By Ali Manion
During my years as a teacher, I frequently found myself stymied by the educational research that occasionally floated across my cluttered desk—or, by the data-drenched research that was frequently shared at staff meetings. It was often dense and jargon-y, requiring more effort than I was usually able or prepared to give after a long day in my classroom. Yes, research is absolutely essential in order to help move our educational system forward and to ensure classroom and district practices are positively impacting children; but, most research is often written for a narrow audience of academics, scientists, and policy-makers. Educational research may benefit from the use of different, perhaps less traditional, methods and techniques to better understand classrooms and schools, and to best share the information discovered with a wide range of individuals—including teachers, administrators, and parents.
Using Educational Criticism and Connoisseurship for Qualitative Research is an easily digestible text that clearly describes and breaks down the various elements of educational criticism, a qualitative research technique pioneered by Stanford Professor Elliot Eisner. Authored by Dr. Bruce Uhrmacher, Dr. Christy McConnell Moroye, and Dr. David J. Flinders, the book’s exploration of this research approach invites for a deeper understanding of the method, while also pushing the reader to a new appreciation of why this type of research is important for teachers and other school-based professionals to consider.
What is Educational Criticism?
Educational criticism, sometimes referred to as criticism and connoisseurship or shortened to “ed crit,” is a unique research approach in that it borrows from the work that critics have done in the arts, with an overall goal to “seek improvement in the read world” (Uhrmacher, Moroye, & Flinders, 2016, p. 4). The concept of connoisseurship is one that can initially be confusing to those new to this method—Eisner defined connoisseurship as the art of appreciation, noting that it was not an elitist activity (as the name sometimes implies for many of us), but rather the act of using our senses to deeply understand and, thereby, appreciate an experience.
Criticism, then, is the art of disclosing what has been experienced and learned during the act of connoisseurship. The ultimate goal of this work is to push toward a new understanding, even of a setting that has perhaps been deeply familiar to the researcher for many years. One of my favorite ideas from the text is this concept; criticism aims to “make the familiar strange” while also urging readers and researchers to “make the strange familiar” (Uhrmacher, Moroye, & Flinders, 2016, p. 10). This fascinating juxtaposition is central to educational criticism; it is a large part of what makes this method so intriguing, and gives it such potential in a complex, yet familiarized, setting—like our schools.
Elements of Educational Criticism
Educational criticism consists for four main elements: description, interpretation, evaluation, and thematics. Much of the book is dedicated to developing the reader’s understanding of these four components, and how they are used to convey meaning and to capture the essence of a setting or experience.
The goal of description is to “help readers see and hear what the critic has experienced” (Uhrmacher, Moroye, & Flinders, 2016, p. 37). When description is used well, the criticism will read like literature, almost like a novel; the reader can visualize the setting and characters, and attention is given to describing the interesting or unexpected details of both. For those who expected research articles to be drab and dry, this component of ed crit is often a welcome change—reading this type of research is stimulating and entertaining. Interpretation, then, aims to explore the meaning of what has been described. The researcher may use various tools to support them in interpretation, including frameworks and theories. This piece of the process requires “searching for meaning and a way of seeing” (Uhrmacher, Moroye, & Flinders, 2016, p. 41).
Finally, evaluation and thematics help the reader to understand the possible benefits (or, not) of what is occurring in these settings: is it a positive impact? What does it all mean? This is a different type of evaluation than most educational research—it is less about data, and more about real-world outcomes for teachers, students, and others in the schools. Thematics allow for generalizability of the findings. By connecting the study to broader themes, the information can then possibly be expanded to multiple settings, giving the criticism a sense of staying power and importance.
These four elements are accomplished through numerous strategies, many of them similar to other qualitative research approaches: extensive observations, interviews, as well as record and artifact reviews, to name a few. The research may also utilize various modalities to describe the setting, including photos, videos, art-based approaches, or the use of other artifacts (examples of student work, self-reflection from teachers, etc.).
For those who expected research articles to be drab and dry, this component of ed crit is often a welcome change—reading this type of research is stimulating and entertaining.
