Urgent, meaningful and delightful; aspirations for coproduced research with babies and families during physical distancing

Ruthie Boycott-Garnett, Abigail Hackett, Katy McCall, Naomi Kendrick

This blog emerges from conversations about how participatory research should respond to the seismic shifts in communities and everyday lives that are unfolding as a result of Covid19. Our thinking emerges from a working group we have belonged to for the last 18 months, in which staff from Manchester Art Gallery (Katy, Naomi), MMU (Abi, Ruthie) and local Children’s Centres and nurseries explored ways in which we could work more closely with local families with babies. The pandemic has offered huge and unique challenges for new parents, babies, and those who work with them. At the same time, by challenging traditional ways of doing research, lockdown and physical distancing measures might create new spaces to question established orders of power, such as academic knowledge (Roy, 2020, Skeggs, 2020). Therefore, as a group we were interested in asking; could this challenge to settled ways of doing co-production also provoke us to imagine new ways of researching together?

Tacit knowledge, partially articulated things and the importance of what goes unsaid

Many methods of data collection have had to be adapted because of Covid19, and in the early months of lock down, there was an outpouring of knowledgeable, creative and innovative responses to the question of how to do participatory research alongside physical distancing. However, one of the things that started to nag in our minds was the extent to which many of these methods relied on knowledge that was fairly definite, explicit and easily conveyed in words. Classic participatory methods for working at a physical distance might include things such as interviews conducted over a video call, asking participants to keep a visual or written diary of their experiences, or shared spaces where participants can upload responses to prompts and questions. Whilst these methods can be incredibly powerful in some research contexts, they run up against many of the ways we are used to supporting, researching with and building relationships with communities, families and babies. These ways have tended to centre on time spent physically together, creating beautiful and immersive spaces that invite different kinds of interactions and conversations, tracing small moments (Stewart, 2007), bodily experiences and sensations, things that can be known through the body and partially articulated in writing. These aspects of lived experience with babies and toddlers are rarely articulated and often hard to explain. So what might we need to consider then, in terms of working in communities and with families with young children, during the time of physical distancing? Working with families often involves engaging with sensitive and complex family relationships and it is important to be able to account for things that go unsaid or are not fully explicated in words.

Our work together at Manchester Art Gallery

Since September 2019, a team of arts and early years practitioners and researchers have been meeting at Manchester Art Gallery to think about how babies and young children use the space. Until March 2020 we met regularly in the gallery to share research and experiences that helped us think about the space. We looked at artworks that might be exhibited, we followed routes around the gallery that children had taken before us and we shared examples of nursery visits. Our focus was to support Katy McCall, MAG’s Family Learning Manager, to create a new space for families in the gallery, due to open in May. When the gallery shut during the initial Covid-19 lockdown in March, building work had already begun to open up the space. Heavy shutters that had stopped the light from pouring in were pulled back, changing the quelled, quiet, low light gallery into a sunlit, open space.

When lockdown temporarily closed the gallery doors, we all held enough enthusiasm to continue meeting. We turned to Zoom, like so many other people around the world, but our conversations changed. We tried to continue our original track discussing how the new space could be used in response to what families would need ‘after lockdown’. We considered how to document family’s experiences, perhaps exhibiting a collection of ‘lockdown art’: NHS rainbows, window trails or home craft activities. 

As the pandemic continued this thinking trailed off into the fog. Perhaps this was because we knew that these dominant narratives of children crafting away, joining Joe Wicks and zooming with friends were not everybody’s stories. We knew there were families without scissors and glue or wifi. Perhaps also because we felt too much was unknown. We felt the frustrations of the increasingly complex restrictions and plans for ‘once this is all over’ became faded and far away. Perhaps we changed direction because focusing on the space, whilst it was empty, was not urgent enough. Haraway suggests that ‘urgencies’ rather than emergencies ‘have other temporalities, these times are ours. These are the times that we must think; these are the times of urgencies that need stories.’ (Haraway, 2016:37).

The need for urgency was balanced with the need to build something meaningful, useful and delightful. The nature of our meetings changed to something more immediate. We met more regularly, our talk changed from thinking about the space to thinking about the current experiences of the families that would usually be in it. Step by step we made 100 boxes of sensory gifts and art making materials for babies and toddlers living within the city centre. 

Though it was unintended, each box has become greater than the sum of its parts and, as the pandemic continues, has become significant in building relationships across the city. Delivering the boxes has become an opportunity for human contact. For some, this was a catch up on the doorstep, a chance to ask that niggling question or a moment to meet a new face. These moments on the doorstep between parents, possibly babies, practitioners, the boxes and the gallery tune into Kathleen Stewart’s (2007) work on tracing the flows of energy and intensity between people, things and places. These moments will continue as the boxes become the focus of social distanced play sessions for families to play with their own boxes in a shared space. As restrictions fluctuate, more boxes are being made and will likely be used in ways that we cannot yet imagine, moulded by the alive, immanent and unpredictable forces that will occur between the boxes, gallery and babies.


Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Roy, A. (2020). The pandemic is a portal, Financial Times, April 3rd. Available online: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

Skeggs, B. (2020) Introducing Solidarity and Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic, The Sociological Review, Available online: https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/introducing-solidarity-and-care-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

Stewart, K. (2007). Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press. 

An Afrofuturist Outpost: Re-imagining co-productive from beyond the university

This blog emerges from the Imagination, Margins and Tacit Knowledge ESRC Festival of Social Science event. For more information click here.

This is an attempt at an origin myth. A speculative writing of a future history. We aim to talk something into being. In lay person’s terms, this is a project that has happened yet. Starting co-produced projects is not impossible under lockdown and physical distancing but it is a gravity that works against the quality of emotional, relational and temporal investment in a project. There was a funding application but it fell at the last minute due to issues with partner commitments. 

