This paper explores how two teacher educators and volunteer sports coaches in an Irish university engaged in collaborative self-study to examine our learning over the course of six years. Using the landscapes of practice theoretical framework (Wenger-Trayner et al., 2015), we detail how participation in a number of self-studies, together and with other colleagues, has provided us with many learning opportunities over this time.
Our data generation and analysis followed the processes of a meta self-study (Hamilton, 2020). We reviewed our whole dataset of reflection journals, critical friend engagements and publications, and identified key landmarks within our learning landscape.
In this paper, we discuss three significant landmarks that represent our learning experiences as coaches and teacher educators on a longitudinal collaborative self-study journey. This collaboration enabled us to make connections within, and between, these different activities. Rich learning opportunities were apparent at the boundaries of our coaching and teaching domains, allowing us to learn together, with others, and from others. We gained a deeper understanding of our teaching and coaching within this landscape of practice, enabling us to take stock of our individual and shared learning. The process has also sensitized us to possible learning opportunities in the future.
Collaborative self-study affords teacher educators with opportunities to better understand their own practices within the complex context of their research and practice activities (Martin & Dismuke, 2015). As teacher educators and volunteer sports coaches in an Irish university, we have, over the past six years, explored our experiences in each of these areas together, and with other colleagues at various times. Richard is a physical education teacher educator, while Anne has a similar role in science education. We also coach one of the university sports teams together. In this paper, we use the landscapes of practice concept (Wenger-Trayner et al., 2015) to frame our learning within a longitudinal collaborative self-study. The landscape of practice metaphor is used to explore the social learning that takes place within, and between, a complex network of communities of practice (Vinson et al., 2020), and describes a journey composed of “various interrelated practices, their boundaries, and peripheries” (Duarte et al., 2020, p. 117). Because of this complex network of learning experiences, “boundaries of practice are interesting places” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2015, p. 18). Encounters at these boundaries may lead to knowledgeability, which “reflects a person’s connection with a multiplicity of practices across the landscape” (Kubiak et al., 2015, p. 81). Within that landscape, Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner (2015, p. 23) use the term “to refer to the complex relationships people establish…which make them recognizable as reliable sources of information or legitimate providers of services”. In that context, “a claim to knowledgeability…has to be negotiated socially in different circumstances” (Omidvar & Kislov, 2014, p. 271). As teacher educators and sports coaches, we fulfill boundary-crossing roles (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011) across our campus. These boundaries are ‘places where perspectives meet and new possibilities arise’ (Wenger, 2000, p. 233). Accordingly, our dual roles spanning these boundaries between coaching and teaching provide us with opportunities to “trigger dialogue and negotiation of meaning” (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011, p. 150).
This paper presents a retrospective reflection on our learning journey across our landscape of practice over the course of six years, from 2015 to 2021. During this time, we have worked together and engaged with formal and informal critical friends on independent, collaborative, and overlapping self-study journeys. We have learned to recognise that engaging in self-study is a learning and developmental process that scaffolds personal professionalism, collective professionalism, and improvements in practice (Gallagher et al., 2011). As we viewed our practices through the landscape of practice lens and explored our experiences as teacher educators and coaches, we were also prompted to consider how learning about practice can be enhanced by making connections through a series of self-studies (Fletcher, 2016). These connections were more pertinent, perhaps, because of the many similarities between teaching and coaching, where both have some common pedagogical foundations (Cassidy et al., 2009; Light & Harvey, 2019), and a recognition of the importance of reflection (Gilbourne et al., 2013; Stodter & Minto, 2020). Crucially, the temporary cessation of our coaching activities and a pivot towards online teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic gave us the opportunity to pause, take stock, and reflect on our collaborative learning over this preceding six-year period. This pause gave us space to take stock of our individual and collective experiences and to pinpoint examples of our shared learning across our coaching and teaching practices. Adopting a landscape of practice perspective can help to identify “new spaces opened up for knowledge sharing and creation” (Duarte et al., 2020, p. 124). In our practice situation, it enabled us to take a broad view of our activities within our teaching and coaching practices separately, and between these practices as we connected our learning across their boundaries.
