Over the past 20 years, the use and development of visual methods and media has increasingly become part of mainstream academia across social science and humanities research and dissemination. In 2001, I published my first book in this area, titled Doing Visual Ethnography. At the time, visual methods were still not necessarily treated seriously by many academics. Since then, I have both participated in and witnessed the growth of visual methods as a dynamic field of practice, distributed across various disciplines and interdisciplinary fields, informed by a range of different theories of knowledge and of sensory and visual experience, and accompanied by a keen interest in and commitment to ethical conduct and debate.
The new initiative, signalled by this first book in the new Brill Visual Methodologies series, is an important extension of the field as we move into the third decade of the twenty-first century. This is particularly so in a contemporary context, where it has become imperative that academic research and scholarship has an impact beyond its conventional scope in academia. Visual methods and media continue to play a significant role in academic research, and at the interface between academic, applied and public research agenda. They offer us modes of researching that create direct lines of continuity between the sites where research is undertaken and those where we seek to make critical interventions outside academia. That is, they offer us ways in which to broker connections between different stakeholders in our futures, thereby allowing for the potential to bring about new modes of understanding and practice.
Pedagogy and education studies have always been vibrant fields of practice in the development of visual methods internationally, and indeed they have provided some of the inspiration for my early work in this area. This area has, on the one hand, contributed insights into the question of how we know and learn, thus offering foundations for understanding not only how others learn, but also how researchers themselves learn, with visual materials. The field has also raised specific ethical questions relating both to the participation of children in research projects and their representation as well as to the rights of children to be able to make their own choices about participation and self-representation. These raise complex issues, which I do not pretend to be able to address myself, but leave to those who work in this area. I mention them, however, to highlight the way in which these, amongst other themes, suggest that researchers in the field of learning and pedagogy often need to be at the forefront of the key debates in which visual researchers are engaged.
This is also the case because learning studies constitute an applied field of research, which is designed to have an impact not only on academic debates but also on people’s lives and futures. Therein lies a responsibility to uncover what matters and to enable the findings of research to play a role in shaping ‘better’ futures. I return to this question below in relation to the role of visual research methods and a ‘seeing’ approach in such an agenda.
Alongside the development of visual methods and media in academic research, the advent of mobile personal technologies – such as smartphones and tablets – the ways in which we experience our worlds through our sensory, affective and embodied relationships with technology have become part of our everyday lives and academic studies. As researchers, we use these technologies ourselves, as part of our fieldwork kit and in our personal lives; we study how others use them in their lives; and we engage them to produce and save the methods of knowing that our research participants co-create within projects. As such, the field of visual research methods is one that has grown and co-evolved with developments in visual technologies of recording and dissemination. In recent years, social researchers have expanded their use of visual and digital technologies, beyond still photography and video documentary, to experiment with the use of camera phones, GoPros, 360-degree cameras and drone photography within research. We grow up, live and learn in a world that is visually and technologically mediated in such ways that our research in and as part of this world and this visual-technological environment are likewise inextricable.
This means that still and moving images and the way in which children learn and know in the world, inside and outside of formal learning environments, are inextricable. This, together with more traditional drawing and other modes of visual engagement with materials, things and the environment, invites us to consider how the rich visuality of everyday life constitutes and expresses how we feel in the world. As the editor of this book notes, attention to such questions enables us to gain deeper understandings of others’ worlds by seeking to see with them, or to at least acknowledge better how they see. Importantly, by learning to see as others do, and by developing new methodologies through which to do so, we can put these people’s needs at the centre of our agendas for development and change. This is important because, as I explain further below, such agendas, when formulated from above, too often tend to rely on the idea that change could be driven by technological innovation.
The idea of Seeing the World through Children’s Eyes therefore offers a way forward in theory, research and practice for the study of early learning. It invites us to ask what the world is like from the perspective of a child; to explore this as a matter of perception; and to put such questions relating to how the world is known, experienced and learned at the centre of the agenda. In doing so, researchers can establish a starting point that is resistant to contrary agendas that seek to impact on human lives and futures ‘from above’ because working from the ground up always demonstrates that what people see, experience and need in order to feel right, comfortable and confident in their everyday worlds should take precedence in the design of technologies, policies and services for learning.
Asking how people – and in the case of this book, children and teachers – create a window into what matters in everyday life, visual methods and media offer us ways of understanding people, their lives and their experiences. Seeing is never solely about the visual dimensions of experience but rather, similarly to other sensory categories, offers us a route into considering other elements of sensory experience or what it feels like to be in the world. Visual methods and media are particularly useful as modes of investigating, communicating and learning about those elements of human experience, knowing and feeling that are difficult or perhaps impossible to express verbally.
Early learning is an interdisciplinary field, and while associated perhaps most strongly with studies in education and pedagogy, it raises a series of interdisciplinary questions. It also brings to the fore insights that those from other disciplines, who seek to create environments and technologies for early learning, should consider. Indeed seeing the world through children’s eyes offers a corrective, in various senses, to approaches that fail to put human experience and knowledge at the centre of their methodology. This is because it emphasises the importance of putting those people whose worlds we are seeking to design, improve or introduce new innovations into in some way, at the centre of our agendas.
In the present, it is perhaps even more important than ever that a sensitivity to the everyday, the sensory and the experiential, which is brought by qualitative visual methodologies, should be emphasised. We live in a context where data-driven design and policy are gaining favour with governments and industry, and where big data analytics appear to offer ‘solutions’ to the unpredictability of our futures. In this context, we need to be able to respond to the predictive stance of big data analytics and the certainties that risk-averse audit cultures seek to project, with all of the complexity and uncertainty that qualitative social sciences reveal. This is important because it is only an appreciation of this complexity that will enable the responsibility and ethics required to push forward in a context where the detail is obscured by big data. Moreover, in the contemporary context of emerging technologies of artificial intelligence and automated decision-making, this qualitative detail, which emerges from fine-grained visual studies in everyday life contexts, is also important. We need, for example, to know where, when and how human and artificial intelligence should meet, and where responsibilities should lie. We should also ask how human and machine learning might best work relationally, and what the ethics and responsibilities of such relationships might be. Today’s early learners will grow up in an increasingly intelligent technological environment. Visual methods and media provide us with an entry point into such environments and a means of understanding the ways in which that they are experienced. Therefore, they offer us one method of producing ways of knowing that will support arguments that seek to ensure that the design of future technologies and policy are aligned with real human needs as we move on into as-yet-uncertain futures.