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Lawrence Stenhouse: an important figure every teacher-researcher should know about

Written By: Colin Richards
7 min read
An educationist from another era whose words are just as valuable today

The Chartered College of Teaching does not need a patron saint but if it did, Lawrence Stenhouse would be my choice. He is one of its founding fathers and guiding spirits, though he died over 30 years ago. He is mentioned once in the first issue of Impact as a ‘late great’ and his work also featured in a very brief reference in the first Third Space event, but his voice needs to be better known and his words better understood by the current generation of teacher-researchers. Stenhouse provides inspiration, insight and challenge – he was a truly wise man.

This article introduces the man and his work, largely through his own memorable words (though I have to confess to taking one liberty by replacing in places his phrase ‘curriculum study’ with ‘evidence-informed practice’ or ‘teacher research’). I am sure he would have approved, given our current context. As you will see, Stenhouse would not have wanted veneration but, I have to confess, that there is a small element of that in what follows.

Who was Stenhouse?

Stenhouse was a secondary school teacher of English and history in Scotland. After some years as head of the educational department in a college of education, in 1967 he was invited to direct the Humanities Curriculum Project, focusing on the teaching of controversial issues with secondary-aged pupils. He moved to the University of East Anglia in 1970 as director of CARE (Centre for Applied Research in Education) where he conducted a second major research project on the problems and effects of teaching about race relations.

In that project, teachers from participating schools were explicitly termed ‘internal researchers’ with the university-based team as ‘external researchers’. With this, the notion of ‘teacher as researcher’ was born. It was nourished through a series of research-oriented masters courses and smaller-scale projects, which involved teachers in defining their research task into teaching and learning, and in gathering and analysing data from their classrooms. Stenhouse died in 1982 – in mid-intellectual career – but left behind a legacy of powerful ideas of which ‘teacher as researcher’ was only one.

Wise words from another era

At his most influential, Lawrence lived and worked in a different era from ours. In the 1970s there was no national curriculum, no national testing, no common leaving examination at age 16, no academies, and no Ofsted. The system was not as well-funded; education was not as well valued; and, most significantly, schools and teachers were not subject to the degree of political control/influence that we currently experience.  Why then should we want to read and ponder the thoughts of an educationist from a different era?

In my view, more than any other academic at the time or now, Lawrence Stenhouse gets to the heart of the educational process, of what it is to be a teacher, of the ‘art’ of teaching, and the key to its improvement.

In one of his books he begins by referring to one of the enduring fascinations and frustrations of the educational process – the inevitable gap between aspiration and reality:

Our educational realities seldom conform to our educational intentions. We cannot put our policies into practice. We should not regard this as a failure peculiar to schools and teachers. We have only to look around us to confirm that it is part of the human lot. But… improvement is possible if we are secure enough to face and study the nature of our failures. The central problem of evidence-informed practice is the gap between our ideas and our aspirations and our attempts to operationalise them.

(Stenhouse, 1975, 2-3)

Elsewhere he absolves us from guilt at not achieving perfection in our teaching by recognising the ultra-ambitious nature of education:

… it is clear that the idea of education is sufficiently ambitious to preclude the possibility of perfect performances. No teaching is good enough: therefore good teaching is teaching towards the improvement of teaching. The implication is that all teaching ought to be seen as experimental. (Rudduck and Hopkins, 1985, 99)

Here he captures an essential characteristic of teaching – the pursuit of ideals by mere humans, like ourselves, with weaknesses and shortcomings. He sympathises with our predicament, our ‘lot’, but believes we can learn from falling short:

The gap between aspiration and teaching is a real and frustrating one. The gap can only be closed by adopting a research and development approach to one’s own teaching, whether alone or in a group of cooperating teachers.  (Stenhouse, 1975, 3).

He sees the role of teacher research as contributing to:

…the betterment of schools through the improvement of teaching and learning. Its characteristic insistence is that ideas should encounter the discipline of practice and that practice should be encountered by ideas. The teacher research movement is an attack on the separation of theory and practice. (Stenhouse, 1975, 3).

He would have applauded the aspirations echoed in the Chartered College of Teaching’s first Third Space event in July 2017.

Teaching as an art

While not denigrating the role of the social sciences in illuminating the contexts in which teaching and learning take place and in suggesting hypotheses that might throw light on those processes, he does not see them as providing solutions that can be readily and straightforwardly applied in classrooms:

Teaching strategies can only be developed in the classroom. There are too many variables, including the teacher himself, to allow of the generalisation of easy recipes. And our understanding of classrooms and what goes on in them is still very limited. (Rudduck and Hopkins, 1985, 25).

