When the storm blows there are those who build shelters, and others who build wind turbines.

[Danish proverb]

My life mantra right there! My name is Thure Johansen, I am a Danish social pedagogue, father of three, husband of one, and reside with my lovely family in the Midlands. I play music, football, kiss my wife goodbye and walk my children to school and forget their water bottles and nearly-but-not-completed homework. I walk past the shop on the way back to get milk before I start working but come home with a pack of ‘reduced’ tomatoes, fish fingers, two 9V batteries - and no milk! I am the embodied stereotype of the creative scatterbrain, at times annoying to those around me as well as myself, at times able to put the qualities to good use. My organisation is called Treehouse Associates and I have collaborated with the awesome team at Blue Cabin for a few years now in the attempt to understand how the Learning Framework for Artist Pedagogues could be brought to life through creative and relationship-led practices (Chambers & Petrie 2008).

The journey of exploring the grey area between the artist pedagogy tradition and the dynamic nature of social pedagogy has been an exciting and reaffirming personal and professional journey for me. Whilst my background since the age of 18 has been in music and social care and this connection should be obvious to me, I suspect the creative part of my professional identity lost some prominence as I tried to find my place as an adult social pedagogue in the UK. So, where I had once been a keen music practitioner working with people with complex disabilities writing and setting up musicals and concerts alongside large groups of school children, I suspect I gradually eased (or assimilated) into a professionally less radical version of what I had been up to before and, most definitely, less professional ‘edge’ than encouraged by my wonderfully whacky teachers at Skovtofte Socialpædagogiske Seminarium in North Copenhagen, now part of UCC, and perfectly embodied by the proverb above.

Whilst I do not mean to go on about my own journey towards the topic of this blog, it would feel wrong not to link the personal aspect of the journey as I know this discovery has been shared by others, even if their starting point was different. I think that the personal dimension is somewhat unavoidable when it comes to something as formative as professional identity. So, in this blog piece, I hope using my example helps exemplify the power of the connection the Learning Framework for Artist Pedagogues helps create between two hugely kindred, yet also individually unique and sometimes mutually defiant professional disciplines. Like brothers and sisters, in a way, fighting over the last choc digestive yet shoulder by shoulder in outrage when they find daddy has eaten it.

A little background

In 2009 two amazing people, Professor Emeritus Pat Petrie (IOE/UCL) and Helen Chambers (formally of National Children’s Bureau) wrote a paper named Richer Lives, in which they outlined the Learning Framework for Artist Pedagogy (LFAP), amongst other key points. In the paper, the authors draw together key links between the approach of social pedagogy and arts practices substantiated by project visits and interviews with artist pedagogues they conducted in Denmark and three arts organisations in the UK. By doing so, the paper has helped many with an artist pedagogy interest and background, myself included, towards a better understanding of the tacit ‘grey area’ which exists between social care and arts practices in the UK. Whilst inspiring people like Pat and Helen would always take the reflective and dialogical approach to a description like LFAP, it has done huge amounts to galvanize my professional identity and, I believe, others with me. 

Leaning on an open door - Training Artists in Derbyshire in 2013

Whilst working with dear colleagues at Jacaranda, we were invited by the longstanding friend of social pedagogy development in the UK, Kim Johnson, to deliver a one-day social pedagogy introduction for artists as part of the Creative Mentoring scheme at Derbyshire County Council. Having some project management experience from introducing social pedagogy in different organisations I had become used to variable levels of buy-in and pre-existing experience, oftentimes within the same room of people. There would always be a mix of resistance, indifference and excitement from groups at the outset of a project. However, I had never had quite the experience of ‘leaning against and open door’ as I did that day; the Artists in Kim’s newly recruited team of Creative Mentors seemed to embody everything I felt social pedagogy in the UK should be like, brave, creative, mutually challenging, and full of ‘outside-the-box thinking’. I may have been there to deliver a session, but I am pretty sure I was the one with the steepest and most professionally formative learning curve in the room. Here is some actual footage of the day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63rcdLeXiU8

