Un Magazine 7.1

Experience and perceptions of ‘children’s research’ and the educational turn

Kym Maxwell




A collage from the Islington Schools Environmental Project, the work of Roger Fagin and David Cashman at Laycock School, UK, 1978

The child is a born researcher.
—Loris Malaguzzi

The term ‘educational turn’ is gaining momentum in contemporary arts theory. Artworks within the definition seek to transmit or create knowledge from and between an artwork and its participants, the knowledge often stems from other disciplines such as sociology, science, history and psychology. This desire to learn, or educate, has become a marketable practice within the twenty-first century, due to the child being the epitome of a ‘natural’ learning state. Like ourselves children establish and test hypothesis and research to ‘know’ and explore ‘truths’. In this article I look at the multiple learning positions of spectators and participants in arts practices and expose new pedagogical approaches that build upon this positioning within an educational paradigm.

Education-based artworks tend to be socio-politically driven, encouraging viewers to ask questions of themselves about important issues. Occasionally they are presented as ‘works in progress’, ‘concerns’ or ‘propositions’ and some are time-based. Generally, most artworks tend to teach or reveal a paradox rather than state an absolute fact. This is exemplified in Christoph Schlingensief’s Please Love Austria (2000) and Thomas Hirschhorn’s The Bijlmer-Spinoza Festival (2009), two participatory ‘staged’ provocations arousing a public’s response to citizenship, community and social mores. For example, Schlingensief’s work situated a group of refugee participants inside a shipping container; purely for response he makes a game of arousing a political debate, antagonised locals reluctant to engage. Hirschhorn however directs his ‘collective presence’ as an ongoing sequence of workshops, plays and seminars in the community center of Bijlmer, inviting residents to facilitate the actions. Hirschhorn’s program proposed acts of idiosyncratic social mixing as artistic character. Importantly, both projects mock the conditioning of submissive consciousness within communities as well as direct viewers’ attentions toward the power of a ‘collective presence’.

Artworks of this kind tend to juggle narrative with an arresting proposal of participation, as opposed to more traditionally detached modes of spectatorship. Annette Krauss’s Hidden Curriculum (2007) and Palle Nielsen’s The Model for a Qualitative Society (1968) both similarly seek to draw attention to our implicit beliefs and societal views in relation to ‘youth agency’.1

Each artwork addresses a child’s view through the deconstruction of institutional space and adult authority. The Model forming a playground within a museum isconstructed by children with large loose materials, whereas the Hidden Curriculum on the other hand conducts a series of interviews and interventions between the artist and a group of high school students discussing, ‘actual learning’ as opposed to ‘proposed learning’. All of these projects tend to be less outwardly aesthetically oriented, which is largely due to the unpredictable nature of collaboration i.e., the operational structure of the artwork necessarily resisting a fixed aesthetic form. These artworks express an attitude of ‘being in the process of becoming’ or ‘problem-posing art’.2 Similarly ongoing community, child-centred projects such as U.K.-based Robert Fairley’s Room 13 (adopted worldwide) and David Cashman and Roger Fagin’s Islington Schools Environmental Project (briefly positioned in art history as ‘community-based arts’) can now be revisited through the educational turn’s filter with heightened leverage as pedagogic art. The shared epistemology gained in local community contexts is slowly becoming recognised as rigorous and artistically complex demonstrated in playful models locally, such as the Centre for Everything and Laneway Learning in Melbourne.

From Beuys’s radical propositions of Free Universities, to accessible and affordable lectures in Melbourne and worldwide, artists, theorists and institutions openly conceptualise new modalities of knowledge creation and dissemination.3 Such an example of an art institution trending toward educational inclusion is Brazil’s Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR). The museum will physically inhabit a school as part of Brazil’s 2016 Olympic construction. MAR’s director, Paulo Herkenhoff, is promoting it as ‘a school connected to a museum and a museum connected to a school’.4 The ‘educational turn’s’ incarnations are now widespread through this locus of enquiry, such as engaged social media campaigns, projects or forums, all becoming highly influential in this ‘experience economy’.5

Fortunately as the definition takes flight with critics, theorists and curators, the culture of the educational turn (and its rhetoric) sheds new light on the existing education frame for educators, academics and artists. It is important to note that key emancipatory educational texts by Freire. Dewey and Steiner are to be considered precursors to the ‘turn’s’ outlook.6 Interestingly Claire Bishop points out ‘Freire’s critical text presents a rupture in the history of education that is contemporaneous with another rupture in art’s own history. This rupture takes place circa 1968: its insistence on the breakdown of the teacher/pupil hierarchy and participation as a route to empowerment occurred at the same time artists explored ‘interdisciplinary approaches’, heightening ‘the viewer’s role and presence in art’.7 However, the ‘child frame’ central to each of their theories remains noticeably absent from contemporary educational art-related discourse.

In the remainder of this article, I intend to explore several similarities I perceive between a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to learning and contemporary art theory and practice. To understand art’s appropriation of education and the threads of educational politics, I will illuminate art’s knowledge-broking within current alternative schooling networks and artists’ utilisation of educational practices in their work.

Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Emilia approach established in post-war Italy was an act of educational emancipation initiated by a group of mothers from Italy’s North West region. These mothers desired a new citizenship for their time, and developed a new approach to education with documentation and ‘teachers as researchers’ central to their approach. Collaborating on the direction of Early Childhood education they focused on a child’s right to co-construct identity, viewing children as equals rather than as subordinates.8 Initially directed by Loris Malaguzzi and more recently by a larger team including Carla Rinaldi, the approach can be described as a ‘group learning context’ with several key principles, often summarised in the following ways: ‘Environment as the third teacher’; ‘Image of the child’; ‘Pedagogy of listening’—or, as I see it, democratic education. Carla Rinaldi states:

Relationships, communication and interactions sustain our educational approach in its complexity; they are powerful terms characterised by two important elements: action and group socialisation.9

Like most alternative approaches, the Reggio Emilia approach requires risk and the efforts of a committed community to establish protocols that may be sustainable within a larger educational paradigm. Italian Reggio schools are defined by their unique geographic context. Other regions inspired by their approach are asked to focus on their own context in order to develop their own networks and to reinforce the values of local culture. Carla Rinaldi attests that citizens have a moral obligation to invest in children’s welfare—to encourage permanent knowledge creation with children in order for a society to progress.10

The region has explored neuroscience and anthropology in its attempt to progress, learning from Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature that ‘…in the transmission of human culture people always attempt to replicate, with inevitable failure because cultural transmission is geared to learning, not DNA’.11 Rancière says of this, ‘The ignorant person could become for another ignorant person the master who would reveal to him his intellectual powers’.12 This looking-outward to see oneself—the ‘Image of the child’—is a powerful reflection sadly subverted in the values of our state curriculum as norms of intelligence that appear as pedagogised states, where common ground is assumed and acknowledged as conditional, normalising such frameworks that govern practice.

Italian Reggio schools are designed in reference to local town planning as well as architectural design, including spaces such as the piazza central to each school as a place of exchange and encounter. Typically, each room in an Italian Reggio school displays large-scale documents of projects including children’s dialogue and photography. Good quality re-usable materials can be found in each highly aestheticised room with light and video projectors, light boxes, prisms, mirrors and torches. Loose and fluid materials are willfully organised and accessible to both children and pedagogues to record, publish and promote research. The educational vehicle of Reggio involves long-term project-based learning and stems from the genesis of one child, or a group of children’s, problem posing. These actions are reciprocated through pedagogical ‘provocations’ that arise from collegiate debate when they collectively review learning documents such as video or audio recordings, children’s work or notes. This act reflects the way children enquire and hold their own research—often taking the form of motif, object or material to reframe research. Carla Rinaldi states:

One child can lead another to explore territory never encountered, perhaps never even suspected… adults offer themselves as resource people to whom the children can (and want to) turn. Conflict and recognition of differences are essential.13

The importance of an atelier (an art room) in every class cannot be underestimated—a nerve center of encounters within the Reggio school. The atelierista (artist-pedagogue) is considered a person with special understanding of the potential of materials and is someone who works across all learning communities. By doing this they broaden the educational languages to include notions of light and shadow, science and nature, electronics and movement. Whilst visiting Rodari (a Reggio Emilia school) last year, I was surprised to encounter outdoor ateliers that invited natural elements in to act as protagonist—precipitation dripped from the glass ceiling dappling trays of stone and polished glass with filters and mirrors accessible to experiment with. These incidental and natural occurrences within the outdoor atelier provoked new ways of looking and therefore thinking also.

Having worked with Reggio Emilia principles in a variety of teams in primary schools in Melbourne, I caught up with a colleague Kerri McCulloch to discuss how Reggio Emilia theory may benefit from contemporary art theories and vice-versa. She discussed the Reggio approach within a Melbourne context, stating, ‘The Reggio approach ‘questions what society considers certainties. It’s saying let’s do our own research on this’. In 2006, we established the ‘Kids Think’ campaign. Children looked at research suggesting that ‘children under eight can’t tell when they’ve been manipulated by advertising—we looked at multiple perspectives to understand that there isn’t only ‘one truth’—and it was clear that the kids were upset by the research. Due to this, we established the campaign, proactively inviting experts, such as graphic designers, to share knowledge and to help the kids get started. With help the children produced posters, stickers and documentation booklets, some wrote speeches for the launch in front of the State Library of Victoria. Chris, a student, states: ‘We are the next generation. If people don’t treat us respectfully we will keep the cycle going, and it will be a cycle that keeps repeating itself’.14

Education is not just about learning, it’s also about relationships. Specifically, the breaking down of hierarchies, the engagement with wonder, and the hope for new intelligences. Does the educational turn have the power to question its own authority? I believe the Reggio Emilia principles question our early ‘separation of ontologies’ advocating for engaging ‘habits of the mind’, present within artists’ educational propositions. This lack of critical pedagogy may address the demise of creativity, and pedagogic listening. How may we work better together to actively engage in social constructivist approaches as active citizens? Questioning the ‘conditional field’ is one purpose of the educational turn. Rogoff posits:

