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Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]
Making the invisible visible

Tim Moss, Heather Smigiel, Sharon Thomas and Neil Trivett
Flexible Education Unit
University of Tasmania

This paper is based on a belief in the importance of making teaching visible in order to enable dialogue and work towards improvement and excellence. As Shulman writes, if we as academics are to value teaching as much as we do research "we must change the status of teaching from private to community - and therefore valued - property" (Shulman, 1993, p. 6). The aim of this paper is to report on two projects where the authors have attempted to put this claim into action - through developing and implementing a classroom based approach to practitioner research. This paper also aims to critique the outcomes of practitioner research, for the lecturers implementing the courses, and for the students who participated, in order to determine the future implications and applications of this work.

I choose to make obsession a curricular concern, not so that I might loosen its burden through a kind of therapeutic catharsis, but so that I might more mindfully consider its weight, claim it even as I offer it up for consideration within a broader community of teachers and writers and researchers. In offering up my own particulars, and in turn, some of those whose lives have become connected to mine through our shared experiences - in this case of reading and writing and considering the practice of teaching - I hope to render visible, through attention to form, some of the usually invisible pedagogical relations that circumscribe our teaching and learning. (Rasberry, 2001, p. xix)


Practitioner research is an important method for those who teach in any context as it aims to foster greater understanding of practice, through investigation, analysis, and critique using research processes. This means that teaching can be subjected to rigorous scrutiny and that a strong research base can be developed for teaching. The processes of this style of research are also perceived as crucial if practitioners are to have control over what they teach, and participate in discussions about curriculum content and method. We therefore propose that although the intention of practitioner research is for the researcher to develop a greater understanding of his/her practice, it is also a research activity and if the process is to be taken seriously then it needs to be treated in the same way as traditional forms of research. That is, it must be made available for public critique and commentary. Shulman (1998) suggests that the processes and product should be public, susceptible to critical review and evaluation, and accessible for exchange and use by other members of one's scholarly community.

In this paper we will describe two projects where practitioner research has been introduced to teachers through certified university courses. The first project involved trainee teachers in their final year. The second is a new Masters unit for university lecturers. The aims, processes and outcomes of each project will be discussed within the framework of practitioner research and the strengths and weaknesses of each of the projects will be presented.

Design principles

In designing these programs we followed several principles. First, following Shulman's recommendation, we decided that our practitioner research units should begin from the individual's own context, and then through the process of sharing with a wider community, move into a broader educational context. Thus we intended that our units would facilitate a transition into communities of practice, both academic and professional. By heightening awareness of and participation in these communities of practice, our units will serve to both strengthen and improve the practices within these communities.

The second principle was that through practitioner research, we believed that tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1966) about teaching would become more visible, and thus legitimate. In other words, we believed that practitioner research would make more explicit the tacit knowledge held by teachers, in that by highlighting how teachers act, questions of why they believe they act in this way are also raised. Practitioner research achieves this by approaching knowledge about teaching in a new way. Traditionally, the practitioner looks at the broader context (ie. body of literature), and then must 'translate' or transfer the knowledge gained from this context to their own particular circumstances/context. In practitioner research, the process moves in the opposite direction - the individual starts with their own context, and through the research process, identifies how this can be transferred to the broader context in a way that reinforces/challenges existing theories and understandings. Because of this process, practitioner research is a dynamic and innovative form of research (which generates unique, relevant, workplace based knowledge), and also an important and powerful model of learning. When we develop public evidence of our teaching we are truly engaged in the scholarship of teaching. Scholarship, Shulman writes, necessarily entails the development of artefacts, products, or:

some form of community property that can be shared, discussed, criticised, exchanged, built upon ... we don't judge each other's research on the basis of casual conversations in the hall [nor should we with teaching]... artefacts of teaching must be created and preserved so that they can be judged by communities of peers beyond the office next door (Shulman, 1993, p. 6-7)
The examination of one's teaching in all its forms is important, if teachers are to make a claim for knowledge and practice in whatever they teach. This is perhaps particularly important when applied to teachers' practice as it is informed by their tacit or 'invisible' knowledge. As Loughran (1999) writes, research into pedagogy: "problematizes the conditions of appropriateness of educational practices and aims to provide a knowledge base for professionals" (p. 14).

