MAY I ASK A QUESTION?
"What is action research?" I asked myself as I
perused the list of summer session courses, trying to decide
which course to take. I had never heard of it before. The
course times fit with my schedule and my curiosity had been
aroused by the title: Education as Inquiry: An Action Research
Experience. Of particular interest to me was the word inquiry.
Since beginning full-time graduate studies in adult education
last fall, the notion of questioning and inquiry had come
up frequently. I wanted to do more "investigation"
into myself and my teaching. "This course could be my
opportunity" I thought, and decided to take the course.
The first class quickly changed my thinking about action
research. Until graduate school my education had been firmly
entrenched in the fields of health and science. I had always
associated the word research with the "big R" research
that Garth Boomer (1987 1) writes
about in "Addressing the Problem of Elsewhereness."
I wrote in my journal about the word research:
In "Action Research: Exploring the Tensions of Teaching"
Judith talks about our "traditional research culture"
where you begin with a question, collect data depending
on the question and write up results. This is exactly how
I have viewed research in the past. It might take me awhile
to get used to this new way of thinking about research.
I hope my scientific view of research doesn't interfere
or impact negatively on my own action research, whatever
that will be. I find the word 'research' a little daunting.
I like 'investigation' better. (Journal 4/20/98)
By the end of that first class I had realized how action
research was different from research I was used to in the
past. Action research was learning by listening and investigating.
It was writing down the surprises or confusions in the everyday.
Judith called these "critical incidents." I had
read in an article that these incidents would cause me to
examine my assumptions. Sounds simple enough, I thought.
I went away from that first weekend of classes thinking that
this was going to be an easy course. Little did I know how
challenging it would become! I wrote down critical incidents,
and read all the course readings over the next two weeks.
I found the material interesting, but looking back I can see
that I was not engaged, as Frank Smith (1983 2)
describes. I had not taken ownership
of my learning. The critical incidents I had written about
were moments I was already aware of, and the issues raised
by them were already obvious to me. "The most difficult
thing about being an observer is recognizing the unexpected;
it's much easier to record the expected." (Newman, 1998
3) I was writing
about assumptions I had already examined. I was so busy looking
for the expected that I failed see the surprises.
The next class I was beginning to feel like I was missing
the boat. Everyone seemed so interested and engaged, and here
I was, left on shore in a fog. This fog however started to
clear by the end of our second weekend of classes. I had collected
several critical incidents, and after sorting them in class
I realized that there were two in particular that stayed with
me long after the incident had occurred. What stood out was
that they created tension for me. As Wendy Peters (1998 4)
"Spying something of interest, possibly that sign
of discomfort that hints at something more, the action researcher
resolves to enter into a more highly focused interaction
with whatever seems to be at issue."
I thought these incidents were fairly insignificant and unrelated
at first, but when I looked back at them, they seem to be
connected to each other.(One reason it is important to write
these incidents down!) Two things happened that helped me
to become more "highly focused." First, I discussed
with the class the two critical incidents that had created
the most discomfort for me; and second, after hearing the
incidents, Judith referred me to the book "Women's Ways
of Knowing" by Belenky et al. (1986 5)
. I was now on board and eager to begin
Judith helped me to see how both of these critical incidents
were connected to questioning authority, and my compliance
with people in positions of power. Here is the first critical
incident that caused some tension for me:
"I was in another graduate class at Mount Saint Vincent
University and after class Ruth, a fellow classmate, came
up to me and said, "May I ask a question!?!" I
was completely puzzled and asked her to explain. Ruth and
I had been in a course together earlier in the year called
"Gender and Education." She reminded me that in
this course we had discussed how women often qualify their
words, and ask for permission before speaking. I was still
wondering why she had pointed this out to me for a while
after she left. Then it hit me. I had asked the male professor
for permission to ask a question at the end of class and
was totally unaware that I had done so. I had been completely
unaware of my own words." (C.I. 4/30/98)
I think this incident was particularly surprising to me because
I had thought I "knew better." I had assumed that
because I had learned about the ways in which hegemonic masculinity
suppresses and silences women in our culture, that I was now
somehow above or beyond it. This made me realize that awareness
does not always lead to changes in behavior, and that old
habits can be hard to change. I now have a better understand
of what Frank Conroy (1991 6) meant
when he wrote, "understanding does not always mean resolution."
This reminds me of another quote from Conroy's article that
grabbed my attention, "The light bulb may appear over
your head but it may be awhile before it actually goes on"
(p: 69). I think my light bulb is finally turning on, and
I hope it will get brighter with further understanding and
The second incident occurred a week later:
"I arrived early for my graduate class and when I
got outside the classroom door I noticed that the benches
we sat on, to wait for our door to be opened, had been replaced.
