A Crazy Little Thing Called Community: Staking a Claim Through the Collective Practice of Reflective Inquiry

Dec 16th, 2010 | Category: Research in Education
By Deborah Kowal with Cheryl Manade, Lisa Ness, and Jessica Schleimer

Graduate programs in education, particularly cohort programs, are big business in the modern educational milieu. Despite lip service otherwise, many colleges and universities generally expect that students conform to commonly conceived and structured ways of learning, demonstration of knowledge, and completion of degree programs. Most institutions that offer advanced education programs for teachers remain invested in having students culminate their degree program using traditional methods of assessment and evaluation such as research projects, electronic portfolios or “capstone experiences” that look very much like traditional papers or portfolios.

Although in the course of their graduate education students may have been exposed to alternative notions of “what’s worth knowing and doing” in terms of conceptualizing curriculum and pedagogy (Schubert, 1986), traditional approaches to degree completion dominate; there is an expectation from many higher education programs, especially in our current educational climate of accountability and standardization at all levels and regarding all aspects of the educative process, that students conform to standardized, quantifiable, and easily rubricized ways of learning and completion of degree programs. Over reliance on traditional educational practices stifle opportunities for growth and change. There is a cookie cutter approach to education that initiates students’ education with established curricula and culminates in students graduating with educational philosophies similar to the institution. Osberg and Biesta (2008) state that institutions of higher learning tend to foster and value what is considered to be legitimate forms of learning, and that demanding educational outcomes from approved methods only are limiting. The result is an education that is “…a form of planned enculturation or training” (p. 315). This process of training—following all the requirements and regurgitating on request, isolated bits of information—is often devoid of meaning, disconnected from the experience, and ultimately does little to foster true learning. It is not uncommon to hear teachers, our colleagues, express that the processes of graduate education in education often serve the primary purpose of jumping through the hoops to receive a degree rather than encourage professional learning, growth and development.

This disconnect in education is a major hindrance to true learning; as teachers we have learned this with respect to our pk–12 students, however institutionally we appear to forget this idea with respect to higher education. The present structure of most educational institutions exists in a top to bottom model. The power resides in administration and others higher up on the educational ladder with students residing on the lowest rung (Spring, 2005). There is resistance to change especially within the power structure. Hollingsworth and Sockett (1994) characterize the impulse toward critical praxis within the teacher research movement as being based on,

“…disenchantment with the view of control as a means of improving education, a concern with teacher autonomy, and a growing understanding of knowledge as a source of power in society created an ideological convergence which provides a clearer realization of the interconnected nature of knowledge, research and practice” (p. 9).

A major consequence of the existing structure is that it consists of isolating learning environments and sets the stage for a disconnect between students and teachers. The disconnect exists because the traditional classroom fosters the philosophy that students, being the lowest rung, have the sole purpose of acquiring knowledge imparted or dispensed from the omniscient teacher. Trained, drone-like educators train drone-like students to conform. This model of education using a set standard curriculum, mandates, inflexibility, and refusal to change or grow, turns out students feeling “…disenfranchised, disillusioned, and apathetic toward the democratic process” (Schultz, Baricovich, & McSurley, 2009). This model has been in place from our earliest learning experiences, and in this environment of increasing standardization, continues in higher education.

Conflict arises because schooling environments such as these have little connection to society, life, and for many classroom teachers, scant connection to our practice. Educators feel this disconnect in our own classrooms, yet still wonder why our pk–12 students refuse to do homework or fail to the see the importance of what is taught in the classroom; As Eisner (2002) reminds us, “we teach what we teach largely out of habit, and in the process neglect areas of study that could prove to be exceedingly useful to students” (p. 103). A similar disconnect occurs when, as students in higher education, we are presented with courses, materials, and expectations that fail to make meaningful connections between theory and practice. Graduate students are often presented with a conflicting array of workshop-style or “sit and get” courses and those that driven through theory or content that compels critical thinking and action. In the interest of time, standardization, and easy accountability, rich opportunities for critical questioning, contextual examination, and truly thinking about how and why what we are learning matters are often lost.

