Anderson (2002) and Anderson and Herr (1998) – Status and Legitimacy of Practitioner Research

The later, shorter article of these two – both published in Educational Researcher – was the one on our reading list for Researching the Real World, but I ended up dragging up the earlier one in order to find out more.

The 2002 piece is a response to a special issue of the same publication which comprised four ‘thought pieces’ (all written by doctoral educators) on what and how doctoral students should be taught. Anderson objects to the authors’ unwillingness to accept practitioner inquiry from their own students, particularly given that the pieces themselves are insider accounts of practice. ¬†Anderson argues that the insider perspective, the focus on action, the spiralling self-reflection and the intimate relationship between research and practice that are characteristic of practitioner research make it more powerful and more useful for the reader than basic (‘pure’) research. Anderson doesn’t accuse the authors of hypocrisy – he points out that none of the four authors describe their works as ‘research’ – but it is clear he sees them as being on a spectrum of sorts.

This article was very short and raised more questions than it answered. First, the intensity of the language surprised me. Anderson talks of a ‘battle’ and ‘violence’ around basic and practitioner research, the subordination of practitioner research and practitioner researchers, etc. I honestly had no idea that this kind of thing was going on; I naively thought that the vast majority of education researchers were kind, tolerant people at ease with pluralism and all that jazz. I thought the interpretivist perspective enveloped things like action research (it did according to Crotty anyway). Jack Whitehead – one of the godfathers of action research – was one of my Masters tutors at Bath, and I think I’ve probably absorbed a somewhat skewed education on the status and legitimacy of small-scale insider inquiry. This is one reason why I dug out the earlier article – I felt I needed more evidence that this was a genuine conflict. The other question I had was; if we are to allow practitioner enquiry the status of research, what are these special validity criteria that Anderson alludes to?

The 1998 article did satisfy my curiosity to an extent; I found Anderson and Herr’s arguments on institutional resistance to practitioner research persuasive and some of it resonated with my own experience – notably recently when I had to add copious notes to our institutional research ethics approval forms to enable my own students to use them for their own small-scale teaching development projects. My own Masters dissertation project was based on action research, and I remember struggling to reconcile what made sense to me in that context, and what was ‘right’ according to the ethics approval process.

The validity criteria proposed made sense as well – I thought about trying to second-guess them before I actually read the article but then decided I’d probably spent too long on this already ūüėČ But if I had I probably would have come up with at least a couple of these:

  • Outcome validity – does it actually solve the problem?
  • Process validity – is the problem framed and solved in a way that promotes ongoing learning?
  • Democratic validity – extent of stakeholder collaboration
  • Catalytic validity – how the process reorients, focuses and energises participants
  • Dialogic validity – peer review

The question of who such guidelines and/or criteria should be developed by is a good one; I agree with the conclusions in the 1998 piece that academics and practitioners should work together, but I also wonder why people with dual roles do not feature at all in these pieces – was the researcher/teacher divide more prominent at the end of the last century? Anderson’s 2002 piece was inspired by the writings of four researchers writing as teachers. I would have thought these kinds of people would be ideal contributors to the development of quality indicators, but Anderson presents these two populations as very separate warring factions, rather than roles that may be combined.

One final point… to an extent I think Anderson’s argument is weakened by pointing out that many doctoral students are full-time educational practitioners; the implication here is that their situations preclude them from engaging in anything other than insider research, and if this wasn’t the case then of course they would be doing ‘real’ research instead. I think if he’d stuck to his guns about the intrinsic value of insider, action-focused research, it would have sounded more persuasive.

Anderson, G, L. (2002) Reflecting on Research for Doctoral Students in Education. Educational Researcher 31 (7): 22-25

Anderson, G. L., & Herr, K. (1998). The New Paradigm Wars: Is there room for rigorous practitioner knowledge in schools and universities? Educational Researcher 28 (5): 12-21

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