The aim of this paper is to illustrate how collaboration together, and with others, enhanced our understanding and practice of self-study. Sharing our experience of longitudinal collaborative self-study may be useful for those beginning their self-study journey to help them identify a clear focus to explore in their practice. We highlight the potential for rich learning to take place through collaboration and critical friendship. Our research may also act as a guide for experienced S-STEP researchers, as it highlights the potential to scaffold meta-reflection (Hamilton, 2020).
Self-study provides researchers with opportunities to “examine the intertwined nature of self and practice” (Casey et al., 2018, p. 55). Pinnegar and Hamilton (2009) describe self-study as something more comprehensive than just applying the study of oneself, noting the importance of the interaction between self and others. Furthermore, Pinnegar and Quiles-Fernández (2018) emphasise the importance of building good relationships between researchers in collaborative self-studies. The collaborative nature of our self-study journey has been strengthened by the trust and openness developed over time, providing us with opportunities to explore our personal and professional identities within our practice context (Casey et al., 2018). Our friendship has evolved to support the co-construction of knowledge and understanding through collegial inquiry, conversation, and collaborative reflection within a climate of mutual vulnerability and risk-taking, trust, and support (Fuentealba & Russell, 2016).
Given the longitudinal nature of our collaborative learning journey across a shared landscape of practice, there was an opportunity to deepen reflection guided by the concept of single and double loop learning (Schön, 1992). For us, the single-loop learning was in real time over the past six years. Taking time during the COVID pandemic to pause and reflect on our practice provided an opportunity for double-loop learning which went beyond the initial actions and further helped us to understand our underlying beliefs, values, and attitudes. By taking those opportunities to reflect on our previous self-studies together, we engaged in what can be described as a meta self-study. Hamilton (2020, p. 213) characterised meta self-study as the retrospective analysis of data sources across a range of self-study work and communicating the learning about, and the learning from, that process.
Recognising that it can be challenging to ask critical and constructive questions related to one’s own practice (Hauge, 2021), this paper illustrates the benefit of a longitudinal collaboration and meta-analysis to enhance our understanding of self-study, ourselves, and our practices. For us, envisaging self-study as a journey of learning, with a destination that can be arrived at in many and diverse ways, was a useful perspective to adopt. Using this metaphor of a journey across a landscape of practice to reflect on our self-study learning (Loughran, 2018), we identified landmarks that offered support, encouragement, and direction. In our journey, boundary encounters and incidental moments have been landmarks in our learning.
Our approach to data analysis was informed by the guidelines for thematic analysis proposed by Braun and Clarke (2021). As this meta self-study is a culmination of six years of collaboration and data collection, we first took careful steps to prepare and organise all our existing data for analysis:
- Data organisation: We began by documenting a shared portfolio of our self-study practices to date, firstly by collating a table including all journal and conference papers and presentations from 2016. This document became a useful point of reference when reflecting on the meandering focus of our collaborative self-study learning.
- Data familiarisation: We collated all raw data (personal reflections, shared reflections, transcriptions of critical friend meetings) from all previous collaborative self-studies in one shared online folder. This cumulative data set enabled each of us to re-read and review our whole dataset. Re-reading allowed us to reflect on data from previous years with hindsight as a new lens.
The later stages of data analysis (coding, theme generation, and refinement) were further informed by synchronous collection of new data in Autumn 2021 and Spring 2022. During this meta data analysis stage (2021-22), written and recorded reflective conversations helped us to refine and define themes as we continued to reflect, record and share our previous and new learning. Our meta-self-study involved this concurrent data collection and analysis to support our understanding of our non-linear learning journey.
- Coding & Theme Generation: Individually, we each made connections between our shared collaborative work and other self-study work we engaged with, with others over the same period (2016-2021), recognising how and where our longitudinal collaboration influenced and was influenced by other self-study learning journeys.
- Refining, Defining, and Naming themes: We analysed our collaborative self-studies, and more specifically our most recent data set (2021-22) to develop and categorize themes from our shared learning.
- Writing Up: We constructed these themes as three landmarks on our landscape of practice and used quotes from the data to illustrate their meaning to us. We composed short vignettes to exemplify the landmarks. The writing-up process provided us with opportunities to clarify our own thoughts and highlight significant experiences.
