Passion and Practicalities in Research

There are lots of options but in the end your research method should fit the research question. That was my big take away from the opening chapters of Helen Kara’s Creative Research Methods: A practical Guide. I’m not sure that I entirely agree. Passion and Practicalities were my biggest influences in choosing my question and then my methods. With more time I could have co-created a musical. In the end I ran a focus group and made an animation of my findings.

When I started reading the book I hadn’t formulated my research question. Reading it helped. It inspired, got me thinking about research, and most importantly got me thinking about what I wanted to research. In the end, I’m not sure that I agree that the research method has to fit the question. I can see how there are many ways in which different research methods would have worked for the same question, the biggest decision was about what to research. The how to research was more of a compromise, a choice of data gathering tool that would be relatively quick and easy and doable online (due to time constraints and a pandemic) to facilitate greater time on analysis and presentation. Nevertheless, the reading got me thinking and helped me to formulate my all important research question, but perhaps not in the way she envisioned.

My research clearly had to be something about teaching. Previous research I have done for my art practice had been more about understanding the everyday lives of people in site and context specific situations. There was purpose and aim to this research, including infilling the voices and lives of ordinary people into the public contemporary artscape. Not a call for action, but action in and of itself. Would this be the same for my research question? I’d spend time examining something, some people, and the research product would be the end of the project?

Reading Kara’s opening chapters some key points stood out: the definition of Methodology as a contextual framework for research, a coherent and logical scheme based on views, beliefs and values, that guides the decisions (p15);  the acceptance that research may be subjective and not neutral; the contributions of auto ethnographic research; together these threads began to guide me in the formulation of my research question. I made a positive choice to be guided in my choice of research question by my views, beliefs and values, which are about accessibility,inclusion, decolonisation and removing barriers to academic success. I would draw on my own experiences as student and teacher and I would accept that I am not neutral, but find a way to acknowledge this and consider how to mitigate against any negative impact this might have on my research outcome.

The permission and validation Kara gives to arts based research methods of data gathering and presentation were also helpful in helping me formulate my research question, because in the end my bug bear about academia had always been the straight jacket of academic writing for students who had gone into art to prioritise the visual as their mode of expression and communication. And so, hand in hand with my reading, my discussions with friends and colleagues, and reflections on what mattered to me, I formulated a rough research question “should art students have to write academic essays.” 

The research methods open to me for data gathering were exciting and I wanted to do them all. I could start with a literature review and find out what others had already written, then send questionnaires to students, staff and prospective students, use the results to formulate further questions for interviews and focus groups which I could record and then analyse using computer software to look at the most commonly used words, all whilst taking notes of the interactions between people, body language and non verbal communication. I could use the results as a basis for a new set of questionnaires to complete the circle. All of this making use of technology. I could find another set of participants (all of whom were already artists) to send me an art work to represent their experience of writing for academia and then discuss this with them in interviews…we could make up songs…co-create a musical…

It was all brilliant, but I had no time, particularly as I would have to analyse it all, not to mention present it.

I drilled down. I considered who would be my participants. Could I use easily accessible UAL students? I felt that this publically exposed my situation as still “unqualified” without the PG Cert. It might well be an option for future research, if I am able to continue the research at a later date, but for now my present situation would influence my research method. I needed to focus on the education professionals whose discretion I could count upon: work colleagues familiar with the UAL BA Fine Art degree. Even then I didn’t want to involve and chase up every lecturer on the course with a questionnaire, let alone ask them to make an art piece about the academic essay and discuss it with me in a one-to-one interview, so I began to lean towards the focus group as my research method of choice. A traditional method, used since the 1960s, but I could innovate with the format and the presentation of the findings.

Reflecting on Kara’s observation that research, like art, can reflect multiple truths and perspectives, a belief that I hold myself, a discursive focus group format also seemed to allow for the discussion of multiple perspectives, reducing the influence of the researcher through group discussion. By using a focus group, each tutor can share and demonstrate their perspective, what works for them might not work for everyone. By adding a question about their own experience I can demonstrate their own personal bias and proclivities. Demonstrate multiple, context-dependent and contingent perspectives.