The practitioner research programs: Introduction

The undergraduate program was developed based on these design principles, and was implemented as a final year unit for Bachelor of Education students preparing to teach early childhood and primary students.

The Practitioner Research module comprised one third of a compulsory year long, final year foundation education unit in which approximately 150 students were enrolled. Student contact time was limited and this necessarily influenced the design of the course. Temporally and conceptually the course spanned three distinct phases from February to October - planning the research, conducting the research, and interpreting the research.

Given the limited student contact time and the concomitant impracticability of gaining ethics approval, the scope of research possibilities available to students was necessarily reduced. The lecturers, rather than seeing this as problematic, used the situation to advantage and focussed students' research attention on the teaching self. Whilst this negated the need for ethics approval, it did not detract from the value of the experience, the self being integral to and inseparable from a study of one's own practice.

On the basis of this experience, the authors have developed a masters level practitioner research unit for implementation in 2006. This unit will be available to students studying any postgraduate degree and will form part of a future Masters of Education in University Learning and Teaching. The option for higher education practitioners to audit this unit, for professional development purposes, will also be made available. It is important to note, however, that it is envisaged that the majority of students will have completed the Graduate Certificate in University Learning and Teaching and it is therefore pertinent to briefly outline the structure of this degree, as it forms the practical and attitudinal foundations for the proposed practitioner research unit.

The Graduate Certificate in University Learning and Teaching (GradCertULT) commenced at the University of Tasmania at the beginning of 2004. Two cohorts have begun the degree, with a third cohort to begin in February 2005, which will bring the total number of students to over 60. The objectives of the course are to:

The degree is comprised of four units studied sequentially over 18-24 months. In the foundation unit students explore the principles, theories and practices of university learning and teaching including being introduced to a range of approaches to teaching, knowledge development, assessment and evaluation. Reflection and sharing is an important part of this unit.

The second unit is aimed at enhancing professional practice in university learning and teaching and covers the development of a knowledge of the theory and practice of evaluation based teaching through critical self reflection and peer review. The development of a reflective journal is part of one of the major pieces of assessment with the final assessment item being a learning and teaching development plan based on reflection and peer review.

The two final units support participants to identify a possible innovation in their professional practice. Participants are required to plan the implementation and leadership of this innovation in their workplace, demonstrating knowledge of contemporary leadership and change management theories as well as the underlying teaching and learning principles and practices associated with this innovation.

Thus the GradCertULT aims to develop highly reflective practitioners and encourages students to take a scholarly approach to their teaching; including reviewing and reflecting on their practice as teachers, engaging in peer review of their teaching and professional practice, updating course materials through knowledge of current research in the field and engaging in peer review of their teaching and professional practice. The GradCertULT does not expect students to engage in a systematic study of, nor publication about, their teaching. It is our proposed Masters unit that will encourage our students along this next phase in their journey.

The following section discusses the practitioner research units, in terms of our implementation of the three phases discussed earlier.

The practitioner research programs: Implementation and outcomes

Phase 1: Planning the research

In the undergraduate program, this phase consisted of ten hours of lectures in which students were introduced to the basics of research. Undergirding this phase was the desire to introduce students to the processes and possibilities of practitioner research. The lecturers had a goal of empowering students by making both the scholarship and practicalities of practitioner research accessible and desirable. Students were encouraged to see practitioner research as an enabling process, one which allowed them to regain some authorship of classroom practice - something done with and by teachers, rather than to them (Loughran, 1999). They were reminded that the perception of teachers working in the "trenches" as "consumers" of others' research is no longer valid, if indeed it ever was (Parsons & Brown, 2002, p.7). Students were set the challenge of eliminating the chasm that exists between the "elevated highlands of theory" and the "swampy lowlands of practice" (Schön, 1983, in Loughran, 1999, p. 1)

