Lecturer in Initial Teacher Education

Tel: 0131 474 0000

Dr Helen Burns (EdD, FHEA, MA, BA(hons) is a Lecturer in Initial Teacher Education in the Psychology, Sociology and Education Division. 

  • Overview
  • Research Interests
  • Teaching & Learning
  • Activities & Awards
  • Academic awards

I am interested in how individual and social agency can emerge through experiences which support learners to understand and develop their imagination, creativity, metacognition and resilience. The need to nurture these capacities is reinforced by our situation in a post-human, neo-liberal context, facing climate emergency and significant challenges to social justice. Understanding and supporting imagination as a fundamental, permeating aspect of cognition and metacognition is a key area of my research and teaching. Having started out as an artist, going on to work in museums, galleries and managing a national, creative education programme (Creative Partnerships), I have a special interest in learning and researching in and through visual art to address the issues described above.

Prior to coming to Queen Margaret, I worked on RAPS (Researching Art in Primary Schools), led by Prof. Pat Thomson at Nottingham University. Before this I was Senior Research Fellow at Newcastle University. As well as researching, I led the MA International Education module ‘Developing Thinking Skills’ and the BA Education module ‘Developing Creative Thinking’, also supervising PhD and MA dissertation students. I have taught Primary PGCE art, craft and design at Newcastle since 2013. Before Newcastle, I spent 4 years as a researcher at Durham University. As well as researching, I taught MA ‘Arts in Education’ and research methods (action, participatory action, case study) for postgraduate and doctoral students.

My Doctoral thesis was a pragmatic, interdisciplinary exploration of cognitive and metacognitive imagination and how this can be supported through visual-arts experience. I gained a distinction for my MA in Library and Information Management in which my dissertation focused on visual classification, related to Foucault's concepts of cultural relativity.

In my professional life I was Programme Manager for the national 'Creative Partnerships' programme, for schools across six English regions. This followed roles as Regional Programmer for the Cultural Olympiad, as Schools and Colleges Programmer at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and Learning Officer for Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. As a graduate of Glasgow School of Art, I was a creative practitioner in school and community education settings with young people and minority groups, mainly in socially and economically deprived areas of Glasgow.

I am a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and of the Royal Society of Arts, sit on the All Party Parliamentary Group for Art and Design in Education and am an RSA ‘Evidence Champion’. I contribute annually to the ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership conference on visual methodologies, hosted by Newcastle University. I continue to co-supervise 2 PhD students at Newcastle University.

At Nottingham University, I worked with Prof. Pat Thomson on ‘RAPS’ (Researching Arts in Primary Schools). As Senior Research Fellow at Newcastle University, my action research into ‘Art and SOLE’ (ESRC, British Academy) investigated using hybrid pedagogies which combined SOLEs (Self-Organised Learning Environments), thinking skills and art, to support voice. I led ‘Eurosole’ (Erasmus+); design-based research into using SOLEs to address early school leaving in five European settings. I was Co-Investigator on DARE (Dream Achieve Realise Express, [Caritas]), which explored using SOLES to transform soviet-style teaching in Ukraine, Moldova and Romania.

At Durham University projects included ‘Mind the Gap’ (Education Endowment Foundation). This used mixed methods, combining a randomised controlled trial and visual approaches to explore impacts of a stop-motion-animation project on attainment and metacognition. I led ‘Mapping Transformation through Contemporary Art’ (British Academy), a multiple case study, mapping the development of children’s metacognition during metaphor-based, art experiences at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.  

Active research interests:

  • Research which aims to improve social justice, particularly in areas of Social and Economic Deprivation.
  • Researching the pedagogic application of theoretical ‘models’ of cognitive and metacognitive imagination which I have developed, in different education contexts, with different learners.
  • Exploring the relationships in the following hypothesis: imagination (enables) creativity (enables) metacognition (enables) voice (enables) social agency (enables) social justice.
  • Contemporary art experiences for supporting metacognition and through this, voice/social agency.
  • Exploring ‘art activism’ in relation to the climate emergency, as a vehicle for developing metacognition about imagination, as a means of developing voice and agency to support new ways of becoming in a post-human context.
  • Creative and arts-based pedagogies.
  • Imagination and creativity.
  • Metacognition.
  • Thinking skills/transferrable thinking.

