Rebecca Heaton on Art and Design Education

Investigating cognition in the creative arts.


How does art speak to enable cognition?

Whilst writing and researching towards my doctoral project I have been thinking about the different lenses in which we share data from. In this post I provide an insight into a number of recent experiences I have had as an art educator and attempt to address them from three specific lenses to show how art can speak, whilst enabling one to question their cognition. I will discuss each event from a theoretical position, a cultural one and a personal one. Theoretically I will address how the event demonstrated cognition, culturally how the event represented the practice of art educators and personally how the event impacted me.

Event 1: A workshop questioning the meaning of aesthetic discourse with third year undergraduate artist teachers.

As a component of my doctoral research I asked a group of artistic teachers about their opinions on the definition of aesthetic discourse and what it meant to them in order to arrive at a shared meaning of the term. The image below highlights some of the thoughts these artist teachers had.


Theoretical lens: The image above models how the artist teachers engaged in a discussion about the meaning of aesthetic discourse, through this image we can see the artist teachers engaging in the act of transcognition, this term is defined on this blog post, the participants created the mind map to generate ideas, using the visual as a tool for thoughtful making, they use language to explore the notion of aesthetic discourse. The environment around them influenced the knowledge created, one way this happened was through engagement with others. The visual shown, or aesthetic discourse, captures as Suillivan (2005) recognised the transcognitive movements of the artists mind. Tavin (2007, p.40) determines aesthetic discourse to mean ‘thinking about, discussing and experiencing art in art education’ The artist teachers’ ideas resonate.

Cultural lens: I also consider this image from a cultural position, that of art educators. It is clear from comments made on the image, such as “Discussion is art” and “assessing understanding” that this group of art educators believe that aesthetic discourse is more than just a visual or aesthetic form. They identify it as a form of understanding where a relationship is formed between viewer and creator, this is interesting because in relation to the theory of transcognition these artist teachers show an awareness already that they may recognise thinking in a medium as  a component of aesthetic discourse, although this awareness of transcognition has not been made in a direct statement it can be deduced from analysing the visual. The comment, “explore, experiment explain” also suggests recognition of thinking in a language, a second component of transcognition and the use of terms “discussion,” “self-reflection” and “artist v’s viewer” points to the participants awareness that aesthetic discourse involves thinking in an individual and social context, the participants show this themselves visually by making arrows and line connections between different statements on the image. The image enables myself as a researcher to understand the cultural position of the art educators I am working with, this is useful information to possess when analysing data gathered because I can determine to what extent the art educators are using or already understand the terminology or practice of cognition. The image highlights the artist teachers may be aware of cognition, through statements such as “artistic cognition…”  “or cognition?” but that they do not necessarily understand how it is moving their thinking forward or that they can break cognition down into smaller components.

Personal lens: Thinking about writing from a personal lens is proving interesting, I can articulate my own interpretation of the workshop experience and image above sharing one angle. Personal experience also comes through in the theoretical and cultural viewpoints I have already shared because I am both writer and analyst, this reveals two more possible components to the artist teacher and researchers identity. When conducting the aesthetic discourse workshop with the doctoral research participants I believe I became more analytical of my own cognitive development. As I watched the participants creating their mind map about aesthetic discourse I drew connections between forms of cognition and the actions the participants undertook. For example, in relation to transcognition I could see that the participants were beginning to recognise the mind map they were creating as an outcome of aesthetic discourse, the visual was a thought generator it enabled language and discussion to be refocused and thoughts to be revisited, it facilitated the development of shared ideas, a key component of transcognition. This also revealed insights into how art can enable us to think in a language, beyond just seeing words on a page; art generates discussion and reflection a second component of transcognition. Participants through their discussions made references to their own contexts as artists and teachers using the visual as a springboard, the visual helped to illuminate contextual data about cognition, a third aspect of transcognition. This affirmed to me that there was a clear connection between cognition and aesthetic discourse, a component I wish to explore further in my doctoral study.

In this scenario, by using three lenses I model how visuals and the process of making them can portray voice. By using different lenses different discourses and stories can be created. Here they highlight the relationship between aesthetic discourse and cognition.

