Using illustration for radical learning with Emily Jost at London's House of Illustration

How one very special gallery empowers schools to put drawing at the heart of the curriculum

Earlier this year in a pre-Lockdown world that now seems very far away, I visited the House of Illustration in London. It wasn’t my first trip - I’ve been following the gallery’s progress since 2014, when it opened in a former railway building just north of King’s Cross Station, and I’ve since made several visits. The gallery has always seemed at ease in its regenerated home and I imagined it welcoming us for many years to come. 

Then came Lockdown, and closure. The world is changing fast, and with it this friendly little gallery. In a blaze of welcome optimism, it's spreading its wings and relocating to a larger site just up the road in Islington, where it will evolve to become The Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, set in half an acre of landscaped outdoor space. This does mean that there will be no gallery-based learning opportunities until the new building opens in 2022, but in the meantime, education programmes and events will continue off-site and online.

Back in February, of course, I didn’t know about these plans. I didn’t even know about the Lockdown. The House of Illustration’s Head of Education, Emily Jost, had agreed to meet with me to talk about their work with schools and other groups, so I was making my way to the gallery, brain buzzing with questions about drawing and its use in helping learners to explore, create, reflect and share. I’ve seen first-hand what a powerful impact this approach can have across a range of subjects, and I wanted to learn more about freeing illustration from its traditional art-lesson context and embedding it in every aspect of the curriculum.
Children drawing at House of Illustration

Emily talks passionately about 'drawing as a language’ - one of the oldest human skills and vital to our wellbeing as expressive, effective and connected individuals. The education department’s mission is to 'develop a diverse community of illustrators of all ages through high-quality teaching and creative collaboration,' and Emily’s conviction that everyone should be enabled to develop their innate skills is clear. “What we really believe is that everyone can be an illustrator,” she says. “They just need the right skills and confidence to be able to communicate visually.”

'Drawing is so important to children because we are visual beings. We read faces, we read body language, we read symbols, even when we’re tiny. We’re really good at reading the world around us and it’s vital we can do that....' Former Children’s Laureate Lauren Child, speaking at the House of IllustrationEmily and her team of professional illustrators started working with schools and groups four years before their King’s Cross building opened to the public. Since 2014 they’ve provided high-quality learning opportunities on-site, together with outreach sessions on a one-off or project basis.

Children drawing in the gallery at House of Illustration



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Before Lockdown, an educational visit to the gallery included access to exhibition artwork, followed by a two-hour practical workshop led by a professional illustrator. Teachers were able to select any topic for their workshop, and topics could be drawn from any area of the curriculum. Emily’s team provided a choice of six different workshops - Character Design, Pop Up Illustration, Poster Design, Creating Mood and Atmosphere, and Sequential Illustration – and Emily worked closely with teachers to ensure a good fit between their chosen topic and their workshop. Media and techniques were generally left to the professional illustrator leading each workshop, allowing them to work to their strengths in a way that fitted the brief and ensured good outcomes. The gallery’s approach may differ going forward, though, so do check directly with them if you’d like to involve your school or group in future.

 

Over the years, Emily and her team have also worked extensively on special projects, based at the gallery and out in the community. 

Detail from The Exceedingly Good Goods Yard by pupils at King's Cross Academy Primary School and Sion Ap Tomos, for House of Illustration

During the King’s Cross Story Palace project, Year 2 children from King’s Cross Academy Primary School took part in a series of workshops and walks with illustrator Sion Ap Tomos to find out about the history of the King’s Cross Goods Yard. Ap Tomos created a beautifully-designed concertina booklet - The Exceedingly Good Goods Yard – which included children’s artwork plus an informative text provided by The Building Exploratory, a local charity.

Detail from Ridley Road Market by pupils at Princess May Primary School and Sion Ap Tomos, for House of Illustration

Ridley Road Market was a project inspired by On Gentrification, a House of Illustration commission + exhibition by artist Lucinda Rogers. Led by Sion Ap Tomos, Year 5 pupils at Princess May Primary School drew on location at Ridley Road, a traditional East London market close to their school, and recorded their observations. They researched the market’s history using materials from Hackney Archives and Ap Tomos preserved the children’s images and writing for future generations in an eye-catching concertina booklet.

“When you go to the shops they just stand there, they don’t tell you a bit about what they are selling. I like the attitude that they have in the market and it’s a bit scary but that’s a good thing...” Year 5 pupil 

Emily also showed me a collection of booklets, each representing the work of a single child during a two-hour outreach workshop, and all of them printed in-house (on a photocopier) and staple-bound. The children had chosen what to write about and how to illustrate their stories, but “tight production values” had been imposed - there was no choice of font, for example, and the covers were uniformly plain and monochrome. As a result of the workshops, I could see that children of all abilities had been enabled to create a high-quality artefact with a sophisticated design aesthetic while retaining ownership over their content – and it was at this point that we discussed the balance between process and outcome. How much guidance should children be given? Should choices be restricted? To what extent should adults impose their own aesthetic judgements and values on children’s work?

