My teaching philosophy stems from the aspiration for student teachers to develop skills that prepare them to handle personal, social and professional challenges effectively. Emerging trends in higher education are not only centred on research and teaching, but also attend to the emotional, sensory, affective, and psychological aspects of learning and teaching (Winstone, 2019), alongside curricula that are both creative and innovative. It is generally understood within initial teacher education degrees that the teaching and learning experience should acknowledge the importance of wellbeing for student teachers.
A creative, flexible approach to reflective practice can help student teachers enhance self-awareness, empathy and a deeper understanding of themselves. This is particularly relevant in the current higher education climate, with initial teacher education programmes across Ireland implementing the Teaching Council, Céim, standards for initial teacher education. These standards emphasise creativity and reflective practice, as well as encouraging student teachers to think about their professional learning needs, especially regarding their wellbeing. Student teachers are expected to use these standards as a tool to support their ongoing development, which includes reflective practice and enquiry-based pedagogies. The Teaching Council recommends that programmes provide opportunities for individual and collective reflection for both student teachers and programme staff (The Teaching Council, 2020).
Within this context, the potential role of creative arts and therapeutic methods in teacher training programs is worthy of exploration. As experts in fostering self-awareness, empathy, and wellbeing through art-based practices, creative arts therapists can bring a unique and valuable perspective and set of tools to these programs. Their involvement can offer new dimensions to reflective practice and support the ongoing development of student teachers, contributing significantly to the innovative and holistic approaches to teaching and learning that the current higher education climate calls for.
This article chronicles a pilot in which the author tested art-based reflective practice strategies with 23 Irish student teachers in their final year of a four-year undergraduate initial teacher education degree over a duration of 12-weeks. The group of student teachers are visual art elective students enrolled in a module titled “Contemporary Visual Arts: Media and Issues”. This module, the third module in a suite of five modules within the specialism, is designed to incorporate transdisciplinary practice through engagement with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) concepts.
My observations will focus on several key findings. Firstly, I will consider the significance of facilitating and embracing a more flexible, open ended approach to teaching and learning that is informed by reflective and reflexive practice as well as student autonomy. Secondly, I will explore the transformative nature of socially engaged art practice, which provided a collective creative experience. This process increased students’ understanding of their learning process while simultaneously documenting their wellbeing. The teaching and learning environment, based in the art studios, utilised art-based reflective practice to gain insights into the personal resources student teachers draw upon, as well as their concerns, as they enter the final stages of the B.Ed. program.
Incorporating these observations into the larger context, it becomes evident that creative arts and therapeutic methods could serve a crucial role in teacher education programs. Working collaboratively with education professionals, therapists could facilitate art-based reflective practices, provide support for students dealing with stress or mental health issues, and aid in weaving art therapy techniques into the curriculum. As an example, a creative arts therapist might conduct a workshop on utilising art-based practices for self-care and stress management. They could collaborate with educators to craft a curriculum that seamlessly integrates art therapy techniques. This approach presents a promising avenue for strengthening the resilience and well-being of student teachers, serving as a keystone of the reflective learning journey.
The ability to think differently, and reflect critically and creatively, does not only depend on individual cognitive and metacognitive skills, but also on opportunities to “experience differently” (Mckay, 2020). Raxdorskaya (2015) describes a synergetic interaction between reflection and creativity, arguing that reflection forms the bases of creativity. The generative process required to be creative is very much dependant on the individuals’ ability to reflect, as well as to reflect critically, on knowledge, actions, ideas, and experiences (Howard-Jones & Murray, 2003).
While it is generally accepted that teachers develop an ability to “think on their feet”, spontaneity is about competence and confidence. Within the design and delivery of this module there was a conscious attempt to showcase the benefits of flexible approaches to learning, encouraging students to engage with knowledge and reflect-in-action (Schon 1987). Reflection-in-action refers to reflection during the "doing" stage (that is, reflecting during the process of making and creating). This is carried out during practice rather than reflecting on how to do things differently in the future. This model of reflection can be utilised to allow the learning environment to change and inform the next stage of the lesson as it happens, leading to flexible and resourceful teaching.
When creating art, the creative process can involve divergent, critical thinking and flexibility (Csikszentmihalyi 1996; Sternberg & Williams 1996; Starko 2005). Divergent thinking allows the learner to find parallels, facilitating the transition of ideas from one context and successfully implementing them in another. Flexibility, meanwhile, denotes the ability to look at a situation from multiple points of view or to generate many categories of responses (Sternberg & Williams 1996; Starko 2005). Notably, the teaching of art and the preparation of teachers to teach art involve similar ways of thinking and being.
