The assignment was to capture some critical incidents moments which
catch us by surprise, which make us aware of an aspect of what is going
on that we haven't noticed before. I'd distributed 3 X 5 index cards,
six to everyone, with instructions to make notes about events, or comments,
or observations on one side, leaving the back clear for our discussion
the following week. I'd handed out six cards because I wanted the teachers
to see critical incidents as arising from the commonplace. One card
would have said "I'm looking for something B I G." I wanted
them, instead, to begin attending to the ordinary to see everything
in their classrooms as potentially problematic and worthy of notice.
Next class begins. Marilyn is obviously uncomfortable. She becomes
more fidgety as the evening progresses. Others relate incidents that
have caught their attention during the week. They describe a variety
of situations student's comments that surprise them, unexpected responses
to an assignment, something about their own reactions; Marilyn has nothing
to say. Not like her, really. She's usually quite vocal; but not that
evening. It transpires that she feels she has no story to contribute
to the discussion.
I offer her encouragement before she leaves. "Listen to what the
kids are saying. Watch how they do things, how they interpret what you
ask them to do. You'll find surprises if you let yourself," I say
A week later, still nothing. Nor the following week. "I almost
didn't come to class this evening," she says. "I just don't
have any language stories. The kids are doing fine. I'm not seeing anything
Again she listens to the stories others relate about moments that surprise
them. Again she fidgets. Again at the end of class I encourage her to
keep observing what's going on.
The following week a different Marilyn arrives. She waves a card. "Finally,
I've got one. At least I think it's a language story," she says.
"Let's hear," I encourage her.
"Robert did something interesting yesterday. He was busy writing
and talking loudly to himself the way Grade One kids do. He was being
quite boisterous and I could tell it was disturbing some of the others
nearby so I went over to him and asked if he would write a bit more
quietly. I didn't want to tell him to shut up because I know verbalizing
his thoughts is a good way of cueing himself; I just wanted him to do
it more softly.
"Obviously, my request didn't faze him because he just carried
on. Not five minutes later, however, while I was working with Jimmy,
Tammy, and Paul at a table nearby, I got a tap on my shoulder. I turned,
intending to snap "Can't you see I'm busy," but I didn't get
the chance. Robert was standing there and said, before I could say anything,
"Would you mind working more quieter?"
My immediate reaction was "Who does he think he is? I'm the teacher.
Kids don't reprimand teachers." Fortunately I caught myself before
I said a word. I took a breath. "I'll try," I said and carried
on with the others, making an effort to speak a little more quietly
When she finished her story, I asked Marilyn, "What do you make
of this incident? "
"Well, it raises the question of who has the right to ask what
of whom in my classroom. If it's OK for me to ask Robert to work more
quietly, can't he ask me the same thing? I'd never considered that before.
I just assumed I was the teacher and I had the right to be as intrusive
as I wanted to be. Robert made me think about that. I really never considered
the working situation I set up and how my actions might interfere for
"It's a wonderful story. The next step is to freewrite the kind
of things you just said on the back of the card. The point is to remind
yourself why you made note of the moment then think about the issues
it raises for you. I think you'll find yourself coming back to this
story again and again. It has the potential to help you learn a lot
about your teaching and about learning" (JN. Journal: 3/7/1987).
This incident occurred during my first formal foray into teacher/action
research. Up until that time I had been working with a teachers' collective
informally. The teachers and I met regularly to discuss classroom issues we
talked about creating curriculum, about literacy instruction, about the
political realities of their schools and their professional lives. We
had published a book together, in fact, in which we examined several aspects
of literacy instruction and learning. We hadn't named what we were doing
teacher/ action research (Newman, 1985); but I now realize that it was
really teacher/action research we were engaged in.
Then, during the winter of 1987, I had an opportunity to teach a graduate
seminar on curriculum implementation in language arts. I thought that
if we began with what the teachers were currently doing, if they examined
how their instruction impacted on their students, we could enter into
a conversation about change change based on their observation of students
as learners. I wanted the teachers to discover what worked for individual
children and what interfered with their learning. Hence my invitation
to begin collecting what I later came to call critical incidents.
While preparing for the seminar I happened to read a book by Chris Argyris
(1976) in which he makes the distinction between espoused theories and
theories-in use. He contends it is not uncommon for there to be substantial
contradiction between what we say we believe about the world and how we
act in it. I decided to make uncovering the contradictions and tensions
in our professional work the focus of this graduate course we were embarking
The question is how do you go about identifying tensions and contradictions?
First, it seemed to me, we had to uncover some of our assumptions. We
had to make visible our beliefs and values which normally are transparent.
I thought that if we made an effort to record moments that puzzled us
we'd be on to something. Over several weeks we attempted to capture events
which offered insight into our teaching and into students' learning. I
participated in the activity myself. I made a systematic effort to keep
track of the surprises, of the tensions, in my work with teachers. I made
notes after classes and workshops. I fleshed out some of my stories and
shared them with the graduate students.
I was conducting an inservice session with some junior and senior high
school teachers. I began the morning by creating what I hoped would
be a critical incident. I had asked the teachers to make a list of the
various kinds of writing they'd done that week themselves its purpose,
its audience, who initiated it, the constraints affecting their decision-making
as writers. When they'd completed that list, I asked them to develop
a similar list for their students. My intention was to nudge the teachers
to identify contradictions between the various attributes of writing
in the 'real' world and the restrictions they were placing on their
When we began discussing the two lists a change came over the room.
I could sense tension mounting. As we talked about their own writing
I started hearing 'Yes, but's. Real resistance emerged when we got to
the students' list.
What made most of the teachers uncomfortable was the comparison between
the kinds of writing they themselves did in the course of a week, why
it's done, what constraints affect it, and what they were expecting
from their students I overheard one teacher mutter as I was compiling
the second list "I don't like what I'm seeing here!" Others
expressed open hostility. "I don't want to leave here feeling guilty!"
"Why should I change how I think about assignments; teacher assigned
writing worked for me as a student."
This was a critical moment. I'd intended to use this first conversation
about the constraints we place on students' writing to lead into an
activity which would demonstrate how writing for different purposes
and audiences could be used for making sense of difficult text. We hadn't
reached the activity yet. By raising the contradiction it was now apparent
I'd run into a concrete wall.
