In: Newman, Judith M. 1998 Tensions of Teaching: Beyond
Tips to Critical Reflection. Toronto/New York: Canadian
Scholars' Press/Teachers College Press: 1-24.
EXPLORING THE TENSIONS OF TEACHING
Judith M. Newman, Ph.D.
"You were sitting on the roof?" Lieutenant
Joe Leaphorn kept the tone of the question neutral.
"Yessir," Jim Chee said. "You can see the
whole plaza from up there."
That was the advantage, of course. The disadvantage being
that you couldn't catch the kid once you saw him. But Leaphorn
didn't press that point. It was obvious from Chee's slightly
abashed expression that he was aware of it. Leaphorn put
the first page of Chee's report facedown on his desk and
reread the second and terminal page. It was neatly typed
but-by Leaphorn's standards-sadly incomplete. (p. 22)
I'm an avid mystery reader. I always have a stack of crime
novels beside my bed. There's something about the genre I
find very compelling I can't say what for sure, but
I definitely find mysteries satisfying to read, certainly
more than just a cheap escape.
One of my favorite detective writers is Tony Hillerman. His
novels are cast in the American southwest, in a locale referred
to as "the four corners" the intersection
of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Find Flagstaff
in northern Arizona on the map and you're in the general region.
What I find so very interesting and appealing about Hillerman's
country and the stories he tells is that people go about their
normal lives, not troubled greatly by what's happening in
the rest of the world. Hillerman develops great plots and
you'd expect considerable action with stories that have murder
at their core but not so in Hillerman's novels very
little happens. They are contemplative; they unfold slowly,
in Navajo time.
Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, a middle-aged officer of the Navajo Tribal Police
stationed in Window Rock, does most of his detecting by cogitating on
details, attempting to construct connections among apparently unrelated
events. The territory is large and unpopulated; he has lots of time, as
he drives from one location to another, to think about people and why
they do things. Leaphorn is a subtly drawn character and his investigations
reveal powerful glimpses of Navajo and other local cultures.
It's late spring and I'm preparing for a new course on action research
for teachers. I browse my book shelves, choosing titles I think might
contribute to a discussion of action research. I thumb through my file
cabinets for articles that might be useful. I spend some time in the library
hunting for new material. I surf the World Wide Web to see what I can
find on teacher research. I set up a class library, compile a bibliography
of the materials I have located, and I am working on my opening letter
to the teachers.
I also happen to be reading Hillerman's novel, Sacred Clowns.
I read it quickly, enjoying the story and his further development
of both Leaphorn and Chee. Reading a new novel by a particular
author when you've read all eleven of his previous books is
something akin to watching a TV series. I find myself reading
this one, not to find out whodunit, but for what I glean about
the ongoing lives of Leaphorn and Chee. It's these two characters
who hold my interest. In particular, it's Leaphorn's explicit
induction of the younger officer Chee into the techniques
of detecting, of doing action research, that grabs my attention.
I finish the novel, then I immediately read it again.
Leaphorn said studying Chee "when we're working on something,
I want you to tell me everything. Everything. Don't leave out stuff
you think is trivial, or doesn't seem to bear on what we're interested
in. I want it all." (p. 25)
The difficult thing about doing action research is that you have to override
most of what you've learned about research as an activity. In a traditional
research culture you begin by framing a question, setting up a situation
which might provide some information, collecting data which bears on the
question, then writing up results.
Action research isn't like that at all. The research activity
begins in the middle of whatever it is you're doing
something happens that you didn't expect for Leaphorn
and Chee it's a couple of apparently unrelated murders, one
in their jurisdiction, the other outside it and you
begin wondering about what's going on.
The dilemma in an action research situation is you may not
even realize something interesting has occurred that you ought
to think about unless you're already in the habit of keeping
a journal or reflective log. Because teaching, like other
activities which occur in and around schools, is so complex,
we're accustomed to coping with the many things demanding
our attention at once without really thinking about them;
we generally don't make a point of recording those moments
which surprise or perplex us or stand out for some other reason
during the course of the day. So, unless we follow Leaphorn's
advice and create for ourselves regular reflective accounts
of what's going on, we're not likely to get anywhere. As Leaphorn
advises Chee, "I want you to tell me everything don't
leave out stuff you think is trivial." In fact, you won't
know what is trivial until patterns begin to emerge, and even
then what seems trivial, may turn out to be significant later
you just can't tell.
The hardest part of beginning an action research project is developing
the discipline to keep a written account, of recording on a regular basis
the details of what's happening, particularly when you have no idea what
you're looking for. For unlike traditional research, action research begins
not with a research question but with the muddle of daily work, with the
moments that stand out from the general flow, and unless we record those
moments they vanish, unavailable as data for reflection, for discerning
some larger pattern of experience. So it's necessary to keep fairly detailed
notes. Whether it's a journal, a daily log, critical incidents (Newman,
1987, 1991) jotted on index cards, or more extensive field notes, without
a written account, the enterprise cannot proceed.
"You look for connections," Leaphorn said.
"I can't see anything to connect them," Chee said.
