Using a painting to start an inquiry


Over the weekend I read an excellent blog by Harry Fletcher-Wood called, ‘Starting a Lesson With Initial Stimulus Material’. Harry’s blog got me thinking about how I use images with students as a way to generate thinking, grab their interest, and communicate knowledge. This blog is my response.

Harry uses three examples of images to illustrate his approach; the second is this one of Henry VII.

Harry suggests we could start by asking the students to make inferences: “What can you tell about Henry VII from this painting?”

He calls this a ‘classic starter’ but warns of its limitations,

“…examples like this can be restrictive, relying, as they do, on students’ guesswork and often limited prior knowledge. Without careful questioning (and perhaps a richer stimulus) such starters will do little to set out the lesson’s goals: simply moving on to the main body of the lesson with a “Now we’ll find out which of your guesses were true,” is probably insufficient.”

I agree with this entirely, however I don’t think the problem is with the stimulus, so much as with the question. “What can you tell about Henry VII from this painting?” is a difficult question for students to answer if they know little about the subject or the historical context

For me a more productive starting question is one that requires no prior knowledge: “I’d like to show you a painting, it was painted about 500 years ago of an English king called Henry VII. Take a careful look and see what you notice?”

This is an open question, asking the students to look rather than guess. If I did this with a class in Year 5 I’d expect them to notice the gold chain round his neck, his hat and cloak, the rose in his hand, and the writing at the bottom of the painting. Afterwards I would draw attention to how his hands seem to rest on the text, how he holds the rose. I’d ask them to describe the action – “carefully, gently, delicately” – and what this might mean. I’d also draw attention to his eyes and mouth, “Where is he looking? Who is he looking at? What do you make of his mouth, would you describe that as a smile or something else? What about the shape of his jaw? Have you ever heard the expression, ‘He set his jaw?’ It usually means determined or committed.”

Once this first part of the conversation is over I’d say to the students, “I can tell you a little more about this king. His name is Henry Tudor and he wasn’t born king of England, he had to win it on the battlefield…” And so on. In this way I would tell them the story of Henry VII, the War of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth Fields, and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty.

Afterwards I’d draw their attention back to the painting and ask them to look at it again, now with some background knowledge of the man and his history: “What do you think this painting can tell us about Henry VII”?

We’d then discuss how the artist has chosen to portray Henry, the shape of the canvas, the words at the bottom of the picture, the reason he is holding the rose, and the golden necklace around his neck signifying the Order of the Golden Fleece. “Everything,” I would tell them, “Is there for a reason. The artist is telling us something about this man, about his character, about his status, about his past. To understand we need to study his history.”

For me this inquiry has five parts:

  • The first is an open question the students can’t get wrong even if they have no knowledge of the context – “What do you notice?”
  • The second extends their observations, pointing out details they might have missed – “What do you make of that smile?”
  • The third provides background knowledge, telling them the story behind the painting – “His name is Henry Tudor…”
  • The fourth asks for inference and the use of evidence – “What do you think this painting tells us?”
  • The fifth digs deeper and extends the discussion into areas of art and historical inquiry – “The artist is telling us something about this man…”

Each step has a specific aim:

  • The first is to set the scene and ask the students to really look at the image (I find we often rush too quickly to interpretation without properly observing). In this step the students are doing most of the talking, the teacher is listening carefully and asking for more detail – “Yes, he is wearing a gold necklace. Can you make out anything about the design? What about this, it looks like an animal. Is it sheep? I wonder why his necklace would have a sheep hanging from it.” Etc.
  • The second is to develop the students’ thinking and make them aware of aspects of the painting they might have missed. In this step the teacher is the one doing most of the talking, asking the students for their views – “Have you noticed his eyes, how would you describe them? They look intense to me, and they’re staring right out of the picture? I wonder who they might be looking at?”
  • The third is to tell them the story and give them the knowledge they lack. For me this comes once the students are engaged in the subject. In this step the teacher is doing most, if not all of the talking. It is the students’ job to listen, I often ask them to make notes – “This is a great story and there is a lot to remember, you’d better grab your books to write it down.”
  • The fourth is to interpret the painting, to look at it again with new eyes. Most of the talking is done by the students with the teaching probing, asking them to explain, and to use evidence – “You think his jaw is set like that because he’s won the crown and he’s determined not to lose it? What else in the painting supports that idea?”
  • The fifth is to delve deeper and provide the students with further knowledge and more understanding. The teacher will do most, if not all the talking.

In this way each step builds on the previous one, developing and extending the work.

Knowledge is essential to the process and it’s not the job of the students to discover it, but it only comes after they have had the chance to look and get engaged in the subject. I think of this as tilling the earth, once they are interested we can start sowing the seeds, but only after they’re interested. Seeds are unlikely to grow if they are sown on hard, dry earth.

Note: For more information on this painting visit The National Gallery.

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