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Art, research, education


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Action research project: discovering that glazing is amazing, introduction


Glazing is amazing, but the process can be time-consuming and hard to grasp for the beginner. I wanted to make it easier and faster for students to discover the potential decorative intricacies of glazes, and to help them have a sense of satisfaction with their finished work.

This action research arose from the following:

  • The nature of the three day taught week and increased demand for autodidactic style learning has given me empathy with the students, for the part time structure that the Foundation course has become.
  • The comments of a student in Foundation at Wimbledon who told me that at one of the BA courses she had applied to, the first term was spent doing only tests and experiments. She felt that this must be a good practice as she thought it would help her better understand the very complex nature of the ceramic process and glaze decoration. The student was wondering why we didn’t do more of this at Foundation.
  • To prevent wasted resources and the usual accumulation of unglazed work from the taster sessions in the first term referred to in my profile for unit 1.
  • My own difficulty with understanding the glaze tiles resource when I first arrived at Wimbledon, and the way I was taught—melting raw ingredients and then trying to figure out why a glaze worked in a particular way, which is analogous to learning how to bake a cake by cooking all the ingredients separately.

The action research question I came up with is as follows:

“If I encourage the use of tests and experiments, will this enhance the learning experience of my students, and if so, how?”

I made a presentation to my tutor group about my idea and I received positive feedback from my peers. In response to the question: “How clearly has the author stated the focus and scope of the project?” one of my colleagues said: “it was specific to lack of tutor contact hours and students’ comments about lack of formal teaching.” When asked about the significant impact on the students’ behaviour, the same colleague said it would “mean that they would take more responsibility for their own learning.”

I would have preferred the intervention to happen in the first term taster sessions, or right at the start of the second term when the students would be starting their main area subject, not in the final term, when the pressures of deadlines were increased.

After analysing the results, I concluded that encouraging tests did help enhance student learning, and during feedback discussions, it had the unintended outcome of also encouraging peer learning. The amount of unglazed work left over at the end of this year was minimal compared to previous years. My understanding of the action research results has boosted my own self-esteem.

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Action research project: intervention


  • To help understand how the thickness of a glaze alters its appearance, I provided a template (see appendix 1) and a workshop discussion about how to read the glaze test tiles.
  • To encourage testing, I provided tiles of various clay types ready for glaze testing and I made laminated guidance notes on glazing (see appendix 2). I notified students of kiln firing schedules in advance by putting a chart of scheduled firings on the kiln room door.
  • I informed the student group and staff about the innovations and explained that I was doing this as part of my own studies.

After the workshop discussion about glaze tests and the information one can gain when one knows how to read them, the students gave feedback that I then acted on. As a result, I felt that the emphasis of the research project changed. Not only were the students doing glaze tests, they were also helping each other with these and other ceramic techniques.

The peer learning part of the project occurred for the same reasons as the glaze testing. During a group discussion on glaze test results, I suggested the chart of techniques under which people could sign up if they felt they were confident enough to be able to answer questions or show someone how to do a particular thing. For example, make a mold or perform a glaze test. (See appendix 3)

Evaluating the project, I used recordings of discussions, a short questionnaire, and my personal observations and reflections. By inviting discussions of glaze test results with the student peer group, (see appendix 4) I hoped to show:

  • An increased understanding of the way the thickness of application can totally change the appearance of the same glaze;
  • Realisation of the decorative potential and further testing of glazes; and
  • The possibility of students’ standardised tests becoming part of the glaze tile resource.

As part of my approach towards all resources, and because it is useful to perform tests on work with a vertical aspect to see the movement of glaze (“drips”), I encouraged the use of unglazed pieces left behind by previous students. I observed that those students who had experienced transformative learning during the course used vocabulary and language akin to an expert in the field. The questions being asked by students were indicative of an understanding of the glazing process compared to previous comments, which revealed total confusion about this process. The ability to understand this difference is a threshold concept in ceramics. Understanding the difference makes the learner realise the complexities and opens up the subject for further exploration.

By encouraging the sharing of their test results with the group and generating discussions in an informal way, many students were able to increase their confidence and knowledge of glaze techniques, learn from each other, and feel comfortable asking questions or making suggestions.


