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Professor Kate Wall from the University of Strathclyde feels practitioner enquiry has the potential to transform Scottish education

Kate Wall, University of Strathclyde

Practitioner enquiry is omnipresent in the discourse of Scottish education, and that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, cards on the table, it was one of the reasons I moved north of the border. I am fairly convinced of the power of an enquiry approach to support the development of research engaged professionals and its value for teaching and learning, but I see lots of variation in practice. This article aims to engage with the practices I see; it will examine the concept and the two dominant perspectives and think about how we support novice practitioner enquirers within a wider system of professional learning.

What is practitioner enquiry?

This is the million-dollar question and it is a difficult one. This is partly because enquiry is about questioning and so proponents of the approach, like myself, are open to a certain amount of doubt and flexibility. I think this is a strength and allows variation and creativity within the related practice; however, it doesn’t help with introducing the concept in policy or practice when a little more definiteness would be helpful. For me, the vagueness is an opportunity that allows productive connections, but these associations can mean that the core concept of practitioner enquiry becomes amorphous including everything and anything.

As such, it can lose its power, be perceived as unrealistic and challenging to action or something that is already embedded without understanding why or how. Practitioner enquiry’s struggles lie in two dominant standpoints and a potential lack of transfer between the two.

On the one hand we have the likes of Cochrane-Smith and Lytle (2009) who suggest practitioner enquiry is an epistemological stance, a way of understanding the world and how it is made up. A way of being that is tied up with views of democratic purpose and social justice, giving teachers an informed voice in such a way that it supports them in improving outcomes for children and young people. As such it is relatively vague and difficult to pin down. This process of engagement is likely to involve a research process but is primarily about questioning and looking for answers as part of a professional commitment to keeping up to date. On the other hand, we have a standpoint more directly associated with research. Menter et al. (2011) defined enquiry as a strategic finding out, a shared process of investigation that can be explained or defended.

This can often manifest as a project based approach and as such could be perceived as more doable in its increased tangibility. One of the challenges here though, is the popular language of education research is dominated by evaluation and associated scientific understandings of data, analysis and quality; tied up with conceptions of expertise and seemingly a long way off from the remit of a practitioner.

A project approach is often finite and therefore not cumulative as would connect more easily to career long professional learning and this increases the likelihood of an individual feeling like they have done practitioner enquiry once a piece of research or project has been completed. For this approach to work then a more practice friendly understanding of research must be promoted and strategies for sustained engagement put in place. The two standpoints are not and should not be put in opposition.

Practitioner enquiry is one of the reasons I moved to Scotland

That is not the intention here. Indeed, for the experienced practitioner enquirer they merge forming a dynamic interaction between a desire to question practice and a systematic approach to finding out. It becomes a synergetic process of engagement in and with research (Cordingley 2013) that sustains and informs a world view where the practitioner has agency (individually and as a professional community) with an informed voice on education within and beyond their context.

How we facilitate an individual in getting to this point and how we encourage the two aspects as complementary rather than oppositional, to access the implied understandings and processes, is something that needs work. In practice, I see both sides being used as a way in, but somehow, we don’t get the connection right and the power of the concept is lost.

Key questions:

  • How can a balance be struck between the practitioner enquiry project and practitioner enquiry as stance?
  • What is the best hook for the novice practitioner enquirer?

Becoming a practitioner enquirer

I have seen individual practitioners access enquiry from both a questioning orientation and a research one. The former tends to be characterised by individuals naturally disposed to ask questions, to want to know and understand the world around them. They have a learning trajectory characterized by constant striving to improve, with a lot of associated pressure which they shoulder on their own.

There can be a significant issue of fit between their own interests and the wider school agenda and this often drives the individual to experience significant dissonance, as their ideal and real life become increasingly separate.

To ensure that this mindset is facilitated, then looking for access to supportive communities of practitioners to share enquiries and facilitate pragmatic thinking is important. This promotes a more collaborative and strategic enquiry process, embedded in a co-constructed understanding of the knowledge, skills and permissions to be able to effectively find out answers and put them into practice (Baumfield et al. 2012).

On the other side, I see practitioners roped, sometimes literally, into undertaking a piece of enquiry based research through involvement in a project – via a school research group, university course, a bit of CPD or via a colleague or group membership.

