Making research relevant through an engagement of identities
Joanne Yoo, Don Carter and John Larkin
University of Technology Sydney,
This paper is based on a research project designed to cultivate teachers as creative writers and as teachers of creative and critical writing. The project involved both primary and secondary teachers from eight schools located in Sydney, Australia. It documents the evolution of an open-ended research project that aimed to accommodate the needs of external stakeholders, participating teachers, and project researchers. It describes the development of a 'professional learning community' formed between the researchers and participants who identified as creative teachers and writers. It also explores how the research project acts as an example of how knowledge production can develop communities of practice via on-going collaboration with stakeholders. The authors highlight the complexities of conducting open-ended research that meets the emergent needs of specific communities of practice.
The research project was initiated by the governing body of the four schools involved, the Catholic Education Office of Wollongong (CEO Wollongong), to investigate strategies to motivate students to write more regularly and in different forms, for different purposes and audiences. The CEO Wollongong had identified that students across this region were underperforming in the nation-wide literacy test, the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). They initiated this research project as a pilot study to improve student test results and expertise in writing.
The underlying tensions and complexities surrounding the CEO Wollongong's request became apparent at the initial meeting of the participating teachers and researchers. The teachers understood the value of improving literacy scores, but expressed frustration at the emphasis on testing at the local and systemic level, arguing that students first and foremost needed to become intrinsically motivated writers. They also argued that a focus on test-taking would minimise student agency and their critical and creative thinking capacities. Thus, in view of the perspectives of both the teachers and the CEO Wollongong, the researchers undertook a reflexive approach by depicting research, "as a process of becoming rather than an established truth" that interweaves different stories, identities and agendas (Orr & Bennett, 2009, p. 88). This paper sheds light on the reflexive process of inquiry through making visible one initiative that encompassed an "interactive and dialogical approach" between the researchers, research users and external stakeholders (Davis, Nutley & Walter, 2008, p. 190).
Although such approaches to educational research can powerfully engage local communities, researchers may favour scientific approaches that are easier to manage and control. Carspecken articulated the repercussions of opting for statistical research approaches by asking, "Why does the vast bulk of social research conducted, presented and published each year seem to solve few problems, generate little consensus, resolve few disputes?" (2005, p. 11) His comments drew attention to the apparent disconnect between research and practice (Bensimon, Polkinghorne, Bauman & Vallejo, 2004; McIntyre, 2005; Williams & Coles 2007). Bodone (2005) raised similar concerns by asking "... what difference does our research make and for whom?" and "... how is education as a whole different because of our work?" (p. 1) Further, Bodone regarded such questions as constituting an "unrelenting moral" concern that all researchers must examine for the benefit for participating communities (p. 273). This view resonates with criticism of educational research that has little impact in teacher practice and attitude. These conversations are pertinent to educational researchers who seek to conduct inquiry that positively transforms practice (Borko, 2004), while Cartwright and Hardie (2012) stressed the importance of researcher receptivity by stating that good answers are achieved by asking the 'right' questions.
In this paper we offer an account of how a teacher professional development initiative within the wider project addressed questions of impact between research and practice. It documents researcher accounts of 'constructing' an inquiry path to meet the needs of teachers who work within conflicting tensions surrounding effective pedagogy and performance goals. From the initial request to improve student writing outcomes on mandatory tests, the project evolved to help teachers engage in writing as a critical and creative process. The project was designed so that the teachers' experiences of learning and engaging in creative writing could inform their teaching practices. Teachers also engaged in action research so that they could evaluate and develop their teaching strategies. The initiative included 5 full day teacher creative writing and action research workshops that occurred over a year. Researchers took on a mixed methods approach to data collection via researcher reflections in a research journals, ethnographic observations and teacher and student interviews.