Specifically, students were introduced to: the fundamental differences between the qualitative and quantitative research paradigms; the purposes of, and value inherent in, practitioner research; forms of practitioner research (narrative, autoethnography, case study and action research); approaches to data collection; identifying a question; and devising a plan. These lectures were, as far as was practicable, interactive in nature. The lecturers attempted to increase student accountability by incorporating activities that required active participation. Students were, for example, encouraged to discuss ideas with other students in the class, engage in writing tasks and share responses to specific questions. This helped establish a climate of a community of learners, crucial for the third phase of our practitioner research program.

The requirements for research plans were purposely limited in nature. Students were asked to submit a one page proposal which detailed the what, how and why of their intended research. While many students found this a relatively straightforward exercise, some experienced difficulty. The difficulties students encountered were both philosophical and pragmatic in nature. For some, finding a topic that interested them was surprisingly hard; as was ensuring congruence between purpose and methodology. These students, rather than seeing the research process holistically, were still viewing it as a set of disparate parts. Some of the questions posed included: What exactly is self study? Where is the boundary between 'self' and 'other'? What makes self study different from case study and different from reflective practice? How can we find evidence for self study work that is beyond self?

The plans themselves revealed some interesting patterns in terms of themes selected:

For the most part, the plans seemed to fall into two broad categories: studies of self and studies of practice. Some students recognised that, in reality, such a division is a false one. Indeed, this was perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing us throughout this course - educating students to understand that a study of practice is ultimately a study of the self. The two are inseparable.

Based on insights generated through the implementation of the undergraduate course, we anticipate several issues in this phase may arise when working with Masters students (who are themselves academics). First, we must be aware of students' assumptions about research. If our current Graduate Certificate students are indicative, we would expect most of our Masters students to be quantitative/scientific researchers, or at least very familiar with this paradigm. Many have a narrow view of research, what it is and what it is used for and believe the purpose of research is to prove phenomena or reduce uncertainty, not attempt to explain or describe the uncertain. This view is illustrated below, in an excerpt from an assignment submitted by a group of students:

...the post-modernist influence has spread across the humanities at a disempowering rate - this "Emperor's new clothes" phenomenon has made little attempt to incorporate or understand the scientific approach to inquiry but has used its "authority" instead to undermine sensible discussion (discourse). If the invention of photography ended painting's authority to represent truth, as suggested by J. F. Lyotard in 'The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge', then science is quickly doing the same with philosophy... philosophical utterances will be replaced by scientific theories that are truly testable and add to a body of knowledge built on the substance of molecular structure and relationships. The discussion of how we know what we know (epistemology) with regard to teaching and learning is better served by a scientific approach. One of the benefits of science is that theories put forward are testable and constantly open to revision based on the experimental evidence. Uncertainty is accepted as part of the deal and revision is welcome when backed up by evidence. It seems that postmodernist ideological constructions wish to fill the areas of uncertainty and then take on the authority of experimentally based ideas.
The second (and related) issue that we will need to address is the view held by a number of researchers, including many at the University of Tasmania, that for research to be valid, and therefore worth sharing, objectivity is necessary and that the self should be distanced from research to achieve this. Of course in practitioner research the self is integral to and inseparable from the study of one's own practice. For our inexperienced undergraduate researchers, one of the outcomes of the process for them, as described above, was to learn that understanding their practice meant understanding themselves; that the demarcation between self and practice, private and public, is blurred. Although most of our postgraduate students will agree with this notion, they may not agree that this constitutes research.

The third issue that we may need to account for in the postgraduate program is that of research ethics. Although experienced researchers, many of our participants will be unfamiliar with the social sciences ethics process. We have found it surprising when teaching in the Graduate Certificate that many students are not even remotely aware of what types of research require ethics approval, nor how to go about applying for approval. Few will have faculty based mentors to guide them through the process, so this must form an integral part of the unit. We propose that ethics clearance/submission will form part of one of the final assessment tasks for the unit. This will open the scope of research possibilities to include areas not available to our undergraduate students.

