Hungry to learn – towards a scholarship of practice

Knowledge can be intimidating, particularly when it comes dressed in an academic gown, or bound between the covers of a book.  What Parker Palmer calls the “big stories” of the academic world – the theories that claim to explain what is really important in life – tend to silence the “little stories” of our own life experience.  What value is there in my story when education so seldom treats my life as a source of knowledge?

When we say we are hungry to learn, what do we mean?  Are we hungry to learn from the experts, to absorb the mega-theories that have been shaped by rigorous research?  Or are we hungry to learn from experience?  To know what we know from our own encounter with the world?

One of the fundamental characteristics of being human is our curiosity.  We are inquisitive beings.  But unfortunately we have professionalised curiosity, delegating human inquiry to a special group of experts.  Research, today, is usually thought of as something done by people in universities and research institutions.  As a result most research is done for us, or even on us, not by us or with us.  There are people who do research and people who use it.

The academy has traditionally privileged knowing through thinking over knowing through doing.  And for too long the academy has held a monopoly on this way of creating knowledge.  It is high time to reawaken the curiosity in us all, to develop the skills of inquiry that will help us make sense of our own life experience and offer this for public scrutiny.  To become scholars of our own practice.

What happens in the classroom or boardroom, in your community or organisation, is a source of knowledge that cannot be neatly organised into the traditional disciplines of the academy.  The situations of daily life, on the factory floor or the hospital ward, call for expertise in many fields – economics, politics, psychology, even history.  These fields are all present and operating in the practice situation, not as distinct fields of action but as facets of the whole.  Skilled practitioners have learned to give attention in the moment to the whole.  They don’t aspire to become sociologists or economists but, in their situation, they want to do good work, to know what is going on and to make wise decisions in the light of this knowledge.

A scholarship of practice, it seems to me, is evident in at least three ways.  It will arise from immersion in the practice – as full participants not as observers.  It will exhibit a quality of inquiry or skill in probing experience, pondering its questions, and communicating its findings.  And it will engage with ideas, relating what is emerging from the inquiry to a wider body of knowledge.

Such scholarship is deserving of recognition by the academy.  Although emerging from the little stories of our daily lives it will exhibit a quality of understanding that places it on a par with the very best of academic research.  And it will develop practitioner-scholars who are best placed to really make a difference in the world.

Educating for Good Work

Why is it so difficult to educate for good work? The old idea of education as a way of charging up our mental batteries, to be discharged when we start work, doesn’t work any more. This is what Paulo Friere called the banking model of education – building up our knowledge assets at school or college, and then spending them (the fancy word is “applying”) when we start working. This depends on our ability to memorize information and regurgitate it when needed. This way of learning is inefficient and ineffective.

Educating for wisdom

Wisdom – the source of good work – is something our educators cannot teach.  It is not captured in theories or models and cannot be found in a book in the library.  Colin Coles has described it as “the invisible heart of practice” – invisible because it leaves behind no empirical evidence, and the person who exercises it cannot explain what it is!  Wisdom grows in the soil of life experience as an individual brings the skills of inquiry into the situations they face, the decisions they make, and the consequences of those decisions.  Wisdom is embedded in our actions, not our minds. Learning wisdom, then, involves paying attention to the way we make decisions and how we put them into practice.

We all respect the expert, someone who, time after time, does good work.  We can all do good work when things are going well, when things are predictable and routine.  But when the unexpected happens, the expert shines.  He or she has the uncanny ability to manage the situation and do good work in the midst of chaos.  And to do it with grace.  Expertise comes from experience and the skill to make sense of experience, to act wisely time, after time, after time.

New Learning

This involves a new way of learning.  The new learning will not equip us with a “how to” manual, but it can help us become experts.  The new learning begins with questions – questions that arise in practice. The new learning isn’t about the answers to these questions but about the skills we need, in the moment, to know what to do next.  The focus is on the process of inquiry as well as the outcome.  We call this “action research” – generating new knowledge by developing new ways of doing things.

The new learning recognises that the best place and time to learn is where and when the questions arise – while we are in the heat of the moment. The workplace is the natural learning environment.  On-line, not off-line. The new classroom is the workplace.

The new learning is social, not individual.  We learn best with other people – peers, even those we serve. We talk today about “the learning organisation” but are not sure what it is.  Perhaps we can make a start by creating an environment that encourages people to ask questions and lets the questions linger in the air while others offer their experience into the process.

And the new learning should be fun – it needs to set the imagination free and allow the spirit to soar.  It invites us to be playful again.  No one can predict what gifts the human imagination might release when it is allowed its place in learning.  But perhaps, just perhaps, we might then begin to think creatively and act wisely.

Masters and Doctorate in Professional Studies

The Masters and Doctorate in Professional Practice offered by the Institute for Work Based Learning at Middlesex University can provide practitioners with an opportunity to accredit their good work.  GoodWork Academy is developing a pathway onto this programme, in cooperation with the Institute, designed for professionals in the Third Sector and beyond.

Middlesex University pioneered the development of work based learning in higher education during the early 1990s. The University has been awarded a Queens Prize for excellence and innovation for work based learning and has been recognised as a centre for excellence in teaching and learning in the field of work based learning by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The Doctorate in Professional Studies is the professional equivalent to the PhD.  It has the same rigorous assessment standards as the PhD but its focus is on research in the work place and practice.

Members of the core team responsible for the programme at Middlesex recently recorded a podcast introducing the programme.  Professor Carol Costley is Academic Director of the programme, Dr Mehmetali Dikerdem is Programme Leader and Dr Kate Maguire is Programme Leader of the Doctorate in Professional Studies by Public Works.  They are joined by Ben Witchalls, a candidate enrolled in the programme.   You can listen to the 10 minute podcast here.



For more information about the GoodWork pathway onto the programme follow this link.  Or contact us at

To learn more about the programme, join us at a Briefing.