What do you do at such a point? I had been invited by the curriculum
supervisor to engage the teachers in an examination of their instructional
practices, to help them ask themselves "What if it could be otherwise?"
I indicated people were free to leave if they weren't interested in
exploring the question. There were other sessions going on I would not
be offended if they chose to go elsewhere. I paused so those wishing
to leave could do so. No one left that surprised me. Most even returned
after the coffee break.
The teachers fought me throughout the morning. They wanted no part
of what I was trying to help them see that knowledge is individually
constructed within an interpretive community, not a commodity passed
from teacher to student; that learning involves the personal construction
of knowledge; that active 'doing' is crucial for understanding. The
teachers resisted my every suggestion to jot notes, make gist statements,
brainstorm, to use writing in a variety of ways to help them make sense
of the text. They behaved exactly like their own students ("This
is boring!") until they found themselves actually beginning to
make sense of the text.
Their resistance returned in full force, however, when I asked them
to think about what they'd learned from the experience and what questions
it raised about their teaching. One person wanted to know why we'd wasted
so much time when I could have told him what I wanted him to know in
ten minutes. I decided not to answer him directly. I asked, instead,
if anyone in the group could respond. One or two people tried.
I was exhausted by lunch time. I hadn't been prepared for the intensity
of their antagonism. Unlike another group with whom I'd done something
similar a few weeks ago, these teachers erected barriers at the outset.
The previous group had been open to the contradictions evident from
our comparison of the two lists and used them to ask "How could
we redress the balance?" This group immediately backed off.
As I drove away, I wondered whether I'd helped anyone become more receptive
to asking the difficult questions I believe we all should be asking.
(JN. Journal: 2/16/1987).
The stress in this situation arose from my desire to have workshop participants
look at their teaching critically and their reluctance to confront contradictions.
I was attempting to foreground the tensions between their teaching and
students' perception of instruction. I wanted them to consider the various
purposes and strategies they employed for reading and writing in their
own lives as a basis for thinking about what kids might need to learn
and how we might help them learn it.
The teachers' resistance to my invitation was much stronger than anything
I'd encountered previously. Asking them to compare their own uses for
literacy with the opportunities they were offering their students inadvertently
set a confrontation in motion. Given the brief time I had at my disposal
I had no way of back-tracking to find somewhere more comfortable for them
to begin. I suppose I might have asked the teachers to identify and analyze
their concerns, to talk about the issues with which they were struggling.
Unfortunately, that didn't occur to me at the time and even if it had,
I'm not sure these teachers would have been willing to discuss candidly
any difficulties they were experiencing with their students.
Sharing this experience with the graduate students, however, led to an
intense conversation about assumptions and about the tensions inherent
in school change. My account of the workshop raised questions about understanding
the contradictions in our practice. We talked about needing to see things
from the students' perspective. We discussed the importance of thinking
about learning and about instruction that might make classrooms more congenial.
We began dealing with the tensions of teaching.
James Moffett (1985) argues that it's not a lack of research that holds
us back from making curricular change; it's a whole host of political
factors like resistance to change, concern about control, fear about liberating
thought and behaviour, administrative unwillingness to support teachers
in any real decision-making which disrupts the status quo.
We don't need special studies to tell us that the language opportunities
offered in school are almost invariably inferior to those of an optimal
learning environment or that if teachers would shut up and let children
talk both groups would learn more. We already know perfectly well
that such oral activities as small-group discussion and improvisations
will pay off for reading and writing (Moffett, 1985: 52).
The tensions of teaching center on these political issues. Most teachers
know perfectly well their students aren't engaged. It doesn't take a rocket
scientist to notice more and more kids (both junior and senior high students)
stay away from school or that they behave in unacceptable ways when they're
there. We don't need elaborate research studies to demonstrate that minority
students, students living in poverty, or those without strong parental
support have a hard time in school and many tune-out. Life in classrooms
is tough and getting tougher. It's difficult, understandably, for teachers
to recognize and acknowledge that they contribute to the oppressive climate
of the schools in which they work. Teacher/action research, I have found,
allows us to discover and name for ourselves the institutional tensions
and constraints which silence both students and teachers.
I was observing a lesson between Shelley and Brian (an at-risk third-grader).
The book Shelley had chosen was a bit too difficult for him; Brian was
having trouble reading it on his own. She was pointing out picture clues,
prompting him to articulate the strategies he could use to figure out
what the text was about, showing him how he to figure out unfamiliar
I could see Brian backing away from the task he tightly folded his
arms against his body, the tempo of his feet, swinging back and forth
under the table, increased. His escalating tension was very apparent
but Shelley seemed unaware of it. Afterward, however, when we talked
about what she'd observed she commented on Brian's anxiety. That was
interesting so why, I wondered to myself, did she persist? Why didn't
she step back? Why didn't she just invite him into a shared reading?
I asked Shelley her response changed my understanding of the pressures
under which teachers perceive themselves to be working.
Shelley had observed Brian's tense body, she knew what it meant; she
provided what in other situations might have been useful reading strategies
but in this instance her support was doing little to reduce Brian's
anxiety if anything it was increasing it. She was reading Brian's response
accurately but unable to respond to it appropriately because, as she
explained to me, "I feel guilty providing that amount of support."
She had, she said, already read the book with him twice. She felt,
at this point, he ought to be able to read it more independently. Her
judgement call was based on her sense of what many of her other third
graders could handle. I hadn't anticipated the impact Shelley's normative
sense was having on her instructional decisions. In spite of Brian's
obviously escalating anxiety in the situation, Shelley was unable to
pull back and provide a different kind of support because having done
a shared reading twice she felt this third grader ought then to be able
to read independently.
We talked about external pressures which impact on the classroom and
affect our decision-making, sometimes to the child's detriment. We talked
about GUILT and how the only significant input which should determine
our instructional judgements is that which we receive from the learner
(JN. Journal: 3/18/1994).
My conversation with Shelley helped me understand the complexity of the
climate in which teachers work. It was conversations like this which made
me see I had to find ways to help teachers locate within themselves the
power to make curricular decisions which support rather than undermine
Once they begin collecting critical incidents teachers become able to
describe and name the tensions they're coping with.