We begin with an 18-month dialogue between MMU and the Niamos theatre in Hulme. Our concern is the disparity between the rich cultural achievements of Hulme and the simplicity, lack of care and imagination of the various institutional and social policy interventions aimed at the area and those that live in it. Hulme has made profound contributions to the arts, cultural and political vibrancy of Manchester and without exaggeration through at least its music and fashion the world. So, as we encounter an issue we are interested in thinking, What Would Hulme Do? 

This orientation suggested an approach to the issue of, from one perspective, increasing the diversity in the university and, from the other, expanding opportunities for young people in Hulme: 

SODA, MMU’s new School of Digital Arts is looking to create educational spaces to increase the diverse of its students and so skills pipeline and so the future workforce of the region. SODA aims to be the region’s home of next generation storytelling so whose stories are told and who tells them is crucial. Unfortunately, many of the existing approaches to increasing diversity often fail to scratch the surface. 

WWHD? Co-produced projects often begin in messy places and well set sail and navigate other messy spaces. So, one co-author (Duggan) thought the other (Ali) had produced an Afrofuturist pantomime at Niamos titled Snow White Privilege. As it turns out, the panto was not Afrofuturist but this error led to an interesting place. The idea was to co-produce an Afrofuturist intervention in SODA where the aim is not to integrate or accommodate racialised young people into an educational space but instead re-imagine the places, spaces, relationships and temporalities of digital education. The prospect of co-producing an Afrofuturist project to transform the university raised concerns of the ways in which co-production itself might work to shape, constrain and resist these research processes of imagining beyond the university from within and without. 

It might not feel like it to those of us struggling with the lack of recognition for the emotional and relational labour involved in developing co-produced projects within the university but co-production is an institutionally sanctioned discourse, like participation, inclusion and diversity. Co-production is typically constituted from project management technologies, contractual relations, upholds liberal Intellectual Property rights and so on. We might question whether these dynamics constrain the bases on which co-production is advanced, to empower, enact equality and democracy, contribute to social justice. The point here is not to nitpick. Inspired by speculative pragmatic approaches, we seek to identify and explore new propositions that are interesting, work to situate us otherwise. 

Re-imagining the practices of co-production through Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, interesting. It enables us to learn the lessons from moves to decolonise research methodologies and the university and apply this to research co-production. This is the work of co-production but it is not a neutral and apolitical set of practices in this work. Hence reimagining co-production through Afrofuturism. 

Afrofuturism is not just a critique but a generative focus for co-producing research because of its diverse, live and lively practices and applications: For Womack (2013) it is… ‘Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.’ These lenses and inspirations kindle an Afrofuturist co-productive imagination which will begin moves to re-imagine the methodologies, ethics and practices and ways of valuing co-produced research. Co-production involves citizens in planning, collecting and analysing data but making theory remains the elite preserve of academics. Afrofuturism’s emancipatory politics inspires the attempt to co-produce theory with citizens, re-imagining what theory is and how it connects to everyday life. Co-produced ethics emphasise equality. Afrofuturism invites us to think of being alien and alienation rather than equality and participation posing profoundly different ways of understanding ethics, relationships of obligation, and the micro-social relations of accompaniment in research.

We are at the beginning of this adventure but we hope to develop an Afrofuturist-orientated co-production which involves collaborative theory building between citizens and academics, a process involving a lively encounter with music, film, technology and inspiring retellings of alternative pasts and (hopeful) histories of the future.

Elmi Ali and James Duggan 

Imagination, Margins and Tacit Knowledge: Co-producing research during physical distancing

Since the COVID-19 lockdown and physical distancing began many of us have been grappling with the challenges and potentials of rethinking co-produced or collaborative ways of working. Physical distancing measures make it harder to  develop the trust and quality of relationship needed to work together. At the same time, the pandemic, by challenging traditional ways of doing research, might create new space  to question established orders of power, such as academic knowledge (Roy, 2020, Skeggs, 2020). Could this challenge to settled ways of doing co-production might also provoke us to imagine new ways of researching together? 

This ESRC Festival of Social Science online event brought together on-going dialogues between academics, community organisations and the people and publics they work with to re-imagine what co-production is and it might become. The event featured short presentations on different coproduction projects, with time for group discussion on challenges and opportunities ahead for coproduced research.

We focused on cases each illuminating a new theme for co-production: 

Imagination: Co-production is often described using words such as empower, social justice, democracy and equality but these have all been stretched and misappropriated to mean just about anything. James Duggan and Elmi Ali from community theatre space Niamos are working to re-think co-production through the lenses and practices of Afrofuturism which offers a new imagination, where we might, for example, hold onto ideas of being alien and alienation rather than claiming we are equals in co-production. (You can read a blog about this session here.)

Margins: At a time when our welfare system is under unprecedented pressure and needs rethinking, it’s fundamental to include in this discussion voices too often left unheard. Sonia Bussu and Nigel Allmark talked with Suzy Solley and Mat Amp from Groundswell, a London-based charity doing research with people with lived experience of homelessness,  some of their recent projects during the pandemic, and how they are helping to create ethical spaces for homeless voices to be heard and contribute to societal change. 

Tacit knowledge: Working with families often involves engaging with sensitive and complex family relationships and it is important to be able to account for things that go unsaid or are not fully explicated in words. Abi Hackett joined with Ruthie Boycott-Garner (MMU), Katy McCall (Manchester Art Gallery) and Naomi Kendrick (Manchester Art Gallery) to discuss the potential of visual and material methods to access ways of knowing that extend beyond words, during times of physical distancing. 

This blog is the first in the series presenting these three dialogues. In the meantime please check out the event video and Wakelet:

Nigel Allmark, Sonia Bussu, James Duggan and Abi Hackett

Confronting the elitist stranglehold of everyday reality

Edda Sant and Tony Brown

Our recent paper in the British Educational Research Journal (Sant & Brown, 2020) seeks to question the logic by which education, education and yet more education will bring about emancipation from the hidden exercise of force that underpins populist movements in contemporary politics. We showed how the fantasy of the educational cure operates as an ideology protecting education’s project of securing customers for its product in the market place. For example, in England the university sector’s more critical ambitions have been displaced by demand-side financial clout in dollops of £9,250 fuelled by desires schooled in suppositions of the future job market, and more immediate demands in university classroom dynamics secured through the National Student Survey (Thiel, 2019). 

