While much work has been undertaken over the last twenty years to examine what learning outcomes can result from engagement with works of art, an understanding of how and why learning occurs in the context of the art museum remains incomplete. In particular, studies that focus on the perceptions and practices of those who construct learning experiences in art galleries are rare, yet there is value in exploring learning providers’ views to understand why particular approaches to learning may or may not be practised in cultural venues, and to gain clarity on what assumptions, ambitions and ideas underpin specific learning activities.1 Expanding this area of enquiry is all the more important given the current interest shown by policy makers, academics and museum professionals in learning’s potential to develop new audiences, engender cultural value and enable deep and rich experiences that have a lasting impact on visitors.

Tate Learning Early Years and Families Open Studio Programme

Tate Learning Early Years and Families Open Studio Programme

This paper presents the findings from a case study that examined in detail how learning is constructed by key staff at Tate, in order to gain insights into the nature of the learning afforded by the programmes that these staff members put in place (fig.1). More specifically, the study sought to examine how certain senior learning staff who work at both Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London understand and define ‘learning’. Their perceptions of what contexts, conditions and processes need to be in place for learning to take place, and finally their views of the rationale underpinning learning programmes in the gallery. In doing so the study aimed to shed light on how professionals construct learning programmes, and why, in their view, these activities can provide transformational experiences. However, the study did not set out to locate Tate’s approach as the ‘best’ or the only legitimate one, but instead sought to explore and make explicit the conceptual, philosophical and ethical principles that learning team members bring to their work, and which shape the activities they put in place. With this in mind the study aims to contextualise the interviewees’ views in relation to theoretical constructions of learning, while also drawing attention to the implications of holding these views for learning at Tate and potentially more widely. As such, this paper aims to support more effective practice, and to contribute to the growing area of scholarship in the field of gallery education and learning. It is through revealing and theorising these individuals’ perceptions that the study is envisaged to be of interest and value to a sector that is required increasingly not only to make known that positive and profound experiences occur in cultural contexts, but also to describe and justify how and why this happens.

The study reveals that learning staff at Tate have a specific and fairly consistent understanding of learning and can articulate what contexts and practices need to be in place for learning to happen. They are also able to describe a particular ethical rationale or purpose for learning. However, although Tate carries out extensive evaluation of its learning programmes this is not referred to here as it is not the purpose of this study to examine how these constructions play out in actual programmes and activities.2

Background: Learning at Tate 

Learning at Tate has undergone a number of changes in recent years. Following the appointment of Tate’s first Director of Learning in 2009, the learning teams at all four Tate sites (Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives) have been transforming in line with the learning strategy articulated by the director, Anna Cutler. This strategy outlines a series of key principles, including adherence to a more participatory, learner-centred approach that is concerned less with the transmission of expert knowledge about artworks than with the creation of learning contexts and opportunities for audiences to actively engage with art. The strategy also places strong emphasis on an already existing facet of learning at Tate, namely working with artists and drawing upon their practices.

The transformation of the department, particularly at the two London sites (Tate Modern and Tate Britain), is not only concerned with what members of staff do in terms of programming but with the approaches taken to achieve this. Since 2010 the learning team in London has worked across the two galleries, bringing the same approaches to bear on both sites and the different types of art they house, while implementing a programme of activity that involves artists and others engaging with collection displays and exhibitions in the galleries and online.  

A cornerstone of the revised approach is a focus on research-led practice, which can be understood on one level as a move from a ‘delivery’ model – where staff are tasked with devising and overseeing the execution of a range of learning events and activities – to a model of ‘enquiry’, with a greater focus on analysis and reflection. Evidence of this shift can be found in the theoretical construction of each programme. Within the learning team based in London, staff members frame their activities around particular but open questions (for example, what happens when children under five are brought together with practising artists and their processes of production?). The resultant programme of events and activities is thus understood to be an investigation undertaken with participants. So while actual activities can follow familiar formats (such as seminars, courses, talks, cross-disciplinary events, artist-led workshops and interpretation materials for different audiences), the expectation is that staff question, reflect, change, redefine and remake as these programmes progress.

