The guru of praxis …

Sounds like a good name for an arthouse movie or an avant-garde band … but is in fact referring to Professor Stephen Kemmis, whose AARE workshop on Professional Practice Theory I attended last weekend at the University of Queensland. Stephen is a guru in my eyes, perhaps best known for co-authoring one of the bibles of critical practice, Becoming Critical (Carr & Kemmis, 1986).

Praxis is all about critically reflecting and acting on practice, with the intention of changing practice for social good. So we would be practicing this in the workshop? Not exactly …

Stephen began the workshop with a confession of his tendency to monologue, and pleaded with us to alleviate this through asking questions, contributing to discussion, and initiating group conversations. Then he began to speak … about the history of schooling and of universities … of the design of classrooms and the design of the book (did you know that books were designed to be chained to tables and shelves so that they could not be stolen?)… of the bureaucratisation of teaching … of the redesign of the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences … where was this leading?

… to ‘Practice architectures’, a construct which accounts for contextual aspects of practice, proposing that it is “profoundly located”.  Rather than try to spell out all the dimensions of this, here is a version of Stephen’s model for researching educational praxis as related to its architectures, drawing on ideas about practice from Habermas, Bloom, Marx, Foucault and Bourdieu:

“an expanded view of the relationships between the individual and cultural–material–social purposes of education”

Related to this is the concept of ecologies of practice – the interconnected system of social practices that support and inform each other (also see Lemke’s ideas around ecosocial systems). And so the workshop went along, in the style of an inspiring and occasionally interrupted monologue, brimming with ideas from the beaming and benevolent guru, ranging from Aristotle to Foucault, Bourdieu and Schatzki.

And after the workshop, Stephen kindly autographed my copy of Becoming Critical 🙂

Walking the talk – creative praxis as research

Sacred centre 2

Sacred centre 2 © Belinda Allen

I’m interested in research on creative educational practice, in the form of praxis, which engages the practitioner-researcher in an iterative developmental cycle of act – critically reflect – theorise – act. But praxis has political connotations too – Marxist theory, developed further by Freire, sees praxis as a method of emancipatory learning, with the intention of empowering the marginalised and oppressed to achieve social transformation. (Can I really position teaching academics as oppressed in their relation to the institution?) To add to the subversion, I also intend to pursue alternative forms of publishing practice-based doctoral research.

So – I’m designing a praxis-based methodology investigating creativity in teaching and learning across a range of disciplines in higher education. As a creative practitioner (in visual arts), I am particularly interested in how creativity might apply to the research process as well as to teaching and learning. This praxis-based study will investigate and develop my own (creative teaching) practice as well as that of participants in the study, who will be working on developing creativity in their teaching and in student learning.

New forms of presentation and publication of academic research are emerging (See for instance Sarah Thorneycroft’s presentation at ascilite conference a few months ago). A proliferation of doctoral studies in creative disciplines is also pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in methods and formats for academic publishing. Publication media are also expanding beyond printed text to include online publication, multimedia and time-based media. All this has implications for disciplines where investigation and development of practice is a valid focus for research – including education.

A practice-based thesis in a creative discipline, for instance visual art, has evolved to be generally in the form of an exhibition (or performance) accompanied by exegesis – that is a body of work is developed and presented, its place in art theory and practice is researched, and its bid for acceptance as ‘original’ is justified and tested. This would ‘normally’ investigate the work of the individual artist who is engaged in the research.

A distinction has been made between practice-based research and practice-led research. In the first, new knowledge is generated through practice, the results of that practice are included in the research outputs, while in the second the investigation is into practice itself, how practice happens and leads to new understandings about practice. In my study I intend a participatory action research approach, in which participants collaborate in researching their own and each others’ practice. So this seems to better fit the definition of practice-led research. Practice-based research is dependent upon development of the creative artefact. However, creative artefacts generated in practice-led research may be no less worthy of inclusion in doctoral ‘publication’. Here’s a useful way of comparing action research with praxis-based research.

To exemplify creative practice, and creative research, the publication mode should also be creative – not simply, for example, a set of case study reports within my conceptual shell. Thinking out loud:

  • Critical reflective activity will be narrative based, with participants encouraged to be creative in presentation of their narratives – use of metaphor, creative writing, imagery etc to be encouraged. This data can be aggregated by each participant in the form of digital storytelling, published online rather than in printed text. (Could this include recording of classroom interaction? If I can get it through ethics …)
  • Participants will be supported to take a creative research approach to this activity – they will be encouraged to bring their own creative ideas to the design of the research activity.
  • Thesis publication will be in the form of online case studies and reflections (digital storytelling) produced by the participants (including myself), accompanied by my analysis of how the methodology worked, and a revised framework for managing creative praxis in HE teaching and learning.
  • The hub of creativity is preparedness to take risks – how can that be reflected in the research methodology and final form?

I’m about to embark on a bunch of reading about Creative research approaches and Practice-based thesis, so look forward to seeing what other have done.