The new benches had several "Wet Paint" signs
above them, so I walked past them to a chair and sat down.
A few minutes later a classmate arrives. I notice her as
she approaches and touches the bench. I point out the signs
and she sits down saying "It's okay, they're dry."
It didn't occur to me just then, but later that night I
wondered to myself, "Why didn't I touch the bench to
see if it was still wet? Why did I not question the signs?
Where have my questions gone?" (C.I. 5/7/98)
This seemingly insignificant incident haunted me. By telling
the class of my discomfort and getting some guidance from
Judith I was able to enter into a heightened form of engagement
(Peters, 1998). My tension around these critical incidents
indicated that there was possibly a larger issue connected
to them. I began to focus the issue of authority and to look
at how I react and respond to people in positions of authority.
I had been a curious and questioning child, as I think most
children are, but as an adult I had lost my questions. What
had happened? How does this effect my teaching? My investigation
That night I began to read the book that Judith had recommended.
It was an engaging read, that spoke to me on many levels.
I thought I had "got it" many times as I read through
the book, but it wasn't until I was entirely finished the
book that issues became more clear to me. The book discussed
research with women and how they come to know their world.
As I read I tried to "think-with" the authors and
I found myself making connections throughout the book.
The book allowed me to see how most of my life I had received
knowledge from others rather than constructing my own knowledge.
I was often silenced growing up, by an alcoholic father who
was controlling and authoritarian. I was taught that teachers,
parents and people in power were to be respected and "knew
best." I always did well in school. I played the game
to get high marks, and to please my parents. For me, this
meant giving the teachers what they wanted. I learned to please
my teachers and parents, not myself. Judith Newman writes
about her surprise at the number of graduate students who
"by and large have no idea how to look for connections;
their predominant learning strategy is to read and memorize"(Newman,
1998). I relied on this learning strategy for most of my formal
education. I was not creating knowledge, I was receiving it
from the "experts." Belenky et al (1986) describe
a woman who is a "receiver of knowledge":
"She "learns" the material; that is, she
stores a copy of it, first in her notes and then in her
head. She does not transform the material; she files it
"as is".... Unlike the silent women, who do not
see themselves as learners at all, these women feel confident
about their ability to absorb and to store the truths received
from others." (p.42)
My learning strategies only started to change in graduate
school at the age of thirty. I began to learn about new ways
of seeing the world. I began to see shades of gray and understand
that there are "multiple truths." I learned about
post-modern theory and "to see the taken-for-granted
with new eyes" (Newman, 1998 7) .
I wrote about this in my journal after reading the article
by Garth Boomer:
Boomer talks about how one group believes they can possess
and bank on knowledge. He states that "a kind of knowledge
capitalism is reinforced from generation to generation."
I was definitely in this 'banking' group, but I see that
my world view is evolving and that my view of education
has changed a lot over the last year. (Journal 4/26/98)
Reflecting on my limited experience as a teacher of adults,
I could see how this "received knowledge" translated
into my role as educator. I taught the way I had been shown
or "demonstrated" how to teach. I was the authority
in the classroom, but I also wanted the students to like me.
I wanted to make learning easy for them, and would often "give"
them my answers rather than letting them discover their answers
for themselves. I had taken ownership of the students learning.
It was not until graduate school that I saw different "demonstrations"
of how to teach. I saw professors "leading from behind"
and teachers that encouraged the students to take ownership
of our own learning.
It was the idea of "thinking-with" writers that
really struck me when I read a chapter in the "Women's
Ways of Knowing" called Constructed Knowledge: Integrating
the Voices. The authors describe this integration as "a
place for reason and intuition and the expertise of others."
(p.133). "Thinking-with" allows the reader to integrate
theory, make connections, and construct their own knowledge.
By doing this I am not adopting someone's views as my own,
nor am I ignoring the work of others in the field. I make
connections and "weave together the strands of rational
and emotive thought and of integrating objective and subjective
knowing"(p.134) to create my own way of knowing the world.
I have always been a bit intimidated by theory, but I now
see how a theoretical perspective can help me to construct
my own thoughts, and draw my own conclusions. "Theories
become not truth but models for approximating experience."
As I read more about women's ways of knowing and authority,
I started to pay attention to my everyday interactions with
people. I became more aware of how I communicated with people
in authority. Soon after I wrote about another related critical
incident that bothered me:
I received my final grades today from the registrar. I
was pleased with all my marks except one. I had been anticipating
an "A" in my elective course, but only got an
"A-." Has there been a mistake? I have never questioned
my grades before. I do think that my learning is far more
important than my marks. Does my mark really matter? Am
I being petty? (C.I. 5/20/98)
After reading more of my book ["Women's Ways of Knowing"]
I began to think about my grade again. I wrote the professor
an e-mail asking him to check my mark. It took me awhile
to compose it, then I had second thoughts about sending
it. I started thinking that this professor has a lot of
power in the university and in field of education, and I
might make him upset if I question his marking. I decided
to wait and think about it . I deleted the message. (Journal
I just finished reading my book and am feeling empowered.