These marketised demands are inculated in students long before they reach university.

The recent furore over A’ level results in that country and the operation, or not, of an algorithm in producing the correct distribution of grades across schools, has deflected attention from the chief assessment function of such exams. That is, as a selection device that dutifully, year after year, produces the right number and distribution of students for pre-defined course quotas across the university sector. As for the young woman pictured in the Guardian with a banner declaring “I’m a student, not a statistic”? Get real – the heat is on to stage-manage your own statistical profile if you want to be liked. Universities are part of the state’s ideological apparatus designed to produce a compatible citizenship.

The economist Thomas Piketty (2020) argues that populism has emerged as a consequence of left wing parties now speaking more to the educated winners of globalisation who have a self-serving image of how efforts should be rewarded, and how populism has emerged as an alternative for the disenfranchised looking for different scapegoats. He sees the reduced influence of workers’ parties as being a consequence of the disillusionment with the collapse of real life communism, and capitalism glorifying in its own success through an enhanced assertion of the free market. There is a real difficulty in putting together a coherent programme for the less advantaged as the collectivised union model that initiated the Labour movement has less traction in current circumstances where the disadvantaged are highly dispersed across many sectors and countries with little coordinated support. 

Our paper transcends such economised perspectives with winners and losers. We adopt a critique of ideology where the populist fantasy, centred on there being an elitist stranglehold of everyday reality, is a victim of its own deception. The populist fantasy fails to recognise the impossibility of escaping the ideological constraints within or outside institutionalised forms of education. Emancipatory education can only aim at transparent rationality but will ‘imprison’ us in old or new power relations. Emancipatory education necessarily ties knowledge and authority altogether. But this leaves us with the question of what we would want emancipation to bring about. How might we conceptualise future progressive paths in education? What would we want them to achieve? Edda (Sant, 2019) has reviewed a broad range of conceptualisations from the point of view of how education is variously aligned with democratic ambitions. She identifies the existence of at least eight distinctive emancipatory projects within the academic literature. Each project sustains its understanding of emancipatory education in distinctive ontological, epistemological and ethical grounds.

Our BERJ paper, however, follows the political theorist Ernesto Laclau in arguing that human beings need to recognise themselves as the true creators and no longer be  passive recipients of a predetermined structure. On the other hand, all social agents have to recognise their concrete finitude as nobody can aspire to be the true consciousness of the world. Might then we emancipate ourselves from both populist and anti-populist discourses? And if so, how should we do this? Or does the discursive landscape require renewal so that educational trajectories can be thought differently?  It seems that we need a new fantasy and must question how we might understand education within this. We will surely fail again but may learn to fail better or, more likely, differently. 

Piketty, T. (2020) Capital and Ideology. London: Belknap.

E. Sant (2019). Democratic education: A theoretical review (2006-2017)  Review of Educational Research. 89(5), pp.655-696.

E. Sant, T. Brown (2020). The fantasy of the populist disease and the educational cureBritish Educational Research Journal.

J. Thiel (2019). The UK National Student SurveyBritish Educational Research Journal. 45(3), pp.538-553.

Edda Sant and Tony Brown both work at Manchester Metropolitan University. Edda is Senior Lecturer in Education. Her book, Political education in times of populism will be published by Palgrave MacMillan next year. Tony is Professor of Mathematics Education. His tenth book, A contemporary theory of mathematics education research is being published by Springer in November 2020.

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 Studies beyond the classroom: An insight into global real-life application.

If you are interested in the recorded panel discussions that occurred, you can find the attached video-links in ANGEL Early Career Researchers Conference: the University of Oulu, Finland from 11-12 June 2020

By: Cheryl Ng, Katie Ormrod and Nay Myo Htet

Amidst the lockdown measures of COVID-19, I tuned into the Academic Network on Global Education & Learning (ANGEL) Early Career Researchers Conference 2020, hosted by the University of Oulu on Zoom and waited excitedly. As people started streaming into the conference, I noticed my peers from BA (Hons) Education Studies, Katie and Nay in attendance too. 

We had attended seminars with Dr Karen Pashby and Marta da Costa during our degree, and it was here that Global Education (GE) was first introduced to us through the unit: International Development, Education and Colonialism. The riveting in-class discussions about the different ways that education reproduces oppression and colonialism through knowledge/ power on a global level, sparked intriguing debates and conversations. Knowing Karen was invited as one of the keynote speakers amongst other leading scholars, and that Marta was presenting her doctoral research at the event, we were excited to register. It  presented a great opportunity for us to see their work in the global education research field alongside other top scholars.

During the two-day event, panels consisting of academics and scholarships from across the globe led discussions on a broad range of interconnecting conceptualisations, raising new questions and possibilities regarding global education. Amongst the panel discussions, it was really interesting to listen in to Karen’s sharing on ethical considerations future researchers could think of applying for future research. The panellists also gave advice to researchers in their early careers. Although sometimes complex, these concepts were made wholly accessible to us because of what we had learned from our Education Studies degree. 

We also had the chance to join small group break-out sessions. These sessions gave the options of listening to research presentations on topics such as GE in schools; social justice and culture; implementing GE; teacher engagement with GE and more.  The researchers presented perspectives spanning across various contexts and ideas, demonstrating a broad range of studies in the field. This created a platform for eye-opening discussions, where we got to hear diverse viewpoints. 

The presentations compelled us to think beyond our own perceptions and consider the views of diverse participants’ professional and cultural backgrounds related to global education. These little sessions were an enjoyable element of the conference and were also an opportunity to network and interact with academics with whom it would have been difficult for us to meet otherwise at this stage in our careers. 

