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Inquiry based professional learning: Speaking back to standards based reforms

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Product Description

By Graham Parr

Published: 2010
ISBN: 978-1-921214-48-6
Pages: 276
Imprint: Post Pressed

'Truth,' says Mikhail Bakhtin,
'is not to be found inside the head of an individual person;
it is born between people collectively searching for truth,
in the process of dialogic interaction'.

Standards-based reforms have been a distinctive feature of educational policy-making across the western world in recent years. The introduction of such reforms is inevitably accompanied by enthusiastic rhetoric from governments about the value of ongoing teacher professional learning. And yet systemic, on-the-ground support for this learning is rare and piecemeal.

Inquiry-based professional learning: Speaking back to standards-based reforms is a critical and creative account of a small group of literature teachers in a school in Melbourne, Australia, as they collectively grapple with these reforms and seek to address their particular needs as professionals.

The book argues for a conception of inquiry-based professional learning that 'speaks back' to the logic of standards-based reforms, especially where such reforms control and prescribe teacher professional learning. It also acknowledges the professional and ethical challenges of teachers in their 'search for truth' amidst a maze of standards-based pressures.



Graham Parr is a senior lecturer in Education at Monash University. Recent publications include  Writing=Learning (AATE / Wakefield Press, co-edited with Brenton Doecke), a series of three co-edited books of professional learning cases written with teachers (DEECD), and the Report of the National Mapping of Teacher Professional Learning in Australia Project(DEEWR, co-authored with Brenton Doecke and Sue North). In 2008, he received the Award for Doctoral Research in Education, presented by The Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE).



A rigorously principled and intellectual standpoint.... It speaks to teachers everywhere  who are struggling to resist the anti-educational effects of so-called standards, who are  challenging the tyranny of numbers that politicians and corporations are imposing on  them and their students
Professor Brenton Doecke, Deakin University

A creative, rigorous and sustained piece of work
Professor Rob Pope, Oxford Brookes University

Table of Contents

Abbreviations used in this text


Chapter One

Re-thinking teacher professional learning

Chapter Two

Inquiry as dialogue: Methodology matters

  • Part one: Generating and (re)presenting dialogue
  • Part two: (Some) knowledge imposes a pattern and falsifies: How and why narrative matters
  • Part three: 'Our masters stuff these things into our memory': Critical discourse analysis and why it matters

Chapter Three

Dialogic epistemologies of professional learning

  • Part one: Toward dialogic professional learning
  • Part two: Accounting for teachers' knowing
  • Part three: Toward a dialogic research enterpris

Chapter Four

Building and sustaining ecologies of professional learning

  • Part one: Representing the ecologies of teacher professional learning
  • Part two: The 1990s in Victoria, Australia
  • Part three: The 2000s in Australia and other Western countries

Chapter Five

Dialogue and counterpoint in inquiry-based professional learning

Chapter Six

Literary theory, professional learning and other gobbledegook

  • Part one: Contrasting accounts of English-literature teacher professionalism
  • Part two: Dialogic 'transgression': learning and teaching with literary theory
  • Part three: 'How much turbulence can they cope with?'

Chapter Seven

Around and in the 'uncontainable edges'

  • Part one: Control and chaos in teachers' professional learning
  • Part two: Banking on/in traditional professional development paradigms
  • Part three: Negotiating between contrasting understandings of professional learning

Chapter Eight

Conclusions and recommendations

List of References


Inquiry-based professional learning: Speaking back to standards-based reforms


Post Pressed

ISBN: 9781921214486

As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, readers with a long-term interest in Australian educational policy and continuing debates about standards are likely to be aware of a remarkable 'road to Damascus' experience. In a recent newspaper piece (Donnelly, 2010a), Dr. Kevin Donnelly, a man once described by Prime Minister John Howard (2007) as a 'tough-minded' defender of 'the higher purposes of education', renounced his former faith in what Graham Parr calls in his new book, 'managerial understandings and structures that seek to control teachers' professionalism' (p. 215).

