Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Practice as Inquiry

Pinball, anyone?
Pinball as Metaphor for Action Research

Wendy Peters


You know, after a while, you come to expect the surprises, even look forward to them. This latest surprise has a bigger bite for me than most, however. The last thing I expected as a result of my participation in the curriculum course was a way to think differently about the questions surrounding action research that I've been wrestling with; specifically, how the notion of action research plays out in my life outside of the action research course.

I have been feeling frustrated lately, my growing sense of the role that risk plays in learning increasingly claiming my attention and nudging me into awareness of the ways in which the structure of the curriculum course inadvertently shuts down my risk-taking, consequently placing limits on my learning. Deciding to explore my frustration as a means of loosening the stranglehold it seems to have on my attention, I have "freewritten" a description of what it might look like were I in charge of shaping my own course experience.

Surveying the description, I am startled by the clarity of an abrupt flash of insight; what I have is not a description detailing what I would do if given the chance, but what I am and have been doing all along. Even more revealing, mine is a description that has all of the earmarks of an action research enterprise.

How can this be? How did action research escape its confines? Doesn't it know that it does not belong here in the curriculum course? Apparently not, because I find that I am engaged in some kind of action research in the curriculum course. How do I know? What gives it away? Simply this: the writing that is coming out of my experience in the curriculum course looks, feels, tastes, and smells like an action research piece to me, and a rose by any other name...(WPE, Journal reflection, 10/13/95).

Surprises. It seems I have never tripped over so many of these as I have since I enrolled in the M.Ed program at the University of Manitoba in the fall of 1994. I've come to look forward to these unpredictable tumbles, however, as critical incidents, or as Judith Newman, author of Interwoven Conversations would say, moments "...which...force me to stand back and examine my beliefs... critically." (p.247) By their very nature, critical incidents are, potentially, the principle means by which we come see, think, and ultimately, act differently. The critical incident which the journal reflection of November 13 documents has helped me to think differently about action research, to see it with new eyes, and consequently, to articulate a personal understanding which pushes back the heavy curtains of theory and enters the realm of everyday life. It is this understanding which I hope to give expression to here by describing what I currently think it means to "do" action research.

Action Research

As the prepared environment is to the Montessori method of instruction, so is confusion to action research, or practical inquiry, as it is often called. The mind is adept at smoothing over, filtering out, and explaining away the little discrepancies and tensions which attend our interpretation and re-interpretation of the events which unfold in our lives. The act of deliberate confusion is that of making a conscious decision to disengage these subtle mechanisms which so quietly and capably set out to tidy up the mess of lived experience so that rather than being harmonized, tensions and discrepancies stand out in sharp relief and apparent answers are recognized as invitations to further questioning. Donald Schon, in discussing his notion of the reflective practitioner, suggests that this deliberate confusion is about allowing oneself to become confused about subjects one is supposed to know (Schon, 1982). I would go even one step further and argue that the action researcher not only allows herself to become confused about what she is supposed to know, but also about what she endeavours to know.

Adopting the stance of deliberate confusion, the reflective stance, therefore, is essential to the purpose of action research, which is to make the familiar unfamiliar; to "...make the discourses of practices and about practices problematic." (McTaggart, 1993) It is from this vantage point that the action researcher monitors and mines the landscape of personal experience, recording observations, connections, and surprises (critical incidents), and paying particular attention to signs of discomfort which might hint at a larger tension or dilemma. To the action researcher, these are potential energy - energy which ignored remains in stasis until converted into kinetic energy through reflection. As such, these dilemmas provide the impetus for more highly focused inquiry.

Each person's landscape is unique, its topography a tangled, interwoven mess of past, present, and future which is always in flux. It is not, however, a construction of strictly solitary endeavour but is shaped in large part by our interactions with our environment. Our exposure to external stimuli, the "stuff" of each unfolding minute, is relentless and unceasing, creating opportunity for interaction which exceeds our capacity to do so. Consequently, we learn to attend to these with varying levels of interest and intensity according to what we believe "counts" as being legitimate and important at any given time. We learn to pick over the rubble, so to speak. Spying something of interest, possibly that sign of discomfort which hints at something more, the action researcher resolves to enter into a more highly focused interaction with whatever seems to be at issue. The essence of this heightened form of engagement is embodied in the notion of "thinking with."