Participating in ANGEL 2020, was a valuable experience which allowed us to interact and network with other participants, sharing our reflections and thoughts from what we have learned, are learning and future possibilities of our engagement with global education.  After the event, we each have significant individual takeaways from participating in this conference. In the following paragraphs, we share our reflections on the experience. 

I had two major personal and professional takeaways from the conference. An expanding professional network to learn from/ with. More questions to consider for the future.  Both My BA dissertation and my MA proposal focused on international higher education (IHE). Hence, Xi Tao’s work discussed in the panel intrigued me. She and I exchanged our personal experiences as international students and shared our converging research interests despite the different contexts we engaged with. We even exchanged emails and continued our correspondence until today.      Another presenter that I have kept in touch with since, was Guaravi Lobo. Her research focused on the role of religion in India’s education and its relation to nationalistic, cultural and identity tensions. Growing up in a Confucianist-centric society of Singapore, I related to the possibilities in education to deconstruct dominant cultural values and provide spaces for communal learning and sharing. It was the first time I had encountered Lobo’s framework and I enjoyed our conversation after, from which I learned a lot, opening new possibilities I could look into for future research. These were just some of the most significant experiences for me.  Attending the conference challenged some of my perceptions and I felt as though I had unearthed more questions and considerations for the future which is exactly what I had hoped for in the pursuit of my university education. This experience has revealed the possibilities for interdisciplinary approaches and the wide scope that global education research encompasses. Prior to this conference, it had never crossed my mind that my interest in IHE was related to global citizenship. However,  the discussions revealed to me the multiple ways global citizenship and identity is an interconnected part of IHE. As a fresh graduate, this event has affirmed that I am heading in the right direction regarding my own future career plans. Additionally, it has been a great opportunity to help me develop a growing network early in my journey. 
This was my first online and academic conference, and I did not know fully what to expect. The panel discussions gave some very relevant advice as one of the professors spoke about how it can be a struggle to get published, with work often being rejected. They advised us to prepare for possible rejection, not letting it be a detriment, and that you may need to try different journals for your work. Hearing about this common experience amongst academics conveyed the rejections I need to prepare myself to face in my future academic career. On day one, I joined a session on teacher engagement with Global Education and Learning (GEL), where Cuicui Li presented rural Chinese school teachers’ perspectives on GEL. The discussions on current Chinese views of Chinese students studying abroad in these turbulent times were particularly interesting. It showed me the necessity of GEL in building better relationships with ourselves and how we relate to each other globally. On day two, in a session on decoloniality, Susanne Ress gave a visually stunning presentation on the experiences of African students in Brazil. My personal reflections on this research explored my own world views. Coming from a largely white working-class deprived area in northern England, I did not have much exposure through school regarding the South American continent. This revealed to me how the British education system promotes a very limited view of the world and I will apply these considerations in my postgraduate research. The session culminated with Pablo Dalby, exploring GEL for the privileged, concentrating on gap year students. The stories in the research saddened me as voluntourism was a strong theme. However, it also expressed the necessity for us to question our positionality and to honestly examine our intentions. I can now view the Education Studies degree in new ways, as the conference brought the degree out of the classroom, making it feel more tangible and immediately relevant.  A common theme amongst Education Studies students was not knowing quite where to apply the degree outside of teaching. As I am going into academia, the conference has demonstrated the critical importance of Global Education in today’s world and how elements of the Education Studies degree can be applied in this area of research to build a more inclusive, equal and friendlier world. 
Scrolling through the event schedule, many topics seemed highly related to what I had learnt and researched in my Education Studies degree. I was surprised. This instantly made me feel like I belonged in this community. In addition to the panel discussions, I joined the small sessions on social justice and culture; policy analysis/non-western perspectives and decoloniality.  Throughout the conference, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the panellists, presenters and the participants, and the amazing discussions on global education and learning. There were many powerful research presentations that were very personal to my experiences. Anielka Pieniazek’s fantastic presentation on conceptualising ‘Ubuntu’ as a pedagogical framework for global education connects to both my research and personal interest in the process of knowledge democratisation. That is the process of representing non-western knowledges in teaching and learning.  Fadilla Mutiarawati’s nuanced research on the role of indigenous knowledges in Indonesian national education policies highlighted remarkable similarities to my home country, Myanmar. In both of these cases, education policies limit the representation of indigenous knowledges. We have since continued discussing how we could collaborate in order to be part of the solution in achieving justice for marginalised groups. Coming from a poor, ethnic-minority and non-Western background, these two speakers made me feel empowered and inspired to make an impact for marginalised communities by exposing inequities within education. However, this conference highlighted to me how a research career mirrors the global situation. As an international student in the UK, after years of pursuing and winning scholarships to complete my undergraduate degree, I have the ongoing struggle of finding rare postgraduate funding; an experience that was shared by many of the doctoral students on the second day of the conference. The event came at a time of personal instability: the end of my undergraduate studies; awaiting decisions on funding and job applications and; a global pandemic. I have learnt many new things from this conference and new opportunities are developing from exposing myself to the reality of academia. Expressing my voice in this blog is perhaps one of them. I guess that is how opportunities arise. Maybe not. Who knows?  

As we sat together virtually writing this a few weeks after the end of the conference,  we all agreed that there were many new lessons which we drew from the conference, plus more for us to reflect on. Before our experiences with the various seminars we attended during our course of studies, the words, “decoloniality’’ and “multiculturalism’’ were nothing more than trendy jargon. Without our Education Studies degree, the conference would have held little meaning for us, and instead would have felt like a world in which we could not effectively participate in or understand.We learned a lot of theory in Education Studies, and this opportunity helped us to see the connection and application to real-world situations. 

Through the conference, we learned and observed how it is applied in the field and potentially influencing people and policies, weighing the importance of the theoretical knowledge and critical thinking skills we have honed through our course of studies. The conference showed us how vast and varied the global education field is, with future research possibilities holding importance across a multitude of different contexts and locations. We now have a clearer idea of what to expect in our academic careers, with realistic portrayals of academic life coming from the panel discussions, showing us a supportive and friendly academic community that we could potentially gain guidance from in our future careers.

