Spotlight on Practice Worth Sharing: Mental health in our professional practice

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In this Spotlight on Practice Worth Sharing post, Laura Colucci-Gray, a Senior Lecturer in Science and Sustainability Education at Moray House School of Education and Sport, describes the importance of recognising aesthetics and the role of our senses in learning and our mental health…

Last month, I welcomed the opportunity to join the group and share my reflections on a topic – mental health – which is not only hitting the headlines on an everyday basis, but which also characterise our lived experiences as educators and academics, colleagues and parents. Coincidentally, it was ‘Mental Health Week’ at Moray House when this talk was scheduled, and I was struggling with keeping on top of many demands in that week.

There is mounting evidence of the rise of mental health problems across the general population. Only just recently, Pataly and Gage (2019) reported the results of a 10 year longitudinal study pointing to the growing incidence of depression, self-harm, attention-deficit disorders and emotional problems amongst children and adolescents. These results remarkably distinguish today’s children from their peers in the past, when substance abuse such as smoking and alcohol were the predominant health-risk factors. Similarly, mental health and emotional exhaustion are on the rise amongst the teachers’ population, who are struggling to cope with poor behaviour, growing workloads and the pressure of exam performance results.

Clearly, as educators, we have an important responsibility to ensure that our children and young people learn within a healthy, safe and nourishing environment. Yet, such an environment cannot be disentangled from the wellbeing of teachers and that of the broader community and the environment in which the educational relationship is situated.

Within my teaching and research practice, I have been seeking to explore this complex set of relationships. I have been asking myself how could we develop educational situations which enhance –  what the National Health System in this country describe  – as mental health:  “the individual ability to enjoy life; to balance psychological demands with resilience and well-being” ?

Such a definition is not dissimilar from the way in which some scholars have defined the goal of education for sustainability. For example, Amartya Sen refers to poverty as the deprivation of a person’s capabilities to live the life they have reason to value. Hence, education for sustainability should provide the opportunity for people to recover capabilities for choice, to explore a shared idea of well-being, to restore the space for collective exploration and creative engagement with desirable futures.

In practice, experiences with my students have ranged from individual explorations of local contexts using drawing and sketching as a means for supporting reflection (Colucci-Gray, forthcoming 2020), to activities of land-art (Gray and Colucci-Gray, 2019), making of models with ‘found’ materials (i.e. a house for a small creature), and sensory maps (Cooke and Colucci-Gray, 2019). I have drawn largely on pedagogical literature from the fields of somatic education, outdoor learning and place-based education, which combine several important strands of reflection on well-being.

Recognising the role of the senses

The first strand is concerned with the recognition of the role of the body – and specifically the senses – in learning.  For example, Timmons and Ravenscroft (2019) drawing on the works of Chatterjee (2014) and Savoie (2017), suggest that the term “aesthetic” refers to a particular ‘attention’ given to reality, underlining that the core of aesthetic experiences is sensations, emotions, and meaning (cited in Savoie, 2017, p. 56).

Giving attention to the aesthetics of learning challenges conventional notions of cognition as purely logical, and models of learning as criteria-based processing of external stimuli. Instead, aesthetic experiences give prominence to an idea of learning as fundamentally ‘embodied’; that is, dependent upon the affordances of the environment, and the opportunities that we have to enter into deep interaction with it, through movement, touch, making-with: these are forms of learning that emerge through the relational space.

Largely attributed to the work of Whitehead (2010), ‘aesthetics’ is also defined as ‘grace’ or ‘poise’, such as the ability to balance on an uneven terrain and be alert and sensitised to the changing moods and colours of an environment. Hence, physical literacy is understood as an embodied dimension of assurance, situated at the heart of human capacity to respond to the demands of everyday life (Whitehead, 2010).

Politics of aesthetics

The second strand of this reflection is concerned with the politics of aesthetics. The moving body in the formal classroom space is often frowned upon as an issue of behaviour (‘bums on seats”!). Hence, dancing the body or going for a walk – and considering these experiences as ‘learning’ – fundamentally challenge the dualisms of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ relationships. Instead, the moving body in space affords the chance for asking fundamental questions of social justice: who is the environment for? Who designed it? For which purposes? According to whose values and priorities?

My walking practices have involved student teachers as well as future scientists in different contexts in Higher Education, and more recently, children involved in food growing in school gardens (see picture below).

Repeatedly, regardless of their age, students appreciated the opportunity to observe their surroundings; to discover for themselves how the re-awakening of their senses is a re-awakening of their ability to connect with other people, to empathise with the experiences of others, humans and non-humans, and to re-evaluate the practices of inquiry, methods and purposes of assessment in the educational experience. Learning in such conditions equates to developing the ability to ‘weigh up’/‘evaluate’ what is important and significant for them and for other people.

Deep time

The most important lesson for me as a teacher and researcher in such contexts has been the re-evaluation of the use of time for learning through an appreciation of ‘deep time’: a moment of intense contact, surprise or fascination can provide the driving force for the lesson, the moment in which, collectively, we can recover the ability to make choices about how and why we wish to educate and be educated, and, in accordance with the NHS, … ‘to enjoy life’ together.

Here then may be lived a life of the senses so
pure, so untouched by any mode of
apprehension but their own, that the body may
be said to think. Each sense heightened to its
most exquisite awareness is in itself total
. This is the innocence we have lost,
living in one sense at a time to live all the way

(Nan Shepherd, the living mountain, p. 105)


Colucci-Gray, L. (forthcoming 2020). Developing an Ecological View through STEAM Pedagogies in Science Education. In: Burnard, P. and Colucci-Gray, L. Why Science and Art Creativities Matter. (Re-) Configuring STEAM for Future-making Education. Series: Critical Issues in the Future of Learning and Teaching, Volume: 18.

Cooke, C. and Colucci-Gray, L. (2019). Complex knowing: promoting response-ability within music and science teacher education. In: Taylor, C.A. and Bayley, A. “Post-humanism and Higher Education”, pp. 165-187. London: Palgrave and Macmillan.

Gray, D. S., & Colucci-Gray, L. (2019). Laying down a path in walking: student teachers’ emerging ecological identities. Environmental Education Research, 25(3), 341-364.

Pataly, P. and Gage, S.H. (2019). Changes in millennial adolescent mental health and health-related behaviours over 10 years: a population cohort comparison study. International Journal of Epidemiology, 48 (5), pp. 1650–1664.

Shepherd, N. (2011). The Living Mountain. London: Canongate books.

Simmons, W. and Ravenscroft, J. (2019). Using expressive movement and haptics to explore kinaesthetic empathy, aesthetic and physical literacy. In: J. Ravenscroft (Ed). The Routledge Handbook of Visual Impairment, Chapter 18. London: Routledge.

Whitehead, M. (2010). Physical literacy: Throughout the lifecourse (1st ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

Laura Colucci-Gray

Laura is Senior Lecturer in Science and Sustainability Education at Moray House School of Education and Sport, at The University of Edinburgh. Her theoretical and empirical work has been published and presented nationally and internationally.

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