I think I will e-mail my professor again, and sent it this
time! I have the right to know how I was graded. If it is
bothering me this much I have to ask him, for my own peace
of mind. (Journal 5/25/98)
Here is the message I sent:
I received my final grade late last week and was a little
surprised by my mark. Now, before I go on, I want you to
know that this really is no big deal. However, I had anticipated
an A and got an A- and am curious as to where I lost marks.
I've never questioned a professor/teacher about a grade
before and feel quite uneasy doing so. I really enjoyed
this course and your teaching style. Perhaps because I felt
I had learned so much, I "assumed" my mark would
I know you are busy, but I would appreciate it if you would
check my marks and let me know.
As I said this is not a big deal, but I am curious.
I felt relieved that I had finally written my concerns, and
a little anxious as to the reply. The next morning I received
Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Miss represented
somewhere in the paper trail. Will change it in the registrar's
office. Hope all is going well. M
After receiving this I immediately wrote in my journal:
I just read my e-mail and am so excited. I called Liam
to tell him that my mark had been incorrect and that I did
have an "A" as I had thought. I told him that
it is amazing what can happen if you speak up. I am happy
that I got my grade changed, but I am much happier that
I did not allow my intimidation to stop me from sending
him the e-mail. (Journal 5/26/98)
Reflecting on this critical incident creates many questions
for me. Re-reading the e-mail I sent to my professor, I was
surprised by how apologetic I sounded! I made it sound like
he was doing me a BIG favor by checking my grade. This makes
me wonder about the way I communicate. Am I too polite or
trying to hard to please? The e-mail the professor sent me
was quick and to the point, but I did note that he did not
apologize for the mistake. How would I have reacted or felt
if my mark had not changed, or if the professor had responded
in a negative way? I hope that regardless of the professors
response I would have been glad that I sent the e-mail. I
hesitated and waited awhile before sending my e-mail to this
professor. I was intimidated by the power I perceived he had
as a professor. I want to try to always keep power issues
in mind when I teach. Although I may not perceive myself as
powerful, my students may see me as powerful, and this can
interfere with communication. I plan to do more inquiry into
power distortions in the classroom.
Another issue that has come up in my action research is my
sense of self. I have come to realize that my sense of self,
for most of my life, has been dependent on external factors
and how others see me. In "Women's Ways of Knowing",
the author's write, "At the positions of received knowledge
and procedural knowledge, other voices and external truths
prevail. Sense of self is embedded either in external definitions
and roles or in identifications with institutions, disciplines,
and methods. These women seek gratification in pleasing others
or in measuring up to external standards-in being "the
good woman" or "the good student." (p.134)
As a student I tried to get good grades to please my parents.
As a teacher I wanted to please my students. I did a lot in
my life to please others.
So where do I go from here? I have lots of action research
ahead of me. As I learn to construct my own knowledge by thinking-with
others, I hope I can help students do the same. What I want
to investigate further is how I can help students, especially
female students to build their self esteem and realize (like
I have) that they can create their own knowledge. My investigations
allow me to uncover my assumptions and understand why I see
the world the way I do. I believe that I can only make changes
in myself and in my teaching if I am first aware. In order
to change I need to write down my surprises and never stop
questioning the things I so often take for granted. I now
see myself as a creator of knowledge, "All knowledge
is constructed, and the knower is an intimate part of the
known." (Belenky, p.137). I will never stop creating,
Belenky, M.,. Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N.,
& Tarule, J. 1986. Women's Ways of Knowing. USA: Basic
Books Inc. Return
Boomer, Garth. 1987. Addressing the Problem
of Elsewhereness. In: Dixie Goswami & Peter Stillman (Eds)
Reclaiming the Classroom: Teacher Research as an Agent for
Change. Portsmith, N.H.: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Heinemann:
Conroy, Frank 1991. Think About It: Ways
we know and don't. Harper's Magazine: November 68-70. Return
Newman, Judith M. 1998. Action
Research: A Brief Overview. Return
Newman, Judith M. 1998. Action
Research: Exploring the Tensions of Teaching. In: Judith
Newman (Ed.) Tensions of Teaching: Beyond Tips to Critical
Reflection. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, Inc. New York:
Teachers College Press. Return
Peters, Wendy 1998. Pinball Anyone? Pinball as a Metaphor for Action
Smith, Frank 1983. Demonstrations, Engagement
and Sensitivity. In: Essays into Literacy. Portsmouth, NH:
Heinemann Educational Books: 95-106. Return