This methodology can be seen to resemble action research in some respects, and in line with that approach there is an expectation that form and content are open to constant reappraisal and, potentially, significant change. Equally, the focus on an iterative process of questioning, exploration and reflection leading to the construction of new knowledge and understanding can be traced back to a particular construction of artists’ practice. Creative practice, as articulated by artists including Ben Shahn in the late 1950s and by theorists including John Dewey and Rudolf Arnheim, is an experiential process of conceptual enquiry that embraces critical thinking and the questioning of meanings.3 Furthermore, in recent years connections have been made between artistic practice and research, and between art and pedagogy, which suggests that there is a natural alignment between the processes employed by artists to generate new work and creative research and learning.4

Artists have been central to learning programmes at Tate (and in other galleries in the UK) for over thirty years. Earlier studies at Tate and elsewhere have drawn attention to the pedagogic role artists play in the art museum, yet to date explicit connections have not been made between learning ambitions, as defined by gallery education professionals, and how these are enacted by artists and others.5 Furthermore, given the focus on research-led practice within the Tate learning team, and the close alliance it has forged with artists and their working methods, it is timely to investigate how and whether these two approaches are connected.

In order to develop effective research-led practice and illuminate the artists’ role within it, it is vital to have an awareness of team members’ understanding of learning, since this understanding can be seen to form the basis from which all subsequent programme questions emerge. It is important to know if members of staff share similar conceptions of learning and how and why it takes place, what conditions they see as crucial for effective engagement, and how these perceptions inform their programmatic decisions. Furthermore, there is value in locating these perceptions within a wider conceptual domain, not least to draw attention to the connections between gallery learning practice, particular constructions of artistic practice, and specific pedagogic theories.


To explore these issues, semi-structured interviews were conducted by researchers from King’s College London with seven senior members of the Tate learning team based in London. These interviews were, in general, approximately one hour in length and incorporated questions concerning their core professional traits, their perspectives on learning at and through Tate, their own professional aspirations and those of the Learning Department, and their ideas about how participants learn through their experiences at Tate.

A characteristic of gallery education as a profession is that it draws upon a wide range of knowledge domains and is made up of individuals with diverse career trajectories. By way of an example, the professional qualifications of members of the senior learning management team at Tate include undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in fine and applied art, philosophy, theatre and film studies, English and education. Furthermore, these individuals came to Tate with experience of teaching in schools and universities, curating, working in the youth sector, television and arts management, and as artists. Without question this variety of skills and expertise informs the staff members’ approaches to learning. Between them these individuals manage a programme across Tate Britain and Tate Modern that caters for gallery and online audiences including art students, art specialists, young people visiting as part of a schools group and independently, teachers, youth workers and families. Through online resources, structured events such as artist-led workshops and academic symposia, as well as more informal drop-in and self-led sessions and interpretation, the programme at the two London galleries reached over one million people in 2013.

For the purposes of this paper, analyses concentrated on questions about learning at and through Tate. More specifically, transcripts were reviewed iteratively in order to pull out broad themes related to the questions of interest. As themes and patterns emerged related to definitions and perceptions of learning, these were compared across transcripts, in order to note consistencies and inconsistencies in staff members’ understandings of learning and how these understandings are perceived to be manifest in their practices.

Perceptions of learning 

As noted previously, work with artists and their practice forms the lynchpin of many of the programmes for which interviewees are responsible. Thus, it might be expected that staff’s perceptions and definitions of learning are inherently bound up with the fact that work with artists and their practice is a cornerstone of their work and, indeed, this was the case. In line with the construction of artistic practice identified earlier (as a process of ongoing exploration), a recurrent understanding of learning voiced by members of the learning team was that it is a holistic process of change or transformation. Team Member 5, for example, regarded learning as ‘movement from one point to another, on any of a number of levels – social, emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual’. This definition was echoed by Team Member 1, who also conceptualised learning as a multifaceted process that holds within it ‘social, emotional and intellectual (cognitive) aspects’. For these professionals, learning is characterised as dynamic and developmental.

As with artistic practice, learning involves more than the intellectual, which suggests that the outcomes of the process go beyond the acquisition of knowledge. This view appears to concur with the American artist and researcher Graeme Sullivan, who has identified that visual art practices can be understood to provide models for learning that facilitate recognition of not only what is known, but of how something comes to be known.6 The suggestion here is that engagement with visual art processes brings about change in how people think. Similarly, team members described how the learning process in the galleries leads to changes within individuals, and allows them to establish connections with artworks.7 In other words, learning alters the learner and in this context supports new types of engagement with art.

