The benefits of the bus driver, epistemiologically speaking. Number 2 in an the series: Knowledge, traffic and arts based research.

The double decker bus driver has the resources of at least 11 on board CCTV cameras on their bus.

This gives them the benefit of knowing where he or she is going. They know too, pretty much, how they’re gonna get there, how long it will take and these days, with the added value of GPS, know what the conditions are going to be like ahead of them. They will also know that in large cities especially, the traffic lights will be rigged in their favour.  They may not know however why they’re going where they’re going – but that kind of existential question is also beyond pretty much every taxi driver too so they’re both in the same boat in that respect (NB boat – not taxi or bus).

The main significant advantage of the bus drivers knowledge however is the fact that should he or she wish, they have access to upto 56 other people’s knowledge about the reasons for their journeys. This would give them a superior knowledge of the traveller and their lived experiences: adding to the ongoing epistemiological crisis of the taxi driver who these days neither knows nor cares why they’re going somewhere, how much it costs or even how to get there.

Of course, the bus driver may not have the time or skill to elicit those knowledges from their passengers. This is where arts based research can play a major role in making the bus journey a much more enriching experience for everyone. They will make living the good life, an even more likely proposition.

More travel knowledge here.

The London Black Cab and an epistemiological crisis in the making. Number 1 in the series: Knowledge, traffic and arts based research.

What’s up with London cabbies? Yesterday I wanted to go to the annual BERA conference at the fabulous Institute of Education.  Its such an obvious drive from Euston, no-one on earth who was working as a taxi driver would have claimed ignorance of its existence.

But not the taxi driver who picked me up.  He claimed he’d never been to the Institute of Education in Bedford Way, that he’d never heard of it and had no idea how to get there.   Apparently,  black taxis no longer know everything about London’s streets. There is no longer such a thing as ‘The Knowledge‘ apparently: the collective wisdom and skills supposedly held by all Black Taxi cabs since time began.

This is alarming in the short term – what will they all do during the Olympics? The idea of London full of black cabs perpetually getting lost is dire. You expect it of the minicabs – they’re full of guys who have a satnav with attitude and have seen too many de Niro films – but the loss of the knowledge by these seemingly unchanging parts of London’s make-up is more worrying in its implications for the rest of us.

What if we all found that the knowledge we learnt 24 years ago was useless?  That whilst we might have taught particular subjects one way, we were to  just throw up our hands, shrug our shoulders and say, well, that’s the way it was, and I have no idea what we should be teaching any longer. What if we were civil engineers and took the view that because bridges were once built on stilts, that any new technologies were now beyond us?  We’d all resort to the SatNav equivalents of our trade – and we know what that leads to when it comes to trying to get anywhere in the world.

The knowledge-less taxi driver is of course a problem when it comes to negotiating the streets of London; but the knowledge-free zone that teachers are turning into, that doctors are becoming and rocket scientists seem to be blindly accepting is a poor state of affairs for all of us.

The question is of course, what kind of knowledge really matters?  We’re working within the relatively new research field of arts based research and are working within BERA to establish new ways of understanding the world, and using the arts to develop new forms of knowledge.  The next BERA conference in Manchester will see the results of our next endeavours: we may even be able to help taxi drivers find their way around the capital cities of the world!

Number 1 in an the series: Knowledge, traffic and how arts based research can help the modern driver.

More travel knowledge here.

Lifelines – how to use arts based research to help improve local health services

We’ve all been ill at some point in our lives and many of us may have called on the help of the NHS to help us through those difficult times.  Even if we’ve been lucky enough not to have to needed their help, we’re all too well aware these days of the importance of staying fit, keeping healthy and doing the right thing for our health and wellbeing for ourselves and our families.

But sometimes this is more difficult than it sounds. Sometimes the services  we need are difficult to access; sometimes it seems that health professionals aren’t listening to what we’re saying; sometimes we know more about our health than those professionals do and it can be frustrating for our experiences not to be heard and acted upon.

Lifelines was a  South Liverpool research project has a made a modest contribution to changing all that.  Working with artists from the Aspire Trust and health professionals from Liverpool Primary Care Trust, we ran an arts based research programme across South Liverpool which listened to residents’ experiences of  local health care services: and are now using those experiences to improve the health for future generations in the community.