Research impact is generated by professional learning communities that enable knowledge production through on-going collaboration between all participants. Wenger (1998) adopted a social theory of learning approach to propose how learning takes place within practice, "[as] knowing involves primarily active participation in social communities" (p.10), in which a shared identity is formed through participating in a range of common practices (Locke, Whitehead, Dix & Cawkwell, 2011). Professional learning communities promote collaboration amongst teachers (Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace & Thomas, 2006); as teachers work together on common goals within these communities, they are given the space to reflect, critically analyse and evaluate their practices (Marzano, 2013). Wenger (1998) proposed that learning and identity formation took place in these communities in three main ways, including: the "mutual engagement of participants," the "negotiation of a joint enterprise" and the "development of shared repertoire" (pp.77-82). DuFour (2004) expanded on these dimensions by introducing six traits of successful professional learning communities: (1) a shared focus on learning; (2) collaborative relationships that are centred on common beliefs, values and vision, and engender mutual trust and respect; (3) mutual inquiry into effective practice (4) translating knowledge into practice; (5) maintaining a continuous cycle of improvement and development; and (6) tangible impacts on practice. Effective professional learning communities shift the focus from individual professionalism to collective professionalism, which enables practitioners to work collaboratively and interdependently rather than individually (Harris & Jones, 2010) to develop greater efŢcacy and quality practice (Kaasila & Lauriala, 2010).
Professional learning communities create an effective nexus between research and practice. They form 'partnerships' or 'networks' that enable different parties to have their own specialised stake in research and to offer unique perspectives to enrich inquiry (Edwards, Sebba & Rickinson, 2007). As these perspectives align, a shared understanding or 'common knowledge' is formed that enables these groups to work effectively together. Research consequently implies fluid knowledge exchanges, in which researchers form and manages relationships through establishing a common ground. Researchers demonstrate 'relational expertise,' as they understand, relate to and articulate their own views as they solve problems with participants (Edwards, Sebba & Rickinson, 2007). They invest their personal and professional identities into their inquiry. Bodone and Dalmau (2005) illustrated the engagement of identities by highlighting how researchers refer to the "I" as they describe their work; they propose that this 'I' demonstrates the researcher's role as a "person-in-action in the world" (p. 273). Bodone, Gudjonsdottir and Dalmau (2004) equally depicted research as an engagement of identities, stating, "... the personal/professional identity and actions of individuals is intrinsically bound to the creation and renewal of their practice". This re-conceptualisation relies on "holistic or organic interconnections between personal and professional identity, action and belief, and between individuals and collaborative action" (Bodone, Gudjonsdottir & Dalmau, 2004, p.746). The researcher as a 'person in action' within a specific context highlights the interpretive nature of inquiry, where researchers tune into what they value and can identify with. Research participants and users equally need to recognise the value of something before they incorporate it into their practice. These theoretical concepts are useful in framing the researchers' approach to the current project, which attempted to engage teachers and researchers through the common identity of teacher writer. It positions all participants as 'people in action', who are engaged in relevant and impactful research that deeply engages their identities and values.
The professional learning community established in this project was derived from the researchers' and participants shared identities as researchers and writers. To help teachers to reflect, question and to reinvent their identities as authentic teachers of writing, researchers sought to investigate their own writing practices. Cremlin and Oliver (2016) discussed the implications of teacher confidence by proposing that teachers "who perceived themselves as writers" are able to implement more engaging writing instruction, which in turn, "generate[s] increased enjoyment, motivation and tenacity among their students than non-writers" (p. 17). Researchers aimed to create professional learning spaces where teachers could personally engage in writing to develop their writer selves. Street and Stang (2009) similarly adopted Lave and Wenger's (1991) notion of professional learning communities to illustrate how discussing a teacher's "biography, self-confidence, and proficiency" with writing is the first step in generating supportive networks for teacher writers (p. 91). A professional learning community of teacher writers was consequently established to help teachers explore and develop their identities as writers to become effective writing instructors.
We anticipated that the teachers would be able to effectively implement these newly acquired creative writing strategies and skills into their practice through action research. Outside the workshops, the researchers conducted two sets of teacher and student interviews and classroom observations for each participating teacher. Altogether, 12 classroom observations, 11 teacher interviews and 56 student interviews were undertaken during the middle and end of the school year. This data was gathered to assess the effectiveness of the teacher professional development workshops and to explore its impact on classroom instruction.