Within this broad framing of learning as a process of change, team members voiced a specific understanding of learning as a moment of rupture that comes about through instances of disruption. Learning can happen through ‘disjunctures or interruptions in the normal flow of experience’, and can be seen as ‘interrupting the flow’.8 In some respects, this construction is aligned with the concept of the ‘learning event’ as articulated by education theorist Dennis Atkinson, who has drawn on the ideas of the French philosopher Alain Badiou. In Atkinson’s model learning is conceptualised in terms of a shift from a state of familiarity to one that is new and previously unknown.9 This shift is characterised by the learner experiencing a momentary state of uncertainty that comes about through the realisation of something unexpected. As Tate learning staff stated in their interviews, such disruptive moments can take place through an encounter with art and with ideas, both of which can serve as an interruption to visitors’ existing emotional and cognitive states of being.

This articulation is also congruent with the value placed on the disruptive role of art, voiced by particular artists, curators and theorists, most notably those referencing the avant-garde tradition who, according to the art historian Grant Kester, identify art as having ‘a unique power to disrupt, destabilise, or otherwise confound the viewer’s conventional perceptions of the world’.10 Indeed Kester acknowledges how the language of disruption represents a ‘migration … of language traditionally associated with the artistic personality into the professional rhetoric of curators and programmers’, which suggests that art’s capacity to unsettle has become fundamental to how such professionals frame the viewer’s encounter with the art object.11 

Within the context of learning, disruptive moments or events ‘interrupt the normal flow of experience’ and introduce temporary ontological spaces that challenge the existing limits of the learner’s comprehension.12 According to Atkinson, in this moment the learner becomes aware of what they do not know, or of the unfamiliar nature of something they have encountered. For those who lack the confidence or support to accept this disruption, this space of unfamiliarity can induce anxiety and a retreat into the familiar. However, for others who can engage with this unpredictable event and allow themselves to confront the new perspectives brought about through this encounter, new knowledge is generated and, in this way, learning happens. Events of this kind thus become prompts for learning, a view that aligns with Team Member 6’s perception that disruptive moments are ‘springboards for new ways of looking at the world’.13 Team Member 2 described this change by referring to Badiou’s notion of an interruption to the ‘continuity of being’, which suggests that the concepts outlined by Atkinson have relevance here. For this team member, learning:

Interrupts the continuity of being … [It is] anything that changes or that leads one to change the way in which one thinks or understands or feels or acts or interacts or engages … any interruption in the continuity of being is learning.14

As identified above, the purpose of learning is perceived to go beyond knowledge acquisition and to act ‘as catalysts for change in habits of mind’.15 Not only are the definitions of learning held by members of staff quite consistent with this conceptualisation, but they also contrast with the more ‘transmissive’ view of learning processes, which tends to value the acquisition of specific subject knowledge.16 This suggests that, while subject knowledge could have a role to play in the learning process, the ultimate goal of learning programmes is not to transmit a set of facts about art or art history to participants but to facilitate new ways of thinking about and experiencing art. Such a view does not always sit easily with views of learning held within formal education pedagogy and policy at present, which can be seen to privilege knowledge acquisition over the development of creative learning skills. On the other hand, a view of learning which aspires toward transformative change rather than knowledge transfer would appear to be consistent with the goals of avant-garde art.

The view of learning coming about through moments of rupture also raises questions in relation to what has been a normative view of learning in museums, namely constructivism. While constructivism has been interpreted in various ways, it consistently focuses on the learner and what they bring to the learning situation, rather than solely focusing on the nature of the content itself.17 More specifically, influential writers in the field such as John Falk and Lynn Dierking, for example, have identified how learning in museums comes about as individuals ‘actively make sense of the world on the basis of prior knowledge and understanding’, wherein the emphasis is on ‘the gradual expansion and consolidation of previously known mental constructs’, rather than on challenging or disrupting visitors’ epistemological frameworks.18 Likewise Eilean Hooper-Greenhill and George Hein have also stressed the importance of enabling museum visitors to connect with what they already know in order to construct meaning through a gradual interpretive process.19

An emphasis on the learner and their established knowledge base has become pervasive in the museum field, or at least in learning departments of museums, as reflected in frameworks such as Inspiring Learning for All.20 Indeed, part of the value of Inspiring Learning for All is that it highlights that learners engage more than just their cognitive faculties when learning in a museum. Recognition of this resonates with the ongoing shift in museum practice towards an understanding of the socio-cultural dimensions of learning, in particular the ways in which history and context inflect an individual’s experience.21 Socio-cultural theory draws attention to the way learning is a collaborative and culturally mediated process that is deeply influenced by the context in which it takes place.22 Consequently, it has been found to be a fruitful lens through which to explore learning in museums, in that it enables – and indeed compels – programmers to look at the relationship between the learner and the context of interaction.23 It is within this wider context that learning is socially constructed. 