For my whole teaching career I've been struggling between doing what
I've been taught to do (cover curriculum) and doing what I believe teaching
and learning to be. It's been a constant tug of war between these two
ideologies.If I teach traditionally, I don't see the students learning
anything of value. I hate what I am doing. I am bored and the drills
drive me crazy. If I teach with an open curriculum, the room is active
and exciting. However, I experience a constant nagging about "getting
the students ready for next year's teacher," "making sure
they have the skills they need for next year,". I believe that
some of my dilemmas would be resolved if I had 'permission' from the
system to be someone other than the 'trained professional' who implements
programs (KC. Journal: 5/23/1996).
Kim is addressing her anxiety about not being able to meet external expectations.
One of the objectives of teacher/action research is to strengthen our
professional knowledge so we can explain to ourselves and others what
we do. A teacher/action research stance allows us to enter the professional
conversation and to amass evidence that enhances our understanding of
learning and teaching. It helps us identify the institutional pressures
which make it difficult to be responsive to students. In the end, the
'permission' Kim seeks will have to come from within. Permission to act
must come from her observation of students what's really going on, what's
allowing them to connect, and what prevents it. She also has to read widely
to become familiar with the debates in the research literature. The better
she understands the tensions affecting her as a teacher the more confident
she will become about creating curriculum that engages her students.
Teachers are socialized to be dependent on external authority. They are
taught to consume 'knowledge' fashioned by others, instead of creating
understanding for themselves. As undergraduates they are often expected
to memorize and regurgitate what experts have to say. As teachers they
are inundated with textbooks accompanied by manuals containing elaborate
lesson plans. They are buried beneath governmental curriculum guidelines
which lay out prepackaged courses of study. They attend professional development
sessions conducted by specialists who offer advice on this and that aspect
of instruction and behaviour management. They work for school districts
which set up unending constraints. It's no wonder, then, teachers rely
heavily on others for making instructional decisions.
As I was leaving class last night. Ellen, one of the teachers, stopped
to talk. She described how her first graders were doing quite a bit
of writingwriting in journals, sending mail, but she was bothered by
the fact that they weren't using the writing centre for writing. They'd
go to the writing centre, take out the markers, crayons, and paper and
draw like crazy, but they weren't doing much writing. I suggested she
remove the blank paper and substitute lined paper instead. I predicted
that the invitation extended by lined paper would be different than
that of blank paper. "But I didn't think I was allowed to do that,"
Ellen's comment brought me up short it was clear, for her, learner-centered
education means 'hands off.' In my view, I explained, teachers had an
important role in the classroom, most aptly described by Montessori's
notion of a 'prepared environment.' Montessori (1965; Lillard, 1973)
believes teachers are responsible for creating a context which is actively
responsive to the changing needs of the learner. That is, we have to
know what we want to help students learn; then we have to create an
environment which has the potential to foster that learning. It's a
dynamic relationship; constantly changing as the children's responses
to what's in the classroom changes (Dewey, 1963).
As we talked, I wanted Ellen to see we need to manipulate the classroom
context to discover how we might influence and shape the children's
activity and their learning. Every material, every activity implies
specific invitations. By introducing lined paper I'm attempting to increase
the probability the children will write instead of draw. If making lined
paper available didn't work, I'd try other ways of making my invitation
stronger. I might photocopy wordless picture books for the children
to write in. I might make shape books (small notebooks made with both
lined and unlined paper and a cover of some sort, cut into different
shapes: hearts, squares, Christmas trees, houses, etc.). I might try
different writing implements.
Ellen and other teachers need to understand it's perfectly all right
to exploit the environment to encourage and support specific activity.
They need to know how to observe their students and to feel confident
about making instructional decisions based on their observations (JN.
Again, I was faced with the dilemma of helping teachers understand teaching
in a different way. I was trying to show Ellen how she might take an active
role in shaping the unfolding curricular agenda; I wanted her to comprehend
that curriculum isn't something in books but the lived-through experience
she shares with her students.
The most valuable insight I have had from my work with teachers is that
they must explore the contradictions within their classrooms if they are
to have any hope of changing their practice. Simply telling teachers about
new curricular initiatives, asking them to take on new instructional methodology
without helping them understand the assumptions they are operating from,
is a waste of time. People might take away 'nifty tips' but nothing really
changes for students.
The power of critical incidents lies in the way they allow the tensions
of teaching to surface. These stories bring us face to face with the reality
of our professional work. That confrontation is disorienting as one teacher
explained in a written reflection.
I have really felt this past two weeks that I have pulled the rug out
from under myself. I feel as if everything I do in the classroom sits
in a pile of ashes. Some things I suspect, I will resurrect from the
ashes but with a different understanding or reason for doing them. Some
parts of my practice will probably remain in the ash pile.(BH, Journal:
June 6, 1996)
Beth's comment reminded me of a piece written by another teacher, Michael
Coghlan "A Belief System Under Siege." In it he says
The first shock was that I really had some underlying theory lurking
around in my head, affecting the way I functioned in my classroom. Yes,
I possessed a theory of learning every teacher does. I had come to university
to acquire one, and had found my own-home-grown version fully developed
within me; adopted unconsciously, unwittingly over the years in the
classroom. Not me, you say, I don't pay any attention to that theoretical
nonsense. Well, I discovered that I had indeed functioned with a very
definite theory of learning, although I had not put much of it into
words before. But actions speak louder than words, especially when dealing
with students (Coghlan, 1985).
It's necessary for teachers to uncover their action theories. Until we
can name the metaphors we live by we can't do much to change them. So
a big part of any teacher/action research agenda is using critical incidents,
and any other evidence we can create, to uncover and describe the beliefs
that drive our action. As Mike Coghlan discovered, he didn't need to jettison
his entire scaffolding. He was able to reconfigure his edifice, using
old bricks for new purposes. Beth, too, will find the same thing.
As important as reflection on practice is, however, it is still not sufficient.