Lifting the lid on hidden forms of homelessness during lockdown

We have all been deeply affected by the current global pandemic and as I write this blog it is five weeks since the nation was asked to stay at home in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

As a researcher, I have worked closely the local homelessness sector over the last three years and am acutely aware of the pressures they had already been working under before this crisis.  Sustained cuts to public sector since 2010 had eroded housing welfare services by 46% between 2010 and 2014 (Perry, 2014).  Moreover, evictions from the private rented sector sored by 28% between 2010 and 2017 (Fitzpatrick, et al., 2018).  

In this context, hidden forms of homelessness are of particular concern.  In 2018, the government recorded that 79,880 households with children in England were living in temporary accommodation; in these households, there were 126,020 children (MHCLG, 2018).  In addition to that, the charity Justlife estimated that 51,500 single adults reside in unsupported temporary accommodation in England (Maciver, 2018).

Whilst there is a statutory responsibility for Local Authorities to provide support to families with children, the temporary accommodation offered almost always has a damaging effect on people’s mental and physical health as well as children’s developmental needs. Even before COVID-19, issues such as were already major problems – the Trussell Trust reported a peak rise of 23% from 2018 to 2019 in the number of food parcels distributed nationally (the steepest rise in five years).

It is for these reasons that small projects such as #LockdownLIVEs are so important. As an ongoing project, it hopes to creatively connect Greater Manchester residents living in emergency and temporary accommodation.  As a weekly documentary broadcast it has the potential to increase public awareness in a way that can drive political change.  

In the first instalment released on Tuesday 28th April 2020, we got a taster of what the project will look like going forward.  It already looks like it will become a positive force to connect people and build community.  Poetry was provided by one contributor whose engaging style and delivery reminded me of the legendary John Cooper Clarke,

“stay at home and don’t go out, just stop in and isolate. You know what this is all about, you shouldn’t really congregate”

However, it won’t shy away from the real struggles of living in emergency or temporary accommodation.  One contributor described that it is a growing struggle to find positive things to do during the day where he lives.  

I’m told that each week there will be a theme for each documentary which will help build a discussion about these collective experiences that undoubtably needs to happen.  This week’s theme is 
What’s the first thing you noticed about the place you’re staying?

To find out more, visit @LockdownLIVEs @twitter and Street Support Network on Facebook.

Nigel Allmark


Fitzpatrick, S., Pawson, H., Bramley, G., Wood, J., Watts, B., Stephens, M. and Blenkinsopp, J., 2019. The homelessness monitor: England 2019.

House of Commons Library (2020) ‘What do the latest food bank statistics tell us? [Online] https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/social-policy/welfare-pensions/what-do-the-latest-food-bank-statistics-tell-us/

Maciver, C. (2018) Lifting the lid on hidden homelessness. Justlife. [Online] 

Perry, J. (2014) ‘Local government cuts: housing services have been hit hardest.‘ The Guardian. [Online]

Co-production during physical distancing – teach out

What does physical distancing and the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ mean for participatory and co-produced research? 

There are a number of emerging resources for re-thinking research methods and projects (e.g. Virtual not ViralMethodsLab) and youth work (e.g. Youth Work Support) in light of the lockdown and physical distancing. This teach-out will further explore the challenges and potentials for doing participatory and co-produced research with young people and communities. The constraints of the lockdown and physical distancing pose considerable challenges to us as participatory researchers, as our work typically emerges through intensive investments in relationships with and between the people we work with. How can we do collaborative work through online tools?How can we seek to decentre academic power and knowledge relations while working from a distance? What types of research and knowledge co-production are foreclosed by the apparent necessity to record and document? What can we learn from communities with greater experience of doing collaborative research remotely?

On Wednesday 22nd April ESRI hosted an online teach out to discuss these issues.

The event was larger than expected. The original plan (@YouthLoneliness Thread) was to bring together 15 people but over 200 expressed an interest in participating. A decision was made to run a bigger event that allowed more people to participate. I’ve spoken to a lot of people in similar positions, wondering how they can continue or plan a research project during lockdown/physical distancing. We need to come together at this time to share knowledge and support one another to champion co-produced research that is courageous and imaginative. COVID-19 is posing considerable challenges to our collective lives. Anxieties over safety, ballooning public deficits and economic uncertainty auger seismic changes to our social, political and economic landscapes. We need to affirm that co-produced work enables those without a voice and without a part can be brought into the public conversation about how we survive and emerge from this pandemic.

We had presentations from Kirsty Liddiard (University of Sheffield) and James Duggan (MMU)

Teach-out: Co-producing research during physical distancing from dugganjr

For more information:

Living Life to the Fullest Project Blog

Living Life to the Fullest Co-Production Toolkit

Twitter: @FullLivesESRC

Intro to whole Living Life to the Fullest team.

Virtual environments. 

Meaningfully including disabled young people. 

This is a pandemic – we need to share resources. 

Disabled children’s and childhood studies. With and by children and young people. Plans for impact and engagement determined by them. 

Virtual environments are important for activism and advocacy work. 

Project team has daily interactions via WhatsApp/Skype/Email/Twitter/closed Facebook group.            

Online is often more malleable to different abilities/bodies

Not tokenistic approach. The young people have undertaken the research and analysis, using new technologies such as online semi-structured qualitative interviews (see slides for list). 

There are always doubts about tokenism/imbalance in research, particularly the idea that co-researchers are only capable of doing a certain level of research. We argue they have alternative, legitimate expertise (Nind et al, 2012, 660 & Bucknall). 

Virtual methods, access and the body: new forms of citizenship online. 

Aware of digital exclusion. Work with what Kafer 2013 – ‘crip time’ allowing for e.g. different hours of availability, fatigue, medical routines. Embodied experiences – interruptions are not unwelcome but disrupt embodied modes of enquiry. 