Our process of meta data analysis supported a deep and meaningful reflection to help us better understand how our collaboration and interaction with others informed and guided our understanding of self-study and our practices within our landscape of practice.
We present our findings as three key landmarks evidencing how collaborative interaction with ourselves and others guided our engagement with, and deepened our understanding of, self-study. Our learning was not linear as we meandered through our landscape of practice, as boundary spanners, between coaching and teacher education settings. The landmarks outlined here evidence how collaboration with ourselves and others guided our learning journey, which was underpinned by the time taken to develop authentic relationships to support self-study.
Landmark 1: Starting Out
Our coaching had finished about 8 weeks ago, losing the semi-final (again!). We met in the college staffroom a week after the grading deadline and just before school placement visits began. It had been a busy semester...but a few weeks off the pitch had given both of us time to reflect on the previous season. Richard brought his laptop, Anne had her notepad... After some coffee and a further post-mortem on the final 10 minutes of the semi-final, we began making plans for next year. Richard suggested using self-study to formalise our collaborative coaching journey. Anne had never experienced self-study before now but was open to the suggestion, as she had worked well with Richard over the past 18 months coaching.
The development of self-study research is typically prompted by an explicit intention to improve practice and is self-initiated (LaBoskey, 2004). Our experience of beginning a collaborative self-study aligns with this focus. Having coached together during the season, we had arranged to meet to review the year’s efforts. We set out to discuss our experiences, with a view to improving our coaching practices during the following season. As Richard had already engaged in a self-study of his own coaching practices during the two preceding seasons (Bowles, 2016) and had participated in a collaborative self-study focused on teacher education practices, he was familiar with the approach. In that context, he was conscious that a collaborative self-study with Anne might be a useful way through which to explore their coaching together and suggested that this approach could support our learning as coaches. Anne was happy with the suggestion, as it provided an opportunity to provide a structure for our coach learning and also learn about self-study as a research approach. Our prior experiences were important to assist us in establishing a sustainable and supportive collaborative self-study.
While our decision to collaborate on a coaching self-study seemed like a ‘logical’ progression for our coaching relationship, our reflections over the following months suggest that two important factors had helped to set sound foundations for the collaboration. Firstly, our coaching together over the previous 18 months helped develop trust and understanding. This ensured that our collaboration was starting from a position where we were familiar with each other, knowing that we worked well together, and valued the opportunity to collaborate more formally. Anne recognised this in an early critical friend meeting “I suppose we're like a community of practice because it’s both people learning and working together because we’re definitely working together in co-planning, setting the goals, delivering the sessions. And then I suppose learning from each other from…” (Critical Friend Meeting 2, Nov 2017).
Secondly, our coaching conversations suggest we had a shared interest in learning to coach better, by engaging in regular, structured reflective conversations (Gilbert & Trudel, 2006; Stodter & Minto, 2020). This ensured that our collaboration had a clear focus on learning individually, and together. Our coaching philosophies were influenced by our experiences as teachers and teacher educators. As boundary spanners, we recognised many similarities between coaching and teaching, as both are relational and dynamic and involve complex layers of social interaction (Cushion, 2007). We both had a shared interest in athlete-centred coaching (Pill, 2018). Athlete-centred coaching is consistent with social constructivist theories of learning (Penney & Kidman, 2014), and so aligned with our interest in student-centred learning in our teacher education practices. As we developed confidence in our coaching collaborative self-study, we also developed more confidence in crossing boundaries, as we sought to share what we had learned about self-study with other coaches and those involved in coaching education and research (Bowles & O’Dwyer, 2019; O'Dwyer & Bowles, 2020). This sense of developing confidence was underpinned by the dialogue we had between us (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011).
Landmark 2: Getting Help
Critical Friend Meeting 2017
Dorothy (Critical Friend): And I suppose in terms of the learning from each other, it’s always kind of a little bit tentative so it’s all nice... But let’s imagine a scenario where something goes wrong or you disagree with something or that something didn’t work...
Richard: There’s probably two angles to what you have said there. I think from the point of view of reflection, yes, it’s really important that we are honest about what we say and that it does help each other but on the training pitch I think it’s important that we are seen by the player to be working in harmony rather than contradicting each other.