Practice unconnected to the professional conversation remains largely
atheoretical. We need to read what others write about their experience
in order to name the tensions we face personally. Every article, chapter,
or book (academic or literary) has the potential to let us see our professional
work in a different way. I say potential because the questions aren't
in any text but in our engagement with what an author has to say. By reading
for helpful hints, as many teachers do, we may miss the opportunity a
text affords us for thinking about our work reflexively. On the other
hand, conversing with an author lets us see comparisons with our own work.
As Patti Stock explains
Sometimes we begin by testing the dimensions of an anecdote one of
us has told the others: Telling and retelling it, we place and replace
it in contexts that enrich its meaning. As we add and subtract details,
we translate the anecdote into an event, a significant occurrence
within one of the larger narratives that define our teaching practice.We
compare, contrast, sort, elaborate, and refine our anecdotes until
we have identified those elements that name the family resemblances
in them. We replay them, inviting colleagues who have not experienced
those moments with us to examine them with us as we RE-SEARCH them.Drawing
attention to those frames, we present our colleagues with problems
for study. In so doing, we invite members of our research community
to reach into their memories for analogous teaching-learning moments
that have occurred in their classrooms and, in light of those moments,
to join us in making sense of them as we can in order that we may
improve our teaching practice (Stock, 1993: 185).
This is an example of what I call thinking with. Our engagement with
what Stock calls 'the anecdotes' is what draws us into a reflective stance.
Stock is arguing that anecdotal accounts are at the heart of understanding
our professional practice. In order to make sense of our work we must
RE-SEARCH our narratives we must allow ourselves time and occasion to
permit retrospective understanding to occur.
One of the graduate students made this point in a journal entry.
I'm reading your article, Judith for the first time in a few months
and I'm suddenly aware of how many layers of meaning are embedded in
a text. Except on a relatively superficial level, the meaning of the
text is almost entirely reader-dependent. Each reader picks out something
different depending on what issues are dominating the scene in his or
her life. And what the individual reader picks out...will change as
the reader's thinking evolves. ...I survey the physical evidence: different
colour inks; hurried scrawl...; careful, neat script...; and highlighter
versus post-its. These tell the tale of at least three readings at very
different stages in time, and in my way of thinking, and of making meaning.
Each time, something different has crawled out of the woodwork of my
understanding (WP. Journal: 9/25/1995).
This is an illustration of what Patti Stock has in mind, I think. We
need to revisit our own narratives, as well as the anecdotal accounts
of others, in order to see ourselves with new eyes. The important difference
between thinking with and a more traditional reading stance is one of
purpose instead of looking for teaching suggestions we're reading for
connections and opportunities to see our work from a different perspective,
to consider the questions which someone else's experience raises about
our own. Wendy has experienced first hand how grappling with someone's
published ideas affords a continuous unfolding of understanding.
The point of teacher/action research, then, is to help us discover what's
problematic with our teaching. The reason for engaging in inquiry is to
understand better our relationship with our students as well as how to
negotiate curriculum with them. I keep asking teachers "What surprised
you about?" I do that because I want them to notice the unexpected both
in school, and in their out-of-school lives. It's the moment of surprise,
of being perplexed, that alerts us to something worth noting and provides
an opportunity to make our assumptions, beliefs, and values visible. "What
was I expecting?" people need to ask themselves. "Why was I
Another critical incident.
One of the most difficult transitions I personally have had to make
has been dealing with kids' resistance, their 'not-learning' as Herb
Kohl (1994) calls it. Just when I think I have some control over my
responses I run into a kid who pushes me back into my instinctual, authoritarian
way of responding. There's one like that in one of the third grade classes
I've been visiting.
In my experience when kids avoid engaging, offering some support brings
about a small shift in attitude. Usually I can get a kid to 'just try'.
I've learned that helping kids to be successful overcomes a lot of their
resistance. But I can't even get near this one Andrew, I'll call him.
He cuts me off by turning away from me before I can offer help of any
kind. His body language is real clear stay away!
Part of Andrew's problem is that he doesn't read or write very well.
At age nine, that's starting to be serious. He's bright, so he knows
what the others can do and he can't. He behaves aggressively pinching,
hitting, or jabbing his classmates with a pencil. They don't want anything
to do with him. His behaviour keeps them from discovering his shortcomings,
but at a cost by isolating himself he is unable to build friendship.
I'm flummoxed. Andrew is showing quite clearly he won't learn from
me. And each time I attempt to engage him I seem to be digging the hole
deeper. Andrew evokes the 'witch' in me. Although I understand his antagonism,
I react to it in a way that doesn't help him. I find myself wanting
to force him to try.
I have no trouble engaging Jake, who drives the teacher crazy. He doesn't
make me bristle the way Andrew does. The question is what about the
behaviour gets to me in Andrew's case and not in Jake's. What in my
own history is being triggered by Andrew and not by Jake? I don't have
an answer for that at the moment.
Maybe it's the way Andrew rejects assistance. When he cuts me off I
just walk away. I've learned there's no point in attempting to cajole
him and I have no authority to insist he do anything. But I'm not happy
walking away. I keep wondering what I'm doing that evokes Andrew's resistance
and what I could do that would permit us to work out a different kind
of relationship (JN. Journal: 11/7/1995).
Writing about the problem helped me see Andrew and I were engaged in
a power/control struggle.
I was rereading Interwoven Conversations (Newman, 1991) the other day
when I came across a critical incident about Danny a six-year old who
taught me to ask "Do you need help?" before barging in. I'm
barging in with Andrew; he immediately raises his barriers, which in
turn angers me because it leaves me nowhere to go. HmmSo I guess I should
at least be giving him some room to let me know how I can help him before
we're embroiled in his not-learning game. I can see I should ask if
he needs help and accept it if he says 'No.' That gives him an out and
me a way of leaving gracefully. I'll try that tomorrow morning and see
what happens (JN. Journal: Nov. 14, 1995)
The next day, when I asked Andrew if he needed help he considered my
offer and then told me precisely what assistance he wanted when I followed
up by asking 'What can I help you with?' That surprised me. In other words,
I discovered that asking if he needed help made it possible for Andrew
to retain control of the situation. It made it possible for him to engage
in learning with me. My reflective writing helped me understand what was
causing my struggle with Andrew and what I might do about it.
