From research to curriculum

(written in partnership with Teresa Gray)

In September 2008 I began a research project funded by the National Arts Learning Network (NALN) and supported by Plymouth College of Art entitled, ‘Ideological Constructs – Past Visions/Future Possibilities:  evaluating the endangered subjects in the context of emerging global sustainability and environmental agendas.’  The principal aims of the research were both to understand the ways in which the applied arts, as ‘endangered’ (now known as ‘minority specialist’) subjects, were being affected by, and/or were responding to, concerns represented by emerging sustainability and environmental movements; and to explore whether the agendas developing around sustainability and environmental issues offered opportunities for the applied arts to (re)formulate new practices, identities, positions and markets, in ways that might reconnect them to contemporary social, cultural and economic imperatives, i.e. recover an ideological purpose.  In other words the key question was whether emerging environmental and sustainability issues provided ground for a public re-engagement with applied arts practices.

In searching for reasons why the applied arts might not be attracting as many students as other disciplines, and thus were considered ‘endangered subjects’, this original research proposal hypothesised that the applied arts were endangered subjects not necessarily for reasons of progression.  Other research speculates that primary and secondary schools have in the past phased out or abandoned craft subjects, and that students therefore did not think to choose crafts at tertiary level.  However, this research posited that the crafts subjects were endangered not because they were off the schools’ radars but because they were off the radar of a wider society:  that they had lost their ideological impulse.

My response, when people say that students don’t think to do applied arts courses because they don’t get to do them at secondary schools, is to say that students don’t do law at secondary school either, but that law courses are still fairly healthily subscribed.  Law is visible to the wider public and has an ideological position in our culture.  In order to examine whether crafts could be more visible, perhaps, to a mainstream audience, the aim of this research was to see if realigning the applied arts – if they were linked, or could be linked, to sustainability issues – might re-provide an ideological standpoint or positioning.

The positioning of craft alongside sustainability was strong, for example, in the work of William Morris, and was seen, arguably, by the wider society of the time to be aligned with a concern for these issues.  During that Victorian consumer age and the similar consumerist age of the 1950s, with the work of Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew and Colin Pearson (and others) looking towards crafts as a discipline with a spiritual element, the ideology of resistance was clearly articulated.  But since the 1970s craft has seemed to occupy more of a counter-culture position, one of resistance (as in the hand made object being politically and culturally resistance to more dominant technological modes).  However, during the period of this research project it could be argued that issues around sustainability had moved from the periphery of mainstream attention to holding a much more politically and socially visible position.  Issues of sustainability including – but not limited to – an economic crisis related to a series of unsustainable financial practices, a world summit on climate change (and much media hype and focus on climate research), and a growing awareness of peak oil issues, have been in the spotlight to a degree that was unforeseen at the start of the research project.

And during the research, an important function and defining paradigm of craft began to assert itself – that of a construct forged by groups in relationship.  Whether the craft object is seen as a representation of a making relationship, the intended outcome, or the trace of one, seemed to matter not as much as the relationships themselves.  Whether these relationships were of communities of concerned suppliers, craftspeople and buyers; or whether the relationships were those of skill cascading, where a project is designed to have long-lasting impact on a community by leaving newly created experts and teachers of a craft process behind once the project finishes; or whether a renewed interest in collaborative and collectives processes led to a new kind of business and social terrain, mattered less as well than the fact that there were these relationships.  Increasingly, the artefact was less the site of meaning than the relationships involved in its creation.

The research project was tied to applied arts; by implication to see how best to further develop and service that subject both generally and in terms of our own provision in further and higher education.  (While it would be easy to assume that applied arts students, embedded in these ideas of materiality, are somehow closer to ideas of, say, sustainable procurement than other students this is not necessarily so.  Although they are aware of the materials they use, they procure them as consumers rather than being much more aware of material origins.)  It was becoming clear that although the research project initially centred on the applied arts, there was a role for critically examining discourses centred around sustainability on a broader level.  There was a level of interest from other subject areas; plus the focus on the relationships engendered during the research project then extended into ideas about how to develop relationships between the subject disciplines.

Greg Garrard[1] says ‘ecocritics, who analyse literary and other texts from an environmentalist standpoint, observe that our environmental crisis poses not only technical, scientific and political questions, but also cultural ones.’   Very often when people start to talk about “greening” universities they pigeonhole the idea as a strategy or problem to deal with estates.   But teaching sustainability is not about teaching students to apply a set of predetermined strategies – it’s about developing a deep understanding of how things work.  Because ecology has a psychological dimension (rather than being purely a material issue) it follows that, at a curriculum level, work must be done at the conceptual level in order to equip students with a meta-understanding of and for their practice in order that they make informed decisions in the future.  They cannot, for example, make fully informed procurement decisions without being fully cognizant of the pressures on them from various agencies, or even their own unconscious leanings.   They can’t change the way they work and relate without an understanding of the often invisible cultural pressures and influences which form the way they live their (what we might call) “ordinary lives”.  An overview of the kinds of change that may be most efficacious would also make a difference.

