Approaching academia and academic publishing differently (or at least trying to): curating a themed issue of a journal on separated childhoods

ESRI researchers Su Corcoran (CYES and Enabling Education Network) and Helen Underhill (STEPD) are collaborating with three colleagues, Lopa Bhattacharjee (Family for Every Child), Joanna Wakia (Maestral International), and Eddy Walakira (Makerere University) to organise a webinar series focused on Separated Childhoods. This series celebrates the launch of the most recent edition of the Global Studies of Childhood journal, focused on the same theme, which they have edited over the last 18 months.

The recruitment of this editorial board was a starting point in realising a cross-sectoral, interdisciplinary and diverse representation of skills and experience related to the topic. As individuals, we all have practice-based experience of working with young people in schools and/or as part of civil society organisations as well as research experience in practice-based and/or academic settings. We represent two universities, and three civil society organisations, and it is from this starting point that we aimed to develop a publication that challenges the ‘values that privilege the expertise gained through academic training above that derived from personal insight and experience in community settings’ (Bell et al. 2021:3). We wanted to bridge the divide between research, practice, and lived experience to develop a themed edition drawing from all these areas. As our editorial describes, this was not a straight-forward process.

We recognise that practitioner knowledge is critical to understanding lived experience, and we aimed to include their voices in the articles as well as the peer review process. However, there are challenges associated with supporting knowledge production, especially across multiple languages, within the time frames asked of academic publishing and traditional notions of knowledge production. Such issues were further compounded by the pandemic. We attempted to develop frameworks to enable practitioner voices to be heard, but found changes are required at a higher, more systemic and structural level for this to happen. For example, practitioners require space and time to develop their contributions that seldom exists. Whereas an academic job comes with the expectation that we write journal articles and engage in a degree of peer review, it is very rare for practitioners to have writing for academic publication factored into their ‘workload’: put simply, knowledge production remains the preserve of the academic world and has established processes that maintain the division. The process of editing this themed issue highlighted that, as academics, we need to adapt the systems around academic publishing so that a more diverse range of voices are heard, facilitating a more horizontal process of knowledge production.

In our experience, a more understanding and inclusive approach to deadlines and editorial expectations is necessary and would benefit the practitioner-authors, editorial team and subsequent readership. Within this process, there were a number of authors who were unable to meet the deadlines set, even though we relaxed them a little, partly because we were also up against a difficult search for academic reviewers amidst the additional pressures of the pandemic. Some of these authors have been encouraged to continue with their papers and we continue to mentor them through the submission process, even though they missed the deadline for the themed issue. We have also attempted to provide spaces for these voices, and some of the unpublished voices, within the webinar series so that their experiences of separated childhoods are included.

As an editorial team, we set out to think about knowledge from a collaborative and inclusive perspective. Given the significant work practitioners do on a daily basis with children and young people, their voices were critical to the themed issue. We hope the upcoming series of seminars continues this theme and we invite you to join the conversation and continue the collaborative learning. 

If you are interested in finding out more about separated childhoods, the themed issue can be found here and the information about the webinar series (running from May-June 2022) can be found here. One of the papers not included in the themed issue but published by the journal can be found here (the second is still in peer review).

Sharing practices in digital literacy

Su Corcoran and Sarah Lister

Ahead of a transnational meeting as part of our Erasmus+ and British Council funded Gamifying CLIL project, we joined Cristina Huertas at the Universidad de Cordoba and 19 international students completing the Play, Education, Toys and Languages masters programme. PETaL EMJMD is an Erasmus Mundus programme that aims to boost the power of play and toys for learning and development in 21st century Early Childhood Education.

The morning’s session concerned digital competency for teachers and focused on the use of artificial intelligence for writing and the use of virtual reality software for classroom-based activities. We were keen to observe teaching methods and understand applications of technologies that we could put into our own teaching, as well as sharing them with the prospective teachers studying at Manchester Met.

Using pre-written first lines as the starters for story writing, we compared stories written by the platform with the students’ own compositions and attempted to identify the ‘words of the robot’. It was amazing to see how creative the technology was and how difficult it was to identify the authors. Although scary, in terms of how clever the AI technology has become, this technology promises huge potential for class-based activities.

Our second activity involved colouring pictures and using Quiver and then Chromeville to animate the drawings. The image shows Sarah with her 3D lion. With Chromeville the animations became more complex as characters jumped between clouds, ran across football fields, or surfed waves. There were also lots of sheets associated with cultural events such Christmas, Easter and Halloween. The potential for storytelling, creative writing and teaching life skills inherent to these technologies were endless and the students animatedly began planning future activities. 

Sarah Lister sits next to a table upon which is a 3D lion that she has made using Quiver and Chromeville.
Sarah Lister with her 3D lion

The lesson was exciting, interactive and provided food for thought about how we as an Erasmus+ network of universities could think about our next steps for research and development on content and language integrated learning (CLIL) and gamifying CLIL.

Reflecting on evaluation in research projects with community partners and artists

Su Corcoran and Kate Pahl

Recently, we took part in a workshop focused on developing a position paper on “Evaluating the Arts” as part of the AHRC-GCRF PRAXIS project hosted by the University of Leeds. As a result of discussing the various different ways in which traditional methods of programme evaluation could be adapted to take account of the arts, we felt it would be useful to articulate our individual approaches to the use of evaluation in relation to some of the projects that we have been involved with.

As a researcher with experience of working with non-governmental and community-based organisations on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) processes (e.g. Corcoran and Wakia 2013&2016), my (Su’s) approach to evaluation often begins at the practice level. As an academic researcher, I am very aware of the criticism directed towards researchers who parachute into a context, conduct their research, and gain later notoriety through their publications, without ensuring impact – or equal recognition – for the communities, partners, and research assistants who contribute to the research process.

