In the penultimate blog in this series on Practitioner Research I ponder the conundrum of matching our beliefs to our actions as researchers and practitioners and as practitioner-researchers. In doing so I’ve tried to meld the thinking of Tim, Lee and Doug with my own and fuse it into a vaguely coherent and meaningful narrative. As such credit for everything good in this fortnight’s blog goes to the four of us, while blame and misunderstanding are my burdens to carry.
To summarise our discussions about beliefs and actions in the book, and the potential misalignment that we have often seen and experienced in our work, I draw upon Doug’s words:
“If you believe that girls should have the same opportunities in sport and physical education as boys, let’s look back … and see if those beliefs were translated into action. If they are, great! How do you keep it going? If they weren’t, why? Why weren’t they translated and how could you shift that?”
This might be common focus/ambition in schools, physical education and in teaching and/or in sports clubs and coaching. Equal opportunities for all is, after all, a driving ambition of modern society. It might be something you passionately believe in and strive daily to achieve. Day in and Day out you may succeed. Great! Equally you may fail. Once. Twice. Yearly. Weekly. Daily. Is this OK? If it is then why? If it isn’t then why? In both cases what are you going to do about it?
Maybe it’s not equal opportunities for girls but its ability that’s your driver. Every child matters, after all, regardless of theircurrent ability – especially in youth sport and schools. I believe it does. But that doesn’t mean I always achieve it. I believe it but do I always action it in every situation. Like you, I’m sure, I strive to ensure that everyone gets the same chances. Or at least that’s what I believe. Do your actions align with your beliefs? Was it always that way? What changed?
Maybe the use of the term able is the issue. If we pigeon hole young people as more able and less able then we categorize them. May be for life. Take the terms “Geek” and “Jock” and how they shape who we are. Which were you? I was defiantly a Jock and I’ve had to fight hard against that label for a lot of my life – both with myself and, to a lesser extent, with others. If we think of young people (learners) as achieving (and I thank Paul Sammon for this line of thinking) then we recognise the fact that each individual has the potential to learn and therefore achieve more (or less) in a given situation. Perhaps we are more forgiving of the able or perhaps we are more forgiving of the less able? Would this be the same with those who are currently (i.e. today) high or low achievers? Wouldn’t we find ways to help them develop? As current achievers, they are seen on a continuum towards growth and development. They’re not fixed in terms of their ability. But how do you realise that in your practice? What would it take to align your beliefs and your actions?
The difficulty is not believing something. It’s about actioning that belief or understanding why you hold that belief in the first place. As C.S. Lewis said "You can't go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending." To do that you need to understand one (or both) of two things. 1) How you came to be where you are, and/or 2) where you’d like to go.
When the four of us discussed this issue from a practitioner research perspective, and through the respective lenses of action research (me), narrative inquiry (Lee), autoethnography (Doug) and self-study of practice (Tim), we came to some interesting conclusions/decisions.
There is often a gap between the hope and the happening (Ulf Lundgren, 1983). In other words, what you hope will happen (or believe should happen) doesn’t always come to fruition (or isn’t actioned). As John Steinbeck (1937) wrote “The best laid plans of mice and men (sic) often go astray.” But why? When push comes to shove we often prioritize other things. In sport that has often been technique over understanding or the team over the individual.
Beliefs and/or actions (at least desired actions) are often the things that get practitioner researchers to the start line. It’s what happens next that interested the four of us most. When we stood on that imaginary line we asked each other “which direction are you looking?” and “what drives your next step?” Two of us looked forwards with actions in mind while the other two looked backwards with beliefs holding sway. This is when we came to see the different ways in which each of us might address the same question.
Let’s imagine that our question was “How can I ensure that girls have the same opportunities in sport and physical education as boys?”
