ERIC Identifier: ED372663
Publication Date: 1994-07-00
Author: Drennon, Cassie
Source: Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Adult Literacy Practitioners as Researchers. ERIC Digest.
In adult English as a second language (ESL) literacy education and staff
development, practitioner inquiry has emerged as a powerful approach toward
improving practice. A variety of activities occurs under the umbrella of
practitioner inquiry, all of which are grounded in the knowledge and questions
held by practitioners (Fingeret and Cockley, 1992). Its characteristics
intersect with those of other adult education concepts such as self-directed
learning, reflective practice, learner-centeredness, and action research. Lytle,
Belzer, and Reumann (1992, p.16) define inquiry as a "social and collaborative
process" through which practitioners actually contribute new knowledge within
programs and even to the larger adult education field.
This digest examines thinking that underlies practitioner inquiry, explains
the phases of an inquiry process, and gives examples of projects. It concludes
by identifying concerns with the approach and by suggesting changes that must
take place if inquiry is to be viably implemented as a staff development
SOME UNDERLYING ASSUMPTIONS
Having traveled a long,
circuitous path through the social sciences and K-12 education (see Holly, 1991
for an historical overview), practitioner inquiry has arrived relatively
recently on the adult basic education (ABE) and ESL scenes. Proponents of
practitioner inquiry in all fields of education tend to share the following
* The knowledge transmission model of staff development is insufficient.
Although traditional workshops expose participants to new ideas and may renew
enthusiasm for teaching, "there is little evidence that this approach works well
and more reason to believe that it seldom leads to noticeable improvement or
change in professional practice" (Osterman & Kottkamp, 1993, p. 33).
* Staff development should be consistent with what we know from cognitive
science (Fingeret & Cockley, 1992); "Knowledge is useful only in so far as
it enables persons to make sense of experience. It is gained from the "inside"
(Berlak & Berlak, 1981, cited in Osterman & Kottkamp, 1993, p.37).
* The voices of practitioners have been largely absent from the field of
adult literacy education research, yet practitioners are uniquely positioned to
provide an inside view of practice in adult literacy education (Lytle, Belzer,
& Reumann, 1993).
THE PROCESS OF INQUIRY
A first step for those interested in
inquiry might be to link with or establish a network among colleagues who share
this vision. Inquiry can occur collaboratively between university and field
practitioners or between practitioners and students. The participants in an
inquiry project engage in the following activities:
on practice and identifying a problem, issue, question, or concern;
information through observation; study groups; interviews; study of records,
including student work; test scores; lesson plans; case studies; video and audio
recordings of classroom life; professional reading; workshops and conferences;
the information gathered--analyzing, interpreting or critiquing the information;
some action to be taken such as a new approach, strategy, or other intervention;
the action plan;
and evaluating the changes that occur and judging the quality of the changes;
what has been learned through informal sessions with colleagues, facilitating
workshops, or writing and publishing.
The process described here is action-oriented; that is, it is expected that
some changes will be implemented as a result of the reflection and study.
However, inquiry can occur without initiating specific changes; rather, it might
involve examining present circumstances, exploring ideas, or developing one's
own theory. Lytle, Belzer, and Reumann (1993) add that practitioner inquiry is
not field-testing the ideas of others, nor is it simply implementing a new
strategy that one is already convinced will work. Instead it is a process of
generating ideas through reflection and examination of practice, and exploring
the implications of those ideas within the practitioner's setting. Cockley
(1993) provides a useful resource for practitioners interested in starting an
PRACTITIONER INQUIRY IN ACTION
A number of practitioner
inquiry communities is developing around the nation. For example, Virginia
adopted an inquiry-based staff development system for adult educators in 1993.
Throughout the state, groups of practitioners develop inquiry projects with the
guidance of locally trained staff development facilitators. The Virginia Adult
Educators' Research Network promotes and supports inquiry by organizing study
groups; by training practitioners to review literature, conduct interviews, or
analyze data; and by publishing practitioner research reports. Hundreds of
practitioners in Virginia are exploring a broad range of questions such as "What
are the factors that contribute to social bonding among ESL students, and what
is the relationship between social bonding and student retention?" and "What
happens when I use dialogue journals with inmates in my detention center
In Rhode Island, a group of ESL teachers was dissatisfied with tests
available to measure learner progress. They initiated an action research process
to address, among other things, ways to help learners see their own gains in
literacy (Isserlis, 1990). Their research efforts resulted in the development of
an evaluation grid through which learning and change can be meaningfully gauged.
