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Critical scholarship for teachers

Another reminder of the impermanence of life was the recent news that Henry Kissinger died. Forgive me if I don’t dwell on his dubious achievements in foreign policy which, in the 1970s, included supporting the bombing of Cambodia and Pinochet’s military coup against the elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende. US hegemony at its worst.

Setting all that aside, there is a story about Kissinger which I used to refer to when teaching post-grad students. Apparently, he asked a policy adviser, William Lord, to draft a speech for him. Lord gave it to Kissinger’s secretary and went to see him about the next day.  Kissinger asked: “Is this the best you can do?”. Lord said that he could perhaps improve it and would review it. This happened a total of 8 times and, when Kissinger posed the same question for the 9th time, Lord declared with considerable exasperation that it was absolutely the best he could do and he didn’t think a single word of it could be improved. Kissinger said: “OK, in that case, now I will read it.”.

 


Learning to write

I too learnt a lesson about the power of drafting when I produced my first book, one co-edited with colleagues (Frost, Edwards & Reynold, 1995). Following the submission of the manuscript, we got a message from the publishers saying that it was 10,000 words over the limit. We set about editing and reducing the word length. We couldn’t dump any of the chapters, so we redrafted almost every paragraph to make the text more fluent and succinct without losing any information or meaning. We worked at this day and night and reduced it by 10,000 words as asked.  On the day we finished, there was another message from the publisher. They apologised for their error in sending the first message; they had done a recount and found that our original manuscript had actually been the right length. We sent them the new, shorter manuscript anyway and, once we had all had a chance to read it, we agreed that it was much better than the first version.

 

We learn to write through the process of editing, revising and redrafting our own attempts to set down what we think in writing. No, let me revise that. We don’t simply commit to paper what we think; we write in order to develop and clarify our thinking.  The great journalist Joan Didion put it this way: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”  The relationship between your ideas and writing comes to the fore when someone commits to something like a masters course or perhaps the writing and publication of a book. We all struggle to achieve momentum as writers, especially when our professional activity calls for our attention so relentlessly but, committing to a book or an award-bearing course provides an effective scaffold that helps to propel us forward.



In professional contexts especially, we should see writing as a form of inquiry and knowledge creation, a process which Gary Rolfe called ‘writing as research’ (Rolfe, 2009: 819). Those of us who have tackled professional problems by picking up a pen or sitting down at the keyboard recognise this as an effective vehicle for developing what we know. Eventually, and through bitter experience, we develop a capacity that gives significant power to our elbows, whether it is when preparing for a meeting, writing a proposal or planning a campaign.

 

Purposeful reading

While writing has a central role in scholarship, so does reading; but what is the relationship between the two?  My perspective is shaped by the context of part-time study for professionals. People who study in the margins while continuing with the day job don’t have the luxury of sitting in libraries trying to read everything on a particular subject. They have to engage in what the university librarians call ‘purposeful reading’. This requires the reader to have clear goals and to be selective about what they read and how they read. Some part-time masters students have to unlearn what they were taught as undergraduates. They may have been told for example that systematic literature review is essential or that you have to have control groups. They may have been taught to regard their own concerns and values as somehow illegitimate. Absolute nonsense of course. In the context of study focused on your own professional concerns, these beliefs about inquiry are entirely unsuitable. The approach to reading in this context needs to be purposeful: not simply reading a book or article from beginning to end, but looking for conceptual frameworks that illuminate your professional concerns and help you clarify the issues arising.  You would also want to look for research findings that point to possible alternative strategies and solutions. Combing through the literature is also likely to throw up perspectives that challenge your assumptions. This could lead either to a re-think or an evaluation of the source which may justify rejecting its message.

 

Critical scholarship is important not only as a dimension of teacher professionality but also as a means to enhance school leadership. My colleague, Jo Mylles, wrote a piece under the title of ‘Building a school culture through scholarship’. She and the other members of the senior leadership team all graduated from the HertsCam MEd in Leading Teaching and Learning. Their deliberations in senior team meetings typically featured discussions about how to build a positive professional culture and enhance social and intellectual capital. The style of their meetings often seemed more like seminars than management meetings.