"Thinking with" is not unlike entering into a spirited debate in which both parties interrogate one another, testing each other's ideas while testing also his or her own. Throughout this dialogue, the action researcher is constantly on the alert for connections to her own experiences or for ideas which will help her to think differently about the issues involved in the investigation. Typically this exchange is a verbal one between two or more people in which all parties "listen to think with." With just as much frequency, however, it occurs between the action researcher who enters into a dialogue with the written expression of an another's ideas, or in effect, who "reads to think with."

Written exploration of the artifacts of this mining of the landscape is especially critical since it provides the evidence to which the researcher returns time and time again as she explores a particular issue or phenomenon, sifting through and literally REsearching the data. Sometimes this exploration asks the question "What's going on here?" that allows the researcher to step back and take a more global view. At other times it asks the question "So what?" which forces the researcher to consider the implications of new found insight for practice; what action will he or she be compelled to engage in as a result of what has been discovered? Written exploration goes far beyond mere recording, however. The action researcher asks the question which initiates the writing, but once set in motion, the writing has a way of directing itself, often taking surprising twists and turns not anticipated by the writer. All of this is to say that writing of an exploratory nature is a vehicle for the making of meaning. Another way of expressing this is to say that writing finds its own meaning. Writers frequently remark that through the act of writing they are allowed glimpses of themselves which draw them into new understandings of who they are. I have experienced this phenomenon in my own writing, and would even go so far as to argue that the act of writing goes beyond simply showing us to ourselves, becoming a means of extending, perhaps even transforming who we are, what we think, and consequently, how we act. In this sense, the writing is the research as Judith Newman suggests (Newman, Class discussion, 11/13/95).

If writing holds the potential to change the way we act, then it is a powerful tool indeed. It is powerful not only for the action researcher who undertakes it for the purpose of informing her own practice, but potentially for those who might read the resultant account of the research - the research "piece" - to "think with." A great part of this potential lies in the narrative qualities of the piece, its ability to "show" the researcher's struggle in such a way that a mirror is held up to the experiences of individual readers, drawing them onto the stage as actors. As actors, or participants, the readers claim a degree of ownership over the dilemma facing the writer. Their investment is such that the questions "What's going on here?" and "So what?" become as much their questions as they are those of the writer.

Ultimately, what I'd like to be able to do is take this description of action research and use it much as I would a closet organizer - to press some sense of orderliness on my lived experience of the curriculum course so that I could point to its cleanly outlined shape and say "See, this is how my experience in the curriculum course constitutes engagement in action research." However, to do so would be to convey the impression of action research as a neat and tidy process, and that would be a gross misrepresentation. The process is anything but neat and tidy. It is, in fact, maddeningly and deliciously messy. And so, as is so often the case when I am searching for a way to clarify a messy idea, I have been rummaging around in search of a metaphor to "think with," one which could at once organize yet represent the messiness. After trying on several for size, I have settled upon the pinball machine as being the best fit: action research is like a game of pinball.

Action Research as Pinball Machine

The spring-loaded mechanism which spits the balls out and into play on the landscape of the gameboard is the act of deliberate confusion, and it is this reflective stance which fashions the flippers that so often rescue the ball from sliding downward, irretrievably, into the bowels of the machine. The "bumpers" which keep the ball in play are the monitoring and mining of experience, the engagement in "thinking with," and written exploration, including the questions "What's going on here?" and "So what?" The balls themselves are the tensions which emerge as dominant themes, and therefore, as the driving forces of the inquiry.