This paper includes written reflections from two researchers and one writer in residence on the relevance of the project. The researcher and the writer in residence kept a research journal for the duration of the project. One question that they explored through their journals was how they came to be involved in the project. Teacher voices were included through researcher ethnographic observations drawn from the first workshop to illustrate teachers' hopes and aims. These multiple voices were incorporated to reveal how research is constructed by different stories and perspectives, "the multiplicity of perspectives and authorial voices ... to articulate different ways in which our research can be represented, interpreted and understood" (Orr & Bennett, 2009, p. 88). Our investigations subsequently embody an ethnographic element as we rely heavily on the researchers' close-up observations and personal experience of the research context. Ethnography is considered to be a highly effective way to understand communities of practice, as, "... fieldwork is one answer - some say the best - to the question of how the understanding of others, close or distant is achieved" (Van Maanen, 2011, p.2). The researchers closely observed how participating teachers responded to this teacher writing initiative to assess whether they were interested in developing their own writing skills to become better writing teachers. Guillon (2015) similarly argued that ethnographers are "witnesses ... who honor the people and places and things in our ethnographies" (p. 8). Ethnography enables the careful capturing of the voices and has therefore been used commonly in the education field for interpretative and qualitative research (Gilbert, 2001). Researchers can employ ethnographic approaches to take note of and to highlight the tensions surfacing in a professional development experience (Delamont & Atkinson, 1995). As a research methodology grounded in critical post-structuralism, ethnography encompasses factors such as subjectivity, emotionality, and verisimilitude, to account for the ambiguity, paradox and complexities surrounding research. The authors similarly attempted to interpret and attribute meaning to teacher actions and comments to explore teaching as a complex mixture of "tacit and intuit components of teacher cognitions [and emotions]" (Verloop, Van Driel & Meijer, 2001, p. 447).
The researchers likewise adopted an interpretivist research paradigm to honor the interests and needs of participating teachers. The research questions underpinning this study include:
Students in both the primary and secondary schools were not achieving in the area of writing. Discussions revealed that across the Wollongong and Campbelltown areas, students in both primary and secondary schools were not writing regularly and at a level of quality to achieve strong results in NAPLAN and the HSC ... Anecdotal evidence suggested that teachers were struggling to motivate students to write, particularly with regard to sustained writing and consequently, the quality of the writing was poor. (CI, 2015).The CI, however, saw this project as a unique opportunity to explore the recent implementation of the new English K-10 Syllabus, as very little research had been conducted with regard to its implementation. There was also a lack of teacher professional development related to implementing this new syllabus.
It was the first time an authentic continuum of learning from Kindergarten to Year 10 had been established, melding the two previously quite distinct educational dimensions of primary and junior secondary education. And for the first time in NSW curriculum history, content developed by another curriculum authority, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) was integrated into the new syllabus (CI, 2015).The CI's attempts to merge the project with requests to improve student writing were visible through his attempts to connect the project to syllabus writing outcomes; he observed,
In discussions with chief investigator 2 (CI2), we discussed possible research foci including concentrating on syllabus writing outcomes; teacher perceptions of their students' writing; challenges in implementing the syllabus with regard to writing" (CI, 2015).To narrow the scope of the project, the researchers also decided to target the new general capability in the Australian curriculum, Critical and creative thinking, and its higher order thinking skills of "reason, logic, resourcefulness, imagination and innovation" (ACARA, 2014, para.2), which had been integrated into the English K-10 Syllabus. Although this revised proposal was received "enthusiastically", the executive members of the CEO Wollongong believed it was more important to, "get students to write" to improve their writing outcomes. The researchers consequently redirected their focus to evidence-based pedagogical practices in improving student writing so that the project would have greater "benefit for participating schools" (CI, 2015).
