Research in Practice on two sides of the Atlantic

In June, several Canadians went to RaPAL’s (Research and Practice in Adult Literacy) twentieth anniversary conference in Lancaster, England: Leonne Beebe, Nora Randall, Bonnie Soroke, Sheila Stewart, and Anneke van Enk. After returning home, they decided to share their impressions and observations about similarities or differences between the United Kingdom and Canada. The following is an excerpt from their e-mail conversation.

Date:  Mon, 9 Aug 2004                                Subject: RaPAL


In Britain, the recent new money for literacy has had a big impact on research in practice and on the field as a whole. My sense is that the field has risen to the occasion of there being pots of new money only available for a short time. I heard people speculating on how long this kind of funding would be around. People are working hard, knowing it’s important to get in there and work with the new opportunities, for example those set up by the National Research Development Centre for Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC).

Even though there is much more research going on in Britain, I think, despite our smaller scale activities, we have a quite sophisticated perspective here on some of the complexities of the relationship between practice and research, and the research-practice-policy triangle. Perhaps because our universities haven’t, by and large, been places for a lot of practitioner-led research, or even much literacy research at all, and perhaps because it feels like we really need to work to establish a relationship here between research and policy, there is some interesting dialogue here about how these spheres relate to each other.

From Bonnie:         

Oh thank you for starting us off Sheila. Yes, in the United Kingdom more people in RaPAL seem to be generally involvedin research work/studies in academic settings along with their practice in literacy—and that does shift the nature of how they perceive and experience literacy research. Here in British Columbia, we’re coming from a place ofindividuals and collaborative groups initiating research projects while working in the field—and the academics serving as supports and research friends. Two distinct roles in many cases. And different kinds of relationships evolve in exploring ways of working together.

From Anneke:        

The conference was a bit of a scattered experience for me, but I did come away with the general impression that research in practice was more of a formal movement (if that’s not too much of a contradiction!) in Canada than in the United Kingdom, though that’s based on a very cursory introduction to the United Kingdom scene. This sense leads me also to think that we are further ahead in our conversations about permutations and possibilities and politics and problematics. (I could be completely wrong, but I didn’t hear/see much in the [very excellent] sessions I attended that dug into the complexities of research in practice itself.)

Having said that, though, I also sometimes worry that the speed and overwhelming enthusiasm with which research in practice has taken off in Canada (especially in the last one-and-a-half-to-two years) might curb a deepening and broadening discussion about it. I sometimes think that we need to be careful that it not just become a temporary fad in the literacy field, with all that wonderful energy expired before it has had a chance to be used in developing critically and practically well-grounded relationships and practices and resources. For that reason, I think it’s really important that we keep pushing the kinds of questions Bonnie and I put up on the RiPAL-BC display (Research in Practice in Adult Literacy-British Columbia)—and to attend to other questions and possible doubts and concerns out there—as much as it’s important to celebrate what we already have.

Sent: August 18, 2004 3:32 PM
Subject: more thoughts & responses

From: Bonnie

In thinking about the differences between Canada and the United Kingdom—yes definitely the money factor and the academic researcher big names have a huge influence. We in Canada have started from a different place so have evolved in a whole different way. When I was at the RaPAL conference last year, I had the sense that literacy practitioners were just beginning to see that what they do, what they would like to do, could be seen/done in terms of research. And this year, it has become formalized through the new NRDC practitioner research grants where the projects are initiated and done by practitioners in collaboration with a research consultant (similar to our research friend model in British Columbia). So what we in Canada have evolved from the bottom up (coming up with research ideas, applying for funding thru various sources), the United Kingdom is creating from the top down with NRDC encouraging practitioners to initiate and do research on their practice. It’d be great to have dialogue, conferences where practitioner-researchers from the United Kingdom and Canada could simply talk about what research means to them, what researcher means, how does research differ from professional development—all those questions that we’ve been engaging with in RiPAL-BC (pronounced ripple, remember).

Sent:            August 18, 2004 5:08 PM                      Subject: Re: more thoughts & responses


I wonder how we can work with the hierarchies of the university or how we can work in a less hierarchical way if we were to have such large research projects headed up by academic-based researchers? What is the research for anyway? Oh, the tricky issues here of knowledge production. And what counts as knowledge? That which gets written down? Are there hierarchies of knowledge? So much literacy worker knowledge doesn’t get written down, but in order to change things, research/writing/recording/written reflection sure is helpful. Lliteracy research and reflection can bring us into dialogue with people in Australia and Scotland—though we could ask how helpful is that to practitioners? Which practitioners? Often what is needed is time to talk to the colleague in the room beside you or perhaps someone on the other side of town. Certainly knowing the broader literacy picture and educational research puts policy changes in a different perspective.

I’m curious about how the Canadian reality affects how we might approach research differently here than in the United Kingdom, with our history of the way colonization and genocide have been tied up with schooling, literacy and the written word, particularly in terms of residential schools and treaties; our geographic diversity; and our particular spread of population intensity and scarcity. Certainly at RaPAL literacy was a political word, but I think the spin on that politics is different here. In Ontario, the literacy field is divided into four streams (Aboriginal, Deaf, Francophone, and Anglophone) and I wonder how this shapes the research that gets done here. Is it divided that way or some other way in British Columbia?    

Date:            August 19, 2004 2:28 PM                      Subject: A few more thoughts

From:            Bonnie

You asked how the literacy field is divided in British Columbia. That’s interesting questioning—we haven’t named the divisions here in British Columbia, either formally or informally, explicitly or implicitly. At an academic level, there is talk of aboriginal literacy but that hasn’t moved from there, as far as I know.

As I work on this research proposal with Pecket Well College, an adult literacy educational environment where they claim that they do not have practitioners or teachers (they do hire facilitators for workshops and courses), your questions about research and about practitioners points to me a missing group here—students, the learners. We just assume that practitioner knowledge, practitioner involvement translates to learners—and is that true?

Sent:            August 19, 2004 10:29 PM                    Subject: RaPAL
From: Leonne

The RaPAL conference was an interesting combination of networking and learning about how the same things can be different. I gave a presentation and was asked to emphasize the research aspect of my work, but almost everyone wanted to hear about my teaching activities. Luckily, I came prepared to cover either or both. However, one hour is hardly long enough to do much with either. I found that the time for each presentation I attended was too short.

The workshop on the historic trends in literacy was as interesting as I thought it would be—similar to RiPAL-BC’s project What Makes an ABE Teacher. It had a different question, but I could see that both could complement each other. One thing that alarmed me and I did speak out about it was the fact that the classroom teacher, tutor in Britain, in many cases, has no control over who comes into the classroom to do research.

Sent:            August 20, 2004 7:04 PM                      Subject: United Kingdom events

From:            Anneke

Back to what Bonnie and Sheila said about hierarchies and ownership of the research project. Funny, I haven’t been thinking much in terms of ownership at all—much more in terms of audiences and purposes (for whom and towards what ends is this project intended?) and how these justify (or at least go some way toward explaining) the hierarchies that seem to evolve in research projects. I wonder how framing matters in terms of ownership (who owns this project?) might add to or shift the ways in which we think about and enact hierarchy.


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