Research team co-writes together online.

Disability research during the pandemic: ‘Your ‘only’ is my ‘everything’ – came from parent in Living Life to the Fullest in relation to focus on ‘the vulnerable’ being at risk – used to allay people’s fears.

The Coronavirus Act suspends duties of Las in Care Act, 2014. Removing this obligation is deeply impactful. 

Is now the right time for research? Should we be focusing on enquiry when survival is key?

Loneliness, Co-production and Homelabs from dugganjr

Introduction to Left on Read


Loneliness Connects Us (with Janet Batsleer): 14 co-researchers and engaged 200 young people. 

Used a carousel of methods to build the young people’s research capacity. Also worked with game/theatre designers to develop an immersive experience called ‘Missing,’ which toured the country. 

The ‘carousel of methods’ allowed people to make a sustained contribution, so they could, e.g.  contribute to one session and then another a few months later. This allowed them to participate if they had chaotic lives. We used community philosophy, made things, worked with body and movement etc. The young people selected the topics. 

We were interested in the different responses is we spoke to them cold about loneliness (e.g. ‘I go for a walk in the park.’) versus those that emerge during an immersive experience. This is why we chose the ‘escape room’ format for ‘Missing.’

FOMO: we worked with the idea of the fear of missing out re online representations.

I have a different idea of coproduction. I struggle with the idea that it is empowering/committed to social justice. It’s not as clear with what I do (as what Kirsty does). I’m interested in the question ‘How are you empowering people?’ More about the speculative. Proposing constraints and ‘lures’ for feeling to help people orient themselves in the world. Isabelle Stengers– ‘It matters.’

Left on Read: the plan was to focus on loneliness, how the young people want to approach it and what do. However, my usual project imaginaries focus on the model of the lab – bringing people together in a room. Now I’m thinking about the more contextualised place of young people’s homes. ‘Home labs.’ How we can use them to engage with something that helps to think around loneliness. 

Often I’m interested in the coproduction of failure.

 I’m also thinking about the potential issues with Homelabs.

I’m working with the City of Literature on this project that mobilises the ideas around Afrofuturism – a comic (book)-based provocation:

How has your life changed? What world would you want to go back to? 

And we want people to create responses to the comic. And it could become a rough-and-ready/co-produced version of the No Small Plans project.

*Stephanie Bolt asked the question – what happens to the young people next?

Then 5 breakout conversations

Edmund Coleman-Fountain (Northumbria) – co-producing sensitive research in lockdown, issues with privacy with, e.g., intimate and sexual citizenship 

Work on sexual citizenship. Challenges in locked down longer-term. 

What if e.g. LGBT people are locked down with people who they haven’t come out to/they can’t comfortably express themselves around. 

  • What are the challenges of doing research during lockdown?
  • What challenges to co-production research do lockdown conditions present, specific to sensitive and intimate topics? 
  • How can technology vs embodied togetherness help us to navigate the situation?
  • Is now the right time? If not. When?

Caroline Bald. Social work lecturer. Looking at young carer’s experiences. 

Ned asked – how do you find appropriate methods for dialogue? Is it important to e.g. get away from voice? 

Catherine Dod…(missed name). Undertakes policy research into HIV.  Wonders if the answer is hybrid approaches. Young people can see us but can type replies. But some may not be able to type. Is it about fluidity? Access to headsets to increase privacy? Could exchange take place over a protracted space/time?

Michelle…(missed name – Healthcare professional): Had a call this afternoon about trauma-informed approach to primary care. At the start we did introductions – where are you? Is there anyone else who can overhear you? Being aware that people may not be in a situation where they can speak freely.

If there is a facilitator, can there be an online chat so people can support one-to-one afterwards if something arises and people don’t feel comfortable speaking but need support?

Alex Marland: Trainee teacher. Ask the young people. They usually know what apps work best for them. Better for us to learn what they know rather than expecting them to. 


Fiona McHardy Research & Information Manager at the Poverty Alliance. 

Rachel Marsden: Enjoying the interdisciplinary focus. Different backgrounds. Something to be said about the wealth of shared knowledge. Does practice-based research in the arts. Contemporary arts, action archive, trauma of body, representations of chronic illness in art. 

Anna Pilson (Durham) – Dealing with the practicalities, safeguarding, platforms, and choices

Tania de St Croix (KCL) – Rethinking the early stages of co-production 

Christine Smith (Hull) – Doing memory work and collective biography during lockdown 

Ben Bowman (MMU) This is not a webinar: how can we [have fun and] share co-production in isolation? 

The internet is full of instructional videos, dance clips, TED talks and other one-way, producer-consumer multimedia interactions.  That’s fine, but it’s not what we’re usually looking for in co-production. What tools, skills and approaches can we use to resist, adapt to, or subvert those one-way relationships?

Prof Keri Facer (University of Bristol/ University of Uppsala) Reflections and ways forward

Remember – collaborative work is difficult enough as it is. 

Remember digital isn’t the only thing. There are posters, flyers, collective making. 

In my organisation, we have shifted a lot of face-to-face activities to writing (email). 

Look at all the work on digital divides since the ‘90s. This is not just about access to technology.

Look particularly at work in LMICs. Instead of thinking of the end user as one person in a room, think of the collective. That one person connecting and communicating with others, e.g. Steve Woolgar’s work. 

Remember collective action is still possible and may be needed. We can still go outside. See the March 26th VICE magazine article on protest: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/m7qww4/what-protests-look-like-in-a-time-of-social-distancing

Don’t try and make it all up on your own. Ask for institutional support. Demand that e.g. ethics an tech teams support you and recognise that we are working in different conditions. 

Opportunities: How often do we get so many people together like this otherwise? Look at South African Community Action Networks. Reach one, teach one. Taking a lot from barefoot college traditions in India. 