Research was conducted into effective evidence-based practices in writing instruction. One of the most extensive studies involved the National Writing Project (NWP), which has been a highly successful model for improving student learning outcomes (Friedrich, Swain, LeMahieu, Fessehaie & Mieles, 2008). The NWP is a large scale project that improves student literacy skills by equipping teachers with better teaching and writing practices. It has accumulated over 200 professional development sites across the United States and has offered up to 8000 programs for 80,000-100,000 teachers (Friedrich, Swain, LeMahieu, Fessehaie & Mieles, 2008). The researchers modelled this initiative on NWP's premise of equipping teachers with effective writing skills to help them become better teachers of writing. It also adopted NWP's view that teachers are the key drivers of reform, and university partnerships are a way of delivering effective teacher professional development, because teachers can work collaboratively in communities to experience the diverse range of writing undertaken by students (National Writing Project, 2017). It shared NWP's view that informed and reflective communities of practice are the ideal environment for improving student writing outcomes (National Writing Project, 2017).
This particular direction of the project was consolidated through close observations of the first teacher writing workshop, which revealed how participating teachers desired to explore their writer identities. For example, when teachers were queried on their writing practice, a few disclosed that they kept a personal journal, although most regretfully admitted not writing due to the lack of time. Teacher aspirations to write were also evident as a few practitioners related to how they aspired to become authors. Participants revealed their desire to develop their writing skills by inquiring into the writing facilitator's practices as a professional author. Teachers also demonstrated levels of writing expertise by identifying the features of effective writing. One teacher talked about a student's ability to mix tense and voice as an indication of skill. These teacher comments were recorded in the researchers' reflective journals.
But you know you are dealing with a clever writer if they can do it, it makes for a dynamic piece of work, I think as English teachers we pick this up "oh, that was clever," it is a reading point to writing, they are masters at what they do, it is mastery of the word (Teacher A).Through identifying themselves as writers, teachers and learners, participants disclosed their high regard for the teaching, writing and learning process, perceiving both as inherently valuable aesthetic and meaning making acts.
Teacher C - This project is so important! As teachers we continually want to improve our practices to do what is best for our students.The researchers encouraged such discussions about participants' perspectives on "truth and worth" to increase teacher commitment and involvement (CI2, 2015). This was reflected in observations of the first workshop, "We talk about the evolution of the project and how the pieces fell into place. I am hoping it will help teachers to take greater ownership of it" (Observations of workshop 1, 2015). As participants and facilitators identified themselves as teachers and writers, they were able to form a strong sense of community. Both researchers and teachers perceived teaching and writing as intrinsically enjoyable acts that they embraced for its inherent meaning. CI2 mentioned how identifying as a writer deepened her engagement in the project, as she stated, "In some ways I felt that fate also led me to this project, as its ideas fit into how I currently perceived myself as a teacher who writes, or a writer who teaches" (CI2, 2015). This self-identification as a writer was strongly conveyed by John Larkin, the writer in residence, who saw writing as one of the most significant 21st century skills, as he noted,
Author shows a slide with a quote that says writing involves "Fill[ing] your paper with the breathings of your heart." He then asks, "do we write for the money?"
Teacher D - It is the same for teaching!
Teacher A - Isn't it for the same for all artists, actors, craftsman? You do it to create meaning and beauty.
As a society we communicate through the written word more now than we have at any time in our history ... writing isn't just one of those most important skills that we need to teach students, but THE most important!" (John Larkin, 2015).
I have toyed with the idea of putting together one-day sessions that I could offer as PD days for teachers, but have always baulked at the idea fearing that such an endeavour without the legitimacy of a university or BOSTES [Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards, replaced by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) on 1 January 2017] behind me, might be dismissed as a money making scheme, or that I might lack the appropriate credentials or qualifications to have such a course recognised as an accredited PD day. It was, however, at one such workshop (admittedly for students) that I met CI2 and the legitimacy that I had always wanted, but never actively sought, was offered to me through this project (John Larkin, 2015).Through combining areas of expertise through collaboration, the researchers attempted to maximise the impact of their work.
