Quests Driven by Questions

An old article from 2006 published in engage review (details on, referring to the phase of my professional life when I was Head of Learning at the British Library:

For British Library Learning, research is not just the rarefied occupation of the academics working in the Library’s Reading Rooms. Creative Research is at the heart of our learning methodology and the key skill that we hope all our programme participants will develop. We also hope to have a wider impact by promoting and resourcing research-based learning, working in partnership with others with common purpose.

Because the British Library has vast and extraordinary collections across all subjects and cultures, including maps, art, music, magazines and more, and because it is so widely networked with partners across many sectors, we have been overwhelmed with possibilities for interpreting the collections and developing new projects. We were reluctant to limit potential by focusing on one subject such as history or one campaign such as literacy, yet as a small team we did need to focus. In 2002-3, some idealistic principles quickly emerged:

1) We would not operate too reactively. Developing the Learning programme would itself be a matter of principle and a form of research. All team members would try to do research. Bigger projects would be underpinned by professional or academic research.

2) We would not distance the Learning programme from the corporate direction and the core function as a research library. We might have decided to create an outreach unit, with a distinct identity from the Library (which had always been perceived as elitist). We might have decided only to work with the ‘museum’ created through the Library’s digital and real exhibitions of heritage treasures. However, as it happened, the Reading Rooms became open to a much wider range of readers. We also realised that mining the collections below its exhibitions would reveal more demotic and popular material (comics, sport fanzines, pop music and so on), and that the iconic items in our galleries (Magna Carta, Lindisfarne Gospels…) were not always so familiar or meaningful to young people.

3) We would balance and illuminate the historical with the contemporary, employing contemporary creative practitioners to explore the collections and facilitate others to learn with them.

4) We would focus on the individual, for example by exposing personal research paths through the collections, by respecting diverse interpretations of our collections and by looking for ways to support the idea of ‘personalised learning’.

We have hypothesised that Creative Research is a key to effective learning because it is about students taking control of their own learning, making it more relevant and productive, and opening it up to new ideas and stimuli. After 3 years of exploring Creative Research through artist-led projects and workshops, we have encountered a great deal of enthusiasm for this vision, but also a few challenges.

The crucial challenge is that we have not always found it easy to agree and explain what Creative Research is. Is it a niche part of ‘information literacy’ or is it a complete solution to obstacles to learning? Is it only accessible to gifted students or open to everyone? In making claims that it is the solution and that it is widely accessible, we have felt some pressure to raise our game and prove it. The success of Ultralab’s proves that disaffected or disadvantaged children can thrive if they are respected and called ‘researchers’ rather than pupils. I will describe some of our Creative Research ideas and projects that I hope will add to this evidence.

First, why don’t we just teach research skills? Why ‘creative’ research? What do we mean by creativity? By it we mean divergence, openness and imagination. The reason usually given for creativity in education is that the UK will need innovation and exploited intellectual property to flourish in a global economy. More compelling for us is that creativity is the opposite of caging and mechanising the person. Children who are not able to expand their horizons, for example because they have to do repetitive work or fight, are often said to be propelled fast to adulthood. In fact they are just dehumanised, neither fully adult nor child. We don’t want adults only capable of destruction and methodical work. Avoiding this gives us the impetus towards creativity in education, more than any economic or national reasons. Fundamentalism is an intellectual form of dehumanisation because it cages and mechanises the imagination. It negates the very abilities that separate us from animals:

  • to conceive a future
  • to communicate about things that are absent, using metaphors and abstractions
  • to imagine ourselves as others
  • to fabricate new solutions.

To be creative is to be as human as we can be.

Is Creative Research only concerned with research to support artistic products? It may seem so in that we mainly employ artists as educators. For example, our Pearson Creative Research Fellows explore the Library collections, sharing their research in workshops and by making a creative product. Artist and writer Rachel Lichtenstein produced a book and exhibition, ‘A Little Dust Whispered’; artist Ming Wong explored experimental drama in the Sound Archives and staged a performance ‘Homofonia’; playwright Diane Samuels is working on a manifesto for magic. When Creative Research feeds into an artistic product, if it is driven by questions (e.g. why did women wear corsets?) rather than simply data retrieval (e.g. ‘I need corset styles to authenticate a period drama’), the product will not be a commodity but will continue the dialogic process. For example, Rachel Lichtenstein worked with film-maker Chloe Ruthven and Muslim students from Quinton Kynaston school to research the differences within and between Islamic cultures. Communicating their discoveries and remaining questions about difference and commonality was the purpose of their film. Ming Wong supported the Silk Road Tales project, which explored exchanges between Turkic and Chinese cultures. With him, the participants gathered images and sounds from North London’s markets and sacred places to make video pieces that provoked questions about cultural trading.