The module “Contemporary Visual Arts: Media and Issues” is a 12-week program that strategically integrates lectures, workshops, feedback, reflective exercises, peer discussions and group critics. These elements were devised and adapted on a weekly basis to cater for the diverse learning needs of the students. While the workshops and lecture-based learning were considered in advance, the reflective strategies used were co-designed with students, encouraging open-ended questions such as: “How will we show what and how we have learned?” and “How are you feeling about the learning process?” This collective approach, by both students and teaching staff, co-constructed an atmosphere of curiosity and investigation. This approach afforded multiple avenues for learning, giving teachers and students the freedom to learn in a personal, creative, and proactive way.
The interventions included different modes of reflection and methodologies to guide the learning experience at various stages of the programme. Each of the five reflective tasks had a different output. For this article, I will focus on a novel method the research coined “The Data Reflection Wall”, which was devised for a unique learning experience to promote understanding of students learning processes as well as promote individual and collective self-care.* The focus on selfcare was deliberate and saught to place wellbeing at the forefront of the students' lived experience and, if possible, build resilience and self-regulation into teaching and learning. The term self-care, as with wellbeing, can be complex to define as there are many different terms that can be used to understand and describe how one might approach selfcare and wellbeing holistically (Godfrey et. al. 2011). For this paper, self-care will be understood as the measures taken to develop, protect, maintain, and improve health, wellbeing, or wellness (Self-Care Forum, 2019).
The Data Reflection Wall was an ongoing 12-week reflective exercise that evolved into a social art participatory installation. The process involved students documenting their understanding of their learning through data visualisation on a weekly basis. The method of data visualisation was selected to reflect the teaching and learning within a STEAM module, emphasising transdisciplinary practice. The outcome was an art installation which became a visual evaluation of students collective understanding of their feelings around their learning.
To inform the process and engage in self-care, students were asked to gain a better awareness of their own self-care. Each student was required to observe, collect, and creatively document the steps that impacted on their wellbeing. These factors, which were unique to each student, ranged from exercise, meeting friends, listening to or playing music, reading, documenting phone usage and impact, social media use, sleep habits, coffee intake, makeup use, and more. All observations were documented in the students’ journals. Figures 1, 2 and 3 demonstrate the range of activities and creative approaches used to document their self-care, which informed the reflection data wall.
Figure 1. Documentation of sleep patterns and the impact on wellbeing. Extract from a student’s journal.
Figure 2. Tracking activities on a weekly basis and the impact on wellbeing. Extract from a student’s journal.
Figure 3. Student tracking daily selfcare activities and the short//long term impact on wellbeing. Extract from student’s journal.
At the initial stages of the module students were tasked with solving a design problem. They were asked to work as a group using data visualisation techniques to design a creative approach for documenting a visual narrative of their learning.Students were guided and provided with the following guidelines and criteria:
- Select 10 words that represent how you feel about your learning journey in college.
- For each feeling select a colour that best represents that feeling.
- How can you represent individual data that can be recorded weekly.
- Each student needs to be represented individually; additionally, the data visualization also needs to be read as a collective.
- Each student will follow the same code that is established by the entire group. For instance:
1. Apply visual elements (colour, pattern, shape, direction), create a code!
2. When designing the code ensure you create variables, which will provide a visual narrative.
Following an intensive brainstorming session, discussions on best practices, appreciation of visual literacy, data visualization, the psychology of colour and shape, and subsequent negotiations, the group agreed on the most effective design. Figure 5 illustrates the set of codes and rules which enabled the creation of a collective data reflection wall. The Data Wall in progress is shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4. The devised set of codes and rules which enabled the creation of a collective Data Reflective Wall.
The structure of the data wall installation was simple but effective. The installation revolved around a series of ten progressing circles or rings. The number ten represented the duration of the course, and the increasing rings representing the sense of growth, unity, and progress. These circles were divided into 23 individual triangular sections radiating from the centre to the outer edge. Each section was allocated to a student and teacher (the sections were numbered to ensure the students were unidentifiable).
Figure 5. The Data Reflection Wall process in week 7.
Following the codes that were generated every week, students documented their emotions and feelings around their learning, which was informed by their observations on their selfcare habits. The weekly interactive nature of the data wall and the documentation of their self-care habits in the visual journal gave rich insights into students’ understanding of selfcare.
The students (N=23) were asked to document and reflect on the process of creating the reflective data wall. Many comments were positive, with four overarching themes emerging.
The collaborative data reflection wall invited students to document their learning, expectations, potential hopes, and concerns. These inputs shaped both the students’ and the teachers’ experiences, as weekly sessions were designed and revised in line with student observations and concerns. The process of reflection motivated the students to consider and take ownership over their self-care. As students observed, reflected and documented what affected their wellbeing, they became more reflexive and began making slight changes to regulate and adapt their behaviours. A student stated:
The data wall made us check in on myself - the weekly process encouraged me to analysis learning and emotions on a weekly basis and more importantly ‘act’ on them each week.
Another student spoke about how the reflective process helped then to regulate emotions:
The data wall also had a real-world effect on my life as a participant in this class project, as it helped me to regulate my emotions as I became aware of dominate feelings.
