School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences

Staff Profiles

Helen Burns

Senior Research Associate & Research Excellence Fellow


I am interested in the use of art-based and self-organising pedagogies, in combination with thinking skills, to support social inclusion via individual and civic agency. Within this I have been developing a theoretical understanding of imagination and its fundamental role in cognition  and  metacognition, as a means to enable personal transformation and through this, democratic participation.  Prior to work here at Newcastle, I was an education researcher at Durham University.  In  my professional life I managed learning programmes in creative and cultural education settings, following in from work in community education settings with  young people and minority groups.

My role involves identifying, developing, applying for funding towards and carrying out research as well as module leadership on our BEd and MA courses and teaching on our Primary PGCE.  I lead and co-investigate on research projects with a number of local, national and international partners.  I 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 am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, 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 the cultural, cognitive and metacognitive value of art within learning, particularly in relation to self-organised thought, self-organising pedagogies, social inclusion and democratic participation.  I am interested in imagination as a vital aspect of cognition and metacognition, essential in enabling us to realise and expand our democratic capacity.  These interests have developed from professional experience of work in creative and cultural education settings in which the value of art-based learning is recognised but the process of impact is less frequently explored.  A background in visual arts, including work as an artist, has led to an interest in using visual research methods in education and to the potential offered via an overlap between these practices 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; 'Dream Achieve Realise Express', Caritas, evaluating the impact of digital, self-organised pedagogies with education settings in Ukraine, Moldova and Romania;  'Art and SOLE', funded by the British Academy, which combines art experiences with SOLE (self-organised learning environment) pedagogy; 'EUROSOLE', an Erasmus project 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. 


I lead two modules: 'Developing Thinking Skills' at masters level and 'Developing Creative Thinking' as part of the BEd, having fully designed the second of these. Additionally I teach art and design on the Primary PGCE course.  In  my previous role at Durham University I taught qualitative research methods at masters and doctoral level (particularly visual research methods and action research) and taught half of  the MA Arts in Education course.