PhD data collection… day one

Tomorrow is a big day. I have my cameras charged. My consent forms printed. My clipboards are sitting in my backpack. A giant paper roll to display pedagogical documentation is rolled up next to the front door. This comes on top of months of reading, thinking and discussing the literatures, conceptual foundations, data collection methods and methodology of my PhD research. To say that tomorrow is my very first day of data collection is a partial truth. I have been doing pieces of data collection over the past year, mostly in the form of visiting and observing different ‘creative laboratories’ within cultural institutions. Tomorrow will be the first day that I start to apply and test my critical ‘pedagogical documentation’ methodology. I will also begin to explore the theory, challenges and possibilities of the application of child-centred practice in art galleries.

Tech check!! A big shoutout to Poundland for selling useful stationary at bargain prices.

My first thought is that I am so excited to be around the children again. Since I finished up my work in Australia last July, I have not been around children on a day-to-day basis. With the exception of a couple of side projects my time has been predominantly filled watching hours of Beyonce and Carl Sagan video clips researching, reading and writing my literature review and methodology sections. During this time it felt as though something fundamental was missing from my life as I was away from the kids. I knew this would happen and was one of the reasons I was initially quite hesitant to do my PhD. Children challenge me artistically, intellectually and in a fundamentally different way to adults. I have heard many colleagues and friends working in art education say the same thing. I don’t mean this so much in a ‘Lou, why do humans have two eyes and not ten?’ way but more so in relation to the questions surrounding adult practitioner’s potential to design a social and physical space in which children can explore and express their feelings, beliefs and curiosities alongside others. I do find it a bit unnerving that in some museums, staff working directly with children are often at the bottom of the institutional hierarchy. As well as staff sometimes being employed who have very little or no experience working with large groups of young children. As well as the unfortunate and incorrect notion some people have that working with children is so easy anyone can do it so why waste money on employing qualified and experienced staff when a volunteer can do it? Having skilled practitioners who know when to ask a question, or introduce a new material, or to stand back and let the child play independently is crucial in constructing a child-centred creative environment. However, getting back to my point, I am most looking forward to the chaos, complexity and fun of being back around children for the next few months.

My imminent data collection is based around the potentialities and challenges of using pedagogical documentation [1] as a rigorous and critically reflective methodology within children’s gallery education. This can be defined generally as when children’s self-led learning strategies and play practices are collected using visual research methods and critically discussed by groups of educators – or in the instance of this research, artists and curators. This process also allows art and education practitioners to reflect upon children’s experiences in addition to their own thinking and actions. I do often think about why cultural institutions have not already developed pedagogical documentation spaces. This would provide a means of exploring and reflecting upon how people learn individually and in groups within their institutions. Actually, I mainly just question myself over this and whether or not such a methodological process can be applied to an informal site of learning and within the hierarchical structure of a museum. In my bias opinion, such a critically reflective and rigorous methodology is frequently absent from gallery education and socially engaged art. I am not aware of a museum, gallery or artist who has used pedagogical documentation consistently throughout their practice. If you do know of one, please email me.

A second major focus for the data collection is researching how teams of people – individuals who come together within a cultural institution – construct, present and plan future actions based upon the reflection of children’s experiences. This means that the research is not just focused on how an individual artist can reference pedagogy but how cultural knowledge can be constructed through a dialogic and collaborative process between artists, curators, children and their families. I am extremely interested to see what findings result from the application of such an approach.

Another key consideration entering the data collection is that I am not solely the practitioner. Whilst my role may be somewhat fluid, my central responsibility is that of a researcher. This is new too. The emphasis within academia on the use of language as the dominant means of communication makes me uncomfortable. My human composition somehow results in feeling most comfortable expressing complex emotion and thought through making things, whether that be art or developing creative space for others. From now on text will be the main output, eeeep. I had better stop telling myself I am not good at writing and get on with it.

I know that the next few months will present many unpredictable things. When this inevitably occurs, I will strive to keep my heart and mind open and embrace what new trajectories could emerge from them. To quote OutKast, ‘you can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.’ 

I thought of that quote in ALDI this morning. Definitely using it in my thesis.


  1. Reggio Children & Harvard Project Zero 2001. ‘Making learning visible: Children as individual and groups learners,’ Reggio Children.

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