Research Methods:

  • Pragmatic, interdisciplinary, creative approaches
  • Visual methods
  • Art-based methods
  • Action research
  • Qualitative methods
  • Mixed methods
  • Case study approaches
  • Ethnography
  • Grounded theory

Research/KE Centres

Associate, Centre for applied Social Sciences



  • Global Health and International Education (BA Education Studies)[Module Co-ordinator]
  • Inclusive Practice: Difference and Diversity
  • Introduction to Education Studies in the 21st Century
  • Introduction to Academia (Sociology)

In development:

  • Learning in and through Art (BA Education Studies)

10.05.21     Keynote: Cultural Development Administration, Region Vastraa Gotaland, Sweden, ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ online conference, presentation ‘Nurturing Imagination for Democratic Agency’     

11.09.19     Presentation: Voice Researcher Forum, Newcastle University, ‘Voice’  

05.09.19     Presentation: ECER (European Conference for Education Research) ‘Contemporary Art and SOLE: A pedagogy for autonomy?’

24.06.19     Keynote and workshop, ESRC Doctoral Training Event: ‘Visually Mediated Research: Using visual methods in the social sciences’, Newcastle University, ‘Why use art-based research methods? Supporting Imagination, Voice, Agency and Democracy’

01.05.19     Presentation: Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, ‘Contemporary Art and SOLE’

16.10.18     Keynote: Culture Bridge North East ‘Imagine If’ conference, Centre for Life, Newcastle, ‘How Arts and Culture Support Imagination, Metacognition and Democratic Participation’

04.10.18     Accepted to RSA Evidence Champions Network

27.09.18     Presentation: Partners for Youth Empowerment, ‘Global Gathering’, Luxor, Egypt, ‘Imagination, Metacognition, Empowerment’

22.09.18     Presentation: International Digital Storytelling Conference, ‘Current Trends in digital Storytelling’, Technological Educational Institute of the Ionian Islands, Zakynthos ‘Conceptualising the pedagogic and socio-cultural outcomes of an innovative digital storytelling award in the UK’

05.09.18     Presentation: ECER, Bolzano, ‘Modelling Imagination and Metacognition’

25.06.18     Presentation: ESRC Doctoral Training Event: ‘Visually Mediated Research: Using visual methods in the social sciences’, Newcastle University, ‘Visual Research Methods, Imagination and Democratic Agency’

30.01.18     Keynote: ‘Kultur I Vast’ conference, Bergakungen, Skanegatan, Gothenberg, Sweden ‘Imagining Imagination for Democratic Participation’

7.11.17       Presentation and workshops ‘Carrying out and Evaluating SOLEs’ for education practitioners in Bucharest, Romania

21.11.17     Presentation and workshops ‘Carrying out and Evaluating SOLEs’ for education practitioners in Kiev, Ukraine

04.10.17     Presentation: ‘Imagine If’ Culture Bridge Conference, Newcastle

23.08.16     Presentation: ECER (European Conference for Education Research), Dublin

27.06.16     Presentation: ESRC Doctoral Training Event: ‘Visually Mediated Research: Using visual methods in the social sciences’, Newcastle University

09.03.16     Presentation and workshop: Freedom to Learn Conference: ‘Freedom, Autonomy and Democracy’, Hull University, ‘SOLEs for Autonomy and Democracy’

2019 Bid development funding for ‘State of Imagination’ proposal, Newcastle University, (£4,000)

2017 Contemporary Art and SOLE, Economic and Social Research Council, Impact Acceleration Account, (£10,000) see: https://research.ncl.ac.uk/thinkingthroughart/

2016 DARE (Dream, Achieve, Realise, Express) Caritas (£93,000). CoI https://research.ncl.ac.uk/dare/

2016 Eurosole, Erasmus+. (£326,000). PI

2016 Art and SOLE, Rising Stars Engagement Award, British Academy. (£15,000)            

2013 Mapping Transformation through Contemporary Art, School of Education, Durham University in partnership with Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. British Academy (£15,000 + partner support).