A forest … more metaphor wrangling

Sacred site - angophoras

Sacred site - angophoras © Belinda Allen

Here’s a longstanding metaphor for my thesis. On reading Kamler & Thompson I thought maybe it could be more positively focused:

The forest

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
 (Dante – Inferno: Canto I)

The thesis is a dark forest, and I feel lost in trying to navigate its complexity. Feelings of inadequacy stem from the fact that I have not done major research before, and insecurity stems from my experiences with the administration and assessment of the process, which so far has been difficult and unclear. The whole field of qualitative research has opened up before me and seems so vast that I cannot see the end. But it is that I cannot see the forest for the trees – each unfamiliar branch of the literature seems to loom large before me until I can take the time to read and digest, it then takes its place among the multitude of trees.

On the other hand, ideas of risk-taking, exploration and liminal space are important to my topic. If this thesis is to be in itself a creative activity, I should relish the lost-ness, and even seek it. In Dante’s journey, the lost way is precursor to a difficult and even life-threatening journey (through hell) which is necessary for the experience of transcendence in the end (to paradise) – it is the hero’s journey, and so is the journey of my thesis!

The liminal space:
In philosophy, an ‘aporia’ is a philosophical puzzle or a seemingly insoluble impasse in an inquiry, often arising as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises. It can also denote the state of being perplexed, or at a loss, at such a puzzle or impasse. Lather (1998) proposes a praxis of stuck places – where ‘aporia’ – the impassable passage – is a place of critical power. The kind of ‘new criticality’ espoused by Burbules (2009) suggests that aporia is a starting point for radically new thinking – that deep criticality depends upon embracing what seems to be unknowable and impenetrable.

So – the forest metaphor changes, from representing being overwhelmed and lost, to representing adventure, challenge  and opportunity – I am the creative orienteer, designing my own compass.


It’s like a jungle … metaphors for literature review

Tasmania wilderness © Belinda Allen

A paper by Barabara Kamler and Pat Thompson discusses the anxieties around doctoral writing. They say: “What often looks like poor writing is also a textual struggle to take on a scholarly identity and become authoritative.” In this study they looked at the power of metaphor in how research writing is approached by doctoral students. The metaphors expressed by students tended to position the researcher as overwhelmed, helpless and/or lost. Workshopping these metaphors to develop more positive images (for example, a dinner party) improved the researchers’ confidence in approaching the task, and their positive expression of an authorial voice. As I am currently working on (and feeling overwhelmed by!) my lit review, I thought I would like to exorcise my negative metaphors and develop positive ones:

The jungle
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under (Grandmaster Flash)

I’m fighting through thick jungle, at any point I may be tripped by a creeper that I haven’t seen, or ambushed by a wily jungle animal. I’m collecting plants and flowers for my museum collection – I am distracted by those that look or smell most beautiful, but it’s important that I make a representative collection and can justify each specimen.

At almost every step, there is a tantalising byway where I see glimpses of plants that I have not yet collected – but are they important? I need to compare them with all the others, but my bag is so full I can’t easily look through them all. Perhaps I should collect them just in case …. But the weight of all the specimens is slowing me down and I wonder if I will ever find my way out and be able to make sense of the collection.

Kamler & Thomson (2006) point out that negativity in how the task of literature review (and indeed the PhD study) are perceived can adversely affect feelings of self-efficacy in completing the task. Negative perceptions emerge when metaphors are created, and analysing and rethinking the metaphor can help to make perceptions more positive. Lee & Kamler (2008) found that such negative self-perception reduces confidence and authority in writing, and minimises the author’s voice in a way that is detrimental to doctoral writing where the authorial voice is essential.


I consume so much that I must surely explode, or heave up half-digested, multi-coloured vomit: a morsel of truth here, a kernel of wisdom there – but they do not cohere. To me it is of interest to see how what I have consumed emerges and mixes together, to anyone else – a mess made by a glutton. The expectation of my academic overlords is that I will partake modestly, chew each mouthful 37 times, then spit it out or swallow. Methodical and selective; what I choose to swallow is finally excreted as hard little balls that no-one can argue with.