Thoughts for Teachers and Administrators
Educational criticism can be a powerful way to reveal the subtleties that occur in the classroom. Many who work in schools recognize the complexities and multi-layered reality of classrooms—much is going on in these vibrant, hectic worlds, even more than often meets the outside eye. Ed crit invites for a rich description of what is happening, in a way that can truly share the essence or vibe of a classroom, far more so than many traditional research approaches. When reading my first few examples of criticism, I was pleased to see these classrooms come to life before my eyes. I found myself wondering what the description of my own bustling classrooms may have been.
Reading and engaging in educational criticism allows teachers to strive for self-improvement across various areas of their practice, as this method offers a very detailed expression of what is really occurring in a classroom. There is also something about ed crit that feels decidedly strengths-based; while it may be exploring issues or challenges occurring in the classroom, the basis of the method is to seek improvement and inspire positive evolution, for all involved parties. As a teacher, I would’ve likely bristled at the thought of someone conducting research in my classroom—but, as I learned more about criticism, I actually wished someone had utilized this method to give me more insight into my own strengths and areas of growth as an educator.
Administrators may use this research approach as a device to know what’s really happening inside of their schools. When done successfully, ed crit paints such a vivid picture of the classroom, it can allow the reader to gain a real sense of what is at work. This can give administrators the freedom to learn more about the inner-workings of a school, on a deep and personal level. Additionally, this approach can pull out some of the unexpected, or otherwise unnoticed, positive elements of a school. It can highlight teacher and student strengths in a way that other methods simply cannot.
Ed crit provides a different perspective on schools and classrooms than most traditional research approaches; instead of combing through stats and data, teachers and administrators can gain a genuine sense of what’s happening, and engage in research that contains rich language and is often memorable and fun to read.
Thoughts for Families
Families, too, may enjoy a style of educational research that is more accessible and readable. Often, families are inundated with statistics—especially deficit-driven data, like the frequently apocalyptic stats around plummeting test scores in many public school systems. Ed crit looks at evaluation from an entirely different perspective, and one that I again often find to be more strengths-based; it does not seek to find and share student short-comings or deficits, but instead explores classrooms and schools as the living, breathing, evolving entities that they are. This method goes far beyond test scores, and instead provides insight into the experience of being in a particular classroom, or learning from a certain teacher. In this sense, criticism becomes more human. This type of research could inspire meaningful conversations with students about their lives at school, something that parents often seem to crave from their children.
Educational criticism still faces some challenges as a method. I have experienced this firsthand, as a doctoral student who is fascinated by the approach—it is not always widely understood across fields, and folks who come from more traditional research backgrounds (or, certainly people who identify strongly as quantitative researchers) may grapple with appreciating some of the subtleties of educational criticism. Validity often comes up as a point of concern and confusion in this method. The authors point out two different factors that can help to increase the validity of a criticism: structural corroboration, and referential adequacy. Structural corroboration is essentially how the data comes together to create a full picture of what’s happening. How well and how much the data aligns can indicate better validity (for example, multiple participants sharing similar thoughts across interviews, or elements of identified themes occurring within numerous aspects of a classroom). Referential adequacy is essentially an exploration of how useful the information is, and if it allows the audience to “see education in a new way” (Uhrmacher, Moroye, & Flinders, 2016, p. 59).
In my experience, schools are often data-driven settings, and understandably so—funding and other elements of school growth are typically directly tied to data-based outcomes. I recognize implementing something like educational criticism may be seen as a step completely outside of the box (some might even unfortunately look at it as a waste of time from a data perspective). I would encourage and challenge policy-makers and researchers to consider this method as a way to sincerely capture what is happening inside of our schools—and, as an approach that can be easily understood and appreciated by teachers and families, those who are really at the frontlines of supporting students.
As a teacher, I must admit I did not spend much of my free time dedicated to understanding various methods of educational research. But—I did often find myself desiring research that I could connect with, on a personal and professional level. Educational criticism is, at the core, focused on improvement, on growth, and on positive change, and findings are expressed in a way that is relatable, understandable, and authentic. Using Educational Criticism and Connoisseurship for Qualitative Research is a lovely starting point for those who are interested in understanding this approach, or perhaps even exploring it in their own educational practice.
Ali Manion is currently a Ph.D. student studying Child, Family, and School Psychology at the University of Denver. Before beginning her doctorate, Ali worked as an elementary classroom and visual art teacher for seven years. Her research interests include utilizing art therapy to support neurodiverse individuals in both clinical settings and school-based mental health practices, and improving best practices to support youth who have experienced a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).