We generated story telling, poetry and arts techniques  to  understand critical moments in the health experiences of South Liverpool residents. We produced into a book, audio recording and exhibition which toured South Liverpool and went onto the Bluecoat Arts Gallery in Liverpool, as well as a formal research technical report for the policy makers.

As well as some important findings which have been reported back to the PCT, GPs and other health professionals in the region, the project identified some important aspects of why arts based research is useful in health contexts: its non-invasiveness, its ability to generate responses from participants rather than interrogate – and its ability to co-construct data with research participants rather than mine it from their souls.

The Mars Bar model of research: a state of work, rest and play

Conference kicks off this week with a motley gathering of arts based researchers at BERA, the international education conference at the Institute of Education, London. But what’s arts based research? Surely that’s an oxymoron?

ABER: early moments and awakenings

The foundations for arguing that arts practice contributes in new and valuable ways to research methodologies can be traced to Elliot Eisner amongst many significant others. His presence at the first ABER conference in Queens University Belfast in 2005 marked perhaps a ‘Spring Awakening’ moment for many young researchers who had started to  explore this area of research which had challenged and inspired many of their more mature colleagues over recent years.  It led, amongst other intended and unintended consequences, to the establishment of the BERA ABER SIG in 2010, convened by Dr. Nick Owen of the Aspire Trust, the Merseyside based Arts Education specialists. Lesley Saunders summarised the arguments for Arts based research in 2009 thus:

  • ethics:  the researcher gives up claims to objectivity and the particular kind of expropriation of others’ identity and experiences to which that leads  and lays claim instead to imaginative sensuousness or to passion as more plausible forms of authenticity;
  • life-likeness: narrative, images, evocations, recollected memories, dance, group drama and so forth are much more like the lives people lead than are purely rational prose accounts or numerical data;
  • epistemology: we need representations of knowledge which themselves enact and make manifest – through ‘bricoleurship’ – the provisionality and ‘fuzziness’ of knowledge in the social sciences;  and we also need to recognise that the arts create a different kind of knowledge – ‘not the goal of curiosity but the fruit of experience’[1] perhaps – with which we can enrich social, particularly educational, research;
  • expression: the language of academic research should divest itself of the ‘managerialist’ and ‘performative’ discourse which has infected it, and be more like poetry in its sensuousness and felt emotion;
  • the unconscious: the gifts of the non-rational mind – memories, dreams, reflections – should be welcomed as part of the cognitive project of inquiry for understanding
  • education: these modes of engaging in inquiry are in themselves educative, artistically and socially

The BERA ABER SIG: 3 acronyms upon we rest our work

The BERA ABER SIG (or British Educational Research Association’s Arts Based Educational Research Special Interest Group for the unitiated) aims to provide new opportunities in Arts Based Educational Research  by supporting and advocating rigorous,  and inter-disciplinary arts research practice which connects theory, research, practice and policy on local, regional and international stages.  We aim to provide connections within and across these constituencies in order to:

* Provide expertise and guidance in arts based research, practice and theory for universities, teacher training and arts organisations;

* Develop, lobby and advocate for practice which is built on principles of social justice, innovation, challenge, collaboration, rigour, scholarship, excellence and purpose;

* Encourage new conversations and dialogues between diverse agencies and organisations.

* Provide a platform for  theoreticians and practitioners working in arts, education and other fields to discuss, share and reflect on research practice and outcomes, both illuminating and problematical.

Whilst these aims are necessarily aspirational in nature, they are also presented within an overall spirit of ongoing challenge and enquiry:  ‘inclusiveness’, ‘rigour’ and ‘social justice’ are all terms for example which the field constantly contests and this dialogue will be encouraged and stimulated through the activities of the SIG.

THE ABER BERA SIG: playing for influence, change and recognition

Whilst the work of ABER is variously playful, challenging and sometimes bewildering, we are highly serious in our intentWe have been working together to

* Explore, support develop and critique  arts-based educational research theory and practice across differing educational contexts through a series of annual seminars which are held inbetween annual BERA conference;

* Co-ordinating and lobbying for publication in significant educational journals, presentation at international conferences;

* Advising on training and developmental opportunities for artists, researchers and other practitioners who wish to extend their expertise in the field.