The allocation of time and placing value on the reflective process became an important learning tool for the students. A student spoke about:
Slowing down, lingering with my thoughts, what I experienced and how I felt about my learning.
The continuous and reflective nature of the process led to deeper engagement and awareness.
The collaborative ‘hands on’ experience of documenting students' emotions about their learning had a positive impact on their overall outlook. The collective experience revealed that students were not alone in their concerns. A student commented:
Not everyone was engaged with the learning in a similar way, and hearing about others success and struggles was grounding for me.
Another student commented:
I could see how I was doing in relation to my peers, I embraced my own reflective moments as well as seem how I was doing alongside my peers.
The process of creating the data wall provided an impetus for dialogue and conversation that promoted peer learning and an informal, unseen and consequential support structure.
Each week the teaching staff were in a position to observe and visually acknowledge students learning and apprehensions. Placing the teachers into a more informed supportive role and fostering more empathic connections. The students commented on how they appreciated the time dedicated to reflecting about learning, and how the content of the module was adapted weekly to cater for their concerns and scaffold their learning by responding to their needs. A student commented:
Deeper weekly reflections that can be engaged with and noticed by lectures that tended to catch us when we needed it most.
Artistic representations of student learning brought a personal element to their learning. The process achieved some important objectives of arts education, specifically enabling students to explore, clarify and express ideas, feelings and experiences through creative expressions using art. A student commented:
The non-verbal medium was a revelation to me to express and connect in an indirect way … I found the process of selecting colour and pattern therapeutic as it encouraged and promoted dialogue both verbally and non-verbally, as I communicated alongside my peers we reflected together. The anonymous nature of the data wall provides a safe space to express emotion.
Figure 6. Illustration based on weekly understanding of learning. Extract from a student’s journal.
Providing B.Ed. students opportunities to engage in alternative modes of communication and learning (beyond text-based approaches) fosters a more inclusive, learner-centred methodology. Alongside the collective documentation on the data wall, the students simultaneously documented their unique individual reflections within their journal, giving a deeper insight into the understanding of learning and the importance of selfcare. Figure 6 demonstrates how a student utilised illustration to convey their experiences with learning.
The reflective data wall became an artistic expression and representation of the collective student teachers’ voice and lived experience at an important junction in their lives. As final year B.Ed. students, they are moving between feeling like students but thinking like teachers (Flores, 2020). By listening, observing and taking the time to understand the students’ concerns and context, I could adapt and focus my teaching approach to address the challenges they were encountering, without compromising the content of the course. Through journal entries and a quality review which was conducted in week twelve, students revealed an overall appreciation for this flexible and autonomous approach to learning, which promoted teacher agency and creative outcomes.
In a rapidly evolving world, offering complementary methods for reflection on learning that stimulates creative thinking, embraces ambiguity and adaptability and can fuel curiosity-driven teaching and learning needs to be prioritised. Arts-based reflective practices opened up spaces for doing things differently and moving beyond the traditional instructional based leaning. The student teachers’ reflective goals provided opportunities to share insights, worries, ruminations and moments of tension. Giving voice to the students opened the learning (and teaching) to include flexible approaches, respectful interactions, changing perceptions of the lecturers involved, and challenging students to consider their own learning journey.
Incorporating reflective practice as a core element to the assignment demonstrated the value placed on alternate ways of communicating, social construction of identity, wellbeing and trust, and safety for transformative change. All these elements contributed to an experience that was personal, dynamic and embodied. Herein lies the potential role of creative arts therapists to work alongside education professionals. Their expertise in facilitating art-based reflective practices, providing emotional support, and integrating art therapy techniques into the curriculum could significantly enhance this transformative process. Through their involvement, we can create a more holistic learning experience, further enriching the resilience, well-being, and adaptability of future educators.
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Anne Marie Morrin is a lecturer in Visual Art Education in the Dept. of Arts Education and Physical Education in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. Anne Marie's particular interests include: interdisciplinary approaches to visual art education; STEAM Education; educational environments as pedagogy; reflective journals as a tool in the classroom, and art-based research.
Anne Marie has been working as a teacher educator in visual art education at Mary Immaculate College (MIC) since 2005. Before being appointed at MIC, she was involved in a variety of educational and cultural settings including health care and education, theatre, fashion, galleries, schools, and community projects. This collection of experiences has afforded her the creative capacity and skills to approach teaching and learning in a collaborative, transdisciplinary manner.
Visual art practice directly influences her practice as a teacher – and vice versa. Within this binary role, she places the role of practice and enquiry central to the acquisition of knowledge. Her philosophy is heavily influenced by theories of ‘conscientization’ (Freire, 1972, 1995) and Mezirow’s (1991) ideas about perspective transformation. By using innovative pedagogy, she believe in building creative capacity for a future generation of teachers who will have the confidence and insight to bring inventive thinking to their future classrooms and the children they teach.