An examination of the social and cultural factors affecting art education in English schools for the blind



Simon James Hayhoe



A thesis submitted to

The University of Birmingham

for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy



Supervised by Professors John Hull & Ruth Watts





                                                          School of Education

                                                          Birmingham University,

          October 2005







 Chapter 1



Eco Sound Logo 


To contact us:




We are based in:


Leicester, UK  



The aims and objectives of this study

This thesis examines whether social and cultural attitudes influence the art education of the blind[1], and whether these factors can detrimentally affect the experiences and behaviour of students. Its aim is to contribute to an understanding of the pedagogy of art education and blindness. Its objective is to contribute to the broader debate on the nature of inclusion and blindness/disability. This chapter now continues by describing the reasons for this investigation, and explaining the structure of this thesis. It begins by presenting its aims and objectives, and continues by discussing the study’s hypotheses and research questions.


The aims and objectives of this chapter

This chapter aims to introduce the reader to the:

  • notions, research questions and hypotheses on which this study was founded
  • structure of the thesis
  • story of how this study was conceived


The objective of this chapter is to provide the reader with a foundation on which to understand how this study was developed and can be read. What follows are the research questions and the three hypotheses that form its core.

The study’s hypotheses and research questions

Evidence gathered for this study indicates that esoteric assumptions about disability shape our image of people who are blind. Consequently, this thesis’ three hypotheses address the social nature and representation of disability. They also question how social factors affect the ways in which people who are blind are treated in art education. The hypotheses are thus:

  1. Attitudes towards blindness and art education can be influenced by social and cultural factors that are not directly related to blindness/disability or art education
  2. Where attitudes [described in the first hypothesis] have negatively affected the experiences of students who are blind, they have also affected their behaviour in art classes
  3. Attitudes towards students who are blind in art education changed after the 1981 Education Act, and this made students educated after this period more willing to undertake new art tasks


In order to investigate these hypotheses, I have focused the analysis of this study on the following research questions:

1.      Can attitudes towards blindness in art education merely be discussed in terms of a physical disability, or are they affected by social and cultural assumptions?

2.      What does blindness stop people from doing in art education?


It is arguable that these questions are not only relevant to the arguments I make in this study, they also address fundamental issues raised by our contemporary approach to disabilities, as visual art education and blindness appear to be ill-matched. In order to introduce the background to these questions, it is important to see them through the notion of perceptual disability in educational studies. Thus this study continues by describing the process of its hypothecation and the formulation of the research questions.


How this study was approached


The original study

The hypotheses were formulated for this study after my original study of arts and blindness back in 1993 for a Master of Education degree. This study was an ethnographic evaluation of teaching practices. It involved observing courses run specifically for adults who were visually impaired in the continuing studies departments of the universities of Leicester and Bristol. It was particularly unusual because the students I studied were all blind from birth or in their early childhood, and none of them had art education when they were in schools for the blind.


The evaluation used ethnographic research methodology, which consisted of an academic year’s participant observation of classes, and interviews with the students. After gathering the data, it was analysed using Walter Doyle’s (1979, 1983) framework of ambiguity and risk in classroom management. This model was designed to assess teacher’s classroom management, and so it was particularly applicable to my classroom observations. According to this model, the greater the ambiguities were in the educational tasks of students who had never performed the tasks, the less likely students were to take risks in them (Hayhoe, 2000, 1995). This is illustrated by the following table.


Table 1:1. Table illustrating Walter Doyle’s theory of ambiguity & risk.


High Risk


Low Risk


High Ambiguity







Low Ambiguity


Memory II

Routine II


Memory I

Routine I



Reproduced from Hayhoe (2000: p.241)


In[2] this table a highly ambiguous task is seen as one that holds no firm answer; such as an argument in a debate, or the sculptural interpretation of a figure, in which the exact form of the goal is highly subjective. In Doyle’s terms, the amount of risk posed to the beginner students’ self-esteem in the performance of the task depends upon the amount of knowledge the student is expected to possess.


For example, if the task were high risk, then they would be expected to have a broad understanding of the task, and produce a highly skilled sculpture or knowledgeable argument after having practised this task many times before. On the other hand, if the student is not expected to perform so highly then the task poses a low risk, and they need only have an opinion in its performance, merely demanding a loose sculpture or a shallow argument.


