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Self-Study of Practice

The guest author of this blog is Dr Tim Fletcher

Self-study of practice is a methodology that blends all of the previously discussed methodologies (i.e., action research, narrative inquiry, autoethnography) together to examine the self-in-practice. 

This blog covers the fourth of the four practitioner research approaches we included in our book. I was introduced to self-study of practice during my PhD. My supervisor, Clare Kosnik, had been a member of the self-study of teacher education practice (S-STEP) group at the American Educational Research Association for many years and through my degree, I learned about the research she and others in the S-STEP group had conducted. The ways identity and practice were combined in self-study was appealing to me, as I had been struggling with new identities and new practices as I made the transition from PE teacher to teacher educator. Self-study provided a methodology to inquire into identity (or self) and practice in a way that was relevant to me but that might also be interesting to others if I shared what I had learned.  

What is self-study of practice and how is it different to action research, narrative inquiry, and autoethnography? 

Self-study of practice is a methodology that helps practitioners unpack and more deeply understand the complexities and problematic nature of professional practice, particularly in teaching and teacher education. Like autoethnography there is a focus on self, and like action research there is a focus on practice. However, self-study requires that practitioner researchers examine practice in a way that privileges the self, and considers how one’s identities shape the practices we engage in. S-STEP has been identified as a particularly powerful way to help teacher educators (i.e., those who teach teachers) develop personal pedagogies of teacher education. It is very helpful in examining the ways our beliefs about teaching and our teaching actions align or misalign. Much of the self-study research conducted to date explores the challenges of explaining the reasons why people teach teachers the ways they do, and to reveal the uncertainties, doubts, and frustrations that are inherent in teaching practice. As many teachers will tell you, they know more than they can say (this is called “tacit knowledge”) and S-STEP is particularly helpful in helping practitioners identify and explain their tacit knowledge so that others might learn from it. Although to date most of the self-study research base is in teaching and teacher education, there seems to be a high degree of overlap in its potential for those involved in coaching and coach education.

LaBoskey (2004) suggests that self-study of practice research has the following characteristics: 

(1) it is self-initiated and self-oriented – the practitioner decides upon the focus of the inquiry; 

(2) it is aimed toward improvement, not just in practice but in understanding practice; 

(3) it is interactive and involves others – critical friends, colleagues, students. The self is best understood in relation to others; 

(4) it involves multiple data sources, and; 

(5) self-study work is provisionally validated when others in similar positions find resonance in the work and it can be deemed as an authentic and trustworthy account.

So why would you consider doing self-study of practice research?

Self-study begins with the premise that those who best know about practice are those engaged in practice themselves. It provides practitioner researchers with a framework to explore the questions and problems of practice they have identified – not administrators or policy officials.

Through self-study practitioner researchers can explain their situations, their contexts, and how examination of their own practice in those contexts has led to insights about the complex nature of teaching (or coaching). Importantly, self-study of practice should not be seen as a means for self-justification. While success should be celebrated, there is a commitment to making yourself vulnerable and showing those moments of struggle and confusion. Self-study researchers also commit to sharing the insights and understandings they have reached with others, through blogs, conferences, department meetings, or professional and/or academic journals. 

How has self-study of practice been used in physical education and youth sport?

Karl Attard (Attard, 2008; Attard & Armour, 2005; 2006) conducted his self-study of practice research while working as a physical education teacher and graduate student in Malta. A main focus of his research was being attentive to the challenges of implementing a new syllabus while engaging in collaborative professional learning with colleagues (Attard & Armour, 2005). 


Casey and Fletcher (2012) examined the challenges they faced in making transitions from physical education teachers to teacher educators, noting difficulties in adapting practices perceived as being successful in schools to practices that are appropriate for pre-service teachers’ learning. 


Richards and Ressler (2016) showed how self-study was able to help a new faculty member who did not have previous school teaching experience examine his assumptions and beliefs about teaching teachers, and navigate the diverse and sometimes competing roles in a new teaching position at a university.   


Ovens (2014) explored the problematic nature of peer teaching in teacher education, exposing the often unseen power dynamics amongst students within a class. 


Ní Chróinín, Fletcher and O’Sullivan (2015) examined the processes involved in teaching teachers how to promote meaningful experiences in physical education. Another pedagogical innovation that has been examined has been the challenges of teaching through a models-based approach in PETE (Fletcher and Casey, 2014). This study revealed a need for teacher educators to reframe parts of their school-based practices while also being willing to learn new practices they may not have employed if and when they were a school teacher.
Bowles (2016) used self-study of practice research to examine the challenges of implementing a game sense approach into his coaching of a women’s Gaelic football team. Such research shows the promise of self-study of practice for coaches, coach educators, and other professionals in physical education and sport-related fields.


Some authors have analysed the challenges in aligning their beliefs and actions in PETE. For example, Bruce (2013), Cameron (2014), and Flory and Walton-Fisette (2015) have examined the ways they enact pedagogies that promote social justice and critical pedagogies, noting students’ openness and resistance to such approaches, and the difficulties faced in translating personal beliefs into practices.


All examples of self-study of practice research – both in physical education/youth sport and in educational research more broadly – demonstrate a commitment to share the insights gained from the work, in order to spark debate amongst the relevant communities of practitioners whom the work is addressed to, enabling others to learn from it. As a member of the physical education community, I have learned a great deal through reading the research conducted by self-study of practice researchers, and have been able to apply some of their insights and understandings to how I think about and go about teaching physical education teachers. This says a great deal about the ways in which the practitioner researchers involved have provided rich descriptions of the contexts in which they work, and outlined the beliefs and assumptions brought to their inquiries. Moreover, it highlights the power of self-study of practice research in being able to reach beyond the individuals who conduct the research (i.e., avoiding “navel-gazing”) to generate important and insightful understanding of knowledge about professional practice.

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