Greenwood, J. (2012). Arts-Based Research: Weaving Magic and Meaning. International Journal Of Education & The Arts, 13
What kinds of things do we research when we use arts-based research? And when we apply arts-based research to educational contexts, what kinds of contributions to the scholarship of learning and teaching can we make? Taking as its basis three case studies in which art processes were used to investigate culture and identity, this essay examines the kinds of questions arts-based research might seek to answer. At the same time as it acknowledges the value of the less definable and often holistic kinds of knowing that may result through the use of art tools and aesthetic analysis, it also argues for the usefulness of strategic focus on specific frames of investigation and specific outcomes. It further examines the relationship between arts-based research and learning.
What kinds of things are we researching when we use arts-based research? And when we apply arts-based research to educational contexts, what kinds of contributions to the scholarship of learning and teaching can we make?
Those of us who have worked in the arts and used one or more of them as an investigative tool know at a ‘gut' level as well as at a conceptual one just how effective arts processes can be as exploratory, deconstructive and teaching tools.
the consideration of art as a formal methodological approach to academic research is relatively new, and we are still in the process of theorising our positions. This essay offers a contribution to such debates.
We communicate through our bodies as well as with words. And when we know things, we often do that in ways other than just the intellectual. The arts, as Eisner (1998) and a host of artists remind us, invoke multi-dimensional responses both from their makers and their audiences. They allow an engagement of the whole human being.
There are two dominant overall approaches within the broad paradigm of art-based research. In the first, one or more of the arts are used as tools to study an issue, perhaps a social or an educational one. In such cases the art processes could be used for collecting data, for analysing it, for presenting findings, or for several of these purposes. In the second approach, the research is an investigation into the arts themselves, a search for way to understand and describe the complex layers of meaning within an art work or an art form.
While art-based research is a relatively new and emergent field at the academic level, it has a long history within the traditions of making art work. Artists constantly research both previous solutions of form (from the canons and from their own previous work) and the specific elusive relationship between form and meaning that suits their present purpose.
Painters and dramatists, in particular, have over the ages used their art to analyse and critically interpret aspects of the society in which they live, and in some cases have deliberately used the art-based report of their understandings to provide a platform for public debate, strategic analysis and provocation for change.
Works such as Picasso’s Guernica and Brecht’s Mother Courage are notable examples of how art-based reports of investigation are used to provoke public awareness, shifts in understanding and catalysts for action.
Boal’s work in legislative theatre in Brazil is an example at the highest political level of data gathering and analysis through art (Boal, 1998). Other workers in applied theatre (such as Heathcote, 2008; Millar & Saxton, 2004; O’Neill, 1995; O’Toole, 1992; Neelands, 1996; Greenwood, 2005) have developed a range of complex strategies for collection of data, analysis, and forms of presentation of findings that provoke further collective investigation and analysis.
Eisner (1998) who argues that there are multiple ways of knowing, that knowledge is made and not simply discovered and that inquiry will be more complete as researchers increase the range of ways in which they can investigate, describe and interpret the world.
Finley (2005) has placed art-based research squarely into the area of qualitative research and advocated arts-based inquiry as a means of community inclusion in social investigation and as a tool for political activism.
The UNESCO Road Map for Arts Education (2006) endorses the premise that the arts provide a useful means of investigating and knowing by asserting the right of every child and adult to education that “will ensure full and harmonious development and participation in cultural and artistic life”, and will cultivate in each learner “a sense of creativity and initiative, a fertile imagination, emotional intelligence and a moral compass, a capacity for critical reflection, a sense of autonomy, and freedom of thought and action.”
The strategies used in arts-based research might usefully be aligned with investigative approaches that emphasise open-endedness and continuously unfolding inquiry (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Bogdan & Biklen, 2003), with bricolage (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2005) and with participatory action research (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2005), as well as with strategies of theatre-making.
How can art processes facilitate the learning and the development of identity of participants characterised by cultural difference?
How do participants interpret their experiences, learning goals, problems and possibilities?
What kinds of drama processes and forms best lend themselves to meaning-making?
Strategies of applied theatre, or process drama as it is sometimes called, were used to explore the meaning of the story, both traditionally and in its possible contemporary implications. Framing, role and image-making were manipulated to engage with different perspectives, and to encourage emphatic speculation about how others might interpret the story.
Like participatory action research, our art-based approach involved the participants as co-researchers and was expected to result in learning. The fusion of research and consequent action that is a feature of action research was also a strong element in our approach as was successive layering of data collection, analysis and sharing of tentative understandings.
successive understandings were reported through images and texts within the art forms and through verbal and written reflections about the art forms and the ideas that were emerging. It is in keeping with the traditions of applied drama (Heathcote & Bolton, 1995, Greenwood, 2005) that participants work continuously inside and outside the art form, reflecting, deconstructing and planning further developments.
While some traditional models of research separate the researcher from the teacher and position classroom learning as the subject and the potential beneficiary of external research, many contemporary paradigms smudge the distinctions in various ways.
…practitioner research (Goodfellow & Hedges, 2007) tracks processes by which practitioners develop deeper understandings of their own professional practice in order to further improve it, and a/r/tography (Springgay & LaJevic, 2008) sets out to record embodied practice by distinctly overlaying the functions of teacher, researcher and art maker.
…learning through drama is a process that utilises the energy of the group and that develops meaning not only verbally but also viscerally, emotionally and socially.
It is [learning through drama] also a process that invites and develops the agency (Greenwood, 2010) of its participants: an agency that includes initiating ideas, giving physical witness to those ideas and critically reflecting on those ideas in order to discard or further refine them. In these ways it allows the development of learning discourses that, far from being repetitions of a teacher’s instruction, are anchored in the physical and conceptual interplay of all the learners, teacher included.
The sociolinguist, Gee (2012), explains Discourses as socially constructed physical and verbal codes of communication that are deeply embedded in the values and accredited knowledge of a specific group.
The opportunities for agency offered by drama, among other arts, allow the learning group to manipulate and play with given Discourses and in the process deconstruct and realign them.
While each teacher has their personal repertoire, there is also a significant body of collective knowledge. Much of the knowledge is passed on through interpersonal interactions, in workshops or from colleagues.
…the ability to draw on and select effective strategies from this body of knowledge involves a form of artistry, and that the integration of the knowledge, the scholarliness, is craft-based and interdependent with practice.
…the concept of the aesthetic evades congruent definition. It is a complex and dynamic concept, which is culturally situated, multi-faceted, emergent, ambiguous and essentially non- verbal.
we need to differentiate – at least partially – between learning about the aesthetic, learning through the aesthetic, and aesthetic learning, a kind of learning that is not predominantly intellectual but that is located in the body, that is visceral, emotional and intuitive.
…is the aesthetic simply another effective way of locating knowledge or it is a form of knowledge in itself?
…not all images of illumination (spiritual, intellectual or emotional) can be read as evidence that the participant has achieved such illumination. But they are evidence that the participant at this time constructs illumination in this particular way, or even that such illumination is seen as a desirable goal. And they are invitations to use the work to dig a little deeper.
…it seems evident that working in the aesthetic can be a very effective way of anchoring knowledge, particularly if it involves bodily participation and choice. Knowledge held in this way is arguably more ready to be called into action than if it is purely verbally cognitive.
Magic may be what gives us delight, energy and ongoing provocation, but meaning is something we can unpack, play with, and use.
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