Back in 1974, the musical innovator Brian Eno and the artist Peter Schmidt produced a deck of 113 cards called ‘Oblique Strategies’. On each card was an instruction or guidance to encourage a musician or artist to be able to laterally think their way through a creative block. When faced with the pressure of producing, they would often find that this very pressure would steer them away from productive ways of thinking, so they created the cards to jog their mind back towards these more, well, oblique ways of thinking. Here’s Eno discussing them in 1980:
“The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results. Of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, ‘Don’t forget that you could adopt *this* attitude,’ or ‘Don’t forget you could adopt *that* attitude.'”
The cards were famously used by Eno and David Bowie on the latter’s Berlin trilogy of albums – Low, “Heroes” and Lodger, and have been used by a number of artists since –bands such as R.E.M. and Coldplay, for instance. You can see examples of some of the cards below:
It’s recently come to my attention that similar cards were produced by the National Strategies team back in the early noughties: whilst plenty of their resources were of good quality, they sometimes suffered creative blocks when coming up with initiatives and materials for schools, so they produced their own set of Oblique National Strategies cards to help them get through these blocks. And what’s more, I’ve managed to get hold of some of these cards. Rumour has it that these are still used by some agencies, organisations and MATs. I’ve attached some of the cards below so that you can use them if you have any creative block in policy making. Just click on a card at random and follow the strategy written on it.
Over the past few years, I have been exploring the art history of teaching on this blog, sharing some of my favourite pieces of artwork across various topics within education. You can view my past blogs on these topics here:
In this blog, I will be exploring another area that has proved a rich vein for artists throughout time: the inset day. Let’s take a look at how this topic has been approached by artists through the years.
One of my favourite modern pieces is Patrick Caulfield’s 1969 classic ‘I don’t have to teach tomorrow… I might as well finish the bottle tonight’, which depicts the preparation teachers might go through the evening before an inset day. Other works around this theme include Pauline Boty’s ‘So What if This Film Starts at 10pm? I’ve Got Inset Tomorrow’ (1963) and Andy Warhol’s ‘Lie-in!’ (1967).
This kind of preparation continues into the next morning, as teachers take the opportunity of staff inset to dress casually for the day. The work below is a diptych by August Sander in 1929, titled ‘Inset day outfits’.
These contrasting photographs are beautifully observed, the artist depicting both P.E. staff and classroom teachers from the school’s faculty. Sander plays with the assumptions of the layperson here – they might assume that the P.E. staff are on the left and the classroom teacher is on the right. Of course, as those in schools all know, inset day is the one day of the year where all the male classroom teachers wear shorts and the P.E. staff wear long trousers – both experiencing a sense of liberation that they crave every other day of the year.
Once the inset day begins, teachers might have the option to sit in groups of their choice, or they might face the prospect of being made to work in groups that have been selected for them.
Thomas Struth’s 1989 photograph ‘This is the Group We Have Been Put In and We Are Really Happy About That’, shows an enthusiastic group of teachers really getting stuck in to working with the group into which they have been selected. This piece invites the viewer to really look at the faces of each of the group members to see their deep joy.
Once work begins within the group, staff will need to feed back their discussions and ideas on the subject matter of the training.
Ellsworth Kelly’s 1976-7 print ‘Write Your Ideas on a Post-it® and Stick Them it the Wall’ depicts the staple method of feedback used at all inset. The artist deliberately leaves the sticky notes blank, allowing the viewer to imagine their own feedback as they experience the painting. Critics note is that the central Post-it® note is black, and thus any writing on this note will be illegible to the reader: is the artist suggesting that your feedback won’t actually be read? Or is he suggesting that your true thoughts are hidden? What other interpretations might we make of this?