While working on the research project I was also employed as a lecturer in Critical, Contextual and Historical Studies here.  Because of my MA in Arts and Ecology I was asked to give several one-off lectures on sustainability to different subject strands; the next step for disseminating the research also concurred with an aim our team had of making clear the common thread of analytical and critical thought across art forms which is inherent in teaching contextual studies.
Teresa Gray, the CCHS team leader, has responsibility for the critical, contextual and historical curriculum across Further and Higher Education.  With a responsibility for cross-curricula delivery, she took the model of large delivery of core material, break-out seminars, small group and 1-1 tutorials that is used in subject areas, and applied it to the whole CCHS provision.  As a team we unpacked and thought out the content and approach. This allowed us to address academic successes and challenges, to reinvigorate our delivery of, and approach to, the subject.  We have moved a long way from the art history lecture (an hour a week), which seemed to bear little relevance to the students practice; it was somehow removed, cold and distant.
We brought groups together, who had previously been divided by subject area, and began to introduce subjects/topics and themes from a broader spectrum – firstly to shake them up a bit, to get them to think outside of their box, but also to consider more fully their practice and the various contexts within which their practices operate – placing less emphasis on the ‘dead grey men’ approach to the histories and focused much more on processes, materials, economic considerations, production and distribution and contemporary concerns – such as the economic or technical future of their discipline and the impact of their practice on the environment.
We have developed an approach, which introduces all level 4 (Year One Foundation Degree) students to a range of historical and contemporary discourses (large-scale lecture delivery with discipline-specific seminars to embed the topics – to encourage students to relate theory to practice.) During this year all students are presented with some sustainability lectures.
As the programme progresses level 5 students (Year Two Foundation Degree) engage in a number of core/key lectures, which are cross-disciplinary and which explore areas of shared concern. These cut across the boundaries of discipline, in terms of their practice and social, ethical, and economic aspects.  After these core lectures, students then sign up for particular themed interest-based groups centred around areas of critical interest such as narrative, post-modernism, sense of place, and so on, which they explore in more depth.  Within this structure ‘sustainability’ is offered as an option.  Students come from a broad range of disciplines and throughout the module relate sustainability to their discipline and their wider life (working across disciplines but within a subject area). They are encouraged to explore deeply the issues leading to unsustainable practice in order to better understand and create effective alternatives. Uptake has doubled from the first to the second year of offering the sustainability option (though this year may see a lessening of interest again).
I have found it inspiring to work with developing artists as they take on the challenges offered by grappling with sustainability issues.  Students’ work last year included an animation student discussing the depiction of Gaia Theory in the movie Avatar; a film arts student looking at the treatment of trophic cascades in film; an applied arts student examining the legacy of William Morris with regard to maker collectives as an appropriate structure for post peak oil working; and another applied arts student looking at the social justice issue involved in the unattributed use of craftspeople in fine art works.  To each of these subjects these new artists have brought not only their logical minds and approaches to reading, writing, and academic work in general, but also their particular strength as artists.  Acts of creation are, perhaps surprisingly, very much about practical problem-solving.  In the future we will need many different creative approaches to solving sustainability problems; artists are used to thinking in ways outside of the norm (or at least they should be when they graduate, or we haven’t done our work well).  The recent alignment of art and science seems to be viewed by many as a way for scientists to broadcast their work in an accessible fashion, but I think artists can have a particular way of viewing the world which is adaptable, reflective, and resilient.  In other words, not just the artist’s work, but the artistic mind, is useful in collaboration and in problem-solving.  Even more reason to circumvent the “art for art’s sake” mentality for a more critical and culturally aware approach.
John Thackera [2] says design triggers fundamental questions about what we make, how we make it, and for whom.  Designing curricula involves the same questions.  The next phase for us might  be aligning the art, craft and design agenda with the Education For Sustainability agenda because the two are interested in the same things, though there seems to be relatively little interaction between the two at present.
Education For Sustainability (EFS) can inhabit a spectrum which should progressively move from education about sustainability, in which students are informed about and engaged in learning the structures underpinning sustainability (social and ecological), towards education for sustainability, in which students are prepared holistically for a sustainable future.  EFS in many educational institutions is primarily engaged at the former end of the spectrum.  There are many reasons for this.
Most obviously, people’s general experience of debates or initiatives around sustainability usually centres around stuff – the recycling we put out for collection; the organic food we do or don’t select; the decisions we make on what washing machine to buy.  The sustainability we know about is the sustainability we can see.  In a holistic sense this fits in with the predominance of visual culture theory taught in art and design departments and institutions.  We know things because we see them, in a practical and in a theoretical sense.
But tackling the way we think means not just changing the way we consume, but our entire way of being in the world, our entire cultural experience.  To us, to educators, as consumers, critics and analysts of cultural influences, it can be difficult to know where to start, embedded as we are in the institutional ideologies.
Take, for example, the very obvious point that the current system of grading students presupposes and extends competition rather than cooperation and sharing.  If we were to truly make our institutions sustainable we might have to consider a move away from league tables and bell-shaped assessment graphs, towards greater emphasis on cooperative learning.  However much we might be convinced of the desirability of this way of teaching and learning – and I accept that not all of us are – we can’t implement it because it doesn’t so much fall foul of government policy as outside of its radar entirely.   We only count results we can see represented in a graph or spreadsheet, and certainly not those which occur 5 to ten years after students have left the institution.  A more holistic approach is a long way off.
Having said this, education about sustainability is better than nothing, and a positive first step towards EFS.  And with proposed carbon budgets for educational institutions making areas like the applied arts feel defensive about their energy intensive practices, it may also be important to recognise that these materially-aware subjects are the kind of skills-based subjects that may well become more important in a post-peak oil future.  We are convinced that a cross-curricular and culturally-aware approach is an important element in EFS.