Therefore, the collaboration with Glad’s House as part of our BA-funded project (Re)-engaging street connected young people with education in Mombasa, was developed in order to benefit the organisation. We focused on a research question that we both wanted to answer using methodologies that would help the organisation to work towards achieving their advocacy goals. In this instance, developing qualitative research skills to enable data generation as part of M&E processes that could provide evidence for working with local government to better inform initiatives/responses aimed at street-connected young people. A key observation made by the social work team involved in the project was the benefit of using more creative methods of engaging with young people (Corcoran et al. 2020) and therefore the project had a lasting impact not only on the development of qualitative modes of M&E, but also on the activities utilised on a day-to-day basis. The development of more qualitative and/or ethnographic approaches to monitoring and evaluation are being developed by a number of funders in the international development sector. StreetInvest (2017) are encouraging participative and reflective practice approaches to M&E and Comic Relief funded Retrak in Uganda to explore the use of a combination of qualitative data generation methods that could link into storytelling (Gebeyehu and Endeshaw 2018) – both focused on street-connected young people.  

My work focuses on contexts that I do not have experience of living, although I have work experience as an educator and administrator in schools and NGOs in these contexts. Therefore, evaluation can play a key role in helping a cross-sectoral team of researchers, artists and practitioners to envisage frameworks that need to be in place for future projects. Our (Kate and Su) AHRC-GCRF Belonging and Learning network project aimed to pilot the use of arts-based methods to encourage dialogue between young people and policy makers. However, in exploring the effectiveness of encouraging local government officials to either dance or write poetry with street-connected young people in Kenya and the DRC, or of bringing policymakers to an exhibition of visual art created by refugees in Uganda, there were wider questions to evaluate beyond the mode of communication (Ferguson 2020).

Art exhibition after workshop held in Uganda as part of Belonging and Learning project – image taken by Su Corcoran

We took an ethnographic approach to evaluation in this project, inviting Vicky Ferguson, who has extensive safeguarding knowledge, to observe all aspects of the workshops conducted in each of the three countries. As such, we opened ourselves up to extensive critique in relation to our relationship as academics with the practitioners and artists who were our partners on the project. More importantly, we were able to highlight the complexities that need to be negotiated to ensure that both the artists’ roles as facilitator and equal partner in the research is combined and supported with the practitioner knowledge of our community partners in order to provide safe spaces in which young people are heard. And that these young people understand from the outset, what realistic impact from their participation looks like in practice (Ferguson 2020). In order to do this, how can we bring young people’s voices into the project from the beginning – if not at the proposal writing stage then ensuring that the proposal includes time for young people to be consulted and the project to be co-produced.

In the AHRC-funded Questioning the Form project, we are further developing the ethnographic approach to evaluation, engaging the art form around which the project has been developed as the output of a reflective evaluation of the project. Questioning the form will combine poetry and visual art in the creation of zines with women in Uganda. Adapted in light of the COVID 19 situation, two reflective zines will be produced in addition to the zines made by the women who participate. The first will involve a station on one side of the room that will become a collective zine that the women can contribute to at any stage during the two 5-day workshops. Lisa Damon, who is observing the workshops and speaking with the women and the different collaborators at various stages in the project, will create the second. Lisa’s reflection has already started as she is reflecting on how we are working together to adapt our plans to the current – pandemic – situation. As we are unable to travel, Lisa, and the two of us, will interact with the workshops remotely, which offers an interesting opportunity for thinking through a blueprint for future projects that place autonomy for the projects firmly in the hands of local collaborators and consider the growing need to consider climate change.  

However, despite the depth and engagement with the artistic form that creative methods of evaluation provide, we have found that policy-maker audiences are not necessarily receptive to such outputs, even though they carry great weight for the participants involved in their creation. I (Kate) have had extensive experience of co-producing research with young people. Evaluative work is only meaningful to young people if the form it takes makes sense to them and can articulate their concerns (Pahl 2019). Film and poetry is sometimes not seen as ‘evidence’ by policy makers. In Rotherham, the AHRC-funded Making Meaning Differently project I led explored young people’s perceptions of government and involved a group of young people making a film to show to government using shadow puppets. Although their message was powerful, the officials preferred Slide Packs as forms of evidence. The work of the young people was not engaged with. Therefore, as we developed the Rotherham project, we took the decision to co-produce a book that was composed of art work as well as writing by the policy-makers, exploring the nature of knowledge and the different forms that knowledge could take within communities.

Art workshop (3) in Uganda as part of Belonging and Learning Project – image taken by Su Corcoran

So where does our experience lead us in terms of identifying innovative ways of capturing learning and impact, and how we can balance the needs of different stakeholders and compile recommendations for ways forward – particularly in terms of the preference for formal reports and quantitative impact data? We feel that there are a number of key questions that should be considered:

What do young people, community partners and artists want/need from the project?

As much as possible, research projects should be coproduced with the people who will be directly involved with delivering or participating in them. What researchers in the UK feel is important may not necessarily correspond to the practitioners at the local level in the DRC for example. The current scramble to complete proposals for funding calls does not necessarily provide the opportunities for equal collaboration – or the involvement of young people, for example, who are the focus of the project. Therefore, the design and budget for projects should necessarily incorporate space in which these different voices are able to articulate their expectations to shape and co-design the project that is finally delivered – from deciding on the form of the project outputs and research methodologies, to the nature of the evaluation process.    

What data is required at the local level? Can the project incorporate this? Would the local level data also satisfy the detail at the funder/policy maker level?