Illinois requires graduate education programs to culminate in a “capstone experience.” As students, our program requires a) individual analysis and reflection on each course experience, and b) a final “capstone paper” that ties together course-specific elements of the program. In his Pedagogic Creed, Dewey (1897) describes school as a social entity that stresses the importance of the school as a community. As a community of practice (Wenger, 1998), our cohort made the collective decision to put our education into practice and challenge convention and predictability. Rather than having each individual simply produce yet another paper aimed at illustrating personal, professional and educational growth, our learning community also committed to the creation of tangible, concrete representations of what was learned as individuals as well as the process by which our learning community was formed. In doing this, our cohort sought ways to re-conceptualize and produce meaningful representations of what we learned throughout this endeavor that went beyond the scope of mere end-of-program, individual capstone papers. We were troubled that given the notions of curriculum, pedagogy, teaching and learning that we had explored and experienced along the way, the thought of merely generating more pages of academic writing seemed potentially redundant and somewhat meaningless given the scope of the larger enterprise. To this, we were confronted with the questions, “do we participate in a degree culminating process that, given the context of our new learning, we view as generic, formulaic, and quite honestly, not reflective of the journey of process, inquiry, and reflection we had just taken? Do we produce papers that fulfill a requirement but lack the deeper meaning we have come to value and require?” By acquiescing to convention, we believed our community would not truly represent the learning experience we engaged in and would represent a regression to the beginning of the cohort; a destruction of the whole to the parts. We turned again to Dewey (1938),

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other. For some experiences are mis-educative. Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience…Then the possibilities of having richer experience in the future are restricted. Again, a given experience may increase a person’s automatic skill in a particular direction and yet tend to land him in a groove or rut; the effect again is to narrow the field of further experience” (p. 13).

According to Dewey, experiences have the capacity to be educative if they are socially, intellectually, and morally developmental, or mis-educative if they are not. Although we wouldn’t go so far as to argue that our individual and collective experiences would have been “mis-educative” had we as a group been satisfied with simply fulfilling the requirements of the program capstone requirement, we agreed that given where we had journeyed together throughout this experience, it was almost incumbent upon us to seek greater meaning with our culminating activity. Also from Dewey (1938),

“Everything depends on the quality of the experience which is had…The effect of an experience is not borne on its face. It sets a problem to the educator. It is his business to arrange for the kind of experiences which, while they do not repel the student, but rather engage his activities are, nevertheless, more than immediately enjoyable since they promote having desirable future experiences” (p. 27).

To that end, we envisioned something new, something individually and collectively powerful, and firmly grounded in the principles of the emergent, democratic curriculum we had just learned so much about.

The visual arts and portfolios are legitimate means of expressing learning. Many other professions including artists, architects, and others are expected to present a portfolio of works that demonstrates their competence in a particular area. Although portfolios are a recognized assessment structure of some teacher education programs, they often function as a repository of traditional works more than a collection of eclectic artifacts. For the most part, future teachers are trained with little thought of teaching as an art or using other modalities as a representation of one’s learning. Extensive research has been written on the topic of multimodalities as legitimate and valid forms of learning. Weber & Mitchell (2007) state that,

“…artistic forms of representation provide a refreshing and necessary challenge to prevailing modes of academic discourse. The use of widely shared cultural codes and popular images make some visual expressions far more accessible than the usual academic language…in provoking discussion and thinking, and to communicate research to a broader audience the use of the visual arts becomes significant” (p. 986).

After many discussions and brainstorming sessions, we decided to represent our collective and individual learning through several artifacts; a quilt, a scrapbook, a photo documentary, in addition to traditional academic papers. Importantly, these artifacts mirror both the process and emergence of our joint and individual learning, meaning-making, and knowledge construction. As well, they, too, meet the criteria outlined by the rubric provided by the program. Each course that was taken became part the creative process through both individual and collective representations. In this interactive, alternative presentation of our learning, we hope to guide readers/viewers through our process of discovery and awareness, of questioning and requestioning, of building meaningful methodologies and new pedagogies for teaching and learning. Each piece of our quilt, scrapbook page, and documentary slide represents our cohort’s experience. As we looked to the past to understand the history of education, so must we look to our learning community’s past to understand the heart within our final projects. Each piece of our quilt, page in our scrapbook, photo and statement in our documentary, selection of texts in our papers, etc. represent our story, our journey. The expression of our learning is accomplished through,

“…captur[ing] the richness, complexity, and dimensionality of human experience in social and cultural context, conveying the perspectives of the people who are negotiating those experiences” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Hoffman, 1997, p. 3)

