6 March 2015

Teachers’ Views on Returning Schools: ‘A trampoline to future opportunities’

5th March, 4-6pm, Reinvention Centre at Westwood, Warwick Campus


Dr Analia Meo from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, came to discuss a short documentary called Teachers' Views on Returning Schools. The Film looks at the experiences and views of teachers and young people at schools in Buenos Aires, which cater for kids who have been excluded from education. 
In Buenos Aires (2002) a national education policy was created to keep young people in secondary school education. As a result all inclusive schools were set up in 2004. These were experimental. The idea being that they would transfer the knowledge gained back from the school system to shape educational policy. Ten years later their work is not acknowledged. These returning schools are invisible to the wider education system the hoped to influence.
During the film one phrase from a teacher struck me, she said, that their school was ‘an institution that keeps asking questions.’ These are schools that believe in the relationships between students and teachers. Social context and individual learning is their main focus rather than a National Curriculum. This is not without issues, but the students feel supported, and there is less ‘acting out’ say that UK films within exclusion units in the UK where pupils are placed who are felt unteachable, rather than trying to adjust and ask what can we do to get these students involved in their own education. It is a failing of the system rather than the student.
In the discussion that followed the film Dr Analía Meo said that rather than coming from a critical pedagogy perspective (see the work of Paulo Freire), teachers were more concerned with the right of every student to have a good education. The school was not a place to transform society, but one to provide young people with options into society. Education is viewed as ‘a trampoline to future opportunities’ said Dr Meo.
Dr Meo expressed the tensions that exist between research and creating a documentary. A film is not a critical paper. Sociologists have an ethical responsibility. So different choices are made in creating a film than what the research focus is. The role of the film is really a trigger for discussion and dialogue.
You can now view the film on YouTube: This film was made possible through collaboration with many people volunteering their time.
Event organised by Dr Cath Lambert (Sociology, Warwick), and supported by the Department of Sociology’s Culture, Media and Creativity research cluster. 

26 February 2015

The Culture of Competition in Modern liberal Societies (25th February)

 Professor Johnathan Hearn came to speak, at the University of Warwick, about power and the role of competition in society.

‘Competition is part of the deep structure of how society is organised,’ he said. ‘I am not a supporter of competition. I used to be a musician and thought I would escape the constant competition over gigs by working in the ivory tower of academia. Of course competition kept chasing after me!’

Hearn discussed competition as rituals that may or may not succeed. Competition between belief-making institutions may be responsible, in part, for the dissemination of certain ideologies in society. Of course because my research interest is stories I probably ignored his real message and began to make connects of stories-competition.


isn't a new concept. It is an historical point of view, as Winston Churchill said 'History is written by the victors.' Whether through news stories, education, or reality TV like I'm a Celebrity Get me out of Here! These forms of story as society’s narratives may be feeding back to anyone watching or listening that competition is a “natural” part of society.

Hearn points out, the word competitive relating to the characteristic of a person didn’t exist until the mid-18th century (I hope I remembered accurately). Is it then a socially influenced phenomenon?

Say narratives are competing all the time… in this way they might contribute to social stability or social change. Certain ideologies would be reinforced as “the norm” and others frowned upon, in different ways in different societies. I doubt that society is structured around competition on its own, and this isn’t what Hearn was trying to say. He acknowledged the difficulties of separating competition from other factors that contribute to the complexity of our social world. And anti-competitive individuals also have to be considered, although as beings there is an element of competing for resources that we cannot escape. Especially in the academic world when it comes to funding. Should we be funding the best competitors who may hold very conventional and therefore definable ideas, or should we fund the ideas. Now there’s a thought.

15 January 2015

Future Research Trip Funded to US

[view of Minneapolis taken by myself]
Following a proactive approach to Professor Jack Zipes in 2013 I went to Minneapolis in September 2014 to work as an assistant on the Neighbourhood Bridges Program (Bridges), an arts for education charity. During that trip I spoke to Dr Ingram at Minnesota University to ask questions about the way in which the charity assesses its critical literacy targets and talk about some research ideas I had on oral storytelling.