There are multiple levels of knowledge creation within any project – for example, from the young people who participated in the projects above to the funders who require that we report on our impact – and it is just as important to understand what all of these various stakeholders would like the project to achieve. In discussing the evidence that is required at the local level for advocacy etc., their requirements may correspond to the expectations of stakeholders who often have more influence on the form that such evidence needs to take.   

Does bringing policy makers into the projects mean that a system of data generation can be codesigned once they experience the value of the arts? 

The activities we developed in Rotherham and the DRC showcase two clear instances of outputs involving the voices of young people and of policy makers. For future projects, we aim to develop the format of the Belonging and Learning project to involve policy maker engagement throughout. In so doing we hope to raise the profile of knowledge created using arts-based methods and potentially influence policy-makers. Arts methods open up a space which enables people to communicate in more horizontal ways, and thereby change the space of their encounters to communicate more honestly and fully.


Campbell, E., Pahl, K., Pente, E. and Rasool, Z. (2018) Re-Imagining Contested Communities: Connecting Rotherham through research. Bristol: Policy press.

Corcoran, S.L., Awimbo, L.A., Mugwanga, K., I. A. Aluoch (2020) Street-connectedness and education in Kenya: Experiences of formal schooling as rationale for inclusive pedagogies of practiceProspects 

Corcoran, S. & Wakia J. (2013). Evaluating Outcomes: Retrak’s use of the Child Status Index to measure wellbeing of street-connected children. Manchester: Retrak.

Corcoran, S. and J. Wakia (2016). ‘Using child wellbeing assessments to track progress in family reintegration’. Global Social Welfare 3:137-145

Ferguson, V. (2020). External Evaluation of the GCRF/AHRC-funded project – Belonging and learning: Using co-produced arts methodologies to explore youth participation in contexts of conflict in Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Manchester Metropolitan University.

Gebeyehu, M. & Endeshaw, Y. (2018). Final Evaluation of the “Changing lives of vulnerable children and families from the SNNPR” Project. Manchester: Retrak

Pahl, K. (2019) Recognizing Young People’s Civic Engagement Practices: Rethinking Literacy Ontologies through Co-Production Politics of Literacies. Studies in Social Justice 13(1) pp 20-39

StreetInvest (2017) Street Work and Partnership M&E: Guidelines for regional coordinating partners. Twickenham:StreetInvest

Education and Global Futures research group hosts two international seminars

The Education and Global Futures (E&GF) research group has launched its local, national, and international activities by hosting two invited seminars in recent months.

Education Policy in Uncertain Futures: Reassessing Neoliberalism, 14 May 2019.

This seminar was strongly attended by the research community in ESRI and the Faculty of Education. Dr Karen Pashby, co-leader of the group, introduced the aims and focus of E&GF: to explore the important role education must play in preparing people for uncertain futures shaped by technological, economic, political and environmental changes. Reiterating the importance of reconsidering neoliberalism within the context of policy and praxis in education research, she invited speakers to consider whether and how neoliberalism as a concept applies to policy contexts for global futures, and to what extent we need a new vocabulary?

Dr. Karen Pashby

We took advantage of hosting Katariina Mertanen, an early career researcher from the University of Helsinki, as a visiting scholar. Katariina joined two very established scholars, Dr. Christine Winter from Sheffield University and Professor Matthew Clarke from York St John University, to respond to our provocation. The speakers brought a range of perspectives to the topic from their empirical research and theoretical work.

Katariina opened the discussion with her presentation, entitled Not a single one left behind’? Researching youth policies and youth support systems in the era of neoliberal political rationality”. Drawing on examples from her PhD research, her ‘genealogy of problematisations’ highlighted the multiple discourses that go into policy framing, including those connected to neoliberalism.

Highlights included:

  • Troubling how ‘young people’ and ‘civil society’ are constructed and presented as categories.
  • Tracing discourses of employability and therapization aimed at increasing human capital.
  • Showing how education and training are presented as convenient solutions to social problems.

Katariina Mertanen


Next, Chris Winter’s presentation, “The Geography GCSE curriculum in England, global development and neoliberalism: an inquiry”, drew on research related closely to practice in schools. Her presentation examined four questions: what is the relationship between global development discourses in curriculum and neoliberalism? Are these discourses racialised? What are the implications for a culturally diverse society? What hope for the future?

Highlights included:

  • Arguing that curriculum as policy (and the allocation of values) encourages attention to subjectivity (Butler).
  • Illustrating the colonization of minds through racist categories and language embedded in everyday texts (Fanon).
  • Mapping paths beyond neoliberalism: voice, imagination and hope.

Dr. Christine Winter

Finally, Matthew Clarke presented his paper, “Neoliberalism as political theology: Deicide and dismemberment”. He utilised a ‘political theology’ framework to explore neoliberalism in education.

Highlights included:

  • Illustrating how neoliberal subjectivity exists as a combination of attitudes, imaginaries, beliefs and practices.
  • Arguing that going beyond neoliberalism requires letting go of our need for redemption.
  • Exploring alternative modes of anarchic political subjectivity.

Prof. Matthew Clarke

Dr. Sam Sellar, the other co-leader of the group, responded as discussant, synthesising key themes from the three presentations and inviting wider reflection on the seminar topic. He asked presenters and participants to think about neoliberal subjectivity as a trap and provoked reflection on the complicity of critical educational theories and practices.

Dr. Sam Sellar

Attendees continued the conversation over drinks to conclude an engaging afternoon on a topic that deserves continued and sustained conversation.

Global Education Policy in Evolving Network Societies, 9 September 2019

This seminar brought together national and international participants for three panel sessions that involved short inputs from invited speakers followed by sustained small and larger group discussions. It provided an opportunity to: (a) take stock of different perspectives on a range of network theories and methodologies that have been taken up in education; and (b) consider promising lines of theoretical and methodological development.