As a rule, writers and academics tend to be a little wary of one another. We writers generally feel that academics have a tendency towards being overly theoretical and analytical Đ if we deconstruct a snowflake doesn't it lose its beauty and cease to be a snowflake in the process? While academics are widely of the opinion that fiction writers just make stuff up as we go along largely to avoid footnoting (John Larkin, 2015).John also spoke about the status quo and the legitimacy attributed to different groups in society when referring to "appropriate credentials or qualification".
Since the publication of my first novel in 1993, I have wandered the country in the manner of an itinerant farmhand conducting talks and workshops at various schools, universities, colleges and so forth. (John Larkin, 2015).John was able to reconcile this tension between academics and writers through establishing a relationship built on trust, solidarity and shared vision with the researchers. Through participating as equal partners within a community of practice that aimed to cultivate teachers as writers, the divide between academics and writers could be bridged.
However, having worked with CI and CI2 on this project, I have been forced (on behalf of all writers) to re-evaluate our prejudice. We bounce around ideas like a pinball and as a team we work as equals with the intention of generating the best outcome for the participants of this project; namely to not just assist the teachers in their goal to become better teachers of writing, but to assist them to become writers themselves (John Larkin, 2015).John's comment highlighted how professional relationships have been complicated by stereotypes and perceptions of privilege. He articulated the importance of mutual awareness, respect and equal partnership for effective collaboration, which lie at the heart of effective professional learning communities.
|Would you call yourself a keen reader?||Yes||No|
|Round 1 (May to Aug, before implementation)||18||13|
|Round 2 (Nov to Dec, after implementation)||20||3|
|Would you call yourself a keen writer?||Yes||No|
|Round 1 (May to Aug, before implementation)||19||12|
|Round 2 (Nov to Dec, after implementation)||24||0|
The researcher also asked follow up questions to students about their writing skills:
Students were also able to think critically about the connections between reading and writing. Student comments on the connections between both processes included statements such as, "Writing leads to reading and then more writing," "I get ideas from my reading about how the characters feel. It helps to compare with the character I am writing about" and "I think more carefully about my writing when I'm reading now." These responses indicated that the teachers demonstrated positive changes in practice that led to improved student outcomes in creative and critical writing.
This initiative depicts how effective knowledge exchange involves different groups working together on shared goals, in a flexible and developing relationship. It adds to the discussion on research impact by arguing that effective knowledge exchange can be more critically understood through developing communities of practice. The community formed in this study involves engaging teachers in the joint enterprise of developing their teacher writer identities. As the project aimed to develop teacher writing skills, it became evident that teachers who identified as writers could effectively engage in the initiative. Research concerning the National Writing Project (2017) documented similar findings which illustrated how as teachers became writers, their attitudes to and practices in the teaching of writing changed, which then led to improvements in student writing (Whitney, 2008; Whitney, 2009; Carruthers & Scanlan, 1990). Although the focus became the teachers rather than the students, the researchers felt the beneficiaries of teacher learning would ultimately be their students. This was found to be the case for this study as the positivity of students' attitudes to reading and writing increased significantly towards the conclusion of the project.
This process of knowledge exchange was further illustrated through the analogy of a puzzle, where each participating group contributed a missing piece. The puzzle analogy highlighted how different stakeholders engaged in meaningful knowledge exchange by offering relevant and required input. In other words, researchers and research participants contributed their unique expertise and skill-sets within a mutually reciprocated transaction. All groups were able to have their identities, values and sense of being affirmed through purposefully connecting with others in a professional learning community. As the pieces of the puzzle fit together, the stakeholders could derive a sense of legitimacy and affirmation that strengthened their professional identity as writers and teachers of writing.
