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Focus On Basics

Volume 2, Issue C ::: September 1998

Facilitating Inquiry-Based Staff Development

While helping teachers to change, staff developers must be open to changing, too.

by Jereann King
I got involved in inquiry-based staff development and practitioner research during the early 90's as part of my work with Literacy South. A non-profit organization, Literacy South was founded in 1987 to improve the quality of adult literacy services in the Southeast through a combination of professional development in participatory literacy practices, collaborative research and evaluation, and advocacy for participatory programs. Inquiry-based staff development is a process in which practitioners come together with colleagues over a period of time to systematically explore issues, questions, or problems emerging in their work. The framework for organizing inquiry-based staff development can differ from context to context, but always involves reflecting on practice, formulating problem statements, taking new action or trying out new approaches, and evaluating their effectiveness. In theory, inquiry-based staff development, like learner-centered, participatory adult literacy, is about respecting experience, culture, knowledge; it is about sharing power and taking new actions. It is a way of learning that places practitioners and their practice at the center of the learning process. This article is about the tensions and contradictions I experienced facilitating a practitioner-inquiry-as-staff-development project.

In 1995, with funding from the UPS Foundation, Literacy South initiated the Georgia Adult Literacy Practitioner Inquiry Network (GALPIN). We mailed out a project brochure and application form to literacy providers in community-based programs and community colleges around the state. The application form asked applicants to describe how they saw themselves moving toward more learner-centered practice, the major challenges they faced in their work, and the experiences they had had in program development projects. We asked these questions because we wanted to put together a group that shared our commitment to learner-centered and participatory work. We learned from the applications that potential participants had a wide range of teaching experiences, very little program development experience, and varying definitions of what it means to be learner centered.

From a small applicant pool, we made our selections and put together a group of 18 participants (13 women, five men, six African Americans, 12 European Americans) from diverse literacy settings in mostly rural communities in Georgia. We planned and implemented a series of retreats and meetings over a year's time. The five retreats took participants through a process of reflection, taking action, and more reflection. The practitioners investigated challenges they regularly face in their adult literacy practices. I was the coordinator and co-facilitator of the project.

Five Retreats

The first retreat, "Becoming Researchers," included community-building activities to help participants learn more about each other, their work, and the communities they served. The main focus was introducing the research process and how we expected the GALPIN project to unfold. Participants spent time looking at the problems that confronted them in their programs. Working in groups, they developed problem statements and questions to guide their investigations. They left the retreat with an assignment to gather what we called a data slice' of their classroom or program life. The purpose was to validate or add new information to the problems or issues they wanted to investigate.

At the second retreat, participants refined their problem statements and research questions. They taught each other various data collection techniques, such as journaling, observing, interviewing, triangulation, and surveying. Returning to the third retreat, "Listening for the Story," with mounds of data, they began the process of making sense of it by coding and analyzing it. In the last two retreats, "Sharing the Research Experience" and "Telling the Story," participants presented what they had discovered during their research projects and worked on how to best capture in written form their research experience. At the last meeting, participants talked about the importance of the GALPIN experience to them both personally and professionally.

While the project was successful overall, I experienced a dilemma common to participatory work: How to honor and build on participants' experiences, background, and culture while pushing my own agenda? Several issues surfaced for me during the GALPIN project concerning my personal values, requiring that I analyze critical issues in greater depth.

Different Cultures

Staff development projects are driven by the values and philosophies of both participants and facilitators; a set of norms, explicit or not, is always operating. I think of this as the culture of staff development.' In the early stages of the GALPIN project, most participants would have liked us, the facilitators, to tell them what to think and what to do. We wanted the project activities and the retreats to be participant centered, and we encouraged active engagement in dialogue and reflection. This approach was new for our group, which seemed to be more comfortable with a directive approach. Our way made for what some group members referred to as touchy-feely' situations. It reminded me of my work in the adult literacy classroom, when students resisted being placed in roles of generators of knowledge: not wanting to examine their own experiences for answers, but rather to have answers from me, the teacher. With the GALPIN group, I felt pressured to be an expert. When I resisted that role, I felt uneasy.

Most of the practitioners in inquiry groups I had facilitated in the past brought a political perspective to their work. This group felt different. Besides wanting more expert-driven' learning structures, they seemed to ignore or not bring forth the racial, economic, and social factors of their students' lives into our discussions. For example, participants rarely made reference to their students being mostly African American women, poor, and from other marginalized groups. For me, bringing issues of gender, class race and power into the discussion was essential. This omission showed me that the way I viewed adult literacy education was very different from how most of the project participants viewed it.