The panels were organised around three key questions to be explored interactively amongst participants:

  1. How do network governance regimes compare across national contexts and transnationally?
  2. What are the limitations and possibilities for improvement of current methodological approaches for capturing the structures, processes, and impact of network governance?
  3. What are the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for innovation within current theoretical approaches to studying networks and governance?

Dr Andrew Wilkins, Dr. Philip K. Chan, Prof Radhika Gorur

The first session compared different national and international modes of network governance:

  • Governance assemblages: Mapping productive alignments and strange entanglements, Andrew Wilkins, University of East London
  • Networked governance in action: Aid infrastructures and the politics of harmonization and alignment, Radhika Gorur, Deakin University
  • Public education reform and network governance: The case of Chinese state-owned enterprise schools, Philip K. Chan, Monash University

The second session examined methodological approaches to network governance:

  • Capturing evolution: Examining network generation and change through time, Emilee Rauschenberger, Manchester Metropolitan University
  • Higher education industry and its future: The role of market devices in making markets, Janja Komljenovic, Lancaster University
  • Commercial (networks hiding) in confidence, Anna Hogan, The University of Queensland

And the third session explored theoretical approaches to studying networks and governance:

  • The governance of SDG4 and the strange non-death of the nation[1], Sotiria Grek, University of Edinburgh
  • 1996: The OECD education policy assemblage, Greg Thompson, Queensland University of Technology
  • Enacting alternative networks from the ground up: Education/policy collaboratories, Stephen Heimans, University of the Sunshine Coast on behalf of Parlo Singh, Griffith University

The event provided many opportunities to meet new colleagues and to encounter diverse perspectives on new modes of education governance around the world. The group continued the conversation at a drinks reception hosted by The Anthony Burgess Foundation.

These seminars showcased the focus of the Education and Global Futures research group on big global trends in education and our commitment to bringing together diverse groups of national and international scholars to debate the most pressing education policy issues today. The 2019/20 ESRI seminar series will continue this debate with a thematic focus on Education in uncertain times.

[1] With acknowledgement to Colin Crouch

Manchester Met experts appointed to help improve communication skills of Greater Manchester’s young children

Professor Deborah James and Dr Julie Marshall to support GMCA’s Pathways to Talking project

Education and health professionals at Manchester Metropolitan University are assisting a government initiative that will support under-fives living in Greater Manchester find their voice through communication and language.

The Greater Manchester Pathways to Talking project will support the scale up and implementation of the current speech and language and communication pathway of the GM Early Years Delivery Model, which aims to give all children in Greater Manchester the best possible start in life.

Professor Deborah James from the Faculty of Education and Dr Julie Marshall from the Faculty of Health Psychology and Social Care at Manchester Metropolitan University will support with the implementation of the pathway, the evaluation of its success and turn the learning from the project into tools for practice in the future.

The initiative is supported by the Department for Education’s Early Outcomes Fund that was awarded to eight area areas in the UK to make sure all children who need it, get help to develop speech, language and communication.

Professor James said: “Julie and I are delighted to be able to support the development of the Early Years Model in Greater Manchester, working alongside the leaders from health and early years’ education to create system change. Greater Manchester has a national reputation for leadership in early intervention and in the speech and language profession and this successful bid to the DfE (for over £1.5M) demonstrates that. We are looking forward to working across faculties to combine our expertise in integrated workforce development and early communication, speech and language research. Research shows that inequality in children’s outcomes before school tends to persist across the life-course. Addressing social inequality requires a whole system approach. This project aims to accelerate the roll out of the integrated system in Greater Manchester to ensure that all children in Greater Manchester get support, if they need it, to develop language and communication.

Prof James and Dr Marshall will work with multi-agency early years speech and language leaders from all 10 Greater Manchester localities to support the leadership of integrated services. The academics will help develop an implementation action plan and include tools to coach each locality’s leadership team using relationally-based coaching, strengths-based perspectives and training in community participation and co-design. They will work closely with Julian Cox, Head of Research Policy and Strategy, and colleagues at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to use population data to shape the implementation of the Pathway to maximise it for all families.

Professor James added, “Integration of services is a priority for system transformation. We hope that this collaboration will provide new knowledge of how to create change using relationally-based approaches”.

The aim of the pathway and the Early Years Delivery Model is that more children will start school with the communication and language skills they need to be successful lifelong learners, reducing inequalities and increasing life chances for all children.

The launch of the Pathways to Talking project was at Manchester Metropolitan University on June 13.

Holding the Family in Mind

The fourth 1001 Critical Days conference for Newcastle upon Tyne took place on June 11th 2019 during Infant Mental Health Week. The annual conference promotes the 1001 Critical Days agenda. Three services in the North East: NEWPIP, the Perinatal Community Service, and the Family Community Hub in the East of the City described their services providing vivid descriptions of practice with families. The conference explored links between the realities of adversity during early childhood, with contributions from Dr Wendy Thorley on the ACES approach and supervision practices for the workforce with Dr Rebecca Johnson from the Solihull Approach. Dr Ian Robson invited the 200 participants of the conference to develop the City’s narrative of Early Help using creative and visual methods. The conference is organised by Newcastle upon Tyne’s Collaborative Learning and Strategic Planning group (CLASP). CLASP members come from the key partners in health, social care, statutory and community services who provide services within the 1001 critical days. This group was chaired by Deborah James from its inception in 2015 until 2018 when she left Northumbria University to join Manchester Metropolitan University. This year she was invited back to chair the meeting. Her opening address is provided below.


Good morning everyone. It’s so good to be here with you.

