Knowledge is the route to emancipation: Lawrence Stenhouse on teacher work

Published on: Author: Mark Murphy 1 Comment

[image (c) Todd Berman]

By Clive Dimmock

Since joining the Robert Owen Centre I am experiencing constant resonances with the work of a man I have admired for most of my 30-year university career. If you espouse these – teachers researching their own practice, action research, use of data to inform improved practice, the centrality of context in tailoring innovations, and the need for policy and practice to address equity – then you should pay your dues to Lawrence Stenhouse. At the very least, we must ensure his legacy continues to underpin our current research.

Lest we forget, Stenhouse was writing in the 1970s, some four decades ago. His prescient foundational thinking was by no means complete, as he met a premature and untimely early death in the 1980s. However, his pioneering work bringing research and practice together was decades ahead of its time, and his seminal contributions to many of the issues at the fore-front of teacher professional development and practice today reflect his continuing relevance. We should continually remind ourselves of our indebtedness to him, but we also have a responsibility to build on the foundations he left.

These foundations are rich and diverse. First, in addressing the question, What counts as research? – he broke convention in legitimising classroom modes of inquiry to fit alongside conventional academic research. His self-addressed questions included, How can collaboration occur between academic researchers and teacher researchers so that research is useful to practitioners as well as adding to the knowledge base. Second, the central theme of his work was the idea that knowledge was the route to emancipation for both students and teachers. Through acquiring knowledge, both teachers and learners came to a better understanding of the world, which in turn enabled them to make better personal and professional decisions. Consequently, he was against objectives-based curricula, believing that students and teachers should have more rather than less control over the curriculum. Third, he was all too aware of the authority, control and power structures involved in educational research, arguing that it should be academics justifying their research projects to teachers rather than vice versa. Fourth, he championed the influence of context in modifying how the same policy or practice might play out differently. He rejected the traditional research caveat, ‘other things being equal’ because, he said, they never were!

Fifth, in establishing CARE (Centre for Applied Research in Education) at UEA, Stenhouse brought researchers and teachers together – perhaps for the first time – in collaborative curriculum projects. Under Stenhouse’s leadership, CARE became a spring of new, creative and innovative ideas attacking conventional wisdom.  At the time of his death, he was on the verge of some major breakthroughs, the consequence of which left many questions unanswered: How would collaborative research best work between teachers and academics? How could practitioner research fulfil (his) requirements of being systematic, planned, rigorous and self-critical? What exactly is the role of theory in action research?

My passionate belief is that nowadays when we write about teacher research and its connections with professional development, collaborative research between practitioners and academics, professional learning communities and associated ideas, we are failing to acknowledge our heritage if we do not recall the formidable Lawrence Stenhouse and his seminal contribution some 40 years ago. His ideas are just as apposite today for our new Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the School of Education, Glasgow University, as they were back in the 1970s.

About Clive Dimmock

Information about Clive can be found on the Robert Owen Centre website

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