In Philadelphia, practitioners from a number of adult literacy agencies are
participating in the Adult Literacy Practitioner Inquiry Project (ALPIP). As a
field/university community of practitioner-researchers, the group's purpose is
to simultaneously implement and investigate inquiry-based staff development
(Lytle, Belzer, & Reumann, 1993). During biweekly seminars, teachers,
volunteers, and administrators discuss adult literacy education research as it
relates to their own inquiry projects. Some research questions being pursued
through the ALPIP project are, "What happens when I facilitate collaborative
writing workshops in my classroom?" and "What happens when I use African
American literature rather than life skills or job-related reading materials to
teach various concepts?"
CHALLENGES TO INQUIRY
A number of practical concerns have
been cited by practitioners implementing inquiry-based approaches. They include:
we speak of inquiry as an activity embedded in, rather than added on to
practice, many claim that time must be built into practitioners' schedules if
they are to engage in reflection, meet with colleagues, study the literature and
research of the field, analyze data, and document classroom activity.
Historically, teaching has been conducted largely in private. If practitioners
are to be expected to make public the problematic aspects of their work lives,
the culture of the education programs must change to invite greater levels of
trust among teachers and between teachers and administrators.
inquiry is to inspire program-level innovation, support for the process and its
outcomes must be clearly articulated and sustained by program administrators.
Support includes not only exhibiting genuine interest and providing ongoing
encouragement, but also being willing to adopt new ideas.
practitioners enter into the inquiry process with great expectations for
bringing about significant, often long-awaited changes only to find that
policies in the larger system constrain particular innovations. (Testing and
assessment is one such area.) If practitioner inquiry does not provide an
impetus for policy-level changes, it may serve to further discourage some
already disenfranchised workers.
THE PROMISE OF PRACTITIONER INQUIRY
has significant positive benefits that make it worthwhile to take on the
challenges it poses. For example, Goswami and Stillman (1987) describe what
happens to teachers when they conduct research:
teaching is transformed in important ways: They become theorists--articulating
their intentions, testing their assumptions, and connecting theory with
increase their use of resources, form networks, and become more active
become rich resources for the profession by providing information not previously
become critical, responsive readers and users of current research, less apt to
accept uncritically others' theories, less vulnerable to fads, and more
authoritative in their assessment of curricula, methods, and materials.
collaborate with their students to answer questions important to both teachers
and students, drawing on community resources in new and unexpected ways.
Practitioner inquiry does not replace traditional staff development methods.
However, it requires participants to interact in nontraditional ways with
knowledge, resources, colleagues and programs (Drennon, 1993). Fitting inquiry
into "existing" staff development structures is problematic. Educational work
environments will have to be redesigned to accommodate the kinds of
collaboration and collegiality that an inquiry approach demands. Further, the
culture of the education workplace must adopt a stance that legitimizes
practitioners as both researchers AND reformers. In short, successful
implementation within systems requires commitment on the part of all
stakeholders to a set of values and beliefs honoring the vitality of
practitioners as knowledge makers within the system.
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Education,11 (3)," 298-324.
Cockley, S. (1993. "The Adult Educator's Guide to Practitioner Research."
Dayton, VA: The Virginia Adult Educators Research Network.
Drennon, C. (1993). "Inquiry and action: A plan for adult education
professional development in Virginia." Richmond: Adult Education Centers for
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of ABE staff development in Virginia." Dayton: The Virginia Adult Educators
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Goswami, D. & Stillman, P. (1987). "Reclaiming the Classroom: Teacher
Research as an Agency for Change." Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook. (ED 277
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Development for Education in the 90's" (pp. 133-157). New York: Teachers College
Isserlis, J. (1990). Using action research for ESL literacy evaluation and
assessment. "TESL Talk 20(1)," 305-316.
Lytle, S. L., Belzer, A., & Reumann, R. (1992). "Invitations to inquiry:
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Lytle, S. L., Belzer, A., & Reumann, R. (1993). "Initiating practitioner
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Osterman, K. F., & Kottkamp, R. B. (1993). "Reflective Practice for
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