The Embedded Practitioner

My first entry on this blog, posted on February 22, 2005, marked the beginning of my doctoral research on blogging communities. I was interested in what happens when a group of grade eight students is given a place where they can engage as writers and move away from the “schooliness” of traditional class work. When I started, I really did not know what to expect. I had high hopes, but no preconceived notions or expectations.

And now, three years later, the research is done, and I am very happy to report that I have successfully defended my PhD thesis. It was a fascinating journey. I learned a lot about writing in online environments, about student interactions online, and about fostering student engagement in online spaces. However, one of the most personally relevant findings of my research was the impact that it had on me – the teacher-researcher.

During my defense, I focused on all the key findings of my research, but paid particular attention to my conclusions on teacher professional development. My research taught me a lot about the role of the teacher in an online class community of writers. At my defense, I used this painting by Caravaggio, the Italian Baroque master, to elaborate on what my research findings suggest about teacher professional development:

Taking of Christ by Caravaggio
Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ

Before I explain why I chose this painting, let me first elaborate on Caravaggio as he himself is an important figure to consider, an important role model for 21st century teachers. Caravaggio’s work was revolutionary. He was an innovator in his time who rejected established conventions. Instead of painting epic scenes with masses of people and religious symbolism (as was the established norm), he chose to focus on the personal struggles and experiences of his subjects. He chose to highlight the individual. The subjects he chose were mere mortals, representatives of the working class – the poor, humble, ordinary people of his time. The faith he depicted in his work was the faith of the simple, uneducated masses, not the faith of the grand Biblical narratives. Caravaggio focused on what he saw around him. His paintings feature wrinkled, aged faces, torn clothing, and unadorned, simple, often neglected interiors. Truth, in other words, truth as he saw it around him on a daily basis, was more important to him than conventions.

So, what does all of this have to do with teaching in the 21st century?

That painting by Caravaggio has became for me a metaphor that I like to use to explain the role of the teacher in a blogging community. Since I’m using it as a metaphor, I am interested only in its visual appeal – the placing of the subjects, the light that penetrates the scene, and the fact that the man carrying the lantern on the right side of the painting, the one who looks with interest over the heads of the two Roman soldiers, has been identified as Caravaggio’s self-portrait. (Caravaggio is well-known for inserting his self-portrait, inserting himself, so to speak, into his paintings.). I believe that, much like Caravaggio in this painting, a teacher in a blogging community should enter the context that gives rise to his or her work. Caravaggio portrays himself as one of the characters. He becomes implicated in his painting. He is both subject and artist … and that is why I think this painting is so relevant to my research and can help convey the redefined character of teacher presence in online communities. It makes visible some key implications of my study in the field of teacher professional development.

What this painting says to me is that we can gain a better understanding of our classrooms-as-communities if we immerse ourselves in them. In the manner of Caravaggio, teachers should weave their readerly, personal voices into the fabric of classrooms-as-communities. What my experiences illustrate, and what the painting metaphorically emphasizes, is that teacher professional development in the 21st century requires that we look closely at how to most effectively embed ourselves in our practice and in the experiences and interactions of our students. Professional development in the networked world requires that we look closely not only at what we do as educators but also at how we are embedded in educational contexts. Much like Caravaggio, we have to narrate ourselves into existence through participation in our classrooms in a way that is non-authoritarian, readerly, and conversational.

Much like Caravaggio in this painting, we need to be present in our classrooms as providers of light. Our guidance is needed and important. But, too often, our guidance becomes authoritarian and fails to take into account the voices of our students. We don’t often peer questioningly over the shoulders of our students. Instead, we impose the content and pre-define the learning trajectories for our students. Why don’t we take the time to just listen and observe once in a while? Those of us who give our students the freedom to define themselves through their work in classroom communities know how much we can learn by listening and observing. We should not be afraid to step down from behind the lectern and move to the edge of the community, where we can redefine our presence as that of a participant, as one of the voices, not as the voice that dominates, demands, and evaluates. What Caravaggio’s painting reminds me of is that I can be just as helpful as a facilitator if I engage from the sidelines and do not dominate the community as its focal point. Let student voices remain in the centre, let them be the focal point of the community where they interact, engage, and learn.