I want to start this morning with where we left off last year. In her summing up of last years’ conference, Dr Caroline White took up the personal story Ellie Fletcher Robbins, who, you may remember, presented, with the perinatal teams from Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, to this conference.  Ellie talked about the mountaineering work of recovery through perinatal mental illness. In her summing up, Caroline imagined Ellie at the top of the mountain; she saw her sending lines down to the climbers below – helping others on their own climb. Over this year, Ellie and I have been working towards that vision in the development of a small networking grant to the Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Fund.  The grant, if successful, will enable us to consider some of the conceptual resources that form the braids in those lines. The conceptual resources that form part of our working practices, are deeply rooted in our biographical narratives which themselves are entwined in the narrative infrastructure in our dwelling places.

If we are lucky, our biographical narratives are entwined in the history of our families. Those family stories can guide in how to live a good life in the face of adversity.

When we face the threat of dying on the mountain, it is the concepts embedded within the stories that remind us how to find love, keep faith and persist in hope.

If someone has already taken that route up the mountain and left a guide of how to tackle it, we can also use their prior experience to help us find a way to survive. We can graft our own experience into theirs and use their guide to help with our own survival.


All these braids in the line – our own family stories, our understanding of what it means to lead a good life and our ability to graft into other stories of survival – depend on our ability to extract meaning for ourselves from what we see and hear. Extracting meaning from the world around us is, I think, enabled or disabled by our sense of belonging to a family, a place, and a society. If I do not have a sense of belonging, the stories that might guide my survival are not accessible to me.

Belonging – becoming and going on being – these are the life lines – that yes, are rooted in the first 1001 days, but we need these lines to be available to us throughout the life course. When we are in pain we tend to recoil, take our limbs into ourselves, at such times, it is hard to reach out and grab hold of the lifelines.

As workers, I wonder if our most important role, is to create space where people can, unfold, just enough, to reach the lines that their families, their histories and their dwelling places have already thrown down for them.  Contemplate that image for a moment – how would it change our practices?

Ellie has sent in this image – her family – her son, James, who is holding because he was held.

Providing a holding space. A space where we are refreshed, a space where our shared cultural concepts of what it means to do good work are renewed and reinvigorated. That is what CLASP is all about. It is our ambition to use this conference to create such space.

This is your day.


Deborah James: Professor of Educational Psychology, School of Childhood, Youth and Education Studies, Faculty of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University.

Summary of Literacy and Language group meeting, 1 May 2019

ESRI’s Literacy and Language research group came together for the second time on 1 May 2019. The group’s work draws on a wide variety of perspectives to understand literacy and language learning in and out of school settings. Group members are interested in policy and wider thinking about what literacy and language is or could be. Th meeting took 6 presentations from members.

The thread started with Huw Bell’s thinking on metalingustics which seems like a question of lexical knowledge. However, we don’t actually understand well what it is to know a word, which Huw likened to a Hedgehog: we can each recognise the whole and share some common understanding of a word but each may know a different spine of its meaning. And we don’t actually know how language is acquired! The national curriculum 2014 was introduced with a focus on grammar – metalinguistic knowledge. This can in some cases leave children feeling less confident in their use of language, which is a gift that they already bring to school.

Steph Ainsworth picked up from this theme as she described the affective nature of learning grammar. Steph’s study found that when working with students on an optional grammar course there could be strong affective responses to the revelation of the artefact of a language that students had been proficient in all of their lives, illustrated by one student’s strong sense of wonder at the lack of a future tense in the English language. Steph makes the case for wonder in learning!

Abi Hackett spoke about the everyday lives of parents and really young children up to 3 years, looking at the more than human dimension, space and objects. In her fieldwork she observed a group of parents and children on a farm visit where, in the waiting room, one child plays out the day as a cat. This was a clear example of multimodal literacy, movement, sound and multiple meanings in the communication: playfulness of being a cat, difficulty in waiting, passing time. Was this a social appeal for kindness and playfulness? Which meanings are true and does it matter? Abi challenges that it would have been planned out and for the benefit of adults, and draws from the example of other cultures that language is not the preserve of the human: indigenous societies understand that the spaces we inhabit nature and the land itself have language.

Martin Needham spoke about City Play project which coaches children in nurseries on physical activity which will be useful later for team sports. Coaches employed narrative techniques such as going on a bear hunt: green cones for forest, white for snow. Martin asks whether this will change the quality and enjoyment of the physical techniques being practices. Like Abi he is interested in the posthuman, looking at interaction between people and objects. Why should children engage with literacy activities? What is affective and motivating about them? Why should you engage with stories if you don’t find time to enjoy them?

Gee Macrory picked up on this theme with her work on young children’s experiences of and attitudes to a new orthography, French and Spanish, in the primary classroom in her Reykjavic project. She found that whilst language learning needs to be fun and engaging if it is seen only as such it will be given little emphasis in favour of English learning which is seen as more important. And this can instigate a vicious circle where if MFL learning is not given the time it needs, teachers may focus on fun, which leads to it being seen as trivial and hence little time is allocated for it, children then struggle to learn rules or patterns and show progression.

Finally, Pura Ariza’s thinking on bilingualism looks at trainee teachers’ understanding of it, and looks at ways of promoting language diversity and building multilingual classrooms. She looks at the downsides of how MFL focuses mainly on northern European languages, and EAL which focus on English deficit which assert language hierarchies and inequalities. These models obstruct bilingualism and prevent students reaping the benefits – in a society where communicating in other languages is increasingly important! She asks whether understanding MFL can develop a better pedagogy for multilingualism?


ESRI at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting in Toronto

This year a record fourteen ESRI researchers travelled to Toronto to attend the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting from the 5th-9th of April. The AERA conference is the world’s largest gathering of education scholars and a showcase for groundbreaking studies on an array of topics.

