Mastery in Art

At Michaela, we receive hundreds of visitors each year. As Head of Art, I find that the most common questions visitors ask me fall into two camps: first, people often ask something along the lines of “when are the pupils allowed to be creative?” Secondly, (and often after seeing examples of our pupils’ artwork), they ask “how do you get them to produce work of such a high standard?!”


The answer is simple: I tell them how to do it, they practise, and eventually, they get better at it. It isn’t any more complicated than that.


The Michaela ‘just tell them!’ philosophy enables our pupils to reach a high standard in Art. Whilst in the past I have seen pupils lacking in natural artistic flair fall behind and flounder in Art lessons, giving the subject up as soon as they can, Michaela pupils are able to master the fundamentals of drawing and painting, and learn to appreciate art and its cultural significance. It’s not without difficulty, of course- and indeed, many pupils do struggle in art just as they can struggle in any subject, but a key distinction between the Michaela approach and that of many art departments I know is that we believe that drill and practice are the foundations of creativity, and more importantly, we believe that every child can do it if they are taught explicitly. Rather than promoting creativity for creativity’s sake, or allowing kids to splash about with paint with little real focus, we spend time explicitly teaching and  securing the basics.


What are the basics?


Here is what we have identified as the building blocks of Art. These are the fundamental basics that underpin and strengthen creativity.


  • Media: We teach pupils explicitly in the use of pencil, charcoal, chalk, pen, paint, oil pastel and printing. We show them exactly how to hold the media, when and how to apply pressure, and how to achieve various effects.
  • Shape: Pupils learn exactly how to draw different shapes. I model this on the visualiser and pupils copy before recreating their own shapes.
  • Shading: At the very beginning of year 7, pupils learn how to shade using pencil. They are drilled in the ‘tonal ladder’, regularly practising shading to varying degrees.
  • Colour: Pupils need to understand how colours relate to each other and how they are created from the primary colours up. We spend time securing this knowledge at the start of year 7.

How to embed the basics

  • Revisiting: Pupils constantly re-visit each media, every half term, every year, so skills and techniques are practised over and over again.
  • Interleaving: Media and techniques are carefully sequenced and interleaved to ensure pupils are able to use them both in a variety of contexts. Basic skills such as shading are used continually throughout the majority of units to secure them.
  • Speed: We don’t rush through units. Mastery takes time. It’s better to spend a long time embedding the fundamentals before racing on to more complex skills. As we say at Michaela, “don’t nearly know it- really know it!”
  • Mindset: I don’t want any pupil to ever tell me that they are not good at Art, or that they aren’t a particularly artistic person. Whilst it is the case that some are more naturally attuned to the artistic world than others, all pupils can learn how to draw and paint if they are taught. We do not believe that asking pupils who struggle to ‘have a go’ or ‘experiment and be free’ is a good strategy. Instead, we plan for purposeful, motivating art lessons that build incrementally on each other until pupils have internalised the fundamentals. From there, pupils are able to develop their skills and produce fantastic pieces of work.


Mindset and practice: these are the cornerstones of the entire Michaela philosophy. We believe that the best route to unleashing creativity in our pupils, and enabling them to become successful artists, is to drill them in the basic components of drawing and painting.


Below are some examples of our pupils’ work across years 7, 8 and 9.


Discovery is Madness!

Discovery learning in the arts is madness. To leave children to doodle and fiddle with something until they arrive at a concept is madness. It’s a tempting madness indeed: more relaxed planning for the teacher, the children temporarily feel that they are learning something and beam with pride at their “creations”. These children cannot retain the concepts they’ve arrived at, or even recreate their works because they have not yet been equipped to do so. But everyone is happy, and it’s tempting. But still mad! The feel-good effect of discovery is not good enough.


The idea that a child can be handed an instrument and learn to play it on their own by experimenting and exploring is an upper middle class thinking that only really works when said child also has real support. It works when someone is also teaching that child alongside the discovery time. It works when that child has the instrument in their home and has endless amounts of time to ‘figure things out’.


For poorer families – the ones that do not have upright pianos and bass guitars in their homes – it is very unusual for their children to learn how to play and understand music theory through discovery in the short time frame that schools allow for it. Their children get left behind while privileged children with the pianos and the private tutors surpass them and it isn’t right. They deserve better. They deserve the same knowledge that their wealthier counterparts are getting at home.