The purpose of research (and learning) is to understand the world in order to change it. If Creative Research is seen only as data retrieval in the service of making better art, it denies the importance of learning and limits the scope of what art can do. Creative Research can expand arts-based education to be more engaged, harnessing art processes for enquiry into the complexities and problems of the world. In this expanded scope, it also applies to science, though its effects might be different in science. For example, a science or technology enquiry might be more engaged if its goal is the production of a device (invention, campaign, system…), or if artistic learners are allowed to present ideas more imaginatively. A Google search for the term Creative Research yields only references to science, to awards and projects that promote collaborative and visionary science. In other words, it isgood science, enhanced by divergent thinking. Science is inherently a form of enquiry with its disciplinary practices rooted in testing and hypothesis, and with its bodies of knowledge continually changing. When journalists cover debates about whether Intelligent Design should be taught alongside Evolution, they beg the question about how science is taught. If students use enquiry methods without ideological pressures, then they cannot be damaged by misguided or subversive theories. Ideas do not need to be censored in a culture of enquiry.

Creative Research is about transferable skills, primarily those that enable people to access and use knowledge in ways that take risks and make meanings. The ‘knowledge skills’ include:

  • Asking questions to find the most crucial problems
  • Dialogue with others: Listening to different views, imagining yourself as other, taking knowledge and questions from others
  • Dialogue with recorded knowledge: Reading texts, images, sounds and objects, including those that do not immediately yield their meanings
  • Testing your ideas with surveys, prototypes, experiments, and visualisations
  • Generating dialogue: Communicating your ideas to others through creative presentation (for example, by connoting rather than denoting meanings, by aiming to generate questions, or by telling stories.)

These skills are mainly about interacting with others. One of our principles is that we focus on the individual, but with the proviso that the individual learns by engaging continually in dialogue, that the individual can be changed by others’ knowledge whilst maintaining their integrity. Paolo Freire, in his model for a problem-posing education, suggests that enquiry in dialogic interaction with others is not unnatural, that it can be suppressed by education systems, but it does not need a great deal of encouragement to thrive: ‘For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world and each other.’ (P.53 ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ Penguin, 1st pub’d 1970.)

Academics might say research is the rigorous formation of new knowledge. Entrepreneurs or artists might see it as background, technical or market research for innovation and production. Librarians and teachers might say it is seeking information on a topic. The Old French source ‘recerchier’ means ‘to search closely’ and thus in dictionary definitions research is always thorough, rigorous, sustained and purposeful study. This chimes most with the academic definition. Is it possible for young people and non-academics to do research if this is what it is? Or, is it the case, as we like to believe, that a sustained quest inspired by an urgent question is what motivates anyone of any age to learn? However, to inspire people of different ages and intelligences to do research, some of the rules need to be broken and some of the language adapted. Guidance aimed at post-graduates, when research as a method is deemed to begin, emphasises rigour.
This is a typical model, found on

1. Research originates with a question or a problem.
2. Research requires a clear articulation of a goal.
3. Research follows a specific plan of procedure.
4. Research usually divides the principal problem into more manageable sub-problems.
5. Research is guided by the specific research problem, question, or hypothesis.
6. Research accepts certain critical assumptions. These assumptions are underlying theories or ideas about how the world works.
7. Research requires the collection and interpretation of data in attempting to resolve the problem that initiated the research.
8. Research is, by its nature, cyclical; or more exactly, spiral or helical.

This is a sound starting point. A Creative Research approach might expand it thus:
1. Research starts before the articulation of a question. It is important to acknowledge the value of what can be learned in the time it takes to find a problem. The more attention given to finding the problem, the more useful the research might be. Creative Researchers can be driven by ignorance and failure. They admit fallibility and expose what they don’t know, as this helps them seek answers from others.
2. The research process throws up many potential goals, applications or potential products. Although you need to focus on the best one, you also need to consider other spin-offs.
3. A specific plan of procedure might include trying multiple methods and being flexible enough to switch to a more effective procedure.
4. Research problems cannot always be divided into sub-problems that are more manageable than the over-arching question. These unmanageable sub-problems can often lead you astray. This might not always be a bad thing.
5. Research is guided by the specific question, undoubtedly, but it is also directed by the new discoveries made which in turn raise new questions. The trick is to find an originating question that is open enough to be swayed in this way. There can also be significant changes in the person or people conducting it (e.g. revelations or disputes) and or in the context around it (e.g. political research changing with current affairs), which means the original question has to be reviewed.
6. Challenging the critical assumptions on which the research is based can be fruitful, sometimes essential.
7. The data informing research can include personal feelings, hearsay, travel, sensory experiences and artworks and so on.
8. A Creative Researcher may be very alert to this helical process, enjoying (controlled!) perusal of tangents.