This reconfigured approach requires a difficult shift in our understanding of classroom practice. It requires that we accept a new dethroned position and become embedded practitioners – embedded in the classroom interactions as readers and participants, not evaluators and overseers.

That brings me to another important point: What’s Next?

My research has led me to some important and timely questions about teacher professional development – questions that I hope to be able to work on in the near future:

  1. How do we prepare teachers to teach 21st century learners whose lives are based on rich interactions in multiple online environments?
  2. How do we help new teachers move away from what Marshall McLuhan once called the “imposing of stencils” and adopt a practice of probing and exploration?
  3. How do we help new teachers acquire the courage to transform their classrooms into communities of learners and transform themselves into participants who can embed themselves in those communities?

My study and experience provide some answers, some of which I addressed on this blog in the past, but they are just starting points that will need further attention and elaboration. I believe that this process begins with opening ourselves up to the language of possibility and recognizing teachers whose work in the classroom can help us redefine not only our own classroom presence but also our notions of professional development. We need what Paulo Freire calls “curiosity as endless questioning.” He describes it as

movement toward the revelation of something that is hidden, as a question verbalized or not, as search for clarity, as a moment of attention, suggestion, and vigilance … there could be no creativity without the curiosity that moves us and sets us patiently impatient before a world that we did not make, to add to it something of our own making (Freire, 1998, pp.37-38).

In other words,

[…] there is no such thing as teaching without research and research without teaching. One inhabits the body of the other. As I teach, I continue to search and re-search. I teach because I search, because I question, and because I submit myself to questioning. I research because I notice things, take cognizance of them. And in so doing, I intervene. And intervening, I educate and educate myself. I do research so as to know what I do not yet know and to communicate and proclaim what I discover (Freire, 1998, pp.35).

Coda

Recently, Al Upton, an award-winning teacher from Adelaide, Australia whose work I’ve admired for a very long time, was forced to close his classroom community that has proven over the years to be of immense benefit to his students. He was forced to disable the classroom community by the Department of Education and Children’s Services in South Australia despite the fact that he used it to teach his students about online safety and received parental permission to carry out his project. The Department of Education is worried that some material on his class blog may put the students at risk of being identified by outsiders.

Al and I never met and we never corresponded, but I’ve been following his work for years and have always found it innovative and inspiring. In my opinion, Al is an embedded practitioner, someone who listens, observes, and is constantly searching for and researching new ways to improve himself and bring greater educational value to his classroom practice. I hope that he will soon regain his freedom to bring the world into his classroom and the classroom out into the world.

Works Cited:

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom. Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Rowman & Littlefield, New York.

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30 Responses to The Embedded Practitioner

  1. diane March 19, 2008 at 4:58 pm #

    Congratulations, Dr. Glogowski!

    I’ll need to save and savor your posting as I ponder what’s next in my own personal and professional life.

    Without drawing the parallel too closely, I find it interesting that you chose a depiction of the betrayal of a good man to authority figures as a defining image.

    Very apt for Eastertide in such an unsettled age.

    diane

  2. Laura Deisley March 19, 2008 at 5:38 pm #

    Konrad–

    Congratulations, Dr. Glogowski! I have followed and shared your work (K12 Onine and EduCon) with so many. Your exploration of conversational assessment, and this post here on the embedded practitioner, resonate with my thoughts on not only a wonderful teacher, but a better parent. (I am both.)

    Thank you for sharing so much of your journey. I look forward to more deep thinking, fabulous metaphors, and new wisdom.

    My very best,
    Laura

  3. Alice Barr March 19, 2008 at 5:58 pm #

    Congratulations! I was completely enthralled during your EduCon session… I can only imagine how you presented your dissertation. You have put a great model in place. Thank you.

  4. David Jakes March 19, 2008 at 7:45 pm #

    Congratulations, Konrad!