Nevertheless, socio-cultural theories remain focused on what the learner brings to the learning situation and its context, while remaining neutral over whether this could or should be challenged. It is possible that part of the reason for maintaining this neutral stance is because most of these researchers focus on learning in informal science institutions, which may be different in nature to art museums. It would appear from what follows that the interviewees who took part in this study recognised the relative values of these differing perspectives (they aspired to build on visitors’ expertise and experience while simultaneously disrupting their thinking), but were also able to identify the practical tensions that arose from the co-existence of these potentially conflicting positions.

Conditions and practices for learning

Linked with their perception of learning as a process of change occurring through disruptive moments, learning staff at Tate identified a number of conditions and practices that would support such change, most notably in relation to the processes and contexts of learning and the significant role played by art and artists’ practices in relation to these. Furthermore, interviewees perceived that they had a responsibility to support learners to build on their existing knowledge by embracing disruptions to it.

1. Direct engagement with art and artists’ practice 

What emerged strongly in the interviews is how staff identify that learning happens during the course of – and as a consequence of – direct engagement with art, artists and their practice. Team Member 7 went so far as to say that at Tate learning is accomplished by enabling people to become ‘embedded in artistic processes … having the time, the space, physically, conceptually to engage deeply with those processes’.24

As identified earlier, this focus on direct engagement with art, artists and their working methodologies has been discussed in certain key texts that address learning in galleries and museums, but here it is seen as an essential element of learning. Arguably this prioritisation of the connection between the learner, the art object, the artist and a specific understanding of artistic practice differentiates learning in the gallery as espoused by the learning staff at Tate from models of learning described in many non-art museum settings in the UK, where the focus is predominantly on ‘the activities of display and interpretation, using objects, paintings, photographs, models and texts’ without artists necessarily playing a central role.25 Equally, this emphasis on connecting with practising artists across all learning programmes differs from the approach commonly adopted in many museums in, for example, North America, where there is a strong tradition of teaching in the gallery undertaken by museum educators and docents (trained volunteer guides).26

So why are artists seen to be so significant at Tate? A fundamental argument articulated by interviewees is that there are parallels between art making and learning itself. For example Team Member 5 stated at one point that ‘the qualities and the characteristics of the processes in art practice are those of a learning process’. Elaborating on this, they remarked that ‘artists’ practice brings diversity … strategies for creativity … opportunities for process’.27 Aligned with the views outlined earlier, these statements indicate that particular artists are seen to be central as they are deeply familiar with a largely conceptual (i.e. creative, analytical and reflective rather than predominantly craft based) art process and that there are specific elements of this form of art making that correspond with a developmental process of making meaning. In other words, artistic practice for these interviewees is perceived as a form of creative learning, involving both expressive and cognitive dimensions, and that learning in the gallery comes about in part through direct engagement with these processes.

With these synergies in mind, it is not surprising that artists are perceived to be vital components of the pedagogic practices put in place in the gallery. Furthermore, the team members identified that artists have particular expertise that enables them to ‘sort of interrupt the flow’,28 which derives from their ongoing connection with the ‘life form’ that is art.29 Resonating with the notion of the avant-garde identified earlier, the idea that artists can engender a disruptive learning moment has also been identified by other writers, who note that creative practitioners have the potential to ‘stir things up’, and ‘make the familiar strange’, which is due to their embodied or tacit knowledge and skills.30 And while the argument has long been made for the valuable contribution that creative practitioners can make in education contexts, the views put forward by members of the learning team at Tate suggest that artists are uniquely able (more so than non-artists who do not possess the same experience and expertise) to frame the types of learning experiences in the context of the gallery that these individuals value, owing to their immersion in and familiarity with art.31

The team members also voiced the view that artists involved in learning activities at Tate have the capacity to respond to, or support individuals; to bring together their artistic practices with participants’ unique ways of thinking (informed by different skills, backgrounds and preferences) in a way that is personal and responsive. Moreover, engagement with artists affords a unique insight into art, and allows for a more personal experience in line with the individuals’ needs and comfort levels. Team Member 5, for example, stated that direct engagement with an artist’s practice ‘offers people an intimate experience with art and it allows them to have a really personal experience that is theirs’.32 This suggests that enabling visitors to engage with the processes of art making as closely as possible (via the artist), as well as with artworks, supports learners to build deep and authentic connections with art and to learn effectively.