In contrast, a task with low ambiguity is one that has a very definite goal. In short, it produces an answer or product that is highly objective, such as the performance of a mathematical formula or a technical drawing. According to Doyle, low ambiguity tasks require the use of both memory and routine in their performance, with the higher the risk to the beginning student, the more memory and routine being needed for the task.


For example, the performance of E = MC2 when given E, M and C or the drawing of a spanner of a set size would pose little risk to a beginner student, as it would only require a small amount of memory and routine (Memory & Routine I). However, the performance of the complex Monte Carlo Method’s formula, or the drawing of a circuit diagram of a computer mother-board to specific measurements would contain much higher risk, as it would require very large amounts of memory and routine (Memory & Routine II).


In his study of the implementation of this analytical framework in classroom situations, Doyle (1983) argues that the amount of risk to the students’ self-esteem governs their social performance of these tasks in classroom environments. In this case, he found the greater the ambiguity in a task’s performance to a beginner student, the more likely these students were to flounder and create strategies to avoid its performance, or make the task less ambiguous.


Similar findings were also produced when the amount of risk increased in a task’s performance. However, the avoidance of risk was especially unfortunate as Doyle identified that it was precisely these tasks that were most appropriate to increasing the beginner students’ learning. He concludes that students can actively avoid tasks if given a situation in the early stages of learning that is too ambiguous and whose assessment is too harsh. In this situation students may, he feels, renegotiate the terms of the assessment to reduce or ‘manage’ the task’s ambiguity.


What follows is a description of my application of Doyle’s model.


My findings using Doyle’s model

As with Doyle, in my observations I found that many  beginner students had low self-esteem. Consequently they were less likely to take risks in ambiguous classroom tasks. They particularly avoided techniques that they had not encountered before. I also found that, like some of Doyle’s teachers, when the students with little experience avoided difficult tasks, their teachers would collude in this avoidance. This allowed them to remain using low risk strategies.


These findings led me to the following conclusions. Because the students who were congenitally or early blind had little or no art education when they were young, they had low self-esteem. As a result they were also less willing to take risks in their art classes as adults. Their teachers’ attitudes simply reinforced this behaviour, causing a sense of what is termed ‘learned helplessness’ (Deci & Chandler, 1986; Arnold, 1997).


These findings appeared to be interesting, however they did not provide a full or subtle enough picture of what was going on in the classes. Firstly, I observed only a single sub-group of students. Therefore, I could not see beyond their immediate personal histories in education. Although I conducted interviews with many of them, I had restricted them to narrow, relatively recent educational experiences within the model.


With only two students did I get chance to discuss their exclusion from artistic activity at school. Furthermore, because I focused on classroom practice and my sample group was limited to students who were born blind or were early blind, the study was necessarily restricted. I did not collect a range of different experiences of turning blind and I had no reference point for students who were taught art. In particular I did not analyse successful students.


When I later re-analysed my conclusions, I tried to reform my hypotheses about the cause and effect of the behaviour I observed. I found that Doyle’s framework explained only half of the factors that I wanted to examine. In particular, it focused on a description of the effects of the students’ tasks, and it contained no exploration of the individual differences between all of the students in the classes.  This could only be gained through an insight into the students’ experiences in art education; i.e. I needed to analyse the emotional causes of their behaviour.


The basis of the new study

This form of study that examined all of the students’ previous experiences in art education appeared too complex and subjective within my timeframe and with the resources I had available. Consequently, I decided I would have to simplify these ambitions. As a result I decided to maintain the idea that I could find major factors in students’ personal histories that would have affected their levels of self-esteem and their willingness to take risks in art courses. In this way, I concluded that I could determine the significant causes of behaviour in art classes.


My decision led me to maintain the notion that there was an emotional motivation which largely determines behaviour. I also still believed this caused academic success. This allowed me to structure this new study by maintaining Doyle’s notion of risk taking (Hayhoe, 2001, 2002), however, I now referred to it as positive learning behaviour. I found this was helpful as it had proved a valuable and powerful theory in my previous study. There were two problems, though, that I encountered when considering this option.


The first problem was that Doyle’s framework is mainly an evaluative tool of teacher’s classroom management, and not a diagnostic tool to gauge or measure students’ self-esteem. It is also based on the performance of classroom tasks in ‘real time’; i.e. in a short period of time and in a single environment. It is not a tool to analyse the social histories of students.


