Creative Learning and Participatory Research

Our Education Coordinator Steph Hawke talks about her experience as a ‘Creative Agent’…

Creative Partnerships is a scheme introduced by the government in 2002 with the aim of returning creativity to a curriculum increasingly weighted towards numeracy and literacy. Delivered across Merseyside and Lancashire by creative social enterprise Curious Minds, Creative Partnerships has enriched the Creative Learning programme at MPA over the last six years.

In September Curious Minds welcomed me to the team as a ‘Creative Agent’ and since then I have been helping four schools to investigate how creative approaches can help meet their needs. What’s fascinating about the Creative Partnerships process is its clear emphasis upon ‘action research’. But what does this mean?

In the early years, action researchers were academics who sought to involve their research participants more than was typical in conventional research (Herr and Anderson, 2005: 2). One of the founding fathers of action research for example, Kurt Lewin, who developed his ideas in the 1930s, was motivated by a desire to give workers a greater say in their work contexts (Whitehead and McNiff, 2006: 21).

By the 1950s in the US, action research was being used in the field of education. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that action research achieved popularity in the UK and in some cases, particularly in the early work of John Elliot (well known internationally for his contribution to the development of the theory and practice of action research), Lewin’s goals were not quite achieved. In Elliot’s early work, power remained with an external researcher who looked into other people’s practices, interpreted the findings and assessed validity so that power, “never really devolved to the practitioners” (ibid). Perhaps the most important feature of action research is that it should shift power and control from the academic researcher to those who are usually described as the subjects of the research (Herr and Anderson, 2005: 2).

Central to action research is its concern with participation (Costello, 2003: 6). The process focusses upon action taken by participants within the organisation (or whatever community of practice is engaged in the research). The action is observed, reflected upon, exploratory changes are made as a result of this observation and new actions are taken. Action research is therefore practical and focussed on change. Lewin’s 1964 model suggested that action research should be a cycle of planning, acting, observing, reflecting and re-planning with participants taking full ownership of the process.

How does this translate to a Creative Partnerships project? This is what I’ve been exploring over the last few months. It means identifying an area of need – how to integrate the Spanish language across the curriculum for instance, or how to develop the teaching and learning of issues of global diversity – and inviting a Creative Practitioner to deliver sessions in school that explore solutions. It means listening to children’s feedback – what do they like, what works, what do they want to do next? And it means teachers testing their zones of comfort, participating, scribbling ideas, photographing and testing out the techniques they have seen modelled. Creative Partnerships involves honest reflection examining what worked, and any unexpected outcomes, and the adjustment of plans as a result. Above all, Creative Partnerships is a golden opportunity to explore and unleash creative approaches in school, engaging reluctant learners, inspiring busy teachers. It is embraced by those deserving schools and treasured by the Creative Agents lucky enough to have been involved.

Costello, P. J. M. (2003) Action research. London: Continuum.

Herr, K. and Anderson, G. L. (2005) The action research dissertation: a guide for students and faculty. London: Sage Publications.

Whitehead, J. and McNiff, J. (2006) Action research living theory. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

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