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New Connections: Creating International Landscapes of Practice through the Expressive Arts

Updated: May 26, 2022

On the 26th April 2022 we visited colleagues in the University of Iceland for our first face-to-face meeting as part of a three-year Erasmus+ funded project, arted. Our project aims to transfer the knowledge of artists working in education to school and home contexts. The project involves a wide range of expressive artists practicing our six EU partner countries in order to produce interactive guides which will support teachers, trainee teachers and parents and carers to engage in creative arts practices with young people. The project is particularly interested in the links between young people’s wellbeing and creative arts learning processes. It draws from empirical evidence that engagement in the creative arts can support children to feel a greater sense of critical agency and connection, impacting on their wellbeing and critical thinking (Stephenson and Dobson, 2019, Stephenson 2022). This is set against a policy landscape which for most EU countries (except Iceland) marginalises opportunities for the creative arts (Wyse and Ferrari, 2015). What was unusual about this first meeting is that the project is already halfway through with all prior meetings taking place online as the pandemic restricted the opportunity for any face-to-face meetings.

As we approached landing at the airport in Reykjavik, I felt a sense of nervous energy. The landscape from the plane window seemed to resemble the surface of the moon! A vast unfamiliar and barren looking landscape in sludgy hues of grey and green. The landscape was open as far as the eye could see with dark mounds of lava rock protruding. The sky seemed to merge with the land.

During the first day we were able to explore the landscape of the golden circle, characterised by waterfalls, shooting geysers, volcanoes, black sand beaches and otherworldly steaming lava fields. Iceland’s connection with its landscape was felt in every aspect of our experiences there, no more so than the inky blue night skies which seemed to envelop us as we walked to and from the University of Iceland. Our Icelandic colleagues recounted their pride in these connections with the landscape through oral stories of community, and their 100% use of geothermal energy.

These connections of place were also felt by us, as visitors. They can be described as embodied experiences (Ellingson, 2017), a holistic awareness and understanding of being in the world through our bodies. Embodiment is seen as an active component of our experience and meaning making and embodied learning as the way in which we actively experience the world. This is shaped by culture, our environment and circumstances. Embodiment is also amplified through engagement with creative arts pedagogy which activates our emotional sensibilities in unique ways. For that reason, the creative arts are powerful ways to make meaning of the personal, social and cultural.

During our time together, the consortium shared a workshop on story making which used drama and creative arts pedagogy to explore narratives, emotions and dilemmas. These shared experiences too, were underpinned by holistic and embodied learning. In both my own and Jona’s workshop we used pictures, objects and materials to respond to each other and explore drama narratives. As a collective, we were constantly responding with and to each other through the playful use of multimodal techniques and expressions. Multimodal is defined as meaning making through linguistic, visual, audio and spatial modes of communication (Branscombe and Schneider, 2013). These modes of communication became a form of ‘intercultural dialogue’ between us, essential for creating a sense of community, participation and connection across cultures and languages as we created shared understanding through the drama workshops. Intercultural dialogue is a term used by UNESCO and the European Union and engenders intercultural communication and understanding in order to promote mutual respect (Holmes, 2014).

Some colleagues in the group who were not artist educators, reflected afterwards that they now understood what we were doing pedagogically in the project in a way that they could not grasp beforehand. This was particularly in relation to ethical principles which underpin our creative artists pedagogy such as collective creativity and change making. These creative workshop structures will frame the artist educator practices that we share through the final resource outputs. The active experience of making together was essential for us all to create new understandings and connections as we become a community of practice.

