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Practitioner Inquiry and Course (Re)Design

Editors note: The following post is the first part of a two part entry by Dr. Ellie Fulmer.

By Dr. Ellie Fitts Fulmer

Part 1: What is Practitioner Inquiry, and What Does it have to do with Course (Re)Design?

I participated in the Center for Faculty Excellence’s Course (Re)Design institute for early career faculty (Jan.– Dec. 2016). This year-long institute invited instructors from across campus to shine the light of inquiry into a selected aspect of their practice, to breathe in towards that vulnerable place, and to learn from, about, and with one another. I had not personally experienced such a rejuvenating and productively challenging collective since my doctoral work in Philadelphia alongside peers in the field of Practitioner Inquiry. Although the early career institute doesn’t explicitly use the language of practitioner inquiry, I’ve noticed that it’s at the heart of a lot of what we do.

What do I mean by practitioner inquiry (PI)? Drawing from a decades-long tradition articulated by Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993), I use PI to refer to systematic inquiry into one’s practice of teaching, usually as part of a group of educators who work together as critical friends to challenge presumptions and explore pieces of our work we take for granted. This means inviting vulnerability, as we often find it troubling and painfully difficult to excavate fundamental assumptions we hold about instruction; yet, this is core to learning the skills of deep reflection.

Ultimately, it takes a willingness to deprivatize practice – to pull back the curtain and reveal to our peers how and why we structure our classrooms in the ways that we do.

Sound simple? Perhaps deceptively so. Practitioner inquiry is not for the faint of heart. Reflexive vulnerability can be painful: it can be hard to look at one’s personalized practice when the light is shining into it, so damn bright, with enough luminescence for all present to see into the nooks and crannies of your semester routines and expectations for students.

Admit it: you’ve, once or twice, felt the urge to depict a class session better than it actually went; or perhaps you’ve hidden away some teaching struggles you’ve felt poking at you, tugging at your ear, urging you to examine them. Perhaps you’ve avoided looking at these spots, like I do sometimes, too, because it’s easier to tidy them away, and to paint the class with broader brushstrokes of generalized success.

Practitioner inquiry, by contrast, invites us to bring these rough spots into the light, so that we and our peers can learn from them. Collective inquiry means that we approach this work together, as both vulnerable learners and generators of new knowledge of practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999). Practitioner inquiry is not about fixing something, but more about trying to understand it better (Galosy, 2014).

These tenets shaped my experience in the CFE’s early career institute, and set the stage for deep learning I experienced as a result of participation in the small group work facilitated by the CFE’s Judith Ross-Bernstein. I learned numerous things about my teaching, especially regarding my graduate course in Social Studies Education that became the focus of my semester-long redesign.

Most core to the redesign was the insight that I was privileging breadth over depth, particularly with the culminating assignment. In seeing the course through the eyes of my colleagues, I was able to draw my focus towards recreating the project. What was, initially, the creation of a 5-lesson unit (totaling approximately 25 pages, fully compiled) on an aspect in the NY state standards for elementary social studies, became remarkably smaller. The assignment became a single lesson within the context of a larger unit, which would be narratively described, totaling about 10 pages. By zeroing in on the core features I wanted my students to be able to do (conceptualize a unit, and write a thoughtful and detailed lesson plan), I created a stronger assignment that was more manageable. In addition, course evaluations show that it was well received. Students told me they felt that the project was scaffolded for their success with it.

Have you engaged with practitioner inquiry, perhaps informally? Do you have opportunities to ask your peers about your teaching and students? By inviting a critical lens on our practice with trusted colleagues, we have an opportunity to have our assumptions challenged and deepen learning as teacher/scholars.

The focus for the next blog is to explore a facet of my overall practice I’m eager to shine the light of practitioner inquiry on to: classroom silences. In that post, I’ll explore classroom silences around my use of racial comedy clips. In particular, that post will focus on something my colleague Alesha Gayle at the University of Pennsylvania and I have come to refer to as the hesitation to laugh (Fulmer & Gayle, under review).

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