Leaphorn rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes. He looked glum.
"I can't either, but I always look. It's an old habit.
"I don't like coincidences," Leaphorn said. Even if this isn't
much of one.(p. 26, 27, 28)
We begin the action research course by reading Sacred Clowns.
The teachers expect some 'instruction' on how to do action
research. This is the best account I've ever read! In addition,
I juxtapose a variety of professional works with Hillerman's
novel. During the first month the teachers also read a number
of articles and book chapters either describing teacher research
or showing teacher research in action. We all read articles
by Virginia Richardson (1994) on conducting research on practice;
Frederick Burton (1986) and Glenda Bissex (1988) on action
research; Eleanor Kutz (1992) on myths and realities of teacher
research; Cathy Fleischer (1994) on researching teacher research;
Eleanor Duckworth (1987) on teaching as research.
I mentioned earlier that I prepare a class library. In that
collection, which I bring to class each week, I have included
a range of action research studies MA theses,
doctoral dissertations, published articles, as well as several
teacher research anthologies. The teachers choose individual
selections to read in conjunction with our common reading
material. It never ceases to surprise me that graduate students,
by and large, have no idea how to look for connections; their
predominant learning strategy is to read and memorize. So
we spend a lot of time looking for connections in articles,
chapters, and books, learning how to think with the authors,
using these accounts as mirrors for reflecting on our own
I noticed last week in class during the small group discussions
that you had some difficulty using the readings to reflect
on your own writing, reading, learning/teaching. I suspect
most of you are used to reading for the 'facts' a given
article or chapter offers, or for 'tips,' but I'm attempting
to help you read more interpretively/reflectively. That
means using the professional writing as a MIRROR to see
your own learning/teaching more clearly. The point of such
reading is to use someone else's experiences / arguments
as a jumping off point for an examination of your own. My
friend and colleague Diane Stephens calls this THINKING
WITH. She's referring to something Margaret Spencer describes
the text allowing us to read ourselves (Spencer,
1987). Seeing ourselves in new ways, taking a new perspective
on our own life circumstances, is the real purpose of any
reading. The heart of our enterprise is to become more reflective
practitioners. I'm trying to help you examine your teaching
in new and critical ways. I've done a number of things to
set up potential contrasts which may lead you to see yourself
differently, to question your assumptions, but for these
experiences to have that affect you have to make a contribution
you have to turn your gaze back toward yourself.
It means not treating what you read as some isolated object
but using it to help you generate questions about your teaching,
about your assumptions (JN. Journal: 10/6/94).
In addition to using published accounts to explore connections,
I encourage the teachers to begin collecting and recording
critical incidents (Newman, 1987,
1991). Critical incidents are what I call those moments which
have allowed me to stand back and examine my beliefs and my
teaching critically. They are stories used as tools for conducting
research on ourselves. A critical incident can be triggered
in the midst of teaching, but I have also suddenly found myself
contemplating my teaching while I'm reading something. Or
I have overheard a comment that has made me wonder. Noticing
how someone else is doing something I've always taken for
granted or suddenly seeing my own learning differently have
helped me learn more about teaching. Latent critical incidents
are everywhere, not just in the classroom, and they offer
important opportunities for learning about our professional
Because I find it so difficult to keep extensive field notes
while I'm teaching, I have evolved, with the help of many
teachers, a technique of jotting a phrase, or a sentence or
two, on one side of a 3 x 5 index card at the end of the class
just enough so I am able to reconstruct a situation
or event later; a different card for each potential story.
** Then I use the other
side of the card to reflect on what happened. I have learned
to ask myself "What makes this moment surprising?"
"What questions does it raise for me?" "How
does this change how I think about my teaching?" Later,
when I have time, I develop stories based on incidents recorded
on the cards. The following account of my experience with
Cindy, a third grader, is an example of such a critical incident
It was my last visit to Elmdale School before Christmas.
Several children in the third grade class were setting off
to read to their grade one reading buddies and Cindy, especially,
wanted me to accompany them. Cindy had rehearsed some book
or other to read to her first grade partner; however, the
class took a quick trip to the library just before the children
were to read to their buddies. While in the library, Cindy
came across Ezra Jack Keats' book The Snowy Day and
decided that was the book she wanted to read instead. As
far as I, and the other teachers knew, this was an unfamiliar
book. We suggested she postpone reading it, but Cindy would
have none of that-she was insistent, The Snowy Day
was the book she was going to read.
I should have heeded her body language but I was too busy being concerned
about her having taken on more than she could handle that I didn't notice
the way she held herself, her confident stride.
Cindy settled herself comfortably on the floor against
the wall, her buddy by her side. I sat close, ready to help
out if needed but willing to sit back and watch. Cindy positioned
the book so Tamara could see, She read the cover and the
title page, then she began reading the story as fluently
as any other third grader-no hint of the difficulty she'd
demonstrated all fall. She came to the page "He climbed
a heaping mountain of snow", paused ever so slightly,
turned to me and said I'll just say "humungus"
then read "He climbed a humungus mountain of snow"
without waiting for any confirmation from me.