In 2015 Dr Ingram will be analysing data for both Neighbourhood Bridges and Building Bridges—an anti-racism project which uses story to connect people in the community through the reading and discussion of fiction and nonfiction. I was invited me to join her analysis team as a research assistant. I also intend to present my research findings to the faculty.
 Good news, I applied to my department and was successful in being awarded the funding to cover my trip to Minneapolis in the coming year.

This month has also been taken up with research software courses such as SPSS, and a seminar on the 15th on Field Research, Transparency, and Analytic Rigour through Coding which was useful to reframe some of my current thesis ideas and refine future research ideas.

14 November 2014

Posters to plasticine (Nov 2014)

1st November – poster presentation
Presented a poster of my research at the Herbert Art Gallery as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences.

The exhibition aimed to improve public access to innovative research in Warwick and Coventry and was attended by the general public, academics, small business owners, and policymakers. 

See a pdf of my poster here.

6th November – The Spirit of ‘45

Attended a Q&A to hear director Ken Loach talk about his new documentary ‘The Spirit of 1945’. A film showing broken promises made by the Labour party, nationalisation, and the subsequent dismantling of the welfare state over time. During discussions at the end a member of the audience said, what can we do to protect our NHS? Our welfare? Loach suggested that socialist parties group together and co-ordinate, with voters supporting one another, negotiating and backing the Green Party (as an example), and in that way trying to ensure welfare is not further degraded by the current government. Gave me a lot to think about. I really enjoyed the way that the documentary captured the stories of real people and how the welfare state benefited them and how it's removal is detrimental to our quality of life.

12th November – Plasticine #IEIM14

Organised by Siobhan Dytham and Carlie Ria Rowell.

The event was about innovation - what it is, why do it, and does it improve our research? 

Keynote speakers included         Prof. Melanie Nind (University of Southampton)
 Dr Nicola Ingram (University of Bath)

I very much enjoyed talking to everyone, like Nicola Ingram who I had met previously at a BSA education conference in London, and Jessica Heal and her co-workers from TeachFirst. It was great to hear about the research that they were doing in education to hear from young people how they benefited from different teaching styles, and the way in which this was fed back to teachers to improve practices.

Nicola Ingram’s talk included the use of innovative techniques, like using art. During her presentation plasticine was given to every table and the audience created models to represent their academic selves and chat about the result. Here is mine. Please feel free to comment on what you think it might be!

Other speakers included Nadena Doharty, Farhat Syyeda, Lauren Doak, and Jacqui Shepherd

One thing which I took away from the day was that there is a large underrepresentation of people from “lower functioning autistic spectrums” for instance due to a lack of innovation in research methods. This conference was a call for the inclusivity of research.

3 October 2014

Minneapolis Research Trip Sept 2014

In September I was invited to Minneapolis by Professor Jack Zipes to participate in the work of Neighborhood Bridges. This involved presenting my research to staff, teachers and teaching artists of Neighborhood Bridges, meeting with academics, and going into a number of different schools to see the project in action. 

A brief overview of Bridges

Walker Sculpture Garden (Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburgh)

Bridges is recognised by the US Department for Education as a national model for arts education. Highly trained teaching artists take storytelling and drama into schools and work with the teacher and their classroom from autumn to spring. The breadth of the work is impressive as Bridges works with almost forty teaching artists and teachers in schools across Minneapolis. I assisted four teaching artists in the class room during their first sessions. The teaching artist works with the teacher and a classroom of approximately twenty to thirty young people within primary and secondary schools. Throughout the year the classroom works on encouraging the students’ individual and group storytelling and drama skills, including creativity and the ability to question story from their own experiences. The year cumulates with storytelling performances created by the students at the Children’s Theatre Company which is an opportunity to see performances from other schools and meet other classrooms on the program. Dr Deborah Ingram at the University of Minnesota, and others, assess the program to ensure critical literacy targets are met.

Presenting storytelling research at Warwick 
After introducing myself to roughtly forty teachers and teaching artists on September tenth Maria Asp at Bridges kindly arranged a two hour slot on the fifteenth. This was an opportunity to hear the perspectives of various teaching artists, teachers and Bridges staff. My research aims to investigate if oral storytelling, within a school context, can be used to understand and/or assist the transitions of young people of 12-14 years into adult roles. To answer this question a total of thirty focus groups were conducted across three schools over five weeks using an innovative storytelling method called the storytelling space because it creates an area within a school separate from conventional goal-focused education. 