Meeting Jenny and the Blue Cabin Crew and Preparing for a Creative Conversation

I met the incredible Jenny from Blue Cabin at a social pedagogy network event in Dublin in 2014 and our contact remained, firstly through my work within the social pedagogy consortium and Jacaranda and since within my work with Treehouse Associates. Jenny invited myself and Anthony Moorcroft from Thempra to a Creative Conversation, which would help give shape to the social pedagogy elements of a project called Head Heart Hands in Darlington. Held at Sage Gateshead and expertly facilitated by Dawn Williams (Sage Gateshead, ICA:UK & Blue Cabin), this meeting was to become another huge eye-opener and point of ongoing professional reflection for a few of us who attended, possibly everyone. The aforementioned authors, Helen Chambers and Pat Petrie, were also there and their presence and steer in the process felt both bridge-building and thought-provoking in equal measure.

The Creative Session - something niggled

In the run-up to this Creative Conversation I worked with Anthony for hours on a plan which was to help us all join the dots in the session. Whilst Jenny’s brief was clear, and Pat Petrie’s support was invaluable, my reflection on the process is one of increasing frustration linked to the task at hand, and what for me became an odd juggling act between my love for the expressive arts and their implicit potential for positive human connection, and my love for my own professional discipline and the social pedagogy movement I was part of. Later on, it became much clearer what this tension was about, and how I could positively put that energy to more constructive use in further development with Jenny.

During the Creative Conversation, Anthony and I facilitated a segment which we hoped might help create a meaningful frame for the day. It was social pedagogy – dominant, although that was not clear for me until during and after this second formative ‘clash’ with the inside walls of the box I thought I was so good at leaving. Apart from the strategic steer and diplomacy from Jenny, the session had helpful and direct challenge from Eleanor Mooney (Sage Gateshead Programme and Blue Cabin) and, Andy Whittham (Darlington Borough Council).

Sharing perspectives helps unsettle assumptions – or shatter them!

As the session progressed I remember being struck by two things; the first was how professionally humbling it felt to listen to views from so many different professional vantage points and realise that the core values, attitudes, and even practice examples in discussions were entirely aligned. It was hard to sit in this room, on that day, and justify that social pedagogy was different in its view on anything. Things deeply familiar to social pedagogy were expressed by people in the room who would not describe themselves as a social pedagogue, or even claim to know much about the professional discipline. It is a familiar argument in a social pedagogy training room; social pedagogy does not pretend to be the quantum physics of the social care world and that part of the purpose of social pedagogy in a new setting can be to support a shared language to galvanize and further existing good practices. But, there are meeting and training sessions where you may feel as though you are in the company of well-meaning members of your own community or practice, the shared baselines emerge quickly and the sense of professional difference is embraced as a learning opportunity. But, in this meeting it was more like sitting in an environment of professional siblinghood, the shared values and viewpoints which, in most cases, were formed by practical experience in the field of practice, were compelling. Instead, however, the air became charged as shared attempts were made to purposefully establish how the two leftfield but pretty great sibling professions were to do the cha cha, and who were to do the leading. One could say that the profound majority was in tacit synergy, and the tension became about arguing the toss on the differences. It was productive, for me it felt mind-blowing and challenging, but in the way it should be. The cha cha was a little ropey that day, but we ended the meeting on a mutually acknowledging Macarena. If you know the people mentioned in relation to this meeting, please take a moment to enjoy the image. You’re welcome.

