Professional learning for critical praxis in education

Susanne Francisco, Christine Grice, Anette Forssten Seiser

Research output: Other contribution to conferenceAbstract


This paper focuses on professional learning that enables and supports critical praxis in education. It draws on three different research projects: a Swedish critical action research project where principals and a scholar participated as equal partners to investigate educational leading; an Australian project that investigated how action research as a form of professional learning can support pedagogical middle leading during curriculum reform; and an international project exploring critical praxis in higher education, undertaken by participant researchers from Norway, Finland, Sweden and Australia. The research question being addressed in this paper is “what enables and constrains professional learning for critical praxis in education?”There are a range of understandings of the concept of praxis. Mahon et al (2018) define critical educational praxis as “a kind of social-justice oriented, educational practice/praxis, with a focus on asking critical questions and creating conditions for positive change” (p. 2). We use this as our working definition of critical educational praxis. We argue that critical educational praxis is an important component in supporting the development of “opportunities for sustainable, peaceful and equitable co-existence that appreciates diversity and diversification under conditions of uncertainty and risk now and in the future” (ECER website). The three research projects used the theory of practice architectures (Kemmis et al., 2014) in the framing of the research and the analysis of the research data. In addressing the research question identified above we focus on the practice architectures that enabled and constrained professional learning for critical praxis in each of the studies. The theory of practice architectures holds that practices are prefigured by the arrangements in the site where they are undertaken. The cultural-discursive, material-economic, and social-political arrangements present, or brought into a site, enable or constrain particular practices. Cultural-discursive arrangements include those that prefigure what is said, and how it is said, in a site. This includes the language used (for instance colloquial, formal), and the topics or ideas talked about in the site. It also includes how particular practices undertaken in the site are talked about more generally (within the site and by others). Material-economic arrangements include the physical arrangements of the site (for instance, the way chairs and tables are organised in a room); material artefacts (such as syllabus documentation; or scheduling arrangements such as school timetables and meeting times for professional learning); and economic arrangements that impact on the practices undertaken (such as the resourcing available for particular practices). Social-political arrangements include the arrangements that enable and constrain particular types of relationships (for instance, the structure of staff meetings for professional learning, or the expectations of the researcher role). The practice architectures impact on the actions being undertaken in a site: the ‘sayings; doings; and relatings’. In the Swedish project two groups of principals participated in a critical participatory action research project (CPAR; Kemmis, McTaggart, and Nixon 2014). The aim of the project was to explore what happens when principals and a scholar work together, investigating a mutual interest with in a CPAR project. In the Australian project middle leaders also participated in a collaborative action research project focussed on the implementation of the new English syllabus. For the international project, the aim of the broader research was to explore critical praxis in higher education including what it involves and how it might be nurtured. Conditions that constrained critical praxis were identified, as were niches that supported critical praxis. In this paper we focus on the professional learning that supported participants in their critical praxis. Participants undertook a range of professional learning to support them in their work of teaching, research, and administration. Methodology Collaborative, participative research formed the basis for each of the three research projects. Each of the projects used slightly different approaches to the research. Two of the projects involved action research, and the third project used many of the approaches common to action research. We argue that such approaches to research support collaborative and context appropriate professional learning, often resulting in critical educational praxis. The overall aim of critical participatory research is to support and empower individuals as they explore their own situation in order to improve it. This is an approach that necessarily involves a democratic imperative, involving individuals in a cyclical process of fact finding, planning, exploratory action and evaluation. In the Swedish study, once a month for one-and-a-half years, meetings were held between two groups of school leaders and a scholar. The meetings were set up as communicative spaces, taking communicative action as an ideal (Habermas 1996). Focus-group discussions were used as the main method of data collection. In the international study, data collection included regular recorded meetings, as well as interviews with individual members. Data collection for the Australian study included semi-structured interviews with participants exploring professional learning on the implementation of the NSW Primary English Syllabus for the Australian curriculum. The research was conducted on two primary school sites over a one-year period. One school known as ‘Crownwood’ utilised Sagor and Williams (2017) principles of Collaborative Action Research to implement new curriculum. A middle leader was invited to lead professional learning on the new English syllabus during regular staff meeting time in the other school, known as ‘Greenville”. Pseudonyms have been given to both schools. Principals, deputy heads, curriculum coordinators and teachers were interviewed. For all the projects, the recordings of the meetings (interviews where undertaken) were transcribed and analysed using the theory of practice architectures. This included analysis of practices, practice architectures, practice traditions, and practice landscapes that enable and constrain critical educational praxis.FindingsSome factors were found to be particularly important in nurturing critical praxis. From a social-political perspective, the development of trustful relationships between participants was important. In the Swedish study, the lengthy nature of the process combined with the study’s design was crucial for the development of trust among the participants. In the Australian study, in one of the sites hierarchical and formal arrangements limited the development of trust. However, groups of teachers formed their own informal communities of practice in order to meet together away from the more formal and hierarchical arrangement of the staff meeting, and critical educational praxis was enabled within this more trusting arrangement. Development of communicative learning spaces (Sjolie et al, 2018) was also an important component in the learning for critical praxis in each study. Sjolie et al (2018) identify communicative learning spaces as “spaces - which might include physical, social, affective and discursive elements - that serve to support teachers’ professional learning. When adding ‘learning’ to the concept of communicative space we are deliberately focusing on a communicative space that supports and nurtures professional learning” (p7). In the Swedish study, the fact that the meetings were designed as communicative arenas had a major impact on the work. Through communicative action the participating principals developed a common scientific language and critical approach. This development was emancipatory in that the critical approach prevented the principals from uncritically adopting new leadership models and teaching methods. Mahon et al (2018) argue that critical educational praxis “seems to be an endangered species” (p. 3) in present day universities, and we argue it might be an endangered species in education more generally. The research discussed in this paper provides resources for hope (Hardy et al., 2015) in the form of professional learning arrangements that support learning for critical educational praxis.ReferencesHabermas, J. (1996). Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. London: Polity.Hardy, I., Salo, P., & Ronnerman, K. (2015). Bildung and educational action research: resources for hope in neoliberal times. Educational Action Research, 23(3), 383-398. doi:10.1080/09650792.2015.1012175Kemmis, S., McTaggart, R., & Nixon, R. (2014). The action research planner: Doing critical participatory action research. Singapore: Springer.Kemmis, S., and T. Smith, (2008) Praxis and Praxis Development. In Enabling Praxis: Challenges for Education, edited by S. Kemmis and T. Smith, 3–13. Rotterdam: Sense.Kemmis, S., Wilkinson, J., Edwards-Groves, C., Hardy, I., Grootenboer, P., & Bristol, L. (2014). Changing Practices, Changing Education. Singapore: SpringerMahon, K., Heikkinen, H., & Huttunen, R. (2018). Critical educational praxis in university ecosystems: enablers and constraints. Pedagogy, Culture & Society. doi:10.1080/14681366.2018.1522663Sagor, R., & Williams (2017). The action research guidebook: a process for pursuing equity and excellence in education. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, Sage. Sjolie, E., Francisco, S., and Langelotz, L (2018) Communicative Learning Spaces and learning to become a teacher, Pedagogy, Culture and Society. 
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2019
EventECER 2019 : Education in an Era of Risk - Universität Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
Duration: 02 Sep 201906 Sep 2019


ConferenceECER 2019
Abbreviated titleThe Role of Educational Research for the Future
Internet address

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