The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘Leveraging Education Research in a “Post-Truth” Era: Multimodal Narratives to Democratize Evidence’. With this, AERA challenged researchers with the question of how, in a so-called “post-truth” political era, when evidence is shunned and emotion is exploited, can we make research matter to lessen inequality and increase educational opportunities? An extremely relevant but rather formidable task, to say the least.

The Manchester Metropolitan contingent was led by Professor Kate Pahl, Head of ESRI, who contributed to two presentations. The first was in collaboration with fellow ESRI member Professor Maggie MacLure and visual artist Steve Pool, entitled ‘Odd encounters “Theory”’. This paper explored the contribution of theory in inquiries into ‘oddness’ in educational settings, working with films and voices of young people to explore what it means to feel Odd in the classroom and beyond. Their work drew on philosophical approaches, aiming to go beyond the often nominal references to ‘co-production of knowledge’ by directly involving the students from the class, who gave a message to the conference as part of the film.

In the words of Steve Pool, an artist working on the Odd project and PhD Candidate, “AERA was a fantastic opportunity to meet and work with the wider ESRI team, the sheer scale of the conference impressive and it felt a privilege to be introduced to so many new people with ideas that will certainly direct my future research”.

The ‘Odd Theory’ presentation was part of an AERA Symposium entitled ‘Odd Encounters: Other-Than-Conventional Relations in School​’ that was organised by Professor Rachel Holmes to showcase ESRI’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) three-year interdisciplinary ‘Odd’ project. Other participants included Rachel Holmes and Becky Shaw (of Sheffield Hallam) presenting ‘Odd Experiment 1: Sensing the School’, as well as Christina MacRae and Amanda Ravetz (School of Art, MMU) presenting ‘Odd Companions: a snaggle of voices’. This paper mobilized ‘the materialities and motions of ethnographic writing’, as proposed by Kathleen Stewart, to develop a felt understanding of children’s social relationships in early childhood, and explore researcher positioning in the early years classroom.Kate Pahl also presented ‘Reimagining Contested Communities: Collaboration as an Act of Hope in an age of post-truth’ alongside Elizabeth Campbell, a Professor from Appalachian State University. This session was part of a Roundtable on Collaborative Writing, organized by Kate Pahl, with contributions by Joanne Larson and George Moses (University of Rochester) and Lalitha Vasudevan (Teachers College). Jaye Johnson Thiel was the discussant.

As well as presenting with the Odd Futures Project, ESRI Professor Maggie MacLure participated alongside colleague David Rousell in an international symposium organised by herself and Professor Liz de Freitas, entitled ‘Rethinking Ethnography in the Posthuman Turn’. The symposium, attracting around 200 engaged attendees, focused on the contested past and potential futures of ethnography in the era of ‘the critical posthumanities’ (Braidotti, 2018). Maggie and David presented ‘Participation without observation: toward a speculative ethnography’. Informed by the Philosophies of Deleuze and Ruyer, the presentation called for a reconceptualising of ethnographic participation away from a project of observation, description and categorisation and towards one of empirical and ontological experimentation. Following this discussion, Liz de Freitas presented ‘Posthuman Ecologies: The Future of Ethnographic Environ/mentality’. In this, Liz issued a challenge to conventional ethnographic concepts such as ‘thick description’ and ‘presence’. She critiqued them as practically ill-suited to the realities of digital life in the Anthropocene, and a near future that may see the convergence of the biological, the digital, the sensual, and the social.

Further to this, Maggie also presented ‘Witches and wild women: bad girls of the Anthropocene’. This paper critiqued the notion of the ‘bad girl’ in relation to feminist and poststructuralist theory, and proposed the witch as an agent of positive, transformative method. This was an invited presentation in the symposium ‘Bad Girl Theory and Practice: Qualitative Research in Post-Truth Times​’, organised by Patti Lather of Ohio State University.

ESRI members Professor Liz de Freitas and Senior Lecturer Richard Dunk together presented their paper ‘Ghosts, Zombies, and Other Spooky Creatures: New Methods for Visualizing Agency and “Presence” in Classrooms’, as part of a Round Table Session entitled ‘Entanglement of Poetics, Visual, and Auto-Ethnography: Transformative Possibilities of Arts-Based Educational Research’. This paper discussed the use of experimental digital visual methods, often-unchartered territory for education researchers, analysing the productive insight for teachers and researchers that can be gained from the visible aesthetics of combined digital images.

Whilst at AERA Liz also presented ‘Plugging Into the Electric Body: Rethinking Bio-Data as Worldly Sensibility’ as part of a roundtable session entitled ‘Biosocial Futures: The Policy Implications of the Life Sciences in Education’ chaired by Taylor Webb of the University of British Columbia. In this paper, Liz highlighted the necessity of a theoretical framework to understand the effects of the increasing use of self-regulatory technologies, such as skin sensors, in experiments, and the role of this method of research in creating the “biosocial subject”.

Research Fellow Dr Steph (Daza) Curley chaired a symposium session entitled ‘Dare We Centre the Transnational — the Global Majority? How the Global-Local Happens’. She co-designed the session with the other panellists Roland Sintos Coloma, Jeong-eun Rhee, Binaya Subedi, Sharon Subreenduth and Rachel Johnson. Steph’s presentation focused on Spivak’s aesthetic education for expanding mind-set capacity towards a critique of quantum reason to come. Following Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Steph’s current project works at the limits of onto-epistemology necessarily non/located between the universe or planetary uselessness of human life and the push to be useful in the capitalcene or Anthropocene or whatever (s)cene is be/coming. At AERA, Steph drew from a working paper, co-authored with Rachel Johnson, entitled ‘Becoming Collaborative: Decolonising UK Policy-based Funding for Global Research with Official Development Assistant Eligible Countries’, which stems from a Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF QR) workshop she ran in July 2018 with 13 Co-Is from 7 ODA-eligible countries.