Critical Friend Meeting 2019
Nora (Critical Friend): There’s just a genuine partnership where you’re feeding off each other and... it’s almost like it happened organically but at the same time you’ve been documenting it but you’re each reacting to a situation, and you could almost predict what Richard would do or vice versa…
These excerpts from meetings with two different critical friends in our collaborative self-study journey evidence how our learning was enhanced by our critical friends’ participation. In our first collaborative self-study, Dorothy helped us to improve our reflection, deepen our deliberations and recognise our learning (O'Dwyer et al., 2019). Later, working with Nora, she helped scaffold the development of our mutual mentoring relationship and also encouraged us to be more focused in our weekly diaries and reflections which helped us recognise our learning.
The interactivity that underpins self-study research (Fletcher et al., 2016) frequently relies on critical friendship to explore experiences and understandings. Within our collaboration, we agree with the contention that it can be difficult to foster critical friendships that provide “supportive feedback that is at the same time critical” (Fletcher, 2020, p. 284). These excerpts from different critical friends over a number of seasons evidence how a longitudinal relationship where we worked together over time supported our individual and shared learning experiences. Since 2017 friendships have evolved whereby we were critical friends to each other, and where we involved colleagues as critical friends in our collaborative self-study. In line with other collaborative self-studies (e.g Richards & Ressler, 2016) engaging with critical friends played an important role in our learning. Our use of critical friendship enabled us to provoke, critique, and understand (Loughran & Brubaker, 2015).
In a cascade-like effect, since Richard began his own self-study project in 2015, we had learned with other more experienced self-study researchers as critical friends (O'Dwyer et al., 2019) and continued to learn together. Our learning within coaching helped us to be boundary spanners as we began to work with others in teacher education contexts and we embarked on individual self-study journeys within our own teacher education practice. Anne used self-study to improve her relational teacher education, inviting Miriam, a fellow science teacher educator, as a critical friend. Collaborative self-study helped Anne (O'Dwyer et al., 2020) and Miriam (Hamilton, 2020) in their different but shared experience as novice science teacher educators. Self-study had also supported Richard’s collaborative learning with other physical education teacher educators beyond our institution (Coulter et al., 2021). Our longitudinal participation in collaborative self-study enhanced our reflective practice, thus enabling us to integrate learning from formal and informal connections. A long and meandering self-study journey led us to engage with several others through formal and informal critical friendships. A labyrinth of relationships evolved based on open, honest, and trusting friendships (Schuck & Russell, 2005).
Landmark 3: Navigating the boundaries
It was April, and much cooler in Toronto than in Ireland… Miriam joined us, and we decided on where to go for dinner, finally getting our bearings in down-town Toronto. We chatted about parallel sessions we had attended that afternoon when sitting in the hotel lobby, tired after the third day of the conference. As we waited for another colleague to join us, we shared our experiences of the S-STEP SIG and the idea of establishing an S-STEP hub in our own university faculty….
Attending the 2019 conference in Toronto was our first experience of an AERA conference. The welcome in the SSTEP SIG and the constructive critical conversations that spilled into coffee breaks after each conference session was a warm and memorable experience. Feeling accepted by the experienced members of the S-STEP SIG gave us the confidence to participate in meaningful discussions about self-study. It was evident that although some SIGs may be well colonized and well-guarded (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2015), we found that the self-study community, even at a global level, was open and welcoming. While at the conference, we chatted with another colleague [from our institution] who had experience in self-study and had been part of our learning journey. We each reflected on how the essence of self-study, learning with others, was captured in our S-STEP SIG experience, and in our S-STEP journeys to date. Our reflection on our self-study experiences at the AERA conference in 2019 prompted the establishment of an S-STEP Research Hub in our own institution. Since June 2019, this S-STEP hub has become an open and collaborative space for other novice and experienced self-study researchers in our institution.