It may be that the inset training requires teachers to be creative in their feedback. Below are two examples portraying a common method of creative feedback from the past, in which teachers have been given some random objects to arrange in a way that represents their response to the subject matter. In Jean Tinguely’s 1970 sculpture ‘My Pedagogy’, the artist depicts a teacher who has been asked to present what pedagogy means to them. In this piece, there is a description alongside it that reads: “Pedagogy is a series of tools that are in balance but are also simultaneously in a state of chaos”. Below that, Bruce Lacey’s ‘This is What Teaching Means to Me’ (1966) also shows how easy it is for a teacher to put some random junk together and then come up with a post-hoc rationalisation that it represents something profound when asked. The description alongside this piece reads: “I dunno, summink about support and helping hands and that?”
An inset day may also require staff to get up out of their seat and do something interactive as it is often assumed by the trainer that teachers are all extroverts who wish to make public displays of themselves at all times. Liu Bolin’s work ‘Please, Please Don’t Make Me Do This’ (2018) portrays the a teacher in the moment they literally attempt to blend into the background so that they don’t have to get involved in something that makes them uncomfortable. If you look very carefully at the piece, you can actually see the teacher in the centre, hiding in plain sight from the trainer, who has just asked him to sing and clap along to a song, or make some form of physical contact with the person next to him, or perhaps even something as upsetting as standing up for a moment.
Below we can see Eric Gill’s representation of the holy grail of inset: having an external speaker come in to present to the staff. You can see the reverence from the staff as they hang on every word of this guru, who they’ve followed on social media for ages and have finally got the chance to hear speak in person. Critics have noted how the teacher depicted at the far end of the second row has a slightly dipped head, reflecting their disappointment at the revelation that the guru’s social media profile picture is infinitely more flattering than they appear in person and was probably taken five years ago, before the mounting sleepless nights and all-you-can-eat buffet breakfasts in Travelodges started to show.
One of my favourite pieces is Linder’s photomontage piece from 1976, ‘Oh good – that Ken Robinson video again’, a punk-era work that asks the viewer to think deeply about the media content we consume in schools.
During inset day there is often a free lunch put on for staff in the canteen at a set time of the day. Below, we can see Lady Butler’s 1881 painting, ‘The Charge of the Lunch Brigade’, which depicts the moment that one department decides to make their way to the canteen a bit earlier than the designated lunchtime in order to get served first, only to realise all of the other departments have done exactly the same thing. We can see the Head of Humanities, out in front in the centre of the painting, shouting “It’s fish and chips!” as he nears the canteen and gets his first glimpse of the food. Meanwhile, those behind try to hustle towards the front whilst simultaneously trying to maintain polite relations with their colleagues in other departments.
A legend often repeated with regards to staff training is that of inset bingo, a game in which staff members have individual bingo cards full of common buzzwords in education that they are supposed to mark off from their card if they are mentioned by the speaker. Perhaps the most famous painting of all time, below, is Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lotto di cazzate’ (Italian: “buzzword bingo”), which deals with the moment someone at the table has a winning card. Critics have often debated the sitter’s enigmatic smile and the reasons behind it, but art historians have recently uncovered diaries from da Vinci that tell us that “the teacher in question has just won the game of inset bingo and is trying to hide her delight and, at the same time, maintain a professional demeanour in front of the speaker and her line manager – this conflict results in her enigmatic smile, a seemingly insignificant feature of the painting which I’m pretty sure critics won’t pay much attention to in the years to come”.
I hope you have enjoyed this little voyage through some of the artists who have depicted inset day throughout history. Until next time!
“Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs Lancaster?”
“I don’t think so, but I could check with the kitchen.”
Groundhog Day (1993)
Ah, the classic time-loop trope: a staple of stories and films, this simple device sees our hero or heroine being forced to experience the same period of time repeatedly.
Now, we all know that teaching isn’t like that in the day-to-day. In fact, the idea that ‘no two days are the same’ is often cited as a reason why we all love this job.
But in the long term, there is actually quite a lot of repetition in education. And unlike Mrs Lancaster – Bill Murray’s landlady in Groundhog Day – we don’t need to check with the kitchen for evidence of déjà vu. No, in schools we have our more experienced colleagues to remind us.