This privileging of the artist as educator and the art process as a model of creative learning indicates the way in which the forms of, and approaches to, learning endorsed by these interviewees are not value-free. Their preferred approach appears to foreground art practice as the most legitimate mode of engagement, rather than academic approaches such as those associated with the teaching of art history. Indeed it is primarily concerned with individual meaning-making coming about through a direct experience with art, mediated through the lens of an artistic practice. There is less emphasis here on the acquisition and development of more general, theoretical or ‘propositional’ knowledge associated with the academy, and more on the forms of subjective, context-specific and experiential knowledge that is associated with practitioners.33 This in turn suggests that these interviewees have definite views on not only how learning should take place, but also on who is best placed to facilitate learning. In order to understand whether it is justifiable for team members to hold these views it is necessary to consider the desired outcomes for the learning programmes, which are addressed later in this paper.

2. Dialogue and experimentation

Perhaps unsurprisingly, team members observed that, in the context of the gallery, learning occurs through ‘critical engagement of the learner with the art object or ideas’.34 They see learning taking place through a process of dialogue, questioning and conversation, between the visitor or participant and an artwork, between visitors and staff, among visitors, staff and artists, and among visitors themselves. Critical engagement is framed (and hence learning happens) via facilitated dialogue with artworks that, for Team Member 7, involves ‘setting up the possibility of asking a series of questions, but also starting to try and answer them for yourself’.35 This statement suggests that not only does this team member see questioning as central to learning, but that they also recognise that this may not happen without ‘setting up’ a framework. This view is shared by Team Member 2, who saw it as the learning curator’s responsibility to enable questioning to take place: ‘You have to provide open parameters within which a disruptive experience can take place – a kind of framework for questioning, for perhaps critical engagement.’36

This perception of learning taking place through questioning and dialogue, with a focus on group as well as individual meaning making, resonates with models of ‘co-constructive’ pedagogy. Co-construction recognises that knowledge is socially constructed and learning is identified as active, collaborative and social. As such, it is in alignment with the socio-cultural perspectives described earlier and adopted by researchers such as Doris Ash, Kevin Crowley, John Falk and Lynn Dierking, as well as with museum educators who advocate participatory approaches, such as Nina Simon.37  This perspective contrasts with the transmission model’s emphasis on more passive knowledge assimilation by individuals. It also diverges from a purely constructivist model in that it places a strong emphasis on the involvement of others in the learning process. Both constructivism and co-construction recognise that knowledge advances when individuals encounter something that challenges their preconceptions. However, neither model encompasses the notion of the intentional rupturing moment introduced by the learning provider; the ‘framework for questioning’ that Team Member 2 identified above.38

Associated with the interviewees’ perception that they have a responsibility to engineer a learning context that allows learners to question their knowledge through critical engagement with art are the concepts of openness, exchange and dialogue. Dialogue, as it is understood within co-constructive pedagogy, encourages critical investigation, reflection and analysis and the reorganisation of knowledge.39 It also allows for risk taking and the sharing and questioning of ideas, which is congruent with the interviewees’ belief that learning is inherently a process of experimentation. As Team Member 7 remarked, learning occurs when there is the opportunity to ‘Open up some kind of possibility, that allows you the confidence to ask a series of questions, and to take a series of U-turns, and to change your mind and to challenge what you’re looking at’.40 In this way experimentation – understood as a process of questioning, testing ideas, challenging preconceptions and holding different positions – is identified as vital to learning, but also requires facilitation and support.

The perception that learning comes about through dialogue and exchange with others is shared by a number of writers on gallery education, and references to co-constructive models of learning can be found in texts addressing pedagogy in cultural spaces, particularly contemporary art galleries.41 Other studies also stress the centrality of dialogue to the learning process, indicating that to some extent the Tate learning team’s perceptions are consistent with current thinking across the sector.42  What is less commonly articulated, however, is the connection between co-construction, the opportunity for experimentation and risk that this model affords, and the broad understanding of learning as a process of ongoing change that comes about through a deliberate disruption to existing knowledge. These interviewees suggested that learning is prompted by the actions of the gallery professionals who set out to engender that disruption and put the learner through a moment of crisis, which opens up the potential for new understandings. Co-construction may follow, but the initial trigger is institutionally designed and driven through the conscious agency of members of the learning team, who are themselves driven by a certain philosophy of art, pedagogy and learning that may remain invisible to the learner. In this way, the gallery learning professionals take an active and relatively powerful role (in relation to the learner) in shaping how and when learning takes place.

