The Cultural Learning Ecology in Harrow

Building on the key ideas of our upcoming report, Towards Cultural Democracy: Promoting Cultural Capabilities for Everyone, Dr. Jonathan Gross and Dr. Nick Wilson have been commissioned by A New Direction (AND) to undertake a research project investigating The Cultural Learning Ecology in Harrow.

A New Direction are London’s leading cultural education agency. Part of their work in recent years has been to support the development of Cultural Education Partnerships, with the aim of bringing about “a more coherent and visible delivery of cultural education”. These partnerships have typically involved collaborations between arts organisations and schools, alongside, in some cases, local authorities.

However, as we explored in detail through the Get Creative Research Project, creative opportunities not only take place through the most visible sites and organisations – such schools and arts organisations – but also in many cases through the informal or ‘invisible’ locations of everyday creativity.

In this light, and in the context of John Holden’s work on cultural ecologies that our Get Creative research builds on, AND are keen to better understand what the current and potential relationships are between schools, arts organisations and everyday sites of creativity – in order to inform an expanded approaches to cultural education partnerships.

This research is focusing on one outer London borough, Harrow. AND has selected Harrow as a location with particularly interesting possibilities for exploring whether new kinds of partnership in support of cultural learning are possible, and potentially valuable. Building on the conceptual and methodological approaches we have developed over recent months, through our work with AND we are investigating what the cultural learning ecology currently looks like in this one borough, and how this ecology might be actively developed in the future – expanding young people’s creative choices and opportunities.

We are employing a variety of research instruments to do this. One reason for employing a combination of methods is that the inherent complexity of an ‘ecology’ requires it to be studied from multiple perspectives. In addition to this, however, one of the aims of the research is to develop insights regarding how cultural learning ecologies can best be studied and understood in the future. This isn’t a parochial methodological question. It is only by knowing how cultural learning ecologies can be studied and understood that this expanded, ecological approach to cultural opportunity can be effectively operationalised – providing the basis for new kinds partnership building, information-sharing and effective change-making. This can be illustrated by noting the position of this methodological issue within our five closely interlinked research questions:

  1. Which cultural activities and interests are valuable to young people in Harrow and why?
  2. What kinds of creative citizenship are young people involved in – making ‘versions of culture’, and creating cultural opportunities for themselves and others?
  3. Is it possible to identify key aspects of cultural learning ecologies in Harrow?
  4. How should cultural learning ecologies be investigated – which methods are most useful?
  5. What kinds of intervention, if any, would support healthier, more democratic cultural learning ecologies in Harrow?

The five methods we are employing are:

  • Semi-structured interviews with a range of adults involved in providing cultural opportunities in the borough (including council staff, teachers, head teachers, and youth workers)
  • Semi-structured interviews, focus groups and cultural ‘diaries’ with children and young people
  • Two surveys, one completed by secondary school children and one completed by the parents of primary school children
  • Ethnographic visits to sites of cultural practice in the borough
  • Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) workshops

These ABCD workshops will provide the opportunity to share provisional findings with a range of research participants in the borough. Most importantly, the workshops will bring this group together to reflect on what the implications of our findings are – discussing what new partnerships, information-sharing and other actions might be developed in response new understanding of how young people’s cultural lives currently develop in Harrow, and how they might develop in the future.

This research builds directly on the conceptual foundations laid in our report, Towards Cultural Democracy: Promoting Cultural Capabilities for All. The findings and ideas established in that report are intended to lay the groundwork for future policy and practice. Through our collaboration with AND and our partners in Harrow, this project not only has the potential to inform the expansion of cultural opportunities for young people within one London borough. It also demonstrates ways in which an action research approach of this kind – seeking to understand and increase cultural opportunity, through an ecological investigation – can work in practice.

– Dr. Jonathan Gross & Dr. Nick Wilson, May 2017

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