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Tom Wilson

All About Practice-Based Inquiry® 

What does "practice-based" mean?

Most modern research methods do not directly assess what professional practitioners actually do. What a practicing professional actually does is at the heart of the matter. Assessment information which has not taken actual practice into consideration, has limited value for improving the practice of professional service organizations.

An important deficit of most conventional measurement schemes is the limited perception of the nature of the knowledge that is at the heart of good professional practice.

This problem stems from inability of traditional research to define the knowledge that is at the heart of good practice in any profession. Of course, a professional practitioner does use the formal knowledge of his profession. But, it is his practice-based knowledge that makes the difference—that makes him a good professional or a mediocre one--that defines him as a practitioner rather than as a researcher or knowledge worker.

The good practicing professional learns from her experience about how to do her profession well. This body of experiential knowledge usually connects a practitioner's formal knowledge to her action. Some would assert that a key quality of a good practicing professional is her skill at learning from what she and others do when they practice their profession.

This body of knowledge is shaped by the actual experience of a practitioner. This is different from understanding the probabilities that can define outcomes. A practitioner builds this knowledge as she makes thousands of specific judgments about what to do to match the particularities of the specific person who is receiving the service and the particular context in which that person is when the service is offered.

Effective practitioners learn how to learn from particular incidents and evidence. They know how to adjust their thinking and their action to match what they have learned. They know that the right judgment about the best action to take with one person is not necessarily the right action to take with another. The right action today is not necessarily the right action tomorrow.

Effective practitioners learn how to learn from particular incidents and evidence. They know how to adjust their thinking and their action to match what they have learned. They know that the right judgment about the best action to take with one person is not necessarily the right action to take with another. T he right action today is not necessarily the right action tomorrow.

Practice-Based Inquiry begins with the nature of practice. It uses a different methodology to understand the complexity and particularity of good professional practice. Here are some examples of practice at work:
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Example # 1: In the doctor's office

A doctor is a practicing professional. You are waiting for your doctor to tell you what she thinks about why you have had pains in your chest for the last two months.

You don't want your doctor to rely only on her formal knowledge about heart disease: mortality rates, probability risks for heart disease, angina, the effectiveness of modern drugs and their side effects. You want her to think about what is specific about you and your heart. You want to be confident that she understands your particular set of symptoms and context. You want her to be good at making careful judgments based on her knowledge and experience as a doctor. You want her to arrive at the best possible solution for you.

That knowledge comes from how well your doctor has paid attention to and learned from her practice as a doctor and how well she has learned about what is wrong with you in the few minutes you are together.

Practice-Based Inquiry is built on this understanding of practice.

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Example # 2: In the teachers' room

You are a teacher. You listen with fascination as your principal announces the latest test score results for your school, realizing that it is as if he were announcing the winning Powerball numbers.

You know the results are important; everyone says so. You know new programs are on their way to ensure that you will teach so that the tests scores go up. You know some teachers are always talking about being professional. But they talk in generalities—"If you teach this way or that, the test scores will go up." You have a greater respect for teachers who listen skeptically, who take what they hear seriously only when it will make a difference to what they do in their daily teaching. Who talk about solving real problems they face daily in their classrooms.

You think about all the articles you read in the press about underperforming teachers, who are too highly paid. You wonder why so much of what you are asked to do does not match well with what a teacher has to do. You think of how you finally found a way this morning to explain fractions to Leslie and how excited she was to finally "get it." You know you will have to approach Michael differently tomorrow to teach him. You have found no support for how you must think as a teacher in all of the workshops or planning sessions you have been required to attend. You know that much of the formal knowledge you are learning is valuable, but…

You would not mind being held accountable for your teaching, if you were held accountable for what you must do to do your job well.

Practice-Based Inquiry provides a disciplined way for teachers to think about their practice so that they can strengthen what they do, based on what they learn from what they do. This is the special learning that comes with being a practitioner.

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Example # 3: In a parent's eyes

You like it when people say your school is one of the best in your town, but you don't like it when the school or your child's teachers treat your child like he is the same as all the others or they exclude him because he is different.

You want your child's teachers to know and challenge your child and to care about him as an individual learner, who knows how to do some things and does not know how to do others. You want them to shape their practice so that they teach him in a way that allows him to find and fulfill his potential. You want them to think they are working with a particular challenge when they teach your child.

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Bringing professional practice into focus

It is fortunate that the particularity of good practice is what most people in a democracy want for their children and that they want their schools to be good at doing that.

It is fortunate that we want all of the institutions that provide professional services to have the knowledge and experience to make good decisions about what to do.

Practice-Based Inquiry is a tool for constructing the knowledge and supporting the actions that are at the heart of good practice.

Practice-Based Inquiry brings professional practice into focus by building valid conclusions about the quality of actual practice.

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What are the components of Practice-Based Inquiry? »

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