The main reason for my engagement with research was the stream of questions and gaps emerging in everyday practice. My work as a literacy educator started with a question. Why were two of the second year plumbing students who I was teaching in a UK Midlands further education college in the mid-1970s unable to read? Successive years of working in the field produced more and more questions. Searching for answers became essential to my practice.
Research about and within my practice can thus be seen as a process of constructing a ‘living’ theory of practice (Whitehead, 1989). This involved learning from the students directly and also drawing into this process the insights from professional researchers who had exposed the confining and destructive effects of some theories and concepts of literacy (e.g. Freire, 1979; Graff, 1979; Street, 1984; Arnove & Graff, 1987; Gee, 1988; Barton, 1994; Fairclough, 1995; Barton & Hamilton, 2000; etc.).Narrowly-based theories and policies which continued to damage literacy students were problematised. The curriculum was not after all just about learning letters, sounds and words, but about whose language, whose literacy, in which situation, for whose benefit, at whose expense — all essential building blocks for reframing students' experience of literacy failure.
Further, I wanted to do research in practice in a waywhich recognised the significance of learners' research questions and their potential as researchers and co-researchers and so became interested in building democratic processes within research. The RAPAL and RIPAL networks thus provided a professional ‘home’.
To some extent my particular career journey can be seen as a response to the ill-defined nature of professionalism in these fields over three decades. At the time of writing this is still a problematic issue and hence this invitation.
This developing approach has drawn heavily on the traditions established within Adult Literacy practice and within Action Research. It has included the following ten characteristics:
Many practitioners can see no obvious reason for an involvement in research. Close analysis of my own motivation revealed a mix of multiple push and pull factors. Some were self determining, for example, to resolve my own ‘niggles’ and my own uncertainties about dyslexia and to seek a clearer, more authentic narrative for practice than was available; to articulate the sophistication of certain Learning Support roles; and to ensure that literacy and dyslexic learners' voices were heard, both for representation and revelation. Sometimes the pressure of others was the motivation: for example, responding to learners pushing for answers and to funders' desire to investigate. Students got involved in research to find out more about their own difficulties — both to relieve their own discomfort and to prevent suffering in future generations of children. Whatever the source, my motivation can be seen as about actively interrogating theory, policy and practice as part and parcel of doing practice.