3. Creating a safe space

While moments of disruption, questioning and dialogue facilitated through artistic practice were deemed by the interviewees to be central to learning at Tate, it was noted that these conditions can elicit uncertainty and discomfort and, rather than being an effortless, continuous process, learning instead requires confidence without which learners might well become anxious or disengaged.

Learning staff recognised that they have a responsibility to respect the knowledge of visitors (for example, Team Members 6 and 7 described the importance of drawing on the expertise of teachers participating in their programmes, while Team Member 1 remarked on how the Learning Department values what the visitor has to bring), while at the same time attempt to disrupt their knowledge. Equally, the interviewees did not see their role as instructing learners how and what to know. Rather, as Team Member 1 described it, ‘our point is to get people to not know happily, to confidently not know’.43 There is a suggestion here that this team member sees value in unlearning. In other words, that it is important that visitors come to embrace not knowing and reconcile themselves with this, in order to move beyond the moment of negation to a new state of greater understanding.

Interviewees were aware, however, that visitors come to the gallery with varying degrees of knowledge and that those with less cultural capital require what Team Member 1 referred to as ‘multiple access points’ to be able to learn effectively in the gallery. But the role of the Learning Department as it was perceived by staff was not to direct visitors to specific interpretations, but rather to make visible to people their own access points.44 In other words, the aim is to alert participants to the value and relevance of their own knowledge in relation to the art on show, and to assist them in building on this knowledge to develop new understanding. This ‘validation of [learners’] interpretations’ through supported learning is one way the department works to further the aim of building visitors’ confidence to engage and experiment with art, which suggests that the department’s role is to create what interviewees described as a ‘safe space’ for learning.45

There are a number of different elements that are integral to the notion of ‘safe space’. Interviewees described putting in place physical, intellectual and emotional contexts that allowed in the first instance for visitors to engage with art. Team Member 4, for example, talked about how learning happens when space is created ‘for people to interact with art’, when there is ‘space for transformation’ and when we have created ‘some kind of space to engage’.46 From here it is possible for disruptive experiences, or moments of interruption, to occur, hence why learning staff are concerned with ‘framing a space where something different can happen’.47 Allowing learners time to engage within an environment of intellectual openness is also seen to be a vital element of the ‘safe’ learning environment: ‘You need structures to take you to something in the first place, but then it’s creating a kind of safe place, or a safe place and enough space to stay with that artwork.’48

Underpinning these accounts is a sense that, because learning can happen via experimentation, which can be a challenging experience, the parameters of the learning experience need to be made explicit to the learner. In other words, it needs ‘lots of things to make you feel safe … to know that the uncertainty is the experience of being here’.49 Learning staff therefore need to put in place structures that afford pedagogic ‘safety’ to visitors, but also communicate this in a way that aligns with the collaborative, dialogic model they subscribe to. In this way the gallery becomes a place where visitors can challenge, question, engage, reflect and embrace uncertainty in order to learn.

Allowing for rich learning experiences that might be challenging for some is seen by learning staff to require careful support and facilitation through the formulation of particular activities or modes of engagement. Team Member 1 described it in these terms: ‘I’m not saying that you leave the visitor unsupported. You have to scaffold the experience. That is about design, how you design an activity so that you enable deep and complex thinking.’50 As Team Member 1 pointed out, the learning staff have appropriated the notion scaffolding as a support structure and have embedded it within their work, although the term may not always be explicitly used as such. Scaffolding was defined in 1976 as a process that ‘enables a child or a novice to solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts’.51 Since then, researchers have expanded this definition of scaffolding, applying it to learning that takes place both inside and outside of the classroom.52 Although the term is most frequently used with reference to conceptual or cognitive learning, it can also apply to affective and social learning as well, which may be particularly relevant for learning programmes at Tate. One important element of the process is that ‘scaffolds’ are not permanent structures; they are removed over time or ‘faded’ as the learner becomes more comfortable or increases in confidence and understanding. At Tate, then, scaffolding can be conceptualised as practices utilised to support visitors in their initial engagement; to draw visitors in to experiences involving elements of challenge, risk and experimentation.