Bev, Andrew's teacher, and I had a conversation one afternoon in which
she described how she learned to accept his clear signals that he wouldn't
comply. As she wrote later
The issue of power and Andrew's behaviour was a serious issue. I found
myself challenged by the dilemma of how to give Andrew the power he
needed without 'caving in' to his tyrannical behaviour. How could I
get out of the power struggle that I didn't want to be in and that Andrew
continually created? One clue for me came when he told me one day that
he didn't want to go to music and if I forced him to go he would misbehave
so that he would be sent out of the room. At that moment I knew he had
it figured out he was in control and he knew it. I had to learn ways
of negotiating activities with him, allowing him acceptable choices.
Instead of reacting in an authoritarian way I had to find ways of allowing
him to choose to engage. Andrew has taught me that I can't make anyone
do anything he doesn't want to; external power has limited impact; it's
internal power that makes a positive difference (BC. Journal: 4/21/1995).
Bev learned how to negotiate with Andrew. Her important insight was that
Andrew was always in control and that she would never get anywhere trying
to force him to do anything. Because she has become adept at reading his
signals, he's become much more involved and proficient at reading and
writing and his behaviour is considerably less resistant. My coming to
understand the dynamics of my interaction with Andrew allowed me to talk
with Bev about his resistance and avoidance of learning. In turn, Bev
was able to restructure her relationship with Andrew.
It isn't only our professional lives that serve as a source of critical
incidents. A year ago I started taking hang-gliding lessons. Being a learner
in totally foreign territory has yielded powerful insight into the tensions
of learning and teaching.
Since weekend before last I have been intending to write about a hang-gliding
experience. Kimberly Hill. Setting up my glider. Having trouble tensioning
the king-post wires. I asked Eric, my instructor, for help. He immediately
saw what was wrong I had inadvertently hooked one of the reflex bridles
under a batten tip and hadn't noticed it. That's the second time I've
done that. Eric handled the situation in his usual brutish manner ridiculing
me for not being more careful. I understand his rationale my life depends
on how carefully I set up and pre-flight the glider. However, the way
he pointed out the problem made me feel stupid; it affected my flying,
I could do nothing right that morning. I came away from the hill feeling
Wednesday evening we were towing at the flight park in Warren. Eric
wants me to take more responsibility for making decisions so I try.
The problem is that I still can't orchestrate all the variables, either
on the ground or in the air. When I fail to meet his expectations he's
abusive and then I freeze ; I fear taking any initiative. I'm now finding
myself in what Gregory Bateson (1972) refers to as a double bind "Don't
do x until I tell you to"; "I expect you to do x without being
told." Both injunctions are followed by responses which immobilize
me or leave me feeling intimidated.
Unlike kids in classrooms, I have strategies for getting myself out
of this bind. First, I understand what is happening. Second, I can confront
Eric. He doesn't understand the problem but letting him know what I'm
experiencing helps free me from his control. I am also contemplating
asking a couple of the experienced pilots to assist me both Mark and
Brian have a much more collegial way of sharing what they know. But
kids don't have the same options I suppose they could, but only if we
redress the power imbalance to make it possible for them to tell us
what's happening for them (JN. Journal: 5/10/1996).
The fact that I'm a lot older than Eric alters the traditional teacher/student
power relationship. I can tell him to get lost if I choose to. There are
also no serious life consequences if I decide to quit flying. That's not
the case, however, for my graduate students or for their students. School
traditionally creates such a rigid authoritarian regime that they really
can't risk taking on the teacher. They are effectively silenced in a situation
where someone else holds the power over the evaluation and the outcomes
of their learning. This incident harks back to Marilyn's concern arising
from her incident with Robert Who has the power to ask what of whom? A
crucial question we teachers need to be asking ourselves.
Saturday I took another tandem flight but I was badly overcontrolling
the glider again and Eric's impatience came through loud and clear.
His comments stopped being supportive. He finally took over the control
bar to show me what I was doing wrong in such a way that I just gave
Tuesday evening I did some low level towing the launches were OK but
I was still overcontrolling the glider in the air and my landings were
much too hard on the fifth landing I broke the basetube on the training
glider! I set up my own glider after that, however, and tried again.
Two flights! Two great flights! Solid launches, good control in the
air, and soft rounded-off wheel landings. I felt terrific. Later Nes
asked me what had been different I suddenly understood that on those
last two flights I'd been able keep my eyes on a reference point.
There are two things to learn in hang gliding light grip on the control
bar, establish a reference. Both are actually quite difficult. I am
beginning to get the light grip but I have been so information-overloaded
that I have not been managing to establish a reference point. I have
been flying virtually blind as if my eyes were closed. On those last
two flights (they were real flights!) I had enough control over the
other stuff balance, wind direction, air speed, angle of attack that
I could consciously establish a reference and stay with it and to my
surprise all the rest fell into place, I was able to keep level, maintain
air speed and altitude, and compensate for the turbulence, all because
I had a reference point and could make judgements about the glider attitude
and speed relative to the ground.
But back to Eric and our teaching/learning relationship. As soon as
I was successful his impatience evaporated. His excitement improved
my flying. On the second flight I felt more confident, less inept, more
willing to be aggressive and take charge for myself.
What this all makes me think about is how I may inadvertently be conveying
impatience to my students. I don't think I feel frustrated by any of
them but that doesn't mean they aren't interpreting some of my responses
that way and it could be closing them down just as Eric's exasperation
does to me (JN. Journal: 6/21/1996).
Teaching is a lot like hang-gliding light grip on the control bar, establish
a reference point. Whatever the situation, learning involves a lot more
than acquiring some specific knowledge and a few learning strategies it
involves the development of an ability to make sound judgements.
My dilemma as a teacher is that I can't teach good judgement; I can
only create circumstances which make it possible for learners to experience
the consequences of their own decisions.my role is to structure conditions
so that learners are willing to risk engaging in the experience and
exploring the unfamiliar. And when students run into difficulty, when
they don't understand what's happening, when they encounter something
they aren't sure how to handle, I need to be on hand to ask questions,
to offer suggestions, or just to provide moral support (Newman, 1991:
Teaching/learning, therefore, involves a very complex reciprocal relationship
between student and teacher. In order to provide the kind of learning
environment that supports the development of judgement I have to face
the fact that some of my own interpretations and decisions are likely
to be wrong. If I've learned nothing else during my twenty plus years
of teaching I've learned that I can't control how students interpret my
intentions and actions. No matter what I do, it will be supportive for
some but definitely interfering for others (Newman, 1991). The crucial
thing for me as a teacher is to discover when my instruction creates barriers.