  5. Ben Chun March 19, 2008 at 9:09 pm #

    It’s amazing that Australia makes this move at the same time they’re preparing to dump AUS$1 billion into educational technology. (That figure and plan as shared by Greg Black at the COSN conference.) Perhaps the folks over at education.au will realize that they need to step in and hold up what Al Upton is doing as an example of how to teach with and about technology, instead of clamping down arbitrarily. It’s unclear to me exactly who pulled the plug, but hopefully we can get some attention on the issue and perhaps turn a negative into a positive.

    By the way, congrats on your thesis defense!

  6. Paul Wilkinson March 19, 2008 at 11:26 pm #

    Fascinating post thanks. Very thought provoking. Loved the metaphor and immediately related it to this picture
    http://www.keesbruin.com/artwork.aspx?intArtworkID=67&intGalleryID=11
    painted by a local artist. Thought you might be interested in the link.
    Cheers

  7. Jose Rodriguez March 20, 2008 at 4:08 am #

    Thanks Konrad for such an inspiring post. Stuff likes this keeps me up at night :-) Congratulations, we need more of Konrads advocating for 21st Century Learners. In regards to Al Upton, your voice along with other edubloggers will demonstrate that in reality he has brought the best of the world into his classroom.

  8. Will Richardson March 20, 2008 at 5:47 am #

    Congratulations! Well deserved.

    I was struck as I was reading this how much need to reframe our conception of teachers to embrace the idea of “co-learner” that you suggest here. And, thinking back on my own experiences as a teacher, how cool and engaging it would have been for me to be able to explore that shift more fully. I came close when I took a workshop approach to teaching writing (long before blogs), but I wasn’t allowed to continue it due to the difficulties with assessment. (Basically, I chose to let students assess themselves. What a concept. Their self-imposed grades were always within a few points of where I thought they should be.)

    Anyway, thanks for taking us down this path with you Konrad. When can we read your thesis???

  9. Jay Hurvitz March 20, 2008 at 8:38 am #

    It’s an honor to join what will undoubtedly be a lengthy list of well-wishers. Readers of your blog have long recognized your ability to critically examine the learning process, and it’s nice to know that the academy has also seen fit to recognize this. But don’t go thinking that just because you’ve finished this particular task we’re going to let you stop observing and examining … and reporting to us on what you find. Please, keep at it!

  10. Joao Alves March 20, 2008 at 2:49 pm #

    Congratulations, Konrad. For both, this post and the defense of your thesis.
    I wish I would teach and learn as if the classroom was a community of learners. Why don’t I? Why don’t so many teacher do it in spite of being aware that a shift in teaching is urgent in the 21st century?
    I wish the world would be prepared to understand the need for a paradigm shift in teaching and learning. Maybe then it would be easier for all of us teachers to teach according to the time we are living.

  11. jokay March 20, 2008 at 3:04 pm #

    I know I’ve said it already inworld… but officially wanted to say Congrats Dr Konrad! It’s been great to know and learn from you over the past few years and I can’t wait to see where your work takes you next! 😉

  12. Clay Burell March 20, 2008 at 11:46 pm #

    Let me add to the chorus of congratulations on the end of your schooliness (wait – I guess you can always get a second PhD? 😉 ), the birth of your new life, and another fine post.

    I’m wondering in my own classroom blogging how to balance the need to address (“teach”) the craft of writing to these developing writers, against the desire to play more of the conversational “co-learner” role I so much prefer.

    Be curious to hear your own thoughts on this, Konrad. Do you save the “teachery” stuff for classroom mini-lessons, for example? How do you attempt to guide and grow the writing on the blogs as a conversationalist, without coming off as “teacher”? These are the questions I struggle with.

    And again, congratulations! You must be so ready for the next stage :) And I know I’m ready to watch where it takes you.

  13. Konrad Glogowski March 21, 2008 at 9:34 am #

    First for all, I would like to thank all of you for your kind words about my work and all the wonderful congratulations. It’s been a long journey and I enjoyed sharing my experiences with the edublogging community. I’m ready for the next stage (not sure exactly where that will take me), but I know that wherever I go and whatever I do, I will continue to immerse myself in this amazing community of progressive and inspiring teachers that edublogosphere has become.

