Making ethical sense: purpose, participation and pitfalls

In the secondary school context Lofthouse et al. (2012) propose three core ethical principles supporting practitioner enquiry.

  1. The enquirer should have an allegiance with their successive cohorts of learners, or colleagues if the enquiry relates to leadership or management.
  2. As a reflective practitioner the enquirer should consider that their practice can always be improved and that reflection on it is the focus for improvement. This can be applied to the wider context practice, not simply individual actions.
  3. The enquirer should recognise the strategic priorities of the institution within which they work, not by following them blindly, but by acknowledging their significance and contributing to their interpretation.

These principles constitute a persuasive argument; (I like this statement)

I need to edit this:

Ethics are rooted in values and the ways in which we view the world.

1. It could be unethical to engage in changing practices which have the potential to influence educational experiences and outcomes without some form of enquiry.

2. Values and perspectives held by different individuals and adopted by different institutions or underpinning systems are not always held in common. (For example ethical practitioner enquiry is underpinned by an epistemology which challenges both technical and practical views of education).

  • Technical view of education:

Promoted by current policy and consequently dominates the educational infrastructure and public debate. In this view education tends to be seen as a means to an end, and the problem for education is to find the most effective and efficient means. This can be seen in policy decisions at governmental and school level, although is no doubt more or less extreme in different jurisdictions.

  • Practical view of education :

Acknowledges there are  no easy solutions to identified problems because each practitioner works in a unique and fluid educational context. This implies technical solutions or specified interventions will not always have determinable outcomes and  professionals need to apply practical decision-making, based on their training and experience, to their own contexts in an attempt to influence educational outcomes. This should be the solution sought by practitioner enquiry.

Both perspective  look for solutions, but from a different source.

This practical view supports the need for practitioners rather than policy makers to be at the forefront of driving research.

However, as Carr and Kemmis (1986) reflect, the technical or practical views (taken singly, or in uncomfortable conjunction) beg questions about teacher professionalism, autonomy, why problems exist and how they are perceived, and the role of research
and theory in practice and policy. Perhaps most crucially, the dominance of these views creates the profound risk that ‘the ‘moral’ dimension of education is inadvertently suppressed’ (Carr and Kemmis, ibid. p.38). Practitioners must be correctly trained in research to form unbiased conclusions. Practitioner enquiry can correspond with this strategic view of education in general; and specifically in relation to teachers’ professional learning and development of practice as part of that ecology.

Practitioner enquiry takes on ethical dimensions when the practitioner recognises that education has social and consequences (both within institutions and in wider society) as well as being political in that it influences learners’ and employees’ individual outcomes which affect life chances.

Specific ethical decisions when undertaking practitioner enquiry are influenced by:
• the legal frameworks regarding data protection and human rights (e.g. governing the use of photographic or video images of pupils that might be taken to support data collection);

• the expected and authorised role of the practitioner as employee and how this role relates to the intention they have as an enquirer (e.g. experimenting with pedagogic approaches, or gathering the views of children or colleagues);

• the sometimes apparently conflicting concerns of research validity and reliability with social justice and equality (e.g. the use of control and experimental groups when testing out an innovation that is anticipated to have a positive impact, as yet not proved in that context);

• the demands of an educational timetable forcing teachers to act in a convergent fashion which might compromise the desire of a teacher to trial more divergent approaches (e.g. ten-weekly school-wide tests which negate the prospect of researching the potential of extended crosscurricular project-based learning);

• the purpose of practitioner enquiry; whether it is being undertaken for an academic award, institutional development, or as part of a cross-school network, which can determine the extent to which the enquiry is made public, who the audience is and therefore the appropriate levels of confidentiality applied to pupils and colleagues and schools;

• the extent to which the enquirer is engaging in practices for enquiry which go beyond the normal remit of the setting which determines the need for informed consent from participants or their parents and guardians, which might include pre-school children or those with special educational needs or other vulnerabilities;

• the potential role of enquiry participants (e.g. learners or colleagues) in helping to shape the enquiry, and to co-own it, or to be involved as mere research subjects.

Most practitioner enquiry is undertaken by teachers and school leaders in the context of their workplace and for the purpose of understanding and developing professional practice. In many cases this will involve interventions or actions that teachers and school leaders take responsibility for during the normal course of their employment. Through undertaking practitioner enquiry these interventions and their review and development can be considered through disciplined enquiry with the outcomes made public. This fact alone means that ethical issues related to school and classroom development are being positively recognised and appropriate action taken; but it does illustrate the decisions that need to be made regarding privacy (especially in a world dominated by social media). Gaining an enhanced understanding of, or developing new approaches to, teaching and learning or leadership are part of the routines of professional life; but this does not permit practitioner enquirers to engage in unethical.


Lofthouse, R.  Engaging in educational research and development through teacher practitioner enquiry: a pragmatic or naïve approach? Education Today 2014, 64(4), 13-19

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