On reading academic journal articles

I’m teaching secondary preservice teachers a unit on literacy. Our textbook is Cris Tovani’s Do I really have to teach reading?, a book that most of the students enjoy for its readability and relevance.

We also ask the students to read journal articles, and there’s always some resistance. Some students complain (sometimes quite justifiably, in my view) about the language; others find the ideas impenetrable or irrelevant.

It’s interesting to be grappling with this resistance while at the same time doing a unit all about literacy. Tovani suggests many ways we teachers can help our secondary students with their reading of difficult texts. Would these same techniques work for our preservice teachers when faced with an apparently impenetrable journal article?

We’ve been exploring this idea in our weekly afternoon Voluntary Reading Group. Every Thursday, between 10 and 15 of us gather for an hour or so to use some of Tovani’s approaches to help us get into one of the prescribed journal articles. It’s been working well.

This afternoon we’re going to be looking at an article by Wilson and I’Anson called ‘Reframing the practicum’ (Wilson 2006). I re-read it yesterday, and was interested to observe how I went about it.

First of all, it made me mad. This is not atypical for me; it often happens, when I’m being forced to enter into an author’s world, to get attuned to the author’s concerns and language. I am gripped by a strong resistance. It’s rare (but wonderful!) when a journal article draws me in, like a good short story; usually I have to force my way through my initial resistance and irritation.

The irritation this time was around the language. The opening paragraph is made up of six complex sentences, many of them riddled with the off-putting passive voice: ‘is usually regarded’ … ‘has been regarded’‘is seen as desirable’ … ‘it has been claimed …’ Where are the people in this story? Who is doing the regarding? Who is seeing things as desirable? Who is making the claims? George Orwell suggested we should never use the passive voice when the active will do. I agree. The overuse of the passive in educational articles is, in my view, a hangover from a misguided attempt to speak with the voice of an objective expert reporting on what the data has unambiguously revealed.

Then there is the language, in particular the unnecessary jargon:  ‘the nature and implications of the practicum setting need to be thematised’ [354] (jargon + passive). Here are two other examples:

Fundamental to this vision of the practicum, and inherent in the operationalisation of the complementary practicum outlined in this paper, is the dialogical relationship that obtains between the student and coach. [355]

The production of this performative text in turn enables a distanciation in which problematics can emerge and become the focus of subsequent reframing of practice. [359]

So I hack my way through these irritations, because I know they’re partly (though only partly) the result of my natural resistance to what is new and unfamiliar.  Tovani suggests that it helps if we trust the author. If we trust the author, she says, we’re more likely to open ourselves up to a fruitful search for meaning.

But there’s another concern I find I’m having, as I puzzle my way through the beginnings of this article. There’s lots of talk about Schon, and while I know who Schon is and have a good-enough knowledge of what his book on the reflective practitioner was about, I wonder whether my students will have this necessary background knowledge.

Schon’s work was about the relationship of theory to practice. He wrote:

…as we have come to see with increasing clarity over the last twenty or so years, the problems of real-world practice do not present themselves to practitioners as well-formed structures. Indeed, they tend not to present themselves as problems at all but as messy, indeterminate situations …

These indeterminate zones of practice – uncertainty, uniqueness, and value conflict – escape the canons of technical rationality. When a problematic situation is uncertain, technical problem solving depends on prior construction of a well-formed problem – which is not itself a technical task. When a practitioner recognizes a situation as unique, she cannot handle it solely by applying theories or techniques derived from her store of professional knowledge. And in situations of value conflict, there are no clear and self-consistent ends to guide the technical selection of means.

It is just these indeterminate zones of practice, however, that practitioners and critical observers of the professions have come to see with increasing clarity over the past two decades as central to professional practice. (Schon Educating the Reflective Practitioner 1988, pp4-7)

Schon was especially interested in the kind of learning that takes place when coaches train athletes, or in a musical master class, or in an artist’s studio when an apprentice is learning from a master. Knowing something about Shon’s work and the questions he was grappling with helps make sense of the Wilson article. Perhaps it would help my students if they knew more of this context before reading the article.

And there’s another worry that I have to resolve before I can settle into a more productive reading. Is this an article for teacher educators (like me), or for preservice teachers? What value will our preservice teachers get from reading it? How will it help them either in developing their own teacher knowledge or skills, or in understanding the rationale behind the way we do things in our course and with our assessments? I’ll just ask my students this question at our next Reading Group.

Having vented some of my irritations and aired some of my questions, I’m now feeling ready to mine the article for what it might offer up to me.  And I discover quite a bit.

The article makes me think about the difference between being a teacher in your own classroom (with all the complex and sometimes competing demands) and the kind of simplified and supported experience we want our preservice teachers to have. It gives me ideas about the relationship between the university and the schools, and how recent changes in our Faculty policy around professional experience are consistent with what Wilson and l’Anson are lauding. It provokes me to think of ways in which I might rejig some of my units next year so that my students have more of an experience  of microteaching in the ways that the authors describe.

That’s what the article offers me.

What does it offer my students? I’m not sure. Maybe they come to understand better why we’re asking them to reflect on, and analyse, their Assignment 3 event? Maybe they become more aware of the importance of bridging the theory-practice divide? Maybe. I’ll ask them.


Wilson (2006). “Reframing the practicum: Constructing performative space in initial teacher education.” Teaching and Teacher Education 22: 353–361.

1 thought on “On reading academic journal articles

  1. Pingback: degrees of fiction

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