Where some participants situated their problems during many of the early discussions and in their initial problem statements also stood out for me. They blamed many of the challenges they experienced in their work on their students and their students' lack of self-esteem and motivation. My ideas about self-esteem and motivation were different.

Also, many of the communities with whom GALPIN participants work hold adult education in low regard and the GALPIN group realize it. The communities are often poor, rural, and offer very few opportunities for residents with low literacy skills to improve themselves through better employment. Many of the employers and industry owners in these communities have no hope of being able to offer higher wages for higher-skilled or better-educated workers. So, consequently, residents who could benefit from adult education programs have little incentive to even participate or get involved. Again, my ideas about what this meant for literacy work differed from those of the group with whom I was working.

Theory vs. Practice

In theory, I wanted to follow participatory principles. I wanted participants freely to design their projects and follow their own paths to discovery. In practice, however, I had in mind definite outcomes for how they would change and improve their work. I was often stymied by what I thought was narrow and non-critical analysis by the group, and was even more frustrated with my own lack of ability to structure activities creatively to unearth new analysis. I was frustrated, too, because I wanted participants to view their practices through learner-centered and participatory lenses and use language common to my experience. Was I really meeting them where they were, which is a tenet of learner-centered work?

The struggle was exacerbated by the restrictions of time. The retreats were only two full days each and we had to be pragmatic in deciding what support and structure we could offer participants so they could complete their projects. Activities to examine philosophical and political issues seemed to be ancillary to the process. I had to come to grips with my own expectations and make some adjustments in our process.

In an attempt to broaden critical analysis, during our second retreat we held after-dinner discussion groups. The first discussion was organized around an article on literacy and community economic development. The second discussion was on stereotypes of adults with literacy barriers. These discussions provided a platform for a critical examination of issues in adult education and helped me to feel more comfortable expressing some of my ideas. By our fourth retreat, when participants presented their projects, we were all more comfortable sharing our opinions and drawing on our experiences and appreciated learning from each other. The participants were certainly more willing to engage in deeper discussions and take a more critical look at some of the issues than they had in the first meeting. Despite my discomfort, the process seemed to have worked.

Next Time

I learned some important lessons about how to encourage reflective thinking and critical analysis from the GALPIN project. Our views of adult literacy education are often clouded by media stereotypes of learners and their experiences. It is therefore important in a staff development setting to provide opportunities for participants to examine critically assumptions and values about education in general, and adult literacy education specifically. Adult literacy practitioners often feel isolated in their practices; when given an opportunity to spend time with their peers, they simply want to talk. Those chat sessions can provide natural ways in which to move into more structured activities such as reading and discussing journal articles, student writing, and various other texts. These activities can then serve as a springboard into deeper analysis of adult literacy challenges and dilemmas. In the future I will try this out.

As a facilitator, I have to consider participants' previous experiences and the values and norms they bring to practitioner research. What are their expectations about group process, community building, examining assumptions? These are all important to consider in planning any kind of staff development process, but especially in one that is participatory and inquiry based. I will ask these questions more explicitly in future projects.

If I want practitioners to become more learner-centered and participatory, then I think it is important for them, regardless of their particular research question, to understand what I think of as the fundamentals of learner-centered, participatory adult literacy education. I will devote more time to this. This would give them a framework for thinking about and designing their projects.

Planning and facilitating practitioner research is not easy. As facilitators, we, too, have to examine our assumptions about group process and what it means to push for deeper reflection and critical analysis among participants. Throughout the GALPIN project, I found myself reflecting on my experience in the ABE class, asking questions like: "Is this process learner centered? In what ways are we creating opportunities for participatory learning? Am I staying grounded in what I know?" And finally, "How do the answers to these questions have an impact on whether participants are successful as practitioner researchers?"

Somewhere and somehow in the mix of all of this, I will pay much closer attention to moving participants into generalizing principles from all of their research discoveries and thinking about how these principles translate or transfer into their adult literacy education practices. I will also encourage practitioners to examine their discoveries with an eye to the policy implication for the larger adult education system, as I will continue to examine mine.

About the Author

Jereann King is Director of Programs at Literacy South, responsible for staff development programs with practitioners in publicly funded adult literacy and ESOL programs. In addition, she works with staff in community organizations to assist them with incorporating literacy development into their community work. She also loves quilts and quilting.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL