School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences

Staff Profiles

Helen Burns

Senior Research Associate & Research Excellence Fellow


I am interested in using interdisciplinary learning approaches to support cognitive capacities which enable personal and civic agency.  Much of my research and teaching involves integrating art-based, SOLE (self organised learning environments) and thinking skills pedagogies and is often situated in museums and galleries. Across the university, I collaborate with the Oral History Unit, with the Voice Researcher Forum, with colleagues in the Faculty of Medical Science and in the School of Arts and Cultures. I work closely with colleagues in ECLS, particularly around the use of SOLEs: digital pedagogy which emphasises learner autonomy. I am interested in the potential of sensory, art-based experiences in the context of digital learning.  As a foundation for this work, I have developed theoretical models of imagination, as fundamental for cognition and metacognition (thinking about our thinking). My work explores the transformation of learning through experiences which support learners to understand and develop their imagination, so that transferable skills for adaptation, resilience and innovation can emerge. These are necessary if we are to thrive within a challenging environment.

Prior to work at Newcastle, I spent 4 years as a researcher at Durham University. In my professional life I was a Programme Manager for the national 'Creative Partnerships' programme, for schools across six English regions.  This followed roles as Regional Programmer for the Cultural Olympiad and as Schools and Colleges Programmer at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. I also worked as a Learning Officer for Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. As a Fine Art graduate, I was a creative practitioner in community education settings with young people and minority groups. I have an MA in Library and Information Management in which my dissertation focused on visual classification, related to Foucault's concepts of cultural relativity. My Doctoral thesis was on cognitive and metacognitive imagination and how this can be supported through visual-arts experience.

As a Senior Research Associate and Research Excellence Fellow, I develop funding applications, lead and co-investigate on research projects with a number of local, national and international partners and have undertaken consultancy work for Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Ripon Museums Trust and Partners for Youth Empowerment. I regularly contribute to conferences and events within the professional education community as well as within the academic one. I lead and host the Education Research Seminar Series. 

I am a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and of the Royal Society of Arts.  I sit on the All Party Parliamentary Group for Art and Design in Education, am a member of the RSA Evidence Champions Network and of the Durham Commission for Creativity. 


My research explores integrating and developing pedagogies to support the emergence of transferable, thinking skills, for enabling personal and socio-economic well being and civic agency. I am interested in combining interdisciplinary education practices, including art, digital pedagogy, self-organisation, thinking skills, oral histories and learning in informal settings, towards transforming imagination, metacognition (thinking about our thinking) and 'voice'. Much of my research is based on a lose hypothesis that: by developing imagination, we enable creativity, by developing creativity, we enable metacognition, by developing metacognition, we enable confidence and voice, which enables our resilience and our capacity for innovation. This kind of shift in understanding and belief can help equip individuals to thrive in challenging socio-economic and global circumstances.  It can contribute to societal resilience and innovation and, targeted appropriately, can support social justice.

I am particularly interested in imagination, as a vital aspect of cognition and metacognition, as the basis for personal transformation. Visual art can have a strong role in supporting imagination and other thinking skills, when understood as a cognitive activity, as opposed to being primarily concerned with technique.  My background in visual arts has led to using visual research methods in education and I'm interested in the boundary overlap which exists between education and art-informed research practices. Research projects include:

'Contemporary Art and  SOLE' (ESRC), which explores the use of self-organised, arts-based pedagogies towards developing metacognition and  autonomy

'DARE' (Dream Achieve Realise Express), (Caritas), evaluating the impact of digital, self-organised pedagogies with education settings in Ukraine, Moldova and Romania

 'Art and SOLE', (British Academy), which combines art experiences with SOLE (self-organised learning environment) pedagogy

'EUROSOLE', (Erasmus ) involving international partners exploring SOLE in their own contexts and pooling this knowledge.

Examples of older projects are: 'Mapping Transformation through Contemporary Art', a BA project in partnership with Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art which looked at the process by which contemporary art experiences support the development of metacognition; 'Mind the Gap', an EEF funded, large scale, randomised controlled trial which looked at a family animation project as a means to develop metacognition. 

For further detail and links to project research pages visit:  Thinking through Art


I lead two modules: 'Developing Thinking Skills' (MA) and 'Developing Creative Thinking through Art Experience' (BA.Ed), as well as teaching art, craft and design within the Primary PGCE.

'Developing Creative Thinking through Art Experience' supports future educators to understand creativity at a personal and social level, as well as how to nurture it in practice. I designed this module to use art experiences as a vehicle to explore creativity as a cognitive capacity.  Art and artists are used to model creative processes which are made explicit and dialogical. We take care that creativity is not conceptualised only as art, or as making but defined far more broadly, as a transferable thinking skill. No technical skills are required. Students explore theories of creativity as a foundation for art experiences, in which they work directly with artists and in galleries. 

'Developing Thinking Skills' aims to support students to develop their personal thinking skills as well as to consider how to support other learners to develop thinking skills.  The module covers theories and context in relation to thinking skills approaches, frameworks and taxonomies for thinking, pedagogies for developing thinking and explores thinking skills in international and non-formal learning contexts. We focus particularly on critical thinking, creativity, imagination, metacognition and on visualising thinking. Teaching approaches within the module are designed to model ways of developing thinking skills while they are simultaneously, taught conceptually. 

In my previous role at Durham University I taught qualitative research methods at masters and doctoral level.  I focused particularly on action research, participatory action research, visual research methods and case study research.  I also designed and taught half of the MA Arts in Education module. 

I am a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.