The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that children cannot discover their way to learning arts without access to adequate information, instruments and guidance. It’s most uncomfortable for those of us raised in privilege because we presume to think that because we got to discover and succeeded, anyone else can if they continue to ‘explore’ and ‘work on it’. But what we forget is that we did not have exploration alone, we were taught how to do things at some point. We learnt the rules, the histories, the techniques. For the person currently thinking “I wasn’t all that privileged; it’s not a money thing”, I say to you – if you grew up in a home with heating, running water, regular healthy meals and educated parents then sorry to break it to you – you are privileged and you had a big leg up in your overall education.


Aspects such as discovery and experimentation should only come after knowledge and explicitly taught skills. Imagine this: you walk into a school science lab with no prior knowledge of chemistry or how to conduct an experiment, no knowledge of what to look for. Your teacher tells you to explore what some chemicals on your table would do if you mixed them up in a variety of ways. What would likely happen is that you’d note how they affected each other on a superficial level and enjoy yourself. But the reality is that you’d come away from that experience with no knowledge of what was happening on a molecular level and why those chemical reactions took place. You would have had fun and seen some goo change colour but you would know nothing about real Chemistry. I’m aware that many believe in this method of learning but imagine this instead; you walk into a science lab, spend time learning about the chemicals and how you can purposefully cause them to affect each other, then conduct an experiment and watch the things you’ve learnt take place in front of you. You would come away having had fun, and with a real appreciation for chemistry after a knowledgeable experiment.


In Music, we don’t have to imagine. We already know that if you show a child how an instrument works and teach them the skills that they need to play it well, they come away with appreciation, skills and knowledge to further their learning. After they have that, we know that this child is equipped to take the opportunity to experiment in their own time, to discover extra things that excite them. We don’t have to imagine! And children don’t have to be left to work it out on their own!


Here is where some might say, “Isn’t it healthy to learn to troubleshoot and solve your own problems?” and I say, yes of course it is very beneficial. However, you can’t troubleshoot what you don’t know. If you wouldn’t place a child in a maths room and expect them to eventually arrive at long division while you supervise, you shouldn’t expect a child to sit with a guitar and eventually arrive at a tune.


A ‘Discovery’ approach means that the majority are left behind, losing out on what could have been a full learning experience. It is a great disservice to poor children to have to discover in lessons when they could actually be learning from the expert in the room. They will likely never catch up to those who had the advantage of knowledge to supplement their discovery.


And therein lies the biggest problem. Knowledge is currently a supplement in music education and it shouldn’t be – especially when that supplement is not available to everyone. Success in a subject should not be reliant on private tuition. Discovery alone is just not good enough.


Explicit Instruction in Art: The Visualiser

In my last post, I explained how traditional teaching methods enhance (rather than oppress) creativity in art. There were many questions and concerns in the comments about what this might look like in practice. In my next few blogs, I intend to discuss my approaches in more detail, starting today with the humble visualiser. I admit that this is not revolutionary, and that there will be many teachers out there who use these all the time, but I have found this tool to be absolutely central to good art teaching. I’m not sure what I’d do without it!

In many art classrooms, pupils are invited to the front of the room to observe teacher demonstrations. They scramble out of their chairs and wander over to the front of the room where the teacher is standing, and huddle round to watch the teacher. Behaviour isn’t always easy to manage when they are stood like this. The teacher can’t see every pupil and many of the pupils can barely see the demonstration. Altogether, it’s a bit of a waste of time, and can be more stressful for teachers, particularly if this leads to challenging behaviour. Instead, I use a visualiser to deliver demonstrations. All pupils remain in their seats, and I can go through one step at a time. Rather than showing them the whole process at the front, letting them go back to their seats (where they will promptly forget everything I’ve just told them and do the wrong thing), I can show them a step and let them practise it before moving on to the next.

Here are some other benefits to using a visualiser in art lessons:

  • No guess work: pupils are shown exactly what to do at each stage of the method, ensuring high quality outcomes.
  • Pupils have no excuses: everyone knows what they should be doing as they have all been watching the demonstration on the board. No more ‘Miss I can’t do it because Jimmy was stood in front of me’ nonsense.
  • I can scan the whole class from the front of the room and know at any time who is and isn’t watching the demonstration: this empowers me to hold every child to account.
  • Some visualisers have a video function, meaning that I can record a demonstration and play it to pupils in future lessons or with different classes. Never again will I have to demonstrate a tonal ladder!)
  • I can use the visualiser to show examples of pupil work to the rest of the class straight away. It’s lovely to be able to share pupils’ success in high res!