Event 2: Visiting a public installation.

As an art enthusiast I enjoy visiting contemporary art exhibitions, in particular I find public installations interesting because I find the decisions an artist makes to aid accessibility to their work fascinating, this artists’ act portrays part of the message being shared. I was lucky enough to experience the temporary exhibition commemorating The Battle of the Somme in Northern Hay Gardens in Exeter by artist Rob Heard recently and will express, again through multiple lenses how this experience influenced cognitive understanding.

Shrouds of the Somme, 2016, Rob Heard

Shrouds of the Somme, 2016, Rob Heard

Theoretical lens: The Battle of the Somme installation resonated with Eisner’s (2002) thoughts surrounding cognition in which he suggested that cognition is where one gains awareness of their surroundings or own consciousness. By experiencing the exhibit one begins to draw parallels with the experiences and surroundings of World War One soldiers, this is achieved physically through the expanse of figurative representations and emotionally through the realisation of the number of deaths. Through engagement with this exhibit, and art practice generally, one can increase their cultural meaning a definition of cognition shared by Efland (2002). In this exhibit this may occur through the impact and realisation of the number of victims involved in one of the bloodiest wars in history or through audience interaction in a modern day context. By thinking about this exhibit in relation to these theories of cognition, I am beginning to understand how I am learning, the activity itself is enabling me to interact with the exhibit on a deeper and more challenging level.

Cultural lens: As an art educator this could be a useful piece of artwork to engage with in relation to aesthetic discourse for a number of reasons, firstly because the artwork speaks through different mediums. The work has an auditory component, you can hear the voices of viewers interacting with the work whilst experiencing live performance sharing the names of soldiers who died on the first day of the Somme battle. Through this you can begin to understand how public installation can itself contain different forms of art to create one piece. In a kinaesthetic way the artwork comes alive through audience interaction, their is a sense of watching the devastation in front of you, this hints in a small way at the emotional shock many soldiers may have faced on the battlefield. Visually the expanse of white shared by the replica corpses in this piece creates impact by covering a vast expanse of land, this again becomes suggestive of the impact of one day of this war. Duncum (2007) identified that aesthetic discourse gains validity when it relates to contemporary life, this installation evokes questions about the wars and disputes we see in our contemporary world such as terrorism, this component of the work would be useful to share with other learners as it could be a way in to address both historical and modern day social, cultural and political constructs. There are other ways in which this artwork could be utilised by art educators which are not shared here, but I hope to demonstrate through this paragraph how this installation can provide a discourse for art educators to engage their students in thinking about art.

Personal lens: On a personal level this artwork evoked emotions around loss, as a new mother I began to interact with the work in relation to my own personal circumstance envisaging what it must have been like, in an empathetic way, for the families of the soldiers involved in this conflict. I gained realisation here that my own awareness of cognition has changed not only because of my academic awareness of cognition but also because of changes in my own personal circumstances, I read the artwork in a different way as a new mother. Before this life event my interpretation would probably have been different.This led me to think that every individual interacts with art in a different way, we all create our own aesthetic discourse with the art we interact with, the experiences we encounter in our lives shape the aesthetic discourse we have with artworks. Through writing this narrative and experiencing this installation I believe I have engaged in miscognition (Tavin, 2010), I did not recognise my own cognitive development in the moment of experiencing the work of art but on reflection later, through writing this narrative I have begun to articulate and understand that my awareness of aesthetic discourse has moved forward.

Event 3: External Examining for a UK University.

Whilst engaging in a different art educator’s role I was lucky enough to observe trainee primary teachers on their final placement, this experience influenced cognitive thoughts about my own practice as an artist teacher.


Theoretical lens: When observing one teacher she had cleverly used a washing line to display her pupil’s research into a range of artists, instantly this resonated with the concept of transcognition (Sullivan, 2005), this research was capturing the movements of the young artists minds, the essence of transcognition. The next lesson then allowed the pupils to use this work as a stimuli for future art practice, the pupils could develop their own cognition through connectionism and this would be evident to the teacher through the extent to which the children could use or articulate their prior research. Observing this scenaio, modelled how having an awareness of cognitive development could translate back into the classroom.