Phase 2: Conducting the research

In the undergraduate program, students undertook their practitioner research during their seven week Internship. Students were placed in schools in various locations in Tasmania and, unless teaching in a paired situation, were essentially 'isolated' in this data collection phase. Some students did, however, initiate email contact with staff and fellow students. The advantage of this 'isolation' was that it required the students to be independent in their decision making and perhaps take risks and trial processes through 'necessity'. The disadvantage was that it didn't allow for continuing dialogue between the students and the lecturers or their fellow students. Hence, opportunities for scaffolding were significantly reduced. In future iterations such dialogue should be encouraged, at the very least in electronic form. The gap between the planning phase and this data collection phase meant that the immediacy of the foundation knowledge established at the beginning of the year was somewhat compromised.

Many of the difficulties encountered by students during this phase related to their novice researcher status. They made assumptions and decisions that proved, in hindsight, somewhat impractical. For example, many students made the inappropriate assumption that colleague teachers would be a valuable source of data. They had planned on colleague teachers observing them teaching, providing written feedback, engaging in interviews and so on. The day to day logistics of a teacher's workload rarely permitted such generous time allocation. Similarly, many students underestimated the amount of time required to collect data or were overly ambitious in their plans. For some, data collection was seen as an added responsibility in an already full day. Others, however, showed prudence in embedding their data collection within their compulsory Internship reflection.

Perhaps predictably, journals were the most heavily utilised form of data collection: journals represent something familiar and are easily accessible. More advanced forms of reflection such as narrative writing were employed less frequently. Some strategies used successfully by students (eg. maps of the classroom, talking with others and documenting this conversation through email) were not widely employed. These nascent researchers quickly learnt the pitfalls of, as well as the unique insights to be gained from, various methods of data collection.

To help us to ameliorate some of the challenges above, and reflecting on the lessons learnt at the undergraduate level, students in the postgraduate unit will be allocated to peer groups that will meet regularly for set tasks. This will allow for the process of scaffolding that was absent/lacking at the undergraduate level, and reduce the intellectual gap between the development of the foundation knowledge gained in the face to face component and data collection, which will take place as part of their thesis units and/or ongoing practitioner research.

The second issue of relevance to the postgraduate program at this phase of the practitioner research process is that of time limitations. We anticipate that this will be a major challenge - both for us in the initial face to face contact with students (given that a large portion of this will be devoted to challenging assumptions as described earlier), and for the academics undertaking the practitioner research process. We believe it is best to acknowledge this at the outset, and confront the issues in a robust and public way. Our understanding of the issues faced, and solutions generated, by the undergraduate students with regard to balancing the need to collect data with other time demands will allow us to assist these students in approaching their research in a realistic and achievable way.

Phase 3: The interpreting and sharing process

In the undergraduate program, it was during this phase that the notion of community of learners was fully realised. This was, for nearly all students, the final assignment of their four year course. Presentations therefore held an almost symbolic quality. For many, the direct relevance of the shared findings to their future profession was inescapable. For others, it marked a rite of passage.

This phase was undoubtedly the most difficult, but also the most rewarding for students. Over a period spanning six weeks and in tutorial groupings numbering approximately 25, students were: introduced to data analysis techniques; required to interpret their own data: and asked to form small groups and identify commonalities in findings. This culminated in small group presentations of findings to the tutorial group.

In the first two weeks (data analysis stage), examples and models of practitioner research were shared with students. Developing the commonalities in findings in small groups proved the most challenging aspect of this phase. Students were guided through this stage by the lecturers who were available for small group consultation. After great perseverance on behalf of many students, commonalities were eventually identified. Helping students to recognise this struggle as integral to the data analysis stage of the research journey was a challenge.