Throughout our program we learned many things. Our very first course, Ethics and Foundations, taught us more than history or about pedagogy; it forced us to think critically about what we value, what is worth knowing, and how we understand truth, while at the same time compelling us to develop critical consciousness. These lessons and our new habits toward thoughtful analysis provided a framework with which to engage each course experience that followed. The push for sustained, integrated reflection throughout our experience helped us, as individuals and as a community, awaken fresh aspects of our teacher identities and open our eyes, minds and hearts to new centers of awareness. Conscious and deliberate reflection gave us pause to consider past practices and philosophies in new ways, as well as provided us with a vehicle and imperative to conceptualize new visions and imagine, as Greene (1997) taught us, what could be. Perhaps the most significant course experience came within the context of our Contemporary Issues course. It was within that course that we bore witness to the power of a community of students to claim ownership of their educational experience and became empowered to do so ourselves. It was this feeling of empowerment, and new feeling of responsibility to act in the best interest of both ourselves and our students, that buoyed us through some of the more trying aspects of our program. The opportunity to harvest the fruit of both our academic efforts and feelings of responsibility for action and advocacy began in our practitioner research course, and culminated in our final seminar of this program. These experiences were the foundation for each of us to think about how to not only make concrete, tangible differences for our students, but as well for ourselves. Although Socrates’ charge to “know thyself” is important advice, it was through the arduous, and often emotional, practice of self-study that provided us with the critical lens necessary to actualize all of that which we had learned along the way. Self-study encouraged us to examine our roles, responsibilities and beliefs as teachers. More importantly however, it served to renew the passion within many of us to reengage with our practice, our students, and our teacher identities. In many ways, the best research lies in knowing ourselves, accepting ourselves, and being open for change. And that’s what we accomplished.

It is important to note that through this re-imagination of what a capstone project could be, we did not seek to devalue or wantonly disregard traditional methods of meeting requirements for a degree program. Our acceptance of Greene’s (1997) invitation to engage in this re-imagination of what a culminating degree process and product could be should not be misunderstood as an attempt by our learning community to reject the importance of traditional values and procedures or wholesale advocacy of chaotic, disjointed or avant-garde expressions of what has been learned. Our objective was not to merely rebel against all established educational practices, but rather was to maintain our democratic, social community by utilizing other modalities as legitimate expressions of our learning, as well as to possibly open new avenues of change and growth in the program itself.

Traditionally conceived methodologies are important and valid means of fulfilling academic requirements. However, these traditional methods should not be considered the only way to culminate a degree program or demonstrate accountability for one’s learning. It is hoped that by documenting our journey through this learning process and reflection of practice, that other cohorts may have the opportunity to represent their learning using multiple methods and alternative formats rather generating “just another reflective paper.” As well, this work provides a framework for opportunity for other institutions and cohorts to initiate taking that step in challenging and changing disconnected educational practices to more meaningful expressions of the learning journey.

 A version of this article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Studies Association, Pittsburgh, PA, November, 2009.

This article would not have been possible without the efforts and perspectives of each member of our cohort.


Dewey, J. (1897). My pedagogic creed, School Journal, 54, 77-80.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Eisner, E. (2002). The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs. Third Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Greene, M. (1997). Teaching as possibility: A light in dark times. The Journal of Pedgogy, Pluralism, and Practice, 1(1). Retrieved from http://www.lesley.edu/journals/jppp/1/jp3ii1.html.

Hollingsworth, S. and Sockett, H. (1994). Teacher Research and Educational Reform. In Hollingsworth, S. and Sockett, H. (Eds.). Teacher Research and Educational Reform. The Ninety-third Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Part I. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. and Hoffman, J. (1997). The Art and Science of Portraiture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Osberg, D. and Biesta, G. (2008). The emergent curriculum: Navigating a complete course between unguided learning and planned enculturation. Journal of Curriculum Studies, (40), 313-328.

Schubert, W. (1986). Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility. New York: Macmillan.

Schultz, B.D., Baricovich, J., & McSurley, J. (2009). Beyond these tired walls: Social action curriculum project induction as public pedagogy. In J.A. Sandlin, B.D. Schultz, J. Burdick (Eds.). Handbook of public pedagogy: Education and learning beyond schooling. New York: Routledge.

Spring, J. (2005). The American School, 1642-2004. 6th Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Author Information

Deborah Kowal, MA, teaches at Eisenhower Jr High School. She graduated from Concordia University Chicago in 2009.

Cheryl Manade, MA, teaches at Steeple Run Elementary, District 203 Naperville, Illinois. She graduated from Concordia University Chicago in 2009. She can be contacted at cmanade@naperville203.org.

Jessica Schleimer, MA, teaches at Steeple Run Elementary, District 203 Naperville, Illinois. She graduated from Concordia University Chicago in 2009. She can be contacted at jschleimer@naperville203.org.

Lisa Ness, MA, teaches at Francis Granger Middle School, District 204, Illinois. She graduated from Concordia University Chicago in 2009.

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