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Action research project: background


I am the Ceramic and General Technician at Wimbledon College of Art, on the Foundation Diploma in Art and Design course. I am solely responsible for the ceramic studio, and my general responsibilities are shared across all subject areas with the technical team. I have been working two days a week since 2006.

I am concerned about cuts in education throughout the country. Ceramics courses are closing down across the UK. Over the last 10-15 years, three ceramic degrees in England have closed. Since the article about ceramic course closures, four more ceramic degrees courses in London Camberwell, Chelsea and Harrow (http://ceramicreview.blogspot.com/2008/12/save-harrow-ceramics.html)

and Glasgow, have closed. (http://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/about-us/press-room/view/2009/briefing-notes-number-one)

I am equally concerned that students at Foundation level have two days a week of self study, which provides the study environment, but does not actually offer any teaching.

This past year at Wimbledon there has been a cut in ceramic tutor hours from two days a week in 2008-2009 to one day a week in 2009-2010. My working hours have actually increased, as I am doing an extra day as a general technician while my colleague is on sabbatical. This has meant an increase in the number of kiln firings per week, and more contact time with both students and colleagues. Although I work in the general workshop on my extra day, it is physically opposite the ceramics studio, so if a ceramic student needs my help they can access me easily.

Because the study day for the PG Cert course is on a Friday, I have changed my working day to Thursday for the duration of the course. This has given me a whole new perspective, because the majority of students attend on Thursdays, whereas on Fridays attendance is not very high because of the concept of self study, and because some students work to support themselves.

My main concern, (apart from helping students realise their creative potential), was that more than the usual two students would choose ceramics as a final subject area at Foundation and at degree level.

The time required to produce a finished piece of ceramic work is longer than the two-week taster project length, so students have often moved to their next subject taster and do not complete the glazing of their work. As student 4 pointed out: “by the time we think about glazes it’s too late.”

I wanted to help students to start thinking about the final finish and glaze before “it’s too late.” In order to complete their work, they have to find time out from their next project to return to the ceramic studio and do the glazing. This is too difficult for most students, hence the accumulation of unglazed work at the end of the first term.

The anticipation of the final appearance of the glaze on a piece of work in Grayson Perry’s view, is “ always a disappointment.” (Perry, G. 2010) Occasionally, the kiln does something unexpected and “gifts” a glaze result that one could not have imagined even after years of tests. I have referred to these as “kiln gifts” in my previous profiles. Grayson Perry concludes: “It is only when other people admire the work that one feels better about it.” (Perry. G. 2010)

All the students at Foundation are encouraged to use a wide variety of materials and techniques, which form a part of their self- and summative assessment. (Appendix 5) I agree with Grayson Perry when he says “creativity is in the process.” (Perry. G. 2010)

Plate 1

Charts of stains and slip ceramic colours on slip-cast custard cream biscuits

Plate 1a: slip chart

Plate 1b: stains chart

Glazes are just part of the decorative potential of ceramics. I made charts of simpler-to-use colours (See Plate 1 stain and slips above) that look much the same before the kiln firing as after. They are similar in behaviour to using watercolour paint, and therefore more likely to be used by students who are less prepared to take risks, or who want a particular outcome and who may not make, experiment, or understand how to use glazes. The tutor Annie Turner usually demonstrates decorative techniques using these colours during the first term taster sessions.

Plate 2

Examples of final works by students using slips and stains, decorative colours

Plate 2a: student 2, final piece

Plate 2b: student 5, final piece

Plate 2c: ceramic student, final piece

I had considerable difficulty learning about glazes and glazing. It has always been a challenge. Providing learning resources such as standardised examples of glazed tiles makes this process easier for the students to learn about the application of glazes, to realise the glazing possibilities, and for myself to teach.

The glaze tile resource at Foundation was disorganised when I started my job at Wimbledon four years ago. The tiles were not labelled and they were haphazardly arranged, rendering them dysfunctional as a learning resource. On my arrival, I was encouraged by the tutor to familiarise myself with the glazes. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the prospect, so I agree with the student who responded: “it’s quite daunting” when I asked if the standardised test tiles were inspiring during a group discussion.

