Arts-based inquiry: the natural partner for social justice

What do you value most – teaching or learning, process or outcome, inclusivity or individuality, knowledge or understanding?

Whatever your choice, as teachers we need to find a way to include all of these into our practice. Whatever our situation, the subject or the year levels we teach, we must shape the curriculum to our own ends to meet the needs of our students. This is what we do.

But why do we do it? One of the reasons I became a teacher was to make a difference in the lives of my students; to help them succeed, to open their eyes to possibilities, to prepare them for personal and social responsibilities, and to help them make the world a better place. The challenge was to do this in a way that was inclusive, stimulating and relevant; to adopt socially just teaching practices in order to promote social justice in the students. To do this I turned to the Arts and Arts-based pedagogy.

Scholars such as Ewing (2010), Eisner (2005) and Greene (1995) are in agreement that the Arts have a proven potential for personal transformation and to facilitate social change, they are inclusive and are a natural part of everyday life, bringing the student’s lived experiences into their learning. According to McGregor (2012), both internationally and nationally there is a growing practice to adopt art-based teaching strategies as more and more social activists, cultural workers and educators realise their benefits to learning and their social impact. Some even go so far as to say that we may need to rethink the place of the Arts in the curriculum.

Anybody can access the Arts and utilise the processes associated with the Arts to shape a learning experience, no matter their level of artistic skill or experience. Arts-based approaches extend the five art forms of Dance, Drama, Media, Music and Visual Art, to include all aspects of visual culture, such as, images, films, video gaming, advertising, and creative literature, such as poems, lyrics, and some story forms.

In this approach pedagogy is flipped so that the skills, processes and understanding of the creative or artistic inquiry become the teaching focus, emphasising such things as creativity, imagination, critical analysis, empathy, experimentation, synthesis, and voice.

The magic happens when the arts and aesthetic approach is fused with ethics and a typical inquiry-based approach is transformed to arts-based pedagogy with a social justice focus. The potency is enhanced even further when students themselves initiate the inquiry. In their 2011 book, Kraehe and Brown state “Whether visual, performance-based, literary, digital, or a combination of these, arts-based inquiry is a process one undertakes to transform prior understandings and misunderstandings through the manipulation of material and symbolic tools and the reconstruction of social and cultural meaning.”

Using arts-based pedagogies or arts-inquires goes beyond singing the times-tables or watching a topical DVD, it is about framing learning experiences to connect the cognitive with the emotive, to critically examine assumptions, understandings and beliefs, to view things from different perspectives, and create a space for experimentation where alternative views can be explored. It is about creating a space where self-esteem, identity, voice, compassion and empathy can be developed and expressed. It is student centered, participatory and socially constructed. It can be used within single subjects but is a natural way to integrate or teach across the curriculum and has the greatest pedagogical impact in developing an understanding and potential engagement in social justice (Powell & Serriere, 2013; McGregor, 2012; Das, Dewhurst, & Gray, 2011; Mardirosian & Belson, 2009, Griffiths, Berry, Holt, Naylor, & Weeks, 2006; Orek, 2006).

An arts-based inquiry can be achieved fairly simply. One way is to give students an opportunity to learn through a recognised piece of art, relevant to their topic, and have them either deconstruct it or construct their own associated ‘piece of art,’ to demonstrate their understanding of the topic and to provoke a response in the viewer. The piece of art can be in any form such as a media clip, a drama, or even an online ‘mock’ magazine.

The artworks do not act as mere stimulus or culminating activities. Learning processes are continually linked to the artwork, or series of artworks, as concepts are further discussed and developed during the inquiry.

When students are asked to explore a concept it is framed within a discussion where everybody gets to voice their experience or understanding and, most importantly, everyone gets to hear and understand the viewpoints of others. The topic is looked at historically and within its cultural or sociopolitical context and current and future perspectives. Aspects of ethics, motives and social justice are also incorporated.

As the investigation continues, students are asked to link or compare the experiences or underlying principles to their own lives, to determine how they think and feel. They, in turn, use those experiences and what they have learned to produce a piece of work to demonstrate their position or their understanding. Individuals justify their own response or, if done collectively in large or small groups, the students must negotiate an agreed understanding or representation.

The work is then presented to an audience and the opportunity created for the audience to respond to the produced work and the students to reciprocate. By discussing their artwork and their choices, the students are not only justifying their position and demonstrating their knowledge and understanding, they are also describing their personal application and their learning.

This process of inquiry promotes student emotional literacy, identity and voice, and by linking abstract concepts to the Arts, provides higher-order thinking opportunities and success in learning. It also requires active engagement in learning and, because everyone needs to contribute, it is inclusive of individuals, validating their worth, incorporating 'students on the edge', and different learning preferences.

This approach is a demonstration of both socially just education and education for social justice as it deliberately provides the opportunity and conditions, or the space, for the development and expression of individual identity and empowerment (Griffiths, Berry, Holt, Naylor & Weeks, 2006; Mardirosian & Belson, 2009).

Arts-based pedagogies are, arguably, one of the most powerful methods that can be utilised that develop deep and rich, transformative learning which inclusively engages students and enables both growth and learning, sparking inspiration, imagination and creativity (Eisner, 2005; Greene, 1995). It is well worth investigating and adding to your repertoire of teaching strategies.

Most schools have either Arts specialists or creative teachers, think about using their knowledge and expertise to help you shape your learning experiences, to team with you or maybe even teach the tricky bits. Anybody willing to take a risk to be creative can utilise this approach, which is a natural enhancement of most subjects, especially the humanities and technologies. Students learn social justice by seeing it modelled and engaging in its practices. The inclusiveness of the Arts, the space they provide to conceptualise and explore issues and the exposure to and influence upon audience allow students to enact social justice as well as to consider it.


Das, S., Dewhurst, Y., & Gray, D. (2011). A Teacher’s Repertoire: developing creative pedagogies. International Journal of Education and the Arts 12(15) .

Eisner, E. W. (2005). Reimaging Schools: the selected works of Elliot W. Eisner. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ewing, R. (2010). The Arts and Australian Education: Realising Potential. Victoria, Australia: ACER Press.

Garber, E. (2004). Social Justice and Art Education. Visual Arts Research, 30[2(59)], 4-22.

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination: Essays on education, the Arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publications.

Griffiths, M., Berry, J., Holt, A., Naylor, J., & Weeks, P. (2006). Learning to be in Public Spaces: In from the margins with dancers, sculptors, painters and musicians. British Journal of Educational Studies, 54(3), 352-371.

Kraehe, A., & Brown, K. (2011) Awakening Teachers’ Capacities for Social Justice With/In Arts-Based Inquiries. Equity and Excellence in Education. 44(4), 488-511

McGregor, C. (2012). Art-informed Pedagogy: tools for social transformation. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 31(3), 309-324.

Mardirosian, G., & Belson, S. (2009). Arts-based Teaching: a pedagogy of imagination and a conduit to a socially just education. Current Issues in Education, 12, 1-21.

Orek, B. (2006). Artistic Choices: A study of teachers who use the arts in the classroom. International Journal of Education and the Arts, 7(8).

This is a reader contribution. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Teacher magazine and its publisher.

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