I was both surprised and delighted. Here was a solid demonstration
of fluent reading in action. Cindy was monitoring the sense
of the story, the flow of the language, picture cues, and
graphophonic cues, and orchestrating the whole in such a
way that meaning was maintained. That was the moment when
I registered her posture leaning against the wall
comfortably, head high, book loosely held in her lap
the very picture of a confident reader. It was clear in
this situation Cindy believed she could read
the first time I had witnessed her confidence. I knew she
was on her way.
Afterward I asked Cindy how she had been able to read so
well. She couldn't explain I hadn't really expected
she could, most kids do as she did, they shrug when they've
got it together, "It's really nothing" they imply
nonchalantly. I was wondering whether she was familiar with
the story but she said she wasn't when I probed. It was
clear to me, as I watched her handle the book, that I wasn't
witnessing a memorized reading Cindy was REALLY reading.
The lesson for me was a powerful one. I had been helping her teachers
build supports for Cindy. We'd done considerable shared reading with
her and a small group of other students. We'd written stories and helped
her transcribe hers, helped her prepare for reading to her grade one
buddy. So concerned about building a supportive environment, we'd forgotten
we had to leave room for challenge. Fortunately for us, Cindy herself
knew when it was time to stretch-in hindsight I could recognize the
signals. The incident was a clear indication from Cindy that she didn't
need quite so much support any longer. We pulled back (JN. Journal:
I encourage the teachers to begin collecting their own critical incidents,
to look for the unexpected, to notice surprises, and to record them. We
discuss their incidents in class using them as a basis for thinking with
whomever we happen to be reading.
Over the last decade, as people have moved in new directions, from quantitative
research methodologies toward naturalistic inquiry, many new and interesting
forms of research have emerged. Variously identified as teacher research
(Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993), action research (Winter, 1987; Carr,
1989), reflective practice (Schön, 1983), at the heart of all of
these investigative enterprises has been a common focus on practice-as-inquiry.
There are as many variants of practice-as-inquiry as there are people
exploring its possibilities. There is no one 'right' way of doing action
research, of being a teacher researcher, of engaging in critical reflection.
Practitioners engaging in these more open, reflective ways are inventing
methodology as they go along.
There are huge differences of opinion about what actually constitutes
practice-as-inquiry; I encourage the teachers to explore the research
literature widely in order to acquaint themselves with the range of possibilities.
Stephen North (1987), for example, contends practice becomes inquiry only
when practitioners identify a problem, search for possible causes and
solutions, test those solutions in practice, validate their observations
and then disseminate their findings. For North, the making of new knowledge
requires some distanced systematic investigation, done primarily as an
end in itself. The researcher/practitioner is essentially detached from
practice. In North's opinion, inquiry isn't research unless it follows
the rules of traditional quantitative methodologies.
Donald Schön (1983, 1987), on the other hand, sees practice-as-inquiry
conducted principally to inform and change on-going practice. For Schön,
inquiry occurs when the practitioner reflects both while engaged in action
and subsequently on the action itself.
Surprise, says Schön (1987) is at the heart of any reflective activity.
Surprise leads to reflection within an action-present. Reflection is
at least in some measure conscious, although it need not occur in the
medium of words. We consider both the unexpected event and the knowing-in-action
that led up to it, asking ourselves, as it were, "What is this?"
and, at the same time, "How have I been thinking about it?"
Our thought turns back on the surprising phenomenon and, at the same
time, back on itself (p. 28).
The most difficult thing about being an observer is recognizing the unexpected;
it's much easier to record the expected. Yet we really learn most from
the unexpected it's when something didn't go as we though it should, or
someone's response was different than we thought it would be, or they
do something we wouldn't have done, or we would have done it in a different
way, that we can begin to see what our expectations/assumptions are.
As action researchers we're trying to examine our assumptions. But, obviously,
before we can examine assumptions, we need to discover what they are.
By exploring both familiar and unfamiliar situations we position ourselves
to be able to interrogate our professional practice.
Schön's comments might lead you to think that surprise and reflection
yield immediate insight. However, Frank Conroy (1991) in a delightful
critical incident makes it clear that understanding indeed may not occur
at once; it may, in fact, elude us for quite some time.
The light bulb may appear over your head, is what I'm saying, but it
may be a while before it actually goes on. Early in my attempts to learn
jazz piano, I used to listen to recordings of a fine player named Red
Garland, whose music I admired. I couldn't quite figure out what he
was doing with his left hand, however; the chords eluded me. I went
uptown to an obscure club where he was playing with his trio, caught
him on his break, and simply asked him. "Sixths," he said
cheerfully. And then he went away. I didn't know what to make of it.A
couple of years later, when I began playing with a bass player, I discovered
more or less by accident that if the bass played the root and I played
a sixth based on the fifth note of the scale, a very interesting chord
involving both instruments emerged. Ordinarily, I suppose I would have
skipped over the matter and not paid much attention, but I remembered
Garland's remark and so I stopped and spent a week or two working out
the voicings, and greatly strengthening my foundations as a player.