Several of the teachers in my current graduate class have also shared
'out-of-school' experiences which have allowed them to think about their
teaching. One teacher wrote about an incident involving her horse. She
described a training session with a visiting instructor which went badly
for the horse. The clinician was too aggressive at one point the horse
attempted to bolt. Tethered, however, she reared and then fell back unable
to recover her footing; the horse was hurt quite badly.
Of course the parallels to the classroom are many. The subsequent events
have been educational as well. The difficulties of time management,
of negotiating curriculum, of the need to understand the causes of refusal
and failure, of how difficult it can be to work as a team when the team
members do not share some common philosophies. These are some of the
issues which have arisen. As curriculum leader, this incident with Brave
Heart so closely parallels some of my experiences in school this year
This is a typical instance of a non-school situation turning our gaze
on our work. Lots of what goes on in our lives can afford us reflective
moments and permits us to see tensions in new ways.
Another teacher explored her learning during a computer workshop.
I am surrounded by serious technophiles, the monitors are flashing
madly, the language is strange and intimidating and I have chosen to
go to someplace familiar ClarisWorks (for dummies like me). This scenario
is speaking volumes to me about myself as a learner. I am feeling uncomfortable
about my neophyte status. I am also working hard to quell my anxiety.
One of the strategies I am using is to tune out that which is way beyond
my kenand tune in to the sounds that have some meaning for me. Aha,
that is why my students and my kids tune me out! (NC. Journal: 5/24/1996).
Observing ourselves learning can offer import insight into our students'
behaviour and help us think about teaching that supports learning as opposed
to teaching that interferes or undermines.
In teacher/action research, understanding is often a retrospective
enterprise; lots of events/experiences make sense only some time later,
when life and circumstances permit a reframing (Conroy, 1991).
When I was sixteen I worked selling hot dogs at a stand in the Fourteenth
Street subway station in New York City, one level above the trains and
one below the street, where the crowds continually flowed back and forth.
I felt isolated with no one to talk to. On my break I came out from behind
the counter and passed the time with two old black men who ran a shoeshine
stand in a dark corner of the corridor. It was a poor location, half hidden
by columns, and they didn't have much business. I would sit with my back
against the wall while they stood or moved around their ancient elevated
stand, talking to each other or to me, but always staring in the distance
as they did so.
As the weeks went by I realized that they never looked at anything
in their immediate vicinity not at me or their stand or anybody who
might come within ten or fifteen feet. They did not look at approaching
customers once they were inside the perimeter.their behaviour was
so focused and consistent they seemed somehow to transcend the physical.
A powerful mood was created, and I came almost to believe that these
men could see through walls(Conroy, 1991: 68).
Perhaps ten years later, after playing jazz with black musicians in various
Harlem clubs, Conroy began to learn from them something of the various
ways in which different people get through life in the ghetto. "Only
then," he says, "did I understand the two shoeshine men."
Their continuous staring off was a kind of statement, a kind of dance.
Our bodies are here, went the statement, but our souls are receiving
nourishment from distant sources only we can see.
The light bulb may appear over your head, is what I'm saying, but
it may be a while before it actually goes on(p: 68). Education doesn't
end until life ends, because you never know when you're going to understand
something you hadn't understood before.For me, the magic dance of
the shoeshine men was the kind of experience in which understanding
came with a kind of click, a resolving kind of click (p: 70).
The critical thing about retrospective understanding is that we can never
know when a light bulb might go on. In teacher/action research, we collect
stories but we may not understand what they are about, or how they relate,
until something unexpected allows us to make a connection.
This incident occurred when I was a graduate student. I was teaching
an eleven year-old spelling. We were examining some ways that meaning
(not sound) is reflected in how words are spelled. I suddenly became
schizophrenic it was as if I were standing across the room watching
the action when something Frank Smith had written (which I had read
perhaps two years earlier) suddenly struck me that the one difficult
way to make reading easy was to make it easy!
It was clear from Martin's response that he was connecting with the
words he and I were writing on the blackboard and what had been difficult
for him before suddenly made sense he could see the meaning patterns
which are retained in how words are spelled and that changed in quite
a profound way his sense of himself as a speller; and I understood that
most reading/spelling instruction which deals with decontextualized
words makes reading/spelling difficult when what learners really need
is to be making sense. This was a clear instance of retrospective understanding
(JN. Journal: 5/19/1996).
One of the teachers wrote about how, sometime after the fact, she thought
about an incident involving her Grade One students at the park. She mentions
how Brandan and Adam asked for a push on the swings and how she announced
"I don't push." As she explains
I WANT those kids to make decisions on their own, and look after themselves,
in situations where this would be appropriate.
So she didn't push them, although she did show them what to do and offered
lots of encouragement.
Katelyn had been on the monkey bars and had wanted to be lifted off.
Again, I explained "I don't lift kids off the bars." Another
'park' rule, I said to her.
Claire next considered Katelyn and her writing. She described how Katelyn
had just begun putting her thoughts on paper. In the process of helping
her tidy up her writing Claire had attempted to have Katelyn flesh out
her story a bit more. She got nowhere herself so she suggested Katelyn
ask Amy to read it, hoping Amy might persuade her to include more details.
No luck; Katelyn insisted "I don't want to do that."
Claire considers the two episodes.
I asked myself why I wouldn't push the swing or help on the monkey
bars.Then I think about Katelyn's writing. Although I was willing to
let Katelyn ignore the advice of her friendI was uncomfortable; I still
felt that she needed to make some additions to her story before it could
be published.So sometimes I DO push. (CS. Journal: 5/24/1996)
'Pushing' is an important part of teaching. It involves setting challenges.
Even though Claire declined to 'push' the children on the swings, in
fact she was still pushing pushing them to become more self-reliant.