The transformative power of scholarship

My own work over many years has been focused on strategies to empower teachers as agents of change and for some this has involved their participation in a masters programme based on the teacher-led development work methodology.  At various points, I have interviewed individuals who spoke about the transformative effect on themselves. Andrew Wright, when he was in the early stages of his career said this:


It’s completely changed the way I think about my teaching, the way I approach my teaching, the way I look at the kids, the way I look at their learning ... (Andrew Wright)


Similarly, Richard Wallace, at a point in which he had been teaching for over 20 years, said this:


I realise now that I don’t think the same about anything. I don’t even think the same about the way I think about things. And I think that the change has been that radical, very very fundamental, ... I don’t think about anything at school the same anymore. I think about things in a totally different way. (Richard Wallace)


This transformational effect was also noted by Hanan Ramahi who used the teacher-led development methodology in her school in the West Bank in the occupied territory of Palestine. I talked about her work in my last blog post. In her PhD thesis, Hanan reported on transformation that echoed the experiences of Andrew and Richard quoted above. Here are two examples of comments by teachers who had participated in her teacher leadership programme:

 

I wish I saw this clarity earlier, I would have approached so many things in my life in a way that would have improved my reality... from now on there is a solution to every problem in my life, if I will it. (Munir, secondary-level teacher)

 

The end of my project represents a new beginning for me in my career and my vision, and understanding of the concept of leadership, influence and learning. (Reema, primary-level teacher)

 

While I welcome and celebrate such accounts of personal transformation, I nevertheless continue to keep my eye on the prize of school improvement and the creation of professional knowledge. However, the evidence sampled above affirms that scholarship can be empowering. Of course, engaging in scholarship is not always empowering; it depends on how it is construed, and I think that this is often problematic. 

 

The tyranny of research

 Gary Rolfe’s critical account of the tyranny of research in the context of nurse education and practice development resonates with me.

 

The rise of scientific research has been tyrannical in its suppression of traditional ideas of scholarship in favour of the values of the scientific research laboratory. (Rolfe, 2009: 817)

 

Rolfe cites Boyer’s seminal report and Ronald Barnett’s work on the nature on the university to underline his argument about the extent to which contemporary universities have adopted a restrictive construction of scholarship. The impact of this on professionals such as teachers, nurses, police officers is that they come under pressure to mimic the practices of academics who impose a formulaic approach to inquiry: literature review, research questions, research design, data collection, analysis, findings, discussion and conclusion. John Elliott referred to this as ‘academic imperialism’ which I cited in an article for the International Journal of Teacher Leadership in 2018. It is of course far from empowering.

 

I found echoes of the idea of academic imperialism recently when I participated in a webinar hosted by KIX EMAP (Knowledge and Innovation Exchange). The theme was ‘Whose Knowledge is Used in Education?’. There was a robust discussion which highlighted the hegemony of the global north in international discourse about education. An author cited in this regard is Boaventura de Souza Santos who edited ‘Another knowledge is possible: beyond northern epistemologies’. In the webinar, I was particularly pleased to hear the term ‘epistemic injustice’ coined by the philosopher, Miranda Fricker in 2007. This seems to resonate with my own concern about the way universities dominate the process of knowledge production and exchange even though their normal practices are of limited utility in professional contexts and can even be disempowering.

 

A call to resist

Cultural hegemony and epistemic injustice may not be as dramatic and obvious as bombing campaigns and coups d’état, but it is nonetheless outrageous and should be resisted, whether we are talking about the disenfranchised and voiceless in the global south or members of the teaching profession, north or south. We should all work together to demand the right to engage in scholarship, make knowledge and contribute to discourse in ways which are culturally appropriate and consonant with our professional goals and context.

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