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Researchers drawing on teachers’ tools: Picturebooks with migrant learners

Helen Hanna

This blog post springs from a symposium I convened at BERA Conference 2018 entitled ‘Using creative methods to explore complex topics with young participants’. The symposium reflected my growing interest in the topical areas of creative visual research methods. This post focusses on my experimentation with the picturebook as a tool to promote inclusion of migrant learners in research and education in South Africa and England. My interest in the method followed from my concern for the ‘gap’ in knowledge – I was struck by how, in contrast to the amount of research focussing on language issues among migrant learners (for example, Arnot et al, 2014), there was very little that explored their broader experiences from their own points of view. This motivated me to go outside my own comfort zone and find other methods of accessing such groups. Previous research using picturebooks (Arizpe, Colomer & Martínez-Roldán, 2014) and frameworks on inclusive education (Black-Hawkins, Florian & Rouse, 2007), were my guide.

‘I wanted to find out how primary school teachers might use wordless picturebooks to promote discussion in class.’

As a non-teacher, I wanted to find out how primary school teachers might use wordless picturebooks to promote discussion in class – after all, they are the ones who spend seven hours a day with learners. I used The Arrival (Tan, 2006) as a research tool with migrant learners, selected partly for its lack of words and partly for its story – that of a man who is forced to leave his family in a dangerous country and migrate, alone, to an alien and perplexing one. The beauty of this book was both its accessibility in terms of language and the story of migration itself, which linked with the learners’ own situation.

The picturebook as ‘mirror, window and sliding glass door’

Rudine Sims Bishop first described, beautifully, a book’s potential to be a ‘mirror’, a ‘window’ or a ‘sliding glass door’ (1990). It can be a mirror in terms of reflecting a child and their world back to them; a window onto another world; and a sliding glass door through which a child can see another world and then have the chance to enter.

The learner-researchers were quickly absorbed by the weird and wonderful world that Tan creates. I provided large colour copies of certain scenes in the book. They stuck post-it notes on the copies to indicate two things: how they thought the man was feeling, and what people could do to help him. This was a way of harnessing their sense of empathy with the man, tapping into their own experiences of migration and allowing ideas around how they might wish to be supported to come out, without it feeling too personal or revealing. It allowed the migrant participants to show that they are experts on their own lives, conveying the message that their views and experiences matter.

Teachers and researchers learning from each other

This work has helped me appreciate the potential for teachers and researchers to learn from each other. When working with children, teachers and educational researchers often face common challenges (Kincheloe, 2012). Teachers, confronted with a curriculum spanning topics from algebra to contemporary music, must find a way to make ideas relatable, accessible and tangible for their pupils, to enable their learning and attainment. Educational researchers, similarly, must also find a medium through which to approach complex social issues and questions with those learners who are most affected.

I believe that for educational researchers like me who do not come from a teaching background, we have much to learn from teachers who are at the coalface every day. And perhaps we researchers have something we can share with teachers, too, learned through the careful and time-consuming analysis we do of our work with diverse learners that teachers rarely have the time to do.

In conclusion, I have become convinced of two things: that the picturebook, a common teaching tool in primary schools, offers a potentially inclusive research tool; and that teachers and educational researchers can help each other by collaborating to design methods that are ‘fit for purpose’.


The South African part of the research was funded by a British Academy small grant.


Arizpe, E., Colomer, T. & Martínez-Roldán, C. (2014). Visual Journeys Through Wordless Narratives. London: Bloomsbury.

Arnot, M., Schneider, C., Evans, M., Liu, Y., Welply, O. & Davies-Tutt, D. (2014) School approaches to the education of EAL students: Language development, social integration and achievement. Cambridge: Bell Foundation. Retrieved from: (full report); (executive summary).

Black-Hawkins, K., Florian, L. & Rouse, M. (2007) Achievement and Inclusion in Schools. London: Routledge.

Kincheloe, J. (2012) Teachers as Researchers, third edition. London: Routledge.

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix–xi. Retrieved from:

Tan, S. (2006) The Arrival. London: Hodder.