In the end, it seemed to me that the research question did not come first, it was formulated and shaped in a vague cloud of creativity about what I am interested in, who I am interested in hearing from and how. However, that is not what is important. What is important is that there are choices in research beyond traditional quantitative and qualitative methods, and the research question itself is the most important thing (see also my later blog on ethics). The research question I have chosen, through my reflective process, aims to examine whether the requirement to write an academic essay in an art degree is useful and necessary. My suspicion is that it is useful and necessary for some students, but may have negative and stultifying consequences for others. If that is the case then my research will be used to make the case for using alternative formats for communicating the answers to academic questions, just as I intend to use an alternative format to the essay to present my research findings.

Thoughts on Helen Kara’s Creative Research Methods: A Practical Guide

Helen Kara’s Creative research methods in the social scientists pretty much brings the sort of things that we artists have been doing – writing plays, making collages, poetry, making animations, and so forth into research. As I like writing plays and making animations this book was great for me. It said that my art was useful and could be a better way to present my research than an academic essay. A finding that also fitted perfectly with what would become the subject of my research question do we need the academic essay in an art degree, a view also shared by Hamja Ashan who discussed the use of zines as a better format than academic writing in an article published by Shades of Noir link.


Okay so this blog is a bit retrospective, I read the book and did the research and didn’t have time to ponder and write about it earlier. I had actual research to get on and do, and not much time to spare… So, recognising that this blog is a bit postpartum, I still want to record something for posterity to remind me fondly of the whole, sometimes ponderous, research experience. Auto-ethnographically, perhaps it won’t stand up as useful field notes or as a contemporaneous diary, but I still have something to say. This blog is just an overview. I will cover more specific aspects of my learning in future blogs.   

Creative Research Methods in the social sciences – and in art too, as it happens.

Setting out on my research quest to discover something interesting about teaching art, I downloaded a copy of Helen Kara’s Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: a practical guide. Every evening I’d read another chapter and think about how I and other artists had been doing some of what she was talking about, but how those social scientists made their work seem so much more, well, scientific, considered and worthwhile. Good marketing perhaps? Or was there something more to it? Yes, I thought, there were lessons to learn and I would learn them. Of course, I failed dismally at writing my research plan out methodically, like the aforementioned social scientists. A lot of it I just kept in my head, and discussed in conversations, and changed and adapted as I went along, but what I really took away from it was the certainty that my art practice had always already been research, ethical research, presented and disseminated in an accessible way. What I really learned, both from being assigned this research task and from reading this book, was to focus in on a much more specific research question with a specific aim of calling (or not – depending on the outcome) for specific changes and improvement. Whereas my art had previously researched and voiced what already is (even if somewhat invisible), now my research uses art to call for a change, even just a little one. Thanks Helen!

Thoughts on Assessment and Feedback while teaching art in the neoliberal realm.

Art schools could be thought to be about teaching art and the making of art. This idea presupposes that we know what art is and whether a piece of work is a success or a failure. Whereas the community of learning and exchange of ideas and sharing of experience may support the creativity and the making of art, the neoliberal drive to provide standardised evaluations in the form of internationally comparable grades against sets of ‘valuable’ competencies may conflict with the process of art making and risk taking. Too much assessment, too much concern with grades is bad for creativity. 

On the other hand ‘feedback’ can be a helpful form of conversation. The purpose of employing the practicing artist is that they are assumed to be able to understand the non-visual language of the student and locate it within the history of art and the contemporary artworld. This experience is shared as feedback with the student in the studio visit – now the online tutorial. Within a community of learning this conversation would ideally be one between peers, practicing artists in conversation. Realistically, the setting of ‘school’ and the ascribed roles and power imbalance of ‘student’ and ‘teacher’ cannot be ignored. My solution to this is then to recognise the power imbalance and the responsibility that comes with power, just as I seek to erode it by performing the role of artist peer.

Within the formal assessment and grading I am asked to employ my skills, which the bureaucrat who demands the grades, does not have, and then assess and grade students who employ very different theories, practices and outputs against a standardised marking criteria which attempts to capture the skills and competencies required to succeed within the creative industries or become employable. These grades and assessments can be used by both student and institution to develop strategies for ‘improvement’, which is a neoliberal imperative. However, my aim is not to encourage the student towards continuous self-improvement and give them grades they can use to market themself. My aim is to think together with the student about what art means and what art does in the world and how to make it, think about it, transgress boundaries and even have fun with it.