Mutual Aid – there has been a massive growth. How do we get behind and support this activityNot trying to get on with what we wanted to do before. Just because it’s an emergency doesn’t mean we should rush. The same rules for collaborative research apply: take things slowly, create space, have conversations, work with brokers (trusted intermediaries). 

How does this work bleed into our every day lives? Recognise this is emotional labour – responsibility for self-care.

Research councils: Take for granted they will give no cost extensions. Slow things down. 

As ever – who’s not involved? Who are we not speaking to? 

This is a moment for building solidarity – collaboration not competition. Collective fights, not individual. What might it look like if we networked this group

Keri suggested we read:

The Connected Communities literature reviews on traditions of collaborative research: https://connected-communities.org/index.php/connected-communities-foundation-series/

The Connected Communities report – reflecting on what it takes to do collaborative research well: https://connected-communities.org/index.php/creating-living-knowledge-report/

Policy Press book thinking about evaluation – in particular the last two chapters:https://connected-communities.org/index.php/valuing-interdisciplinary-collaborative-research/

Twitter conversation #CoProdLockdown

Participants’ questions about #CoProdLockdown agenda

If you are interested in future events on #CoProdLockdown please get in touch (J.Duggan [@] mmu.ac.uk)

Special thanks to Kirsty Liddiard, Anna Pilson, Tania de St Croix, Keri Facer, Ben Bowman, Christine Smith, Ned Coleman-Fontain for presenting. And to Laura Breen for taking notes that are included in this post.

Spotlighting two of ESRI’s Collaborative Partnerships for the International Day for Street Children

April 12th is the International Day for Street Children. This year, organisations around the world will be marking the day between April 8th and 15th and our researchers at ESRI would like to take the opportunity to recognise the work of two of the organisations that they collaborate with in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo*.

ESRI’s focus on street-connectedness, education and social justice is led by Dr Su Corcoran who has over a decade’s experience of either working or conducting research with street-connected young people. In 2017, she co-edited an edition of Enabling Education Review that showcases a variety of ways in which organisations around the world enable street-connected young people’s access to education and has been focusing on this area of research in her work in East and Central Africa.  

The Mombasa County response team led by Glad’s House; Liz from Glad’s House filling a food parcel


In 2018/19, she led the British Academy-funded (Re-)engaging street-connected young people with education in Mombasa project in collaboration with Glad’s House. Exploring street-connected young people’s opinions and experiences of education to inform future social work practice, the team – which includes Kelvin Mugwanga (Senior Social Worker), Irene Atieno (Street Worker), and Dr Lilian Awimbo (Counsellor), found that negative experiences of schooling can be a key motivating factor for dropping out of school and migrating to the street. These experiences – in addition to feelings of (not) belonging, shame, and stigmatisation – can present barriers to going (back) into education as well as the cycles of dependency that are set up and reinforced by civil society organisations and ‘Good Samaritans’ taking an adhoc and uncoordinated approach to supporting street-based communities. The complete findings and recommendations for practice can be found in the final project report, which should be uploaded onto the project page at the end of April 2020. The team are now hoping to develop a follow on project that will focus on inclusive pedagogies of education practice.

Currently, while Kenya prepares to go into lockdown in the wake of COVID 19, the Glad’s House team are working to ensure that the young people they support are not forgotten. It is an especially hard time for young people who are street-connected and homeless, as they have nowhere to go when cities and countries go into lockdown. Glad’s House have contributed to a Street Invest blog post that shares the experiences and fears of street-connected young people in Ghana, Kenya, and Bangladesh, as well as guidelines for street workers during the pandemic that Street Invest have compiled. In practice, the organisation is working to ensure that homeless young people are as safe as they can possibly be. They have delivered food parcels to the young people and families they support and have also been working to install water tanks and facilities that street-connected young people can access to ensure that they are able to follow the COVID 19 recommendations of washing hands frequently and staying safe. In addition, Glad’s House are currently leading a response team comprising a number of non-governmental organisations and the County Government to develop a united, targeted approach to the issue.

The water tank set up by Glad’s House in Maboxini

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Dr Corcoran and Professor Kate Pahl’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and Global Challenges Research Fund networking project, Belonging and Learning, explored the use of arts methodologies to facilitate dialogue between displaced populations in Kenya, Uganda, and the DRC, and policy makers concerned with education and training. Using a different creative process in each country, policy makers were invited to take part in workshops with either street-connected young people or refugees to discuss the young people’s experiences and the challenges they faced in accessing education. In the DRC, Thomas D’Aquin Rubambura from the organisation PEDER, co-facilitated the workshop, bringing local policy makers together with various education stakeholders to write poetry or short plays concerned with children’s right to education. The project report will be available to read here at the end of April 2020.

A PEDER listening post

PEDER takes an holistic approach in their work with street-connected young people, from providing trustworthy adults on the streets of Bukavu who can support them to running multiple centres that provide vocational training for street-connected and vulnerable young people. One aspect of PEDER’s work that is inspiring is the installation of Listening Posts across the city. These small sheds are manned at set times every day to ensure that if they need to find a trustworthy adult, young people know when and where to find one. In the current COVID 19 climate, the DRC government have imposed rigorous measures to prevent the spread of the virus and most of these interventions have had to close. As it is important that young people access the government advice on the virus, PEDER is prioritising tools for raising awareness with street-connected young people. They are developing a communication system focused on the health of the young people they support: providing necessary information about COVID 19 in order to reduce the risk of contamination and setting up operational alert mechanisms to monitor their health situation and decide modes of referral to specialised services when needed. PEDER are also part of a Protection Cluster network of organisations, coordinated by UNICEF, and will meet to discuss a collaborative advocacy approach to supporting street-connected and vulnerable young people that they will take to local government.

Dr Corcoran and Professor Pahl are hoping to develop their collaborations with both organisations in the future. 