A final issue relating to knowledge exchange was the possibility for unequal distributions of power between the researchers and participants. The researchers aimed to mitigate possible inequities by empowering teachers to research their own practice. Action research has accordingly been defined as an emancipatory methodology that involves, "developing practical knowledge in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes" (Reason & Bradbury, 2001, p.1), where research users are able to directly address problems that arise within their immediate contexts (Grogan, Donaldson & Simmons, 2007; Hemsley-Brown & Sharp, 2003; Martinovic, et al., 2012). Concerns about power inequalities were raised by John, who drew attention to the possible tension between writers and academics. These concerns affirm the need for researchers to identify and scrutinise their own positionality as research involves a "slanted playing field" that attributes greater power to certain groups (McCorkel & Myers, 2003, p. 199). Different professionals who jointly undertake research may similarly find themselves bound by "master narratives" that are generated by dominant groups to benefit their own interests. McCorkel and Myers (2003) relayed how through greater transparency about these narratives, researchers can develop relationships based on respect, "The substantive relations between the knower and the known mediate the relationship between the knower's standpoint and the production of knowledge" (p. 221). The authors propose that the affirmation of one's identities as writers engenders a mutual understanding and respect that can mitigate the power imbalances of the status quo.
We also found this to be the case within this study, as we had to mediate between external stakeholders, participants and amongst ourselves to create the project plan. However, in order to create a clear project trajectory, we found ourselves relying on the research undertaken by highly successful projects, such as the National Writing Project. As a result, we planned our professional development approach according to key principles of the NWP to allow teachers "to write and to examine theory, research, and practice together systematically... [within a] reflective and informed community of practice" (National Writing Project, 2017, para. 14). Our experiences validate NWP's claims that there have been significant improvements in the writing of students whose teachers have participated in NWP's professional development programs.
Some limitations of this study are related to structural support provided to participants. As the study consisted of a pilot project involving a small number of participants, it was difficult to generate support on a structural level to support the participating teachers. Although the teachers were given time to attend the professional development workshops, they were not allotted further time to invest in their learning and to explore and implement different creative writing strategies or to work on their creative writing responses. This affirms the beliefs that schools themselves need to take ownership over teacher professional development initiatives to ensure their success, as schools need to "seamlessly link curriculum, assessment, standards, and professional learning opportunities" (Darling-Hammond & Richardson, 2009, p. 47).
A final implication is the need to engage in open-ended research that evolves to meet the needs of all stakeholders despite the difficulties involved (Walter, Davis & Nutley, 2003). In addition to the lack of immediate, quantifiable changes in practice, the outcomes of an open-ended inquiry may not even address the initial questions it sought out to solve (Bodone, 2005). However, rather than dismissing interpretive research as being too difficult and messy, researchers need to value research that "enables/prompts unexpected processes of transformation for the people involved and/or the phenomena observed", and provokes dialogue and reflexivity to create a "point of transformation and an opportunity to re-vision and renew our work" (Bodone, 2005, p. 274).
One possible direction for future research would be to use multiple data collection methods and approaches to assess the outcomes of an open-ended research project. Such steps would enable researchers to assess the effectiveness of their inquiry despite having cast their nets wide to accommodate the needs of various stakeholders. Finally, Walter, Davis and Nutley (2003) proposed that effective partnerships promote ownership and uptake as participants are more likely to incorporate research findings that they meaningfully connect with. In discussions about research impact, researchers need to accordingly consider ways to help stakeholders ask and answer questions about meaning and worth, to begin the process of re-imagining and revitalising practice (Bodone & Dalmau, 2005).
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|Authors: Dr Joanne Yoo is currently a lecturer in the School of Education at the Australian Catholic University, Strathfield Campus. Joanne's research interests include collaborative teaching partnerships, teaching as an embodied practice, action research and arts-based research methodologies, such as narrative inquiry and autoethnography.|
Dr Don Carter is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Technology, Sydney. Don's research interests include curriculum histories, curriculum design, the influence of Romanticism on curriculum design and pedagogical practice, literacy development and writing as creative practice.
John Larkin is an award winning author, teacher and a writer in residence at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Please cite as: Yoo, J., Carter, D. & Larkin, J. (2017). Making research relevant through an engagement of identities. Issues in Educational Research, 27(2), 381-398. http://www.iier.org.au/iier27/yoo.html