I had remembered what I hadn't understood, you might say, until my life
caught up with the information and the light bulb went on (p. 68-69).
you [just] never know when you're going to understand something you
hadn't understood before (p. 70).
You can sometimes speed up the understanding process by keeping an anecdotal
account of what you can't quite figure out.
I want the teachers to understand that, in action research, methodology
evolves from the situation itself. You don't begin by deciding to use
narrative inquiry (Connelly and Clandinin, 1988), or dilemma analysis
(Winter, 1986). The methodological specifics emerge from the inquiry.
However, common to all forms of action research is the search for patterns
that connect (Bateson, 1978).
"I know you don't believe in coincidences," Streib said.
"But they do happen.And this looks like another one. Unless you
can see some possible link."
"I can't," Leaphorn said. (p. 53)
The trouble with connections is that they're not always immediately
apparent. A large part of identifying connections is being able to name
the issues emerging from an inquiry. One of the ways I go about this,
personally, is by taking the critical incidents I have collected and
sifting through them for stories that seem to have something in common.
Then I attempt to describe the connection.
My efforts to articulate my sense of what the incidents are about is
helped by reading. One of the reasons I encourage the graduate students
to read widely is that, as they become more adept at thinking with published
authors, they discover new ways of perceiving their own work. They discover
ways of naming their experiences which are grounded in the on-going work
of the research community. A crucial facet of action research, then, consists
of connecting our personal experiences to the wider world of scholarship;
of situating reflective moments within the broader research discourse.
He sat in a well-worn recliner relaxing, comfortable, Leaphorn found
his mind settling into an old, old groove. This was when he did his
best thinking just before sleep. He would review whatever puzzle was
bothering him, turn the facts over and over, look at all sides of them,
knock them together, and then explain it all to Emma as much to organize
it in his own mind as to ask her opinion. (p. 82)
Leaphorn continually thinks about the evidence and he discusses his emerging
interpretations and his questions with Chee and with any other officers
who might be around. The reason for talking out his thoughts is, as he
reflects, as much to organize them in his own mind as to ask someone else's
An important aspect of doing action research, then, involves meeting
regularly with other folks to talk aloud what's going on in your head.
It's very easy to avoid periodically organizing your conjectures into
some kind of coherent account of what could be going on. In the context
of a course, our regularly scheduled classes and my constantly nudging
the teachers to reflect provides frequent opportunities for them to hear
themselves speculate about their interpretations. It's more difficult
if you're doing research on your own. I have made a point of developing
a corps of readers people who are good at helping me think out loud with
whom I share my speculative thoughts and my writing in progress. I need
that kind of constant feedback in order to shape my ideas. I structure
the graduate class so that the teachers can hear themselves talk on a
"He told you that Kanitewa thought the man who killed Dorsey
would be after him?
"Right," Chee said.
"And the man was a Navajo?"
"Oh," Chee said, embarrassed. "He said Kanitewa
said this man was medium-sized and kind of old. I think we just took
for granted we were talking about a Navajo because he didn't say 'white,'
or 'Chinese,' or 'Hispanic.'" (p. 101)
Action research is as much about uncovering our assumptions as it is
about seeing new connections. Our interpretations of experience are shaped
by our assumptions, by our biases, by what Frank Smith (1975) refers to
as 'the theory of the world in our heads'. We operate in our professional
capacity as teacher, principal, program assistant, resource teacher, psychologist,
curriculum consultant, or superintendent on a set of beliefs which are
largely tacit. We operate generally from an intuitive sense of things
without actively articulating what our assumptions might be. As Chee admits,
he and Blizzard had assumed the person Kanitewa was afraid of was Navajo
simply because the boy hadn't specified non-Navajo in his description;
their assumption precluded them even asking the question. Chee's disclosing
this assumption opened for Leaphorn new possibilities in the investigation.
The same is true of an action research inquiry. We start out with our
unexamined assumptions but slowly we come to see how our assumptions shape
our decisions and our responses and we become able to contemplate alternate
ways of acting. An action research report therefore is, or should be,
an account of uncovered assumptions, a record of the researcher's learning
Leaphorn shook his head, laughed. " I used to think I was logical.
Usually I am. He walked around behind the desk, rummaged in the drawer,
and took out a box of pins. "Ever have that happen to you? Your
brain tells you one thing. Your instinct another." (p. 102)
Intuition plays a big part in any action research enterprise. An important
aspect of being able to step outside of situations is learning to attend
to the feel of things, of trying to understand what it is we're reacting
to when responding or making decisions. It's all very subtle learning
to register how something is said, the tone of voice, what is left unsaid,
facial expressions, accompanying gestures, motivations and how they are
expressed all that stuff we refer to as body language or nonverbal communication.
Engaging in action research requires learning to recognize your hunches
and recording them. Most are likely to be wrong; following them will lead
you down false trails, but from time to time that gut feeling countermanding
what your brain is telling you will prove important for seeing something
from a new perspective.