The individual might be reluctant at first, but if they have ownership of their enquiry and see the connections to their students’ learning, they often become enthused by the way research provides new and improved ‘goggles’ with which to view practice. Key here is ensuring that it is not an isolated one off project which stops once the course or group finishes.

Practitioner enquiry should be iterative and cumulative something that a single project approach doesn’t encourage. Also the type of research promoted should not feel so removed from practice as to be unachievable or unmanageable within the constraints of a normal working day and support communication of the outcomes to colleagues.

Regardless of the way in, if issues of ownership, manageability and sustainability are tackled at both an individual and system level, then over time there can be a move towards a more integrated and pragmatic standpoint where useful knowledge is prioritised. We need to recognise that research is not something constantly engaged with, but rather a developing knowledge base that can be used to support the enquiry process when needed.

Similarly, a questioning standpoint is not something that should be allowed to drive an individual to distraction, but rather used to contribute to a wider dialogue around improvement. In combination they contribute to a professionalism that strives for better outcomes for children and young people using a set of tools that can be supportive of strategic and reflective thinking around what works and why.

Key questions:

  • How do you identify your practitioner enquiry approach – does enquiry as stance or project dominate?
  • How does your institution facilitate engagement with being a practitioner enquiry? Is there a dominant approach?

Developing a practitioner enquiry culture

We see a practitioner enquiry culture as underpinned by four key principles (Wall and Hall 2017):

The Principle of Autonomy: the locus of control should be with the enquirer. They should be able to decide on the topic, the question, the evidence and the findings; however, these choices should be justified in relation to their perceptions of their pupils’ needs regularly within a supportive community.

  • Who are you doing your practitioner enquiry for? Who says when it is finished?

The Principle of Disturbance: Relevant questions and the process of trying to answer them is likely to cause extra thinking as the complexity and connections within the classroom become more obvious. The enquirer has to be prepared for dissonance.

  • How do you approach negative findings or disagreement in your practitioner enquiry?

The Principle of Dialogue: Practitioner enquiry is not effective as a solitary activity, but rather it needs an ongoing process of shared thinking and codification against group understandings.

  • What is the balance between individual and community within your practitioner enquiry experience?

The Principle of Connectivity: Practitioner enquiry becomes more doable when we see the productive connections it has with normal teaching and learning practice.

  • How transparent are you about being an enquiry (learning/ metacognitive/voice) role model to students?

A culture of practitioner enquiry is therefore about individuals and communities. The practitioner enquirer needs to be embedded within a wider supportive system.

Successful enquiring organisations implement an enquiry approach at all levels, from students to the senior leadership. The latter need to lead by example, engaging in enquiry and making public their learning, successes and failures.

 A fundamental modelling of enquiry skills and dispositions is essential. All individuals should be listened to, whether novice or experienced, as equal and expert in their own enquiry. Until we have levelled out these variations then heirarchical assumptions around who should engage in practitioner enquiry, what is ‘good’ research, who should control professional learning and where expertise lies will remain entrenched.

Without a more a more systemic operationalisation, practitioner enquiry will remain in pockets of engagement or as a tokenistic, on/off activity that is more about accountability than authentic engagement with improvement of outcomes for children and young people.

References

Baumfield, V., Hall, E. & Wall, K. (2012) Action research in education. London: Sage.

Cochrane-Smith, M. and Lytle, S.L. (2009) Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation, London: Teachers College Press.

Cordingley, P. (2013). The Contribution Of Research To Teachers’ Professional Learning And Development. Research and Teacher Education: the BERA-RSA Inquiry. London: British Educational Research Association.

Menter, I., Elliot, D.,  Hulme, M.,  Lewin, J. and Lowden, K. (2011) A Guide to Practitioner Research in Education, London: Sage.

Stenhouse, L. (1981) What counts as research? British Journal of Educational Studies, 29(2), 103-114.

Wall, K. and Hall, E. (2017) The teacher in teacher-practitioner research: three principles of inquiry. In Boyd, P. and Szplit, A., International Perspectives: Teachers and Teacher Educators Learning Through Enquiry, Kielce-Krakow: 35-62.

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Editor contact: Evelyn Wilkins teachingscotland@gtcs.org.uk


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