    Diane,

    Indeed, the betrayal of a good man … as I mentioned in my post, I’m interested only in the visual aspect of the painting, but the religious one is there too and, given Al Upton’s recent experiences, resonates a bit more loudly than it should. I think it also emphasizes that struggle that many progressive teachers experience when pushing the boundaries of traditional teaching practices as defined by authority figures.

    Paul,

    Thanks for the link. Very interesting modern take on Caravaggio!

    Jose,

    Yes, you’re right, we need advocates for 21st century learners, but we also need advocates for 21st century teachers. In fact, I think it is time to start engaging in serious research initiatives on teacher professional development in the 21st century. All the work done in the edublogosphere on 21st century learning and how it is re-shaping our classrooms should be very helpful.

    Jay,

    Wonderful to hear from you … and, yes, I do intend to keep observing and examining. This is a period of transition for me, but I will definitely continue to ask questions and share my experiences with the online educational community.

    Joao,

    Being a co-learner is not always easy. Often, the students themselves, used to a different mode of content delivery, find this approach unusual and it takes them time to recognize its value. I think it’s because they have been taught to “play school” and to see education as a mere process of transmission. The paradigm shift is coming and I think the community of progressive educators that you and I belong to will gradually help make that shift a reality in more and more classrooms.

  14. Konrad Glogowski March 21, 2008 at 10:14 am #

    Clay,

    I decided to respond in a separate comment because you address the issue of teacher as co-learner which, while an interesting concept to ponder, is not an easy one to implement.

    Your comments inspired me to devote a separate post to this concept!

    I believe that there will always be a need to combine the co-learner approach with some traditional teaching or “mini-lessons,” as you call them. After all, the students need to be introduced to certain concepts, they do have to be taught specific conventions because it’s the grammar of those conventions that will allow them to participate fully as independent writers. So, I agree with you. There is certainly a place for teacherly stuff and a need for it, too. Once that’s taken care of, the students and I have a certain set of skills that makes our conversations easier and my input more intelligible to them. In other words, my students and I cannot really have conversations about writing if we don’t share a common language in which to discuss the art of writing.

    You also mentioned the importance of balance. When I respond (try to respond) in a conversational tone, I often rely on the comments of the other students. I often point to what the student’s peers have written in response and use that to motivate the author. For example, let’s say the student tried to use symbolism in her work and yet no one responded to that specific aspect of the piece. I can use that observation to talk to her about the effectiveness of her use of symbolism (perhaps, since no one commented on it, it wasn’t communicated forcefully/clearly enough). If we both agree that she did an excellent job, then this presents a perfect opportunity to have a class discussion about the piece and address that question of symbolism – ask the class as a whole, not just the students who commented, to share their thoughts about the piece or just that one specific aspect of the entry. This kind of discussion helps the author stay engaged, learn to think critically about her work, and probably feel like an author too. The class also has an opportunity to learn something valuable about writing, too. The really important part here, I think, is that our conversation revolves around a piece that comes from our community, not some inane writing sample from a textbook. I really believe that teaching writing is about talking about student-generated texts.

    I’m not sure if this is a good example or if it answers your question. The question of balance is crucial. I try to maintain that balance by making sure that when we talk about writing as a class or when I teach a specific concept, I use the work written by my students. Even the very teacherly moments can be infused with the students’ own work and input.

    So, I try not to teach concepts in a vacuum. If my curriculum states that I need to address split infinitives or paragraph organization and my students don’t experience any problems with that, then I skip it. What I do teach, in other words, emerges from what I see/don’t see in their writing. If it’s more of a global problem, I address the whole class. If it’s something that four or five are struggling with, we have a small group conversation. Every time, however, I base what I do and what I say/teach on what the class blogosphere and all of its individual pieces tell me about student needs and student skills.

    Thanks for getting me to articulate my thoughts on this. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    – Konrad

  15. Konrad Glogowski March 21, 2008 at 10:30 am #

    Thank you for your comment, Will.