The second problem with Doyle’s theory is that it does not take into account the historical, emotional factors that students bring to their classes. Students, I felt, did not have to have low academic self-esteem to avoid educational activities. They may have been beaten at home the night before, and their mind was elsewhere. They may have forgotten their pencils and don’t want to admit the fact. They may even have been afraid of competing with the better student next to them. They didn’t have to have low self-esteem to be afraid of being embarrassed by someone with even higher self-esteem than them. Self-esteem, I felt, was relative.


By taking account of both problems I adapted and logically reformulated Doyle’s (1983) original framework thus. Within his table he characterised the kinds of tasks students would undertake. These were classified according to their levels of self-esteem and the ambiguities of their tasks. As I concluded in my M.Ed. study, his observations of inexperienced school students were similar to those of my students. This led me to conclude that older, inexperienced students would also take fewer risks in ambiguous art tasks. Therefore quality (whether experiences are good or bad) of experience as well as quantity (the numbers of years attending lessons) of experience and age was important.


By the same logic, therefore, experienced students were more likely to take relatively more risks. This positive behaviour would even follow on to highly ambiguous art tasks. Therefore, Doyle’s table could be reformulated to diagnose students who were more likely to have relatively high self-esteem. I believed that these were more likely to have had positive learning experiences prior to their classes. This is illustrated in the altered diagram below.


Table 1:2. Table illustrating Doyle’s theory of ambiguity & risk, emphasising the trait of high risk and high ambiguity.


High Risk[/Self-esteem:

Only students with high self-esteem will try these tasks]


Low Risk[/Self-esteem: Students with low and high self-esteem will try these tasks.]


High Ambiguity







Low Ambiguity


Memory II

Routine II


Memory I

Routine I”



Adapted from Doyle (1983)


What follows is how I reinterpreted my findings and began to question Doyle’s notion.


The inversion of the original study’s findings

At this point I felt an inversion of my previous study was appropriate. It was still too focused on individual tasks in time slices. This caused a shift away from Doyle’s framework. This move was then followed by a more radical rejection of psychological and solely real-time frameworks. This led me to consider an epistemological[3] approach. I would then be able to carry out, I figured, an exploration of their personal histories. This allowed me to show the link between students’ experiences and positive behaviour. This would also take account of the chances that avoidance can be explained by different, chaotic factors.


However some elements, such as my choice of students, remained from Doyle’s framework. This argument was based on the notion that according to Doyle’s theory although you don’t need low academic self-esteem to avoid ambiguous tasks, you do need high academic self-esteem to take risks in them. So by choosing high performing students I was on safer ground. I could identify positive experiences more readily. I could also conduct a comparison with the experiences of the two students I interviewed and observed in my M.Ed. study.


What now follows is a complete re-interpretation of research models.


The new model of social and historical analysis

This led me to a social and historical method of choosing successful students for my fieldwork. Art in particular is a highly ambiguous subject when it is studied at a high academic level. In degrees and A Levels[4] in particular, students are invited to create and interpret their own works of art from a plethora of different media. On degree courses in visual art subjects, they are also often invited to formulate their own project briefs. Therefore, I felt that students who succeeded in art at this level must have shown positive learning behaviour, and would therefore be the most appropriate students to participate in this study.


I also felt that I had not taken full advantage of the history of education material I had collected for my M.Ed. To me this was as important as the fieldwork study, for two main reasons. The first was that it would allow me to produce a form of study in a subject that had previously been little considered[5]. The second reason was that by restricting my study to fieldwork, I could only study the practice of art teaching now. This was only a single feature of a successful art student. Adding a social history would give my study extra depth, validity and the second time dimension it needed.


Adding this social history would also allow me to present evidence linking the practice of art education to the policies that affect it. This would also allow a much deeper critical analysis of the formation of decision making made at a high level. The introduction of a historical study would therefore allow me to possibly create a new model of studying disability in education. It would also not just restrict this study to research within the field of special needs education. It was also meant to be a more broad ranging study of the education of an academic subject, and of mainstream pedagogical and social theory.


In order to do this type of study, however, I realised I would have to use a research framework that would allow me to combine observational fieldwork with historical studies. Here I turned to epistemology and semiotics. Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1972) semiotic framework of analysing language developed in the early twentieth century particularly seemed tailored to fit, as it was designed to dissect language elements according to their function. In this framework, the language function was analysed within a set period of time. This was referred to as a synchronic area of study. This analysis was then compared to the history of its structure through a period of time. This was referred to in semiotics as a diachronic study.