To describe Donnelly's mea culpa as brave would be to offer to him a level of generosity and respect he has not always shown to others, especially those he has taken issue with in the past. still, it seems fitting to acknowledge the fact that Donnelly has been able to revise his beliefs and no longer finds the 'higher purposes of education' in a disciplining regime of standardised tests, school league tables, highly prescribed ('teacher proof ') curricula and mechanistic professional learning programs. Instead, Donnelly is now advocating 'educational philosophies that run counter to the approved orthodoxy', as he describes his current thinking in another recent newspaper piece (Donnelly, 2010b). Parr certainly positions his own work in contrary terms, as the sub-title of his rigorous and engaging new book suggests. And, if a former staunch managerialist such as Donnelly has now unexpectedly joined Parr in the ranks of those who, 'in speaking back to standards based reforms ... continue to hope for a richer, more democratic educational future than that dreamed of in typical-standards based rhetoric' (p. 27), then such an unlikely event speaks all the more powerfully to the validity of Parr's argument about the value of dialogism and dialogic inquiry. In fact, Donnelly's conversion, which he attributes to meeting Diane Ravitch after reading her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), is emblematic of the unexpected outcomes that can follow the sort of critical dialogue that Parr argues 'generates and enhances dialogic potential' (p. 188). Parr's 'provisionally finalised description of professional learning' (p. 188) makes visible the trajectory of Donnelly's learning as he describes it himself. Increasing concerns about educational developments and outcomes in the Us having given him pause to rethink his old certainties, Donnelly engaged with the thinking of Ravitch in a dialogic manner, working through and speculating upon its implications for Australia. If we take Donnelly at his word, he has subsequently emerged with an enriched identity as someone who is more flexible in his beliefs and can accept the idea that our current understandings and practices are always best understood as being only provisional, or 'effervescing' with dialogic potential as Parr would have it, and open to change.

Encouragingly, giving credit where credit is due, Donnelly notes that Ravitch's arguments mirror those of Australian critics of managerialist reforms. He does not go so far as to formally recognise these critics by naming them, nor does he acknowledge the organisations they sometimes represent. Donnelly also does not relate how the respective positions of these anonymous 'critics' have been developed and advanced over a considerable period of time, well and truly preceding the publication of Ravitch's book and coinciding with her own now regretted involvement in the implementation of many of the managerialist policies she has come to decry. Graham Parr is one such Australian critic. A previous significant publication, Writing=Learning (2005), co-edited with Brenton Doecke, offers diverse accounts of professional learning as critical inquiry, strongly advocating principles antithetical to standards based reforms. Parr has been writing and speaking about such issues, and in the process challenging managerialist reforms, for at least the last decade - his entire academic career to date. His new book critically examines his self-described 'provisionally finalised' model of professional learning, a principled and evidence-based alternative to the mechanistic and reductive understandings of professional learning promoted by managerialists. It is a significant and timely contribution to an ongoing dialogue about standards-based reforms and their impact on educators in Australia and internationally. As Parr acknowledges, this dialogue has been supported by professional teaching bodies such as the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, which has a strong publishing record in this area, both through its journal, English in Australia, and its Interface book series.

Of course, one prominent, and rather partial, convert such as Donnelly does not constitute a broader paradigm shift. As Parr documents, standards-based reforms and managerialist understandings of teacher professional learning remain in the ascendancy in this country. This is confirmed by the rhetoric of our new Prime Minister, as it was by that of her two immediate predecessors. During her time as the Federal Minister for Education, for example, Julia Gillard adopted the vacuous mantra of 'tooling up teachers' (e.g. Gillard and Hayes, 2010), typically in relation to the Australian Curriculum and the so-called Digital Education Revolution. In this one offensive phrase, the seductive nature of the rhetoric used to advance managerialist reforms is perfectly encapsulated. In a certain sense, 'tooling up' might be understood to be supportive of teachers. It seems to suggest that the Federal Government is entirely well-intentioned, wanting to ensure that teachers are fully resourced and supported - and dare I say it, empowered - in their work. However, it is precisely because such a phrase is so seductive and pervasive that Inquiry-based professional learning is a most timely and important publication. It presents a significant, research-based challenge to the values and practices Prime Minister Gillard and others espouse when they talk of 'tooling up teachers', exposing the regimes of surveillance and compliance that such rhetoric serves, and delineating the ways it undermines the professional autonomy of teachers. A central contention of Parr's book is that 'some research and government inquiries continue to search for a magic pill - one which contains particular strategies or practices of professional learning that all teachers should be using' (p. 19). The 'right tools' for extending student learning and achievement, in other words, can be identified or developed without due regard to the complexities of teaching different groups of students in diverse school contexts, and without acknowledgement of 'the multifarious ways in which teachers learn' (p. 19) and the proven value of 'developing strong and ongoing professional learning cultures' (p. 21). In this model of educational reform, the 'right tools' are uniformly manufactured and imported from outside of the places where teachers and students work together, and imposed on teachers so that they get on with the job they are apparently employed to do: tightening the screws on students, hammering them into shape and fitting them to a standards-based educational blueprint - one teachers and their students have had no role in developing.