Claire obviously engages in different kinds of pushing. Her challenge
to Katelyn was offered as encouragement to flesh out her writing; that
invitation was rejected on this particular occasion which left Claire
I wonder about these episodes as I consider the article by Darling-Hammond
(1993). She paints a very powerful picture of the dichotomy of thinking
that is ruling the education community. I agree with her that
the teacher's job is no longer to 'cover the curriculum' but to enable
diverse learners to construct their own knowledge and to develop their
talents in effective and powerful ways (p: 754).
I do not think of my students as 'blank slates,' in fact I have a lot
of respect for the thinking that my Grade 1's are able to do. However,
in the current political climate, I feel afraid for these same kids.
The description given by Darling-Hammond of the other model of school
reform certainly describes what's happening in our province.
Similar reforms during the 1970s had tried to 'teacher-proof' schooling
by centralizing textbook adoptions, mandating curriculum guides for
each grade level and subject area, and developing rules and tests
governing how children should be tracked into programs and promoted
from grade to grade (p: 754).
I do think that we are in a stage of competing models, and I do think
that we progressive educators are in the minority.
So what does this mean for me, a teacher of young children in a conservative
school, a teacher who desires to give more power to my students and
in some way must educate their parents that what I'm doing is best for
their children? And how can I be sure that I am in fact helping to create
an atmosphere of balanced power. Where kids can stretch their wings
and fly. Where the teacher is a leader, a facilitator of learning. I
wonder, too, how long it will be before the long arm of that other model
of school reform affects my classroom. Or perhaps it already has (CS,
Journal: May 24, 1996).
What interested me was Claire's analysis that one of the pressures affecting
her decision to push Katelyn was other people's expectations about what
counts as instruction. Her understanding of how these external pressures
were affecting her teaching had surfaced from her reading of the article
by Linda Darling-Hammond (1993). Darling-Hammond's description of competing
models of educational policy created a 'Conroy' moment for Claire.
Freeman Patterson, a Canadian photographer whose work I admire greatly,
writes something which I think makes some of the tensions of teacher/action
research explicit. In Photography and the Art of Seeing (1979) Patterson
enumerates barriers to seeing.
First letting go of self is an essential precondition to real seeing.
When you let go of yourself, you abandon any preconceptions about
the subject matter that might cramp you into photographing in a certain,
predetermined way.when you let go, new conceptions arise from your
direct experience of the subject matter, and new ideas and feelings
will guide you as you make pictures (p: 9).
Another barrier to seeing is the mass of stimuli surrounding us.
We are so bombarded with visual and other stimuli that we must block
out most of them in order to cope. Instead of seeing everything, we
select a few stimuli and organize these. Then, once we have achieved
order in our lives, we stick with the realities we have established.We
develop tunnel vision, which gives a clear view of the rut ahead of
us, but prevents us from seeing the world around us.
A third major sight barrier is the labeling that results from familiarity.
we stop visualizing things freely, and put word labels on them instead
Patterson allowed me to understand that if I can get beyond my current
labels I might see things quite differently. If I manage to step outside
the comfortable order I've established, the taken-for-granted, I might
discover new ways of observing the worlds in which I live.
There are many different forms of teacher/action research. Each version
provides useful tools for taking a critical look at our professional work.
I wrote the following synopsis for one of my graduate classes.
Narrative inquiry (Connelly & Clandinin, 1988) allows us to explore
our personal histories in an effort to understand how who we are impacts
on what we value and what we do. The 'evidence' consists of narrative
accounts of significant moments in our past which helps us understand
our values and provides insight into current decision-making. There may
be elements of documentary evidence, but on the whole the evidence consists
of the narrative reconstruction of incidents which we believe to be important
for understanding who we are.
More traditional 'teacher research' (Ruddick & Hopkins, 1985) compiles
different sorts of evidence. It doesn't ignore narrative accounts, but
it includes documentary evidence of various sorts journal entries, students'
work, policy documents from school divisions and province, newspaper accounts.
In this kind of work, the tensions of teaching are examined by identifying
the constraints and pressures which impact on people's daily work. Here,
too, the point of this inquiry is to understand the various influences
on our decision-making as teachers and education professionals.
Critical inquiry (Smyth, 1992; Boomer, 1987) has a more overt political
flavour from the outset. Narrative inquiry and more traditional teacher
research are also political, in that we are working to uncover the pressures
that impact on what we do and how we do it. But normally people don't
see that aspect of their work until they're well into the later stages
of putting things together. With critical inquiry, we know we're going
to be exploring political issues from the outset. The evidence can consist
of policy documents, correspondence of all kinds, newspaper sources, students'
work, .The difference, here, is that the analytic tools are openly those
that take a political view of schooling, learning and teaching.
There are case studies, too (Winter, 1986). A careful examination of
an individual student or a small group of students, can be the basis of
a teacher/action research project. Here, the point of the work is to learn
from the situation how to act in it to discover the kinds of decisions
we make and to think about the theoretical reasons for making them. Evidence
can consist of personal reflections, lesson plans, students' work, student/parent/colleague
interviews, etc. In case study work, which would qualify as teacher/action
research, the gaze is on attempting to uncover the assumptions which are
driving our teaching; to learn from the learners how to make teaching
a learning enterprise (JN. Journal: 1/22/1996).
Notice that in all of these variations of teacher/action research, the
gaze is ultimately on the researcher. It doesn't matter which 'methodology'
we elect to use, in the end the account becomes a laying out of our personal
understanding, our sense of the political realities which support or constrain
our work with students. We come out of all of these experiences with an
expanded appreciation of the complexity of learning, of teaching, and
a stronger sense of how external realities affect what we can really do.
I had a lengthy chat with my friend Ann Vibert Friday evening; we were
discussing postmodern thought and how our work attempts to implement
these ideas. Ann said something interesting. "Judith," she
said, "as long as I've known you you've always answered questions
with 'It depends!' That," Ann said, "is as contextually embedded
as you can get. It used to frustrate the hell out of me," she continued,
"when you'd refuse to give me a simple answer. But I came to understand
that every learning situation is unique, decisions/judgements are complex;
there are no simple answers. You taught me that!" Ann was a student
of mine in 1984 (JN. Journal: 10/31/1995).