"You remember what I was saying the other day about putting
in the details? Your report reads: 'When Bluehorse came out Kanitewa
was sitting in his pickup.' But was he crouched down out of sight, or
sitting up? That's an example. If we knew that it would tell us something
about how scared the boy was at that point." (p.105)
Back to the details. At first the teachers have a horrendous time keeping
a written record.
I resisted writing for a long time. After all, I was being reflective
in the classroom, making mental notes of what was going on with the
children. I have a good memory, why did I have to record my observations?
I quickly learned through this action research project, however, that
mental notes have a way of getting lost among the millions of thoughts
crossing my mind. As much as I hate to admit it, I finally had to resort
to a journal, I had to make written notes in order to remember what
happened (JB. Journal: 4/20/95).
I suspect there are two reasons why the teachers avoid writing about
their experience. First, it's hard to know what to record when you have
no idea what you want to focus on. Second, there's anxiety about what
they might discover about themselves and their professional competence.
There's a definite reluctance to commit themselves to paper even though
no one else is reading what they write unless they specifically ask someone
to respond to what they've written.
I haven't found a sure-fire way of overcoming this resistance. I share
some of my own research journals, I provide critical incidents and reflections
from other sources, in an effort to free up the teachers' writing. But
it's still an up-hill effort to get the teachers to record events with
enough detail for them to have comprehensive data from which to build
their own narratives. I keep returning to Hillerman and reading aloud
excerpts from the novel; ultimately, however, it's their own unfolding
inquiries that allows the teachers to tune into detail.
Writing has a larger role to play, however, than simply being used for
recording observations, reflections, questions, and connections. Writing
is crucial for making sense of experiences. Gordon Wells (1994) explains:
Solitary reflection certainly leads to a growth in understanding, but
writing one's thoughts down makes it possible to revisit them and review
them over time.When writing is undertaken to communicate one's understanding
to others,even more benefit accrues. For, with the requirement to make
one's meaning clear and explicit to a real or imagined reader, one is
forced to reexamine one's ideas and assumptions in a much more rigorous
way than when writing for oneself alone. As a result, one is often pushed
into radical rethinking and revision (p. 31).
Writing isn't a mopping-up operation, an onerous add-on. It's is an integral
aspect of the inquiry process. As such, it's a critical vehicle for creating
meaning; it's at the very heart of any action research enterprise.
I enjoyed reading the short stories for this week again.
Although I've read them many times before I found this reading
different affected by Robert MacNeil's Burden of
Desire (1) in surprising
ways. I was, for example, a lot more aware of the various
authors' description and wondered about their experiences
and how they were reflected in the detail attributed to
the characters' lives. I found myself using the writing
to see my own world differently.
The large flakes were soft and new then and almost generous
and the earth to which they fell was still warm and as
yet unfrozen. They fell in silence into the puddles and
into the sea where they disappeared at the moment of contact....(2)
This passage in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun by Alistair
MacLeod has made me aware of the trees yesterday weighed
down by the wet snow on their unshed leaves. I was also
aware of the warmth of the day and my surprise at it building
up even though it felt too warm for the snow to last. I
noticed the postman in his yellow slicker and the cold drips
on his visor and the edges of his sleeves.
...she kept the shop open late even when her ankles felt
swollen and tired....(3)
writes Sara Maitland and I think about how my legs felt on Sunday after
delivering "Yes" campaign flyers for two hours in the wonderful
cool autumn sunshine. The tightness in both calves pulling with each
step and sapping my energy until I slumped on the curb unable to take
There's something sneaky about Pa, maybe it is the way
he walks kind of sideways, with his eyes always darting
all over the place.(4)
Anna Marie, a teacher, mentioned a conversation she eavesdropped on
a week ago in which she noticed one of the women who kept looking around,
not engaged with what her friend was saying. I found myself watching
the intent faces of the folks listening to Bob Rae, the Ontario Premier,
at a gathering Saturday evening. I noticed one gentleman who was off
by himself, arms folded, legs crossed and wondering what was going through
She got a rag in the kitchen and retraced her chipping
progress, enjoying the texture of the flaking plaster
as she went.(5)
I could feel the rough texture of the carpet last evening as I
scrubbed at the spots where I'd sprayed too much cleaning
fluid and become frustrated with the foaming suds I couldn't
get rid of even with diluted vinegar.
What our collective reading of Burden of Desire and our
writing, has done for me is make me much more sensitive
to the words on the page and the associations they evoke.
Although I don't have a story into which to fit these fragments
of my life, I find myself storing them away for some future
writing. Anna Marie said my comment that writers must be
observers, must be watchers, had stuck with her. I can feel
myself becoming a much more conscious watcher than I've
ever been before (JN. Journal: 11/20/92).
Not only are writers observers and watchers; action researchers must
Streib maintained his position, leaning against the doorjamb. "If
you ask Lieutenant Leaphorn, he'll tell you to look for clues. Then
you ask him how you know it's a clue, and he'll give you a wise look."
"I'm in favor of just looking," Leaphorn said. "You
never know what you'll find." That's Joe's theory," Streib
said. "You don't look for anything in particular. You just look."