In a scholarly and creative way, Parr is able to disrupt and counter much of the rhetoric of managerialist reforms, exposing the arid, controlling and demeaning nature of these understandings and representations of teachers' professional learning. More to the point, he makes a compelling case for why managerialist understandings of teachers' learning are destined to be ineffective, a point driven home by the apparent failure of recent large-scale reforms such as those undertaken in England over the last two decades, as revealed by the Cambridge Primary Review (see http://www. primaryreview.org.uk). Professor Robin Alexander's recommendations as to what is now required in England in teacher professional learning reinforce Parr's central argument, and largely support the critical inquiry model of professional learning proposed in the book. According to Alexander (n.d), the alternative to 'tooling up teachers' to deliver national standards is for governments, education systems and professional bodies to instead promote collaborative critical inquiry in schools:
Initial teacher training and continuing professional development should move from models premised on compliance with received official wisdom to critical engagement, on the basis that this not only makes for better teaching, but is a minimal position from which to advance the learning, empowerment, autonomy and citizenship of the pupils.

The case studies of collaboration that Parr offers in his book give pointers as to how such critical engagement can take place in schools and through other supportive and grounded networks. However, Parr puts great stress on the fact that he is not suggesting that the model he advocates in any way constitutes a definitive way forward, being the single best possible solution to the deleterious consequences of technicist understandings of professional learning. In line with the theoretical basis of his research and his own 'world view' as an educator and an author, which is to say his resistance to 'managerial pinning down' (p. 212), Parr continually reiterates that his findings and recommendations are provisional and intended to promote further dialogue and inquiry, rather than provide ironclad solutions.

The heteroglossic nature of this book, its 'multivoiced' quality, means it has something to offer a broad readership, even as it ensures that this is not a book for readers with a general or casual interest in English teaching and other educational matters. Parr seeks to address the 'ecologies' of teacher professional learning, locating his research in the many different contexts that shape the professional lives of teachers, in particular English teachers. His critical gaze accordingly falls on a broad range of subjects, including: current practices in teacher education, research methodologies and approaches to the 'writing up' of research findings, political and media discourses relating to teaching and educational standards, the development and use of teaching standards by registration bodies and other organisations, professional learning practices in schools, linguistics, literary theory, and collaborative practices between academics and between academics and teachers. such breadth, and the accompanying depth with which each aspect is examined, will be of enormous assistance to teachers and educators wishing to engage with current educational 'debates' in this country in a more informed manner.

By the end of Inquiry-based professional learning, readers will have a stronger sense of how the diverse subjects tackled by Parr intersect and 'cross fertilise', manifesting in a complex dialogic web. I am certain that school-based professional learning leaders, and others responsible for developing and implementing professional learning programs with and for teachers, will find that Parr's inquiry-based model gives them much to think about. I believe that it will provide a useful lead into the evaluation of existing understandings of and processes for professional learning. Postgraduate research students may find Parr's use of creative writing strategies and literary texts as 'artefacts' to be intriguing and even provocative. Here Parr's approach should prompt some re-examination of 'what counts' and what can be done in educational research.

Parr trumpets the fact that he finds 'no sanctuary in certainty' (p. 29). This makes him a researcher, educator and author who is, it might be said, not of this time. Interviewed on ABC's National Interest radio program this year (Mares and Hattie, 2010), John Hattie, perhaps the leading figure in what might be called the 'teacher effectiveness' movement, stressed that the immediate imperative of educational research should be to bring certainty to debates about 'what works?', determining exactly what effective teaching is and looks like. Hattie argued:
 The question I'm asking in Visible Learning is, 'is there a practice of teaching?' But we know there's a practice of medicine, there are things you don't do, and there are things you do do. My problem in teaching is everything goes. And until we solve that problem and say, 'some things work better than others, some times we're better than others, some teachers work better than others', I think having teacher success days is just cosmetic. The profession has to recognise excellence.