You want to politicise education? Let’s make it a principle of actualisation that really does touch the institutes of culture—not by producing perfectly trained, efficient, and informed workers for the cultural sector as a market economy, and bringing the principles of education there to operate as forms of actualisation.15

Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead (2010), recently installed in a vacant lot across from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, may serve as a useful metaphor here. This ‘home object’ frames the structure of our own making—the personalised citizen—replete with nostalgic references. Kelley presents community as being something that’s not always positive regarding interaction, exchange and belonging. A fraught presence, nonetheless fueled by unresolved friction and inequality. Language and proposition here seem to be the work of artists and children. It’s their creativity fetishised by institutions, corporations and academics. Their creativity is also seen as one of the last unconditional fields for research into citizenship and knowledge co-creation, and subsequently educational failure. Kelley states that Mobile Homestead ‘expressed [his] true feelings about the milieu in which [he] was raised, and [his] belief that one always has to hide one’s true desires and beliefs behind a facade of socially acceptable lies’. He added, ‘The work could become just another ruin in a city full of ruins’.16 Education is not only the capacity to reciprocate but to create knowledge as well as engage in a continued drive to research. Recent autodidactic models presented by artists in the definition of the ‘educational turn’ help us realise the power of our need to learn, to explore truths and to question our feelings towards educational paradigms and whose perspectives they frame.

Kym Maxwell is an artist, educator and writer living in Melbourne.

  1. ‘The Hidden Curriculum looks at the unintended and unrecognised form of knowledge, values and beliefs that are part of the learning process and daily life within high school.’ Annette Krauss, Hidden Curriculum (Rotterdam: Episode Publishers, 2008); ‘The Model is a radical example of the inclusive use of the gallery space and an immodest political vision.’ Lars Bang Larson and Anna Harding, ‘Young people challenging Museums and Galleries’ in Magic Moments: collaborations between artists and young people (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005). 

  2. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968. 

  3. Boris Groys’s United Nations Plaza, www.unitednationsplaza.org/. Irit Rogoff’s A.C.A.D.E.M.Y’s reflection on the Bologna Process. See special issue No 14, e-flux Journal, Free arts lectures, Gertrude Contemporary and Discipline Lecture series, Open attitude classes at Public School, Laneway Learning and Home House Melbourne Free University, School of Life and Center for Everything 

  4. www.art-agenda.com/reviews/brazil-round-up 

  5. Rap artist Sully Breezy’s example ‘I Will Not Let An Exam Result Decide My Fate’, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-eVF_G_p-Y; University Gallery lectures as a part of a gallery exhibit, for example Direct Democracy’s ‘Alternative Education’ roundtable discussion, 11 May 2013. WeMakeUs open meeting at Counihan Gallery, as part of The Brunswick Project, 11 July 2011 and ongoing propositions such as the recent South Project publication, Mapping South; Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, July 2010, www.marginalutility.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Claire-Bishop_Antagonism-and-Relational-Aesthetics.pdf

  6. Paulo Freire’s poetic breakdown of the Latin American framework in Pedagogy of the Oppressed highlights the Latin American experience of education under colonial rule. He heralded the unrecognised powers of agency and lack of educational ownership for the lower classes. He writes about ‘the educated individual as an adapted person’. This vision is central to the turn’s efficacy and capacity to transcend current models and hierarchies. John Dewey, Democracy and Education, Columbia University, 1915, preface: ‘As will appear from the book itself, the philosophy stated in this book connects the growth of democracy with the development of the experimental method in the sciences, evolutionary ideas in the biological sciences, and the industrial reorganisation, and is concerned to point out the changes in subject matter and method of education indicated by these developments.’ There are many texts authored by Steiner as forefather of Steiner Education, Anthroposophy and Bio-dynamics. I suggest Toward Social Renewal reprinted by Rudolf Steiner Press in 1972, and the lecture Human and Cosmic Thought, Berlin, 20–23 January 1914. 

  7. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells (London: Verso, 2012), p. 243. 

  8. Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Forman, ‘Partner, Nurturer, and Guide: The Role of the Teacher’ in Hundred Languages, p. 180. 

  9. Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Forman, ‘Projected Curriculum Constructed Through Documentation’ in Hundred Languages, p. 115. 

  10. Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Forman, ‘Partner, Nurturer, and Guide: The Role of the Teacher’ in Hundred Languages, p. 180. 

  11. Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979), p. 47. 

  12. Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (California: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 17. 

  13. Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Forman, ‘Projected Curriculum Constructed Through Documentation’ in Hundred Languages, p. 115. 

  14. m.messandnoise.com/discussions/457579 

  15. Irit Rogoff, ‘Turning’, 2010, at www.e-flux.com/journal/turning/. 

  16. Kennedy Randy, The Age, 17 April 2013.