Practice and Research – simultaneous, antagonistic or synchronistic?

Is it possible to do more than one thing at a time? Like ‘have your cake and eat it too’? Peter Senge suggests the latter is possible “just not at the same time” in his experience.

So what about Practice and Research? Is it really not possible to do both at once? is this why they seem so often to be warring factions rather than inevitable bedmates in educational improvement activity?

My dissertation was written about my practice and while I was practising. in that sense, then, I was doing both at once ‘just not at the same time’!

The image that comes to mind when i explore this problem of aligning Practice and Research is one called variously the “Boring” image, and “my wife and my mother in law”


You may recall it from some psychology or adult learning class where you were asked to describe what you saw – and having duly said your version of  ‘an old lady’ or ‘a bright young thing’  were then asked to look again and find the image that others had seen and you had missed. Both images are there, they do not ‘move’ or change while you examine them – only your persecutive changes.

This is a reasonable metaphor for the experience of ‘researching’ and ‘practising’ as an educator. you have the capacity to do both – and in fact are often generating factors for each while working on the other. But the key it seems to me, is to accept that neither has pre-eminence or greater importance, but merely priority at certain times in your attention to them.

Kurt Lewin noted that “There Is Nothing So Practical As Good Theory” and some have added “nor so theoretical as good practice”. In other words each contains the other in a manner that is quite different from ways in which they are separated and held to be different in various educational contexts.

Why is this worth writing about? Because I struggled to work on my theory/practice alignment concept and found little help from conventional ‘research’  which wanted me to ‘stand aside’ from my ‘practice’ long enough to achieve ‘objectivity’.

But I found that – with an effort that was well worth while – I could both practice and research. And do both successfully! It takes time, requires a flexibility of perceptual analysis, and can be great fun! When I began to understand the theoretical framework informing my own practice because I was applying the research I needed to do so – I had become able to take this sound advice –

Adult educators, along with other professionals, often suggest that competent performance is a matter of familiarising oneself with theories and then of putting these acquired theories into practice as relevant occasions arise. However, while an understanding of theoretical constructions is important to any serious vocational endeavour, it is more efficacious to think in terms of engaging thoughtfully with theory and then, putting ourselves into practice, rather than putting theory into practice.*

* Collins, M. (1991). Adult Education as Vocation: A Critical Role for the Adult Educator. London, Routledge

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Naming of Parts – on Being a PractitionerResearcher

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,

We shall have what to do after firing. But today,

Today we have naming of parts. Japonica

Glistens like coral in all the neighbouring gardens,

And today we have naming of parts.

(Reed 1983) see

This poem by Henry Reed presents an observations of his experience as an army recruit from a ‘third position’ perspective. Using an objective and distanced view he enables his readers to silently observe army recruits anxiously learning the names of parts of a life-saving/death-dealing tool, while spring flowers offer a tranquillity beyond their reach.

Educational writing often enacts a similar distancing deception, keeping its component parts – ‘practice’, ‘research’ and ‘learning’ – separate and disconnected. In many cases they are arrayed in a kind of mythic hierarchy whose structure is taken for granted. In such a hierarchy ‘learning’ is at the bottom – the largest, but apparently least ‘important’ element – considered as a process ‘being done’ to passive recipients. ‘Practice’ is one level ‘up’, presented as a ‘doing to others’ process. ‘Research’ is the ‘looking at and analysing’ – remote and ‘separated’ – peak of the hierarchy appropriating an illusory stance of objectivity uncontaminated by the messiness of engagement in the action.

I have challenged this hierarchy by rearranging ‘practice’ and ‘research’ as co-equal elements, paying differing attention to five elements of – Curiosity, Questioning, Verifiability (‘purity’ of methodology), Time frames, Primary orientation. I saw my ‘self as researcher’ not separate from the ‘self that is practitioner’ – while according differing levels of importance to each at different moments. As this perspective evolved I became more able to remain both ‘practitioner’ and ‘researcher’, while consciously giving precedence to ‘one over the other’ as context and purpose required. I saw each one as containing the ‘seed’ of the other, with the capacity to alert educators to implications of each mode for the customs of the other.

The PractitionerResearcher concept that emerged from this work, provided an integrated approach, combining and validating ‘learning in action’ with ‘learning for action’ and enabled me to articulate a way of describing the ‘interconnectedness’ of theory and practice in my work. It encompassed the concept of not treating the Researcher and the Practitioner as if they are two distinct entities, instead considering them as interrelated aspects of a professionally effective educator. One example of this is in the following image –

Practitioner Researcher PractitionerResearcher
Curiosity Driven by work needs, not by any ‘need to know’ for its own sake. Driven by ‘need to know’ for its own sake; less concern for practical applications. Driven simultaneously by work needs and the ‘need to know’ more
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The ‘null’ curriuclum

I first met the ‘null’ curriculum on – Lesley Wilson’s web page identifying and describing eleven different types of curricula.