While at AERA, Steph also met with international colleagues to organise future activities and she supported Division G and the Postcolonial Studies in Education Special Interest Group (PoCo SIG). With Aparna Mishra Tarc and Jeong-eun Rhee, Steph will take a lead role in revitalising the PoCo SIG and supporting new leadership.

The photo above was taken after the symposium and includes four panelists and two audience members. From left to right are Roland Sintos Coloma, Lisa Weems Renae, Jeong eun Rhee, Steph Curley, Binaya Subedi.

Alongside academics from The University of British Colombia (Sharon Stein and Vanessa de Oliveira Andreott), ESRI member Dr Karen Pashby and Education Tutor Marta da Costa presented their paper ‘Mapping the Tensions in Typologies of Global Citizenship Education: From Description to Critique’. In this, they discussed the gaps and conflicts that emerge from different international conceptions of what exactly comprises ‘Global Citizenship’ and how it should be taught. This presentation was part of a paper session entitled ‘Democratic Citizenship Education: Policies, Frameworks, and Multiple Platforms’ convened by Carole R. Collins from Ayanlaja, Eastern Illinois University.

Dr Jane McDonnell, Senior Lecturer in Education Studies, presented her paper: ‘Promoting ‘British Values’ in a post-secular policy nexus? Narrative research with social studies teachers’. This paper reported recent research with teachers of RE, PSHE and Citizenship in secondary schools in England. The research employed life history methods to explore how these teachers are negotiating the current advice to schools on promoting ‘fundamental British values’ and its impact on their work as values educators. The research was funded by an internal RKE Research Accelerator Grant, and was presented as part of the roundtable ‘Beyond Traditional Methods: New Development in Citizenship Education and Civic Engagement’.PhD researcher and artist Kate O’Brien presented her poster entitled Akari’s problem: Dimension, connectivity and topological thinking in fiber mathematics. In this, she explored the mathematical practices of fibre artists and, in particular, practitioners who employ weaving technologies in the production of their work. She refers to this contextual practice of making mathematics and textiles as fibre mathematics. The paper analysed one student’s work process and issues –‘Akari’s Problem’– to explore how the loom operates as a rich experimental field for the (re)creation of mathematical concepts like dimension and connectivity. Engaging with the sheer breath of scholars and specialists at AERA, Kate held a number of thought provoking conversations with pre-service teachers, museum administrators and a wide variety of education researchers.

We’ve created a summary of ESRI colleagues’ tweets from the conference here.

The week was a great opportunity to exhibit, analyse, and create global conversations around some of ESRI’s most innovative research, as well as learn from (and with) education scholars from around the world. The dramatic skyline of downtown Toronto provided a lively backdrop upon which to build and strengthen collaborative networks both within and outside the department. We are very thankful to all at AERA for organising such an energising conference, and look forward to being engaged, entertained and challenged once again at next year’s meeting in San Francisco.


The National Art Education Association Convention 2019

On March 14-16, Dr Laura Trafí-Prats, Senior Lecturer in the School of Childhood, Youth and Education Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of ESRI, attended the National Art Education Association (NAEA) Convention in Boston, USA. The NAEA was founded in 1947, and it is the only professional association in the USA exclusively dedicated to art educators. Its membership is large and composed of art teachers, representatives of higher education art programmes, museums, art organizations, artists and art education students, predominantly from the USA but also from Canada and countries in Europe, South America and Asia. The conference included more than 1000 sessions, comprising papers, panels, workshops, interactive sessions, and keynote lectures. The latter featured Professor Howard Gardner, writer of Multiple Intelligences, and artist Amy Sherald, who painted the now famous portrait of Michelle Obama, among other artists and scholars from Massachusetts.

Laura presented two papers. The first one was in a seminar for the Research in Art Education Interest Group, and within a panel titled New Materialisms and the Reclamation of Language in Children’s Drawing. Other speakers on this panel were Christopher Schulte (Penn State University), and Christine Marmé Thompson (Penn State University – Emerita). The panel looked at recent research on the role of language in children’s drawing, with specific attention given to everyday practices where drawing is embedded in the dynamics of language as representation and generative excess. The paper that Laura delivered as part of this panel was titled Carrying the line with Sylvie: Drawing as an immanent predicate in early childhood practice.

In this paper, Laura examined the powerful persistence of logocentric practices in the uses of drawing in early childhood education, where children’s drawings come to matter by using them as a platform to produce words, sentences, narratives, and symbols. She argued that such an approach presupposed that drawing begins with an individual intentional child, who in the course of being educated, learns to use language as a way of putting order in his expressive a-representational manners through naming and declaring (MacLure, 2016). This view of the child as commanded by language displaces a materialist conception of drawing as a thinking that shapes in the process of making where accidents, unplanned, non-intentional marks can be lines of flight and the origin of new concepts and thoughts (Deleuze, 2003). This is a thinking of drawing that rather than depending on ideas, intentions and languages resides in the body, sentience and actual and virtual lines of becoming (Ingold 2013; see also Atkinson 2018). Using a theoretical framework inspired by Deleuzo-Guattarian and new empiricist theories, the paper proceeded to discuss the emergence and development of different classroom performances associated to drawing and connected to a three year old, Sylvie.

The second paper was presented at the Early Childhood Art Educators Interest Group and was titled An Aesthetic and Emplaced Approach to Thinking with Materials in Early Childhood Education.Taking as inspiration a unit that Laura has designed and taught for the first time this year in the Early Years and Childhood Studies Programme at Manchester Metropolitan, Laura outlined and discussed a curriculum for early childhood educators centred on thinking with materials through places in the community (such as museums, gardens, artist studios and makers labs). She discussed how these places can become important assets for young educators who seek to involve children in material, aesthetic and sensuous forms of learning while confronting a lack of resources and professional support in their own centres.