I suggested that, as an action researcher, I would be looking forwards at an action or actions I wanted to take to ensure equity. I would interested in the specific ‘things’ it would take to ensure that my practice and my students’ experience were equitable. I would think, plan, act, evaluate, and reflect. I would use action research to help me to develop my teaching/coaching and as an accountability measure and equity compass to help me progress. I felt that I would have arrived at the start line with the firm belief that I equity is important and that I needed to take action for the betterment of everyone. In the process of taking action I might come to question that belief. I might reframe it (or other beliefs) due to its impact on those other beliefs (e.g. I believe that inter-school sport is good thing but how do I balance its inherent inequities with my own drive for equity?). But, in the beginning, I feel I would be taking an action that needed to be taken. In this way I was felt I was in the present looking to the future.
As a narrative inquirer, Lee said he would be looking backwards. He would want to know where his beliefs and values had come from and how his stories to live by - or his identities or subjectivities – affected and showed him, as a practitioner, what he believed. He said he would seek to create a timeline and chronicle his past experiences to see why he had these beliefs and values at this point in time, and decide: is this is something that I really need or want to implement my practice? He felt he needed to ‘self-face’ before taking action. He would want to know more about his belief before he sought to change the situation. Were his beliefs representative of now? Were they modern and current or were they relics of a time now past? While this might mean that the action occurred elsewhere it would mean that the belief that spurred the action was current and reflective of the individual and where they were looking. In this way, Lee felt he would looking at the past to impact the present.
Doug too was looking backwards. He was looking at the past and how it would/could impact the present. But he wasn’t looking in the same way/direction/manner as Lee. Doug wasn’t looking so much at his beliefs but at the culture his prior actions and beliefs had created. As an autoethnographer, Doug was inherently interested in culture and his part in it. He would be looking back on critical instances, observations, stories and documents to see how he had manged equity in the past and the culture of equity (or a lack of it) that existed now and that he had created. By studying his actions and beliefs in the past he could, he felt, try and figure out if [and how] he had put them in action. In examining the past he could impact the future. As he wrote: “Beliefs in action = cultural creation. Because when I take my beliefs as a classroom teacher and I put them into action, that creates a culture. Now I may not express my beliefs accurately, so if I go back and look at that (although I’m not taking action at this point in time), I’m looking back at the beliefs in action and trying to understand if they were actually enacted.” Consequently, Doug is looking at the past to inform the present. He wants to know how his belief and actions have created the culture (be it of equity or inequity) in which he (and his students) now reside in the hope that (if done well) it will lead to positive future actions.
The focus for Tim was future-orientated. That said, he wanted to ensure he had an emphasis on self and an emphasis on practice. His steps going forwards would be aimed toward improvement. While his research question might be based on past experience it would be researched moving forwards. He argued that “in order to arrive at your question in self-study of practice, you would have to look into the past, particularly regarding your beliefs, to ask” ‘well what is going on here that is causing me to question what I now understand?’” The resulting self-study would involve the study of how the self is engaged in practice in the present e.g. how my practice supports and develops equity of opportunities for girls in physical education and sport.
From reading this it’s easy to see how each methodology might look in different directions and with a different emphasis in terms of time, action and/or belief. Narrative inquiry and autoethnography give consideration to the temporal/chronological focus of the study and are focused on the past to inform the present. Conversely, action research and self-study of practice tend to concentrate on the present with a firm eye on the future. But these ‘rules’ don’t mean that practitioner researchers can’t delve into the past using action research or self-study, or the future using narrative inquiry and autoethnography. The key is choice. The practitioner researcher should have a choice.
Studies have shown that when practitioners are forced to engage in study of their own practice it is much less effective that initiatives driven by the practitioner themselves. Whatever drives your practice, and gives you the motivation to study it? Think about how your beliefs and actions impact on those in your care. It’s happening anyway. The question is “how do you ensure the ephemeral concepts of belief and action are serving you and your practice?”
Casey, A., Fletcher, T., Schaefer, L. & Gleddie, D. (2017). Conducting Practitioner Research in Physical Education and Youth Sport: Reflecting on Practice. London: Routledge.