It still is.

Stenhouse is very clear. Education is not an applied science, concerned with establishing general laws of teaching and learning; the teacher is not an applied scientist, let alone a technician:

I am declaring teaching an art. By art I mean an exercise of skill expressive of meaning… Teaching is the art which expresses in a form accessible to learners an understanding of the nature of that which is to be learned. (Rudduck and Hopkins, 1985, 105)

All good art is an enquiry and an experiment. It is by virtue of being an artist that the teacher is a researcher. The point appears difficult to grasp because we have been invaded by the idea that research is scientific and concerned with general laws. (Rudduck and Hopkins, 1985, 106)

As an art, teaching can never be perfected but it can be fostered and improved through aspirations translated into hypotheses that can then be tested and refined in the classroom:

Teachers must be educated to develop their art, not to master it, for the claim to mastery merely signals the abandoning of aspiration. Teaching is not to be regarded as a static accomplishment like a riding a bicycle or keeping a ledger; it, like all arts of high ambition, a strategy in the face of an impossible task.
Rudduck and Hopkins, 1985, 124

For Stenhouse, the essence of teacher research and teacher development is sustained critical enquiry into your own teaching – not simply adopting procedures from competing alternatives whether offered by government agencies, MATs, LAs, neighbouring schools, educational gurus or CPD providers. That enquiry should be borne of an anxiety to do better and should be pursued not as a one-off activity but an ongoing process, preferably with other interested teachers. He argues, perhaps a little exaggeratedly, that:

enquiry should, I think, be rooted in acutely felt anxiety, and research suffers when it is not. Such enquiry becomes systematic when it is structured over time by continuities lodged in the intellectual biography of the researcher and coordinated with the work of others. (1985, 120)


fundamental to such persistence of enquiry is a sceptical temper of mind sustained by critical principles, a doubt not only about the received and comfortable answers, but also about one’s own hypotheses.’ (Rudduck and Hopkins, 1985, 8)

He does not come to a settled view as to how far the results of that sustained critical enquiry should be made public. However, he is clear about communication:

that each classroom should not be an island. Teachers….need to communicate with one another. They should report their work. Thus a common vocabulary of concepts  and a syntax of theory need to be developed. (Stenhouse 1975, 157)

What seems to me most important is that research becomes part of a community of critical discourse. But perhaps too much research is published to the world, too little to the village. We need local cooperatives and papers as well as international conferences and journals. (Stenhouse, 1985, 17).

I am sure he would welcome the opportunity the Chartered College provides almost 40 years on to disseminate findings from evidence-informed practice and to work towards that common vocabulary of concepts and a common understanding of theory. He would, however, be insistent on the provisional, tentative nature of such enquiries:

findings must be so presented that a teacher is invited not to accept them but to test them by mounting a verification procedure in his own situation. Such proposals claim to be intelligent rather than correct. (Stenhouse, 1975, 136)

He is insistent:

I am not seeking to claim that research should override your judgment; it should supplement it and enrich it.
Stenhouse, 1985, 10

Stenhouse today

To return to the current context, in presenting the findings from evidence-based practice and from research more generally, the College’s journal, Impact, needs to be ‘intelligent’ rather than ‘correct’ or ‘definitive’.

He is very aware of the difficulties facing teacher researchers including problems of time, access to research expertise and recognition of the importance of the activity by school and college leaders. However:

…the main barriers to teachers’ assuming the role of researchers studying their own teaching in order to improve it, are psychological and social. The close examination of one’s professional performance is personally threatening; and the social climate in which teachers work generally offers little support to those who might be disposed to face that threat. (Stenhouse, 1975, 159).

Over 30 years later that ‘social climate’ may well be changing; the Chartered College will be very important in supporting this.

My brief article cannot do justice to the inspiration and insights of Lawrence Stenhouse but I encourage you to read and follow up on Stenhouse. As a great teacher himself, he was aware of the gap between his aspirations and his practice but he was not discouraged, nor should we be. For him, the last word:

But my practice is not successful. Success can be achieved only by lowering our sights. The future is more powerfully formed by our commitments to those enterprises we think it worth pursuing even though we fall short of our aspirations.
Rudduck and Hopkins, 1985, 127

Further reading

Stenhouse L (1983) Authority, Education and Emancipation. London: Heinemann.

  • Stenhouse, L (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.
  • Rudduck, J and Hopkins, D (1985) Research as a Basis for Teaching: readings from the work of Lawrence Stenhouse. London: Heinemann.
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