Reconceptualising early childhood literacy beyond anthropocentricity

ESRI members presented a symposium at the Reconceptualising Early Childhood Literacies Conference in Manchester on 7 & 8 March, 2019. The symposium was organised by Abi Hackett and it included the following presentations:

“Vibrations in place: sound and language in early childhood literacy practices” Abigail Hackett and Michael Gallagher, MMU.

“Visual methodologies after the post-human turn: Child participatory research involving action cameras in an after-school club” Lucy Caton, MMU.

“Using the virtual to explore what happens when adults “don’t talk” but instead use space, sound, materials, and bodies to converse with children?” Charlotte Arculus and Christina MacRae, MMU.

“Video-sensing the world in aesthetic collective practices with young children” Laura Trafí-Prats, MMU, UK and Evelyn Gutierrez, Alexandra Park Children’s Learning Community, UK

Discussant: Maggie MacLure, MMU

Discussant’s comments

It seems a shame to comment on this lovely collection of papers. I’m reluctant to arrest the flows of sense that they have released, and lock them back into the ‘fetters’ [1] of representation that each of the presenters is so determined to resist. So I won’t comment on the papers one by one. Instead, I’ll try to tap into some of the synergies and resonances that flow through and connect the papers.

I think there are strong resonances, and perhaps not surprisingly. You can tell that these papers are an expression of the shared values and interests of a genuine research collective. As a colleague of the presenters, I hover on the edges of the collective, and count myself fortunate that they sometimes let me play!

But in addition to the connections and resonances, it is also important to note how each of the papers is anchored in a particular research project or intervention. It’s clear that the project is the beating heart of the matter for each of the presenters. There’s a real commitment to socially-engaged empirical research, even while each of the papers is also stretching empiricism to its limits, infusing it with theory and reanimating it with the potentialities of the virtual. It is this conjunction of faithfulness to the empirical minutiae, coupled with the embrace of open-ness and uncertainty, that assures that inquiry is both grounded in place, sensation and embodiment, and capable of taking flight and creating new spaces for thought.

Let me talk briefly, then, of the resonances. Firstly, all of the papers can be identified broadly with a resistance to the dominance of conventional language. In their different ways, each paper finds language to be inadequate to an understanding of the complexities of young children’s sense-making practices. And each paper mounts a critique, explicit or implicit, of the dominance of language in qualitative research methodology. All of the papers are struggling therefore to engage with the stuff that evades ‘capture’ by language – affect, sensation, sound, gesture, movement, rhythm.

The papers also testify to a certain absurdity and violence inherent in adults’ relentless mission to explain, represent, and render children and their digital adventures intelligible; to know exactly what things mean. All of the presenters are very clear that the critique of representation is an ethical undertaking. They would contend that there is an intimate and non-accidental link between the anthropocentrism inherent in representational language, and the ocular preoccupations of the professional or academic observer. They seem, to me at least, to condemn what D.A. Miller [2] called the ‘panoptic immunity’ of the liberal subject, who claims the prerogative to interrogate and expose the lives of others without reciprocal obligation. Kathleen Stewart [3] detected similar privilege in ‘the ethnographic code’. I think the presenters would say that this tends to impose an essentially colonial relation: it suppresses what is vital and energetic in more-than-human encounters, and keeps potential, change and difference in its place.

All the presenters are looking therefore for resources to release, or at least tap into, that which exceeds capture and domestication by language and conventional digital methods. They pull, push and stretch language and visual media to their limits, twisting and perverting them to release some of their profane energy. They try to sense the secret rhythms picked up by cameras and video technology; to achieve a haptic vision that, in Eva Hayward’s term, apprehends with ‘fingery eyes’ [4]; to hear with the body and not just the ears; to acknowledge the fleshiness and the materiality of language and digital life. They are looking, in other words, for that which might deterritorialise language and open onto the new.

The collective work reflected in these papers is contributing to the development of multi-sensory ethnography. I think it is also building, or rediscovering, a synaesthetic ontology and methodology. That is, it is inventing practices of sensing – modes of attuning to the complex interplay of the senses in sensing the world. This is particularly relevant for research on early language and literacy. There is a growing body of research evidence that young children themselves make sense of the world synaesthetically: in other words, by mobilising all of their senses. This capacity declines, or goes underground, as adults learn how to enforce that brute separation between words and world, thought and feeling.

The more-than-human, or non-representational orientation evidenced in these papers presents researchers with complex and paradoxical challenges. We are forced to grapple with our own human-centrism; to twist ourselves into a variety of undignified postures in the attempt to catch that which cannot be caught, glimpse things just out of the frame, or the corner of the eye, behind one’s own back; in the interstices and the accidents.

We will of course fail. We will end up once more explaining, representing, orchestrating, domesticating, romanticising, judging – partly through fear of risk to children. But also because these acts are wholly implicated in what Deleuze called the dogmatic image of thought, which still largely prevails. So our artistic imagination will reassert its privileges. We will get carried away by our own rhetoric. We will be impressed by our own good and common sense and fall in love with ourselves all over again. And that ineffable sense of relationality, singularity and potentiality will fade once more.

But sometimes, something will open up. And sometimes, something will get through.


[1] Deleuze, G. (1994), Difference and repetition (P. Patton, Trans.), New York: Columbia University Press.

[2] Miller, D.A. (1988), The Novel and the Police, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[3] Stewart, K. (1996), A Space on the Side of the Road, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[4] Hayward, E. (2010). Fingeryeyes: Impressions of cup corals. Cultural Anthropology25(4), 577-599.