For further information on arts based research and how it relates to other research disciplines please have a look here:

Watch out for those shaking research foundations!

(Adapted from Research Intelligence, Summer 2011)

Reasons to be pedagogical part 2: We’re going to make a slave ship out of pipe cleaners and mudroc

I’m watching a visiting artist, Lisa,  in a Year 6 class  with the teacher, Sally.  Lisa has started a project on Wilberforce, making a model slave ship, an African village and percussion project. She kicks off asking who Wilberforce is and what slavery is. She introduces the task of making a slave ship which she’s going to show – at the end of the week they will have an impressive piece of work which ‘we can display’.

“We’re going to make a slave ship out of pipe cleaners and mudroc” she announces.  Is there something a little inappropriate here?  Would we hear a session in which we would hear about making concentration camps and gas chambers out of ‘pipe cleaners and mudroc’?  Here’s  a Blue Peter version I made earlier….

Lisa demos  how to make a figure out of mudroc and pipe cleaners and takes questions as she goes.   Little slave figures made out of pipe cleaners.  “we don’t want arms sticking out, they should be down at the side”.  She sets up a little production line by asking them to make 2 or 3 figures each.  The class is set on a task of making about 50 – 75 different slave figures between them. “Mould the pipe cleaner, cut up mudroc, soak it, wrap it, repeat”.  I wonder whether someone will point out that they could develop the production line and have one child specialising in moulding, another in cutting, another in soaking.

As pipe cleaner figures start emerging, a few laughs are generated by children – feet are either too bog or heads too small. “He’s hop-along… what’s happened to his arms… mine’s called Gordon, mine’s Edmund… this one’s paraplegic”.  Groups work semi-independently, teacher is engaged in co-delivery of the session, moving from one table to another as Lisa does. “wrap the mudroc tightly around the skeleton otherwise it will fall off”.  Perhaps it would have been better to make people figures who had homes first and who were then enforced into slavery – using the kids enthusiasm for the figures to its advantage rather than opt for making slaves from the beginning.  The production line aspect of this approach ironically endorse the values which make the slave trade possible.  We’re not making  a character which has a personal connection to its sculptor.  There’s one black lad in the class who is joining in with all the activities; a small crowd of white mud roc figures starts being assembled;  some of which are splendid creations, others of which are not so splendid….

The project continues through the afternoon, with no time for play time which means for some kids that making slaves out of pipe cleaners is  becoming a bit of drudgery. The figures are now to be painted black, to represent the figures seen in the picture at the start of the session.  Blackened mudroc figures start to appear on table tops and are taken to the window ledge to dry; of course, they’re various in shape, size and coverage of black paint – but they are still faceless and the products of several cheerful production lines.  No shades of black, brown or tone… End of class, and Lisa moves the furniture back to where it started before I entered the classroom.  The figures are to be placed in the slave boat which is to be built tomorrow.  So what do we know about slavery after all this?

I want to be the first whisper first heard by a deaf man: Writers in Schools revisited

Terry, a big Scouse presence appears as if by magic on the floor of an imposing, oaken school library dressed in the hybrid clothing of part teacher gown, part trainer top, part designer trousers and complete black and white brogues.

The seats and tables are shoved back to the walls, giving him the floor space which he takes to like a duck to proverbial, slurping out of his bottle of noisy water, telling me about the fecundity of the group’s work from the previous week. An awkward gaggle of angular faces, beaks and folded arms look on and I’m reminded that despite all the experience in the world, you never know what you’re going to face: all the preparation, all the theory, all the lesson plans, all the tricks and tips and turn ons is fine but… in the end…. you’ ve got a line of expectations, gazes, hopes, resentments, gaps, blank minds, active minds fidgeting just waiting for you, for someone, for something to switch them on….

