Practitioner Research in a Time of Triple Crisis: When Too Much is Not Enough

By Lonnie Rowell

Practitioner Research in a Time of Triple Crisis: When Too Much is Not Enough

We are living in terribly perilous times. And the stress of it all showers down on us daily. In its August 25 weekly online Education Briefing, The New York Times proclaimed “A bumpy fall semester.”[i]  The article focuses on the impact of current COVID anxieties and the political divides associated with determining how best to respond to COVID and school reopenings and address policies related to racism and other critical issues. Yet, this is but one part of the perils that grip us.

At present we are embroiled in a period of Triple Crises, with a global pandemic, a burning planet, and a menacing turn towards authoritarianism and away from democracy marking the boundaries of our daily lives. Interwoven with each of these crises are challenges related to the production and dissemination of knowledge regarding how best to respond. That’s what I want to address in this blog post along with what all this has to do with practitioner research.

What is practitioner research and why is it relevant to the present crises? According to one source, “practitioner research involves one or more people who are both practitioners (e.g., Teachers) and are researching that practice. Unlike some other forms of research, practitioner research is intended to solve problems and enhance practice (rather than developing theory for example).”[ii]  Practitioner research can take many forms including action research, and some authors use the terms action research and practitioner research interchangeably. As users of Social Publishers Foundation (SPF) Knowledgebase are aware, the Foundation’s purpose is to support the development of practitioner research and help disseminate the results of practitioner research carried out in a variety of social domains including education, community-based participatory initiatives, social work and social services, and wellness and health care. For SPF, practitioner research is a vital element in the search for creative solutions to problems of everyday living and the strengthening of practices that serve individuals and communities in relation to diverse needs and aspirations.  

Practitioner research occupies a social, intellectual, and political space that is both supportive of the role of science in society and opposed to knowledge monopolies that squeeze out diverse voices and forms of knowing and arrogantly elevate the proclamations of experts. In this sense, the current wary and at times intensely conflictual relationship between science and practice is a critical factor in the relevance of practitioner research to our times. In education, for example, by the first decade of the 21st century, one prominent scholar concluded that “although it has been assumed that educational research and practice should be intimately tied together, research and practice seem to be more disconnected and alienated from each other than ever before.”[iii]  From the perspective of practitioners, much of the knowledge produced by formal researchers is “illusive, annoyingly abstract, or too theoretical”[iv]  In the course of many practitioners’ careers, a sense of distrust of the capacity of ‘experts’ (e.g., academic researchers), to contribute valuable knowledge regarding what works in the field begins to accumulate. For example, at a reunion with a former close high-school friend we compared our careers, with each of us having been in education for 25+ years – he as a K-12 special education teacher and I as a counselor educator in higher education. He wanted to be sure and remind me that my Ph.D. really stood for ‘pile it higher and deeper’ as my scholarly pursuits and publishing did not reflect any real understanding of ‘what is going on in education.’ The exchange was in good humor, but the message was clear – whatever I might have to say about K-12 education was suspect.

In health care we are by now all too familiar with the tensions and conflicts between practice and science. Much media attention has been given of late to the dangers of the anti-science orientation, but there is ample evidence that this orientation is not going away any time soon. An August 29 online news item, for example, reports on the death of a prominent anti-mask ‘Freedom Defender’ in Texas. Of the 30-year old father of three young children, his wife asserted that “he was so hard-headed . . . he didn’t want to see a doctor, because he didn’t want to be part of the statistics with COVID tests.”[v]  In her husband’s view, 2020 had been “one of the worst years for America.” Yet it seems clear that he held at a minimum a very conflicted view of how facts might enter into developing an understanding of either what was creating this ‘worst year’ or what sound social solutions might be applied to making things better. He wrote on his Facebook page, “Show me the science that masks work . . . Show me the evidence that school closures work. Show me the evidence that lock-downs work.” In other words, he did not believe that there was any to show him. Part of the tragedy here, of course, is that such evidence does exist; yet in the face of his challenge to show him evidence, one wonders how, if at all, any evidence could have been shared with Caleb Wallace to change his stance before it was too late.