“I remember this intervention/trend/fad/torture the last time it came around.” We’ve all heard this said. Or we’ve said it ourselves. Because it is one of the universal truths of teaching: like Madonna or West Bromwich Albion, ideas disappear and then return a few years later, rehabilitated and revamped, with an almost predictable frequency.
The time-loop trope in films is often used as a device of horror, or at the very least, grim frustration. And it can have the same effect in teaching.
I can’t even begin to tell you of the nightmares I’ve had about having to relive the hell that was APP again – an approach to assessment from the late noughties that involved lots of paper, huge amounts of priceless teacher time and yet still resulted in the same old subjective and inaccurate grades.
So why do I live in fear of someone bringing APP back from the dead? Surely we all know it was awful? Well, no, not all of us.
There will be people new to the profession who don’t remember the abominations of the past.
With good intentions, they will (re)invent this stuff and dump it into the laps of those who remember it the first time around, ignoring the defences from these battle-weary veterans of, “You don’t know, man! You weren’t there!”
So, how do we protect ourselves from this inevitable time loop? How can we prevent someone triggering our PTSD from a resuscitation of the PLTS? How might we avert a second attempt at a Brain Gym lobotomy? How do we avoid getting the shakes from VAK again?
The answer is to future-proof education. But I don’t mean by listening to the futurists – they’ve been playing guessing games, making guff up and getting it wrong for centuries.
(Incidentally, why do futurists never predict that in the future, people will look back at futurists’ ideas and laugh at how wrong they were? That would be a more prescient observation.)
No, I mean that we should – and can – future-proof education against the past. That’s where many of our most pernicious ideas come from (mea culpa: I don’t stand apart from these ideas – I’ve been complicit in many of them).
And that’s also where we have the evidence and experience to say with more accuracy: this idea is useful/of little use/downright damaging.
We can easily future-proof ourselves against these ghosts of the past, these reanimated corpses of past horrors, by reading widely around the ideas and making sure we know about the research and discourse that informs or refutes them.
Knowledge is power
There comes a point in all of these time loop narratives when the protagonist stops letting the grinding repetition get them down, when they stand up and take control of their own destiny; when they cry, as Bill Murray’s character declares in Groundhog Day, “I’m not going to live by their rules anymore.”
So when the APP gremlins multiply and take over thanks to some well-meaning yet oblivious individual feeding them after midnight, we should arm ourselves with the one thing that can protect against them: knowledge.
Know more about them than we are told. When we know more about the past, we are protected against the future. Only then can we be guided by the things that work. Then we won’t have to live by their rules again. And again. And again…
collective term for any of a range of words or phrases used in schools that sound like team names on The Apprentice, and thus should be treated with caution, e.g., resilience, relevance, rigour, facilitation, growth mindset, flight path, etc.
a receptacle used by pupils to fill with GCSEs at the end of their secondary education; they then take these buckets along to prospective colleges or employers and empty the contents out onto the desk of the admissions officer/manager in the hope that it will impress them enough to take them on.
/siː piː diː/
continuing policy dissemination.
an abstract phenomenon that was brutally murdered in 2006 by schools, who were themselves subsequently brought to justice by Chief Inspector Ken Robinson of the TED Police.
phenomenon whereby politicians, journalists, public figures and commentators identify a need or failure in society and automatically decide that schools should be the ones to pick up the slack of that need; this is usually announced through the press using the headline format “Schools should teach X“.
Dale’s Cone of Experience
/deɪlz kəʊn ɒv ɪkˈspɪərɪəns/
Ben & Jerry’s ice cream variety which combines invention and lies to create an overall flavour of scienceyness.
/just write it down and point to it/
(origin. German) word for the moment when a teacher seizes a youth trend in order to make their lessons seem cool and “relevant” and thus immediately kills the youth trend, automatically making it seem lame and joyless in the eyes of the children.
a school that teaches a general curriculum but which also aligns itself with a particular belief system based on the supernatural guidance of an exterior force and which is based on faith rather than empirical evidence; see also: edtech
fiddle toys that were absolutely necessary for many pupils to be able to concentrate in their lessons for a few months in 2017 until they went out of fashion and pupils were suddenly able to concentrate without them again.