Read more about what street workers are doing in Kenya, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone in Street Invest’s latest blog post: https://www.streetinvest.org/blog/street-work-making-street-safer-during-covid-19  

* Due to the length of this blog we can only focus on two organisations, but Su and Kate would like to recognise the important work of Kito International, Fikisha Kenya, Zero Street Child Foundation, Retrak, Child Rescue Kenya, Project Elimu, InterAid, Karunalaya, Street Child United (SCU), and all organisations participating in the 2018 Street Child World Cup and 2019 Street Child Cricket World Cup – as well as their contributions to their current and past research projects.

What do you see? Reflections on a week in Athens as part of the Erasmus + project ‘Developing English, Engagement, Motivation, Challenge and addressing Big Issues by Using Art, and an Arts Approach , to Non Art Subjects’

Alison Ramsay – Tutor in Drama and Education 

From 12th to 17th January, Joe Barber (Senior Lecturer in Education and PGCE English Award Lead) and I were in Athens as part of an Erasmus + project entitled ‘Developing English, Engagement, Motivation, Challenge and addressing Big Issues by Using Art, and an Arts Approach, to Non Art Subjects’.  This project looks to draw upon well-known selected art works as starting points for learning across the curriculum. Joe and I worked over four days with ten teachers from five participant schools across Europe. Also present was project co-ordinator Mick Boyle, a former Drama teacher and senior school leader. Our brief was to look at how arts-based methods might put the paintings to work as pedagogical tools to engage and motivate learners.

As a group we spent time discussing how encounters with art can engender feelings of self-doubt about one’s capacity to comment with authority on what might be the wider meaning. Through the application of individual and collaborative strategies and approaches for engaging with the artworks in question, it was the aim of MMU tutors to look at ways to dismantle such barriers. 

In our first workshop, we began by asking participants to select one painting they felt drawn to and to explain its appeal to the rest of the group. This activity situated the painting within a subjective realm of possibility, eliciting a multiplicity of meanings that each had a unique rationale. This was a celebration of the human capacity to connect emotionally with an image and we all felt moved or stimulated by the variety of responses that emerged. However, we were also provoked to consider the extent to which it was necessary for the individual to understand how the personal response was stimulated by the original painting. Do what might be perceived as random observations and connections lessen the authenticity of a response, or are they a valid feature of a creative encounter with a stimulus? Following Barthes’ contention that the ‘west moistens everything with meaning’ (1982: 70), is it also sometimes desirable to resist imposing meaning? That is, can we value the interpretative process as an end in itself rather than reaching for a definitive conclusion? Equally, might developing cognisance of how creative connections emerge and grow from a stimulus be something important to the project moving forward. Joe and I decided to explore these ideas in the subsequent workshops. 

The following day, Joe asked the group to consider what existing knowledge and capabilities we draw upon when we attempt to ‘read’ a painting. Drawing attention to the field of semiotics (Sebeok, 2001) and our capacity to infer meaning from culturally embedded signs and symbols, he encouraged us to consider how the act of interpreting art operates at both a subjective and cultural level. In the activities that followed, Joe looked to create opportunities for the teachers to interrogate one of the selected paintings, Joseph Wright’s ‘An experiment on a bird with an air pump’ (1768)as a cultural sign bearer. This included attending closely to the use of light and shade, moving around the picture in a clockwise direction to scrutinise fine details and imagining the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures evoked by the image itself.

In the next workshop, I wanted to use drama methods to add to the interpretative toolkit Joe had begun to compile and to encourage further confidence in the act of interpretation. I decided to base the session on Mantle-of -the Expert (MOE), an approach to learning through drama created by Dorothy Heathcote (1995) and further developed by Tim Taylor (2016). MOE involves putting learners into role as ‘experts’ in a particular field or endeavour in order to create an imaginary framework for learning. Thus, I requested the teachers take on the role of art historians charged with curating an exhibition of new art inspired by existing famous works of art. Using the convention Teacher-in-Role (TIR), I went into role as director of the Athens Gate Gallery (a playful nod towards the hotel we were staying in) to welcome the group as eminent art historians and to introduce them to the aims of  the exhibition they would be working on entitled What do you see? The drama techniques Still-images, Spoken-thoughts and Hot-seating were then applied to encourage deeper engagement with the ideas and themes suggested by Ford Maddox Brown’s ‘Work’ and Michelangelo’s famous fresco from the ceiling of the Sistine chapel ‘The Creation of Adam’.   

In the final workshop, Joe and I informed participant teachers they were going to again take on their expert role as art historians/artists to create the exhibition that had been introduced the previous day. Invited to choose any of the pictures selected for the project, teachers were given one hour to create an artistic response drawing upon their skills of interpretation and analysis. The responses were then presented as work in progress to the exhibition benefactor, a role taken on by project coordinator Mick. The exercise produced a diverse range of responses, each of which reflected participant teachers’ personal and professional engagement with the pictures (see https://padlet.com/j_barber/d262btslszh9). 

During the week participant teachers commented on how the workshops had enabled them to feel more confident forming opinions on the various artworks. There was a sense that the activities had facilitated a considered engagement with the subject matter and that this provoked more depth and breadth in the act of interpretation. In the context of the project, teachers saw the potential in introducing such methods to young people to help them connect with the paintings as a stimulus. This might then open up multiple lines of inquiry useful to learning across the curriculum. The possibility of empowering young people to uncover complex ideas for themselves through collaboration was also noted. 

The week in Athens affirmed the potential of the artworks to generate exciting opportunities for learning. It also enabled the objectives for the forthcoming mobilities to be refined, allowing us to identify thinking laterally and creativelydeveloping interpretationnurturing independenceand collaborative working to further deepen knowledge and understandingas key areas of focus. We now look forward to February, when MMU representatives will head to Denmark to work with young people from the participant schools. 

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Barthes, R. (1982) Empire of Signs. London: Jonathon Cape

Heathcote, D. and Bolton, G.  (1995) Drama for Learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert Approach to learning. Portsmouth: Hienemann

Sebeok, T.A (2001) Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Taylor, T. (2016) A Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert: A Transformative Approach to Education. Norwich: Singular