Traditional research paradigms are so deeply ingrained it's difficult
persuading people to just start in. "What am I looking for?"
I can't answer that for you, I say. "Couldn't you just give me some
topics to research?" But those would be my questions, they wouldn't
What the teachers lack is experiences with self-directed learning. Their
academic backgrounds have consisted largely of memorizing texts and regurgitating
information on assignments and exams; they have had little or no opportunity
for defining and following through on self-initiated projects. While they
actually know how to be self-directed in their practical every-day lives,
they're dependent learners academically they expect me to lay out everything
for them in advance.
The feature of action research, therefore, which poses the biggest obstacle
for people is dealing with the uncertainty inherent in the process. You
don't usually begin this kind of inquiry with a focused question. You
don't know what matters, what to notice, or what to ignore. You don't
know what information to collect, who to interview, where to look.
In the beginning, you just have to do a lot of messing around. That
makes teachers very uncomfortable. At first they think I don't
know what I'm doing; they distrust me and are skeptical that
anything worthwhile will ever come from what several consider
a useless exercise. I continue to be supportive, yet non-directive,
because I know this is likely the first time in their academic
experience that the teachers have been asked to identify and
pursue a problem for themselves. Their floundering used to
make me uncomfortable, and I'd rush in with suggestions in
an effort to help them over their discomfort. What I learned,
however, was that I just made the teachers more dependent
on me. Now I wait out this period which, for some people,
can take most of a term. However, I don't just sit back, arms
folded, during this time; I ask questions, I respond to theirs,
I suggest things to read, I set up opportunities for people
to talk to one another about their inquiries, but I leave
the identifying and shaping of an inquiry to each individual.
Eventually, an interesting thing happens. Vaguely discernible
patterns begin emerging for a couple of the teachers; then
others begin catching on. The teachers find themselves asking
more focused questions, having ideas about what to look for,
seeing connections they haven't seen before. Their inquiries
begin having form, and the teachers lose their sense of being
He had found nothing that provoked interest except some shavings
from a wood much heavier and darker than the oak, fir, and pine that
almost everyone seemed to be using. Nor did it match the various half-finished
tables, benches, table-lamp bases, rolling pins, and kitchen shelves
racked in the workshop storeroom. Leaphorn put a sample of it in an
envelope and into his pocket. Later he would find someone to explain
it. Or perhaps he would simply forget it. It had more relevance to his
personal curiosity than to this homicide investigation. (p. 152)
There can be all kinds of evidence accumulated during an action research
inquiry artifacts like school and class handouts, descriptions of assignments,
worksheets, students' work samples, memos, school announcements, notes
to parents, class publications, photographs, audiotaped interviews, videotaped
sessions, transcriptions of the tapes, journals, portfolios, correspondence
with and among students and teachers, curriculum guidelines and other
policy documents, government announcements, newspaper clippings, and on
and on. Like Leaphorn, action researchers are curious, constantly alert
for anomalies. They collect evidence even though they may have no idea
at the time what insights any particular artifact may afford. The trick
here is to make the familiar and routine, which are largely invisible,
visible. I repeatedly say to the graduate students "Our object in
the beginning is to make our professional practice problematic."
We do that, in part, by looking at what's commonplace within our working
environment and attempting to see it with new eyes.
However, in and of themselves the artifacts we accumulate are merely
supporting data. The focal evidence consists of our written reflections,
our questions, our interpretations of the artifacts, our musings about
what's going on, our correspondence with ourselves which tracks our changing
understanding of our practice-in-action.
"You know Streib already searched this place," Toddy said.
"I don't think he found anything interesting."
"He didn't know what to look for," Leaphorn said.
Toddy suppressed a grin and restored his expression almost to
neutral. "That's supposed to be better, isn't it? Didn't I hear
somebody saying that just a little while back? 'If you know what you're
looking for, then you look for something specific and you don't see
something that might be important.' Somebody was saying that."
"Well," Leaphorn said, grinning himself.
"But this time we're a little wiser. We know that Dorsey
made an ebony cane. Let's forget that stuff somebody told
you and look for anything that would tell us who he made
that cane for." (p. 221)
As an inquiry unfolds you become more focused about what you're noticing
and recording. You begin having specific questions which drive the inquiry;
it becomes necessary to revisit situations, this time with a more discerning
eye. A tension starts developing between the evidence you've accumulated
and what's still puzzling.
Now reading in the professional literature and thinking with the authors
takes on a new purpose. As Gordon Wells (1994) explains:
There comes a pointwhen the teacher-researcher needs to read about
other people's research and about the theories they have used to interpret
their data.Now, those books and articles, that before seemed so remote
and irrelevant, suddenly take on a completely different significance.
No longer on the receiving end of a transmission line, the teacher-researcher
is able to engage with the text with a purpose that makes the reading
into a dialogue between fellow researchers (p. 31).
This is often the point when the tensions of teaching begin emerging.