Thinking about the assessment process, as I embark upon it at the end of the current module, I am trying to hold these different thoughts together. I am trying to grade and assess in a way that meets the expectations of the students and the university. These are the expectations written and repeated in the brief, in the lecture, in each tutorial in the form of learning objectives. I am also trying to teach art.

Prior to the PGcert and the reading I have encountered on the course, I may have found the learning objectives annoyingly vague and to some extent dismissed them, working intuitively with the students who in turn responded intuitively to meet the objectives of independence, curiosity, risk taking and so forth. Now, I embrace the space within the learning objectives. I embrace my ability to refer to these objectives and instead of ignoring or dismissing them, work intuitively with the students who in turn respond intuitively to meet the objectives of independence, curiosity, risk taking and so forth, in the way that works for the student and arises through conversation, discussion and thinking together.

Collaborative Observation

Matt O’Leary & Vanessa Cui (2020) Reconceptualising Teaching and learning in higher education: challenging neoliberal narratives of teaching excellence through collaborative observation, Teaching in Higher Education, 25:2, 141-156, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2018.1543262

Having ‘paid attention’ (a la Ranciere) to the Teaching and Excellence Framework I considered potential problems with it (see my blog post of on TEF). I then undertook some online research on views of the TEF and, in particular, ideas for teaching that counter its negative neoliberal tendencies.

In an article by Matt O’Leary & Vanessa Cui the TEF as incorporating neoliberal ideas of marketisation, the commodification of education and the measuring of value in economic terms. Within the HE sector education is seen as ‘value for money’ and linked to the wider economy by increasing employability. These neoliberal values are translated in practices including the introduction of quantitative metrics which allow comparisons and competition in the HE institutions and increased control and scrutiny over work through measurements and observations of performance.

Looking specifically at the impact on the approach to teaching and learning that this engenders, according to the authors this promotes “an instrumentalist model of teaching and learning (T & L) with teaching staff often perceived as the deliverers of knowledge and skills and students as the consumers.” The student voice is the voice of the consumer, who evaluates teaching as a consumer at the end of each year by completing the National Student Survey.

Their article examined a more qualitative, collaborative and active approach to improving teaching and learning: collaborative observation. In this approach the student voice as evaluator of product is replaced by learner voice, which “is about students expressing their experiences and understanding about their learning in the context of their programme; what is meaningful to them and their lecturers/academic tutors.” 

Reminiscent of the teaching methods bell hooks describes in “Teaching to Transgress” where an active learning community within a specific environment, in this article the authors maintain that “students and staff should be considered as members of their programme community who have agency and are active participants in understanding and shaping T & L in their community”. Teaching and Learning are not separate, knowledge is not delivered to students, teaching and learning interact together within a community. Teaching and Learning are not individual activities but involve hearing other perspectives. Again, like hooks, a complex learning environment is acknowledged as the authors recognise that “Today’s mass participation in HE means that students are from a diverse range of socio-economic, cultural and educational backgrounds with a wide-ranging set of needs, thus resulting in a highly complex T & L environment.” Reducing the assessment of teaching and learning to easy to quantify and measure metrics is therefore reductionist and ignores this complexity.

My big take away from this article has been to somewhat confirm my scepticism of the TEF whilst also acknowledge my own agency and ability to resist performing to targets. This is possible within a community of peers who, my own interactions and readings have shown me, are curious and creative and have the aim of achieving teaching excellence despite constraints.

Bell Hooks ‘Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom’

I am a fan of bell hooks. I read ‘Aint I a woman’ many years ago and since then she’s always been on my radar, so when I saw her on our reading list I immediately got a copy of the book. ‘Teaching to Transgress’ seemed exactly the sort of thing I was up for. But what about the subtitle: ‘Education as the Practice of Freedom’? What was all that about? Sounds a bit liberal…hopefully (surely) not neoliberal, I thought. There is a theme going on here with Ranciere’s Emancipation and hooks’ Freedom… Of course Ranciere comes with a massive dose of equality (Fraternity missing from the triad).

So what is all this talk of freedom in education? Is it about formal freedom or substantive freedom? intellectual freedom (of thought and speech) or something else? I will take an initial look at this idea of freedom by examining the ideas in the first three chapters.

