – the BIG IDEAS that help students develop a deeper understanding – has been some of the best professional development I have undertaken. Doing so has provoked me to question existing knowledge, to read deeper and to research wider. Importantly, the difficult process of writing about each concept (difficult at least for me, Jon has a way for words – knows long ones and how to arrange them quickly) has helped me to improve as a teacher. I’ve ordered my thoughts better, and as a result they exit my mouth clearer. Hopefully.

If nothing else A STACK OF RESOURCES now exists for us – Jon, myself, even you (free resources! Yey!!) – to draw upon, or to point our students towards in times of need.

Anyhow, as one journey ends – or at least one part of that particular adventure (exciting plans in the pipeline for Photopedagogy) – another one begins…

Developing Threshold Concepts for Art

I have been thinking about TCs for Art for a while, as has Jon, alongside his art colleagues at Thomas Tallis School. We decided to bang our thoughts together, via google docs, to see what emerges. What follows is not the finished article; it is probably not possible to have a definitive set of TCs for art. So, plenty of unpicking to be done, and I’m going to have a crack at illustrating them also (more of that to follow). BUT it’s fair to say we’ve enjoyed thinking hard about these. You can view the full conversation here, feel free to add your own thoughts. (WARNING: might contain nutty ideas).

Developed by Chris Francis and Jon Nicholls

TC#1: Artists make marks, drawing our attention
Mark making, often in the form of drawing, is considered to be the foundation of art – a way of thinking visually. It can be used for different purposes and is a powerful form of communication. The meanings of marks made are less fixed and tend to be ‘drawn’ by the viewer.

TC#2: Art communicates, in every sense
Art, in many forms, tells us of our past, present and future, shaping and influencing our lives in significant ways. Art has the capacity to communicate directly with our nervous systems, it is not dependent on language or logic. Words do help us interpret and share our understanding of art.

TC#3: Art has its own vocabulary, shaped across time and space
Works of art consist of formal and visual elements (such as line, shape, form, pattern, texture, colour etc.). These elements combine to communicate in many ways, often suggestive of histories and traditions.

TC#4: Artists use (and abuse) traditions
Artists learn the ‘rules’ and conventions so they can decide when to break them. Some artists work within established traditions, others tease and disrupt these in alternative ways. Definitions of art are always changing; artists don’t always like to be defined.

TC#5: Artists play, with materials and failure
Art is a playful activity and a practical, emotional and intellectual adventure. Artists trust their intuitions and work with a wide range of materials exploring their resistance. Artists take risks, embrace ‘happy accidents’ and learn from ‘mistakes’.

TC#6: Art engages; head, hands, heart
Artists use their heads, hands and hearts, to varying degrees, during the creative process. Art appeals to the body and the mind. To engage with a work of art a viewer might also employ all of their senses; Art is not just an intellectual exercise.

TC#7: Art is not fixed in meaning; context is everything
The meanings of artworks are never fixed; what the artist intends and what the viewer understands may be different. Our individual interpretations of art are rarely the same but shaped by our knowledge, experiences and prejudices.

TC#8: Art has value, in unequal measures
The value of art can be measured in different ways – personal, cultural, social, economic, political, and so on. Works of art and artists are not equally valued. Artists can be marginalised because of prevailing social attitudes. Attitudes to the value of art change over time.

TC#9: Art makes people powerful, for good and bad
Art has the potential to influence human behaviour. It can evoke emotion and provoke action, shaping the world for good and bad. Art empowers us to notice, pay attention and question. It is a way of understanding and expressing our existence.


If you are an art teacher, student…whoever….please do add your thoughts below. What are the big, art related ideas that you have come up against? What knowledge – from your own creative experiences – have you found particularly troublesome?

Go on, join the conversation, it’s good to share.


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