    Yes, I believe that we do need to “reframe our conception of teachers to embrace the idea of ‘co-learner’.” However, it’s a complicated process because so many of us find it difficult to engage as co-learners or co-participants. I eased myself into that role very slowly and am still exploring what it means to be present both as a figure of authority and a reader, not an evaluator. It’s a very rewarding process, but also one where there are no traditional referents and no clear guidelines. It requires therefore a lot of reflection on the part of the teacher. It requires that we become very much aware of the context in which we teach, which of course is always in flux because students come and go every term. So, it’s important to remember that there is no magic template here that we can apply. The best solution is to be that embedded educator who’s always reflecting.

    Also, there are times when the students _want_ an evaluator. At the same time, as your experiences with student self-evaluations clearly suggest, it is a valuable approach that can have a profound impact on individual students. It’s a question of balance and often depends on each individual class and the students’ individual needs.

    We definitely need to continue to explore this shift in instructional practices.

    As to my thesis, I’m still making minor corrections, but I will share it once it is officially submitted here at the university.

    – Konrad

  16. leighblackall March 23, 2008 at 1:57 am #

    Congratulations Konrad, you have inspired me every step of your way.

  17. Sheila March 24, 2008 at 3:41 pm #

    After reading your blog, I am in awe. It really struck me when you were saying how much we need to embrace the idea of being “co-learners” with the students. I still have one more year of school to go before I become a certified teacher and reading things like this really make me think of what kind of style of teaching I would like to pursue in the classroom. In one of my classes, we talked about how schools today are killing creativity. I found this to be extremely interesting and I feel that your blog goes along with that.
    “Our guidance is needed and important. But, too often, our guidance becomes authoritarian and fails to take into account the voices of our students.”
    I absolutely love what you said here because I totally understand what you are saying. I am still a student so I can understand how students’ voices get lost and too many teachers become authoritarian in their teaching. Reading this makes me realize that that is NOT how I want to be as a teacher. I want my students to feel that they can talk to me and that I am there for guidance and not just someone who tells them what to do everyday. Thank you for the amazing post! It really is inspiring!

  18. Joao Alves March 25, 2008 at 11:20 am #

    Konrad’s post is really inspiring and it all makes sense. However, in the last few days I have been wondering about how Konrad’s daily teaching looks like and a few questions came to my mind. I have been reflecting about this because I would like to change my teaching practice, trying to be more the facilitator and guide of learning and not only the teacher who tells the students what they need to do. I would like to see my students being more autonomous learners but this requires at least the know how from the teacher. These are the questions I have been thinking about:
    Are the students using their blogs in class every day to research about the subject they chose? Do they have access to the Internet in every class? How long are they supposed to do a research on a chosen topic? Can you cover all the prescribed curricular contents using that approach? Are they working individually or in groups? How many classes a week do you have? What subject do you teach? How could an EFL and German teacher like me do the same?

  19. AJ March 25, 2008 at 1:57 pm #

    This is a fantastic blog. The thought process going into the painting is amazing. I totally understand where you are coming from when using this painting as a metaphor. Teachers do need to “sit back” and almost let their students learn. Anymore these days, it seems as though we teach and we test. All memorization with minimal learning involved. That is not what a classroom should be like. When you ask students why they don’t like school, most responses are “because it’s boring.” This needs to stop. Change needs to happen. New teachers coming into the field are the ones who can make change a real possibility. We need to give more freedom to the students. Let them think on their own, instead of being told what to do all the time. Make your classroom a safe environment where the students won’t be afraid to express themselves. Let them know it is okay to be wrong, guessing and problem solving for an answer is how you learn best. Allow yourself to maybe “get off topic” for a while in class, most of the time when a teacher gets off topic there is more learning going on. Students can then feel free to ask questions about almost anything. Teachers are too worried about staying on task and getting through the material. I understand there needs to be a lesson plan and you eventually need to get through the subject matter, but try something new. Mix your classroom up and try something different every day. Bring up new topics or ideas just for plain old discussion, instead of “writing on the board for the whole class.” I feel that the new teachers coming into the world need to step up and not be afraid to try something different. In the long run, I think it will be most beneficial.