In a larger picture, historian Michael Kazin has cautioned that the insurgent right-wing populism widely and deeply evident in the U.S. for the past 6+ years reflects a sense of abandonment among many less-privileged folks. Their feeling is that the mass culture that fills their TVs on a daily basis recognizes and rewards only the moneyed, the cosmopolitan, and the racially diverse and that the formal political culture either ignores or patronizes them.[vi]  The crass, inane, and infantilizing marketing stratum of corporate capitalist consumerism may still titillate their senses and ignite a desire to ‘buy, buy, buy’, but there is a nagging sense that they cannot own the biggest toys or purchase the finest services, or enjoy the elite luxuries that they perceive outside of their reach. In other words, the deck is stacked against them and they resent it.

Complicating matters politically, for many citizens the perception of the embrace of diversity by the elites has fueled their turn to authoritarianism and in particular white nationalism. Thus, although experts such as astrophysicist, author, and popular commentator Neill deGrasse Tyson may proclaim that America’s growing rejection of science is “the beginning of the end of an informed democracy,”[vii] it is not an ‘informed’ democracy that holds the interest of Right Wing authoritarian populism. Thus, as we saw on January 6, inflaming authoritarian passions mattered more than the counting of votes associated with political science in a democracy. In other words, the discrediting of science is part and parcel of the suspicion and hostility directed towards an array of elites, including mainstream politics, the media, higher education, and established institutions of all kinds. In this sense, it was not ‘evidence’ that Caleb Wallace needed regarding the use of masks but a restoration of trust in civil society and in established processes for seeking solutions to the pandemic. Ultimately, he had neither in forms he could embrace, and his quite avoidable passing is now a tragedy to be borne by his young widow and their three children.

So, how does practitioner research begin to speak to any of this? I believe that the democratization of knowledge production and dissemination, as challenging and complex an undertaking as there can be, is the path forward. Practitioner research is, in my view, an essential component in knowledge democratization. It can serve us well in two ways initially. First, given that it is conducted ‘closer to the ground’ with the intention of solving practical problems and enhancing practices to benefit local populations, it has a better chance of making a case for shared and equitable benefits. To demonstrate this capacity practitioner research needs to be visible in both operation and dissemination. In other words, while academic researchers may labor stressfully under a mandate of ‘publish or perish’, practitioner researchers can rally publicly around ‘publish to share improvements’ or ‘publish to strengthen practice.’ This is a more practical orientation that can be mobilized to demonstrate to local communities that research is taking place for their benefit.

In a larger sense, the benefits of democratizing knowledge production are much more readily at hand in relation to practitioner research. As writer, educator, conservationist, and activist, Terry Tempest Williams puts it, “when minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech.”[viii] To the extent that practitioner research demonstrates its practical and localized intent, there is a greater chance of opening dialogue and lessening fear. As Tempest Williams further puts it, “democracy is best practiced through its construction, not its completion.” Too much of the standard research results flashed across the nation’s TV and computer screens are too firmly declarative, even when researchers understand that no one study, no matter how well designed and carried out, provides all the answers to a crucial question. In truth, the knowledge produced through research has a tentative quality to it, and that is the way it should be. With a greater emphasis on the construction of knowledge, perhaps we can begin to embrace the tentative nature of research findings and open space for the dialogues and community-based conversation around applying the results of practitioner research and linking the research to a more participatory orientation within local communities and neighborhoods.

These need not be overly abstract and ‘big data’ operations. Regarding Caleb Wallace, his wife Jessica has stated that Caleb accepted her wearing a mask, although he held to the idea that “masks aren’t going to save you.” For Jessica, “it gives me comfort to know that maybe, just maybe, I’m either protecting someone or avoiding it myself.” Her statement backs off from the ideological edges of the ‘prove it’ arguments and anti-science hysteria and focuses instead on finding and giving comfort. I think it comes down to a recognition I explored in some earlier writing that “the often rarified air of advanced scientific understanding disseminated through elitist platforms has to be put in balance with the capacity and determination of regular folks to understand their situations and to take appropriate actions to improve things”[ix]  I believe that practitioner research, conducted in a collaborative manner with humility and determination has a chance to contribute significantly to the opening of speech, the nurturance of democracy, and the fostering of creative solutions in relation to all three of the crises currently engulfing both this country and the larger global community. In times such as these in the U.S., when as author George Packer[x] puts it, we are living in a period of “unwinding” when our social structures, moral underpinnings, and sense of collective identity have begun to come apart we are called to improvisation. The barren scene in Packer’s telling – a ‘landscape without solid structure’ – is one in which people have to “improvise their own destinies.” In such times, the improvisations of practitioner research are well-suited to the search for creative solutions and the reconstruction of democracy.