/dʒiː diː piː ɑːr/
an elaborate and wide-ranging policy enacted solely for the purpose of forcing me to tidy my desk.
annoying man who walks around picking up things and asking, “What does this look like in the classroom?”
Lionel Richie challenge
a challenge undertaken upon being asked to cover an Art lesson in which the cover teacher, whilst pupils are working, attempts to find the clay head in the room that looks most like that of Lionel Richie in the ‘Hello’ video.
a framework of six skills identified by the QCA in 2006 to be “essential to success in learning, life and work” and identified by classroom teachers immediately afterwards to be a nebulous and vague distraction from the job of teaching; the six skills were Team Worker, Reflective Learner, Creative Thinker, Assistant Manager, Golden Retriever, Tiny Dancer.
Directed by Nicky Morgan and starring Vin Diesel, the eighth and latest instalment in the popular Progress franchise, a series concerned with school performance measures; other instalments in the series include The Rapid and the Sustained, Progress 2: EBacc in the Habit, Five A*-C (starring English and Maths), and International Progress: Singapore Drift.
Like maths, but better.
popular online website that cleverly taps into the gap in the education market for teachers who wish to buy back their own resources from people they once they gave them to for free.
Whilst rooting around in a local charity bookshop today, I came across a real treasure: Recipes for Teachers. It appears to be a collection of recipes put together to help busy teachers get through the working week. I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but I’m certainly going to have a go at some of them next week! I’ll let you know how I get on, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share with you some examples from the book. Maybe you could try making them yourself, or maybe you’ve used some of these recipes before? Let me know in the comments. Bon appétit!
One of the great things about talks and debates at education conferences is when the speakers open up to questions from the floor. But sometimes it is hard to work out exactly what certain questions are really getting at. Below is a handy guide to what the questioner is really asking when it comes to some of the more common questions.
I’m happy to present to you the third post in a series of art histories of education. Previously, we have looked at how artists have depicted both school inspections and the back to school season, and this time I thought I’d explore the history of exam season as depicted through art.
A common subject for artists depicting this period of frenetic preparation is that of the variety of revision techniques that pupils use. We’ll begin by discussing three paintings that take on this subject.
In ‘Highlighting the Key Ideas in the Text’ (c.1950-2) by Mark Rothko, the artist shows us how the pupil has smothered the entire text with his yellow highlighter, showing a lack of discernment between ‘the key ideas’ and ‘everything the writer has written’. You can see at the bottom of the page that the pen has actually run out of ink, much to the frustration of the teacher, who has only just bought this new set of highlighters out of their own pocket.
Another subset of revision art focuses on the use of flash cards. In the 1990s, British artist Gillian Wearing turned our perception of these as merely a revision tool on its head and created a piece entitled ‘The Flash Card of the Teacher’ (1992-3). In the piece, instead of photographing pupils with flash cards, she asked teachers, in the week before the final exam, to use the flash cards to express exactly how they are feeling as they try to ensure their pupils achieve their target grades. In an interview, the artist has stated that the teacher’s line manager is just out of shot in this image, frantically gesticulating and waving around a piece of paper containing the teacher’s performance management targets.
‘A Mindmap of Everything I Know About the Hydrological Cycle’ (1952) by Jackson Pollock is a portrayal of a common revision tool: the mind map, or thought shower. In this piece, the pupil has attempted to write down everything they know about the hydrological cycle, only to throw a tantrum when they realise that they didn’t really know as much as they thought they knew. Legend has it that Pollock actually invented his famous style of ‘drip’ action painting in this exact way: he was mindmapping everything he was taught about classical art techniques at art school when he realised he hadn’t paid much attention, so ended up spoiling his canvas in a fit of rage. That particular ‘painting’ was later bought by Kanye West for $117m.
