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.



Specificity in doctoral writing

Transcognition and miscognition exist when art educators curate thought

The headline above intends to be specific about the focus of my doctoral study. Capturing the essence of a 5 year study in one headline is not an easy endeavour. Yet to be specific in your doctoral writing is essential to keep the reader focused, to show your own academic confidence and to add specificity to your writing. These were key messages that hit home after attending Karen Littleton’s and Pam Burnard’s session on writing tools and practices at Cambridge University on 2nd June 2016.

Why is academic confidence important in doctoral writing?

When writing a doctorate you are narrating a story, you have experienced this piece of research whole heartedly so it needs to be told in this manner. You choose elements of the story to share so it is necessary to be confident when retelling this, obviously stories can be told in multiple ways, so adding justification to your choice can help to articulate why you told this particular story. Retelling it through different lenses, for example the theoretical, cultural or personal, can also help to identify your confidence showing how you understand multiple perspectives on your own research.

Other ways you can show confidence include providing specific signposts in your work, writing with authority, explaining choices, being specific about which concepts to foreground and background and expressing confidence in your own knowledge exchange. With all of these components to think about it is no wonder writing can seem like a daunting process. However this particular writing session led me to realise that we all narrate in our own way, that ‘writing’ or ‘narrating’ research comes in many forms and what is most important is confident expression of voice, particularly important in autoethnography, my own form of research.

Which voice will narrate your story?

Along with lenses the expression of different voices can also help demonstrate confidence, it can show your ability as a researcher to address your research from different perspectives, make connections between your findings and increase accessibility. Again though, you need to be specific about why these particular voices were chosen to articulate your understanding. When you establish a writing position readers are more able to reflect on personal experiences in relation to yours (Sparkes, 1996).

I see the role of art educators as multifaceted, I could therefore have a voice as an artist, teacher and researcher and could articulate my research journey from each of these standpoints. Voicing autoethnographic research from these perspectives enables my experiences to be related to the cultural context of the art educator (Richardson, 2000), other ways I attempt to achieve this is by telling my story in relation to that of other art educators using participatory research and by using art as a medium to articulate. The gallery below demonstrates some examples of how I have been using visuals and journalling to express a research voice, to act as an artist and to identify myself as a learner.

Another way of considering voice is to think about at which point in time you are articulating your research, are you responding to scenario’s and experiences that occur? or are you are looking back? One could suggest you are being reflexive if adopting these practices creating cause and effect scenarios (Scott and Morrison, 2006). Reflexivity is powerful because it can also engender action (Suillivan, 2005) changing the direction of research.

The role of specificity: 

With research outputs judged on originality, significance and rigour, being specific is essential to make claims and valuable contributions. It is easy as a doctoral researcher to go off tangent, there are always interesting avenues to explore. But writing in relation to your own focus and defending this is key to tightening research stories and demonstrating confidence, Karen Littleton explained. In my own research I attempt to achieve this by mobilising theory around cognition in an art educators practice. For example if I reflect on this post I have mentioned the notion of reflexivity in my artwork helping the articulation of my own learning and thinking, I could be exemplifying here how I am utilising the symptoms and sinthomes of miscognition (Tavin, 2010) because the artwork and blog narration I have created has unconsciously enabled me to create new knowledge about my own research experiences in an unconscious way. I could also suggest this post is enabling me to think about my own writing practices as a doctoral researcher by exemplifying how I am using the transcognitive processes of thinking through a medium, language and context (Suillivan, 2005) because the multi-media blog is enabling me to share the mediums of my practice to model thinking. I am using written and visual languages to articulate and the blog itself is a cultural context for other art educators to interact with. I exemplify here the importance of specificity to make research relevant, focused and rigourous. This leads me back to my opening headline for this post, I have attempted to exemplify here some small ways that transcognition and miscognition exist when I, the art educator, curate thought.


Richardson, L. (2000). Writing: A method of Inquiry. In N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research. (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Scott, D. and Morrison, M. (2006). Key ideas in educational research. London: Continuum.

Sparkes, A. (1996). The fatal flaw: A narrative of the fragile body-self. Qualitative Inquiry, 2.4, 463-494.

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

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


A theoretical web

The metaphor of a web has been used by many artists. Roman Ondak used it to document those involved in performance art; each name offering a new story, Tomas Saraceno’s elastic rope installation, Galaxies Forming, intends to model how environmental, social and mental spaces collide and Jim Campbell created a web of lights at the Hayward Light Show to document exploding views of moving images (See examples below). What interests me here is the use of the same metaphor to interpret diverse artistic disciplines. When attending an EdD session at Cambridge University, hosted by Karen Littleton, yesterday evening concerning the use of theory in academic writing visualising a web enabled me to make connections in my own thinking. I felt like this was the moment I accessed my own cognition, if I related this to Suillivan’s (2005) notion of connectionism I was using the metaphor of a web to make links in my thinking. Whilst engaging in the session I also quickly began sketching ideas for installation based artwork portraying a web like structure, on reflection what I believe I was doing here was using Suillivan’s (2005) transcognitive notion of thinking in a medium to embed my own thoughts around theory in my doctoral study within my own cognition.


Galaxies Forming along Filaments, like Droplads along the Strands of a Spider’s Web. 2009 Installation, elastic ropes Tomas Saraceno


Jim Campbell Exploded View (Commuters), 2011 (detail); © the artist. Image courtesy Sarah Christianson.









So what was it about the session that led me to this epiphany? Karen Littleton discussed how when writing research we need to think about how we mobilise theory, what comes to the foreground and what sits in the background? This resonated, with my thoughts around art, what does the artist choose to showcase? Why? With academic writing judged on ones contribution to knowledge it is important to identify where your theory is addressed and how this links throughout your writing, is this the same in arts based research? In writing, ways to achieve this could be through the exemplification of ideas, or by creating a golden thread of theory throughout.

Karen also identified the importance of using a theoretical lens to articulate ideas, this statement encouraged me to think about the different lenses and voices I would use to tell the research stories I am generating both artistically and in writing. Due to having a range of stories to tell the cognitive web I was visually creating in my mind and on paper began to grow. Not only are there different stories in my research there are different voices in which they can be told, creating another three dimensional component to the theoretical, cognitive and visual web I began formulating. Even within first person narrative and the pronoun (I) there can be emotional or academic responses which would portray thoughts from different lights (Davies, 2012). Within voices, as with theory being shared in research, a reader writer relationship becomes apparent. Just as an artist audience relationship is created when an artwork is interacted with, like with the artist’s works above. The web becomes an emotional, social and theoretical entity, something I would like to depict in my next artistic creation to help articulate further the cognitive connections between voices, stories and theories being shared in my academic practice.

From this theory in research session I take away a number of new thoughts to progress my academic studies:

  1. It is important to step back from your research, look at it from different angles and use different lenses to interpret the theories within it.
  2. To keep your research tight, use theory to connect it together, but keep it focused, remember the golden thread.
  3. That there can be different theoretical systems that may be illuminated as the work evolves.
  4. Most importantly to construct a theoretical dialogue.

In terms of my own cognition, I feel this session has been prolific in aiding the organisation of my own thought both for artistic and articulative purposes. I hope through this reflection I have articulated how I became aware of my own cognitive connections when thinking about theory use in academic research.


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

Davies, P. (2012). ‘Me’, ‘Me’, ‘Me’: The Use of the First Person in Academic Writing and Some Reflections on Subjective Analyses of Personal Experiences. Sociology 46(4) 744–752.