The teachers begin to see beyond the narrow frame of the specifics of
teaching to a wider political landscape. They begin wondering about issues
of power and control, about gender, class, and race, about censorship,
systemic constraints, resistance students' resistance as well as their
own, the impact of conflicting theoretical orientations, and accountability.
They start examining the attacks from outside, from other teachers, administration,
parents, business, government, the media, and wondering what these attacks
have to do with them personally. They start developing an awareness of
the complexities of teaching and learning.
The teachers' inquiries shift focus. I help them revisit their worksite,
I encourage them to re-examine what they've collected and written, I suggest
authors they might want to think with, and we talk with one another a
lot. It's at this juncture that people begin examining their assumptions.
How testing damages students is an issue of great concern to me. I
wrote yesterday about how Chip refused to go along with the reading
tests. I recognize that to a great extent I spent the last school year
trying to 'correct' his 'deficits' rather than supporting him by building
on his strengths. Why did I persist with practices I could see weren't
helping him? More important, I need to focus on what I should do in
the future (MC. Journal: 7/18/91).
"You know," Blizzard said. "I think maybe all three
of us are in the same boat I was in at that Cheyenne Autumn movie the
other night. I couldn't understand why all the Navajos were hooting
and blowing their car horns. Different culture. Different perceptions.Different
value systems, you know. Hard for us outsiders to comprehend."
The politics of schools and schooling emerges. The teachers begin asking
a new kind of question. It's as if they discover themselves really to
be outsiders with a different culture, different perceptions and values.
They struggle to comprehend schools in a completely new way.
- Why are the dominating sides of literacy, teaching and schooling
more often practiced than the liberating sides?
- Why is it that despite the rhetoric that education is the backbone
of democracy that participants in schooling have so little voice in
matters of consequence in the classroom?
- Why are they so unfree?
- Who is really served by the current organization and practice of
- How can the liberating sides of literacy, teaching, and schooling
(Shannon, 1992: p. 3)
I encourage the teachers to situate their own experiences within a broader
analysis of institutional structures and change. I nudge them to look
and listen beyond the pervasive staffroom complaining to attempt to understand
the anxiety and anger rampant among teachers. I ask questions which I
hope will lead people to think about their own feelings of being threatened,
intimidated, confused and powerless.
It's hard to change when the people around you expect you to believe
as they do. We all need to think about our personal alienation the kind
that Harman and Edelsky (1989) raise when we do anything that's the
least bit different from the others on staff. We don't have to say anything
critical the very fact that we've done something different draws attention
to us and implicitly acts as a challenge to everyone else. Here's where
personal beliefs come in, here's where an understanding of the politics
of change helps. We have to understand that the moment we act rather
than comply we separate ourselves from the group. So making changes,
operating from a different theoretical perspective, is not something
to be undertaken lightly we have to realize there will be consequences with
students, with parents, with colleagues, perhaps even with family, as
many people have experienced. In what ways have you encountered the
alienating affects of attempting to change? (JN. Journal: 11/14/94).
The teachers start identifying the tensions of teaching as political.
They examine existing power relationships and begin challenging them.
They begin contemplating a different kind of classroom one in which teachers
share power with students. They challenge the labeling and categorizing
of students with learning problems. They examine accountability issues
and ask who is served by the drive for standardized testing. They wonder
about fiscal constraints and the climate of attack in which they work.
This is the beginning of an overt political analysis of teaching and schooling.
Slowly the teachers build an understanding of the issues and a language
for making political arguments.
Leaphorn was saying something about linkages.
"Hey," Chee said, loudly. He got down from the tail-gate
and stood facing Leaphorn.
Leaphorn looked at him waiting.
"Just a second," Chee said, thinking it through. "I'm
beginning to see why you want all those details in your reports."
Leaphorn was smiling slightly now. "but we still have problems."
"I know it," Chee said. "I didn't put anything
about Applebee in my report."
"Well, there was no reason to do that," Leaphorn said.
"Now we see it matters. Can you think of anything else that might
matter, knowing what we know now?" (p. 291)
In contrast with quantitative methodologies where you collect data and
then write up findings, in action research writing is at the core of the
research enterprise. It's through writing that the stories and the connections
which link them begin emerging. Often the tensions of teaching only take
shape during writing. Consequently, there's no advantage to postponing
writing until you think you have all the data you need. That's what many
budding teacher researchers attempt to do, but because writing is the
principle research tool it's advisable to begin writing as quickly as
If you think getting the teachers to keep a detailed running record is
difficult, try getting them to start writing! All of their misconceptions
about writing kick in and avoidance is rampant. "How can I begin
if I don't know the outcome?" Just start by fleshing out one story,
I say. "Which story should I begin with?" Whichever one feels
right; whichever calls to you. "But I have no beginning." Don't
worry about that, just start.
I point out parallels with detecting. "I didn't put in anything
about Applebee in my report," Chee says, to which Leaphorn replies,
"Now we see it matters." The same is true of understanding and
writing up action research. You begin drafting with the stories you have.
It's the writing itself that raises more questions and sends you back
again and again to the worksite and to the professional research literature.
The writing and the inquiry are in continual conversation. You discover
through writing why "you want all those details in your reports."
