The theme revisited!

IWB FACEI posted a blog about the THEME on June 25th in the STUDENT section of this blog site, and about a month later Marilyn posted a comment (and questions) in response to my blog

Marilyn was/is surprised but some of the things I wrote, and questioned my authority to say such things. Fair enough – although Oxford Study Courses are actually quite particular about who they allow on their blog site!

Anyway I replied to her questions (August 11th) – and have included her comment and my response here at the end of this post – but wanted to just revisit this issue because I suspect that Marilyn is not alone in her surprise.

In fact I know that she is not alone, partly because on a predictably regular basis I encounter weak student work created in response to a theme that they have been given by their art teacher, or work so constrained by the theme that it is quite hard give it many marks.

But to be clear – if the theme is helpful in terms of creating successful artwork and leads to a successful final exhibition – GREAT! In that case the theme is being productively explored and is doing what it is supposed to do.

As I think I made clear, I’m not talking about the occasions when the theme is helpful to the student.

I AM talking about the times when the theme has done no good at all. The theme has become, in effect, a barrier to success.

Sure, work is being produced and it fits within the theme, but all the other important things – and in particular the assessment criteria – seem to have taken a back seat.

A theme can work. Any theme, probably, can work.

It depends on the approach, on the way the student interprets the theme.

But you don’t have to have a theme.

None of my students had a theme in the last examination session – they had some great work, but it would have been quite hard to identify any themes.

The average grade for this group of students was 6.4.

More than half of the group achieved 7s, and nobody had a grade lower than 5.

We are a non-selective school, and we let students who have never taken art before take IBDP visual arts at Higher Level – in fact one of the students in the cohort had never done art before (yes, she got the 5).

But nobody followed a theme.

So – if more than half the class get 7s and nobody had a theme, it makes you (well, me) wonder if unthinkingly following “the theme” is really such a great idea.

Marilyn wrote

Really? I am surprised. Since my first workshop, it was strongly recommended to use the thematic approach.

May I know the history behind your vehement post and your confidence as an authority?

I only want to do the best I can for my students, so am open to new ideas.

I wrote

Hi Marilyn,
I’m afraid it’s not a particularly new idea, just an attempt to clarify an issue that has been sadly misunderstood and misinterpreted by teachers/students for many years: the idea that ‘students must have a theme’ is a misconception that has resulted in some needlessly poor results for quite a few students over the years.

I’m not at all vehement – as I wrote, I’m not saying that students can’t have a theme – sometimes it’s a route to success.
But it can also hinder and limit their success. If it works, great – but students certainly don’t HAVE to have a theme.

As for the ’history’ behind my post and confidence in my authority, just click on ‘meet the bloggers’ –

I’m a Workshop Leader (face-to-face and online) and IBDP visual arts teacher. I’ve been a visual arts examiner for 24 years, and I’m referring to the IBDP visual arts guide and in particular the assessment criteria (no mention of theme in the criteria), and of course the twice-yearly visual arts Subject Reports.
Also regular discussions with senior examiners at Grade Award meetings.

We may meet in one of my workshops – I’ve had some great discussions with workshop participants and indeed other art teachers about the theme!


  • Ms. Larue
    October 31, 2013

    This has already been clarified by the IBDP, many times in the past 8 years, but students, parents, and yes, even art teachers, often still insist that there must be a theme for the DP studio work. Thanks for this reiteration that a theme is not necessary! Apparently, it needs to be repeated and repeated and repeated…

  • Linda Willms
    April 12, 2014

    Hi Andrew, I guess the term ‘theme’ needs defining. The new exhibition assessment criteria for 2016 includes criterion A which judges whether the pieces included for exhibition constitute a coherent body of work …. “a coherent collection of works which fulfil stated artistic intentions and communicate clear thematic or stylistic relationships across individual pieces” (the new guide. Is the term ‘thematic’ misleading?

  • Andrew Vaughan
    April 22, 2014

    Hi Linda,
    The blog post that you have replied to dates from August 2013, and – like almost all the posts here – refers to the current course.

    Your message seems to be about the course that starts in August – this has a different set of assessment criteria etc. but I’m trying to avoid confusion between the current course and the new course!

    I will soon be posting thoughts and ideas about, and responses to, the new course – stay tuned!

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