Rebecca Heaton on Art and Design Education

Investigating cognition in the creative arts.


To curate

What does it mean to curate? Can art, thought, cognition, concepts, learning and lived experiences all be curated? Is it the curation of these facets, in ones experience as an artist teacher, that leads to knowledge generation? I ask myself these questions after a day exploring the concept of curation with Katie Boyce from the Alfred East Gallery and artist teachers from Northampton University. img_0026

From a theoretical perspective curating means to organise concepts and actively take on the role of curator (Macdonald, 2009), I contextualise this as an artist teacher to mean the designer of your own thoughts and outputs. The role of the curator involves researching, exhibition design, selection and a responsibility to communicate thought (Haas, 2003). The curator makes links between thoughts, concepts, art and cultural contexts (Acord, 2010). So as I see it, we are all curators and creators of our own cognition, as a creator we generate thought and knowledge . As a curator we design and own the paths we formulate. I offer insight into how I managed the role of curator and creator today. 

Curating: I formulated thought today through the exposure to new and unexpected experiences whilst making connections to prior experiences I had encountered. Whilst listening to Katie and the artist teachers discussing how exhibitions were organised at the Alfred East Gallery in Kettering, I began to connect threads of thought from a number of recent experiences I have had myself as an artist teacher. These threads interconnected to help me build knowledge.

For example, Katie shared how the recent exhibition, hosted by the Alfred East Gallery, Collection Connections (see images below) used links between the range of artists on show to map out relationships, histories and personal stories. The links were portrayed visually using colours to generate maps, in a similar way to the London tube map, it was this notion of mapping that connected with me. I reflected that I had recently posted on this blog about cognitive links and theoretical webs and theorised through my doctoral writing that experiencing and reflecting on intercultural, interdisciplinary (Bresler, 2016) and multi-directional (Stanley, 2015) pathways was one strategy which led artist teachers to generate knowledge. The value of interdisciplinary and intercultural arts based research was also reinforced in a seminar by Professor Pam Burnard @Pam Burnard I attended at Homerton College Cambridge University on Tuesday 22nd November 2016. This experience again connected with the metaphorical web of cognitive curation I was generating in my own mind to connect, consolidate and curate my own learning to ultimately build knowledge. Through the  process of connecting I had been actively curating cognition because I had been making links, as Acord (2010) stated between thoughts, concepts, art experiences and cultural contexts. 

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-21-40-30 img_0022

Creating: As creators artist teachers can take responsibility for generating thought and knowledge. In todays experience I did this in a number of ways, I was open to the art experience I encountered influencing my own and students learning, I took a risk to invite another to assist in the pedagogical structure of the course I had designed and was willing to reflect on the experience and apply reflexivity (Grushka, 2005) to this reflection, through this blog, to identify how the learning pathways I generated led to the creation of thought. As a result todays experience impacted my own development as an artist, teacher and researcher because I learnt more about the process of curation, questioned my own pedagogy and have identified how as a researcher I curate cognition within the lived artist teacher experience I encountered today. After all “The arts move us to see what is hidden or tacit to ourselves” (Burnard et al, 2014, p.101). 


Acord, S. (2010). Beyond the head: The practical work of curating contemporary art. Journal of Qualitative Sociology, 33, 447-467.

Bresler, L. (2016). Interdisciplinary, intercultural travels: mapping a spectrum of research(er) experiences. In Burnard, P. Mackinlay, E. and Powell, K. (eds) The Routledge International Handbook of Intercultural Arts Research. Chapter 29. Abingdon: Routledge.

Burnard, P. Holliday, C. Jasilek, S. Nikolova, A. (2014). Artists and higher education partnerships: A living enquiry. Education Journal, 4.3, 98-105. 

Grushka, K. (2005). Artists as reflective self‐learners and cultural communicators: an exploration of the qualitative aesthetic dimension of knowing self through reflective practice in art‐making. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 6.3, 353-366. doi: 10.1080/14623940500220111

Haas, J. (2003). The changing role of the curator. Anthropology, New Series, No. 36, Curators, Collections, and Contexts: Anthropology at the Field Museum, 1893-2002, 237-242. Retrieved from:

MacDonald. C. (2009). Issues in curating contemporary art and performance. Contemporary Theatre Review, 19.2, 242-243. Retrieved from:

Stanley, P. (2015). Writing the PhD Journey(s): An Autoethnography of Zine-Writing, Angst, Embodiment, and Backpacker travels. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 44.2, 143-168.


Collaborative Cognition #NSEAD AD 2016

23rd April 2016 an exciting day, the post arrived and the new NSEAD AD 2016 Issue 16 magazine publication arrived sharing articles by University of Northampton art education students and myself as their lecturer. What was special about this particular publishing opportunity was its outcome as what I believe to be a result of collaborative cognition. To explain collaborative cognition I mean the process by which a group of people fuel each others thought process to achieve over a specific period of time and around a particular theme. The outcomes of which at the start could be seemingly unknown.

In this case the AD magazine shares two articles, ‘Our iJADE Conference’ (2016) by students Steph Morris and Alice Crumpler page 19 and my own article ‘Theory versus practice in art and design education’ pages 26-27. We were also fortunate to have an example of one students artwork on the front cover, well done Ellie Pask. So, how was collaborative cognition generated?


The two articles have been the end result of a project comprising two avenues, the first a third year art specialism module for the trainee art teachers which involved the students exploring an area of art of their choosing and investigating current concerns in the realm of primary art education. The second avenue an awareness of change maker principles, an ethos which has underpinned the creation of the students art specialism course and which is at the heart of study at Northampton university, in short making positive changes in society to improve our world. When the students and myself embarked on these projects we were not aware of how much we would influence the direction of each others thought, practice and cognition. I was learning from the students as much as they were learning from me. A key example was the publication of the articles, as a fairly new academic and researcher I was guiding students through the publication process, offering advice on editing their work whilst also learning about this process myself. The work the students wanted to share stretched my own thinking, I was learning not only new content about the topics they were exploring but also how to offer critical feedback as a publisher would. Just changing the students audience stretched theirs and my cognition.


Within my own research I also interviewed students about their understanding of changemaker principles on our course, my intention to share the research at iJADE2015, I did not envisage taking two students with me to present the findings and them being asked to review the conference for the AD Magazine or to extend this even further, writing a collaborative journal article. We are in the throws of producing it. In this example collaborative cognition occurred through social interactions with the students, with individuals at the conference and through the creation of articles. What became apparent was how spontaneous situations led to new directions in thinking, we had to take risks and be open to following new thought paths. The outcomes of which have been fruitful and now our ideas will hopefully inspire other art educators through shared viewing in AD and via this blog. One aim of the change maker ethos is to create positive impact, I hope this will be achieved to an extent by sharing cognition through these outcomes.




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: