Sunday 12 February 2017

From resilience to activism - Art and Reflective Practice

' learning provokes radical and creative visions of an alternative world; ‘as if’ things could be otherwise – a hopeful goal much required in these neo-liberal times.' 

If life as a teacher is hard, life as a trainee teacher is even harder. For my in-service and pre-service Cert Ed/PGCE trainees, navigating new identities, battling behaviour issues, balancing work and study and the daily grind of planning and marking is challenging to say the least. Recent research suggests that more than half of teachers in HE are on insecure, impermanent contracts (The Guardian, 2016). In addition to this, 84% of teachers who undertook the Education Health Survey (2015) reported suffering from a mental health problem within the past two years. I would say that around one quarter of my students have had to deal with significant levels of anxiety, stress or depression within the past year.

In the midst of this, trainee teachers have to produce significant amounts of reflective practice to evidence a mindful approach to teaching and learning improvement. Often this takes the form of a journal or diary, which can often be repetitive, restrictive and boring to complete. For a while I have wanted to explore whether the use of art in reflective practice presents an opportunity for teachers to reflect in a different way.  Can expression and creativity in reflective practice help teachers to break free from an oppressive and harmful education system, even if that freedom is fleeting? Can art provide ‘freedom of spirit’ (Gordimer, 1984) and can this influence trainees' own resilience? What might be the impact of creating art or poetry on the teachers themselves and the wider world?

Not everyone considers themselves an artist, although I would argue that every single human being has the capacity to be creative in some way. For teachers this creative impulse often shows up through a love of their specialist subject. In observations, talking through a concept or exciting idea I will often catch them in a state of 'flow' where the rest of the world disappears for a while.  Given the decline in the study of creative subjects (Art and Design at AS Level, for example has seen a 33.4% drop in candidates this year) my first idea was to use art as a stimulus for initial reflective work.

In Barnsley, we are lucky enough to have the Cooper Gallery on our doorstep; the exciting Picasso lino-cuts exhibition is on until the end of April. The challenge for my students was to visit the gallery and find a piece of art that spoke to them, in some way, of their journey as a teacher.


The resulting reflections are worthy of much more than I will say here, but proved to be a pathway to a much deeper level of self-awareness and understanding.  Connections were surprising, and emotional for some.  Yet for us all, the process was affirmative and enlightening; as Clover and Stalker (2007) point out Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience’.  

Some trainees are going on to create their own poems, stories and pieces of art to illustrate their journeys as teachers. This is perhaps the next stage in the use of art for reflective practice; moving from stimulus to creative experience.  Where this is happening it is proving therapeutic for many; a form of escapism, exploration or distraction, with a tangible and often beautiful outcome.  We plan to move our art from the private to public sphere, in order to share with the world our painful, emergent and embodied experiences of 'becoming teacher'.  This posthuman idea of affirmative action for social change (Braidotti, 2013) has proved to be an exciting and unexpected by-product of our new approach to reflective practice.

Art is clearly a vehicle for trainee teachers to explore emerging thoughts and subjectivities, rejecting fixed identities and allowing scope for ‘becoming’ teacher, in a posthuman sense. It seems clear that there is scope within a heavily academic teacher-training qualification to push the boundaries of the curriculum, allowing creative expression to give teachers a form of almost meditative escape, which may in turn allow scope for greater creativity and innovation in the students’ own classrooms.  In a time where FE teachers need resilience and community more than ever, encouragement of this kind of practice seems paramount.

This research will be presented in full at the 'Beyond Words: Privileging the unspoken in arts and communities in a posthuman world' Conference, University of Plymouth this March.

Trainees' own works of reflective art will be exhibited at Northern College this summer in an exhibition entitled 'Becoming Teacher'. Join us for the full education conference here.

Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Clover, D., & Stalker, J. (Eds.). (2007). The Arts and Social Justice: Re-crafting Adult Education and Community Cultural Leadership. Leicester, UK: NIACE.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. London: Random House.
Gordimer, N. (1984). The Essential Gesture: Writers and Responsibility. Available: Last accessed 22th Nov 2016.

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