Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Practice as Inquiry


Shanshan Wang

"Can you tell me how to handle the problems?" I asked my instructors when I was a student.

"Those who made five mistakes should correct them till they are all right." One of my instructors always said.

"Try and see how it comes out." Judith would answer me.

Having been a learner and then a teacher in the Chinese educational system for almost 30 years, I am now a learner again. This experience has lead me to think about my former schooling and teaching in a way I had never thought about it before. My personal experience as a learner, teacher and administrator, and now a learner again, offer a lot of opportunities to reconsider what and how I learned as well as taught during those years, and to review those learning and teaching situations which have bothered me for a long time.

A few months ago my ten-year-old daughter Feifei phoned me from China. She told me that she had received 100% grade on her English final test. I was surprised by her announcement since I knew she hated English; I could not believe she done so well in her English studies. I asked about the test. She told me her English instructor had asked the class to memorize all the lessons they had learned from their text book. The students then drew lots for particular passages and recited from that portion of the text. That day Feifei was "lucky" -- she drew a lesson she was able to recite. Actually she could only recite five of the ten lessons without any mistakes, she had said, and she had drawn one of the five.

Feifei's "good" news made me think about her learning and the traditional way of teaching. She was happy with her test and on her student report book she received a 100% grade in English; her English instructor was pleased too, since her students obviously had learned well. Both Feifei and her instructor would be rewarded. However, the story of this English test really caught my attention. I don't know why I was so serious about Feifei's learning at this time. I know I wouldn't have reacted this way if the same thing had happened a year ago. Instead, I would have been very happy to hear her good news. Was Feifei really being taught effectively at her school? What was her teacher's understanding about effective learning? Was she considered a successful student in her class? What does her 100% grade mean to Feifei, to her instructor, to her school principal, and to Chinese educational system? What had happened to me, I wondered. What had made me question the Chinese educational system?

I was suddenly uncertain about Feifei's current schooling and my own former schooling. The story of her English test forced me to reevaluate what I thought about learning.


I always believed I was a successful learner. I did well all the way through elementary and secondary school and in university. I was a model student; everybody around me considered me a competent learner. I was always among the top five in my class of 40 to 50 students. I thought I was doing well, too.

Like Feifei, I did whatever teachers asked me to do-I copied materials and text book passages, I memorized teachers' instructions and met their requirements, I recited on request. I tried my best to absorb what my instructors offered. The teachers and I were pleased with my work.

I was told to listen to my teachers by my parents and by the school principal. I never questioned what I was learning. I totally trusted my teachers since I believed they knew much more than I did. I should listen to them, and learn from them. Only recently, after having taught in a university for ten years, had I found that what I had learned as a student, and later as a teacher, was not sufficient. To meet the needs of my students, the needs of my teaching, and my own questions about teaching and learning, I realized I needed to learn and understand the nature of learning and teaching in a different way.

Recently, I began to question again whether I really was a successful learner. I started doubting my "successes" in learning and teaching as I became more and more uncertain about what I had done, and where I was heading as a teacher. This issue became central to me since beginning a course of Action Research; the course forced me to re-examine learning and teaching.

I still remember my uncertainty, discomforts and frustration at the beginning of the class in September. I had been told that this course was a bit tough because it was not structured and different from other research courses. I was totally lost during the first term, not only because of the language barrier, for English is not my first language, but also because of the difficulties in understanding the instruction. I was in a fog for the first term. Not knowing how to do reflective research really frustrated me. I don't give up easily; but I felt lost in this course.

Early on, I went to see Judith to say I wanted to drop the course because I wasn't sure I was ready for it. I couldn't figure out what I should be doing. I asked if she could tell me what I should be doing in the class. She was supportive and encouraged me to continue. I gave the class another try.

I remember one of Judith's reflections. She shared with us her experience of finding the location for pieces in a difficult jigsaw puzzle-a geological map of great Britain which she was unable to complete in the end. She wrote

It's like doing action research. I had a ballpark idea of where I was going but I had to invent a way of working that was unique to this particular situation. In the end I was able to make sense of all the bits that had other than shape clues, I was left with quite a bit unresolved. Inquiry is like that. A lot will be left unresolved. Try to become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty ( Jan. 8th, 1996).

