Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation by Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle aims “to conceptualize inquiry as a stance, as a challenge to the current arrangements and outcomes of schools.”
Leaders in the theory and practice of teacher research since 1987, Lytle, founding director of the Philadelphia Writing Project, and Cochran-Smith, director of the doctoral program in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, coauthored the influential Inside/Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge in 1993. In this new book they lay out their hopes for the future of the practitioner inquiry movement.
They do this in three genres. In Part I, academic articles update and expand their prior work. Part II is made up of eight first-person descriptive narratives, the voices of practitioners, giving immediacy to Part I. Part III, a coda to Parts I and II, is a readers’ theatre script with practitioners’ voices woven together to illuminate Part I in another genre.
Overcoming Initial Skepticism
I confess to a certain hesitancy when first scanning this book written by two college professors and supplemented by the pieces of practitioner contributors, almost all of whom have PhDs or are teaching at colleges and universities. What was in this book for me and the teachers I work with at an urban school in Oakland, California? While the teachers I work with have been doing inquiry, some for nine years, none is a PhD candidate, and though some dream about publishing, they do not have the time.
Further, I turned first to a practitioner piece—”The ‘Bad Boy’ and the Writing Curriculum,” by Gary McPhail. McPhail teaches at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, a school light years distant in resources and student body from my school. I was skeptical.
But McPhail has written a riveting article about genre and gender that I immediately handed over to teachers. He describes helping a student find his writing voice by providing careful guidance in writing about violence while allowing the boy to stay away from revealing feelings he wasn’t ready to share. This article will interest teachers in any context baffled by the resistance of many boys to writing.
So I read Inquiry as Stance from the perspective of a school coach. How will this book help me and the teachers I work with? How do we benefit from those who do the theoretical work and get practitioner inquiry published? Each of the chapters has extensive information for any audience interested in educational reform. What I’m reviewing is but a tiny slice of the whole.
Linking Theory and Practice
Recasting teacher research as “practitioner inquiry,” the authors have expanded the field to anyone in or connected to education. By redefining inquiry as “stance,” they have broadened inquiry from a study of classroom practice to a lifelong habit of mind wherein practitioners use an inquiry lens to question any aspect of the educational system with the social justice goal of more equitable outcomes for students.
Their shout out to the next generation is a “call for practitioner researchers in local settings across the country and the world to ally their work with others as part of larger social and intellectual movements for social change and social justice.”
The chapters by Lytle and Cochran-Smith provide a theoretical grounding for the practitioner pieces that follow. The writers identify five current themes: taking on issues of equity, engagement, and agency; developing conceptual frameworks; inventing and reinventing communities of inquiry; shaping school reform and educational policy; and practitioner inquiry in research universities.
They also identify five versions of teacher research that contextualize the work of practitioners. Understanding the ways in which they are theoreticians doesn’t always come naturally to teachers. But it’s an understanding that is critical for them to see themselves as professionals with potential political clout.
Another chapter provides a thoughtful critique of fallout from the No Child Left Behind models of teacher training and professional development, calling attention to the nonfluidity of knowledge and assessment embedded in these models. The authors urge teachers to take an inquiry stance to maintain their power in this climate.
The authors conclude this introductory section with a passionate call to the next generation. Their goal is to reposition “practitioners and practitioners’ collective knowledge at the center of educational transformation” through awareness of and collaboration among many groups and movements devoted to similar ends. It’s a heady possibility, a MoveOn.org for practitioner inquiry.
A Cornucopia of Practitioner Investigations
Cochran-Smith and Lytle commissioned the eight practitioner chapters. In each a teacher or administrator questions an aspect of the educational system or tries to understand a student from a new perspective. I found it reassuring that in pretty much all of the articles, the touchstone was the author’s classroom experience.
For example, Gary McPhail, introduced above, a primary teacher for 11 years, researches why girls are more open to learning to write than boys. In his study “10 out of the 12 boys…scored the lowest when writing personal narratives, and most boys achieved their highest scores when writing letters, comic books, fiction…genres…not traditionally taught in most primary grades.”
This is a good example of what Cochran-Smith and Lytle mean by local knowledge with broad implications.
Gillian Maimon reflects on the value of her journal. She quotes Patricia Carini (2001), who exquisitely explains that description “teaches me that the subject of my attention always exceeds what I can see.” Maimon tells of a troubled student with whom she is successful but whom, heartbreakingly, she cannot save. There is great value in her honesty about the limitations of an excellent teacher and her understanding of what else is needed to save this child.
Kelly Harper, now a professor, in another honest inquiry “examines what affluent White children learned when they read and talked about books intentionally selected to confront issues of race and racism, injustice and cultural differences.” Harper writes of her own discomfort teaching about social justice to a predominantly white class, and her response when some students want a “happy” book.
A leitmotif throughout the book is the transformative power of the inquiry group. Swati Mehti, who is of Indian decent, used the poetic help of her mother’s letters to explore with inquiry groups her “cultural hybridity” and its importance in “making meaning of complex cultural lives” in education.
Diane Waff, an African American teacher-consultant with the Philadelphia Writing Project, traces her evolution as an activist educator through her participation in “safe organizational spaces where teachers felt comfortable tackling difficult pedagogical issues and exploring the social and cultural dimensions of teaching and learning” with “colleagues from a range of backgrounds, teaching contexts and experiences.”
I cannot praise the practitioner articles enough. They are inspirational gifts to those of us who do not have the time to put our thoughts in words and to publish. Every one of these practitioner chapters speaks directly to many of us doing inquiry in the schools.