Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research in the Next Generation
reviewed by Kelly Donnell & Andrea J. Stairs - September 28, 2009
Title: Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research in the Next Generation
Author(s): Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807749702, Pages: 392, Year: 2009
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As educators we live in trying times (p. 5) in which educational policy focused on accountability and high-stakes testing and a conservative political climate threaten to reduce teachers to widgets, interchangeable, mechanical parts of a system (Weisberg, Sexton, Mulhern & Kelling, 2009, p. 2). The role of educators has evolved into that of scripted technicians delivering pre-packaged curricula rather than that of thoughtful, deliberative, individual professionals who regularly inquire into their practice. In Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation, published by Teachers College Press, Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle counter this pervasive role by empowering readers in the field of education with the radical notion of inquiry as stance which involves a continual process of making current arrangements problematic; questioning the ways knowledge and practice are constructed, evaluated, and used; and assuming that part of the work of practitioners individually and collectively is to participate in educational and social change (p. 121). Much anticipated by scholars and practitioners alike, Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation, is the sequel to the authors highly influential book, Inside/Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge, published in 1993.
Cochran-Smith and Lytle, who have collaborated for over twenty years, argue that despite the great variations in practitioner inquiry, most versions share a sense of the practitioner as knower and agent for educational and social change (p. 37). This ties neatly in with how they conceptualize inquiry as stance in this text and in their work over about the last decade: a powerful and affirmative notion that recognizes the collective intellectual capacity of practitioners to work in alliance with others to transform teaching, learning, leading, and schooling in accordance with democratic principles and social justice goals (p. 118). The authors theory of inquiry as stance is notable for the way it recognizes and affirms the knowledge of practitioners and their significant contributions to educational reform when positioned as learners who respond by problematizing the complexities faced in their daily realities.
Inquiry as Stance is divided into three distinct parts. Read separately or as a whole, each section of the book brings the complexity and generative nature of practitioner research into sharp relief. Part One, Theorizing and Contextualizing, immerses the reader in a robust, impassioned, yet highly-disciplined discussion of the key theoretical underpinnings of practitioner research as well as the promise and challenge of this research movement. Part One explores practitioner research as educational movement, research genre, political and policy critique, challenge to university culture, and lifelong stance on teaching, learning, schooling, and educational leadership (p. 2). Each of the five chapters in this section provides a critical component of the larger conceptual framework of inquiry as stance. Chapter One describes the history as well as the current state of the practitioner research movement. In Chapter Two, the authors compare and contrast the versions and variations that come under the umbrella of practitioner inquiry. Chapter Three takes on the impact of the policies of No Child Left Behind on our collective view of teachers, teaching, and teacher learning. The authors openly acknowledge their sharp criticism of the limiting and even atrophied images of teachers promulgated through NCLB (p. 84) and argue for a view of teaching and learning that is much more complex and transformative. Cochran-Smith and Lytle address the promise and the challenge of restructuring norms of university research culture with the constructive disruption of the premises of inquiry in Chapter Four. Chapter Five concludes Part One by theorizing inquiry as a powerful, transformative framework that can help the next generation of educators move forward and help to reconfigure our educational landscape.
Part Two, Practitioners on Teaching, Learning, and School Leadership, takes a compelling personal turn as readers hear the voices of teachers, principals, teacher educators, and others engaged in practitioner inquiry. Eight practitioners from a wide range of backgrounds and experience raise questions, wrestle with them, and provide insight into the critical issues, both large and small, of educating children, of being part of the educational community, and of being a learner oneself. Each chapter engages the reader with a practitioner who is working the dialectic by both pushing and blurring the boundary between the individuals inquiry and action. For example, in Chapter 6, Gary McPhail questions the intersection of the national gendered achievement gap and the role of teacher engagement with young childrens gendered literacy interests. Many of the studies in this section highlight the intensely personal, yet highly common, intellectual and emotional challenges of classroom life. As practitioner researcher and primary school teacher Gillian Maimon writes:
The gnawing inexactness of the work of teaching is not just the stuff of intellectual exhaustion; it elicits deep emotional response as well. Writing helps to make the inherent emotionality of the work generative rather than debilitating. I write on a regular basis about my classroom as much to help me to think more clearly as to mediate the often-intense emotional impact of the work I do with children. (p. 214)
Several chapters offer the personal insights of teachers and educational leaders struggling to make sense of role of the larger, historical context in their individual and collective practice. Diane Waff, a teacher educator and former classroom teacher and administrator, writes about local inquiry communities as a resource to tackle challenging school problems and to bring diverse members of the school community together to problem-solve (p. 324) in Chapter 12. Taken as a whole these chapters make the theory and context of Part One even more accessible and meaningful while providing insight into the generation and sharing of ones local knowledge.
Part Three, Practitioners Voices, presents a readers theater script that weaves 20 practitioners voices about the opportunities and challenges of practitioner inquiry in a performance-oriented format. Two practitioners provide commentary about the script, which was originally performed at both the Ethnography in Education Research Forum in 2007 and then the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in 2008, and therefore, may be familiar to some readers of the book.
This latest iteration of the concept of inquiry as stance is clearly rooted in the intellectual tradition Cochran-Smith and Lytle established with their first book, Inside/Outside. Readers will recognize much of the same conceptual framework for teacher research as outlined in 1993, but will find the authors have shifted to using the term practitioner research to include the many school, community, and university-based practitioners who employ inquiry from an insiders perspective in various educational sites. This small yet intentional shift in language in some ways sheds light on the notable change in educational climate and policy since their first book. The authors spend considerable time discussing their inquiry framework within the larger context of accountability movements and scientism (p. vii) prevalent in educational discourse, research, and practice. As a result, this text makes a convincing argument that practitioner inquiry is alive and well through the authors arguments in Part One and the voices of practitioners in Parts Two and Three. The way the authors deconstruct issues such as the relationship between practitioner inquiry and professional learning communities, how universities might recount research and recast teaching to value practitioner research, and how democratic purposes and social justice ends serve as one of four critical dimensions of inquiry as stance along with knowledge, practice, and communities, invites readers to intellectually engage with the authors premises and respond with transformative action in their local educational contexts.
Perhaps the call to action is the greatest contribution this text makes to the field of educational research. Despite constant messages about what does and does not count as educational research that lean toward objective, scientifically-based methods, those committed to the goals and outcomes of practitioner inquiry will find compelling arguments and moving accounts from real practitioner research studies in Inquiry as Stance that may just persuade others who have as yet remained unconvinced about the power of this research genre. As readers we have been inspired to reconsider how we can teach about and support the practitioner inquiry movement at our universities with the practitioners with whom we work, along with our higher education colleagues. Cochran-Smith and Lytle have reminded us that:
the more grassroots support and meaningful co-laboring there is, the more likely it is for practitioners to articulate questions and to act in ways that impact local discourses and local solutions, which, in turn, contribute to a wider public discourse about educational transformation. (p. 164)
Weisberg, D., Sexton, S., Mulhern, J., & Kelling, D. (2009). The widget effect: Our national failure to acknowledge and act on differences in teacher effectiveness. Brooklyn, NY: The New Teacher Project.