What she explored in her reflection helped me understand that we must invent a way of working; and we must try to make sense of those moments and events which bother us in our teaching. We must examine our beliefs about teaching; we must become comfortable with the ambiguity and uncertainty of what we are doing.

It was not until the second term, that I felt myself coming out of the woods and finding a way home. I remembered what had happened to me the day I was lost in Birds' Hill Park. Lost in the woods, I had tried different ways to locate a familiar landmark. Since nobody was around, and there were no road signs to indicate a direction, I had to try a number of different paths. My wondering and doubt about the action research kept me thinking hard about what action research was. Judith in her first letter to the class wrote "This is a just try class. I'm expecting you to take lots of risks, to explore your reactions to whatever we're reading as a class, to be open about looking at the problems within your professional practice" ( Aug. 29, 1995)." I did take a lot of risks to figure out what the course was about. By trying and inventing I gradually began to understand how learning occurred for me. It was while I was exploring Action Research that I discovered I had a wonderful opportunity to examine myself as a learner and as a teacher. Recalling all my learning experiences from elementary school to university, I found that what I got from school was mostly text book knowledge and an attitude of obedience. One important thing, I realized, was that I was not treated as a learner but as a passive recipient of knowledge. It seems to me that there was a big gap existing between learners and instructors in my former schooling.


I was not trained to be a teacher at university. I began my university career teaching English courses. Like most of my colleagues, I stood at the front of the classroom. Not knowing how to teach students, I tried applying the teaching methodologies my teachers had used. Like every instructor, I lectured and gave assignments to my students based on the course curriculum. I corrected students mistakes in and out of class. I spent a lot of time assisting students who had difficulties learning. I wanted to teach them all I knew. I was proud of my students since most of them did well in their final tests. I believed the test scores reflected how well they had learned in class.

I always believed that if teachers were knowledgeable and experts in a field of study, their students would become knowledgeable and competent, too. In other words, whether students would be good at their work or not was based on their teachers' teaching performance.

John S. Mayher (1990) in his book Uncommonsense refers to such commonsense teaching beliefs as "teacher knows best." Mayher describes the metaphors which reflect a commonsense perspective "the learner as an empty vessel to be filled with the content of education..., the learner as sponge to absorb information and squeeze it back out when appropriate, and the learner who practices through drills to develop good habits and avoid bad ones" (p.50). Mayher's description certainly fit what I believed as a student and again as a teacher. Mayher named this kind of traditional teaching as commonsense teaching. I realized my entire educational experience had been based on commonsense beliefs.

I remember one university language instructor always encouraged us by saying "With no pain, there is no gain. If you want to master a foreign language, you have to memorize all those texts you learned from the class and memorize the vocabulary as best as you can." That was the tip he offered to me when I was an obedient student. Later I offered this same advice to my students.


Feifei's recent phone call brought to mind some images of my early university studies.

"Those who made more than five mistakes in the quiz should correct them after class..."

"Until you have them all done correctly," my neighbour Ming murmurs in his low voice, yet, all of us can hear him. The class is over.

We all knew what our instructor would announce after we finished the routine quiz every Monday morning. We nick named him Mr. "Five Mistakes."

The class was over and the silence was over. Some of the students left their front seats and moved to the last row since there were some spare chairs against the wall.

"For Heaven's sake, why do we have this dumb class on Monday morning? It makes me sick all week." complained my best friend Yan, who is always among the victims. Although she is one of the smart students in the class, she is too smart and too confident.

"I don't think I have made five mistakes, though I can't say I am 100% right. I will have something to show him next Monday," she swore.

"The definitions he gave us this morning are different from what I read in another reference book. Who is right?" wondered Bing.

"I can't even see the purpose of this kind of punishment and it is useless just to recite the definitions and the usage example," Bing continued.

"Yes, I agree with you guys. But we have to do whatever he wants us to do, or would you like to stay here for one more year, I have had enough. Haven't you?" asked Hong.

"I wonder why Mr. Five Mistakes likes to punish us? Is it good for us? I don't think he hates us or he hates teaching us. You know, last time I went to see him about my mistakes, he explained the rules to me and helped me correct those mistakes. I just don't know why he can't do something better to help us understand those dead rules by practising them in an interesting way," May complained.

