Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 13: The Reflective Practitioner/Understanding Professional Articles
Reading and Understanding Professional Articles
Although publications about educational issues and research can take many forms, they tend to serve three major purposes in some sort of combination. A publication could either:
- provide a framework for understanding teaching and learning,
- offer advice about how to teach, or
- advocate particular ideas or practices about education.
Benefiting from a professional publication depends partly on understanding which of these purposes a particular article or book is emphasizing.
Three Purposes of Educational Publications
Consider the first purpose, to provide a framework for understanding teaching and learning (Hittleman and Simon, 2005). A "framework" in this context means a perspective or general viewpoint for understanding specific events and actions. They are much like the theories described earlier in this book, though not always as formal or broad. A published article might propose, for example, a way of understanding why certain students are disrespectful in spite of teachers’ efforts to prevent such behaviour (perhaps they are reinforced by peers for being disrespectful). It might offer evidence supporting this perspective. In doing so, the author provides a sort of “theory of disrespectful behavior,” though he or she may not call it a theory explicitly.
A second purpose is to offer advice about appropriate teaching practices. An article intended for this purpose, for example, might suggest how to introduce reading instruction to first-graders, or how to use fiction to teach high school history, or how to organize a class to include a student with a disability. Often giving such advice overlaps with the first purpose, providing a framework for understanding, since thinking about an educational issue in a particular way may imply certain ways of dealing with it in practice.
A third purpose of a published article is to advocate ideas and persuade others to take actions benefiting students and society. It might take a position about important issues in education: Is it a good idea or not to retain (or hold back) a student in grade level for another year if the student fails the curriculum the first time? Should schools teach about sexuality? Should girls learn science in classrooms separate from boys? In advocating for ideas or policies about such matters, the article may express concern about what is good, ethical or desirable in education, not just about what is factually true or practical. The author may seek explicitly to persuade readers of the author’s point of view. These features do not mean, however, that you need to give up thinking for yourself. On the contrary, when reading an advocacy-oriented article, reflection may be especially important.
Whatever its purpose—understanding, advice, or advocacy—an article or book about a professional issue can stimulate thinking about what you know and believe about teaching and learning. It should therefore create, rather than undermine, your individuality as a teacher. Think of professional reading as a dialogue or conversation about education: some of the comments in the conversation will probably be more helpful than others, but each participant contributes somehow, even if none can give a final answer or everlasting truth. It is the same with publications; some may be more helpful than others, but none will be so perfect that you can afford to cease further reading or further thinking. If you are about to begin a teaching career, for example, you may be especially interested in anything published about classroom management, but less interested in the problems of administering schools or in the political issues that usually accompany educational systems. Yet some publications may discuss these latter issues anyway, and eventually you may find yourself more concerned about them than at the start of a career. Your job, as a reflective teacher, will be sort out the currently useful articles (or parts of articles) from ones you cannot use immediately.
To experience educational publications in this way, however, you must think of the authors as your collaborators as well as general authorities. As a reader, you need to assume that you are entitled to consider an author’s ideas, but not obligated to accept it without question. There are several strategies for developing this attitude, but to keep the discussion focused, we will look at just two. We have already discussed the first strategy, which is to understand the purposes of any particular piece of research which you encounter, in order to assess its current usefulness to your daily work and your long-term professional goals. We have already indicated several general purposes of educational research publications, but we will go into more detail about this in the next section. The second strategy for relating to authors as collaborators is to think about how you yourself might contribute to professional knowledge by engaging in research of your own, even as a classroom teacher—an activity often called action research (Mills, 2006; Stringer, 2007). At the end of this chapter we discuss what action research involves, and how you might consider using it.
Authors’ Assumptions about Readers
Authors of professional articles and books also make assumptions about their readers, and it helps to be aware of these while you read. The assumptions affect the style, content, and significance of the author’s ideas in ways that are both obvious and subtle.
One assumption is about the response which an author expects from you, the reader: does he or she expect you actually to do something new, or simply to consider doing something new? Or does the author just want you to be aware of a new idea? Consider, for example, an article reviewing best practices about inclusion of students with special needs. The author may imply, or even urge you to take a moral position: you should include these students, the author may seem to say. But in a different article—one recommending particular teaching practices—the author may merely ask you to think about alternatives to your normal ways of teaching. Certain strategies worked under certain teaching conditions, the author says, so simply consider whether they might work for you as well.
A second, less obvious difference among professional publications is in their unstated assumptions about prior experiences and attitudes of readers. This assumption may be either helpful or frustrating, depending on you actual prior background. A piece intended as a “framework for understanding” may assume, for example, that you are familiar with basic theories of learning already. If you have read and understood what we outlined in Chapter 2, about basic learning theories, the article may turn out to be relatively accessible or understandable to you even if you have relatively little experience in actual classroom teaching, and even if you have never studied learning theories in detail. The article might seem more accessible than expect because, for example, it focuses primarily on how teacher's praise affects students' learning, an idea with which you may be somewhat familiar already.
On the other hand, a professional publication may assume that you have taught school for a number of years already, or that you are at least familiar with classroom life from the point of view not of students, but of a teacher. An author writing about "withitness" (discussed in Chapter 7), for example, may make this assumption, since the concept originated by observing teachers managing large group classroom activities. If you yourself are experienced at actual teaching, reading about withitness may trigger a lot of questions about just how withit teachers are able to be in practice, and about whether in fact they always need to be withit. You can also ask yourself these questions even if you have not yet been a teacher yourself, of course, but they may seem less immediate or urgent.
A professional article intended to advocate for a particular educational policy or practice may make very different assumptions about you as a reader. It may assume, for example, that you do in fact enjoy persuading others of your point of view, even when others initially disagree or react indifferently. This sort of assumption may show up as much in what the writing omits, as in what it includes: if the term cooperative learning activity is used without explanation, for example, the researcher may be assuming not only that you are the sort of person—perhaps a teacher—who knows what that term means already, but also that you already believe in the value of cooperative learning and are motivated to explain its value to others.
In making these distinctions among published articles, keep in mind a point we made at the outset: that an individual article usually serves more than one purpose at a time and makes more than one assumption about your prior knowledge and about how you are supposed to respond to the article. The differences are only about emphasis. To illustrate these ideas about the purposes and effects of research, look in the next section at three examples of actual published articles relevant to education. The studies are not a full cross-section of educational research or publications, but they do suggest some the variety possible (and necessary) among them. Each example serves a mixture of purposes, but also emphasizes one purpose in particular (perspective-taking, teaching recommendations, or advocacy) described earlier. The authors of each example also particular assumptions about you, the reader—about the intellectual work which the authors expect you to do and about the motivations which they assume you have or hope that you will acquire. For each example, we describe the reactions of one of us (Kelvin Seifert) as he read the article.
- Hittleman, D. & Simon, A. (2005). Interpreting educational research, 4th edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Mills, G. (2006). Action research: A guide for the teacher researcher, 3rd edition. New York: Prentice Hall.
- Stringer, E. (2007). Action research, 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publications.