Your observing, recording, and reflecting become more refined, more focused;
your writing expands; the interpretations become more articulate, more
comprehensive. "Can we think of anything else that might matter,
knowing what we now know?"
Joe Leaphorn sat in the chair and considered.As he was thinking
Leaphorn's lifelong Navajo conditioning to look for harmony
in all things bore fruit. Abruptly, he saw the connections,
how it had happened, and why it had happened. (p. 295)
If only the insights from an action research project could fall into
place so readily! Unfortunately an inquiry doesn't usually deal with a
single circumscribed event in the way a homicide investigation does. Leaphorn's
successful investigation will lead to the identification of a murderer.
Rarely does an explanation for action research stories pop into mind this
neatly; although I have had the experience of sudden insight into some
aspect of my teaching while I'm reading in the professional literature
(even sometimes while reading a mystery). Other teachers have, too.
The first of Cuban's (1984) reasons why schools have remained virtually
unchanged really touched home. I could see myself caught up in the first
reason: school is a means of social control and sorting. I was supervised
by my VP this term and what he was most concerned about was students'
obedience and my control, or in his eyes, my lack of it. He wrote in
the supervision report that I should never proceed to give directions
unless I have the attention of all the students. What he was referring
to was a split second decision I happened to make while he was present
in the class. I had decided to take the risk and just be myself during
that supervision rather than orchestrating the kind of performance I
thought he might want to see. I had done a math patterning mini-lesson
where I had the complete attention of the class. The kids were now off
to do some independent follow-up on their own when I thought of something
else to tell them. I realized, however, when I tried getting their attention
and didn't succeed, that they were now engrossed with what they were
doing. I could have insisted on their attention and made them listen
to me but in a successful moment of being a reflective practitioner
I decided to let go, realizing that it was something they would probably
figure out on their own if I gave them the chance. And where did that
decision get me? A written demerit. All over such a momentary interval
of time. It made me see clearly why schools are so slow to change. Although
I had the self-confidence not to be crushed by this administrator's
lack of understanding of, or appreciation for, what I was trying to
do, my gut feeling is to play it safe next time to orchestrate what
he wants to see: the teacher in uncontested control. Sadly, I can now
see where a lot of teacher conformity comes from (cited in Newman, 1991:
He had no evidence and no way he could think of to get any.
Maybe it would surface, maybe it wouldn't. But Leaphorn
wanted to understand it. So he sat in Dorsey's chair and
worked out how it had probably happened. (p. 298)
With his understanding of the crime, Leaphorn is able to find evidence
to bring the case to closure. The same obtains for the action researcher.
As the tensions of teaching become more fully understood and articulated,
the inquiry comes to a close. The teachers are changed by the experience.
They have become more astute about the political forces which act on them.
They discover they have a choice to comply with the status quo of schools
or to challenge the constraints which impact on them and their students.
The point of engaging in action research, in my estimation, is to help
me uncover my assumptions and to examine my instructional practices. It's
this reflection, this turning the gaze on myself, that characterizes practice-as-inquiry.
As Schön argues (1983)
When a practitioner becomes a researcher into his own practice, he
engages in a continuing process of self-education.When she functions
as a researcher-in-practice, the practice itself is a source of renewal
The outcome of such self-education is recognizing the tensions, conflicts,
and contradictions operating within my practice as well as in schools
and school systems. But recognizing inconsistency isn't the end of practice-as-inquiry.
As I learn to detect disparities between my practice and theory, I need
to take action; I need to change what I do.
Engaging in action research, in practice-as-inquiry is uncomfortable
and sometimes dangerous. It forces me to confront myself. It makes me
vulnerable to colleagues and administrators who don't see inquiry into
practice as having any value "You call that research?" who
feel attacked by the implications of what I learn about learning and teaching,
who are threatened by my questions which challenge the status quo.
Action research allows us to pose some important questions, it invites
us to see contradictions in our own beliefs and practices, it affords
insight into the large political issues and, most important, it challenges
us to change.
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* Hillerman, Tony 1993
Sacred Clowns. Toronto: Harper Collins.
** I evolved this strategy
for myself. Later I encountered a description of it in one
of Sue Grafton's novels.["I" is for Innocent
1992 New York: Fawcett Crest: 271-273]. Kinsey Milhone, her
detective, records clues on index cards which she pins to
a cork board on a wall in her apartment. When she's trying
to make sense of an investigation she takes the cards down
and sifts through them in the same way I do.
1 MacNeil, Robert 1992
Burden of Desire. New York: Doubleday.
2 MacLeod, Alistair 1986
To Everything There Is A Season. In: As Birds Bring Forth
the Sun. Toronto: McLelland and Stewart Ltd.
3 Maitland, Sara 1987
Miss Manning's Angelic Moment. In: The Book of Spells.
4 Kinsella, W.P. 1983
The Bottle Queen. In: The Moccasin Telegraph. Harmondsworth:
5 Engel, Marian 1985
The Last Wife. In: The Tattooed Woman. Harmondsworth:
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