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Taking practitioner research into the field

"Don't get lost. Give it a try. Go find the place that you're wishing for" Natsuki Takaya (Creator of Fruit Basket manga series)

Self-improvement, home improvement, mind and body improvement, educational improvement etc. etc. Nothing, it seems, is ever right. Improvement, improvement, improvement. New idea, new idea, new idea. And on and on it goes. We are constantly bombarded with messages that we need to improve but are often left bereft of the understanding of how to improve…most particularly how to improve us. Personally. Individually. In our own spaces.

In being asked to constantly change we are also robbed of the time to make the last improvement we invested in. If it was good enough then why isn’t it now? We are changing for change’s sake but not seeing the benefit of that change. 

The bombardment of improvement messages sits alongside conflicting reminders that change takes time. And that nothing meaningful comes easily. What we’re left with, therefore, is perpetual movement without moving very far from where we started.

Teaching and coaching are no different. Practitioners are ranked by experience and then told they’re either wet behind the ears or stuck in their ways. And both are told to change. Yet, again, they’re not given the tools or the time.

We are not looking for uniformity of practice. We don’t want to pre-empt Artificial Intelligence and robotics and have the teacher or coach come in a box (albeit a large box). We want individuals. People who can engage individually with the learners in their classes or squads. Yet, in being asked to change we fall victim to other people’s standards and forget, sometimes, to apply our own.

Changing practice is not something we can do on request. At least not often in meaningful and enduring ways. The difficulty is in sustaining the change - as we all experience with exercise and diet. We need to find the place we’re looking for where we can settle down and let the new become the established form of practice.

In embracing the new we’re going to have to make ourselves comfortable with discomfort. We’re also going to have to acknowledge that our old ways don’t simply vanish. They remain to ‘ambush’ us in our most challenging and difficult moments. We need to let them and then acknowledge why we left them behind. If our aim is to avoid the status quo and break the habits of our dominant practice then we need to recognise them ourselves and seek ways to change long-term.

John Dewey suggested that reality lives within an individual’s  experience. In other words, “what we see (and hear, feel, think, love, taste, despise, fear, etc.) is what you get. This is all we ultimately have in which to ground our understanding. And it’s all we need (Clandinin and Rosiek, 2007, p. 41). To live in our experiences and see them as our reality we need to begin to understand them. This allows us to see ourselves and drown out the cacophony of demands for improvement that come from outside ourselves.

One of the biggest influences on my development as a teacher-researcher was Lawrence Stenhouse. He conceptualised the teacher-as-researcher as someone who could talk the local dialect, understand local customs and effect meaningful change in the local community. He saw the classroom not only as a place to test ideas but also a place of innovation which bring with it a move towards social change. Stenhouse was not alone in positioning the teacher as a researcher but nor would he, I believe, condone the idea that change – social or otherwise – can be forced on someone. The danger is that self-improvement and the reflective practitioner have been popularised to a degree that the act rather than the outcome has become important.

One of the problems that I’m tackling at the moment – in my own thinking – is the idea that researchers aren’t always (perhaps often would be a better term) very helpful in changing practice. “Do researchers - in asking deliberately difficult questions and then offering criticism of practitioners’ limited responses – run the risk of running roughshod over the behaviours and good practices of the very people they come to engage with? How could an outsider possibly know more about the complex contexts, relationships and lived curriculum and the person in the midst of all of this?” (Casey et al. 2017, p. 6)

As practitioners you live your own experiences and these become your reality. Furthermore, you tell stories of your experiences. You tell them to your friends, colleagues and family. You share them at conferences and on your teacher education course or on professional development days. They are told in the media and in books and they become the stories that we live by. It is these stories that we need to better understand and seek to change. We can’t change the “once upon a time…” that’s already written. We can’t re-write yesterday but we are writing today now and we can change the story (our bit of it anyway) going forwards. If we want to…

There is a difference between what we aspire to and what we can actually pull off but there are tools, means and ideas that can help. There are multiple ways of doing this but the umbrella term I use here (and others have used) is practitioner research.

In practitioner research the practitioner, unsurprisingly, takes on the role of researcher. He or she works on the understanding that in order to improve practice they need to comprehend it. And by ‘it’ I mean the interplay of power, the established stories of education and PE and coaching, not just as a whole but as a daily experience. This is the site of the practitioner’s research and it is the problems and issues that exits in that space that are taken up as topics of study.

In this blog I (with the help of others) will take up discussions about different styles/methods of practitioner research and explore issues such as bias and ethics. I hope you’ll join me( us) in these discussions either as reader or a discussant yourself. Feel free to ask question or challenge ideas or share your experiences. It is these discussions that will enrich the blog and allow us to learn together as physical education practitioner research network or PEPRN.



Casey, A., Fletcher, T., Schaefer, L. & Gleddie, D. (2017). Conducting Practitioner Research in Physical Education and Youth Sport: Reflecting on Practice. London: Routledge.  

Clandinin, D. J. & Rosiek, J. (2007). Mapping a landscape of narrative inquiry: borderland spaces and tensions. In Clandinin, D. J. (Ed.) Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology. (pp. 35 – 75). London: Sage.

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On Monday 26 February at 08:15 Andy Vasily said

Timely quote that I came across today which was sent to me through my Headspace App (an app devoted to guide people through simple daily meditation). The quote reads "Each and every thing, each and every person, is totally unique. When we compare them to something else, we no longer see them for what they are."

