post 114: Reflecting on PEN

As a teacher, I generally tend to be sceptical of  books that are intended for teachers. I often  worry that some of these books do not recognise teachers as professionals and suggest clear cut methods which do not always fit the classroom situation . GTCS have reformed the way teachers think by encouraging them to become involved in the challenging task of learning through reflective practice, inquiry, and collaboration.
 During the Practitioner Enquiry module I reflect on my teaching practice delivering the performing and expressive arts in school, developing the issue identified in the Approaches to Critical Artistry proposal and providing a rationale for my enquiry and its relevance to my practice. The Practitioner Enquiry module will help me develop the research skills to explore this issue, supporting my professional learning and that of the pupils which I teach.
 
The Reflective Educators Guide to Classroom  Research
 is largely intended for an audience of practicing teachers. Those interested in reading a post-structural analysis of reflective practice and teacher research will probably be disappointed by the prompts/exercises and the text-boxes with bulleted summaries of main points. The first part of the book focuses on the process of starting an inquiry and conducting classroom research. Beginning with a brief overview of practitioner inquiry, in addition to touching on some of the research that informs this tradition, the authors attempt to connect some current trends indata driven decision making, differentiated instruction, response to interventionÑto the politics of education. By positioning teachers as generators of knowledge about teaching and learning, practitioner inquiry challenges the top-down dissemination of knowledge and aspects of certain forms of professional development that construct/view teachers as technicians. Dana and Yendol-Hoppey argue that the process of conducting inquiries into practice helps to situate practitioners as active participants in shaping the direction of the profession.  With regards to beginning a systematic inquiry into practice, the authors choose to discuss the process of developing a research question in terms of questions about their practice. Dana and Yendol-Hoppey suggest that a practitioners questions are likely to emerge from at least one of eight passions: a child, the curriculum, content knowledge, teaching strategies, assumptions about practice, professional identity, issues of social justice, and the contexts of teaching and learning. The authors offer exercises/prompts for the reader, in addition to examples from teacher-researchers  who discuss the concerns that framed their own inquiries. Dana and Yendol-Hoppey emphasize the importance of collaboration when conducting practitioner research. As the authors recognize, teaching is complex and conducting research is difficult. Although the structure and organization of schools frequently represent obstacles to sustained collaboration, struggling against these challenges has the potential to become part of a shared or parallel inquiry.  As with all legitimate research, practitioner inquiry involves a systematic collection of data from a variety of sources.
The Reflective  Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research
 presents a series of strategies for gathering data from different sources: field notes, artifacts, interviews, video, journaling and  blogging, conducting surveys, standardized test scores, feedback from a learning community, and the research of others. While it is absolutely true that taking an inquiry stance (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 1993, 2009) towards practice is valuable over the course of one’s professional career, establishing a timeframe for a study is also important because the amount of data collected can quickly become overwhelming. The authors note that it is important to be mindful of the point at which information over-saturation occurs and prevents further insight. The second part of the book focuses on the process of sense-making/data analysis and situating an ongoing inquiry within broader contexts of education research. As Dana and  Yendol-Hoppey remind the reader, analyzing data is not a straightforward matter. To make the task less daunting, the authors suggest a sequenced process of description, sense making, interpretation, and implication guiding teacher-researchers through data analysis. The examples included from teacher-researchers illustrate some of the various ways different types of data may be coded.  Writing is part of the sense-making process. Not only does this entail describing the study and articulating findings, but it also involves further reflection. Dana and Yendol-Hoppey highlight particular aspects that teacher-researchers must address in the write-up of an inquiry: the context of the study and relevant  background information, a description of the research design, a presentation of findings and implications, and the questions raised by the study. Although formally writing-up an inquiry might feel like an unnecessary step for practitioners primarily interested in improving their individual teaching, taking the time to do this encourages further collaboration among educators and helps in the process of making research public. Obviously concerns about research quality are not unique to practitioner research, and people familiar with teacher research and practitioner inquiry recognize that there can be wide  variations regarding the quality of a study.  While practitioner research offers important contributions to the field, it remains important not to romanticize this work. Dana and  Yendol-Hoppey suggest assessing the quality of practitioner inquiry according to several dimensions. These include the context of the study and the extent to which the site of an inquiry is adequately described and taken into account, the dissonance at the base of the inquiry as well as the purpose of the study, the research design and the thorough collection of data, the contributions of the study to professional learning and reflective practice, and lastly the implications of the research. Furthermore, I would suggest that part of assessing the quality of a study involves the extent to which the factors mentioned above address the gritty materialities of teaching and learning in today’s schools. Making an inquiry public is an important aspect of practitioner research. For one, sharing research helps to make the complexities of practice visible by presenting aspects of the intellectual work involved in teaching work which often tends to be less  visible within the largely compartmentalized structure of schooling. Teaching is political  work, and practitioner research offers important contributions, especially given current pressures to script and standardize instruction. Dana and Yendol-Hoppey argue, in part, that the process of sharing inquiries helps to position practitioner-researchers as active contributors to professional knowledge about teaching and learning. Moreover, by participating in broader conversations about educational research, educators have the potential to take a larger role in shaping the profession, rather than merely reacting to policy mandates that are passed down from above. The authors note several forums and conferences at which to present practitioner inquiries. They also mention examples of annual events organized by/for teacher-researchers. Dana and Yendol-Hoppey conclude the book by encouraging teachers to participate in these professional research communities.
Critical Considerations
 As I have discussed throughout this essay, both teaching and practitioner inquiry require difficult work. I do not underestimate the challenging tasks of reflective teaching and practitioner research when considering the larger social and political contexts of education. Some circumstances involve beginning the process of conducting classroom research by inquiring into personal practices and having to confront directly the demands of particular reform agendas. These reforms may simplistically focus on the implementation of what works without taking into serious consideration the professional learning required to understand difficult questions related to issues of why, how, and for whom.
The Reflective Educators Guide to Classroom  Research
 takes an important step towards addressing these and similar concerns by encouraging practitioners, to continue to reflect on the complexities of our ongoing work in classrooms, schools, and communities.
 
 Although the authors acknowledge some of the challenges and complexities of conducting practitioner research, I believe that the perspective described in is deceptively simple in what it asks. It is important to keep in mind that while this book presents a seemingly linear approach, practitioner inquiry is not nearly as straightforward as it might initially seem. The process of making personal knowledge problematic is by no means an easy task. For example, it can be easy to have questions about something for which one has a ready-made solution already in mind. In other  words, the process of designing practitioner research around an implied answer or an uninterrogated assumption will limit an argument to confirming existing teaching practices and beliefs, instead of encouraging a genuine inquiry into practice. However, as a starting point for an evolving inquiry, the exercises, prompts, and anecdotes from teacher-researchers in the book offer quick examples and useful suggestions for practitioners engaged in this kind of critical  work. Delving into a sustained inquiry is neither a means to an end nor a matter of transitioning from novice to expert. Rather, such work is  valuable to the kinds of learning that take place throughout the professional career. Although I have concerns about the texts, step-by-step guide to practitioner inquiry, if it ultimately encourages more fellow teachers to explore further the complexities of our evolving work and the dissonances that we encounter in the classrooms each day, I believe this book makes a timely and worthwhile contribution.

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