After presenting an outline of this work I asked how storytelling research might support the work currently done in education. A number of themes arose during this discussion.

The social aspects of storytelling

Bridges Program Director and Teaching Artist Maria Asp reflected, ‘To me it just seems right on that the social trigger is where the learning happens. That’s because everything that we know about true critical pedagogy is that learning is relational, that when they’re in a space where they’re knowledge is valued, and their experiences, if it’s family or whatever, is seen as valuable sources, as opposed to another author or something, that’s where kids, that’s where they show their greatest compassion and understanding for each other.’


The group discussed how current assessed education stifles potential and creative thinking. Maria Asp said ‘Making space for non-scripted teaching is an argument that I think storytelling could support’ for example in terms of information retention. Storytelling in education over text-based work led has in the group’s opinion led to an astounding recollection of details from Bridges’ storytelling games from the start of the year. Narratives are remembered, they see this in action working with the classrooms. Sandy Agustin, Teaching Artist, points out education is ‘about asking questions it’s not about right or wrong. It’s what do you think?’

Bridges teaching artists described the way in which storytelling breaks barriers so teachers see pupils differently and vice versa. They have seen how the program improves class relationships, and how the teachers learn and enhance their own skills over the year and beyond. Engaging the teachers engages the students. 

The role of the storyteller

The group I presented to were surprised, and shocked!, when the storyteller was asked to leave the room during the research focus groups (the storyteller’s role being to deliver the story then leave the group to their discussion). The purpose of this, due to lack of time to train the storytellers in the research method, was to avoid adult-led discussion. This technique avoided leading the storyteller to perform in a particular way to enhance the research goals which I felt would be interference. Although by being present and conducting the research this has an effect. Tessa Flynn, Community Engagement Manager and Teaching Artist, said ‘It’s interesting too, that it’s just the kids. Just taping what they are talking about’. 

Professor Jack Zipes said, ‘you’ve got to talk to the storyteller. They’re going to emphasise certain things. All teaching artists in bridges go in with the intention to animate students, to think about particular problems. The way they tell their stories will emphasise certain things.’

This I saw in action whilst assisting Bridges in different schools across Minneapolis. The teaching artists told the same introductory story of Minnie and St Paul; a folk tale about the founding of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St Paul). However the relationship between the two characters, Minnie and Paul was retold in many different ways. Jay Scoggin for example emphasised Minnie’s gratefulness to Paul for building a bridge to return her cows to her that had wandered onto his land. In Katy McEwen’s version Paul gave Minnie back her cows, which allowed Katy to ask the classroom what else Paul could do to say sorry. A student suggested that Paul could offer Minnie another cow and Katy wove the idea into the story. Aaron Radatz’s version of Paul captured his love of pranks so that Paul purposefully hid the cows in his barn as a joke as he cleverly drew the students into the story. And Tess Flynn had her classroom feeling comfortable enough to be acting out the character of Minnie, copying her actions of Minnie’s cranky personality whilst telling the story.

Storytelling is relational, and in education research the relationships between storyteller and teacher has time to evolve into a richer learning experience. In the Bridges program the storyteller facilitates discussion of the story by placing questions in the students like ‘who has the power in this story?’.

Differences between US and UK research

I was able to obtain school approval to record the audio of student’s conversations. Shannon McManimon who did her PhD on Bridges wasn’t allowed to record and had to take notes by hand. This creates an obstacle to research. Though she noted, as I did, most of the time the students forgot that they were being recorded. And that a researcher by being present is an interfering presence. Shannon’s PhD was based about a story she narrated: ‘who told the story was no longer important because they had taken ownership of that story’. 

I was stuck with how to end this blog because there is much more that came out of the discussions.  However it is most fitting to end with a question from a Bridges member of staff.

Rachel Austin Bernstein, East Metro/Early Bridges Manager

‘These students were doing this means nothing against all the standardised test scores. Yet this is serious educational research. That’s a different research language than analysing test scores. How can we compare the two different kinds of research?‘

With many thanks to Professor Jack Zipes, to everyone involved with Neighborhood Bridges Project for being so welcoming, and the Sociology Department at Warwick for their support