Socially Engaged Art and Pedagogical Practice: Parameters, Practices and Policies in the Formation of Teachers, Artists and Educators

Gary Granville & Nuala Hunt  |  Nuala Hunt is Head of Continuing Education and Joint Coordinator of MA Socially Engaged Art (Further, Adult and Community Education), NCAD.   |   Gary Granville is Head of the School of Education, NCAD.

Higher education in Ireland is undergoing major structural, policy, and funding reform. Education providers must grapple with a range of reports, and initiatives designed to revise and re-configure the landscape of higher education.  This reform agenda has been described by the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority as one of ‘directed diversity’ (Boland, 2011). Reduced state funding is explicitly employed as leverage in the implementation of change, being increasingly conditional on collaboration, amalgamation or merger between education providers. Art and design education and teacher education providers are among the sectors most immediately and dramatically impacted upon by this policy.    

The non-formal practices of adult, community and further education (FE) have grown in status and visibility. The FE sector has been a natural home for many artists and designers in recent decades. However, parallel with major reform of higher education, the Teaching Council of Ireland has introduced new protocols for teaching in the Further Education sector, an area previously neglected and marginalised.

These external pressures have generated a process of research, reflection and dialogue in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) leading to a new MA in Socially Engaged Art as it intersects Further, Adult and Community Education. This has yielded conceptual and theoretical challenges. These include (1) the risk of negating the valuable qualities of learning in informal contexts through the colonisation of the community sector by formal schooling norms; (2) the opportunity to create a space where pedagogy and art meet; (3) the presentation of lifelong learning as a process of personal development and empowerment, not defined simply by credentials or employability.

Policy developments in Irish higher education

In recent years policy developments within higher education in Ireland have been shaped by a number of reports and consultation documents most notably the ‘National strategy for higher education to 2030’(DES 2011).  The National Strategy document presents Irish higher education in a transitional phase, as it faces multiple challenges of an economic, cultural and social dimension.  The report calls for transformation within and across higher education if it is to continue to grow and sustain itself in a national context where resources are significantly reduced and the emphasis is on recovering economic competitiveness. It is also recommended that higher education be reformed and proposed that smaller institutions should be consolidated, with greater coherency across higher education generally. 

For NCAD such themes are relevant to its future strategic development particularly as a small, discipline based institution providing art and design education. In 2010, NCAD initiated a strategic alliance with University College Dublin (UCD), one of the largest third level providers in the state. The School of Education has engaged at a number of levels in responding to external developments. A recent international review of initial teacher education in Ireland (Sahlberg 2012) proposed significant restructuring of current provision, so as to ensure  that teacher education was university-based, research-led and consolidated within a relatively small number of providers, providing critical mass. The recommendations included a reduction from nineteen to six providers across the entire country. As a consequence NCAD, is involved in a collaborative Institute of Education with TCD, UCD and Marino Institute of Education.

Further Education and Socially Engaged practice

Since 2013, individuals teaching within further education are required to have a recognised teaching qualification in further education.  The organisation regulating standards for the teaching profession in Ireland, the Teaching Council, has developed guidelines for higher education providers who are intending to offer further education teaching qualifications. This initiative intended to regulate and establish standards for further education teaching. The arrival of new further teacher education qualifications presents challenges and opportunities for artists and educators, not least of which is to encourage a more expansive understanding of where teaching practice might be conducted other than in traditional school settings. 

In Ireland further education is not easily defined, it has grown organically. Further education is characterised by diversity, inclusive of vocational schooling, training, adult and non-formal, community based education. Typically further education is sandwiched between post-primary education and third level. There is a range of providers, and programmes within the FE sector, all of which are now regulated through a single body QQI.

Many artists and arts educators have found employment either casual or permanent within further education. The proposed changes to regulations governing professional practice in further teacher education have impacted on existing practices. These developments have presented the School of Education at NCAD with opportunities and challenges in terms of the preparation of teachers, artist’s educators and socially engaged practitioners.