In chapter one freedom is liberation from “boundaries that confine”(p13), critical thinking, resistance, even, to normative discourse and representations, leading to self-actualisation. The pedagogic requirement is to “teach without reinforcing existing systems of domination”(p18).

In chapter 2 these systems of domination are described as racism, sexism and sexist oppression and class exploitation. Within education itself, domination is seen as natural and freedom is presented as synonymous with materialism (p28). Freedom, justice and democracy require an understanding that education is not politically neutral. 

In chapter 3 we can see how this education as freedom requires that different perspectives are taught, shared, included and practiced. In an inclusive classroom, there are no universal norms or experiences and no one way to approach a subject. The classroom should not be quiet. A quiet classroom may seem ‘safe’ but it doesn’t necessarily feel safe for everyone. Silence can represent the fear that speakers feel they will be judged inferior or made ‘native informant’. In an inclusive classroom – a classroom community – everyone’s perspective is examined, whiteness is also examined, and everyone takes responsibility for speaking and  everyone listens. In this climate there can be real freedom of expression.

Education as the practice of freedom, in the first three chapters, therefore seems to include ideas of negative and positive liberty. It is both practice that is free from patterns and practices of domination and marginalisation and  practice that produces a climate of freedom of expression and thought by embracing perspectives and ways of being that are inclusive and diverse.

So how do I translate these ideas into my own practice?

My thoughts on my micro teaching lesson

If I’m honest I thought the lesson was a bit of a disaster. I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do, coming up with something I thought was a bit different and original, taking advantage of the opportunity to experiment. I created a lesson plan, but in retrospect it wasn’t detailed enough. I had asked a friend to do a practice run-through with me, but she cancelled at the last minute, so I didn’t discover the technical issues until I actually did the lesson – big mistake. The main technical problem was that I was trying to share a video, but the ‘students’ couldn’t hear the sound. This threw me a bit, but I resolved it by sharing the link in the chat, but because I was nervous I stopped following my lesson plan. But the primary reason that my lesson was a disaster was that it was overly ambitious, and I realised in hindsight it was also confusing.  I felt there was a lack of clarity about what the objectives were (teamwork and blurring the boundaries between creative disciplines). The instructions were unclear, partly because I abandoned my lesson plan, partly because I was attempting to give participants more autonomy by not trying to set too many boundaries, giving participants the freedom to create a live performance using their own terms and ideas about what a play or a short-performed text might consist of. 

I still like the idea though, and would like to develop it further. Now I have the idea, I would make the lesson plan more detailed, with clear instructions that I would also write in the chat box. On the positive side, the group worked brilliantly as a team, even if they didn’t complete the task.

Teaching What We Know

Improving teaching: Enhancing ways of 

being university teachers

Gloria Dall’Alba*

University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

As Iain Thomson notes, with reference to Martin Heidegger’s work: Our very ‘being-in-the-world’ is shaped by the knowledge we pursue, uncover, and embody. [There is] a troubling sense in which it seems that we cannot help practicing what we know, since we are ‘always already’ implicitly shaped by our guiding metaphysical presuppositions. (2001, p. 250)

This quote stuck out like a sore thumb for me as this is what I’m extremely guilty of. Not that I want to send out into the world graduating art students who create slightly differing versions of Janette Parris artworks – although I probably have. The question is how do we teach what we don’t know? – is this called winging it? – I know many teachers and myself included who have admittedly at short notice done this – after reading this quote maybe I can tell them that it’s a good thing. 

Group teaching or collaboration gets quite a few mentions.  When teaching a class of creative practice students. The concept of a group or collaborative project teaching is often met with a large groan and often accompanied by “I just wanna do my own work”. I suppose the artist who works alone in their garret still exists to a large extent in the minds and understanding of many students. How do we break this cycle of thinking and does successful teaching have to or find ways around this? 

Another quote that grabbed my attention:

It can be noted, however, that attempts to innovate may not succeed and can meet with resistance, especially if students have not been adequately prepared for the changes.