The epistemological framework which I then used to analyse behaviour and behavioural development was Kuhn’s theory of paradigm development. I chose this because it allowed me to analyse the development of knowledge and how it affected behaviour. It also allowed me to compare how the development of scientific beliefs about blindness in art education affects current behaviour.


My application of these new structures is now described in the way that it logically appears in my study. It is presented in order of its eleven chapters. Below is a simple description of the theoretical criteria of the framework, followed by my research methods, the evidence I collected and analysed in the course of this study, and the conclusions and recommendations I drew.


A breakdown of the sections and chapters in this thesis


N.B. A note on nomenclature. This thesis is structured in three main levels. The highest level is the section, which is a collection of autonomous, logically ordered chapters. The middle level is the chapter, each baring its own autonomous focus within the order of the thesis. The third level is the segment, which is an autonomous part of the chapter. This is presented underneath a separate heading. Each segment also contains several sub-headings.


Section 1: Introductory Section (this contains two chapters)

Chapter 1: This chapter begins by presenting the hypothesis and research questions that were investigated during the study. It continues by describing the ‘story’ of why I created the hypotheses and research approach used in the study. This chapter continues by summarising each of the following chapters.


Chapter 2: This chapter conducts a review of existing studies of blindness and art. These include:

1.                  Psychological studies

2.                  Philosophical studies

3.                  Educational studies

4.                  Communication studies

The aim of this chapter is only to provide grounding in the arguments of this area of study. Some of the authors mentioned and presented in this study, however, are also represented later in the epistemological study in terms of their contribution to history.


Section 2: The Study’s Methods (this contains three chapters)

Chapter 3: This chapter introduces the study’s epistemological methodology of research and data analysis. The theorists I allow to influence my final choice; in particular, Geertz, Wittgenstein, Popper, Kuhn and de Saussure, are discussed.


Chapters 4 and 5: Chapter 4 introduces my qualitative data collection methods. These are based on the following methods:

1.                  Observations

2.                  Interviews

3.                  Diary reports

4.                  Literature search

After describing how I implemented these data collection methods, Chapter 5 discusses the story of the research, problems I encountered during this implementation and how I overcame them.


Section 3: The Diachronic Study of the History of Attitudes Towards Blindness And Art (this has three chapters)

Chapter 6: This chapter presents an examination of the nature of tactile ‘art’ education of the blind prior to the 1981 Act.


Chapter 7: This chapter presents an examination of aesthetic education of the blind prior to the 1981 Act.


Chapter 8: This chapter presents an examination of the research and development of the 1981 Act.


Section 4: The Synchronic Study of the Results of Attitudes Towards Blindness and Art (this has two chapters)

Chapter 9: This chapter presents an examination of two students who were educated after the 1981 Act and were studying A level art at RNIB New College, Worcester. These students were studied over a period of a year and a half, whilst they were undertaking art A Level.


Chapter 10: This chapter presents an examination of the behaviour of other students as secondary accounts of art education in England and the US, to examine whether the experiences and behaviour examined in Chapter 9 are observable in other schools.


Section 5: Conclusion (this has one chapter)

            Chapter 11: In this chapter I conclude my study, answering my research questions and examining the hypotheses.


The first of these analyses will now be presented in chapter 2, with an analysis of aesthetics, blindness and psychology.



 © Simon Hayhoe 2005, 2007


[1] In this thesis, the education of the blind will be used as short hand to refer to education in schools for the blind, and education of students who are blind in mainstream schools.

[2] The following explanation of Doyle’s table is based on the one in the original study of Hayhoe (2000, 1995).

[3] In the context of this study, an epistemological study is defined as a study of knowledge, how it is created and how it evolves. With specific reference to this study, it examines how education has scientifically developed its pedagogical knowledge about the nature of blindness in art education.

[4] These are qualifications needed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for university entry, and are usually taken at 18. Within the past three years these have changed to A2s, but at the time of my fieldwork, A Levels were still in use. Two or three good A levels is the minimum requirement for all bachelor degree course entry.

[5] In the course of searches for similar studies, not other similar studies appeared in the significant academic databases.