Research in Practice Seminar Edmonton, October 24th to 26th

Exploring Tensions and Possibilities for Research in Practice: Notes towards a presentation!

Jenny Horsman

1. Introduction/background

I want to raise a series of very basic questions... to prompt our discussion

I will illustrate them (not answer them!) from some of my experience in research

I hope to invite others to engage with the questions from their own experience

My experience includes:
Many years in the Toronto based, Participatory Research Group
Involvement in the beginning couple of years of the Ontario Field Research Group
Involvement in some fashion - advisory committee etc. with a variety of types of research projects....
Right now I'm doing research under the umbrella of CCLOW (Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women)....

I often think of myself as "living" in the divide between university and practice, not quite in either camp:
I did university-based research as a student and teach occasional university courses

I also ran a program in West Africa, have done stints in programs in Canada, do a variety of "practice" based contracts

I have a bias towards bridging and narrowing the gap between the two areas!

2. Controlling research?

Who controls the money
Who controls the knowledge 
who gets it/gets to use it
What or whose knowledge counts?

Important questions about control...

I see practitioner research as part of a tradition of critique of academic research, (or some forms of academic research).

I notice we have quite a range of names for this research or "inquiry" we are talking about and wonder how important that is - eg. Is there a difference between programbased research and practitioner research?

I have a concern that research by practitioners - could be just research on the cheap or are we talking about "control" based in programs, of all research, and seeing the program as a place of "knowing" from which to critique university research as well as carry out research?

In the early days the Ontario group talked about "program-based" research and were definitely interested in issues of control:

Toronto practitioner position paper (from 1989),

not just about doing research but definitely about control - claiming knowledge about questions, and appropriate processes, and wanting control over the money!

That statement was in the first document put out by the Ontario-wide group (although mainly at that point Ottawa/Toronto group) - Exploring CommunityBased Literacy Research (Horsman, 1989)

Tension of value of insider knowledge versus outsider knowledge

value of insider - but possible limit tends to be questioning from within the frame value of distance - can ask new questions, questions from outside the frame, but possible limit can not seem useful eg. Kathleen Rockhill's (eg.1987a, 1987b, 1993) may not seem immediately useful by programs, would not be done by insider, but it is crucial research because it challenges the frame, so it should have broad impact on practice...

In "Exploring Community-Based Research" collection (I put it together with help from the rest of the group) - we explicitly positioned program-based research as part of alternative paradigms for research, approaches "own" research, and critiques of who gets access, whose knowledge counts:

- focussed on participatory research,
- and action research
- and we took the definition: "systematic collection and analysis of information on a particular topic for the purpose of informing political action and social change" (Barnsley and Ellis, 1987)
-stress choice of research approach, not just question of methodology, but also of political choice - "pr is not a method but a political approach of involving the exploited and the poor in the analysis of their own reality" research process "involve the community in the entire research project" (Hall, Gillette & Tandon, 1982) - pr - an educational process which leads to action...

- Research method will reflect "whose side on" no research neutral... (Maguire, 1987)

My experience of participatory Research and participatory evaluation - not that simple, complicated all the different people might share control, their different agendas etc.

Tension potential for practitioner to be radical, explore knowledge from insider location (although which insiders), but also tendency to be fears about how to "do it right" lead to traditional methods of research.

In England, also tensions about what research counts and the value of practitioner research:

Questions about whether practitioner research is a different creature from other research, tension want to recognize ways it is "different" (though different from what - the academic research is also not monolithic) but if it is different, then does it become not the "real thing" or lesser than the real thing and there is always that problem of who gets the money...?

She goes on to talk about the beginnings of RaPAL (a research and practice network in England)- In 1989 I interviewed David Barton - his account of focus of joint gatherings:

- lack of communication - practitioners don't know what research is being done,
- tension, suspicion about university - research not relevant, "wrong" sort of research

Practitioner and teacher research as a challenge to what counts as knowledge,

- U.S. (from the university) Inquiry-based research:

Lytle approach that ignoring teacher research relegates their knowledge to "less than": - again that tension about practitioners not valuing university research and university researchers not valuing the knowledge of practitioners...

