Helen Burns

Senior Research Associate & Research Excellence Fellow, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences

Please describe your current research interests/projects. 

I’m interested in the way that arts education and thinking skills, so transferable skills for thinking, could support the development of transferable thinking skills. Art as cognition and art as supporting meta-cognition and understanding and developing strategies for learning. Research shows that if learners can become meta-cognitive, they can achieve a lot more and retain education. I’m also interested in how all of that comes together to develop voice, agency and autonomy in learning through arts-based pedagogies and how that might develop transferable thinking skills. 

My thesis was on imaginations – imagination is at the root of all of this. I don’t think you can develop voice or agency without having an imagination and without being able to think of ways to change things. So, a more focused part of my research looks at how imagination is constituted, modelling those imaginations and applying those models in practice. 

What do you mean by arts-based education? Can you give me some examples? 

Yeah so my background is as a fine artist, as a painter, and then I went into community education and ended up working in museums and galleries when I was doing my Masters. I used to work at the Baltic which was really influential in contemporary art education. It was a very particular way of working which was about enquiry and developing creativity and skills for creativity. Its visual arts that I’m particularly interested in. I’m interested in the way art can help us develop skills for thinking and the way that within that the practical skill might enable that thinking. 

Can you tell me how you got into research? 

After the Baltic I went to work for something called Creativity, Culture and Education, an organisation that looked after a creative education scheme called Creative Partnerships. I was doing a part-time doctorate in education alongside, and when the government changed and I was made redundant, I went to work alongside my supervisor on an arts-based project using animation within after-school club educational settings with children and parents together – and I became really interested in research through that work. I started my PhD because I’d been working in education for a long time and wanted the theoretical insights and undertaking of psychology and education that I would get through a course. 

Can you tell me why you chose this field, initially? 

It just all came together! It came out of wanting to understand my practice and how to improve my practice. It was very pragmatic. And, also, I suppose I like the idea of research! I like the idea of deeply understanding things. So that if it is about informing your practice you really know what you’re doing! You know why. Especially if you’re working with children and young people you want to know you’re doing the best, that you’re not just doing random things. 

What are the main research methods you use? 

I don’t like to umbrella it but mixed methods, but they’re mixed methods that skew towards qualitative methods - but that’s not always what is best! So quite often I turn qualitative data to quantitative. Gathering data in lots of ways and then coding it. I like to be able to present some sort of narrative and illuminate that with statistics and simple statistics. 

I have worked on large scale randomised-control trials (RCT). I don’t have quantitative expertise but it’s a real issue in arts-based work. People tend to have a preference for qualitative methods for case studies etc. and you tend not to get large-scale studies. RCTs are considered rigorous by lots of people and they’re the people you need to convince in a field where the arts are suffering. Mixed methods are useful for satisfying all of the stakeholders and you can use it to support the idea of the work - arts needs to be argued for. 

Lots of visual research tools such as Pupil Views Template, a visual tool with cartoon characters with speech bubbles. It's designed to capture children's meta-cognition. You would compare the forms over time and hopefully see an improvement. 

I also use axio-tools, a spider web tool. I want these tools to fit into the aims of the project which are usually arts-based projects. It's quite appropriate for those to be visual and lots of our research is based around metaphor. Rather than a straight spider diagram it’s a star map and it says things like, ‘Map your stars to find out the constellation of your learning’. Lots of self-reporting by children. Children’s art work becomes data itself, which is incredibly interesting! 

I also use a Blog Tree which is well-known in schools, to gauge how children are feeling through an activity. Because my methods are primarily qualitative it’s important to triangulate so I will also ask teachers to complete diaries, alongside interviews and observations. Focus groups as well! 

Overall it’s very important to me that research has an ethical value to participants as well as researchers. 

Which methods excite you? 

Visual methods! And art-based research. Although I don’t do it in the full-on way people in Fine Art might. I’m excited by the question of when does an arts-based method end and a visual method begin? For example, some of my colleagues who might see some of what I do with visual methods as an arts-based method. It’s hard to define the distinction. But just because something is visual and it looks like a picture, it doesn’t mean it’s arts-based. 

Do you think we use our creativity or arts enough in research methods? 

Not at all! What it’s really good at is getting to people’s tacit understandings of stuff, helping them to think about things in a different way. There’s a lot more scope for getting a deeper engagement with participants. We’ve just had Stephen Gorard in for a talk and it was super quantitative! What I liked is that he was very eloquent in his descriptions and what he’d revealed blew out of the water perceptions about particular outcomes in education. So, when I see the stats so closely related to practice, and it’s illuminating issues such as regional poverty and the way we portray education in specific areas, that’s exciting. 

Who inspires you methodologically? 

I don’t think about researchers I think about John Dewey and pragmatism. I’m not talking methodologically, I'm talking about an ethos. 

Have you had any memorable methodological blunders? 

Interviewing! I think you build a skill in that, I've done ones that on reflection I've wished had gone differently. Tell you what, something I am learning is to not underestimate how much data, what you think is a limited amount of tools and then that you have to handle that data! And also, learning to be realistic with what somebody might return to you. I've asked prior, do you think this is doable, would you like to use these etc, and still I didn’t get what I thought we’d get back – despite doing things in a cooperative way. And that was after massively adapting a questionnaire we’d designed. If people say they think it’s doable, always assume you’ll get less! So, don’t do it so you’re dependent on it. For example, I've taken on a project which was relied on pre, post and mid evaluations but then the participant group had changed! 

What, about methods, did you wish your younger self had known? 

Those things (above)! Expect that things will go wrong, you can’t think of everything. 

If you could recommend students read just one text on methods, what would it be? 

It’s about ethics. It's Susan Groundwater-Smith and what constitutes quality in research, and ethics are part of what constitutes quality in research – they're not simply an add-on.