The bell rang.

What happened in my grammar class every Monday morning during that year represented what was happening, and is still happening in almost every classroom in China. The belief that external knowledge can and must be transmitted from teacher to student and what really counts is the students' mastery of information. This is the dominant practice in our educational system. Therefore, students are taught and later tested on what they have been taught. Like my daughter, who was tested on material she had memorized, we too were tested every Monday on what we had been taught in class.

One of the reasons why the instructor would test every Monday class was based on his belief that "every question has a right answer." Learning the right answer became one of the foundations of school learning. If students could do their exercises right that meant that they had learned.


It was 2 o'clock, most of the students had already put on their earphones and were listening to the story I had recorded for them as a warm-up exercise. Sitting at the master desk in the language lab, facing them, I noticed three places were still empty. Looking around and checking the name list I knew who was absent. Ten minutes later, in walked the three with sleepy eyes, wearing walkman headphones. I stared at them as they came into the room. When their eyes met with mine, they took off their headphones, put on the tape recorder earphones fixed at their desks, and started listening with the others.

Later, while we were talking about the story the students had heard at the beginning of the class, one of the three guys, Yan, leaned over his desk and rested his head on his arms with his face down. I was not sure if he was sleeping or not; it was clear he was not listening. This was a very special class with multi-level English. Some students were high school graduates with a little bit of English, some of them had been sent by their companies with no English background. They came with different learning perspectives and they came from different regions of the country. The three guys, from the same region, with little English proficiency, needed special help. Yet they often refused my offers of assistance.

Yan was still sleeping. To confirm whether he was sleeping or not I hooked up my earphone line to his using the master control. What I heard was hard rock music. He was not sleeping. I did not know what I should do. I wondered how often he'd done that before. I stopped all the recorders using the master control, and I addressed them through my mike "Now it is time to enjoy hard rock." Everybody looked at me with surprise. Then I turned on the machine; all of us could hear the loud and strong rhythm of the music. Yan lifted his head. His face was red and he dared not look at me.

I didn't know what to do with him, I had tried to help him in many ways. I helped him individually in his speaking and listening. He showed no interest in improving his English. He did what ever he liked to do. I could not slow down my teaching only because of him. At twenty, he was the oldest student in the class-good at tennis and swimming, with several girl friends. He wasn't dumb, but he was certainly choosing not to learn. I could not understand him. Later, one of his girl friends told me that he behaved the same way in other courses, too. He did not want to learn English because he thought it was no use.

At the time it seemed to me there shouldn't be such kind of students in the class. Everybody in the classroom should listen to the instructor like I had done when I was a student. My expectation of the students was based on the belief that they came to school for knowledge, and I was there to teach them. However, Yan he rejected the offer. I saw it as a failure in my teaching.


I'll never forget teaching Feifei to play piano when she was four. I struggled to have her practice rather than play with her favorite blocks. Like all mothers, I wanted my only daughter to have a better life in a rapidly growing competitive society. I was told by friends that playing piano at a young age may have a positive effect on children's school learning. It might even be useful for future jobs. So the whole family decided to buy a piano for my daughter when she was four. The task of teaching her to play fell to me. I was the only person in the family who knew a bit of music and had some basic knowledge of how to play. I knew I was not good enough to teach her so I had a pianist teach her and I just helped her practice.

We did reasonably well at the beginning. Feifei enjoyed playing the big toy which could make different sounds everyday after she came home from the kindergarten. She would play for half an hour then she would tell me she wanted to play with her blocks which she never tired of. She was really good at building. At five and six, the tough times came. Feifei was not easily controlled. Often we both practised her assignment together. The assignments were becoming more demanding. She just hated practicing with me. She would like to play for herself and to change the tune and even the rhythm of the music. She refused to listen to me. I felt I had to make her practice according to the instructions. Sometimes I yelled at her. We often bargained with each other over the exercises she had to practice and the blocks she wanted to play with.

