In the weeks following GCSE and A’Level results, thousands of teenagers across the UK are negotiating themselves through the minefield of contemporary education.
The Joint Council for Qualifications recently reported that the number of students taking Art subjects at secondary and further education level is down 20.29% since 2010 and down a further 7.72% since just last year. Proving The Big Draw’s objective to highlight drawing and art as a core subject, in an already overly streamlined curriculum, to be more vital than ever.
We have numerous advocates, patrons, researchers and wonderful associates working for this cause, many of whom have been with us from our inception in 2000, when the Campaign for Drawing began.
Enter author, educator, consultant and researcher, and one-woman whirlwind, Eileen Adams. Eileen has successfully published and lobbied alongside The Big Draw for nearly two decades as leader of our education programme. The volumes of which are used as educational tools throughout primary and secondary schools. Her highly revered research is at the helm, pushing for much needed reform and calling attention to what our world would be like without mark making….
What was it that first peaked your interest in drawing as part of core education?
There was no seminal experience or Damascene moment. As a child, I was always keen on drawing. At school in Scotland in the 1950s, clever boys were good at drawing, as they would be draftsmen, designing ships. I chose to design clothes instead. My mother brought scrap paper home from her office and I would cover it with drawings of fashion parades. I studied the history of architecture at school, and drawing was a necessary part of this. My training as a teacher in the 1960s, which was much influenced by the ideas of Herbert Read, emphasized education through art. When I started teaching in the 1970s, there was a strong interest in graphicacy. For me, drawing has always been purposeful and useful: just like words and numbers, it has been a basic tool for learning.
Your professional history is quite remarkable and has obvious synergy with The Big Draw’s overall objectives and ethos. For those that don’t know, how did you get involved with The Campaign for Drawing*?
Following the first Big Draw in 2000, the Director of The Campaign for Drawing, Sue Grayson Ford, sent out letters extolling the delights of the Campaign, urging recipients to become involved. I received one of these letters. My response was to send her a letter, asking how did The Big Draw relate to work in schools? How could a one-off event contribute to long-term development? What was the educational thinking that underpinned their efforts? The idea of an education programme emerged – and I got the job of leading it!
What has been the biggest challenge in your research and lobbying, surrounding the recognition of visual literacy as a vital educational tool?
The biggest challenge has been changing entrenched attitudes, in both education and in government policy. Our notion of visual literacy tends to be too narrow. It is not merely about encoding and decoding images. ‘Literacy’ has a social value: it is also about shaping and sharing experience, ideas, meanings, values and prompting action. Through lack of vision, lack of understanding and disregard for evidence, successive governments have neglected a major area of education. The need is for policy changes to embed visual literacy – particularly through art, design and environmental education – in the school curriculum. The aim must be to give young people a voice to shape the ideas that shape society and the world in which they live.
...And the greatest reward?
The greatest reward has been to see teachers and their pupils use drawing to generate experiences, explore ideas and develop strategies for study. These may be unfamiliar at first, but they make learning exciting, relevant and meaningful. I have been particularly aware of this in education linked with environmental design, where drawing has made information and ideas visible, capable of being shared and manipulated, tested, developed and refined. I cannot see how this would have been possible without drawing.
You have produced endless, informed written material on this subject for artists and educators alike, are the government listening and beginning to make positive changes?
Learning through drawing has received much support from HMI and Ofsted in recent years. However, the inspection process does not necessarily ensure that this is embedded in teachers’ practice. Government policy has failed. Systems should be designed to sustain and expand rather than restrict pupils’ educational experience: they should nurture rather than limit teachers’ professional skills. Teachers are eager to develop learning through drawing, but lack confidence and competence to do so. Learning through drawing needs to be part of initial training and there needs to be proper in-service provision.
Can’t draw. Won’t draw. Your average Joe, who may not have much regard for culture or art may be a difficult prospect to engage in such a topic. As your work is rightly focused on education, how can we engage with the wider adult population to draw? Or, is it down to the younger generation to shape society as they move from education into the wider world?
Can’t draw, won’t draw – and you can’t make me…. People say this because they lack confidence and competence in drawing, and also do not think that it has much value. My uncles who worked in the shipyards – your average Joe, perhaps – appreciated drawing because they used it in their job. It enabled them to work things out, to explain things and to make ideas tangible. As a child, watching platers doing giant drawings in chalk as a guide to cut the steel plates for the ships or observing my aunts draw dress patterns made an impression on me. There are many manufacturing and construction trades where drawing is an integral part of the work.
Parents – your average Joe or Joanne – are very aware of the value of drawing in the life of their children. They see how excellent illustrated books encourage them to learn to read. They are aware how animated films feature importantly in their children’s cultural experience. They witness their children’s efforts to understand and explain their world and to process their experience of life through drawing. They see them succeed in mastering yet another code and set of conventions that allow them to engage with ideas, and which nurtures their powers of observation, memory and imagination. Children and their parents see drawing as positive and life-enhancing.
We need to question what happens in schools, when modes of learning available to children are drastically curtailed and systematized, prompting neglect of cultural education. Is this a sound basis for education in the 21st century? Drawing, just like words and numbers, is a medium for thought and action. It is the basis for our material culture, whether manual or computer-aided, it enables us to design the artifacts and systems that create our modern world. It enables us to imagine and test out ideas before they are put into effect, whether these are designs for a new consumer product or virtual models for a new banking system. I can only hope that through the efforts of The Big Draw education programme, there is enough trace of evidence and convincing argument to demonstrate that drawing makes you think! A new generation will rediscover the purposes and value of drawing and how to use it more effectively.
*Now the Big Draw
Eileen Adams talked to The Big Draw's Eliza Gregory. Eileen's books, including the following titles:
Drawing: It Makes You Think
Power Drawing: Lines of Enquiry
Power Drawing: Space and Place
Drawing: A Tool For Design
Drawing On Experience: museums, galleries and science centres