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Arts-based educational research

November 12th, 2009
Sure, it's creative. But is it art?

Sure, it's creative. But is it art?

For the last few months I’ve had an article buried under piles of paper on my desk waiting to be read. With the Shifting Thinking conference now over (Acts I-III at least!), I’ve had a tidy up and finally got a chance to look at it:
Barone, T. (1995) The purposes of arts-based educational research, International Journal of Educational Research Volume 23, Issue 2, Pages 169-180

A workmate pointed me in the direction of the arts-based research literature earlier this year during one of our journal writing group meetings. I’ve long been interested in experimenting with different mediums and modes for conveying ideas, and  I’ve had lots of opportunities at NZCER to try out some of these ideas as we’ve developed different ideas for disseminating research. Over the years, we’ve dabbled in digital storytelling, and various kinds of writing and image-based techniques (not to mention blogging!).

This year I’ve had two particularly enjoyable writing opportunities that I think relate well to Barone’s article on arts-based educational research. The first was collaborating with some of my colleagues to write the “scenario cards” that feature in NZCER’s Kickstart Resource on Participating and Contributing (which I blogged about  a while ago). The second was writing the script for This is School: Or, Changing the Script, the play that we performed dring Act III of the Shifting Thinking Conference.

In both cases, I integrated various ideas inspired from my work as an educational researcher. Some were drawn from direct experiences, such as  conversations I have had, or things I have seen or heard in schools. Others were drawn from things I’ve read, or ideas I’ve wanted to write about but never had the opportunity to.  In both cases, I was able to weave these ideas together into a story, rather than a non-fictional essay or academic argument. In both cases, the end result was a piece of fiction, inspired by real life, that was designed to provoke conversation and open up space for readers/viewers to pick apart any or all of the ideas bedded into the story (or introduce their own ideas in their “reading” of the story)

I’ve been wondering where exactly such semi-fictionalised pieces belong in the realm of educational research.  It doesn’t seem quite right to call them “research” – at least not that way that I think about what constitutes “research”. But could they be called “research-based?” or “research-inspired”? Should an educational researcher be writing stories in the first place?

Thomas Barone’s article has given me some new ideas for thinking about the space for arts-based educational research (and I am keen to start a conversation with anyone else out there who’s interested).  One idea he suggests is that arts-based research is, and should be, seen as distinct and different from research that is grounded in a social science approach. I really like his idea about viewing this distinction in terms of what each does in relation to “uncertainty” He says:

Projects of social science aim to reduce uncertainty, to seek literal truth within a particular paradigm, framework, or worldview……[Whereas] good art…can be said to promote the enhancement of uncertainty. Art makes a different sort of “truth claim” than does science; it engages in the second fundamental purpose of human inquiry: to promote doubt about the desirability of the values and interests associated with knowledge in a particular paradigm, framework, or world view (Barone, 1995, pp. 171-172)

I love the idea of thinking about research as sometimes enhancing uncertainty, rather than always trying to reduce it, and I certainly think that’s what the two story-based pieces of writing  I’ve mentioned above were trying to do (even if I hadn’t quite articulated it in that way).

I’m not saying we should do away with uncertainty-reducing research – and neither is Barone -  that kind of research is still as crucial as it ever was! But Barone finishes by saying:

I believe it is time to encourage and honor non-scientific researchers, including novelists and other storytellers, who pursue the noble aim of getting the reader to ask important educational questions (p. 178)

What do you think? Are you interested in exploring the space for arts-based educational research with me?

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