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Scholarship and action in the third space

Updated: May 15, 2023

I am currently very excited about my upcoming trip to Almaty in Kazakhstan to celebrate the publication of a new book ‘Teacher Leadership in Kazakhstan’ (Qanay, Frost, Kalikova & Zazayeva, 2023). I shall also be giving a talk at the Kazakh National Women’s Pedagogical University there under the title: ‘Universities, schools and the third space’. In preparation, I have been reflecting on the nature of these different institutions and the value of links between then.

I qualified as a school-teacher in 1977 and taught in state schools until 1986 when I was asked to become a teacher trainer at the university in which I was studying part-time for a masters degree. Ten years after that, I was appointed to the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education where I worked for twenty or more years, a period which saw significant change. My appointment was actually to the Cambridge Institute of Education. The Institute, as we called it, had been founded as a provider of inservice education for teachers (INSET). In the period of the few months between my being appointed and actually taking up the post, a decision had been taken to incorporate the Institute into the University. The Institute was not just a training provider, but it taught a masters programme accredited by the University of Norwich and members of staff also engaged in research. Academic study was seen as an integral part of inservice teacher education. Over the years, members of staff experienced the transition to being part of a research-intensive university. Many members of the team quit; their practice – working with teachers and schools – seem to be at odds with the culture of the institution we were told we had to become. The future was to be more about research grants rather than running courses that support the goals of schools.

What is educative about educational research?

In my twenty something years at the Faculty of Education, I was keenly aware of tension between my moral purpose and direction we were going in as an organisation, but I hung in there. I remained absolutely committed to working with teachers and schools and my agenda as a researcher focused on that very same enterprise. Following my own doctoral study, I continued to develop my scholarship. My moral purpose was to use whatever intellectual capacity I had to devise ways to help teachers and schools address the problems they faced. My teaching on masters and doctoral programmes gave me opportunities to empower my students as agents of change. However, it was commonly assumed that students’ research on postgrad programmes in a research-intensive university such as Cambridge would need to conform to a model of research which seemed to me to be shaped by simplistic assumptions derived from the physical sciences. My view was that, in the field of education, we need modes of research that are educative and make a practical difference. For my own doctoral study, I had enrolled at the Centre for Applied Research in Education (CARE) at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. Lawrence Stenhouse, its founder, proposed that educational researchers should see themselves as public servants. In the 1970s he put it like this:

In order to offer support for schools, the 'educationist' needs to assume a consultancy

role in the fullest sense. He needs to see himself as notionally employed by the teacher,

and as accountable to him (Stenhouse, 1975: 192).

This sentiment was expressed by Michael Apple who told a large audience of academics at a conference in Florida that academics should act as ‘story tellers and secretaries’ for teachers who inhabit a highly-pressured and immensely time-consuming professional world (Apple, 2006). I was inspired by these arguments, but I had the view that we can take them further. Sure, it is OK to support teachers and schools in a consultancy mode; it is also good to enable the voice of teachers to be heard. However, I believed that it is also possible to empower and enable teachers to be change agents and advocates for themselves. This conviction was at the centre of my work to support teacher leadership in the HertsCam Network.

Some of my colleagues advised their post-grad students to play safe and stick to the norms of empirical research. Most students went along with these, quite understandably, since they were seeking to please their examiners and achieve a degree. I was fortunate in that I was frequently approached by courageous scholars who were determined that their study would be an opportunity to make a difference, even if this choice presented them with additional challenges. At the outset, I would advise that an action-based study is a hard road to travel. The concern that the study might be regarded as less than legitimate at Cambridge was quite easily dealt with, but I felt obliged to warn them about the sheer hard work of managing a project which had a strong developmental dimension.

Activism and research in Kazakhstan

One of my star students was Gulmira Qanay who, ten years ago, asked me to supervise her doctoral study. She had been working in an administrative capacity at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan and received a scholarship to study in the UK on the understanding that she would work for the university for at least 5 years following her graduation. She could have opted to carry out a study of the teacher leadership work in HertsCam, a programme already established in the UK, but she demanded more of herself. At the beginning of her career, she had undertaken teacher training and had also observed her mother’s long career in teaching. As a result, she felt an affinity with the teaching profession and wanted to contribute by developing ways to empower teachers as agents of change. Because of Gulmira’s determination, her doctoral study exemplified how the academy can serve a community, in this case the teaching profession.

Gulmira began by negotiating with schools and the local education authorities in her hometown of Taraz, to establish a programme of support for teacher leadership in a small group of schools. She recruited a team of co-facilitators within the schools and together they enabled many teachers to design and plan development projects that led to a wide range of improvements in practice. The participating schools in Taraz were not merely learning about research conducted in universities, but they were working in partnership with a university-based scholar to build something new. For Gulmira, the study was extremely demanding, but as her PhD thesis testifies, ultimately worthwhile. The Taraz project informed a much bigger venture when we were asked by colleagues at Open Society Foundations to bring support for non-positional teacher leadership to the rest of Kazakhstan. The book mentioned at the beginning of this article tells the story of that 3 year Teacher Leadership in Kazakhstan (TLK) initiative.

Schools and universities may have different priorities and goals, but I hope that the example of the TLK initiative illustrates how university academics and school practitioners can find ways to experience shared goals and work together in transformative ways. This is about coming together to collaborate in a third space (Arhar et al., 2013; Whitchurch, 2008) where there is a sense of common cause and mutual benefit.


Arhar, J., Niesz, T., Brossman, J., Koebly, S., O’Brien, K., Loe, D. and Black, F. (2013)

Creating a Third Space in the context of a university-school partnership: supporting teacher action research and the research preparation of doctoral students. Educational Action Research, 21:2, 218- 236.

Apple, M. (2006) Markets, Standards, and Inequality - Keynote Address to ICSEI (International Congress on School Effectiveness and Improvement) Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA audio recording retrieved from the world wide web on 10 March 2006 /icsei2006/archive.htm

Qanay, G., Frost, D., Kalikova, S. and Zakayeva, G. (2023) Лидерство учителей Казахстана (Teacher Leadership in Kazakhstan), Almaty: ИД «Жибек Жолы».

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. Oxford:


Whitchurch, C. (2008) Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: The Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education. Higher Education Quarterly 62(4): 377-396.

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