  20. Annie March 25, 2008 at 11:41 pm #

    Your metaphor using the painting by Caravaggio was well depicted. The atmosphere of a classroom with a leader that controls all the students’ actions takes away from student learning. They’re afraid to speak out and answer questions incorrectly. Instead, a more student-led classroom with the teacher drawn into the picture would demonstrate an environment where students can explore and understand information for themselves. Since I am still a college student, I can observe professors that have been teaching for years and believe their method is perfected. However, it does not appear that they have done their reading and understand why it is necessary to research teaching. Everyday, the technology progresses, and future educators must prepare for careers that don’t even exist yet. The world does not stop changing after you think you’ve perfected your lesson plan.

  21. Clay Burell March 26, 2008 at 1:58 pm #

    Konrad,

    Thanks for the (as usual) excellent response to my comment.

    I’m buried right now, so can only make time to say that a) your comment points to a need for time to focus on writing more than, for example, my coverage-imposed syllabus allows; ad b) you sketch the way to balance “teacheriness” with “co-learning through conversation” beautifully, so I’d be silly to say anything more.

    I really hope we meet face to face one day. Not many people out there writing about writing like you do.

  22. alexanderhayes April 10, 2008 at 5:12 am #

    Well done bloke !

    I’ve added your blog post to http://talo.wikispaces.com/learninginthe21stcentury

  23. leolaoshi April 10, 2008 at 6:33 am #

    Hi this is Leo again from China , just want to tell you that Korad I have been follow your blog for a long time , and I have been translating your blog into Chinese from your last blog entry so that million of Chinese teacher can read your thoughts , and I have translated your one and put it in my blog also , and I am transalting this one also ,

    Let me know if I can do this ? and also what posts you would like me to translate , I really like your quote on the painting of Jesus

    Will reponde more on the content soon

  24. Marcel Bruyn April 27, 2008 at 9:26 am #

    Spiraled my way here via Leigh Blackall’s http://learnonline.wordpress.com/. Intrigued and illuminated by your blog. All this adds to my learning journey as a teacher. As a researcher I am particularly intrigued with your analysis of the role of professional development in transforming teachers from (to use an old addage) a ‘sage on the stage’ to a ‘guide on the side’. Whenever we are faced with apparently opposing paradigms, I still think we have to be careful that we don’t force it into an either/or situation, and that we maintain an awareness of the pendulum swing, baby/bath water.

    This issue of teacher PD is very relevant to me as I help establish a professional learning community (PLC) of mathematics teachers in the top end of the Northern Territory. In creating a networked community of practice, I am exploring ways in which an online environment can help teachers create new knowledge and ways of thinking and make that part of their practice. Blended learning, forums, videos, self-monitoring of professional development, reflective thinking, web2.0 (online whiteboards, VoIP, chat, Flickr) and so on are all in the works. Riveting stuff, which is why another midnight is coming to pass when I should be a-sleeping.

    Cheers Konrad. Oh, the Secondlife venture looks interesting. Massive potentiality (I got quite excited about it a year ago, dreaming up all the possibilities), though snail-paced connections in remote Australia is retarding the use of that environment here.

  25. Jen O'Neill May 28, 2008 at 4:15 pm #

    Very interesting post. It seems that the nature of students is transient, but education, at least in America, is not. Educators at large seem to teach in ways that are not innovative and creative and to the styles of their students. Technology has been around for a long time now and I wonder when it will be fully embraced by our educational system. You have an excellent blog, by the way, Keep it up.

  26. woulfe August 2, 2008 at 12:13 am #

    I love this post, Konrad, and I’ve referred many other people to it.

    However that’s not why I’m commenting here today. A version of “The Taking of Christ” has been stolen from the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine.

    The other version of the painting is in the National Gallery of Ireland, in Dublin. Hard to tell, but I think your reproduction (above) is of the Dublin version.

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