This quote brings to mind 2 versions of the same workshop that I ran with 2 completely different results. Being totally honest the first workshop flopped totally, primarily because students were given the choice to sign up and therefore very few students did. In hindsight in order for it to be successful it needed a large participation although the one student who steadfastly remained till the end apparently loved it – although they may have just been polite.  The second group signed up to experience a workshop and welcomed the non-theoretical and group participatory nature of the class. It could have been cultural as the second group were a summer school group of overseas students from China. The students had apparently for the previous 3 days been subjected to long talk filled lectures so possibly jumped at the chance to collaborate in small groups to perform and write songs based of their favourite songs. The large attendance and collaborative process probably allowed for less self-consciousness about performing or singing. It allowed the process of play to take centre stage where in the world of a child self-consciousness doesn’t exist, it all becomes about taking part. Well this is what I think might have happened. Another question arose for me when looking back at the 1st response was – Was the workshop sufficiently explained? I pondered after I read the advertising blurb that maybe I wouldn’t have chosen to attend my own workshop either.

An intellectual adventure in lockdown – teaching and learning online and at home

17 April 2020 onwards…(mid lockdown)

In 1818, at the University of Louvain, Joseph Jacotot had an intellectual adventure. He gave his students a bilingual text and told them to use it to learn French. They did – brilliantly. Without help. His experiment led him not only to question the necessity of professional teachers, but also fundamental ideas about how teaching methods can stultify or liberate the student. These ideas are examined in Jacques Ranicières ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’.[1]

With most school and university premises closed, and teaching and learning moved online, the ideas in Rancière’s ‘The ignorant Schoolmaster’ seem even more pertinent. Concerns have been raised about the inequalities in learning outcomes that are expected as a result of this switch. It is argued that children who do not have the advantage of resourceful and dedicated parents, access to a quiet place to study, computers and the internet will be disadvantaged.[2] Some of these arguments would also seem to apply to university students, at least in terms of space and resources. The energy and input of others in the household will also be relevant if we follow Rancière’s argument. A basic tenet of Jacotot’s method of universal education is to talk, to say what you think and say what you make of something. 

However, this seems to require an ignorant schoolmaster to set the work, to ask the questions and to verify that the student is paying attention. The issue is not whether the person or people who live with the student have the knowledge and skill to instruct the student, in fact this could be counter-productive and stultifying. The parent who tries to direct learning and get a certain answer from the student will, like Socrates, be teaching the student that they need to be taught. What is needed instead, according to Jacotot, is the belief and understanding that we are all equally able and intelligent enough to learn for ourselves; we can make our own links, form our own opinions. We can then verify our own understanding by drawing on evidence whilst also recognizing that the whole truth is unattainable, and we will only ever circle around it in our own individual orbits. Isn’t this exactly what we want our university students to do? Removing students from an institutional setting that reinforces the idea of instruction and letting them loose to discover and research their ideas and concepts for themselves could be a good thing, couldn’t it?

In some ways yes. If our students are left and encouraged to think for themselves even more, if we give them leeway to not attend all tutorials, to do a bit less in the midst of a global pandemic, that could give the space and the necessity to learn for themselves. But, they still need someone to talk to, to ask questions of them, to verify they are learning. What the university can provide is that community of interested people, other artists, to share thoughts and ideas with. There is a great example in the book of how discussion develops a language of art for a child (but not necessarily fantastic drawings), in the section “Me too, I’m a painter”: 

“A few days before putting a pencil in his hand, we will give him the drawing to look at, and we will ask him to talk about it. Perhaps he will only say a few things at first – for example, “The head is pretty.” But we will repeat the exercise; we will show him the same head and ask him to look again and speak again, at the risk of repeating what he already said. Thus he will become more attentive, more aware of his ability and capable of imitating. We know the reason for this effect, something completely different from visual memorization and manual training. What the child has verified by this exercise is that painting is a language, by the drawing he has been asked to imitate speaks to him. Later on we will put him in front of a painting and ask him to improvise on the unity of feeling present, for example in the painting by Poussin of the burial of Phocion.”[3]

The passage concludes that the child understands that art is the desire to communicate and to move others and that desire and ability is within them too, and if they study this language they can learn to use it themselves. It is in the eliciting of the child’s opinion, the digging deeper that develops and verifies the child’s understanding, not instruction and explication. Nevertheless, an interlocutor is required here. The painter and the student can communicate silently, but it seems that it is the sharing of one’s thoughts with a living person that is the loadstone for learning. This would seem to apply at any age. Without this interested other the child or the university student would seem to be disadvantaged.