Choreographing the dance

Udaipur dancers © Belinda Allen

It’s a party and I’m dancing with as many people as possible. Some are easy to dance with – their moves match mine without too much trouble. Others are difficult, they have quite special moves that look impressive but I’ve no idea how to do it. Okay, I’ll go home and practice. There’s going to be a performance so I want to get the moves just right, and to make sure that everything fits together. I haven’t invented the dances, but I am the choreographer that will make the performance happen. I want to be able to rehearse again with these dancers so that when the time comes it feels right.

Walking the talk – creative praxis as research

Sacred centre 2

Sacred centre 2 © Belinda Allen

I’m interested in research on creative educational practice, in the form of praxis, which engages the practitioner-researcher in an iterative developmental cycle of act – critically reflect – theorise – act. But praxis has political connotations too – Marxist theory, developed further by Freire, sees praxis as a method of emancipatory learning, with the intention of empowering the marginalised and oppressed to achieve social transformation. (Can I really position teaching academics as oppressed in their relation to the institution?) To add to the subversion, I also intend to pursue alternative forms of publishing practice-based doctoral research.

So – I’m designing a praxis-based methodology investigating creativity in teaching and learning across a range of disciplines in higher education. As a creative practitioner (in visual arts), I am particularly interested in how creativity might apply to the research process as well as to teaching and learning. This praxis-based study will investigate and develop my own (creative teaching) practice as well as that of participants in the study, who will be working on developing creativity in their teaching and in student learning.

New forms of presentation and publication of academic research are emerging (See for instance Sarah Thorneycroft’s presentation at ascilite conference a few months ago). A proliferation of doctoral studies in creative disciplines is also pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in methods and formats for academic publishing. Publication media are also expanding beyond printed text to include online publication, multimedia and time-based media. All this has implications for disciplines where investigation and development of practice is a valid focus for research – including education.

A practice-based thesis in a creative discipline, for instance visual art, has evolved to be generally in the form of an exhibition (or performance) accompanied by exegesis – that is a body of work is developed and presented, its place in art theory and practice is researched, and its bid for acceptance as ‘original’ is justified and tested. This would ‘normally’ investigate the work of the individual artist who is engaged in the research.

A distinction has been made between practice-based research and practice-led research. In the first, new knowledge is generated through practice, the results of that practice are included in the research outputs, while in the second the investigation is into practice itself, how practice happens and leads to new understandings about practice. In my study I intend a participatory action research approach, in which participants collaborate in researching their own and each others’ practice. So this seems to better fit the definition of practice-led research. Practice-based research is dependent upon development of the creative artefact. However, creative artefacts generated in practice-led research may be no less worthy of inclusion in doctoral ‘publication’. Here’s a useful way of comparing action research with praxis-based research.

To exemplify creative practice, and creative research, the publication mode should also be creative – not simply, for example, a set of case study reports within my conceptual shell. Thinking out loud:

  • Critical reflective activity will be narrative based, with participants encouraged to be creative in presentation of their narratives – use of metaphor, creative writing, imagery etc to be encouraged. This data can be aggregated by each participant in the form of digital storytelling, published online rather than in printed text. (Could this include recording of classroom interaction? If I can get it through ethics …)
  • Participants will be supported to take a creative research approach to this activity – they will be encouraged to bring their own creative ideas to the design of the research activity.
  • Thesis publication will be in the form of online case studies and reflections (digital storytelling) produced by the participants (including myself), accompanied by my analysis of how the methodology worked, and a revised framework for managing creative praxis in HE teaching and learning.
  • The hub of creativity is preparedness to take risks – how can that be reflected in the research methodology and final form?

I’m about to embark on a bunch of reading about Creative research approaches and Practice-based thesis, so look forward to seeing what other have done.

Following the sun

Here’s an interesting online conference:
Follow the Sun
Online Learning Futures Festival – Futures for Knowledge
27–30 March 2012

I’ve updated this poster that I first prepared when starting out on my PhD:

The creative graduate

The creative graduate

Would like to do an new version using ‘rhizome’ rather than ‘tree‘ visual metaphor, although I think kaleidoscope still works … and this quote from Dante fits the nature of the PhD journey quite well, too:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
(Dante – Inferno: Canto I)

Here’s the whole of the text.

