New Research: Dancing in the Dark
by Pat Campbell
In 2001, a research team consisting of four
practitioners and a graduate student in British
Columbia sought to answer an essential, yet
How do adults with little formal
The researchers also explored how
literacy practitioners engage in
collaborative research. Due to space
constraints, this article does not
focus on their findings with respect
to the second question.
Dancing in the Dark, a
noteworthy research study,
explores this question and
documents the issues and
struggles that the researchers
encountered during the dance.
Kate Nonsuch, Paula Davies,
Darcy Allen and Dee McRae
conducted and taped individual
and group interviews with twenty-five adults. These participants were
aged nineteen or older, had less than a Grade 12 education or a modified
12, and were not currently participating
in a learning program. The purpose of the
interviews was to identify ways in which
adults with little formal education learn.
Questions such as “How do you find out information
about a disease?” were used to gain insight into how
the adults learned. The researchers wanted to use
these findings to generate new ideas about how
society can support adults with little formal
agency: The capacity, condition, or state of acting
exerting power. (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (2000)
gestalt: An organized
whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts. Canadian Oxford
praxis: The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology defines
praxis as human action on the natural and social world. It
emphasizes the transformative nature of action and the
priority of action over thought. It is often, but not always,
associated with Marxism and the work of Antonio
Gramsci. Paolo Freire applied the term to literacy work.
The research team identified four key themes that
emerged from their data: learning strategies, life
experiences, agency, and emotions. Although these
four themes are presented as separate entities, they
form a gestalt and are interconnected. The research
findings pertaining to learning strategies are
briefly described below.
The adults with little formal
education named five learning
strategies that they use to acquire both
new skills and knowledge: Ask, Read,
Observe/Model, Just Do It, and Use
Technology. In choosing a strategy,
participants considered “what they
were learning, their skill level, their
overall comfort with a strategy and
their previous success with a
particular strategy” (Niks et al p. 31).
Among the participants, the asking
strategy was the most frequently cited
learning strategy. However, the researchers
found that some participants, particularly
those with low agency, would sometimes
be too scared, embarrassed, or shy to ask
others for help.
What makes sense? What might emerge?
The Research in Practice Institute in St. John’s (June 2003)
included several lively discussions about how to learn from
and dialogue with other people’s work. Here are notes
from one of these conversations.
“Literature reviews are about engaging in a conversation
with what’s already been written – to say what you agree
with and don’t agree with. In practice, we don’t necessarily
need to link to the academic literature. What would be
more interesting would be to review knowledge relevant to
what we’re doing, tying questions and learning into
broader discussions happening within social movements.
We need to find alternatives that serve our needs.
“What kind of literature
review would make sense for practitioners? What would it take for academics
literature that takes practice into account? Why does
knowledge have to be screened through the eyes of
academia in order to “count”? From another angle, what
would have to change so that academics would review a
body of practitioner knowledge before they did their work ?
What could academically trained researchers produce, that
had coherence, rigour, theoretical seriousness but also took
up questions of practice and resonate with literacy practice?
“Will research in practice create its own literature? If it
does, will that literature be cited in other literature
reviews? Does the act of practitioner research create its
own literature? Will views shift?”
A complete report of the 2003 Research
in Practice Institute will soon be available at www.nald.ca/ripal.
During the interviews, the
researchers observed that the
participants tended to use stories or life
experiences to describe their learning
strategies. As the study progressed, the researcher team
realized the importance and significance of these
stories. In my opinion, the team’s realization has
important methodological implications for researchers
who use interviews as a form of data collection.
Perhaps adult literacy practitioners and academics can
begin integrating storytelling into the traditional
interview process, which usually consists of a
questions and answer format.
While reading Dancing in the Dark, I was particularly
intrigued by the researchers’ struggle and frustration with the literature
review process. Since their research question was part of an
discourse, there was a lack of literature on the research question
and the four key themes that emerged from the data. Perhaps we
need to use a
wide angle lens as we approach the literature review.
Rather than focusing on topics pertaining to the research question and
findings, we could read a body of literature that would help us to
findings. As a case in point, the findings from this
research suggested that some participants would
sometimes be shy to ask others for help. If this
finding is filtered through feminist literature, we
learn that hooks (1988) views shyness as a socially
constructed phenomenon. hooks asks the question:
“Can their fear be understood solely as shyness or is
it an expression of deeply embedded, socially
constructed restrictions against speech in a culture of
domination, a fear of owning one’s words, of taking a
stand?” (hooks p. 17). This example illustrates how
feminist literature can alter our perceptions; in this
case, shyness was placed within the larger sphere of
The research team also questioned and reflected
upon the purpose, value, and role of a literature
review from the perspective of both academics and
practitioners. The Dancing in the Dark research team
proposed that “practitioner conversations, which are
based on their shared experience in the classroom,
serve some of the same functions as a literature
review” (Niks et al p. 4). The research team’s struggle
with the literature review process raises important
questions for the field of adult literacy. Do academic
researchers ground their research and knowledge in
literature whereas practitioner researchers ground
their research and knowledge in their experiences?
Given their limited resources in terms of time and
funding, should practitioners channel their energy
into a literature review? Would the dance be more
vibrant if academics and practitioners engaged in
praxis, a cyclical process of learning that unifies
theory and practice?
Are you interested in discussing Dancing in the Dark?
Would you like to ask the researchers about their process
Join an electronic conference about Dancing in the Dark in November/December
2003. The conference, sponsored by Literacy BC and Capilano College, will
by the research team. It will take place in asynchronous
time through a specially developed conferencing web site.
To register, contact
Sandy Middleton at Literacy BC: firstname.lastname@example.org
Want a copy?
Dancing in the Dark is available online at:
If you would like a print copy, send an e-mail request
hooks, bell (1988). Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking
black. Toronto: Between
Niks, Marina, Darcy Allen, Paula Davies, Dee McRae, Kate Nonesuch
(2003). Dancing in the dark: How do adults with little formal education
learn? How do
practitioners do collaborative research? Nanaimo: Malaspina University College.