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.


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