ELPC Part 1: A fertile research question

When it comes to learning something new, just listening to an expert is usually not enough. Nor is passively reading. Usually we need to do something, to actively construct the knowledge ourselves, from a number of different sources and for a particular purpose (often to teach or explain it to someone else).

This seems to be the principle driving the inspirational Michael Wesch and his university class. It’s the principle behind the structure of our postgraduate course called ‘literacy across the curriculum’ in the Faculty of Education at the University of Canberra. (The course acronym is ELPC, hence my title.)


For the first four weeks of this literacy course, the students each had to do their own piece of research. In our last four weeks (in October, after the students have spent time in schools), I’m wanting to again have them actively constructing knowledge from a variety of sources and for a particular purpose.

I’m writing this blog post to help me find the words to describe this proposed project.


I’ve already discovered that these are quite remarkable students. Ranging in age from early 20s to mid 50s, from all kinds of disciplines and walks of life, many with their own families and the perspectives that come from being a parent, they’ve begun to challenge or extend accepted definitions of literacy.

  • Michele and Renee were struck by the usefulness of reflective writing and blogging, and wondered how this might become a part of their teaching in the humanities and the arts;
  • Niomi, Matthew, Adam, Pip and Rob wanted us to include aspects of ‘mathematical literacy’;
  • Jane, Leigh and Alison urged us to include the ability to read images;
  • Terry described the experiences of a friend of his who struggled with reading but came to know the world profoundly through talking, acting, role-playing and discussing, or what Terry called his friend’s advanced  “vocal, aural, relational and dramatic literacy”;
  • Sarah wrote, “Literacy is about using our hands, our voices, our expressions, pictures, words and emotions.”
  • Brett wrote a wonderful blog post about ‘reading the environment’, in which he told the story of a group of scouts going out into the bush.

Rachel eloquently summed up this desire to think more extensively and inclusively as follows:

everything can be read: … the world is made up of signs. Thus, in order to be truly literate, we need to be able to actively participate in multiple mediums. Yes, we need to have an deep and intimate understanding of written text and to be able to produce text in a way that precisely communicates our intentions. I don’t believe that imperative will ever go away. However, it is increasingly clear that, in order to survive and to make survival meaningful, our children need to be able to “read” technology, visual media, numerous intellectual disciplines, the non-human environment and one another. It’s knee-knockingly intimidating but as I write this, I’m also excited by the possibilities. Imagine being able to train our brains to easily roam over so many dimensions of existence, and to competently convey our insight to so many diverse beings. Truly mind-blowing.


I want to try to build on this kind of thinking in our last four weeks together. This time though, instead of having each of them do his or her own research project (as in the first four weeks), I’d like us all to be working together on a single project.

The focus, this time, is writing or composing (thanks Karen!).

So right now I’m trying to find the words for a fertile research question that would help us explore writing in a way that had the students constructing meaning for a particular purpose.

My friend Karen La Bonte has already suggested a couple of questions around which we might focus our work.

Do we express ourselves only to reflect what is already known (which we have recently digested), or are we creating new knowledge in and via our composition?

Does the act of composing have to be language-oriented to be valid?

These two questions connect very nicely with the kinds of questions the students have been raising.

But there’s more I’d like this research question to encompass. When the postgraduate students recently reported on their own research, many made the point (explicitly or implicitly) that literacy and love are connected, that literacy development is excited by exciting relationships, that a person is motivated to become literate through a desire to belong.

Reuben described the secure and stimulating emotional climate in which he gained his insatiable love of reading; I’ve quoted his words in an earlier blog post. Coming at it from the opposite direction, Geoffrey wrote about the effect his father’s sudden death had on his literacy learning as a 5 year old.

Geoffrey’s father died suddenly when Geoffrey was 5, and this had a profound effect.

What my own experience as a child of 5 and 6yrs old highlights for me is what a huge impact one’s emotional state has on one’s ability to read and comprehend and find joy and pleasure in literacy. Powerful emotions such as trauma, grief, anxiety and inadequacy may make it impossible for a student to learn anything, let alone enter into a text and gain some pleasure from it. I was unable to learn some of the basic building blocks of literacy because my consciousness was flooded and overloaded by some very powerful emotions. I think there are many young people in a similar situation as I was but for other reasons no doubt. Martial breakdown, domestic violence, homelessness and sexual abuse, would I believe all have a similar debilitating impact on a student trying to comprehend a text. For them as well as for me, it would not be before these intense emotions have dissipated that I or they could begin to enter into the other world that unfolds in literature. I was never [at school] able to go back and relearn or learn for the first time the things that I had been too engulfed in pain to absorb.

As Jane put it:

If the context we live within is fractured or unsupported, absent or indifferent, volatile or dormant, then the chances are that we will struggle to make any connections that are meaningful and⁄or insightful.

Literacy develops within a context, within an emotional climate. My own hypothesis (obviously shared by many of the students) is that we’re barking up the wrong tree if our literacy strategies continually focus on the individual, and in particular on what skills he or she lacks. We need to be thinking more about creating the environment, the culture, the community, the relationships, in which a desire to become literate can and will grow.

I want our final four weeks together to explore and reflect this. I want our research work to be vibrantly collaborative, conducted partly online and partly face-to-face in our four tutorials (three of them taken by me, one by Kaye Lowe).