How the profession might go about about identifying such things in a collegial and critical manner is, of course, also a very pertinent question. It is precisely this question that Parr has engaged in Inquiry-based professional learning. sadly, because I believe it really would be in the national interest, I am not confident that Graham Parr is likely to be interviewed on national radio about his new book any time soon. Not when he is willing to write that 'improvements in student learning and wellbeing are rarely connected in an immediate cause-and-effect, linear way' to any particular understanding or model of professional learning (p. 23), not least his own. This remains a message that is too complex and nuanced for most politicians and education journalists in this country to understand and accept, particularly those who have appropriated Hattie's work for their own ends, using the greatly misunderstood line 'the teacher makes the difference' as a slogan to justify their enthusiasm for managerialist reforms. While we wait for a much needed paradigm shift, bringing an end the era of managerialist reforms, we can be thankful that scholarly contrarians such as Graham Parr continue to research, collaborate and publish. If the likes of such prominent figures as Ravitch and Donnelly can come around, then hope remains that others will as well. This, at least, is the promise of genuinely dialogic and collaborative critical inquiry, as Parr so forcefully illustrates.


Alexander, R. (n.d.) Keynote 2 - The Cambridge Primary Review Final Report: What Now? [PowerPoint slides].

Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/ttrb/keynote-2-the-cambridge-primary-review-final-report-what-nowprofessor- robin-alexander-director-of-the-cambridgeprimary-review.

Doecke, B. and Parr, G. (2005) writing=learning. Kent Town: Wakefield Press/AATE.

Donnelly, K. (2010a) New York schools have failed the test. Retrieved from http://www.nationaltimes.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/new-york-schools-havefailed-the-test-20101111-17pc3.html.

Donnelly, K. (2010b) Content drowns new curriculum.Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/ news/opinion/content-drowns-new-curriculum/storye6frg6zo-1225939884483.

Gillard, J. and C. Hayes (2010) Tolling up for the 21st century at Cabramatta High school [media release].Retrieved from http://www.deewr.gov.au/ministers/gillard/media/releases/pages/article_100413_121446.aspx.

Howard, J. (2007) Speech Transcript, 08 February 2007,Dumbing Down by Kevin Donnelly, Book Launch, Parliament House, Canberra. Retrieved from http://www.pm.gov.au/media/speech/2007/speech23894.cfm.

Mares, P. (Interviewer), and Hattie, J. (Interviewee). (2010, July 16). NZ expert says schools need good teachers not better infrastructure (Interview transcript). Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/rn/nationalinterest/stories/2010/2956088.htm.

Ravitch, D. (2010) The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.


Mark Howie, ETANSW

Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived
its socially charged life.

Bakhtin, 1981/1987, p.293

This book arises out of multiple conversations. Graham Parr gives a vivid account of the talk he enjoyed with his colleagues at Eastern Girls' College, when they embarked on a collaborative inquiry into the impact that so-called 'theory' was having on their work as teachers of literature. His point is partly to show how such talk can be a powerful vehicle for professional learning and the construction of professional knowledge. Yet a conversational quality imbues the whole of this book, not just those sections that convey the liveliness of the discussions at Eastern Girls' College. Crucial to this study are the works of Bakhtin and Vygotsky, major theorists who have each explored the mediating role that language plays in experience. (Graham's nuanced account of the implications of Bakhtin's work for language educators is one of the best I have read.) When Graham engages with the work of such theorists, he does not merely summarise their arguments and appropriate them for his own purposes. He talks with them, positioning them as interlocutors in a conversation that stretches back into the past and well beyond the final sentences of this book.

Throughout this study you can hear Graham's own voice as an author, not in the sense of having the last say, but through his persistent questioning of current educational policies, current orthodoxies, accepted ways of thinking about professional learning and the learning that students experience within classroom settings. Every sentence in this book has a 'socially charged life', as Graham resists the glib and formulaic language that politicians and bureaucrats use when they talk about education, in a bid to find a new language that might begin to do justice to the rich complexities of the learning of both teachers and students in their day-to-day exchanges with one another.

