Connecting the Hand, the Head, and the Heart: Reflective Practice and Action Research in the Classroom

Andy Curtis


The idea of creating connections is such an important one, so fundamental, that we might wonder why it perhaps needs to be stated so explicitly. One reason for this need is, I think, because of what I refer to as "the artificial and institutionalized compartmentalization of knowledge." This is not, admittedly, a very user-friendly phrase. It does not so much trip off the tongue lightly, as it does trip, stumble, and fall out. But it does capture the way in which, from our earliest school days, different types of knowledge are put into nice, neat, and clearly labeled boxes. This happens partly due to real world needs and constraints, such as the need to create teaching timetables and schedules, which give the impression that geography, history, art, first languages, second languages, and so forth are separate areas of knowledge.
So, we grow up with these boxes in our heads and then get to colleges and universities, which further reinforce this view, through encouraging us to specialize. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told at job interviews that I must "carve out a niche" for myself. This is usually in response to my interview panel seeing that I publish articles on, for example, the use of networked writing labs in second language environments, the management, or mismanagement, of systemic educational change, and approaches to reflective practice. So, they ask, "What are you--a computer or techno type, an educational policy type, or a teacher development type?" "All of them," I would reply. This was generally followed by some confusion and the job being offered to someone "more specialized."
Having worked as a clinical biochemist for many years, before becoming a design technology secondary school teacher, before becoming an EAP instructor, before becoming involved in language teacher development, I held the notion of interdisciplinary exploration as a guiding principle long before I had ever heard of words like "interdisciplinary." And despite all the discussion of interdisciplinary research and teaching, the pressure to specialize, to take on a clear role, to publish in top journals (for "top" read "more theoretical"), and so forth actually discourages us from thinking of knowledge in interconnected ways. We forget that all forms of knowledge are connected to all other forms, that there is no one single fact, idea of opinion that is not related, in some way, to all of the other facts, ideas, and opinions.
Are we teachers or researchers? The answer is "Yes!" Of the many good attempts to define teaching, my favorites are the ones about teaching being a series of endless, moment-to-moment decisions made by the teachers and learners in a particular teaching-learning context. In the same way that we cannot really separate one language skill or modality from another, in the same way we cannot really separate learning from teaching, we cannot separate teaching from research.
"I am a teacher, not a researcher. If I had wanted to be a researcher, I would have done a PhD." I have heard this often over the last ten years, and, on the face of it, this seems like a perfectly reasonable position. I would certainly not blame anyone for preferring not to go through the trials and tribulations, highs and lows, of completing several years of doctoral study. But I think the response, "I'm a teacher, not a researcher," though understandable, says more about the speaker's perception of what it means to be a researcher than of research itself.
Although some writers talk of research with a big R versus research with a small r, my own view of classroom-based research is that it might be best understood through a re-reading of research as re-search. This small wordplay highlights what I believe to be the main value of classroom-based research: to enable us to view our classrooms, our learners, and our professional selves through fresh eyes; to see things that are there now that perhaps were not before and vice versa. The term research can still provoke negative or anxious reactions from people who consider themselves, first and foremost, classroom teachers. So, what I would like to propose is that we drop the "r-word", and instead use something like CBE or CBPS. Education does not, admittedly, need any more acronyms than it already has, but CBE may help to avoid these understandably negative reactions, as it stands for "Classroom-Based Enquiry" or "Classroom-Based Exploration." The alternative, CBPS, stands for "Classroom-Based Problem (or Puzzle) Solving." The enquiry, exploration, and problem- or puzzle-solving all relate to the ways in which we can learn more about what is and is not happening in our classrooms and why. They allow us to step back, to create a little distance, but enough to perhaps see more.
If we want to have a clear view of something, especially of something so very complex as classroom interaction, then being right up close may well not be the best position. If we accept that re-search means seeing more clearly through looking with fresh eyes to gain a greater understanding, then we can use research not only to connect our actions and our beliefs, by seeing how close the relationship is to begin with, but also use this insight to bring about any changes which we might wish to make.