In retrospect, I see my participation this term in the curriculum course as akin to having played several pinball games simultaneously. The November 13 journal entry hints at two of them, one of which has centred on my struggle to arrive at a personal articulation of action research, and yet another which concerns my explorations of tensions the curriculum course held for me which have helped me to consider the role that risk plays in learning. In laying bare my understanding of action research, I have presented the results of my struggle to articulate a personal definition of action research, but in doing so I have not so much given the highlights of the game as given the score. In an attempt to impart a sense of the hectic and oftimes unpredictable movement of the balls as they are jostled around on the gameboard, I offer the following glimpse into the game constituted by my exploration of the issue surrounding the role of risk in learning.

The Game of Risk

Early in the curriculum course I was asked to complete a grading contract. I felt vaguely uneasy about it, but I wasn't sure why, so I used my discomfort as a starting point for reflection. As a demonstration of the role written reflection played in my working through of this tension, I offer what amounts to a reflection on a reflection. The starting point of the writing is the question "What's going on here?" In my initial exploration of the tension I was able to "think with" my previous experience of keeping a journal and the conditions which helped make it such a positive experience. Then, by "thinking with" this first written reflection and exploring it for a second time - REsearching it - I was able to take a further step back, and voila, a critical incident emerged which helped me to reach a valuable insight concerning, among other things, the impact of grading on risk-taking:

I have been asked as a member of the curriculum course to complete a "grading contract." In doing this, I must decide what percentage of my final grade I wish to have assigned to my participation in the course as well as to compulsory assignments. In addition, I have the option whether or not I wish to include, as part of what I will be evaluated on, one or both of a take-home final and a documented journal. At first I really perked up at the thought of the journal option. The journal I had been encouraged to keep as part of my engagement in the action research course last year yielded insights on a scale I had not previously known, and consequently, I had been planning to journal my way through all of my courses anyway. I was pleased that it seemed the professor of this course valued writing and reflection as a form of engagement, although I was (and am) somewhat disturbed at the whole notion of the grading contract being determined in advance of actual participation in the course. My first entry in the course journal reflects this concern:

I became aware of the phenomenon of writing finding its own meaning (of writing revealing to the writer, attitudes, feelings, and intentions which he or she was unaware of) in my thirtieth year. As a consequence, I often feel that I have a lot of lost time to make up for. This probably explains my low level of tolerance for settings which do not allow for this process. The "Grading Contact," or more specifically, a course which asks that I make the decisions which will shape my evaluation in advance of my participation represents one such setting. Overall, I like the idea of the grading contract - I like the sharing of power implicit in the notion of such a document - but I object to having to guess at how things will play out for me in this course. I can't know how well the writing/reflection will flow for the compulsory paper (especially given that the topic will not be entirely of my own choosing), so how can I decide now what percentage of my final mark I think it appropriate for the paper to receive? Similarly, I can't know how the dynamics of the group will play out - perhaps I will feel comfortable expressing myself publicly, and perhaps I won't. I will keep a journal regardless, but since I have just recently freed myself from the tyranny of the internal editor and given myself over to the messiness of unfettered reflection, I am not willing to go back. But....

I can't know if the professor will honour (perhaps "value" is a better word) the kind of journal I tend to produce with the same high mark that he may feel moved to award to the potentially neat, white-out stained, politely polished offering of a classmate. Ultimately, these concerns boil down to the issue of risk, which I happen to think is a necessary condition for learning. Knowing myself as I do, I know that if I commit to a grading scheme that is not open to negotiation, I will be less likely to engage in risk-taking, and therefore, less likely to learn all that this course experience has, potentially, to offer.

That written, I proceeded to get a start on the first reading assignment. With journal open and pen in hand I dived in into the assigned text, but it was clear from the outset that something was amiss. My subsequent written exploration of my unease helped me into a naming of the tension that I was experiencing:

I've just had a quick read of the preface to the Schubert text. (Schubert, 1986) Several times as I was reading I became conscious of my own voice intruding with questions, connections, stories to tell, and reactions, but, contrary to my usual m.o., I recorded none of these in my journal. Instead, I slapped post-its with cryptic bits of writing on them in the textbook with a vague feeling of unease. I eventually had to stop and to ask myself, "What's going on here?"

