Work-based Practice

The key to practitioner success is “developing one’s own continuing theory of practice under real-time conditions” (Argyris and Schon, 1974: 157).

This requires “the practitioner to be able to reflect on his or her own microtheories of action (that is, contextually specific ideas about what works in the real world) and to relate these microtheories to institutional norms and to client expectations’ (Brookfield, 1986: 245).

The process of reflection-in-action is essentially artistic, that is, the practitioner makes judgments and exercises skills for which no explicit rationale has been articulated but in which she nevertheless feels an intuitive sense of confidence’ (Brookfield, 1986: 247).

Understanding and facilitating adult learning: A comprehensive analysis of principles and effective practices

Brookfield, Stephen. Understanding and facilitating adult learning: A comprehensive analysis of principles and effective practices. McGraw-Hill Education (UK), 1986.

The challenge of  real-time conditions

But, there is a problem, around time – “when time is extremely short, decisions have to be rapid and the scope for reflection is extremely limited” (Eraut, 1994: 145)

“…looking to our experiences, connecting with our feelings, and attending to our theories in use. It entails building new understandings to inform our actions in the situation that is unfolding.

The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique.

He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour.” [My emphasis]

How do we prepare if we know our research will be in real-time? Will there be time for note-taking? Might we forget key moments? What techniques can be used to help capture and record these scenarios so that we can analyse them and reflect on them later ? Video or audio recordings? A colleague who takes notes, with, or, for us?

It is easy to gloss over surprise, puzzlement, or confusion, to dismiss them as ‘noise’ in our data. However, often these feelings, however fleeting are signaling to us that something important is taking place. Try to make note of them. Will they help you pinpoint, after reflection (see PAR) the need for an adaption of your research plan? If you look more closely at your confusion does it show you that you may need to read another text, ask a new question?

‘Thinking on our feet’ – Donald A. Schon

“He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (Schön 1983: 68)

We test out our ‘theories’ or, as John Dewey might have put it, ‘leading ideas’ and this allows to develop further responses and moves.

Significantly, to do this we do not closely follow established ideas and techniques – textbook schemes.

We have to think things through, for every case is unique. However, we can draw on what has gone before.”

Action Research (AR) and Participatory Action Research (PAR)

Image: Action Research Protocol after Kemmis (cited in Hopkins, 1985)

Key text: Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. (1986), Becoming Critical: education, knowledge and action research

Stephen Kemmis has developed a simple model of the cyclical nature of the typical action research process.

Each cycle has four steps: plan, act, observe, reflect. Carr and Kemmis (1986) describe action research as:

  • the improvement of practice
  • the improvement of the understanding of practice
  • the improvement of the situation in which the practice takes place

The notion of improvement can be problematic when viewed from the outside. One person’s improvement can be another person’s deterioration. It depends on the beliefs and values underpinning the individual’s perspective. Paradoxically, however, this uncertainty is perhaps the one truth of professional practice. Practice is contingent upon the practitioners’ intentions, values and beliefs and the situation in which those elements are given form.


See more on PAR and AR by Valsa Koshy. Action research for improving practice: A practical guide. Sage, 2005. A useful chapter is available here.

Principles of Action Research

Winter (1989) provides a comprehensive overview of six key principles.[iv]

  1. Reflexive critique
  2. Dialectical critique
  3. Collaborative Resource
  4. Risk
  5. Plural Structure
  6. Theory, Practice, Transformation

Reference: An Overview of the Methodological Approach of Action Research O’Brien, R. (2001). Um exame da abordagem metodológica da pesquisa ação [An Overview of the Methodological Approach of Action Research]. In  Roberto Richardson (Ed.), Teoria e Prática da Pesquisa Ação [Theory and Practice of Action Research]. João Pessoa, Brazil: Universidade Federal da Paraíba. (English version) Available:

David Jenkins

David Jenkins was my PhD supervisor and he taught me how to write for a PhD, using the formal style expected in academia. He did this through discussion and by closely editing my draft documents. Those documents were printed (it was before Microsoft Word) and handed back to me, almost obliterated with red pen. The mistakes I continue to make are all my own!

It was an era when professors had more time available to spend with their PhD researchers, but even so, what he did for me was extraordinarily generous. By doing this, he ‘paid it forward’ and I do the same, most of the time, with the PhD researchers that I supervise, and the junior faculty that I mentor. But I use Word and other online tools for marking up documents.