The more practice one acquires at glazing, the better at it one becomes. It is productive to break the process down into small chunks of information that can be easily understood. The glazes are handmade in the studio from raw materials that resemble varying shades of white powders. They have to be accurately weighed and sieved. By spending time on the glaze process, students can begin to discover the infinite decorative possibilities outlined in my presentation of my Action Research Proposal. (see 1001 cups)


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Action research project: literature review


Action research is a method of “enquiry into the self by the self.” (McNiff, J. 2002). From http://www.jeanmcniff.com/ar-booklet.asp

Jean McNiff, (2002)  states, “A useful way to think about action research is that it is a strategy to help you live in a way that you feel is a good way. It helps you live out the things you believe in, and it enables you to give good reasons every step of the way.”

The method is to identify an aspect you want to investigate, plan an intervention, try out the plan, evaluate the results, reflect on them, and then identify the next step from the questions or problems generated by the last cycle. This is a life-learning process.


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Action research project: the creative process and learning through mistakes


The phenomenon of the motivational forces that appear to spur artists to engage in artistic production have been noted and described in various ways. Lee Emery collates these descriptions in his article Believing in Artistic Making and Thinking. (Emery, L. 1989) Piaget (1952) referred to “disequilibrium as providing a force for thinking,” while G.M. Mead (1934) referred to “impulse as a disturbance of equilibrium.” Ross (1978) described it as “The antagonistic principle” and stated: “The creative individual enters into a contest which involves some pain.” Ross also wrote about the artist as seeking to resolve “some felt disturbance.” Ross (1978). Ross perceived the artistic process as involving risk and difficulty. Earlier, Dewey described it as a form of enquiry, beginning with a “felt difficulty.” Dewey (1910, p. 72) Dewey also stated: “The artist has his problems and thinks as he works.”

Langer (1959) contended that when the artist works in empathy

with the artistic process, the “very fibres of the body are affected.”

Grayson Perry has a motto above his studio door that reads: “Creativity is mistakes” and in his opinion, it is “the thing that is so difficult to deal with.” (Perry. G. 2010) In my opinion, creativity means allowing for mistakes to be of use. This was beautifully illustrated by student 3’s final showpiece made of paper porcelain and lining a rusty exhaust pipe that was cut in half.

Plate 3

Student 3 final piece

Plate 3: student 3, final piece

The work was built absolutely straight and I propped all but two places, where, during the firing, it slumped outwards. One place exactly matched a rusted part. For the other, we had to bend the pipe in order for it to fit snugly. The student was disappointed with the piece because she expected it to be straight. However I thought the piece had wabi sabi and was a “kiln gift.” The student’s acceptance of the “mistakes” was the hardest part for her to deal with. To ensure her piece would stay straight, it could be propped all the way along. Conversely, to make one which slumps in exactly the right places would now be possible because of the learning gained from this experience. My own learning also increased because of this “mistake.”

In response to my Action Research Questionnaire, students made their own observations on learning through mistakes: “Being able to try and experiment something out for myself really helped me to learn by trial and error.” And “I found it extremely useful. It was nice to be able to learn from my own mistakes and get some really interesting results.” These observations support Danvers’ (2003) conclusion of the importance of learning through failure.


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Action research project: peer learning


I was interested to find out if I could encourage peer learning by providing a list that people sign when they are confident that they can teach someone else a particular technique. Boud (2004) noted that reciprocal peer learning can help a student develop a transferable skill of peer collaboration that will extend into their lifelong learning and professional development. I agree with this statement. We do not live in isolation we are all increasingly more connected. Collaboration and the ability to share and help another person in their endeavours is a useful life skill.


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Action research project: feedback


“If students discuss feedback on their assignments, in class, they are more likely to think about it and take it seriously.” (Rust et al, 2003) The Foundation programme includes a group project in order to facilitate Rust’s statement.

In relation to collaborative and shared learning, I initially agreed with the statement “Sharing tacit knowledge requires interaction and informal learning processes such as storytelling, conversation, coaching and apprenticeship.” (Wenger et al. 2002) until I realised that the model was co-opted by companies such as Procter and Gamble the makers of disposable nappies. I now agree with Grayson Perry when he concludes that “creativity needs to be reassessed, creativity drives the capitalist monster that is killing the planet and creativity has overstepped the mark and we need to contain it.” (Perry. G. 2010)