One thing happened which really hurt both of us. In grade one, Feifei was supposed to give a performance for her instructor and the other children taking lessons. We practised for a month. The piece Old Black Joe that the instructor assigned was beyond her level although the instructor believed she could handle it. Her problem was that she could not understand the theme of the piece. She could play very well technically but she had no sense of the theme. When I demonstrated how the old black man working in the cotton field in the summer felt with facial expressions, she kept laughing at me. I got so mad at her. She was not serious about the music. When the day of the recital came, she still couldn't interpret the piece. I would not let her go. I phoned the instructor in the afternoon and told him that we couldn't come. When my daughter heard, she burst into tears, ran into her room, and shut herself in for the whole evening. We had spent almost a month practising that darned piece. She really wanted to perform for other kids, yet, she lost the chance. I was sure that I really hurt her. We stopped playing for almost a month.

Being a mother, like a teacher, I should understand my daughter. I must consider her real dilemma and her real situation. It was not her fault. It was me who failed to make meaning for her about that piece. I never expected her to be a pianist as a career. I just hoped that playing piano would help her intellectual development. Actually, I had overdone it. I tried to force her to accept what I believed instead of letting her express her own interpretation. My expectations were far beyond her capability. It resulted in failure for her.


From Mayher's Uncommonsense I learned that traditional ways of teaching and learning are based on the beliefs that "there is an external, objective world which can be, and largely is, known and understood..., this external knowledge can and must be transmitted from teacher to pupil..."(p. 67). As Mayher contends "students...are expected to function as a kind of recording and playback device receiving the transmission of the expert teacher and texts and then feeding them back essentially unchanged in essays and tests" (p. 72).

As a result of my own learning experiences and those of my daughter, as well as my experience as a teacher, I have come to see that a commonsense view of learning and teaching continues to dominate our schooling system and our daily life. Mayher (1990) describes in his book Uncommonsense a similar experience teaching Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The reason he chose this poem to teach in his class was because he liked it and he understood it, and he thought his students would like it, too. He read the poem to them, "but nothing happened. There were awkward silences among a group that was normally eager and talkative. If I asked a factual question, they could and would answer it but there was no energy, no speculation, no spark" (p. 5). Then some students asked questions like "Why did he stop? Wouldn't he just want to get in out of the wet?" The Californian students just couldn't share with him the beauty of the silence of the snow fall in the woods. It had a different meaning for them than it did for him.

The experiences held different meaning for my daughter and my special student. The meaning of the experiences was also different for me. My daughter had no experience from which to understand the sorrowful life of a black slave. The black slave's sorrow meant nothing to her. It was beyond her ability to interpret these feelings. This was the same for Yan, my special student. Learning English made no sense to him because he wasn't ready to learn. No matter how hard I tried to help him, there couldn't be any success.

What happened in my grammar class demonstrated the same thing. The instructor apparently wanted to teach us well. He believed that if we memorized what he told us we would master the language because we would know the rules. Actually he forgot one thing. You can make people memorize something, but you can't make them understand. Learning can happen only when learners make sense for themselves. As a teacher, I must understand how learning occurs. We must try to make knowledge meaningful for students by applying different teaching methods.

Learning is a collaborative process of making meaning. Mayher indicated that human beings are active meaning makers who are continually learning-making personal knowledge-when they can act according to their own purposes.


We know that learning happens not only in schools. Learning goes on all the time. It happens from the day we were born to the last day of our life.

Frank Smith contends "learning is unconscious, effortless, incidental, vicarious, and essentially collaborative" (1988). I think about the time I first learned how to cook rice.


Cooking rice is a basic skill in Chinese cooking since rice is the main food for our Chinese people. Everybody should know how to cook it, especially the girls in the family.

I had my first cooking experience when I was nine. One day, my mom could not come home to make lunch for me. She had to go to the head office to submit a working report. She left me some money and asked me to buy something to eat. I decided instead to save the money to buy a book which I really wanted. I resolved to cook something to eat for myself.

I helped my mom cook almost everyday. I thought I knew how to cook. I decided to prepare some rice. Although it is the easiest thing to cook, I had never attempted to prepare rice myself before. I tried recalling how my mom did it. I knew I needed to put some rice in the rice maker and added some water and then put the rice maker on the stove. But how much rice I should put in the rice maker and how much water I should pour. How long should it be cooked, and how much heat should I use? I realized I had never carefully watched how my mom did all those things. I was lost!