So what’s the research question that captures all of this?

I feel blocked.


I’ve just been for a walk. Walking usually helps. On the way home I had a thought. I think the research question might come in two forms.

First there is the research question which we as a group would be working on. It might be worded as follows:

Do current theories and practices take too narrow a view of what constitutes ‘writing’?

This would involve some review of the literature, lots of discussion, some tutorials and some composing by each of the students.

What kind of composing?

Well, perhaps a second research question might guide the students’ work. Something like the following:

Given that writing (composing) (1) functions both to express and to discover and (2)  has many forms (not just word-focussed), what writing skill (traditionally associated with my discipline or inspired by a different discipline) might I develop over the next four weeks which will improve my teaching and⁄or my students’ learning?

I like the direction that this question would take us (though it feels too wordy). The students would each find a skill that they wanted to develop, and over the four weeks would work to develop it; lots of scope for variety and creativity, but lots of cross-fertilisation as well. I’ve already begun to think about what skill I might work on in the next couple of weeks, to model the kind of approach I’m thinking about. The student journal (blog) would become the place both where the student experimented and developed the skill, and where he or she reflected on the progress being made. The progress would be shared informally in the tutorials and online. Each student would leave with a useful skill honed, and Kaye Lowe and I would be left with lots of raw material for some useful reflection and writing of our own.


I have a test that I like to use for research questions. It’s based on the work of the Israeli educationists Yoram Harpaz and Adem Lepstein, who suggest that a good research question must meet the following six criteria:

OPEN: The question had no simple single answer, but probably several, different from and even contradictory to each other.
UNDERMINING: The question undermines or challenges the basic assumptions and fixed beliefs of the student; cast doubts on the ‘self-evident’, on ‘common sense; uncovers basic conflicts lacking a simple solution; and required thinking about the roots of things.
RICH: The question requires grappling with rich content indispensable to understanding humanity and the world, that is impossible to understand without careful and lengthy reflection and/or research.
CONNECTED: The question is relevant to the life of the student, and to the society in which he lives.
CHARGED: The question has an ethical dimension, a strong emotional and ethical charge which motivates further inquiry, reflection, discussion and/or research.
PRACTICAL: It is a question that lends itself to further to exploration, about which information is available to the student.

I’ve managed to negotiate (with work and family) three days at the beginning of next week when I’m going down to the coast (this time with broadband USB stick!) to think some more about these questions and to begin to put a firmer structure to these final fours weeks in October.

So I’d be interested in your thoughts. Do the questions meet the criteria? Does the approach make sense?

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4 Responses to ELPC Part 1: A fertile research question

  1. readingteach says:

    I like where you are heading with this, Steve. My thinking is not completely clear, but here are a few thoughts.

    I think the first question “Do current theories and practices take too narrow a view of what constitutes ‘writing’?” almost feels like a yes or no. Could it be more along the lines of “what does current theory say about writing instruction” or something along those lines… and then something about how it addresses 21st century literacy skills (I’m thinking of a way for them to explore ideas likes blogs and tweets, etc.. as writing). Not very clear there. Sorry!

    If the first question looks at theory and practice, could the second question tie in with that? ie- Given what current writing theory/practice says what writing skill (traditionally associated with my discipline or inspired by a different discipline) might I develop over the next four weeks which will improve my teaching and⁄or my students’ learning?
    This way the questions are interrelated and students are having to utilize their research to support what they are doing in the classroom (teachers as researchers, you’re such a rebel, Mr. Shann:))

    This may be what you were expressing and I’ve taken it and muddled it completely. Now you have me thinking about what to do with writing instruction in my own classroom. How I wish I could be a fly on the wall in your literacy class. I would enjoy learning!

    • steveshann says:

      Thanks Teresa. You’re right. The first question is too ‘yes or no’-ish. I’ll try to think of something more ‘charged’ and ‘open’. Stay tuned.
      And I like your idea of linking the two questions. I think that one of the reasons why I’ve felt blocked as I’ve been planning this is that I’m wanting to do two things at once (have a single focus for us all + have each student work on something useful & meaningful for him or her), and it’s felt a bit like I’m being pulled in two different directions.
      As always (you do this often! … where do you find the time?), your thoughtful response is v. helpful.

  2. Pingback: ELPC Part 2: Inching towards a more charged focus question « Birds fly, fish swim

  3. Geoffrey says:

    One of the key things for me in literacy is motivation. Why do I want to read? If I am only reading to get it out of the way before I do something I really enjoy, if reading is a chore, boring or just something to pass an exam it is hardly something that will inspire one to pursue outside a structured and formal context.
    I like the ideas you have expressed that reading is about belonging. We all live in our own bodies and consciousness like lonely galaxies traveling through a seemingly infinite space. By literacy we are invited to enter into others worlds, to see our own world through others eyes and make sense and meaning of our existence.
    Reading can help us balance the state of our interior world with another world mediated to us through the written text. So I see that the emotional context of our literacy is very important and for me often dives what I choose to be engaged in. After the debacle of my Professional Experience I went down to Tomakin and took a funny book to read, titled “a Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”. Marina Lewycka invited me into her world of humour and I was restored in my inner self by her joy.

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