Value as staff development, but also clear political stance about who has knowledge...
In the U.S. Literacy South making claims for research as "staff development" and participatory education...

Within this approach hope that all meet each other as knowers and co-constructors of knowledge, implication if model a shift from top down knowledge - from university to teacher, will also help teachers to shift from top down - teacher to student....

Attempts to "collaborate" - can become fraught by power imbalances - resource imbalances... universities, v. community programs...
But also important not to exaggerate divide - there are cross fertilizations, practitioners become university students, people who cross divide university and practice..

research itself a literacy practice - like other literacy practices need to be examined in context..

if can hear each other - needs material possibilities for that, and respect....

Or will centre of what research counts remain same, while the alternatives remain in the margins....?

3. Learning how to do research?
What is research?
What counts as research?

Questions about whose knowledge counts when think about learning how to do research.
Questions about who is the expert, and who needs to learn what from whom. Research as what practitioners already do or something new and different.

For example: ProgramBased Research Special Interest Group manual (Seek, Gather and Process),

Kirby and McKenna - Experience, Research, Social Change: Methods from the Margins... Tension how to learn how to do research, without sliding into "expert" model, and/or without oversimplifying, losing political dimension of choices...
- tensions in that Ontario group (in the early days) RaPAL newsletter showed similar tensions in England: But tension about "real" knowledge - Ontario accounts (1993 Occasional papers) Collaboration as way to share knowledge - not expert teaching the non-knower...

Literacy South

Collaborative at its best like participatory education: Challenge to hold that respect across the hierarchies in society...

4. Making it possible to do research?
What is needed - time/money/ongoing support and/or communication?

Looking at ways to creating "spaces" for practitionerresearch

Early stages of Ontario network:

Great ideals, but I'm not sure how much we did - we needed funding, practical possibilities for research, to move forward...

"Capturing the Moments" (another Ontario document from the research group) talked about the problem of lack of "skills and confidence" - "confidence - product of encouragement, and support as well as interest and personality"

I think that confidence may be less important than the material needs - money/time/energy... Capturing the Moments also says: practitioners "stressed to their limit" and lack of "time or incentive to pursue research" I think those factors are crucial.

Few people will be able to research, or even read about university or practitioner research, if no conditions to make it possible...

But I think a wide variety of models could make that "space":

CCLOW projects, (Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women)

MTML literacy workers course or type of course, (Metro Toronto Movement for Literacy) Sabbaticals Creating a Literacy Centre 5. Communicating research?
What is needed to bring theory and practice together?

Possibilities for "spaces" to communicate processes and results of research, but also need ÒspaceÓ for people to read, think, make changes and engage in further research....

Engage in discourse where chance to communicate back and forwards between practitioners and academics...

Some examples that have been interesting:

Woman's Studies special issue on literacy, committee practitioners and academics, solicited strong articles both sides of divide...


Australian Journal, Publications of organizations like Literacy South, University of Pennsylvania - reports of specific projects


Canadian Journal 6. Concluding!

Final thoughts about: communication, collaboration, respect for different knowledges, bridging gulf between research and practice, strengthening research, strengthening practice....

Material conditions to make it possible are crucial

Need to develop discourses which allow us to communicate across the divides

Also need material structures which can reach across the divide between academy and practice

Always need vigilance to notice the way inequalities and hierarchies distort the discourses, exclude and silence and give only some, access to the structures....

Jean-Paul Hautecouer has talked about the shift to more technical literacy, less interest in ÒempoweringÓ literacy and feared that research will shift in the same direction.

I hope he is wrong, and that there will be the creation of many "spaces" for wide variety of types of research and dialogue between those different versions.


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Alkenbrack et al. (1989). Position Paper on Federal Funding for Literacy Research. In Horsman, (Ed.) Exploring Community-Based Literacy Research. Toronto: Community and Workplace Literacy Unit, Ministry of Education, Ontario. (Validation Draft)

Barnsley and Ellis. (1987). Action Research for Women's Groups. Vancouver: WomenÕs Research Centre.

Henbest, B. & VanderMarel, M. (1997). Capturing the Moments. Program-Based Research in Ontario Literacy Practice. Discussion Paper of the Literacy Field Research Group A Working Group of the OLC, April.

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