He starts with an impromptu solo improvisation about his own experiences of education and the resistances he encountered: “what are you going to night school for, you poof?” before launching into the session proper by reading some of his own poetry, a love poem about a boy and girl on Wigan Pier. Straight into a flip chart exercise, the rule being to complete the phrase, ‘I want to be the first…’ “I want to be the first whisper first heard by a deaf man.’

Momentarily, we’re all stunned. How do we acknowledge, consider and value that moment produced by a young lad who looks as bemused as his contribution as those of us who have just registered it? I’m reminded of the moment in another writer’s class when a boy calls out, in response to a question about film making, how do you squeeze real time into 90 minutes film time? A huge question but not followed through: perhaps we’ve forgotten how to follow through? For all the talk about personalised learning in the classroom, can we ever have the wherewithal to respond to moments of beauty that don’t entail ticking off an outcome within the confines of a cell in an excel spreadsheet? But we move on and gloss over.

Back to the rules. Rule 1: it can’t be wrong, whatever you write. Followed by a quick exercise: complete the following phrase: In case of… X then Y. Rule 2: the last word starts the next line: but remember Rule 1: all answers are equally valuable “it doesn’t matter what you say, it can’t be wrong…” he urges. Rule 3: the first line and last line have to be the same, “like a jigsaw puzzle: ironically meaning that the final rule negates the principle of Rule 1. But we’re not worried as we frantically scribble, trying our best to fill that empty page of lined paper. In the fluidity of the writer, child, teacher relationship, the writer establishes the rules, yet breaks them rapidly, easily, without consternation or complaint. “It can’t be wrong, you’re the author”.

From the transience of the writer’s rule setting regime an essence emerges of a kind of super-author who makes and breaks the rules for his apprentices, his minor authors. Through the walls he drifts, from the floor he rises: the meta-author, the author of authors. Welcome to the world of the writer in residence.

The Research Interview as Performance

The research interview can be viewed in dramaturgical terms and the concept of performing in interview contexts is explored albeit somewhat superficially by Pam Shakespeare in her work on the subject of the confused talk of people with dementia (Shakespeare, 1993: 95).  She uses the metaphor of theatrical imagery to understand the processes behind her interviews and uses the metaphors of ‘overture and beginners’, ‘researcher as actor’, ‘scene stealing’, ‘improvising’, ‘researcher as director’, ‘dying on stage’, ‘out of the spotlight’, ‘asides’ and ‘the final curtain’.   Whilst she readily admits that this is not a disciplined dramaturgical interpretation qua Goffman (Shakespeare, 1993: 97),  Goffman on the other hand proposes a number of concepts which have a significant resonance in the processes of the research interview: these include The Drama, Front, Credibility, Signs and Signifiers, Appearance and Manner, Risk Taking, Front Stage, Back Stage and Off Stage amongst others (Goffman, 1959).

In performance terms, the interview  can also be conceived of as a combination of varying degrees of structure, flow, and rapport which the interviewer needs to control by the judicious use of structured moments, improvised moments and free form. As such, the interview resembles  a  jazz composition more than a pop song or symphony, both of which are highly structured events, albeit spread over significantly different periods of time.

The challenge for the semi-structured research interview is to find the balance between structure and improvisation, itself a common issue in the performing arts; too much structure can make a piece predictable and boring; too little can produce chaos, confusion and end up leaving the listener disconnected from the performance experience.  A similar heuristic applies to the performance of the interview too; a balance of structure and improvisation is important for both participants’ continued interest and engagement in the process although what cannot be forgotten in that balance is the question of who initiated the interview and for what purpose. Paynter (200:8)  offers another interpretation from the practice of musical composition: On the subject of children’s poem David Holbrook (1967:8) says, ‘the least piece of writing, if the teacher has established the context for proper ‘giving’, will be a ‘meant gift’’.  We can apply that to school pupils’ composing.  The music they make is ‘offered’ to us and should be received in that same spirit.  In my experience there is always something of genuine musical worth to be discussed as seriously as we would with recognised master-works.

Paynter’s view of composition as a gift of improvisation, redolent of the structure of a piece of jazz music suggests that the interview process can be viewed in a similar light: a form of expression,  a gift,  which speaks of that artist’s (or interviewee’s) hopes, fears and emotions albeit  in a response to questions by the viewer (or inter-viewer).  In this interpretation, the interview process is potentially a constructive process as a  synthesis of new ideas and knowledge arises as a result of the interactions between interviewer and interviewee.

Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning

Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning shows teachers of key stages 2 and 3 how to introduce creativity into what is often seen as a prescriptive and stifling curriculum, and addresses the tensions that can exist between the requirement to follow the curriculum and the desire to employ innovative pedagogies. It offers readers a range of practical and realistic ways that curriculum changing ideas can be applied to individual projects, classrooms and even entire schools.

This book tracks the imaginative initiatives undertaken by six schools as they have worked to change their curriculum and teaching in order to put student experiences at the core of the learning process. Stating its observations and suggestions in a refreshingly straightforward and practicable manner, this book explores:

  • Why a new creative curriculum is needed for the 21st century
  • How to encourage teachers and pupils to ‘own’ the curriculum
  • The role that pupil voice plays in a creative curriculum
  • The environment needed to creatively manipulate the curriculum
  • How to introduce innovation to teaching practice
  • What actually works – considering the limits and possibilities of creative pedagogy

Providing case studies and examples of the ways in which teachers have delivered the curriculum in a creative way, Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning is an invaluably beneficial guide for all those involved in engaging and teaching young people in key stages 2 and 3.

Practical Text Deconstruction: giving some Shakespeare the once over in Germany

I worked with seven Theater Pedagogik students from the Osnabruck Technische Fachhoch Schule.  My workshop intended to explore how the eight elements of Bojeian story deconstruction might be applied to a piece of Shakespearian text in order to see how and whether that text may be re-presented as a text of inclusion, as opposed to the text of exclusion that Shakespeare texts can be portrayed as.

My session began with a simple name game played in a circle:  I name myself, throw a small pocket size German-English dictionary to a workshop participant and suggest they repeat the exercise.  Before long, all participants have picked up the idea and are beginning to establish the names of the other members of the group.  I develop this game eventually by plucking at random a word out of the dictionary, repeating my name then throwing the dictionary to another participant, again suggesting that participants repeat the exercise.  I encourage participants to pick any word, quickly, whether this be German or English, comprehensible or incomprehensible.  I accelerate the game so that participants eventually build up a chain of six words, five of which are taken from the dictionary, the sixth being their name.

I then request the participants to write the words onto flip charts I have attached to the wall.  I encourage them again to write quickly, with little time to consider of reflect on what they are doing. Once up on the wall, I ask members to construct an imaginary story using the six words of another group member, but using additional words as they see fit.  Eventually, short stories are generated by each of the group members about the other group members.  Given these short stories are based around six random words, the stories themselves display remarkable levels of abstraction, illogic and fantasy.  Nevertheless, members construct stories which are intelligible to varying degrees: the point being made here that human’s abilities to generate meaning is deeply ingrained in our psyche and that our powers of interpretation and meaning-making are perhaps as essential as our ability to breath and digest and reproduce. We focussed on three of the deconstruction techniques that Boje and Dennehy propose, in particular:

Reinterpreting the hierarchy: writing a letter is frequently about trying to present a  story from one point of view: introducing a second point of view which distorts and attempts to force its own control on the emerging narrative means that story writers are constantly reassessing and reinterpreting the hierarchy they are trying to establish.

Establishing rebel voices: the automatic letter writing exercise – especially in larger groups acts to deny the authority of the one voice.

Denying the plot: these writing exercises are designed to confound plot at all stages of its possible grip.

Tracing what is between the lines: constructing words from six random words encourages participants to trace and generate what is not said by filling in the blanks and imagining possibilities, however ludicrous or far-fetched.

After these warm up exercises, I then present participants with two pages taken from Steve Gooch’s Cut Shakespeare version of The Winters Tale. Apart from the Gooch technique of presenting his cut version of the play in a mix of bold and ordinary type face in the document, I provided no other contextual or explanatory information about the play.  Participants claimed not to know anything about the play at all and a number of them professed difficulties with understanding the language. This prompted a discussion about the status that Shakespeare has within the traditional literature canon and how this compares with the place of Goethe in Germany.  Students’ alienation from the text thus provided a metaphor of disability within the group: in one sense students could be seen, if viewed through a medical lens, as having a deficit in that they had a lack of intelligence to grasp a text presented to them: in another sense, if viewed through a social lens, the text had the effect of disabling them as there were no immediately apparent mechanisms open to them which would assist them in accessing the text.