Music and creativity are inseparable, right?

Music education and creativity are inseparable, right?


Music education gives children the opportunity to express themselves in the stifling world of the EBacc-oriented exam-factory that is our British education system. Right?


Music education allows children an imaginative space to be themselves, where their ideas aren’t right or wrong, where every child is on an individual journey towards actualising their creative potential. Right?


I disagree. Music education can be separated from ‘creativity’, and I believe that in schools, more than any other time, it should be.


My ideas on this have been heavily influenced by the inspirational Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths About Education, who has spoken at both of Michaela’s education debates. Much of what I will say is based on or quoted from Daisy’s debate against Guy Claxton on the motion ‘Sir Ken was right: traditional education kills creativity’. This blog is an attempt to apply Daisy’s ideas to music education.


Before I go further, let me clarify one thing. Creativity is and certainly should be an aim of education. In fact, Daisy goes as far as to say that “creativity is one of the most fundamental and one of the most important aims we can have in education”. We want our kids to develop into human beings who can problem solve, tackle new challenges, imagine new things, and express themselves in meaningful ways. Successful adults are able to be creative. Successful music education will and should develop creativity.


But this does not mean that creativity is at the heart of successful music education. Creativity might be the aim of music education, but it is certainly not the method.


Creativity kriːeɪˈtɪvɪti/



  1. the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.



Education ɛdjʊˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/



  1. the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.


Systematic instruction. Education is being told things and storing them in your long-term memory. It is being told what to do and how to do it. To me, it is inherently un-creative.


What an outdated idea of education, I hear you cry! Systematic instruction? Telling children what to do and how to do it? Telling children what good music is and expecting them to learn it? How very soul-crushing.


But let me provide a few snippets from Daisy’s speech, which might begin to explain why I believe this is, in actual fact, the best way to educate children in the art of music.


  • Creativeness is based on knowledge. The more you know, the more creative you can be with that knowledge. Daisy quotes John Anderson: ‘All that there is to intelligence is the simple accrual and tuning of many small bits of knowledge which in total make up complex cognition. The whole is no more than the sum of its parts, but it has a lot of parts.’
  • Creativity is not in a vacuum. It should be based on what’s come before. We are, after all, standing on the shoulders of giants.
  • The pupils who write the most original stories are, paradoxically, the ones who know the most stories themselves.
  • By committing facts to long-term memory we free up space in working memory to combine ideas, to compare facts and to apply the knowledge to new problems. We free up the space to be creative.
  • Practice isn’t about doing the final thing. The constituent knowledge needed to become creative doesn’t look like the final product. Performance isn’t learning.
  • K Anders Ericsson: ‘mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement’. Deliberate practice – isolating the component parts of a task and repeatedly practicing them – is necessary. Asking pupils to do creative tasks isn’t the best way of developing creativity.


Here’s how I interpret this in music education:

  • Music lessons (at least at KS3) should not involve children composing
  • Music lessons should not involve opportunities for pupils to freely express themselves. They’re 12! They don’t yet know how to express themselves.
  • Music lessons should be knowledge-led. The music teacher should stand at the front of the class and teach knowledge:
    • the dates and the works of the great composers;
    • analysis of the qualities that make good music good;
    • how music works;
    • how music has developed over time and across cultures;
  • Music lessons should involve deliberate practice (drilling!) of certain key components: reading notation; knowledge of harmony; aural skills; vocal exercises.


Music education needs to be separated from creativity. Yes, children’s creativity needs to be carefully nurtured, but a knowledge-led education with deliberate practice is the way to achieve this. Creativity might be the aim of music education, but it is certainly not the method.

The Talent Factor

Most of us were brought up to believe that real artists have it “in their bones”, that art is some kind of magic that pours out of special people’s souls. Great musicians are “born to do it”, we’re told.

In the arts there prevails this idea that the only people who can really learn how, are the people who are naturally gifted. All that this flawed ideology does is cut out those who are told they can’t and inflate the egos of those told they can.