How true is this quote? Every single educator I have come across is uniquely different than the next. Their teaching space, their access to resources and equipment, the amount of time they have with their students, the experience that they bring to the table, their openness to change, their ability to critically reflect on their practice, their relationship with colleagues, and the attitudes that their leadership holds toward change in general. SO many variables at play. Therefore, a one size fits all mentailty has no place in the role of professional growth. 

However, in recognizing all of these things, every person, to some degree, has the ability to be the author of their own learning journey. We are very fortunate at our school to have a self-authoring system of professional development in place that honors the teachers and where they are at in regards to their own genuine professional growth needs. I am a pedagogical coordinator responsible for coaching teachers through their own self-authoring journeys. Through posing reflective questions and planning questions, and simply listening, I strive to help move them forward, hopefully helping them to identify internal resrouces within themselves that assist in empowering them along their way toward reaching their goals. 

The system we have here at The KAUST School in Saudi Arabia is all about identifying our own professional inquiries and supporting all staff members in the pursuit of their chosen inquiry. Through a number of self-assessments and collecting different data points related to their teaching and student voice, each staff member is coached through the best way to use this data to identify further inquiry questions and strategies that will help move them forward with their professional inquiry. 

We are very lucky and fortunate to have such a supportive professional environment to work within. However, the reality is that most schools do not have these support mechanisms in place. 

In saying this though, the reality is that every teacher can be the author of their own learning. They can inquire into their own practice and with a non-judemental, self-critical lens, identify questions that they might want to find out more about. When reflecting on their own questions, they can formulate specific questions that they would like to explore and know more about. 

 For example:

How can I better use my space and time to maximize student engagement? 

In what ways can I better support the social and emotional learning of my students in PE? 

How motivated are my students in my PE program? 

What do my students enjoy the most about the PE program? What might their suggestions be to improve their experience? 

How might I cut down on my teacher talk time in order to increase physical activity? 

How can I create more conditions for student voice and choice within each unit? 

In all of the above questions, self-assessing themselves and collecting data is possible. In using this data to crystalize next steps needed to take action is possible. 

If schools don’t provide coaches (most schools don’t), teachers can seek out another colleague to be a sounding board and to seek insight and advice from. Perhaps this colleague is just there to listen. Often times in speaking their way through their inquiry and the questions that they would like to explore, the answers and ideas often times become evident. If the answers and ideas to move forward are not there, there is still value in talking their way through their own uncertainty and their own thinking. 

We use the following coaching maps when helping teachers talk their way through their own professional inquiries. 


If it’s a reflection conversation we follow these steps in the conversation:

Summarize Impressions (How are you feeling about……? or How do you think it went?)————->Analyse Causal Factors (What are some hunches about what caused……? or What comparisons might you make between the lesson you had planned/envisioned and the one you taught?——————-> Construct New Learning (What learning do you want to take with you to future situations? or What do you want to be mindful or from now on?)——————-> Commit to Application (So, how might you apply your new learning? or How might you ensure you maintain focus?)———————————->Reflect on Coaching/Discussion (As you reflect on this conversation, how has it supported your learning? or How might you incorporate this process into your own thinking?)

If it is a planning conversation moving forward with a professional inquiry, the discussion might be structured like this: 

Clarify Goals (What do you want the students to leave thinking/feeling or able to do? OR What do you want students to walk away with? —————————————> Specify Success Indicators (How will you know you are successful? or What might success look/sound like?) —————> Anticipate Approaches ( What might be some strategies you’ve considered? or In what sequence will you use your strategies?)————————> Establish Personal Learning Focus (What is most important to pay attention to in yourself? or What do you want to be sure you do very well? How might you know you are doing it?—————————-> Reflect on Coaching/Discussion (As you reflect on this conversation, how has it supported your learning? or How might you incorporate this process into your own thinking?)

Too Idealistic? 

Perhaps this whole process is, BUT my main point is that regardless if you have a pedagogical coach or not, every teacher does have the ability to self-author their own learning journey. Our profession demands growth, but ultimately the choice is up to each individual as to whether or not they want to take action to grow. Taking action to personally/professionally grow does not imply we are crap or inadequate as educators. It just means that we value our roles enough to want to learn more about ourselves, as educators, and to find ways to guide our own journeys by seeking a critical friend or colleague to truly listen to us and support our learning. My thoughts to your thought-provoking blog Ashley. 

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On Wednesday 07 March at 11:55 Wyatt Franz said

This is thought provoking in many ways. First, in today's dynamic world of education it is easy to feel that we are constantly changing for the sake of change. However, as Andy so well stated, every educational practicioner can and should be reflective of their practice.

The statement in your blog that resonated with me the most was when you said, "In embracing the new we’re going to have to make ourselves comfortable with discomfort." Change is usually difficult to stomach, especially when you thought things were going well. Lately as I've been doing some personal PD, and when I'll come across blogs such as this one, I'll become excited and anxious at the same time. Excited to come across an idea I can try or think about further, but anxious to stir up the pot so to speak.

One thing I came across recently was the thought that most successful people know 'why' they are doing what they are doing. Then in knowing this, the next step would be to only try to be a better you. Don't worry about what the next person is doing, unless it is something that fits in with your own vision. Just be better at what it is you're doing. This really has mad sense to me, and just as Andy also pointed out, every situation is uniquely different, so in knowing what you know, where you want to go, what it is it you can do to be more effective in delivering your vision to your community?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ashely and Andy!

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