References

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/25/us/school-delta-fall-semester-masks-vaccines.html

[ii] https://www.edfutures.net/Practitioner_Research

[iii] See Pine, G. J. (2009). Teacher Action Research: Building Knowledge Democracies. Sage.

[iv] Hong, E., & Rowell, L. (2019). Challenging knowledge monopoly in education in the U.S. through democratizing knowledge production and dissemination. Educational Action Research, 27(1), 125-143.

[v] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/caleb-wallace-freedom-defenders-covid-rally-death-texas_n_612aca58e4b02be25b5c9d26

[vi] Kazin, M. (2016). “Trump and American Populism: Old whine, new bottles.” Foreign Affairs, 95(6), 17-24.

[vii] https://www.businessinsider.com/neil-degrasse-tyson-flat-earth-believers-end-informed-democracy

[viii] Williams, T. T. (2004). The open space of democracy. Eugene, OR: WIPF & Stock.

[ix] Rowell, L. (2018). A brief update from across the big pond’s troubled waters: beliefs, science, politics, and action research, Educational Action Research, 26(1), 4-8. https://doi.org/10.1080/09650792.2017.1417773

[x] Packer, G. (2013). The Unwinding. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.

13 Comments

  1. Rolla E. Lewis

    Wonderful piece that shows it is the process– a never-ending process of constructing democracy. We never arrive. Maybe it is time to embrace more of a process-relational approach to communities and nations. Maybe we will learn to manage in what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid times.

    Thanks for offering a view of the social waters, and for pointing to the need for improvisational action, which can also be a call to be playful. Yes, playful and loving revolutionary change that promotes knowledge democracy as a continuous, ongoing, never-ending process grounded in relationships.

    • Lonnie Rowell

      Thanks Rolla. You have brought forward a really important point. If we do not embrace knowledge democratization as a process of loving, indeed even at times playful, change, then we are missing something crucial. And yes, the process is grounded in relationships, and practitioner research has to reflect that. I think, first of all, it is through relationship building in local contexts that there is even a chance of launching a practitioner research project. A teacher or school counselor working all alone likely will find the organizing to be too much. Working with a few colleagues, however, in a spirit of enthusiastic and determined small-scale inquiry/action, as you and I saw over and over during our years as counselor educators, teachers, school counselors, librarians, school nurses, etc. can amaze themselves in terms of the impact they can have. I do think you and I, again working in collaboration with others, should begin exploring how to strengthen process-relational approaches to community and neighborhood based collaborative research. Ah, “liquid times” indeed.

  2. Margaret Riel

    A comment on your K-12 friend interaction– both the academic and practitioner need changing– the academic is at fault for not connecting his or her work to the practice. I am reminded of a time when I took a group of educators to a cognitive science conference and many of them were honestly surprised to learn about all of the research being done around teaching and learning. They were not actively ignoring research, they had no idea it even existed! But the practitioner can be faulted for making little effort to share the knowledge they develop over their career in ways that are discoverable by others. When they retire, their knowledge leaves with them. Until we find ways to record, share and refine knowledge in schools, we keep starting over with each new generation of teachers.