After some reflection, I think I have hit upon the answer. The "teacher" is going to read this and evaluate it at the end of the course (as opposed to frequently during the course for the purpose of checking in with me to see what he can do to support where I'm at). This implies that his evaluation of it will be for the sole purpose of assigning it a mark. Voila! Internal editor (read "censor") snaps to attention. Suddenly it is form, spelling, style, "right answers" (above all) and neatness which command, and, so it would seem, stop the pen. (WPE, Course journal, 10/23/95).

I now suspect that the best journal to keep for this course, is the one which is worth 0% (WPE, Course journal, 10/23/95).

After arriving at the conclusion that submitting my journal for evaluation might change the nature of what I would record, I considered not submitting any journal that I might keep. However, curious to see how it might play out, I decided to take the risk and try as best I could to write as I normally would when doing so in absence of the expectation of a critical audience. It has proven an interesting task. For the most part I've been successful in giving my writing free rein, but I note with some amusement that several of what I would consider my most risqué rantings have been recorded in journals that will never see another pair of eyes save mine.

Alright, but "So what?" What implications does this realization concerning risk hold for me in my own practice? In terms of the grand scheme of things, I am now convinced that a significant aspect of my role as teacher must be a constant striving to understand the phenomenology of the student. In order to minimize the limits placed on risk-taking that are inherent in the structures and situations I engineer in my classroom, I must understand in what ways being a student is problematic.

More specifically, however, the insight I gleaned through my own sense of risk-taking as a student in the curriculum course helps me to think differently about my practice as a summer faculty member of the Orff-Schulwerk Summer Certification Course offered though the University of Manitoba. Ironically, the tension in my summer practice arises from my attempts to use journalling as a means of evaluating for the purpose of student support rather than the assigning of a grade.

Counting on the students' journal entries to help me evaluate their needs in my attempt to "lead from behind," as Judith Newman would say, or in other words, take my cue as how best to support and extend the learning from the learner, I had been asking recorder students to submit journals on a daily basis. I would read, respond where appropriate, and try to take my cue from the expressed needs of the students in shaping the next day's class and materials. Initially, I was pleased with the level of communication which was seemingly facilitated by the passing back and forth of the journals. However, when I read the anonymous course evaluations at the conclusion of the course, discrepancies between many of the students' signed final reflections and their anonymous course evaluations made it clear that there was a perceived risk on their part in being too open, too candid, in their journal reflections.

The students' censorship represented a significant obstacle to my bid to provide appropriate support for them as they struggled to master what was for most an unfamiliar instrument. My recent experiences with journal-keeping have helped me to realize the role I played in creating that censorship. My insistence on reading the journals so frequently, or perhaps even in reading them at all, had clearly affected the nature of what was being recorded in them.

Another aspect of the dilemma, and one over which I have very little control, is that the course itself is short and intense (12 days). This is not a great deal of time in which to convince students, especially students with extensive experience in being "schooled," that I can be trusted when I say that I am not looking for "right answers" and that I am open to, and in fact welcome, dialogue around the tensions they experience as students in my class.

Naming and exploring the various tensions contributing to my dilemma doesn't solve it, of course, but it does offer the opportunity for me to imagine what I might do differently next time; what action or actions I can undertake as a result of my insights. Each new action, in turn, potentially slingshots a new ball into play. In this way, the process of action research provides the necessary bridge between theory and practice, providing the means of identifying and rooting out the discrepancies between what we as educators say we believe, or what we intend, and what our actions and policies as teachers may otherwise suggest and accomplish.

McTaggart, Robin 1993 Action Research: Issues in Theory and Practice. In: Annual Review of Health Social Sciences: Methodological Issues in Health Research, Volume 3:19-45.

Newman, Judith M. 1991 Interwoven Conversations: Learning and Teaching Through Critical Reflection. Toronto: OISE Press.

Schon, Donald 1982 From Technical Rationality to Reflection-in-Action. In: The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Schubert, William H. 1986 Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

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