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From practitioner to researcher and back again : an ethnographic case study of a research-in-practice project Alkenbrack, Betsy M.E.


This ethnographic case study documents the joys and challenges of a Research in Practice (RIP) project conducted by five adult literacy instructors that led to the report Hardwired for Hope: Effective ABE/Literacy Instructors. (Battell, Gesser, Rose, Sawyer, & Twiss, 2004). As the practitioner-researchers were nearing retirement, they set out to conduct a research project that would put the experience of long-term instructors on record, describing the background, beliefs and strategies they bring to their work. The resulting study serves as a legacy to instructors who are committed to effective practice, student success and social justice. I had the privilege of participating in this project over a three-year period. The experience gained as participant-observer is one source of data, along with document analysis (minutes, emails, reports and the study itself, Hardwired for Hope) and interviews (with project participants and two other informants). Three sensitizing concepts influence this study: the centrality of gender (Code, 1991, 1995; Luttrell, 1996), the notion of “field” (Bourdieu, 1985, 1989, 1993), and the concept of “communities of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, 1999; Wenger, 1998b). But more importantly, the research was shaped by the rich body of practitioner research that has blossomed in BC over the past decade, and by my own participation in the Hardwired for Hope project, the Research in Practice movement and the Adult Basic Education field over a 25-year period. Thus “insider research” is a key feature of the methodology. Five themes emerged: collaboration, knowledge creation, recognizing and valuing practitioners as researchers, supporting practitioner-research and promoting a research-in-practice culture. I also found that ABE practitioners bring to their work leadership, innovation, commitment to collaboration, an adventurous spirit and a willingness to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about what research is and who has the right to create knowledge. I provide recommendations to practitioner-researchers and university-based researchers who want to contribute to the RIP movement.

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