Graham argues for an understanding of 'inquiry-based' learning that is grounded in the educational settings and networks in which teachers participate. His conception of professional learning is partly directed at traditional understandings of professional development as knowledge delivered to teachers by outside experts. The notion of 'PD' has been criticized for some time now - such 'knowledge' is typically delivered to teachers in one-off sessions with little or no discernible effect on the teaching and learning that actually occur in school settings. In Australia, PD 2000, a national survey of professional development conducted ten years ago by David McRae, registered a movement away from the notion of one-off 'PD' sessions. Teachers stated a preference for professional learning that they could sustain within their schools over a period of time. The profession expressed a desire to engage in a reflective practice that involved continually thinking about their work and how it might be improved, including conversations with their colleagues, as well as trialling and evaluating new initiatives as part of their everyday professional life. They saw such inquiry as an integral part of their professionalism (McRae et al., 2001).

A decade later, and a follow-up report - this time co-authored by Graham and me, along with other researchers from Monash University - has shown that such a model has been increasingly embraced by systems, schools and teachers (see Doecke, Parr, et al., 2008). One-shot professional development sessions are almost universally seen to be of limited value, while teachers are increasingly being encouraged to research their own professional practice in the local settings in which they work, often in partnership with academic researchers, and often leading to the award of a higher degree.

Yet while systems and schools might now acknowledge the value of 'action research', 'examination of student work', 'study groups', case discussions', 'peer observation' and 'lesson study' for building a 'learning community' (see, eg, DEET, 2005), Graham's book alerts us to the ways in which such terms are being dialogically appropriated to serve other ends than free and open inquiry into the nature of teaching and learning. The language that I have just quoted, for example, is taken from a booklet entitled Professional Learning in Effective Schools, which advances a view of professional learning that is framed by reductive notions of 'effectiveness' and 'student outcomes data' that undermine any notion of free inquiry into teaching and learning. The capacity of practitioner researchers to engage in educational research is radically circumscribed by notions of 'effectiveness' and 'student achievement' that they must simply take as given. Graham Parr's concept of 'inquiry-based' professional learning is one that challenges these pre-conceptions, which insists that a true learning community is one where teachers might raise questions about 'effectiveness' and the kind of learning 'outcomes' that are supposedly demonstrated by standardised tests, where teachers can inquire into the meaning of what they do, and the place of their work within society as a whole.

Therein lies the radical challenge posed by Graham Parr's book, and its importance to the historical moment in which we now find ourselves. When I was reading the manuscript, I was conscious that I had read much of it before, when Graham and I had been colleagues at Monash. I was also conscious that Graham had originally developed his concept of inquiry-based professional learning as a counterpoint to the policies of the Howard Government. Revisiting his arguments, I could sense that the policy environment had changed, and that his language now resonated somewhat differently in a policy context dominated by the likes of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. This is not to say that his arguments are now dated - to the contrary. If anything, the anti-intellectualism that has been a hallmark of Julia Gillard's period as Federal Education Minister means that the rigorously principled and intellectual standpoint presented in this book has become even more important. It is vital that educators in Australia challenge Gillard's populist rhetoric about the so-called 'transparency' of the My School website with its simplistic representation of schools according to how their students perform on a culturally loaded set of standardised tests.

Every sentence in this book, as I said, has a 'socially charged life'. The book represents not only an eloquent plea for a more reasoned and better informed debate about the value of education. It also affirms the need for continuing conversation and open mindedness, in contradistinction to the platitudes that career politicians mouth so glibly. In both these respects, it potentially constitutes a significant intervention in more than the Australian scene. It speaks to teachers everywhere who are struggling to resist the anti-educational effects of so-called standards, who are challenging the tyranny of numbers that politicians and corporations are imposing on them and their students (cf. Taubman, 2009).

Professor Brenton Doecke
Faculty of Arts and Education
Deakin University


Bakhtin MM (1981/1987) The dialogic imagination. M Holquist (Ed). C Emerson and M Holquist (Trans). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Department of Education and Training (2005) Professional learning in effective schools: The seven principles of highly effective professional learning. Melbourne: Department of Education & Training.

Doecke B, Parr G and North S (2008) National mapping of teacher professional learning project. Final report, 19 November 2008. Canberra: DEEWR: http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Search/Home?lookfor=National+Mapping+of+Teacher+Professional+Learning+Project&type=all&limits=&submit=Find

McRae D, Ainsworth G, Groves R, Rowland M and Zbar V (2001) PD 2000: A national mapping of school teacher professional development. A report for the Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA). Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Taubman PM (2009) Teaching by numbers: Deconstructing the discourse of standards and accountability in education. New York: Routledge.

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