Critically reflecting on the creative arts pedagogy that we are advocating in schools and communities, it is worth returning to the notion of ‘disembodied learning’ (O’Conner and Aitken, 2014) and asking ourselves what is lost for learners if we focus too heavily on prescriptive learning which is not relational. As a consortium of artist educators, we are co-creating open access creative arts resources for teachers and communities in order to bring the creative arts back into curriculum and policy. Working together through embodiment reminded us of how these ways of experiencing and being in the world are essential to making new cultural meanings. The learning promotes community, compassion, connection and understanding. Through Covid 19, the possibility of engaging face-to-face was often interrupted by online learning. Research (James et al, 2021) shows that during Covid-19 young people’s mental health and wellbeing was affected by lack of social interaction. This research also concluded that creativity and cultural experiences are fundamental to the lives of young people and school culture and should be an essential part of the return to in-school education. It was heartening to see that despite these areas of learning being eroded through both much of EU and UK education policy and the global pandemic, the Icelandic Curriculum (2014) incorporates these ethics through a policy focus on 6 fundamental pillars of education namely: creativity, sustainability, literacy, health and welfare, democracy and human rights and equality. A section from the curriculum policy document reads:

“The fundamental pillars refer to social, cultural, environmental and ecological literacy so that children and youth may develop mentally and physically, thrive in society and cooperate with others. The fundamental pillars also refer to a vision of the future, ability and will to influence and be active in maintaining society, change it and develop” (Icelandic National Curriculum p14.)

This commitment to holistic education through inclusion of creativity and relational learning is evident in the university teacher training building which has dedicated state of the art rooms for each of the creative arts areas. Indeed, the expressive arts encompass 30-40% of our Icelandic colleagues' initial teacher education courses, in stark contrast to other narrow policy across Europe and England. It is an alarming reminder of the ways in which policy can enable or disable opportunities for creative arts relational learning. Much like the ‘cairn’ or stone piles which are used as markers to show the way along the numerous paths that crisscrossed the Icelandic landscape, the Icelandic Curriculum seems to place values at its heart - showing us the importance of framing education in this way. The sharing of international education policy contexts with our initial teacher education students offers a critical lens to reflect on our own policy context as teachers, researchers and artists. Perhaps offering the possibility of new pedagogical landscapes.

Following the meeting, our partners CESIE conducted a quality evaluation with partners and 100% agreed that the aims of the project were clear, “It was fruitful, playful and safe as it is supposed to be (not just in paper but also in practice)” there was a “co-creative atmosphere” and “the meeting succeeded in enriching their visions and fostered a personal and professional development.” Our teacher, parent and teacher educators open access resources will be piloted across next academic year. Finally, in returning to the sensory and embodied experience of place, we are also grateful to our colleagues and Icelandic hosts for introducing us to an Icelandic delicacy - liquorish ice cream!

(UK team: Dr Tom Dobson, Ana Sanches de Arede, Tom Jordan, Dr Lisa Stephenson)


  • Branscombe, M.& Schneider, J. J. 2013. Embodied discourse: Using tableau to explore pre-service teachers’ reflections and activist stances. Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 9(1), 95-113

  • Holmes, P., 2014. Intercultural dialogue: challenges to theory, practice and research. Language and Intercultural Communication, 14(1), pp.1-6.

  • Icelandic National Curriculum (2012)

  • James, S.J., Houston, A., Newton, L., Daniels, S., Morgan, N., Coho, W., Ruck, A. and Lucas, B., 2019, 2021. Durham commission on creativity and education.

  • O’Connor, P. and Aitken, V., 2014. Arts education: Being awake in the world. SB St. George & A, O'Neill (Eds.), Facing the big questions in teaching: Purpose, power and learning, pp.11-19.

  • Stephenson, L; Rewilding Curriculum: Creative-Critical thinking in the Primary Classroom (2022)

  • Stephenson, L., Daniel, A. and Storey, V., 2022. Weaving critical hope: story making with artists and children through troubled times. Literacy, 56(1), pp.73-85.

  • Stephenson, L. and Dobson, T., 2020. Releasing the socio‐imagination: children's voices on creativity, capability and mental well‐being. Support for Learning, 35(4), pp.454-472.

  • Wyse, D. and Ferrari, A., 2015. Creativity and education: Comparing the national curricula of the states of the European Union and the United Kingdom. British Educational Research Journal, 41(1), pp.30-47.

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