These are complex questions but picking them apart is useful, as well as interesting. When high value is placed on outcome at the expense of process, children may have little room for self-expression, or lose ownership of their work. Most of us will have seen children doing activities that involve little more than colouring a template, or following instructions towards a uniform outcome. But removing all external guidance or boundaries doesn’t necessarily lead to greater creative expression or satisfaction. It may work in a therapeutic sense, but is unlikely to help children acquire the skills they need to produce the outcomes they desire, and of which they can ultimately feel proud. “I think some degree of restriction is essential when working with children, because they can’t limit themselves yet, especially if they’ve had very little art teaching. They’ll use every single colour, every single type of font. And they need to be taught, they need to know the parameters they’re working within and the result they can expect if they follow those parameters. It’s a really important part of their learning… I do believe in the process of making art, but I also believe in the power of slick outcomes. This is something I converted to after years of being a process person, and I now think both are equally important...” If we want children to enjoy good visual outcomes, if we want them to gain skills and develop aesthetic awareness, if we want them to use this innate language mindfully and with confidence, then we need to structure their learning, just as we would in any other subject. But if we structure too rigidly, children will not be able to express themselves, or have the courage to experiment and discover their own paths. For that, we need to step back and let them explore the materials and techniques in their own way. 

And how do we meet these apparently conflicting needs? By working out which elements of a task should be restricted (and how, and for what purpose) while defining areas where there’s room for exploration, self-expression and problem-solving. 

Or – as I wrote in my notebook at the gallery - there’s a time for getting your hands on every colour in the paintbox, and a time for being told that today you’re working with two colours, and that’s it...

 

Delivering semi-bespoke workshops at the gallery plus outreach in schools is demanding, but it does ensure that House of Illustration’s offer is fresh, dynamic, and focused on the needs of participants. This care is extended to the teachers who take part, and developing their skills has always been a key aim. As Emily says, “teaching teachers is the most important thing we do… because that way, we reach so many more pupils…..Once teachers have got some accessible, usable skills and ideas, they can incorporate illustration into all their teaching in all subjects, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”

Teachers taking part in training at House of Illustration


Until Lockdown, CPD training took place in the gallery as well as in schools, focusing on basic drawing skills and accessible skills like collage, and how these can be applied across all subjects, while masterclasses were available for those who wanted to take things further. During Lockdown, selected workshops and courses for adults were available online, and anyone interested in taking part in training of this type should keep an eye on the website or join the mailing list for further details.

A recent addition to the gallery’s work with adult learners is Pathways into Children’s Publishing: a national vocational programme which launched in December 2019 for ambitious and talented illustrators from diverse backgrounds, who remain under-represented in children’s publishing. Pathways runs for two years and is managed and delivered by House of Illustration together with Pop-Up Projects. It is funded by Arts Council England and supported by 21 publisher and university affiliates. 

Pathways is such an innovative and important programme that it deserves more space than I can give it here, and I’ll be posting another blog about it soon. Until then, there are links below if you'd like to find out more.


Thinking on…

As well as learning about House of Illustration-specific offers and projects, Emily gave me lots to think about in a broader and more widely applicable sense.

So what did I take away from our discussion? What has fuelled my thinking since we met?

Embedding drawing throughout the curriculum

Talking about the ‘language of illustration’ – one that predates the language of the written word by fifteen thousand years or so – highlighted its fundamental importance and made me think about the risks of ignoring or downgrading it. All too often, I’ve seen drawing restricted to art lessons or used as a reward or ‘time-filler’ rather than being embedded throughout the curriculum as a way of exploring ideas and responses, recording facts and reactions, and communicating complex information. Drawing is a fundamental skill that enables a different way of exploring, visioning, synthesizing and learning. It can - and should - be embedded across the curriculum and used, like writing, as a tool. 

Co-creation

The House of Illustration takes a co-created approach to schools workshops, in that adults with different roles and skills (in this case, teacher, illustrator and gallery educator) work together to create exciting, joined-up learning opportunities. I think co-creation is a really powerful way to work, and I’d like to see it becoming more widely understood and used.

Balancing process and outcome

As learners, we need high-quality opportunities to explore process – to be involved, be adventurous, be reflective, task risks and try new ideas.

We also need high-quality outcomes that are eye-catching, that make us feel proud, that we want to share and celebrate.

Acquiring skills

Many adults think they can’t draw, often because they’ve been prevented from developing the necessary skills as they grew up - which makes it really important to equip adults taking any kind of teaching role with the experience, confidence, tools and ideas they need to use drawing and illustration in their work. And that goes for children and young people, too. 

Learners of all ages also need to be taught how to look, and helped to develop a language for talking about what they see, because those are also necessary skills.

 

My understanding of all this is growing, and I’d like to take it further - so if you can add to the debate, I’d love to hear from you! 

Create a log-in to enable you to leave comments below, or send me an email HERE

 

Resources and further information

If you’d like to find out more about House of Illustration’s learning offers and plans for the future:

Email the team at education@houseofillustration.org.uk

Check out their website at houseofillustration.org.uk HERE 

Watch Building Confidence and Skills Through Illustration, a House of Illustration video

 

Free Primary teaching resources from House of Illustration

For Illustrating Science click HERE

For Refugee Experiences click HERE

For Illustrating the Curriculum click HERE


Pathways into Illustration

Read more about Pop Up on their website HERE

Visit the Pathways into Children's Publishing website HERE


The new Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration

Find out more about plans for the new Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration HERE

Detail from Ridley Road Market by Sion Ap Tomos and pupils from Princess May Primary School
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