Cultural lens: By walking into the classrooms of different artist teachers I became aware cognition can develop through the visual entities you encounter and your understanding of what constitutes an aesthetic discourse can grow. Whilst external examining I saw a number of ideas that will act as stimuli to develop practice. For example, a washing line displaying children’s research into a range of artists made me draw parallels with my own learning experiences for trainee teachers. A number of ways art educators could use the seemingly simple technique of a washing line could be to display aesthetic discourse: as a working wall, a research line, or a gallery space to name a few ideas. This experience, a small entity in the external examiners role, has impacted my own cognition as an art educator and will now be shared with other art teachers. The experience modelled new ways that learning could occur and cognitive connections could be made.

Personal lens: I was consciously aware when external examining that my own cognition was developing, the experience was sparking new ideas for my own classroom practice, it was enabling me to be reflective, share thoughts and ideas with others and encounter new environments. I was consciously aware I was making connections in artistic ideas, enabling my own learning, yet the most prolific catalyst to this was social interaction with others. Discussion enabled the articulation of aesthetic discourse, artistic ideas had a position to be vocalised and questioned. The aesthetic discourse was not always about a physical artwork, but a conversation or action. Lim’s (2004) research also recognises aesthetic discourse occurs in action. In Sullivan’s  trans-cognitive approach to knowing he identifies knowing can be integrated between the process of art making, the artwork itself and the viewers mind, I agree with this sentiment as this is what occurred during the external examining experience. But for this transcognitive approach to be realised by the learner social interaction may be required. Of course Sullivan could be suggesting social interaction occurs through the process of art making, this was observed when children were using artist research displayed on a washing line to draw links and build cognitive connections with their most recent art practice. But because of the significance social interaction appears to make in cognitive development and aesthetic discourse its position requires elevation.

Conclusion: By writing about art educator experiences from different lenses a range of ways art can speak have been modelled. Aesthetic discourse appears to move beyond the visual, it can occur consciously and unconsciously and can be realised most powerfully when shared socially. Engaging in an aesthetic discourse can highlight how cognition can occur and develop in art education, as in this blog post. By writing through multiple lenses one can begin to understand how cognitive development is a complex process which involves creating a web of connections between experiences in order to move thinking and learning on.


Duncum, P. (2007). Nine Reasons for the Continuing Use of an Aesthetic Discourse in Art Education, Art Education, 60:2, 46-51

Efland, A. (2002). Art and cognition. New York: Teachers College Press.

Eisner, E. (2002). The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lim, B. (2004). Aesthetic discourses in early childhood settings: Dewey, Steiner, and Vygotsky, Early Child Development and Care, 174.5, 473-486, DOI:10.1080/0300443032000153633

Sullivan, G. (2005, 2010). Art practice as research. (1st and 2nd eds.). London: SAGE

Tavin, K. (2007.) Eyes Wide Shut: The Use and Uselessness of the Discourse of Aesthetics in Art Education, Art Education, 60:2, 40-45.

Tavin, K. (2010). Six acts of mis-cognition: Implications for art education. Studies in Art Education,52.1, 55-68.



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:


VOCES8 Perform at the Stahl Theatre, Oundle.

An evening of exquisite a cappella was experienced by many at the Stahl theatre in Oundle last night. As a new appreciator of VOCES8 I was astounded by the groups ability to create artistic mastery through vocal exploration. Each number evoked a diverse emotional and cognitive  response, leaving the audience to contemplate their own imagination inspired by sound. Drawing on a range of musical genres VOCES8 demonstrated the power of the human voice to create exquisite works of art;  this heightened my awareness of valuing the importance of sound experimentation as a necessary aspect of art education with the students and pupils which I teach. I am sure this ethos is shared by VOCES8 themselves who collaborated with students from Oundle School to create musical innovations. May I invite people to comment on their participation in any musical collaborations uniting practice in the arts and education to enable practitioners of the future to understand the benefits of this process for all participants.

Many thanks VOCES8 for opening my eyes to a range of musical possibilities.