Rebecca Heaton on Art and Design Education

Investigating cognition in the creative arts.


A cognitive turning point…

As a doctoral researcher exploring cognition in art education I am constantly searching for occurrences, large or small, which alter the direction of my thinking or practice. Yesterday’s Thinking Allowed episode: The BSA Thinking Allowed and Ethnography Award Shortlist on Radio Four provided an interesting opportunity for me to reevaluate my own ethnographic practice. Listening to the show reminded me of the importance of portraying a honest and truthful experience through ethnography which is accessible to people from all walks of life. As an academic sometimes it can be easy to get lost in complex terminology, or entangled in a web of continually shifting thoughts, but the show made me realise the importance of just sharing your story.

Through ethnography one is usually trying to portray a real life insight to a particular culture, personally I am researching the culture of artist teachers. Dr Ruben Andersson provides a brief introduction into ethnography here. For most artist teachers art is their go to form of expression and with it being a universal language I have chosen to use it as a communicative tool in my own ethnographic research. I believe art forms can offer something special in communicating a researchers findings to a wider audience, the Radio Four show reinforced why I was using this tool and sparked my imagination to create a number of art pieces within my research, these included the use of billboards as an art form to share parts of my story I wish to advertise and three dimensional maps of my practice. What the show did here was spark my cognition, I made connections between thoughts and generated new ideas straddling art practice and ethnography, I hope to unpick this further in my study. Ethnographers are renowned for using a vast array of creative disciplines to express themselves to add value to personal narratives and research experiences (Coffey, 1999; Davies, 2008). To provide an example the image below demonstrates my own sketchbook exploration into the term autoethnography, a feature of my own artist teacher narrative.


Figure 1: Sketchbook entry, 2.6.15, Seeking meaning.

Mixed media. 30cm x45cm. Rebecca Heaton.

Art in particular can make us question ourselves and the world in new ways (McNiff, 2008) this can add value to ethnographies because it can help show emotionality or report new concepts in a meaningful way (Spry, 2001; Davies, 2008) equally though it can complicate access.

As the authors do in the shortlisted ethnographies presented in the BSA awardI I need to make my intentions clear to others, clarifying what I hope to achieve in my ethnography whilst highlighting which themes are going to be my focus for discussion. A challenge for many ethnographers is the quantity of data that is gained through lived experiences, so reviewing my focus areas may act as a filtering tool to make this process manageable. Currently within my ethnography into the practice of art educators, I intend to draw on the artist teachers understanding of cognition and its influence on learning whilst broadly thinking about the areas of social justice art education and the influence of digital culture on cognitive process.

On a more personal level listening to the radio show has reignited a desire to read, as a lecturer I read for research regularly but hearing about the shortlisted ethnographies generated an inquisitiveness to read in a different way.  It reminded me of the importance to make space and time to read for pleasure and to learn about the lives of others. So one radio show listened to on the way home from a break in Norfolk has proved provocative in reshaping my doctoral study. I look forward to reading some of the shortlisted ethnographies in depth over the coming months…


Coffey, A. (1999). The Ethnographic Self. London: SAGE.

Davies, C. (2008). Reflexive Ethnography. (2nd ed.). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

McNiff, S. (2008). Art-based research. In Knowles, G. and Cole, A. (eds) (2008). Handbook of the arts in qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE.

Spry, T. (2001). Performing auto-ethnography: An embodied methodological praxis. Qualitative Inquiry, 7, 706-732. Retrieved from:

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