    • Lonnie Rowell

      I agree and thanks so much for sharing here, Margaret. The fault lines for the research-practice gaps lie in both directions, without a doubt. Those working in higher education could do much more to bridge the gaps, and those in preK-12 could do much more as well. I do think a major fault on the preK-12 side is the lack of insight and action by our educator unions in support of practitioner research, for one. Out of more than 13,800 public school districts in the U.S., responsible for the education of some 55 million students, I know of only 3-4 that have had meaningful involvement with practitioner research. There could be more, I know, but you get my point: Even 138 districts would represent an ‘impact’ on only 1% of districts! On the higher education side, how many schools/colleges of education do you know that are actively and meaningfully engaged with school districts or, in California, for example, country offices of education, to address how best to provide support and incentives for educator practitioner research? I do remain hopeful that local, state, and national initiatives will bloom in the coming years, and I look with a bit of comfort and inspiration towards Scotland, where the oldest educators’ union on the planet (Educational Institute of Scotland – EIS) proudly supports teacher action research projects by members, has established partnerships with formal education scholars who provide input and feedback on projects AND looks to the projects to help inform EIS policy development, enhance education practice, and support the efficacy of teacher trade unions and professional associations (see details here, https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/an-education-teaching-union-and-university-partnership-to-promote-practitioner-action-research/). Bringing Rolla’s comment back into the dialogue, I see clearly that recording, sharing, and refining knowledge produced in schools, by educators, is a fine pathway forward that can embrace, in Rolla’s words, a “continuous, ongoing, never-ending process grounded in relationships.”

      • Peter Crownfield

        I think we need to raise awareness of the enormous value of knowledge developed through both formal and informal practitioner research. Finding ways to share the results is important, but perhaps not as important as sharing the process, the knowledge that teachers and other practitioners can do this and get real results that will help them in ways that the theoretical researchers never will.

        The main value of all this research is not just the results, the knowledge produced — it’s a slow growth in awareness that practitioners are producing new knowledge every day. Democratization is happening, but too much of it is invisible.

        Ivan Illich would have loved all this. Even in the days before personal computers and smart phones, he recognized the need to get away from schools as dispensaries of knowledge and move towards tapping the knowledge of people in the community.

        • Lonnie Rowell

          Thanks, Peter. Wow, Ivan Illich, a name from the past! I followed Illich and the important work being done at CIDOC in Mexico back in the 70s when I was Director of a small K-12 alternative school. Illich’s notion of “deschooling” fit with both some of Freire’s work and with the work of a host of “futurists” – most from North America and Europe. As the decades have gone by, I have grown more cautious regarding deschooling. First of all, schools are incredibly significant social hubs for children and youth. Also, as homeschooling began to become a thing to the Right, I saw alarming trends, including a lack of civic literacy on the part of homeschooled kids (which of course was an extension of the same lack on the part of their parents/teachers). Although I have met some pretty brilliant kids who have been homeschooled, I have also met some pretty dull and narrowminded kids who have a bit of the glazed eyes’ look of cult true believers. So it is a tough issue. I do think a rereading of Illich’s little 1973 paperback After Deschooling What? would be a good project for a group of us, along with a reread of the CIDOC Cuaderno An Essay on Alternatives in Education by Everrett Reimer.

          I love your idea of a Visibility project! SPF is a part of the effort, but I know there is so much more we can do. I long to see a Progressive Education Podcast along the lines of Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. I would also love to see us utilizing an updated version of the old underground radio infrastructure. And do you remember the important work done by the folks at Vocations for Social Change (VSC) in the Bay Area? It was so helpful for young people searching for ways forward in life that would keep them out of the drain pipe of corporate capitalist alienation and mindlessness. Ultimately, my vision is of a kind of an alternative United Nations, with more emphasis on building healthy and sustainable human relations and social progress and less on nation-building in the strictest sense of political science and geo-politics based on nation state dynamics. I know, what a dreamer. .

          • Peter Crownfield

            Yes, Ivan Illich was a great thinker, but I have to agree that completely deschooling society is not the answer. No matter how many deficiencies exist in the current competitive system. Education today is too often dominated by top-down organization, fixed curriculum, standardized testing, and intolerance of critical thinking by students. That’s done a lot to eradicate kids’ natural curiosity and love for learning. (These problems, of course, have been going on for decades.)

            I should at least note that I’ve worked with some brilliant, activist home-schoolers whose parents encouraged their kids to explore and find interesting ways to meet the requirements of the system. (And I’ve certainly seen plenty of brainwashed and/or non-thinking kids in public school settings.)

            I liked Illich more for his realization of the wealth of thinking, skills, and educational resources that are in the community, just waiting to be developed.