Additionally, EFS theorists and writers provide an even wider lens through which to view curricular issues.  As Sue Spaid [3] has said, “Any thoughtful person involved in the arts must balance his poetic concerns against the weight of Real World need.”  Educators in the mainstream system who are aware of issues such as peak oil and initiatives such as the transition network can sometimes feel as if they are bifurcated:  the discourse around mainstream education is predicated on ideas of continuity and development, whereas many EFS educators work with an understanding that in the future learning is likely to have to be about survival and negotiation around discord.  While it is important to be able to critically evaluate and analyse discourse around notions of sustainability, students are also going to need ‘practical skills to equip them for the transition away from consumerist societies towards strong, resilient communities capable of fulfilling human needs with minimal use of energy and resources.’ [4] Eventually EFS in academic institutions would ideally cover a range from vocational training to higher degrees.  This is what is called ‘the great re-skilling’ amongst the transition movement.  Although the coalition government has plans to implement a ‘Freedom’ or ‘Great Repeal’ Bill, which (at the moment) states explicitly that man made climate change is only a hypothesis and not an established fact [5], my own belief is that the dual challenges of peak oil and climate change are certain to impact our lives in general and our educational institutions specifically, within our working lifetimes.  A broader base of ways of teaching, assessment and access to facilities would be more economically resilient as well as more socially robust in times of change.   Part of the pedagogical implications of EFS is to anticipate and facilitate these changes.

EFS should continue to be a culturally-aware, cross-disciplinary concern; but some art subjects have immediate potential for widening participation in less academic forms.
Interestingly, for a subject area which has seen itself as endangered, it may well be in the applied arts area that an application of practical skills may lead the way in a relational, inclusive reinvention of arts education.  New ideas, as we know, are often revivals of old ways which have become marginalised.  Reinventing the notion of apprenticeship may be one way forward in a post peak oil future.  Those workshops which are currently seen as being large users of resources may be real attractions to people when the great re-skilling predicted by the transition network begins to gather pace.

Additionally, what will also be required from students is the ability to think of the world relationally, as consisting of interconnecting systems, having animate qualities.  Whilst education about sustainability is not the same thing as educating for sustainability, during the cross-curricular sessions I tried to incorporate several EFS ideals or structures, to which students were very receptive (even suggesting we needed to grow a garden as part of our research work).  Within the current adversarial marking system I tried to encourage cooperative work, and I tried to encourage the view of us – the students and myself – as on a journey of learning together.  At times – and especially at assessment times – this kind of thinking and talk can no doubt sound slightly hollow, but in planting the “seeds” of seeing how different teaching systems might work, perhaps I am planting a kind of garden, a relational one.

Interestingly, this connects directly with the focus that appeared in the trajectory of the research project. The project began by looking specifically at the applied arts; it fed into development of a cross-curricular strand in which students made their own connections with principles of importance for their work and lives now and into the future; and during the teaching, more ideas were thrown up which shed light on the research and even suggested ways in which it might be extended or continued or expanded, including critiques of our current low-relational styles of teaching, in which cross-disciplinary initiatives are only the first small step towards more relational ways of organising our institutions.
Reference 1: in Stibbe, Arran (ed).  (2009).  A handbook of Sustainability Literacy   Dartington:  Green Books.  Also available from URL: [accessed 21st April 2010]
Reference 2:  Thackera John (2005) In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World.  Massachusets:  MIT Press
Reference 3: Spaid S. (2002)   Ecovention; current art to transform ecologies. Co-published by: The Contemporary Arts Center/Ecoartspace/
Reference 4:  in Stibbe, Arran (ed).  (2009).  A handbook of Sustainability Literacy   Dartington:  Green Books.  Also available from URL: [accessed 21st April 2010]
Reference 5:  Available from URL: [accessed 18th September 2010]

NOTE:  this paper was originally written forthe International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation; and a version of a similar paper has been presented at a core day at Plymouth College of Art.