Some might challenge this to say that all these creative diversions make the research process even harder and less controlled for young people. Perhaps this is true, but our projects only stretch aspects of this expanded model. Also, they rely on fully engaged educators who plan intensively and support children to feel safe and to play with challenging ideas.

Reading Patterns summer schools are a good example of this. They have been offered to 40 children aged 8-9 from Camden primary schools over the past 3 years. Each week’s course is intensively facilitated by four or five artists. Despite most of these being visual artists, it is made clear to the children that they won’t be making finished personal art works. The artists are employed as problem-posers to help the children use patterns in order to think and analyse the world. All the exploration of ideas is achieved through activities in which patterns are sought and made in words and images. The educators’ questions are implicit in the activities and the children’s questions that spring from the activities are made overt. The questions that might arise include:
How does this pattern contrast with that? How does this link with that? Can I find patterns in unexpected places? Can I find patterns in the Library’s collection items? How can I make a pattern? Can I make a game with patterns? Can you always read a pattern to find meanings? Are those meanings in the pattern or in my head? Do other people read them the same way? Do patterns in nature have an intention? Where do natural patterns stop and manmade patterns begin? Why would I make a pattern? Why do some cultures illustrate their books with patterns but not with representational images? Do these patterns mean anything? Can we find patterns in our behaviour, in our relationships, in the places we make, in our different languages or in the stories we tell? Which of these patterns are common and which are rare or unique?
Most importantly, the children are helped to think about their own learning: Can I use this pattern-finding skill to explore any subject? This skill is the starting point for doing research.

Another project, Young Explorers, makes research accessible by minimising ‘book learning’ and emphasising physical exploration of the urban environment, looking for clues in it, for example to explore how history is layered in it and how people affect it.
Young Explorers emerges from the practice of ‘geocaching’ which is an international leisure pursuit, comparable to a high-tech treasure hunt, using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and the Internet. As part of a global network, individuals and groups create and hide themed ’caches’, publish clues as to their whereabouts and then use these clues alongside GPS technology to follow the trails and uncover the caches. Young Explorers is exploring the creative potential of this activity by engaging and motivating young people (13 -18) through creative research and practice. Three projects have run so far: Autumn 2004, with White Hart Lane School, Haringey; Spring 2005, with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School for Girls, Islington; Autumn 2005, with South Camden Community School. The projects are led by digital artist and researcher, Rebecca Sinker, and artist Lottie Child. Elizabeth Garrett Andersen students explored a British Library exhibition about literature and gardens, and explored King’s Cross as a regenerating environment. They found gardens and wastelands, and planted bulbs that would flower in the Spring. South Camden students have been exploring the Library’s Sound Archive and Lottie’s sound art works. They have recorded their own sound art into sound pads that can be ‘cached’ or hidden in the environment. You can find the co-ordinates for these tours on One principle of Geocaching is exchange – you are invited to leave a comment, an object or another question, so in itself it becomes a metaphor for dialogic and creative research.

Creative Research projects are underpinned by an assumption that cultures are complex, situated and formed through exchange. Although it is important to support young people to ask their own questions which might emerge from given ideas about cultural identity, we would aim to model open forms of questioning. For example, rather than ‘what is the definitive Islamic style?’ we would ask ‘is there a definitive Islamic style?’ and guide them to explore the weaving of particular contexts.

Inside Story has raised questions for us about the interaction of story and context. It is funded by DCMS National Regional Museum Education Partnerships and we are working with Yorkshire Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the University of York. Primary schools in Leeds, York and Rotherham are working with storytellers Sally Pomme Clayton and Pamela Marr to explore stories in cultural contexts drawing on visual sources from the Library’s collection. These include the Golden Haggadah (an illustrated Jewish sacred text), images from the Ramayana (the epic of Rama & Sita) and the Shahnama (Persian Epic of Kings). Immersive Media Spaces are designers who have worked to a brief developed by the school children to create a highly visual and sensual installation that is currently touring the three cities. Visitors are having encounters not so much with the entire epics or books, or their background cultures, but are enticed themselves to explore the stories and cultures through key images, characters or symbols that mattered to the children.

In any Creative Research project, it is important to assess the balance of the ‘intratextual’ and the ‘extratextual’. How much are you using knowledge of cultural background to interpret a text or how much are you using sources to understand a culture (or even, going beyond this, to solve a contemporary problem)? The sources are important because they provide specific, situated and multivalent information, but we also try to avoid sources being interpreted too much in isolation, with children making only personal associations and not encouraged to dig into cultural context. An initial response to a text or work of art is a creative starting point for making an interpretation, not an interpretation in itself. This can only come about through a process of dialogue, enriched with play and making, stretched by a big question, and this in a nutshell is Creative Research.


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