A-level sketchbooks: Unraveling GCSE and going (un)linear

I’m in no doubt of the benefits of studying GCSE Art, and I’ll happily poke you with my 2B if you care to argue otherwise. But there is one can of worms worth untangling, particularly within the context of our new linear A-level, and it’s this:

GCSE sketchbooks – are they a potential breeding ground for an unhealthy kind of perfectionism?

Maybe it’s a question worth asking.

What follows are a few scribbled thoughts, shaped by discussions with Year 12 Art students over the past 3 weeks. We’ve been unraveling some rich lines of inquiry, and it’s fair to say there’s a knot or two we’ve been gently picking away at.

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The benefits of GCSE sketchbooks are plentiful, and I’ve written about this before, albeit in the context of Photography study. However, sometimes, somewhere in the grade mangle – between good intentions, high expectations, time pressures and what-not – genuine experimentation (of the actual mistake-making, risk-taking kind) can become squeezed into something else, something a little more decorative, safe and, well, quite linear, actually.

To my mind, GCSE Art shouldn’t be compressed into a step-by-step, AO-by-AO, cover-to-cover journey. And if the gaps in a sketchbook start to dictate the amount of written analysis, alarm bells really should be ringing. The same could be said for practical responses to artworks:  A neat A6 size gap, between text and printed example, is no place for experimenting like Jackson Pollock. This might just be missing the point.

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The new linear A-level does raise some interesting contradictions to GCSE behaviours though. Students are being asked to keep a sketchbook in Year 12 to document their learning, yet these sketchbooks are unlikely to be submitted for final assessment; students need to make mistakes and be more exploratory, yet sketchbook pride can often restrain this; teachers in the habit of post-it noting quick gains, e.g. add artist ‘research’ here (i.e. stick a picture in and move on), need to focus on developing a deeper understanding – securing knowledge over token written evidence…

And so on.

There’s certainly lots to unpick in Year 12. Exciting though, and – note to my Year 12s – it really is okay to go off-track, to seek alternative routes. And wrong turns are perfectly fine too. Please feel free to think hard and play seriously.

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We are 3 weeks into our new A level Art course and as it is, my group – 21 in total, from a variety of schools, not all having done GCSE – are an absolute treat. I’m simply shaking the last cat out of the bag here, as we set about establishing our new classroom culture.

We have begun with 3 key strands: Threshold Concepts, Drawing Timelines (The Scribbling Stage), and The Visual (or Formal) Elements. Ironically it is far from linear – way more tangled; intentionally challenging. The plan is to promote deeper thinking. I like to think of it as Tarrantino-style planning, rewarding moments of realisation await (others call it simply confusing).

Anyhow, I’m very excited about the start we’ve made. More to follow in the next post.

Any thoughts on the differences between A-level and GCSE? Can we inadvertently create hurdles for A-level study through an obsession with grades? Please feel free to add your thoughts below, or kick mine about further.

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