A number of insights were gained during the presentations and these will inform future iterations of this course. First, there was a tendency for students to focus on the findings and not the research process. In many ways the presentations were more illustrative of seminars - now very familiar to students after four years - with their focus on content/topic. Related to this, many of the presentations relied heavily on anecdotes, once again, overlooking the purposeful use of data to support findings. In essence, those presentations that focussed on practice were least successful. Those that focussed on self as teacher and self as researcher were most successful.

In terms of the postgraduate unit, the experiences described above suggest that some students will find the process of sharing and critiquing extremely challenging and, in some instances, emotional. We will be challenging an important part of these researchers' self concepts as academics. For these reasons our most significant challenge in working with postgraduates at this final stage will be to create a safe environment where practitioner research can be discussed, trialed and shared. We expect that some students will feel confronted and/or vulnerable with the process (from either members within the group or from their faculty based colleagues), so we must ensure the creation of a safe environment where ideas can be 'hot housed' before being subjected to public/external critique. To facilitate this, a group 'retreat', where students will orally present and defend the outcomes of their research, will be included.

At the culmination of the unit, students will have the option of presenting for their final assignment either a completed/approved ethics application and Med/PhD research proposal, or a completed research paper, ready for review. In this way, students will be required to 'go public' with the new knowledge they have generated through the unit, having already had the opportunity to test this knowledge in a supportive and structured environment.


Reflecting on our experiences with undergraduate students, and our intentions in preparing the postgraduate program, several questions remain: what did (and could) the students learn? What did the lecturers learn?

The students learnt from themselves and from others. They learnt that understanding their practice meant understanding themselves; the demarcation between self and practice, private and public, had become blurred. They also learnt that practitioner research is "do-able" and worthwhile. By moving their findings into a public forum, open to critical debate with peers, they occupied that gap between self and practice in which the private informs the public and the public informs the private (Bullough and Pinnegar, 2001). They came to see themselves as "truth makers", not "truth seekers" (Barone, 2000, p.149). This process of making tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1966) public was both enlightening and empowering for the students.

The lecturers had their deeply held convictions on the value and efficacy of practitioner research affirmed and confirmed. We found that practitioner research did offer a "...genuine space within which teachers and educational practitioners can reveal what is real for them" (Smythe, 1999, p.75). The invisible connections between self and practice had become visible, through the process of interpreting and sharing. We believe that such an outcome is as important and relevant in the context of higher education as it was proven to be for undergraduate students.


Barone, T. (2000). Aesthetics, politics and educational inquiry. New York: Peter Lang.

Bullough, R. & Pinnegar, S. (2001). Guidelines for quality in autobiographical forms of self-study research. Educational Researcher, 30(3), 13-21.

Loughran, J. (1999). Researching teaching for understanding. In J. Loughran (Ed.), Researching teaching: Methodologies and practices for understanding pedagogy (pp.1-10). London: Falmer Press.

Parsons, R. & Brown, K. (2002). Teacher as reflective practitioner and action researcher. Australia: Wadsworth.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Rasberry, W. (2001).Writing research/Researching writing: Through a poets i. Peter Lang, New York

Smythe, J. (1999). Researching the cultural politics of teachers' learning. In J. Loughran (Ed.), Researching teaching: Methodologies and practices for understanding pedagogy (pp.67-82). London: Falmer Press.

Shulman, L. (1993). Teaching as community property. Change, 25(6), 6-7.

Authors: Tim Moss, Heather Smigiel, Sharon Thomas and Neil Trivett
Flexible Education Unit, University of Tasmania
Postal address: Locked Bag 1341, Launceston, Tasmania 7250
Phone: (03) 6324 3151 Fax: (03) 6324 3301 Email: Neil.Trivett@utas.edu.au

Please cite as: Moss, T., Smigiel, H., Thomas, S. and Trivett, N. (2005). Making the invisible visible. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/moss.html

Copyright 2005 Tim Moss, Heather Smigiel, Sharon Thomas and Neil Trivett. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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