Madness vs. method

Elemental geometry

Elemental geometry © Belinda Allen

Dabbling around in some critical approaches to creativity, I came across Kerry Thomas from UNSW, who has published some papers looking at creativity in senior secondary art teaching from a sociological viewpoint, eg:

  • Creativity as the Exchange of Symbolic Capital in the Transactions between an Art Teacher and his Senior Art Students (2002)
  • Creativity as a Kind of Inferential Social Reasoning in the Transactions Between Art Teachers and their Art Students in the Final Year of Schooling (2006)
  • Creativity as a Function of Open Secretiveness, Denial and Euphemisation in the Transactions between Art and Design Teachers and their Students (2007)

These all look at the disjunction between the ‘teaching’ and the ‘learning’ that manifest in a ‘misrecognition’ of teacher agency. This stems from a fundamental contradiction at the heart of ‘teaching’ creativity.

In her paper ‘Can creativity be taught and learned?’ (2007), Thomas clearly articulates this paradox that lies at the heart of all suggestions that creativity can be taught and measured:

Senior art students and their art teachers are caught in a bind. On the one hand students are obliged by their art teachers and the conditions of final year assessment to find creative autonomy inside of their own intentional resources. On the other hand they, with increasing maturity and social awareness, begin to realise that their creativity is rewarded with its conformity to the values of art education convention. Similarly, art teachers are utterly aware that while they need to fulfil the expectations of their students as creative artists they also need to meet their professional obligations to instructional outcomes. How do students and their art teachers overcome the contradictions implicit in teaching and learning creativity? (http://www.pesa.org.au/index.php?page=.//papers/2007-papers/Thomas, K.pdf)

Thomas goes on to propose that particular social and cultural strategies have developed so that learners and teachers can manage these contradictions. The traditional critique session in the art studio becomes a rehearsal of roles.

For me, this fraught situation illustrates why a highly-structured and standards-based system of education has inevitably led to a general undermining of creative outcomes (as expressed  so eloquently by Ken Robinson). Creativity may be characterised by the taking of risks, by non-conformism, even by subversion and destructiveness. How is a standards-based assessment regime supposed to measure that? However, what separates such acts from mere delinquency is the ability of the perpetrator to harness these for the purpose of some kind of formal outcome – a book, a painting, an engineering design, a business plan, a musical performance – a method to the madness, if you like. Education for creativity then must ideally provide an environment that supports a disposition of non-conformism and risk-taking, and rewards the discipline brought to the ‘creation’.

Perspectives on creativity

What creativity means depends on who you ask, and the context. It seems evident that creativity is multi-faceted, but that promotion of a particular aspect of creativity is likely to serve a particular agenda.

Over the decades there have been a variety of perspectives:

  • 1950s-60s: the psychology of creativity, in particular development of testing for creative aptitude in individuals
  • 70s: creativity focused on creative arts as an important aspect of learning and life
  • 80s – 90s: organisational creativity, creativity in business and management, identifying the attributes of successful creative people
  • 00s-10s: creativity as systemic, collaborative, a ‘useful’ and measurable attribute.

What are the agendas underpinning these perspectives?

Bac Ha girls, N. Vietnam

Bac Ha girls, N. Vietnam © Belinda Allen

The development of creativity research in the 1950s was driven by a perceived need for the US to produce creative scientists to compete in the space race against the USSR. The idea of creative science in harness to political interests had been realised in the Manhattan Project for WW2, where the ‘atom bomb’ was first developed.

The 70s was the decade of ‘alternatives’, and many new educational and life-style ideas emerged, albeit based on pre-existing ideas such as those of Dewey, Emerson and Thoreau. Of interest was the integration of creative activities such as art, music, dance and drama into education and into people’s lives in the interest of a ‘holistic’ approach to learning and life.

This approach became unfashionable in the economically rational 80s and 90s, and educational systems went ‘back to basics’, and became more accountable. With the rise of the global marketplace and manufacturing, industrial leaders realised that creativity had a place in management and planning to compete effectively with other businesses, and other countries. The technology revolution that had been predicted in the 50s meant that new kinds of jobs, and whole industries, emerged which relied on creativity as intrinsic to their organisation.