Perhaps readers have encountered the concept of the ‘hidden’ curriculum sometime after first meeting the notion of a curriculum as that which is written about what is to be taught/learned in formal contexts. But the list of eleven curricula was an entirely new one for me, and this was the most valuable of all.

According to Lesley Wilson the ‘null’ curriculum is

  • That which we do not teach, thus giving students the message that these elements are not important in their educational experiences or in our society.
  • The major point I have been trying to make is that schools have consequences not only by virtue of what they do not teach, but also by virtue of what they neglect to teach. What students cannot consider, what they don’t processes they are unable to use, have consequences for the kinds of lives they lead.

And it does not take long to develop quite a long list of things that are ‘not taught’ in university classes and workplace courses. My experientially based approach to teaching and learning – using simulation games – has often been challenged as being ‘other than what is being taught’ elsewhere in an academic program for example. And since it is not taught elsewhere in the course, I also should not be teaching that way! In academic settings, what is NOT TAUGHT can have a compelling impact on learners’ expectations, and my teaching – which uses play and simulation to create engaging, unsettling, challenging and supportive environments – is often quite unlike what is being encountered in elsewhere.

Encountering the concept of the ‘null’ curriculum was a delightful ‘ah! ha!’ experience, as I immediately understood it as a means of explaining the resistance and disdain I sometimes encounter from peers and students. Over the years I have collected critical incidents about the ‘clash’ that occurs when a particularly strong-minded learner feels that their expectations of ‘how to be a student’ are apparently violated. But until now have not had a satisfactory conceptual framework to explore these incidents. The ‘null’ curriculum provides that.

One incident concerned a student in a degree leading to graduation as an adult education professional. When she left class early one night I followed her out into the corridor to ask about her actions.

“I came to University to be taught,” was her terse reply when I insisted on knowing her reasons for leaving. “ I did not come here for this ‘learning’ stuff. I hate this!”

When I asked why she had not approached me earlier for an alternative assessment her response was equally startling. “My intention is to suffer this for 13 weeks, and when it’s over I’m going to make the biggest complaint! This is not what I’m getting in any other class and it’s not right.”

My response was enough to startle her into re-thinking her strategy, and I was able to help her complete the subject is amore positive frame of mind –

“So your strategy is to be a masochist for 13 weeks, and then become a sadist?”

As she did not think of herself as either sadistic or masochistic she was forced to review her choices, and after some further discussion she agreed to give the process a chance, completing the final assignment with good grace. With the null curriculum in hand, I now have a useful tool with which to uncover assumptions being made about ‘what should be taught’ and the viability of alternative modes of teaching and learning.

Check out Lesley Wilson’s web site for all eleven types of curriculum – perhaps a different one will strike a chord for you.


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1 Corinthians ch. 13 vs. 11

“When I was a child I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”.
Games to Learn will challenge unthinking attachment to such concepts and ideas that  had specific meaning in their context and time, but now inhibit human capacity to be constructive about our own times.
The verse from Corinthians is often used as an ‘explanation’ for removing ‘play’ from the adult human learning process. To be ‘adult’ is to be ‘serious’ – and yet even superficial observation of humanity proves the vital importance of ‘play’ to health, sanity and love of life.

The attitude implied by the biblical verse is a ponderous and weighty need for adult seriousness in all things, as [for example] in the traditional reliance on ‘teaching’ to induce ‘learning’ in formal educational settings.

As children, we have no need for such formality, so instinctively create learning environments that instinctively generate with fun and a lightness of heart, the ‘communication gestalt ’ (Duke 1974), with which to integrate the learning we require into activities replicating aspects of the adult world we know we must enter but find mysterious and even fearful.

But children’s play does not attempt to model that world in realistic detail (as the military would), nor does it overtly include ‘lessons’ to be learned (as in a religious approach). In fact children consider only that they are ‘playing’ and enjoying the moment. The ‘lessons’ learned can be quite unconscious, although profound and life shaping.

While workplaces as diverse as police services, airlines and armies use simulations and games to convey this ‘communication gestalt’ of the knowledge, behaviour and attitudes required for successful achievement of organisational goals, they are unlikely to connect child’s play with the ‘serious’ nature of what they are ‘teaching’. The pity of this is that allowing the fun and excitement of children’s play into the learning space could encourage a greater degree of enthusiastic participation, as well as drawing on individual creativity and self-motivation.

Expectations about learning as a ‘serious business’ create difficulties for educators wanting to generate powerful learning via apparently non-serious alternatives. Assumptions about the frivolity of play obscures the power of the insights about the vitality that play gives to learning, that we take for granted while we are children.
‘GamestoLearn” is a place for encouraging awareness of the vitality and impact emerging from the apparent ‘frivolity’ of play.

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