However, I was so hungry, I decided to try anyway. My basic cooking knowledge told me nothing could go seriously wrong if I poured more water in the rice maker and adjusted medium heat and kept an eye on it. I remained by the stove and kept watching the rice maker to see how the rice was doing. The only thing I worried about was setting a fire. I kept pouring water into the rice maker to prevent the rice burning. It took almost an hour to make the rice-actually what I made was porridge.

I never told anyone what I made for lunch that day, but the lesson I learned from it was very important. It helped me a lot in my later cooking. I do enjoy cooking, especially food I really like. Whenever, I go somewhere to eat something which I really enjoy, I try my best to learn how it is made. I like to try to make it myself and keep improving my skills until I am satisfied with what I make. My experience learning to cook rice has helped me learn to make pizza and muffins for myself since I came to Canada. I really like to eat pizza and muffin. I have tried many times to figure out the ingredients of the pizza dough. I tried adding baking soda. I found later that was not right. Then, I tried some yeast in the dough. When the pizza was made I could tell that the dough was not perfect. It took me sometime to figure out how to make the pizza dough. Now I know that the dough should be very soft and to let it rise for some time before making pizza. I do have a recipe for making the pizza dough, yet I like experimenting.


It was a Monday afternoon in early March, one month before the end of the term. I didn't know what was happening to me. I couldn't write anything. I couldn't focus my mind on teaching and learning; all my stories seemed to have evaporated. My mind was blank.

Feeling uncomfortable about having nothing to share with Judith the others in class that evening, around four o'clock I forced myself to see Judith for help. I told her I couldn't write anything. My mind was empty, I couldn't find a focus. I didn't know what to write. She told me just to write-to let it come out no matter how it would fit. I left her office with this wondering in my head. It was easy to say "keep writing" and "write what's in your mind" but it was really hard to know what to write. In spite of the fact that Judith repeatedly told us: "just let it go and don't worry about words, grammar, structures." I just couldn't let my mind wander anywhere it liked. I was simply not used to this type of writing strategy.

I am used to having a focus before I start writing. Otherwise, I just don't know where the writing may go. Judith told me to write my thoughts, forgetting about focusing for the moment, just let ideas flow. It should have been easy to do that; it was not. However, I decided I had to try. On the way back to my office I thought I had to trust this type of learning strategy and practice it in the same way I learned to eat with a knife and a fork.

I didn't bring chopsticks with me when I came to Canada since I thought I could use a knife and a fork. It was not a big deal, I thought. But during the first meal on the plane to Canada, I wondered if I hadn't made a serious mistake by not bringing them with me.The meal consisted of Italian noodles, similar to Chinese noodles, but thinner and harder. I couldn't get them in my with the fork. I saw my neighbour twisting her fork, twining the noodles around it, then easily putting them in her mouth. I tried it that way, but I made some noise which embarrassed me and made me uncomfortable. Next I decided to cut the noodles into small pieces-I thought that way it might be easier to get them on the fork.Wrong again. My neighbour noticing my difficulty kindly showed me how to twist the fork. It took me long time to finish that unforgettable meal.

Trying a new writing strategy was s similar situation. On several occasions Judith had encouraged me to just write and not be bothered if I couldn't "focus." Yet I could not get used to this strategy, just like I could not use a knife and a fork easily. I knew how to write something only when I had a focus and I was uncomfortable just trying. I don't know what prompted me to think about that first "Canadian" meal. I wrote about it. When I'd finished the account I could see a connection with my writing difficulty.


So what! What kind of learning and teaching should we expect to take place in our schools? What kind of beliefs should we have in our educational systems? What should I do with what I have learned from this action research work when I return to China to teach? Will people there accept these ideas in teaching and learning?


It was in April Fool's evening-our last class of the year. Most of us arrived that evening with different reactions, different feelings about the class.

"Well, what thoughts and reflections do you have about your experience in this class?" Judith began.

There was a silence for a moment. For me it was not a hard question, but it was a big question. It had taken me almost a year to figure out what the class was about. People started murmuring and whispering with each other.

"Honestly speaking, I didn't feel engaged in the class..." spoke Margie.

