Story/Interview November 21, 2022
How sharing art is helping students build confidence
Joanna Middleburgh, Head of Art at King’s InterHigh, says art is far more than craft and portraits. To truly understand a creative work, we need to know about history, culture and society too. As our Head of Art, she’s helped shape a curriculum that enables students to see the world in new ways.
A big part of her work involves helping learners find their confidence. She’s found the more she helps learners recognise that they’re doing great work (and they always are), the more willing they are to try something new and share this with their peers.
Joanna trained as a portrait painter with a BA (Hons) at Edinburgh College of Art. She followed this up with a Master’s degree in contemporary art history, which led to her working with art consultants and, eventually, as an art consultant herself. Working in London, she would visit galleries on behalf of her clients, scouting for artworks they could add to their collections.
After moving to New South Wales, Australia, for her physicist husband’s job, she began training as a teacher. Here, she became deeply interested in the local teaching syllabus – something that would later inform her own approach to education.
Then came a move to Sweden. She took on her first full-time teaching role in an international school and, after three years, moved back to the UK. This is when Joanna joined King’s InterHigh.
She says her time in art consultancy gave her a great understanding of the creative industries, and of the relationship between artists and the world around them. Another part of her role included scouting for new talent. “I learned a lot about commission and the value of art,” she tells us.
Using PowerPoint and Photoshop, she would virtually display artworks on walls so clients could see what this would look like. She uses those skills now to create exhibitions for students, and for showcasing work to our school community.
She also uses the New South Wales approach to art education to help shape the art programme at King’s InterHigh. “It got me really interested in theory, criticism and art history,” she explains. “The Arts are more than just craft. We teach the socio-economic, the moral, the political and the cultural aspects innate to every artwork. We teach about the historical influence from the time it was created alongside how we might view it today, what influenced the artist and what their motivation was, to understand their work.”
“The Arts are more than just craft. We teach the socio-economic, the moral, the political and the cultural aspects innate to every artwork. We teach about the historical influence from the time it was created alongside how we might view it today, what influenced the artist and what their motivation was, to understand their work.”
Being in a virtual art classroom means Joanna can’t deliver lessons the same way as she used to. But rather than see this as a challenge, she relishes the opportunity to take a new approach to things like gallery visits and exhibitions. “We’re developing a number of virtual walkthroughs, using Google Street view and virtual reality (VR).”
Joanna uses a variety of different resources to deliver online art lessons. She has a document camera to demonstrate techniques to students directly from her desk. Using several monitors, cameras, lights, and a drawing tablet, she’s able to show learners all aspects of a project in real-time. Her shelves are full of different arts equipment, which is used when the time is right. When creating something in 3D or producing stop-motion animation, she’ll display her document camera horizontally across her desk.
Thanks to her, students have several ways of sharing their work virtually. These include discussion threads, a digital sketchbook template, and the Art Noticeboard. All it takes to get students creating, collaborating and sharing their work is a little encouragement.
“I’ve found the more I celebrate work and tell learners that they’re brilliant (because they are), the more they are inspired and motivated to be creative and develop their unique creative voice,” she says. For her, it’s about helping build students’ confidence. “I think many children who join King’s InterHigh struggle with confidence and don’t realise they have valuable ideas. Building confidence is a huge part of what we do, and it really does make a difference.”
Joanna also uses the Art Noticeboard to advertise competitions, events and student work, alongside the Inspired Education Group’s Music and Arts competitions. Recently, there was a September Art Competition to help students learn their way around and show off their artworks to kick off the year, which received over 200 submissions. There’s also the autumn virtual gallery, and the Spooky Halloween gallery. Plus, last year’s end of year show and artist of the year awards, among others.
“I’ve found the more I celebrate work and tell learners that they're brilliant (because they are), the more they are inspired and motivated to be creative and develop their unique creative voice. Building confidence is a big part of what we do.”
More Than Art
Positive feedback for Joanna’s teaching is plentiful, from both students and teachers. We ask her for some examples. She recalls a parent getting in touch to praise her team for instilling confidence in her son. “She said her child felt really proud of himself and the work he put in,” she remembers. “She went on to say it’s changed his impression of art, and he’s learned more about the freedom he can have to express himself.”
There’s also a story from a Year 11 student, about cultural understanding, sensitivity and appropriation in art. The art course helped broaden their view of art for the better.
“This student wrote to me and said that her perspective changed after learning about the systemic bias in the art historical canon and that she now realises how much of a problem that is”, Joanna tells us. “She found actively searching for minority artists representing diversity took her so much longer than she expected,. She said she realised that she had a false image of an art world that wasn’t representing her. Our Year 11 body of work looks to redress this imbalance, and she’s loved relating to more diverse artists and applying this to her work, so it resonates more with her.”
Joanna believes it’s crucial for art to be a core subject in schools, as it connects all subjects and helps our students make sense of our world. “To understand art, you need to know about history, socio-political influence, innovation, and cultural values. Art helps you identify meaning through visual language, critical analysis and interpretation of the understated nuance that the world presents. This leads to deeper and transferable understanding in other subjects. It helps students develop autonomy in their own research, projects, and ideas. That’s why art is so important.”
“To understand art, you need to know about history, socio-political influence, innovation, and cultural values. Art helps you identify meaning through visual language, critical analysis and interpretation of the understated nuance that the world presents. This leads to deeper and transferable understanding in other subjects. It helps students develop autonomy in their own research, projects, and ideas. That’s why art is so important.”