Team Member 5 described how one programme (Open Studio), which is designed primarily to engage families and very young children, provides a safe yet experimental environment through careful framing of the physical space and social interactions. This programme attempts to achieve a balance between structure and openness; for example, it takes place in a physically bounded space that has been given a name, ‘studio’, which is likely to resonate with audiences as something familiar, a space in which art is created. At the same time, Open Studio provides open-ended activities that are designed by artists and intended to be initiated and developed by the children. Experiences in Open Studio are supported (but not led) by staff members, whose role is to help parents and children feel sufficiently comfortable and confident, so that they experiment and engage with art practices in that space. Mirroring the artist’s process, the children are encouraged to experiment with a range of materials and scenarios (such as working with transparencies on an overhead projector to create large-scale shifting images). However, Team Member 5 was aware that there is a balance to be struck between providing adequate structure and direction and maintaining the necessary openness and sense of what the philosopher and teacher Maxine Greene has referred to as ‘the awareness of what is not yet’.53 Team Member 5 summarised their ambition for Open Studio in these words: ‘So giving enough safety to create uncertainty or disjuncture or an interruption … For a moment you don’t know, and to let that happen and not save you … but to make you feel safe enough.’54 This gives some indication of the form that scaffolding can take. Building on the idea that ‘safe spaces’ enable the learner to challenge themselves, Team Member 5 suggested that disruptive moments might be considered as a form of scaffolding. This view was shared by Team Member 2, who described their intention of weaving disruptive moments into events: ‘moments that might spike people’s interest; that might be these disruptive moments for our participants, at different points.’55 There are echoes here of the characterisation of art and artists having the capacity to challenge current thinking and bring about new understandings. Disruptions, if they are crafted in such a way as to challenge participants appropriately, serve to propel learners toward new understandings.

Desired outcomes for the learning process 

Tate staff articulated in the interviews how learning as a supported process of disruption can bring about their desired outcomes. It has been identified that the acquisition of subject-specific knowledge in and of itself is not perceived to be a priority, but that the confidence to experiment, take risks and ‘not know’ is seen as important. Learning should, according to these individuals, bring about change in how people think and feel and enable them to find new ways of engaging with art; what one team member described as changes in ‘habits of mind’. More specifically, it has been noted that the creative learning modelled by artists is seen to provide a positive exemplar to learners, which suggests that a high value is placed on ‘artistic’ ways of thinking.

The question remains, in what ways are these desired outcomes significant? Or, to put it another way, why do the interviewees think learning is important in the context of the museum and what, specifically, can it afford? What emerged is that the perspectives and practices of staff at Tate seem to be underpinned by underlying principles and values, principally those of respect, equality, democracy and inclusiveness. The importance attached to these values suggests that there is an ethical dimension to the facilitation of learning at Tate, which directly informs the practices, contexts and processes that learning staff put in place, and which, according to the interviewees, can lead to specific and positive outcomes. For example, these creative pedagogic conditions and processes may empower young people, provide visitors with skills, confidence and ‘the questions to unlock a few things’, as well as challenge ideas and existing ways of thinking.56 That these opportunities should be made available to all was suggested by Team Member 6, who identified that learning should concern itself with ‘opening up’ art and ideas to disenfranchised people.57  

Connections can be made between the particular approaches adopted within the Learning Department at Tate (including and especially the employment of artists) and these desired outcomes. For example, one way in which this ‘opening up’ may occur is via knowledge exchange between learners, team members and artists, which in turn can facilitate critical engagement with ideas. The value of this exchange is reiterated by Team Member 3 (specifically in relation to teachers and pupils) and Team Member 6, both of whom recognised that this process requires listening to and respecting multiple voices. They argued that through this process ideas can be questioned or challenged, most notably in relation to what constitutes ‘art’ and that learning can bring about: ‘an unsettling, or an unravelling, of an idea – like a concept like outcome versus process or something. Really playing with that through practice and with teachers, to challenge ideas around what is seen traditionally within a school setting as “good art”.’58

While acknowledging that ideas are explored with learners, this quotation draws attention to the challenges faced by the learning team at Tate with regard to establishing equal power relations within the context of the gallery. In the case of the example given above, teachers are invited to question their practice but within the context of a programme where the parameters will have been already established to a significant degree. As has been found, interviewees are very clear that they create specific contexts and work with artists and others to support a particular pedagogic process within which learners are prompted to question and disrupt their existing knowledge and invited to think in new ways. Yet, while members of the learning team encourage dialogue and experimentation, it would also appear that they ultimately remain in control. What is revealed here can perhaps be understood as a variance between micro and macro levels of power sharing. On the micro level of meaning construction there is an aspiration towards absolute equality – teachers and learners share knowledge equitably through dialogue – while on the macro level of programme development and facilitation it would appear that gallery staff and artists retain the greater share of power. Arguably this latter ‘unequal’ power relationship is necessary to ensure that there is a sufficiently supportive structure to allow for experimentation and questioning within an epistemologically ‘safe’ space. However, this does raise questions about the extent to which the pedagogic processes in place in the gallery can allow for absolute equality in terms of knowledge and power sharing.