Since the turn of the millennium there has been boom, bust and boom again in the creative technologies sector, but other industries have learned from the most successful companies how creativity contributes to success in the contemporary economy, and a demand has developed for creativity across disciplines. Research combined with experience has shown that creativity is not an aptitude isolated in an individual but is a systemic process and product, relying on aptitude, motivation, opportunity, collaboration and recognition. The expectation from industry that education institutions should provide work-ready graduates now incorporates such graduate/employee attributes as innovative and creative leadership, problem-solving and communication skills. The focus on measuring creativity now is in the assurance that education is indeed developing the capabilities valued by employers.

Other cultural perspectives

All of these perspectives are based on the western European/Northern American context, which is also represented in my homeland of Australia. Some of this history may relate to other contexts and cultures, but the experience of and attitudes to creativity are likely to vary widely. In Cambodia, for instance, the word for ‘creative’ also means ‘crazy’, and art as an endeavour has been devalued and diminished from the time of the Communist revolution there.

My context is the former, having been born in England, and educated and raised mostly in Australia. But I am fascinated by the idea that some other cultures, such as Australian aboriginal, place creative endeavour such as art, music and dance as central to their lives and spiritual practices, while in the west there is the tendency to relegate creative practice to a performing elite, with the audience alienated from the idea that this could be an inclusive practice. Singing in church may be one of the few remaining bastions of democratic creative expression, while the rise of ‘Karoake’, mainly in developed and developing Asian nations, may represent a democratic opportunity for creative expression in those cultures. In eastern cultures it is common for communities to be engaged in creative production around religious and cultural celebrations, and ‘creativity’ is less focused on individual achievement.

Multiple paths to an unknown destination


Entanglement © Belinda Allen

The antecedents for my thinking of how creativity fits into higher education begin with Dewey, and traverse Habermas, Bourdieu, Giroux, Kemmis and McLean. These theorists are not specifically concerned with creativity, but with critical pedagogy, cultural production, praxis, and the transformative nature of learning.

So how does this relate to creativity?

Of all the multiple perspectives on creativity there are two that seem robust and useful, and not coloured by social, political or ideological agendas. Firstly the concept of creativity as a disposition: more than a process or a product, it is a way of seeing, of being, and of acting in a particular way in a given situation that can be identified as ‘creative’ (eg Torrance, Amabile). Secondly the concept of creativity as systemic: dependent on a range of factors that are beyond the individual, such as the environment, colleagues, prior work in the field, and the opportunities for action, collaboration and recognition (eg Csikszentmihalyi, Simonton). But I do have a third perspective, one that is perhaps more ideologically coloured. The dimensions of creativity that relate to personal and social ‘good’ seem neglected in recent discourse that focuses on the economic benefits of developing a creative workforce (eg, Pink, McWilliam). Of course there may be related personal good (able to participate in creative and challenging work), and social good (creative industries develop services and products that improve enjoyment of life). But my aim is for a personal good that goes beyond a hedonistic pleasure in enhanced lifestyle, seeking to support personal growth and capacity for meaningful contribution, and a social good that raises collective awareness of social, political and environmental situations and brings creativity to designing solutions for (or ways of living with) urgent and wicked problems (eg, McLaren, Giroux).

This third perspective is one that in its emancipatory nature owes more to the field of critical pedagogy and transformative learning than to creativity studies. Since its origins in a Marxist approach to literacy education, critical pedagogy has been harnessed to a range of interests, such as feminism, counter-racism and environmentalism. Creativity has tended to be sidelined as a tangential interest, or critiqued as a product of white, middle-class liberal arts education. But I believe that the emancipatory potential of creativity as both a focus and a strategy for critical pedagogy is under-explored (Pope, 2005).

I am interested in:

the creative graduate – how do they act, what are the environmental factors that support or inhibit their creativity, and what agendas does their creativity service?

the creative teacher – how can teaching as a creative act promote and support the development of creativity in learners? How can development of creativity empower teachers to promote a social justice agenda?

the creative researcher – how can a critically creative/creatively critical  approach to research in learning and teaching support creative development of learners and teachers?

creative technologies – what is the role of technology in enabling creativity in learning, teaching and research?

The research question:

How can a critical approach to the development of creativity in higher education contribute to the promotion of personal and social good in learning, teaching and research?