Head Heart Hands Darlington

The developments around, and during, the meeting at Sage Gateshead became the foundation for a one-day training session as part of Head, Heart, Hands Darlington, which could be best described as a lovable cross-breed of an array of priorities, superbly hosted and interconnected by Jenny and her amazing colleague, Jane Gray. In this single day session for Darlington artists and arts managers from the area as well as further afield, we managed rather a lot of things in my view, including factual information about children in care, a good deal of interprofessional discussion, frame-setting for LFAP by the effortlessly brilliant author, Helen Chambers (Pat Petrie, of equally special caliber as mentioned, was unable to make this session) and experience sharing from Calvin Kilpling (Virtual School Head) and a Darlington Borough Council foster carer and residential worker. Towards the end of the day, we took a closer look at key principles of social pedagogy and their role within LFAP before Carol Bowden, an artist pedagogue employed by Sage Gateshead, grounded all the learning by getting us all sat on the floor to take part in a session of puppetry, music, parachute play, and talked through every step. It was professionally and personally reinvigorating, and Carol facilitated it with such unapologetic chutzpah that I found myself rock’n’rolled by it. As Jenny and I walked to the station afterwards we discussed the day, the process, and I explained how it felt as though I was beginning to (re-)discover my mission within social pedagogy, like a new yet familiar professional home. That has been an emerging sense ever since and I am pretty sure that would not have come about had it not been because of the influence this bumpy process over many months had on my anchored assumptions, and the fact that Jenny was visionary enough to see the need for time and space to explore it with colleagues, and her ability to create coherence across slight professional territorialism, facilitate a shared meaning-making process and keep a couple of blasert social pedagogues on point. It was special, I think.

More Stuff Like This Please! Stockton & Greater Tees Training, Middlesbrough

After this session Jenny and I had a call with Pat and Helen (one of quite a few before and since) to make sense of the emerging understanding we were gaining, not least by listening to the response of people who came across social pedagogy for the first time yet implicitly understood its value and recognized themselves and their practice in the approach. A picture built where the response from participants reinforced practically every finding and vision which Pat and Helen had described in their Richard Lives paper 7 years, and two governments, earlier. From this point onwards, and after dialogue with colleagues, Jenny and I began to develop a one-day offer (Creative Practice for Care Experienced Children and Young People) which was based on the link between the artist pedagogy and social pedagogy tradition. Or. If you like, the grey area below.

Treehouse Associates and Blue Cabin have now undertaken 4 separate Creative Practice with Care Experienced Children and Young People courses of a one-day duration and, on each occasion, it is my impression that we manage to learn a little more about things like synergies v’s tensions, which facilitation methods are more effective in an LFAP learning space, and we encounter new challenges and opportunities along the way. We have had the chance to meet some amazing arts practitioners along the way too, and none more than the group of artists Blue Cabin have engaged as Associates, in their Life Story Work project with South Tyneside Council; a mix of local writers, print makers, theatre directors and digital artists. It is even more impressive that this group of skilled artists and dedicated agents for social change have such rich personal motivation and experience to fuel their involvement in this work, an example being Nicola Golightly (click here for Nicola’s blog) who has incredible insights and an implicit ‘feel’ and drive for social pedagogy whether she is sharing Life Story Work in her home life with her wife and two adopted children, or in her work with children looked after in South Tyneside. Exciting times in the North East, a space to watch for sure.

In 2017 at a meeting in sunny York, the Treehouse – Blue Cabin collaboration was put into a 3-year plan which Jenny and myself have reviewed a few times since. Whilst some distance has been travelled already, it feels clear that there may be some distance to undertake still before we are clearer on the identity of the ‘grey area’, and in which way it will thrive whilst co-existing with two proud and values-led professional disciplines. I think it is fair to say that both Jenny and I, everyone at Blue Cabin and Treehouse Associates respectively in fact, are feeling the weight of the responsibility of travelling a path mapped out so skillfully by Pat and Helen. Equally, and perhaps even more daunting in my view, is the need to stay attuned to a whole world of social care and arts innovation out there and ensuring that the development happens with every necessary invitation for dialogue and ‘shared fingerprints’ on the development.

Recently, we have had conversations with aforementioned Kim Johnson in Derbyshire as she and her Creative Mentors have been first movers on a style of relational support which shows the efficacy and power of art practices when used skillfully in the work with children looked after. At the same time, the professional discipline of social pedagogy has its own element of arts and creative life story / life world approach which will enrich the ‘unfolding’ of LFAP in months and years to come.

 Thure