Provisional conclusions 

Overall, learning at Tate as perceived by the interviewees is a process of change that contains within it moments of rupture. It is social and collaborative, brought about through dialogue, experimentation, and through direct engagement with art and artists (the latter playing a central role), and although these have been discussed as separate processes, they are inextricably interwoven. Moreover, these processes can all involve an element of risk and uncertainty, hence certain conditions and practices within the learning context are necessary to support such changes. These interconnected processes and the contexts within which they take place are perceived to bring about particular learning outcomes. For example knowledge exchange within a dialogic process is seen to enable questioning and experimentation, which supports the construction of new knowledge and understanding, which in turn builds learner confidence.

The interviews with Tate learning staff reveal a great deal about how learning is constructed within the art gallery, not least because of the broad coherence of views on what constitutes learning. While it is perhaps unsurprising that these views align with the principles outlined in the learning strategy prepared by Anna Cutler (which includes adopting more participatory, learner-centred approaches and prioritising the creation of learning contexts and opportunities over the transmission of ‘expert knowledge’ about the artwork), and hence correspond with the institutional viewpoint to which they subscribe, the articulation of learning as a disruptive process of change brought about through an engagement with art and ideas (which is not articulated in the strategy) suggests an overarching rationale and a specific frame through which these individuals conceive their programmes, which is closely linked with artistic practice.

It is this construction of learning that can be seen to underpin the team members’ approach to developing learning situations and activities. In other words, it is because they see learning as a process of change that occurs through moments of rupture that they recognise that particular conditions need to be in place to allow this to happen, namely ‘safe’ spaces alongside effective support from key individuals (which include learning staff but also artists) who are themselves experienced in negotiating this potentially treacherous process. Congruent with this is the interviewees’ recognition that visitors’ existing knowledge is a vital component in the process. Learning in the gallery is seen to be transformative, but it is the learners who on a micro scale engender their own transformation by building on and sharing their expertise, by rupturing and questioning, while being supported by the learning team, rather than by passively absorbing information about the artworks. Active engagement and learner agency are fundamental to learning as perceived by these individuals. However, on the level of programme development, control is retained predominantly by the gallery staff so as to engender and support the learning process.

What are the implications of this view of learning as a process of change? In the first instance, as noted above, this view can be seen to diverge from perceptions of learning currently advocated within formal education, most noticeably in relation to primary and secondary education and could cause difficulties in terms of what teachers (or, indeed, other visitors whose experience of learning is confined to transmissive models) might anticipate from a visit to the gallery. Second, as has been identified, this perception moves away from a commonly held constructivist view of learning in museums in which the learner is encouraged to make continuous connections with what they already know and which presupposes that the responsibility of a museum is to ‘focus on the visitor, not on the content of the museum’.59 Instead, the role of learning staff is to engineer disruptive moments that allow the learner to develop new understandings about art. Arguably, this latter view suggests that the learning team’s responsibility is to focus on the process of learning as well as the visitor and the museum.

Learning, as constructed by these individuals, should enable people to develop skills to interpret art and thereby gain confidence and critical awareness. In line with this, the interviews suggest that there is scope for learning in the gallery to engender something powerful and far reaching, namely the empowering of the individual to take a critical position for themselves, should they choose to. Learning in the gallery as constructed here is a creative, complex and emergent process that is constantly shifting and transforming, and while these interviews cannot provide a comprehensive or universal definition of the practice, they nonetheless give insights into why particular forms of learning may or may not take place in cultural venues such as Tate.

Undertaking this research and writing this paper has provided an opportunity for analysis and reflection and the aim of this paper has been to highlight the value of reflecting on practice. It is recognised that opportunities to do so are rare in most cultural organisations where the pressure on programme delivery is substantial, but this paper advocates for a greater emphasis on the questioning and interrogation of learning within the gallery sector, as this process has supported the development of practice within Tate. At the same time, as noted in the introduction, this research does not set out to claim that Tate’s approach is better than others and it is recognised that in many ways Tate is in a unique and privileged position. As such, strong claims cannot be made about the implications of this research for other organisations working in different contexts, but it is hoped that this study will encourage others to explore and question what has been identified here.