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.