From a burning question to transformation and contribution to the field

Pennie White
Faculty of Education
Monash University

In this time of lockdown and halted international travel, the importance of our local and global connections and contexts have been amplified. Professional practice has been majorly disrupted by the COVID-19 global pandemic. This has resulted in practitioners rapidly adapting their work to suit online engagement. Communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) have responded to an expanded joint enterprise catalysed by external forces of the landscape of local and global restrictions on mobility. There is now an opportunity to reflect on what has been successful in our new approaches that could be preserved when the need for social distancing is reduced. Have you connected with colleagues to manage this unprecedented change? What challenges have you faced in your work? What questions have arisen for you?

It is from our wondering or puzzlement about a problem of practice arising in a professional context that leads us to formulating questions. Many questions arise in the participation of practice but not all of these become the focus of research. It is the burning questions or key problems of practice that become the focus of research with an undertaking of exploration, examination or inquiry. Practitioner research is powerful because the resulting improvements and changes are intrinsically motivated. Without a focus on these problems, there is no growth or gain in our personal and professional development. I include the term personal here because our professional practice is personal. It is personal because we care and are invested in such a way that our identities – who we are – becomes entwined with what we do and how we do it. I also use the term personal here because at no other time has the merging of personal and professional identities been so apparent.

The recent response to COVID-19 of working, teaching and learning from home has seen the unprecedented convergence of our personal and public lives. It is acknowledged that people are experiencing the financial and social impacts disparately. Those with employment that is not translatable to online are most negatively impacted. Those in frontline roles are exposed to great risk in serving their communities. Work formerly conducted in the public sphere that is now occurring from private spaces is not an easy transition for many, particularly those who may be simultaneously managing care-giving responsibilities. I have been wondering about equity in terms of which elements of flexibility benefit which stakeholders in the system.

Over the past few decades, the rhetoric around the advent of the internet promised the uncoupling of space and time with it the potential to forever change the way we learn and work. Distance education was traditionally conducted through the mail and radio formats ensuring remote and rural students had access to education. The transition to telephone and internet technology was a natural evolution. Computers in education research at its inception was focused on early-adopters, blended models, and purposefully selected innovative practice cases. Due to the genuine catalyst of COVID-19, the use of digital technology in education and work has become mainstream. However, the digital divide remains for many. Who is disadvantaged and by which practices and changes in which contexts? Who benefits? What does this mean going forward? Studies driven from questions and challenges at this time will be useful to inform practitioners and government policy.

Practitioner research is a term used to describe a group of methodologies including but not limited to action-research, collaborative inquiry and self-study. The key defining feature of practitioner research is that questions, findings and future directions are driven by the situated experience of the researchers. It developed in the last quarter of the 20th Century, originally within individual fields of work but later became a broader movement across disciplines as it was realised that the methodology approach could be applied broadly across different disciplines. These kinds of studies lead to research-informed and evidence-based practice, a contribution of knowledge to the field and the potential to influence the policies of governments. This is the perfect time for practitioners to delve into what is working, what is not and why. What should be preserved from our learning and work experiences during this time?

The practitioner research methodologies have their origins in emergent forms of professional learning such as reflective practice and studies involving participant observers. These practices became prominent in education and health fields from the 1970s. Reflective practice can be developed as a form of mindfulness in the interest of engaging in continuing professional learning. The scope of what constitutes professional learning has also evolved to include collaborative approaches. Practitioner research is a form of professional learning (Hilton & Hilton, 2017) and source of professional learning for other practitioners.

There are numerous variations in the methodology and methods used in practitioner research. What is important is the selection and development of appropriate methodology and methods to suit the problem and context being researched. Action Research might suit those wishing to incorporate implementation and review cycles in their study. Collaborative Inquiry might suit teams of practitioners with a common problem to explore. If the focus of the problem requires development of perspective and mind-shift, then there are a range of methods suitable for self-study research questions (see Samaras, 2011). Self-study provides the opportunity for high-reward in personal enrichment that can be gained from being open to the vulnerability of examining one’s own approaches, actions, thoughts and beliefs to solve a problem of practice (White, Carabott, Corrigan & Kirkby, 2017).

The ethical considerations for a practitioner researcher are akin to the challenges of the early participant-observer researchers. Practitioner researchers that are primarily in the practice space may not be used to these protocols like a work researcher might be familiar with. This is particularly important in higher degree settings where practitioners are research students. It is important for practitioner researchers to be aware of not only ethical standards but also the ethics of community and care (Gibbs & Costley, 2006), particularly where researchers also hold positions of responsibility and power.

Practitioner Research has been chosen as the name for this journal to represent it as a platform for practitioners to be engaged in praxis and transformation of practice. The undertaking of practitioner research is a generous act of vulnerability and a rewarding practice with the personal and professional growth it entails. If you have a burning question or problem of practice you have been researching that you would like to share with this research practitioner community we welcome your contribution for our next issue.


Hilton, A., & Hilton, G. (2017). The impact of conducing practitioner research projects on teachers’ professional growth. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 42(8), 77–94.

Gibbs, P., & Costley, C. (2006). An ethics of community and care for practitioner researchers. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 29(2), 239–249. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437270600891689

Samaras, A. P. (2011). Self-study teacher research: Improving your practice through collaborative inquiry. SAGE; http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452230481

Wenger, Etienne. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge University Press.
White, P., Carabott, K., Corrigan, D., & Kirkby, J. (2017). ‘Problems of practice’ in digital resource design. Journal of Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria, 4(2).