In all other subjects, the prerequisite of talent for the subject does not exist. No one is singled out of Maths because they don’t “lean” towards it. No one gets a pass on essay writing because they don’t naturally formulate their thoughts in that way. But somehow in the arts we feel that we can know a person’s full potential before they’ve even had a chance to really learn the subject matter in a full, academic way. While it may be true that some people pick up concepts faster than others, and that some content is more easily digestible, it is not the case that certain subjects cannot be fully learned without ‘talent’.


Many schools single out a talented few to focus on, and any real hope is lost for the rest. But Music is not a subject that can only be conquered by ‘nature’s’ chosen few, and here’s why:


Music is Maths

The principles of harmony and rhythm are built on a set structure that allows music to work coherently. A pulse in music is a lot like clockwork – when set over a grid a pattern can be created over it. That pattern is all that rhythm is, and creating or reading a rhythm to fit a grid is a matter of counting, dividing and multiplying. Truth be told the most complicated it could get is counting to 11 in each grid. More often than not, it is a matter of counting to 3 or 4, and then multiplying that by however long the piece lasts. For a rhythm to work, the mathematics behind it MUST be perfect. If people can learn these basic principles of maths by year 3, what then is the need for a child to have a ‘good ear’ I ask? Of course, this skill can take years to learn but so does learning all your times-tables. ‘Good ears’ are not born, they are trained. No talent required, just work.


Music is a Foreign Language

In the exact same way people learn how to read and speak a language, people can learn how to read and play music. One character at a time, the whole alphabet is mastered, and then put together into words and phrases. Music, a language complete with its own ‘alphabet’, is no different. In many ways it’s simpler in western music as there are only twelve notes. Twelve characters to read and sound out. TWELVE! They repeat themselves, lower and higher and still function in the same way. Learning to read each note correctly from a music stave and then to play it (sound it out) is a matter of practicing reading, a little every day. The same way five year olds learn to read, the same way an English adult would learn Japanese. No talent required! Just work.


Music is History

Throughout history, art has been a form of society’s reflection. Historians often look to the arts of a past civilization to learn about them. When music began to be written down, it became possible for us to not only look at society’s past reflection, but to hear it as well. It goes without saying that the more children look and listen to history, the more insight and knowledge they acquire. Listening, reading and comprehension. No talent required there either – just work!


Music is Physical Education

Whichever the instrument of choice, from voice to bassoon, playing an instrument requires enormous amounts of rigorous practice and physical exertion. All beginners start off with poor technique and face challenges in adjusting to playing the instrument well. But like any physical activity, over time muscle memory is learnt. Posture and positioning become second nature and the mind becomes free to take expressive control. This happens over several hours of drills, breath/finger exercises, stretches. Anyone is capable of practicing the same movement over and over until it becomes a fluid motion. NO talent required! An instrumentalist becomes great through hard physical work.


Music is Art. It is creative, expressive, and reflective. It develops insight and provokes emotion. But it is an art that encompasses all other subjects, and this makes it accessible.


A year or two ago I myself used to believe that some people are just ‘gifted’ and if you’re not then it’s just not meant for you. Then I began teaching at Michaela.  We do not single out special children who we think will magically be able to succeed in the subject. The entire form receives a full knowledge of music theory, history and practice. I am yet to encounter a single student who is unable because they “just aren’t good at it”, it always comes down to a concept they need to work on a little more than their peer, and that is what evens out the playing field. Having seen in person how flawed that philosophy is, having watched entire classes flourish at music whatever their background – I look at my former self and cringe.


Music can be learned by anyone and everyone. Talent is not a prerequisite for success.



–  Chashe Musarurwa

   Music Teacher at Michaela Community School

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Traditional Methods Enhance Creativity in Art

Critics of the traditional, teacher-led approaches employed at Michaela argue that teaching in this way stifles pupil creativity. Since joining Michaela in January 2015, I have come to see that a teacher-led approach to Art teaching does more to enhance creativity than oppress it.


Typical approaches to Art teaching are driven by the belief that children ought to be given the space to develop creativity on their own. We should let kids ‘have a go’ and express themselves through ad hoc experimentation. This is an argument propounded by the likes of Ken Robinson, but, in my opinion, is profoundly flawed. Having seen the results a teacher-led approach can have, I am now convinced that pupils struggle to express their creativity in a meaningful and purposeful way without a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of pencil work and drawing.


So instead of the usual group work, guess work, experimentation with a variety of different media or tracing paper exercises, we do things more systematically and carefully. Without wasting a single minute, pupils study techniques step-by-step and master each stage of the process before moving on to the next.


Lessons start with a 10 second book hand out (which is the norm across the school), followed by a period of teacher instruction and demonstration. Using a visualiser, I introduce the technique they will be working on that lesson, before giving them time to practise the technique until mastered. I never ask pupils to come to the front of the room to huddle around the table to observe a demonstration. I’ve found in the past that the behaviour can quickly become quite chaotic if this happens, so I suggest avoiding it at all costs! In fact, no pupils are ever allowed out of their seats during an art lesson except for designated ‘Art Assistants’- trustworthy pupils selected for their work ethic and commitment to the subject. They are the only pupils who pack away materials, equipment and work in lessons. It saves time and reduces chaos, whilst simultaneously incentivising pupils to work harder – (the Art Assistant positions are highly coveted, and pupils wear a badge on their blazers if they are selected).


For the first 4 weeks of year 7, pupils do not attempt to use any media other than the 2B pencil, chalk and charcoal. This is to give them time to build their tonal and mark-making techniques. We revisit the same media a number of times over and over in order to secure their ability to use them effectively.


I do not believe that Art ability is determined by talent. Because of the traditional approaches we use, all pupils have the same opportunity to become excellent artists. It is simply a matter of time, commitment and practice, just like any other subject!


Below are a number of pictures drawn by year 7 and 8 pupils from across the ability spectrum.

Art, when taught using traditional methods, is about practice and technique, not raw talent. Explicit, teacher-led, minimal fuss teaching is the optimal way to enhance creativity in Art.

Quality Music Education Remains the Preserve of the Privately Educated

I read this article earlier this week, and two statistics have stuck with me.


  • “Despite the fact that music is taught at the majority of schools in the country, admissions at leading universities from state schools are on a par with subjects like classics and theology; both subjects traditionally seen only at independent schools.”


  • “Music at GCSE and particularly A-level are the most under-subscribed of all elective courses by some margin, with only 1 per cent of A-level entries in England in music or music technology.”


Why is it that the academic study of music at GCSE and A-level is undersubscribed, despite being a compulsory subject in every school? Why is it that the academic study of music at university has admission rates comparable to subjects which are only taught to the privileged few, when all children have access to a music education in school? The answer is simple. Because the academic study of music isn’t really what’s taught in schools. Music, the rigorous academic discipline, is taught in private lessons. The children who enjoy studying music, who are successful at studying music and who elect to study music further are the children who learn music outside of the classroom, and unfortunately, they are the privileged few.


A typical child who is paying for music lessons will:


  1. learn how to read music.
  2. be exposed to and spend time learning an enormous range of music, particularly music written before the 20th
  3. study music theory.


A typical child who is studying KS3 compulsory music in a state school will:


  1. study ‘accessible’ music genres like film music, samba, reggae or calypso
  2. spend time listening to compositions made up in lessons by their peers
  3. create posters about music


The child receiving private lessons is learning music. The child whose only music education comes from compulsory music lessons in school is receiving a dumbed down and simplified version of the subject. We need to remember why it is that music education is compulsory in the first place: to make music accessible to all. We think that, by simplifying the content that we teach as part of the compulsory music curriculum, we are making music accessible. The sad truth is that, in doing so, we are ensuring that quality music education remains the preserve of the privately educated.


This fact may not sit well with some readers. But we have face the facts – music as a compulsory curriculum subject is failing. Every child in a UK state school studies music until they are 14. How many of them can read music fluently? How many of them have studied the scores of the great composers? How many of them know and understand the circle of fifths? At Michaela, we believe that being able to read music, being exposed to a broad and detailed history of music, and understanding the theory of music is what makes a music education, and those are the things we teach in our compulsory music lessons. Over the next few blogs we will go into more detail about what this looks like, how it works and why we do it. We drill pupils in reading music. We explicitly teach them music theory – up to grade 4 by the end of year 9. We don’t make music accessible by lowering expectations; instead we make music truly accessible by actually teaching every one of our students a rigorous and academic curriculum.