During the pandemic, UAL creates this space and opportunity in the online tutorial. The chance afforded by the pandemic to decouple learning from an institution and set curriculum could be lost by creating new ways to teach students that they still need teaching. I have thought hard about how to avoid this trap and instead add to the potential for greater intellectual emancipation in my teaching practice now that we had moved online. Following Jacotot, what I would like to counter is the idea that of any hierarchy of intelligence or creativity, to disrupt the teacher-student hierarchy and see how online teaching can facilitate this.

The move from in person, to online tutorials changes something. Firstly, we are all using Teams. For the first time, we are all learning this together and no matter how many preparatory meetings I attended beforehand, how good I am at technology, it still comes across that this is new for us all, and in this we are equal. Sadly, this novelty will soon become old-hat. Teachers will once again become masters of their teaching environment, develop habits and ways of teaching that return their command over the now online teaching environment. But for a moment we can enjoy this moment of a shared lack of expertise.

Secondly, I am teaching from my sofa in my living room, and I haven’t been to the hairdressers. My home is not grand, and I deliberately don’t sit with a bookshelf full of books on art and philosophy behind me. Contrast that to me, the professor (one day lol), in the university setting where I have worked for years, know everyone, every corridor, where I feel at ease, at home, as I speak to the new student surrounded by unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places, the student who maybe even got lost and arrived late because they couldn’t find the room. Using Teams, we are all at home, all comfortable in our own environments.

Thirdly, this changed environment creates a necessity and an opportunity, mid-year, to change my teaching style ever so slightly. We are mediating through a screen, only heads and shoulders are visible, there is less of the body’s language to read.  Less facial definition, so that micro-expressions and the cues that you would get in real life can be missed. It is easy to misinterpret and be misinterpreted and I have changed my teaching style to compensate.

My response is to be more-friendly, emphasizing my enthusiasm for the positive aspects of the students’ work, not as an instructor but as a person who chooses to believe in the equality of intelligence and is curious about the creative processes and influences of the people in front of me. I do not verify their claims, I give that task to them. I ask questions of them out of interest and through these questions they develop their language of art for themselves, develop their own ideas for themselves.  

I verify that they are learning about art by paying attention to art in the world. And they tell me the artists they have looked at. I suggest other artists too, of course, and they appreciate this. I and my co-tutors offer suggestions for developing their work. Again, they appreciate this. But this is not a one-way process. It is a conversation in which we explore ideas together. It is not just my way of being that has changed in the lockdown, some students also seem to have become productive in a different way. They have had to be creative to create. They have had to do this themselves and seem to recognise that they can learn, and have learned, for themselves. They may be finding things difficult, but the pandemic allows them to say that they find things difficult and this is legitimate and universal for us all. They have the freedom not to worry too much about the quality of their work, because we are more concerned about them as people. And yet I feel that the work that is produced is now more interesting. That said, 25% of my students didn’t turn up to today’s tutorials. One explained she had broken her laptop. The others didn’t contact us.

Returning full circle to the opening idea of closed schools increasing inequality for those already deemed disadvantaged, I think it is a failing of Rancière’s book to omit the materiality of disadvantage. It seems to assume equal resources or discount their importance. For a young child it is said that there will always be something to hand from which to learn – Telemaque, or even prayer book, in the time of Jacotot. But surely a prayer book can only take you so far? And nowadays, there may be no prayer book, no books at all.

So, what is that thing from which to learn in times of Coronavirus? When you can’t leave the house? Is it access to the internet? Permanent or intermittent accessibility? Is this now indispensable? Well, that seems to depend. The internet may not be essential to learning or creativity. Who knows, the students denied access to technology may respond to their exclusion with amazing creativity, out of necessity. Jacotot is big on necessity as motivation. There are always exceptional cases. But I am not concerned with them. I care for the many. And what about those overcrowded living conditions? Or even the distraction of hunger? 

Luckily for our UAL students, they are usually from financially better-off backgrounds. That still leaves some students struggling. Measures have been taken to make sure that UAL students, unlike school and FE students, all have access to computer equipment and the internet. As adults they are also less dependent on their parents than younger children. This means that there will be material differences in the debates about the sharpening of inequalities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, when we are talking about university students rather than children. 

So, what about our university students? Who are the university students that are not turning up? What are their backgrounds? And most importantly, are they busy creating great art without us, or failing and in distress? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the global pandemic has sped up the changes in education, above all university education, that were happening and bound to happen. As teachers, we need to identify how to make our roles facilitate the intellectual emancipation of our students through our teaching practice. There is also a wider question of what we want as a society we want from our education system. It is interesting that in post-revolutionary France Jacotot was concerned not to replace a fictional hierarchy of social birth with a fictional hierarchy of intelligence. That battle seems almost lost as education grades and sorts its subjects and students respond with greater anxiousness about obtaining not just a degree but also the highest grades. Increasing use of technology, post the appearance of Covid-19, allows for and will imbed greater and greater opportunities for measurement of both students and teachers. I would suggest that this could be detrimental to the role of teaching and intellectual emancipation. We also need to avoid the danger that we become cogs in an increasingly digitized, quantified, and monetized education industry and retain our ability to facilitate our student’s growing creativity and confidence in their abilities.

[1] Rancière, J. Trans. Ross. K. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford University Press. California, Stanford.

[2] See for example, or Keir Starmer’s views reported  in

[3] Rancière, J. Trans. Ross. K. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford University Press. California, Stanford. P. 65

First impressions

Jacques Rancière’s “The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation.”[1] First impressions:

  1. The author: I’d vaguely heard of Jacques Rancière and had recently read a book in which he and Bourdieu were referenced quite extensively[2], which helped me place him within a set of left-wing, French philosopher/sociologist/political theorist academics influenced by and writing just before, and for a long time after, the events of 1968, and interested in the ideas of class, education and art.

Image: Verso books last accessed 28 February 2020.

  • The cover: Five lessons? – I wondered what these would be, and would I spot them? 
  • The introduction: Reading this on the bus was not the best location for concentration and when I read that JR would be recounting the story of a school teacher I didn’t actually realize that the this was the whole book and that the book could be read like a story. I didn’t get far – geographically or intellectually, but by Fenchurch street I had partially revised in my head the educational debates of the 1980s that had also struck the UK and led to Education reforms in English schools. These were reforms that had impacted on me as a child. The restoration of grammar and the teaching of rules to working class children, so that we would, as always, be ‘Learning to Labour’ as Paul Willis[3] put it. 
  • I wondered how different the French reforms in pedagogy had been to those in England and how much cross-fertilisation was happening between the francophone and anglophone, continental and analytical philosophies and ideas? The section on pedagogical reforms of 1980s France summarize them nicely as , on the one hand, the ‘whole person’ approach and a compensatory approach (creating “priority zones” which provided extra funding and teaching places in poor areas) and then later a return to rigid examinations (I remember those); civic instruction (maybe passed me by – perhaps when I was playing truant – or was this just encoded into the subject matter?). Selection, Encyclopaedist, rationalist, enlightenment thinking over creativity. Had these ideas been applied to education at all ages? What differences were there in University level education? In the UK we converted all of our polytechnics to universities – did a similar (equalizing?) thing happen in France and where did all of this fit into the debate about pedagogy? 
  • I looked up something about this conversion (equalization?) – well, I read an old Guardian article by Peter Scott “It’s 20 years since polytechnics became universities – and there’s no going back[4]. The article gave me what I was after – a time reference – the date of this merge: 1992. He claimed the move went against the Thatcherite politics of the time. Interestingly he referred to class reproduction through education as achieved through two mechanisms: retaining university for a privileged few with a few deserving scholarships, or ‘more honourably’ a belief in excellence and equity as in opposition to one another “the more of one, the less of the other”. Whilst Scott disagreed with both of these ideas I was interested to see them reproduced in the article just as I was reading the paragraph on ‘The Practice of Equality’ in the introduction to Rancière’s book. The first impressions I gained of the ideas about equality in ‘The ignorant Schoolmaster’ seemed so much more positive: we are all equally intelligent and equality as practice rather than future goal.
  • Going back over the text with equality in mind I note the examination of the pupil teacher relationship and whether skills and knowledge are transmitted unidirectionally from an all-knowing teacher. I am reminded of Dall’Alba’s article “Improving teaching: Enhancing ways of being university teachers[5]. In that article Dall’Alba considers knowledge transmission and acquisition. The article also considers knowledge more in terms of practice – and what is gained through a participatory process is more knowing than known, a transformation we embody and enact rather than something we are given and then possess. The teacher facilitates learning and the student engages with a variety of sources, including their own. It is not the teacher’s, and in Rancière’s book, it is not Jacatot’s special knowledge that must be passed to the student. 
  • Thinking of the TEF in the context of the book’s introduction, the idea that teaching programmes and their outcomes vary according to intake might well be attacked by Rancière, just as he has criticised giving working class students less abstract material. The TEF states that teaching quality is assessed according to “the extent to which teaching stimulates and challenges students, and maximises their engagement with their studies” but also “The data used in the assessment are benchmarked for each provider to take account of its student mix, entry qualifications and subjects”. Does this mean that the TEF has different expectations of how demanding courses will be within different institutions? Are Oxbridge students given more to read, more challenging material and pushed harder? What is the difference in my teaching at prestigious Art Schools like Chelsea, The Royal College and Camberwell and excellent but less prestigious art schools like the Cass? If the TEF expects difference, and if we were to consider that it is a myth that human beings have different levels of intelligence, then the TEF may well be reproducing this myth, at least when there is no diagnosed ‘learning difficulty’. Or am I misinterpreting the TEF or Rancière?
  • These are just preliminary thoughts from reading the introduction, thoughts designed to get me thinking about the text. I might also need look at the TEF again, as well as actually reading the book.

