The Practitioner-Researcher: A Research Revolution in Literacy

Article excerpt

In the early 17th century, Francis Bacon asserted that "Knowledge itself is power." Unfortunately--at least for those deemed not to possess it--certain kinds of knowledge and certain sources of knowledge have been considered far more important, and legitimate, than others throughout history. There was a time when the church held enormous power, primarily because the church was considered to be able to interpret God's word. It became the source of virtually all "legitimate" knowledge.

Countless pharaohs, emperors, kings and queens have been considered the supreme source of all knowledge. Their knowledge was superior to their subjects' knowledge. Why? Often, they were understood to have a direct pipeline to God, or to a deity--or to be a deity themselves. However, if all this superior knowledge was ever considered insufficient, the blunt fact was their word was law. Actually, much of history is the story of "knowledge-made-truth" by virtue of the power vested in the knowledge-maker. To re-phrase Bacon's aphorism: "Power itself has often determined what is considered legitimate knowledge."

Today we have democracies and science. Knowledge now comes from reliable sources. Or does it? Where does knowledge come from today? Who makes the knowledge claims for the world of the 21st century?

Francis Bacon could hardly have imagined how completely the authority for modern knowledge would become the domain of researchers armed with scientific tools, at least in the Western world. The all-powerful term, "research," has taken on an almost holy aura in modern times. Research production, research legitimization, research dissemination--these have become the guiding vehicles for "truth" for so much of what we do, think and act upon. We go to a doctor. Our reality suddenly becomes radically changed due to a medical decision--a decision, we are told, that comes from medical research. If we doubt the knowledge statement or the source, we may seek another decision and another. But the basis of the knowledge we seek will typically be derived from research of some type as conducted and interpreted by researchers. We are not satisfied with less. We buy certain foods based on nutrition research. We buy certain cars based on consumer research. From climate change to family planning, we look to the most recent research from the most reliable experts.

But things are changing. Slavish dependence on traditional sources of research is changing, along with the societal acceptance of modernity. We smile today at the idea of the church or a king having a lock on all knowledge. The fact is that the 20th century Temples of Research have come under serious question in recent years. We see contradictions piling on top of contradictions in medical research, from the harmful effects of cholesterol, to "cures for cancer." When did the research on technology tell us we might end up with global warming? Who today is willing to embrace genetically-modified foods--despite the "leading" research? Today, the king has fewer clothes.

In our field of adult education, adult literacy education is bringing challenges to the concept of traditional university-based research. This research revolution in literacy has implications for traditional research and the future direction of literacy. On one hand, practitioner research is challenging the types of research-based knowledge that are to be considered "legitimate" in academic circles (Quigley & Kuhne, 1997). On the other hand, the sweeping movement of literacy practitioner action research in North America, Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia and Latin America is creating new levels of empowerment that have enormous potential for the future of literacy. Indeed, Jarvis (1999) has introduced the term "practitioner-researcher" into the vocabulary of our field. Perhaps the epithet for the 21st century should be "knowledge can create empowerment--empowerment can create knowledge."

"They thought; we taught": Practitioner Research Today

As noted earlier in this issue, when I began as a literacy teacher in 1972, the notion that teachers and tutors could produce "research" was unthinkable. …

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