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Durham University

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Mapping transformation: contemporary art as a learning metaphor

A research project of the School of Education.


This Participatory Action Research contributes to an emerging field in exploring the potential of contemporary art (art of our time) in gallery education. Contemporary art offers a typical lack of imposed narrative, permitting the referencing of personal life-worlds which we apply in using works of art as ‘keys to understanding’ (Efland 2002). Dealing with metaphor, art necessitates cognitive breakthroughs, going beyond the given and compelling us to do the same in our own thought. 


The project is funded by the following grant.

  • Mapping Transformation: Contemporary Art As Learning Metaphor (£9093.00 from The British Academy)


Situated in Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, this project focuses on how contemporary art-works can be used as metaphors for and in learning, in order to ‘transform’ the learning of 10 Year 4 children. A ‘transformation’ is expected through nurturing and applying metaphoric thought to the consideration of personal learning, leading to metacognition and extended aspiration. Within a gallery-based community of enquiry, contemporary art stimulates and provides an externalised focus for thought and discussion. The nature of the context allows ideas to be shared visually, overcoming barriers imposed by prose and supporting the ‘voice’ of young children.

The research and the resulting ‘map’ of the transformation process will be valuable not only for arts educators but in a wide range of other contexts. The research will support ‘learning in’ and ‘learning through’ art (Fleming 2012). The results will be shared in a seminar for art educators at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and in an exhibition in Baltic’s learning space. In addition, a number of academic papers are planned. Initially these will be presented at the following conferences: European Conference for Education Research 2014: 'Developing Participatory Action Research in Gallery Education', European Association for Research in Learning and Instruction, SIG 16 Metacognition Conference 2014: ‘Developing Metacognitive Awareness through Contemporary Art. Additionally, there will be a paper: ‘The Value of Creating Learning Metaphors through Contemporary Art’. These papers will be developed for publication in the following journals, Action Research Journal, Creativity and Thinking Skills Journal, International Journal for Art and Design Education, respectively. 


The research will result in a set of case studies; drawn on to ‘map’ the process of transformation which is expected to result from using contemporary art as learning metaphor. Participatory Action Research includes the children, gallery staff, teachers, artist and Research Associate as partners. ‘Visual methods’ are used to capture data generated through the learning experience, which, combined with observational data (photographs and video), will undergo grounded theory analysis.


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