[1] Rancière, J. Trans. Ross, K. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Stanford, California. Stanford University Press.

[2] Apter, E. (2018) Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic. London & New York. Verso.

[3] Willis, P. (1978) Learning to Labour: How working-class kids get working class jobs. London & New York. Routledge.

[4] Scott, P. (2012) “It’s 20 years since polytechnics became universities – and there’s no going back” The Guardian. Available at: Last accessed 28 February 2020

[5] Dall’Alba, G. (2005) ‘Improving teaching: Enhancing ways of being university teachers’ Higher Education Research & Development. Vol. 24, pp. 361–372 Routledge.


At first what I liked about the TEF framework was that it took into account the likelihood of obtaining highly skilled graduate employment. I have noticed discourse in the past linking education and improving employment prospects, but had found them irritating because I knew graduates who couldn’t get jobs related to their degree or even degree level jobs. So specifying the percentage of students getting highly skilled graduate employment seemed like an improvement.

And then…I remembered that the TEF awards are made for the university as a whole and not a particular course, so that limits the usefulness of the measure.
And then…I thought about the messages behind these measures. Just by mentioning employment prospects the student (just as I was when reading this) will be directed to think not about education as an intrinsically worthwhile pursuit, an opportunity to immerse themselves in art making in a supportive and stimulating environment where they can share and develop ideas. Instead, in true capitalist style the student is directed instead to consider their employment prospects. 

And then…the awards themselves provide financial rewards for universities to improve their scores. They can charge an extra £250 per undergraduate student, per year. The idea that universities would need financial incentives to improve their teaching and the student experience strikes me as somewhat offensive. It is a rather pessimistic (and market fundamentalist) view of human nature. I’d rather think that non-monetary values are enough. Just the desire to teach and help others could be enough, when harnessed and supported. I’ve been reading recently about the possibility that monetary incentives serve to crowd out people’s intrinsic motivations to act, and eventually erode and replace our morality. 

And then… there are those student satisfaction surveys. How good accurate are they? Sometimes it seems to me that very privileged students have very exacting and demanding standards and are likely to be less satisfied when the slightest thing goes wrong, whereas disadvantaged students might be used to putting up with things and therefore mark their poorer institutions more favourably than they should. I don’t have any evidence for this though. Also, my friend gave her university high scores just to make sure that they stayed high up in the league tables. Again not an accurate measure.

I understand that TEF might reassure students that the teaching at a higher education establishment has reached a required minimum standard, but I would question how and if the TEF measures and assesses teaching practice.

So, the more I think about it the more flawed the attempt to measure something like education is. Like measures of GDP so much is missed out and the concentration on the measurements, and its components, can send us off in the wrong direction. Wouldn’t the money and time and effort be better spent on more teaching – and giving art students what they really complain about – more contact time and more studio space.