Skip to content

Blog post

The unspoken power of collage

Suzanne Culshaw

‘Collages manage to satisfy all of my madness. I’m able to make these obsessive things but then I’m also able to make these very strong statements… in my mind they have a very strong particular resonance; there’s sort of a power.’
Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan artist)


A lot of us are good talkers. Many of us can write pretty well, too. We play with words, we use words to explain our thoughts and perspectives. But, sometimes, there are experiences where words simply do not suffice; using arts can help elicit feelings and sensations which go beyond so-called linguistic thinking. This blog advocates the use of collage in a research study – one which looks at the phenomenon of ‘struggling’ – to supplement and complement the spoken word.

I wouldn’t consider myself particularly artistic or creative, which is why I was a bit sceptical at first about using collage as a research method for my study. However, there is a growing literature supporting the use of arts-based methods, including collage (see Bailey and Van Harken 2014; Butler-Kisber and Poldma 2010). Such methods can enable research participants and researchers alike to think beyond the spoken word. We might call that ‘visual thinking.’ One of the particular advantages of collage is that it allows you the freedom to place and move materials, rather than relying on your innate artistic ability. Some of us have residual hang-ups from our school days about how bad we were at art, yet collage offers the chance to produce an artefact without being overly artistic.

Some sceptics – of collage specifically or arts-based methods more generally – argue that the collage is merely a catalyst to get at the meaning that participants ascribe to a concept (in the case of my study, the concept of ‘struggling’), rather than collage being a form of data in and of itself (see for instance Sinner et al 2006). There are those who see the meaning as pre-existing – the collage just helps you get at it – and those who see the process of creating a collage as revelatory, uncovering a meaning that might not otherwise have come to the fore. Scepticism also arises from questions surrounding rigour and the merits of arts-based methods, and even what constitutes artful expression.

‘Collage not only supports the meaning-making process, it also adds meaning in a way that the spoken word arguably cannot.’

A year ago I would have probably placed myself in the sceptic camp. But now, having created my own collage and witnessed 16 teachers create theirs as part of my doctoral research exploring what it means to be struggling as a teacher, I can honestly say that the process (of making a collage) and the product (the collage itself) are powerful in ways you might not imagine. Collage not only supports the meaning-making process, it also adds meaning in a way that the spoken word arguably cannot.

One of the challenges for me as a researcher is to make sure that I give as much attention to the collages produced as to the stories told in the spoken interviews. I haven’t yet managed to find all that much in the literature about how to analyse collage, but I am considering using collage as an analytical tool. In my research, teachers who self-identify as struggling create a collage to express how the experience of struggling feels to them. The focus is predominantly but not exclusively on the experience of struggling itself, rather than on the causes or object of struggle. One of my participants used the pink pot of playdough to represent their headteacher; I know the head is a woman and assumed pink was a gender-specific choice. Apparently not. So I need to remain mindful of the dangers of overinterpretation.

Collage was never going to provide the answer to what it means to be struggling as a teacher; but it can certainly help provide a range of answers to my overarching research question. Or, as David Shields says, it might at least help ‘let a thousand discrepancies bloom.’


Bailey N M and Van Harken E M (2014) ‘Visual Images as Tools of Teacher Inquiry’, Journal of Teacher Education 65(3): 241–260

Bessette H J (2008) ‘Using students’ drawings to elicit general and special educators’ perceptions of co-teaching’, Teaching and Teacher Education 24(5): 1376–1396

Butler-Kisber L and Poldma T (2010) ‘The power of visual approaches in qualitative inquiry: The use of collage making and concept mapping in experiential research’, Journal of Research Practice 6(2): article M18

Marshall J (2007) ‘Image as insight: Visual images in practice-based research’, Studies in Art Education 49(1): 23–41

Sinner A, Leggo C, Irwin R L, Gouzouasis P and Grauer K (2006) ‘Arts-based educational research dissertations: Reviewing the practices of new scholars’, Canadian Journal of Education 29(4): 1223–1270

Weber S and Mitchell C (1995) ‘Drawing Ourselves into Teaching: Studying the Images That Shape and Distort Teacher Education’, draft version. Retrieved from http.//

Woods P A and Roberts A (2013). ‘Distributed Leadership and Social Justice: A case study investigation of distributed leadership and the extent to which it promotes social justice and democratic practices’, in School Leadership as a driving force for equity and learning: Comparative perspective, Del 4.1, Centre for Educational Leadership, University of Hertfordshire