I had the same feeling in the first term and it took me another term to find out that I had to involve myself in the experience. Sometimes I didn't feel certain about what I was doing. I just kept trying, and taking risks. I would say to myself, "It is worth trying."

"I can do perfectly well in my other courses. It was not hard to write papers for those classes. But I find it hard to write in this class. I have lots I want to say and I'm not sure how to say it,..." responded Jamie.

"I am still not sure what I should write for this class," doubted Cathy.

"I still have problems writing a conclusion. I find it hard to say 'so what?'" I said.

"Go back and read Mayher's last chapter and think about how what you've learned could affect your teaching back in China," replied Judith.

Like the others, I, too, have difficulty dealing with the "so what." "Do I have to write about it in my piece?" Looks as if I have two answers: a commonsense teacher would say "Yes, you have to;" uncommonsense instructors might respond "Well, it depends." My stories about learning and teaching in different settings clearly show the distinctions between commonsense and uncommonsense views of teaching and learning.

Commonsense schooling and commonsense teachers make commonsense demands on teaching and learning. It is rare for "commonsense" teachers to question a fundamental tenet of schooling: students learn what teachers teach. They believe they know best; that it is possible to determine in advance what students need to learn. They also believe they know the optimum sequence and means through which students should learn it. Whatever students have learned outside school has little or no significance for the curriculum of the classroom (Mayher, 1990).

"Uncommonsense" people believe that "a learner's capacities to solve problems and to perform intellectual tasks are powerfully influenced by the way the problems are posed and by the learner's interpretation of what the tasks entail" (p. 76). According to this uncommonsense point of view, learning happens in context. Experiments showed that when tasks were embedded in a context which was sufficiently meaningful to children, they were enabled to try to comprehend what was requested.

The world does not come to us in a preinterpreted form. Rather it is constructed by our interpretation of our experiences (Mayher, 1990). Learning happens when we engage ourselves in learning. We need to explore, take risks and make connections in what we are learning. My learning experience in this class and my learning experiences in my daily life outside of classroom show that conscious reflection on what you have learned and, crucially, on how you've learned it, should play a central role in the learning process (Mayher, 1990). The most significant learning that one can accomplish in school is to learn how to learn.

So, why have I started thinking in this "uncommonsense" way? Uncommonsense makes better sense to me now. My own learning experiences in this action research course are a powerful illustration of uncommonsense learning.

I didn't know anything about action research before the first class. I felt very uncomfortable and frustrated during the first term. I couldn't accept these new ideas, for my traditional paradigm was built on a solid foundation of commonsense teaching and learning. I was confused and hoped that Judith would tell me what I should do in and out of class. I have struggled with my traditional ways of thinking all the way through the course. By exploring those critical incidents of my former teaching and learning experiences, analyzing those tensions which have bothered me for long time, by engaging myself in a collaborative learning environment, by taking risks and trying new methods of learning, I did learn a lot in class, and I did build up new beliefs about learning and teaching. I am learning not though memorizing but understanding. I am learning not through taking tests and answering questions set by the instructor but by searching, by asking and answering questions by myself. I am learning!


So what? What will I do when I return to China? How will I teach my students-in commonsense or uncommonsense ways? Can I challenge the commonsense by applying uncommonsense theory in teaching? Will people accept the new ideas, the anti-traditional? These are great challenges I will face.

Education in China is believed to play a key role in the modernization and reconstruction of the country. It will take a long time for people to realize the crucial needs for changing educational beliefs. Chinese traditions and culture will be the main obstacles to accomplish educational reform for teachers and administrators. Even parents may not support these new views. However, the economic reform in China may change people's beliefs.

I can't wait until the time comes. I would like to keep doing research, report the outcome, encourage people to think about new ideas. By doing research I'd like to show the possibilities of teaching by applying uncommonsense theory. Actually, I can't reach any conclusions in this paper. I need to continue working until I find more answers for my questions. I need to apply the theory in a real teaching situations in China.

Mayher, John S. 1990 Uncommonsense: Theoretical Practice in Language Education. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook

Smith, Frank 1988 Collaborating in the Classroom. In: Joining the Literacy Club. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

[ Practice as Inquiry ] [ Literacy & Learning ]