As pupils find themselves on the precipice of exam leave, teachers are asked to give their 28th and final data drop of the year for their Year 11s. A major part of this data drop will include the need to predict their pupils’ GCSE grades. Whilst under previous specifications these predictions were fairly difficult, they have become an arcane act under the new 9-1 GCSEs. With 100% exam in many subjects, teachers no longer have any coursework grades as a basis, and combined with a lack of any direction as to how the raw marks will convert to actual grades, this has left teachers turning to the occult to make their predictions. In Wyndham Lewis’ ‘Predicting 9-1 Grades Just Before the Final Exams’ (1938), we see the teacher depicted calling on the help of the spirit world before drawing numbers randomly from a pack of cards prior to entering it into her prediction spreadsheet.
As the exams loom heavily over the class, the teacher finds themself offering extra lessons after school, at weekends and often during the Easter break. The painter John William Waterhouse captures such a moment in ‘Extra Revision Lessons’ (1884). There are a number of interesting details in this painting. Critics point out the look of frustration on the teacher’s face as she goes through something she has taught a few times already during regular lessons, remembering that some of the pupils in the room weren’t paying any attention then because they knew that their teacher would go back through it again in these extra lessons anyway. Another thought-provoking detail is the pupil with her head in her hands. Critics suggest that she is having a nap as she thinks that merely turning up to these extra lessons is sufficient for her pass her GCSE in the subject. It is likely that this pupil has also bought a revision guide which sits untouched but also carries a similar magical power.
As the exam rapidly approaches, a greater number of pupils begin to realise that they will have to start working harder. In ‘After Four and a Half Years of Avoiding Work, It’s Finally Clicked for Bobby’ (1852), the artist Robert Braithwaite Martineau shows the moment when a particular pupil who has lacked motivation for so long finally pays attention to the work he is being asked to complete. We can see the enigmatic look on his fellow pupil’s face as she peers over his shoulder, having endured many years of ‘Bobby’ distracting her and the rest of class. It is a look that has been interpreted in many ways by critics: from supportiveness and respect for his newfound work ethic to a smug ‘I told you so’ at his obvious struggle.
Many artists have tried to depict the experience of the exams themselves. Arguably the most famous painting of the exam season is Pablo Picasso’s ‘OMG Steph Told Me She Wrote Something Different For That Question and Now I’m Questioning My Entire Exam Paper’ (1937). There is a strong moral message in this painting as Picasso warns the viewer of the dangers of discussing the paper with other pupils after they leave the exam hall and the consequent feeling of doubt that will naturally ensue from this. The lurid red juxtaposed against the bilious green and yellow represents the conflict in the pupil’s mind as they go over everything they wrote and decide all of it is invalid because her friend wrote something slightly different to her on one of the questions.
The abstract impressionist Jasper Johns offers this painting to the genre. Entitled ‘I decided to doodle this pattern instead of answering the question and then I wonder why I ran out of time in the exam’ (1975-6), it is a work that pulls the viewer’s eyes in many directions and forces the reader to ask a variety of questions of the artist, questions such as: ‘How long did this doodle take… I mean, it seems really intricate?’ and ‘You’ve even used three different colours – why the hell would you do this?’ and ‘WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST TRY AND ANSWER THE EXAM QUESTION INSTEAD?’
Once exams are complete, pupils begin to think about results. This involves thinking about future plans – colleges, apprenticeships, careers. But more immediately, pupils must prepare for results day and how they will pose when a photographer from the local paper comes in to school. Pop artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘Practising Leaping for the Local Paper’ (1972) depicts a pupil preparing for just this moment. The work concentrates on the difficulty in getting airborne whilst maintaining a sense of joy and grace, and he sets the image of the pupil against a propulsion airplane to effectively illustrate this eternal struggle of flight.
Of course, whilst the exams are a worthy preamble, every pupil knows that the most important date during the exam season is the school prom. Whilst some pupils may spend lots of money and time and really throw themselves into the pomp and circumstance of the spectacle, Sir Frank Dicksee chooses one of the more understated and austere entrances for the subject of his painting ‘Arriving for Prom’ (1900).
This painting is a natural conclusion to some of my favourites on the subject of exam season. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
I'm just a teacher, standing in front of a class, asking them to be quiet and listen.