The introduction of a ‘new’ teaching qualification in further education poses interesting challenges for higher education providers in relation to teaching practice, teacher identity and teacher formation. For instance if further education is more than vocational education occurring within school contexts, should new further teacher education programmes go beyond traditional concepts of schooling and associated educational theories, to include learning and teaching occurring in informal, community based contexts? Is it possible that such situations might constitute suitable sites for teaching practice? If community and non-formal spaces are accepted as sites for student teachers to engage with as professional practitioners, what are the implications for professional bodies such as the Teaching Council, educational providers and arts educators?

NCAD School of Education

The NCAD School of Education operates on the principle that art teacher education is not centrally concerned with the teaching of art, or teaching about art but rather is expressly committed to teaching through art (NCAD, 2012). While this necessarily involves developing learners’ understanding of, insights into and applications of the elements of art, the skills and processes involved, the histories and traditions associated with art and so on, the essential orientation of the Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programmes are towards the understanding of art practice as inherently pedagogical in itself.

In the sphere of adult and further education, the educational role of art can be seen to be fundamentally concerned with an enhanced concept of citizenship, empowering the learners to chart their own learning and thereby find their own role in the world. The traditional structures of primary and post-primary education have tended to be presented as restrictive, controlling and homogenising. Adult and further education, by contrast, sets out to be transformative. In the words of Mezirow (1999):

The focus of the educator is on facilitating a continuing process of critical enquiry wherever it leads the learner. There are no ‘anticipated learning outcomes’ in transformative learning.

One of the paradoxical strengths of the adult and further sector in Ireland was its lack of centralised control. A feature that is likely to change following reform of the bodies charged with validating programmes (QQI) and providers (ETB’s). The ethos of adult and further education, however, is embedded in the discourse of empowerment, of devolved authority and of local autonomy. Systems of accountability, performance indicators and benchmarks have the effect of constraining all local decision-making within relatively petty and inconsequential matters. In this environment, adult and further education succeeded in maintaining its ethos of localised response to localised needs. 

The formation of socially engaged arts practitioners; pedagogy and practice

NCAD School of Education recognises socially engaged art practice as an inherently pedagogical activity. Artist Pablo Helguera has coined the term ‘trans-pedagogy’ (Helguerra, 2010) to describe the process of socially engaged art practices that blend educational processes and art-making to provide a transformative experience for the learner.

Often within school based contexts the approach to art making that is adopted relies on conforming to established norms and meeting the requirements of state examination systems.  In FE contexts where socially engaged arts practitioners can locate them-selves, the emphasis is on supporting a divergent approach that meets individual needs, across a range of different sites that do not conform to conventional outcomes.

The new specifications for teaching in the Further Education sector carry many positive resonances. There is a sense of fulfilment, of recognition of the hitherto loosely defined and frequently under-valued educational experiences of adults, of adolescents and of community-based groups. However, concerns were also noted by many arts-practitioners, including members in the school of education at NCAD. These concerns related to the performativity, standardisation and potentially formulaic reductionism that can frequently be discerned in the templates and criteria of national specifications.

There is a creative tension between the orientation of art education towards divergence, and the tendency of regulatory bodies such as the Teaching Council, towards convergence. The process of changing the curriculum at NCAD, highlighted the difficulties that arise when attempting to recognise the values inherent to socially engaged arts practices while at the same time negotiating with regulating bodies such as the Teaching Council. 

When establishing the new MA Socially Engaged Art, a comprehensive review process was embarked upon to assess the viability of a range of options including; developing a single, dedicated teacher-education programme, modelled on the Professional Diploma in Education (PDE) or alternatively embracing the wider concept of socially-engaged practice, moving beyond its relationship to further education. As part of the review, an external research report was commissioned from a leading practitioner in socially engaged art practice (Murphy 2012). The outcome is a new MA programme that sets out to provide a different form of professional preparation for practitioners who want to immerse themselves in a trans-disciplinary enquiry at the intersection socially engaged arts practice and further, adult and community education.


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