However, participants were open to attempting to read the piece and began by identifying particular phrases – whether in bold or in ordinary type – which caught their attention. These phrases were discussed and possible meanings established.  I confirmed for participants that there was no right or wrong answers in this process.  After some initial caution in the process which I interpreted as participants wanting to know whether they were giving me the right answer or not, they continued to work on the pieces in two groups: one group of three men participants, and one group of four women participants.  The two groups then developed their own interpretation of the texts which they presented back to an invited audience of other students after about 15 minutes preparation.

The men’s group presented a non-verbal presentation in which the ‘king’ – identifiable by his posture and mimed cape – issued control of his kingdom and subjects through the use of visible computer remote control which he wielded at random both at imaginary characters in the play and to the audience in an apparent attempt to control their words and actions.  This control was in vain though: as he continued his attempts at control, the two other actors – who take on the role of off-stage, stage managers, steadily removed parts of the set and his costume whilst he was apparently oblivious to their actions.  Eventually his set and key costume elements – wooden blocks and scarf – were taken away from him and he was left with nothing apart from the ability to curl up, foetus like, on the stage floor.  The presentation ends in silence and finally, on applause, the actor acknowledges the audience and the presence of the two stage managers within it.

The performance was touching and regarded sombrely by the audience. We were left with a picture of a dying, reducing king whose influence and power was steadily declining.  We were encouraged to feel pity for him: a far cry from the usual portrayal of Leontes, the king in the ur-text, who is portrayed as a man who suffers from extreme jealousy which leads him to lock up his wife (and thus brings about her eventual ’death’) cast his new born daughter into the wilderness and lose his son into the bargain.  In this scenario, the text has been decentred from a  performance intended for two actors playing within Shakespearian conventions, to a performance for one solitary actor performing to an unseen multitude of other characters off stage as well as two actors playing the roles of two stage managers.

The women’s group however produced a piece which was far more pantomimic in character.  They produced a script which was performed in a graphic, comic style.  A narrator announces characters who gesture or offer a few words at particular moments to reinforce the words of the narrator.  They played with theatre conventions of the stage curtain (by using the black out curtains of the rehearsal room in a mock theatrical manner) and stage lighting (by switching the overhead neon lights of the room off abruptly at the end of the presentation).  They bow together, as a company at the end of the performance with tongues firmly in cheeks. The script they produced is as follows.

Schauspielerin: Es gab einmal einen König.  Dieser König hatte eine sehr gute Königin.  Doch die Königin gehörte einer feministishcen Bewegung an. Immer wieder schrie sie: Erhängt alle Ehemänner!  Und ihr Mann, der König sagte: Du bist ein Teil vom Nest voller verräterinnen.  Er wart ihr sogar vor, der sahn sie ein Bastard, und nicht von ihm selber.  Als eh ihr eines morgens den Hals umdrehte, schrie er: Nimm den Bastard! Der Sohn reif verstört: Ich bin nichts, bei diesem guten Licht!

Licht aus.

Alle: Besser!

In summary, both groups managed to significantly rewrite the Shakespeare text presented to them using the elements of story deconstruction described previously.  The text work particularly offered participants to use the eighth element described: resituation: i.e the ability to find a new perspective, one that resituates the story beyond its dualisms, excluded voices of singular viewpoint.  Participants reauthored the story so that the hierarchy was resituated and new balance of views was attained.  They re-storied the text so as to re-present dualities and margins and thus scripted new actions.

Whilst this process took place over only a few hours on a Friday afternoon, it offers a number of possibilities that can be used in further text workshop exercises, particularly with groups of participants who may have felt traditionally excluded from participating in an integrated interpretation of a Shakespeare text.

(Extract from The Puppet Question revisited: movements, models and manipulations; reflections on cultural leadership)