            I’m not a fan of podcasts, but it might be interesting to discover some current thinking on these subjects — maybe we need to invent new ways of connecting people and ideas.

            An alternative to the U.N. is a great idea — especially if it recognizes that the nation-state often creates far more problems than it solves. Nearby Lehigh University has an International Relations major that is heavily involved with the U.N., and it also has a Global Studies major that is not as well funded but focuses on people, not nations. The Global Studies students show, in my experience anyway, a far greater grasp of the real issues we face.

            Speaking of dreamers, we published an essay by a 14-year-old student last fall. It was titled, if I remember correctly, ‘The World Is Ending, So Why Bother Dreaming’. (It isn’t quite as bleak as the title might imply.) [https://www.sustainlv.org/focus-on/the-world-is-ending-so-why-bother-dreaming/]

            One sure way to destroy a culture or a society might be to stop people from dreaming and seeing a future within that culture. (The ‘Indian schools’ in the U.S. and Canada, where children were not allowed to speak in their native languages, wear native clothing or hairstyles, or preserve any other trace of their culture, were one component of the system of cultural genocide against the Indigenous people.)

  3. Joel Judd

    So, Utah is one of 5 states being investigated by USDE for potential civil rights violations in prohibiting districts from enacting mask mandates. Parents (and lawyers) brought the suits, legislators and the governor have weighed in, but curiously absent in the reports is the voice of teachers. On the other hand, some districts in Florida have defied the governor’s ban on mask mandates. There and elsewhere, teachers have been verbally and physically abused over mask policies https://www.axios.com/mask-school-mandate-violence-covid-3abff916-242d-4db5-87f7-b4314dc57c3d.html). However, the Billings, Montana teachers union is opposing the school superintendent’s sudden mask mandate after a rise in COVID cases (apparently because he reneged on an earlier MOA that masks would only be encouraged and imposes sanctions for not complying, but not because requiring masks is a good idea…?).
    I’m still struggling to understand and help others see the potential of practitioner research to fulfill its promise of giving deeper meaning to oneself, to others, and to the world, as Jean McNiff argues. At a time when we need relationship building and collaboration more than ever, twisted views of democracy and individual rights seem to create an insurmountable and ironic obstacle to reasoned dialogue.

    • Lonnie Rowell

      Thanks, Joel. Your comment highlights that in addition to maintaining a vibrant ‘positivity’ around relationship building in practitioner research (i.e., the direction Rolla draws us towards), we simply cannot overlook the politics of relationship work. The Feminist Movement introduced us, oh my gosh, 7 decades ago to the principle that ‘the personal is political’ and nothing has taken place to reduce the importance of pursuing human relations’ work based on this principle, it seems to me. Your sharing from the trenches of public education in Utah provides rich examples of just how challenging it will be to build the kind of healthy process-relational approaches that Rolla envisions. It is a painful recognition of the reality in district after district, neighborhood after neighborhood. People – parents, teachers, and civic-minded folks in general – are angry, confused, and fed up. And masks, of course, are only one of the issues contributing to keeping the pot boiling.

  4. Dane Stickney

    This is exciting and inspiring to read! I work with a bunch of educators at different levels of experience, and there is democratic beauty happening at all of those levels. I hope to contribute to this journal soon, spotlighting practitioners researching basic questions:
    “Who am I as an educator?”
    “Who are the students as people?”
    “How can my educational creations (curriculum, norms, classroom policies, physical setting) reflect the authentic humanity of the students and myself?”

    While that that level of democracy/humanity may be on a smaller, classroom scale, it is still beautiful. In these perilous times of a “Triple Crises” educators can, as Nasir said, help “mediate the outside world” with youth. In other words, an educator cannot stop aerosol droplets, smoke from the burning planet, or fascist attacks on knowledge from occurring, but together the classroom community (educator and youth) can mediate those impacts in the space. The way racism is addressed in the classroom, then, has the potential to be very different from outside world, especially if it is a place of personal and interpersonal exploration.

    • Lonnie Rowell

      I love the notion of democratic beauty!!! Perhaps we need a new version of a ‘Beauty Pageant’ – like ‘The Pageant of Beauty in Democracy at work: A Practitioner Research and Action Research Celebration’!!!

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