During our meta data analysis, we reflected on the welcome we felt from the S-STEP community. During our conversations, we contrasted the confidence we felt there with the apprehension we felt when invited to speak about our coaching research at a national webinar to coaches in Ireland in mid-2021. While we felt comfortable talking about self-study with our S-STEP colleagues, we felt significant discomfort in how we could communicate our coach research and learning with other coaches who were unfamiliar with the practice or methodology of self-study. Anne acknowledged that she had never felt as nervous as she did before presenting on that national coaching webinar. This prompted us to reflect on how we felt vulnerable outside our teacher education domain. While we had developed confidence in this sphere due to our longitudinal self-study reflective practices, we were unsure how this would transfer to the coaching domain. We were fearful that the coaches might perceive our research as remote from their own practical experiences. While self-study research seeks an improved understanding of practice (Casey et al., 2018), sports coaching can sometimes be more oriented toward product rather than process. We were mindful, then, that coaches might pass judgment on us based on the success of the teams we coached, rather than on the reflective processes that underpinned our practices. Therefore, our growing confidence in teacher education was less evident when we presented our research in the coaching environment. This experience highlighted our unique roles as boundary spanners between teaching and coaching, and our contrasting personal and professional identities in each area.
These intricate boundary encounters added richness to our learning. As we developed some knowledgeability in coaching and each of our teacher education disciplines, this opened opportunities for us to work with a broader range of practitioners, and importantly, to present our research in novel contexts such as practitioner workshops (e.g. Bowles & O'Dwyer, 2019) and conferences (e.g. Bowles & O'Dwyer, 2021a) as well as traditional research papers (e.g. Bowles & O’Dwyer, 2021b). As we interacted with different groups in different contexts, we became more mindful that “the landscape…is well colonized and some hills are well guarded. Some communities may welcome us, while others may reject us” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2015, p. 20). This, in turn, heightened our awareness of our positions within coaching and teacher education communities. Over time, we have learned that our work in these different settings required us to adopt different communication styles and approaches. We became more aware of how this developed as a result of our core collaboration and helped orient us on the broader landscape. Being practitioner-researchers helped us to make connections with other practitioners, as we navigated our positions within the teacher education and coaching communities.
In this paper, we have identified three significant landmarks that trace our collaborative journey in self-study over the past six years. This meta self-study has taught us the importance of taking time to step back and obtain a broader overview of our learning landscape. The unplanned hiatus in our practices due to COVID-19 provided us with opportunities to reflect on our learning, with the privileges that were not afforded to us in ‘real-time’: time, space, and detachment from the practice. Retrospective reflection has helped us to learn more about ourselves and identify possibilities for future learning. Butler and Branyon (2020, p. 167) suggest a central objective for self-study researchers may be “to democratize the self-study scholarship…and shift the use of self-study more widely past education”. This view resonates with us, as we navigated our own collaborative learning journey across our landscape of practice.
By exploring our experiences of collaboration across our teaching and coaching contexts, we hope that we have addressed how self-study might “contribute to the improvement of practice in other fields” beyond teacher education (Kitchen, 2020, p. 1037). As Crowe (2020, p. 765) asserts, “crossing boundaries and engaging with a wide variety of disciplinary knowledge, perspectives, and approaches is a way for us to continue to extend self-study research”. In our experience, the landscape of practice approach provides us with a useful framework within which to understand these learning experiences that extend beyond specific boundaries.
During our retrospective reflection, we recognised how our practices as coaches and teacher educators are intertwined. Formally examining our coaching prompted us to make explicit links to our teaching. Coaching in an athlete-centred way (Pill, 2018) encouraged us to be more authentically student-centred as teacher educators. Navigating between these two distinct practices helped us to better understand ourselves as teachers and coaches. As boundary spanners linking the teaching and coaching domains on campus, we were in a unique position as we learned about a range of pedagogies, learned more about our students, and learned more about ourselves as teachers and coaches. Across our landscape we were “learning to do” and “learning to be” (Fenton-O'Creevy et al., 2015, p. 41).
Using self-study to explore learning across multiple spaces has the potential to be “transformative” (Williams, 2013, p. 128). In our case, we have enhanced our knowledge about ourselves as teachers and coaches. We can relate to the assertion that “knowledgeability is not just information, but an experience of living in a landscape of practice and negotiating one’s position in it” (Farnsworth et al., 2016, p. 142). Accordingly, we have learned how trust and understanding underpin self-study research, and are more attuned to the possibilities and the challenges of extending our practice across boundaries on our landscape.
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