The tough thing about this whole interpretive framework is trying to
find ways of balancing individual interpretations with the interpretive
community. When literacy/language folks contend that all learning is social,
we're arguing that all meaning making is embedded in our cultural history
and that most of who we are is tacitly absorbed both from our immediate
community as well as the wider community. Every understanding is mediated
to a large extent by the culture of the times, by what we see on TV, what
we read, by the conversations we engage in and eavesdrop on every day.
Our ways of making interpretations are influenced by the various interpretive
communities to which we belong. But in spite of these communities and
the social influences on our interpretations we do, in some senses, still
make sense as individuals.
Such a theoretical perspective is important as a basis for action research.
It focuses our attention on interpretation it makes us think about contexts
and how they affect our judgements and our interpretations upon which
those judgements are based. For me, it grounds the research in the ongoing
narrative of our professional activity. Because our judgements are based
largely on our tacit theories, on values and beliefs that are culturally
determined and not explicitly articulated, the act of creating a narrative
permits us to distance ourselves from our judgements a bit and affords
an opportunity to make the basis of our work open to inspection. The act
of creating the narrative sets us up to be detectives; the narrative offers
clues to the kinds of cultural values affecting our judgements. Hence
the need for critical incidents, for tracking the surprises in the daily
work we are doing.
Heather, an elementary school principal, wrote something in her reflection
that caught my attention. "While getting the research question right
becomes critical, equally vital is how the study is conceived." I
felt compelled to respond to her in the margin: "There is no 'right'
question, certainly not at the beginning nor will you necessarily be able
to conceive of the study at the outset. This kind of research begins with
the mess of being in the middle. The writing in the end will identify
questions and will tell an organized story but the process leading to
that is higgledy-piggledy. Be prepared for that."
We don't necessarily start with a question and if we do, it likely
isn't the question we will end up with. We're really dealing with journeys
here personal journeys into new understanding, new insight into the
professional work we are doing. We can focus on our work in classrooms,
with the teachers' union, with clinical cases, all sorts of different
situations. But the glue which binds this work together is the inner-directed
gaze, the inquiry into what sense we're personally making of what's
going on and how our perceptions are changed both by the situation,
by our contact with the professional, scholarly, research literature,
and with what other people think which takes us back to the notion 'thinking
with' (JN. Journal: 1/8/1996).
John Smyth (1992) contends, it's not enough to just reflect, but that
reflection has to go somewhere instead of simply being a means of focusing
upon ends determined by others the reflection becomes an active process
of contesting, debating, and determining the nature of those ends .Ultimately
all research is "reflective;" that is, the researcher does have
to stand back from 'the data' and make new sense of them. What differentiates
teacher/action research data from traditional quantitative data is that
the narratives, the stories, the anomalies, allow the researcher to cast
his or her gaze back on his or her own assumptions and ask "so what?"
I was intrigued with Smyth's process: describing, informing, confronting,
and reconstructing. His confronting questions mirror the questions I've
been asking myself about critical incidents:
- what do my practices say about my assumptions, values, and beliefs
- where did these ideas some from?
- what social practices are expressed in these ideas?
- what causes me to maintain my theories?
- what views of power do they embody?
- whose interests seem to be served by my practices?
- what acts to constrain my views of what is possible in teaching
But notice how the process begins with description with the anomalies,
stories, or critical incident narratives that bring the problematic
into view (JN. Journal: 10/16/95).
Roger Simon (1987) extends the political argument we must, he contends,
ask questions about power and about whose interests are served. A 'pedagogy
of possibility,' as he calls it, starts with descriptions which lead to
some unexpected and difficult questions. What neither Simon nor Smyth
make clear, however, is that we aren't looking just for single incidents.
In my experience, it takes many small stories together before a pattern
emerges which lets me understand, which serves as Conroy's 'light bulb.'
That's why I've been encouraging you to begin collecting critical incidents.
In the end you may share only a few narrative moments because later
you will be able to identify those which are significant and illustrative
of the larger questions you're exploring but when I'm starting out I
have no idea what patterns could be present, I have little sense of
the assumptions, the tensions, constraints, which are driving my teaching.
So I begin with those anomalous moments, the surprises, the unexpected
and by building a collection of stories/moments/ events/encounters I
begin to ask a different sort of question about what's going on (JN.
Now I circle back to Glenda Bissex (1988) and the question that perplexed
her "and what does that prove?" Conventional wisdom holds that
educational research is supposed to prove something. I don't believe it
can. I contend that all researchers can ever do is offer their experiences
and interpretations against which readers can test their own, to raise
questions for us to consider. Research (both quantitative and qualitative)
is useful not because it provides answers but because it can be generative
and lead to new inquiries (Stephens, 1997).
Teacher/action research is not about proving anything. The purpose of
this kind of inquiry is to help us gain insight into teaching. By examining
my assumptions, by thinking with various published authors, I make explicit
the tensions and constraints which impact on me and on my students. By
relating my stories and those of other teachers I am inviting readers
to think about whether these same tensions and constraints are also affecting
them. When I describe how I have come to my current questions, when I
show what remains unresolved for me, I nudge readers to think about these
same issues for themselves.
Maggie summed it up nicely in her poem last week:
- freeze the frame,
- learn from the moment
- freeze it so that other eyes may look upon it
- and make sense of the changing, shaping, altering
- of our perceptions and beliefs
- (JN. Journal: 10/16/1995).
If reflective activity serves only to entrap us in maintaining the status
quo of schools then far from being emancipatory it undermines our teaching
and who we are as teachers. The purpose of adopting a reflective stance
on our work, then, is that it permits us to ask questions about what is
worthwhile in teaching and why. It allows us to challenge the taken-for-granted.
Being reflective means more than merely being speculative; it means starting
with reality and beginning to overcome that reality by reasserting the
importance of learning. The question we must always be asking ourselves
is "What am I learning?" That inevitably leads to others: "How
is what I'm learning affecting my teaching?" "What evidence
do I have that what I'm now doing is impacting on students' learning?"
This last question is the crucial one because ultimately the goal of
engaging in teacher/action research is to become a better teacher.
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