Doing Critical Educational Research

A Conversation with the Research of John Smyth

by John Smyth (Author) Barry Down (Author) Peter McInerney (Author) Robert Hattam (Author)
©2014 Textbook XIV, 193 Pages
Series: Teaching Contemporary Scholars, Volume 7


John Smyth’s remarkable body of writing, research and scholarship has spanned four decades, and the urgency of our times makes it imperative to look in some depth at the breadth of his research and its trajectory, in order to see how we can connect, extend, build and enrich our understandings from it. Possibly the single most unique aspect to Smyth’s version of critical research is his passion for living and ‘doing’ what it means to be a critical pedagogue. For him, ‘doing’ is a verb that gives expression to what he believes it means to be a critical scholar. This necessitates actively listening to lives; taking on an advocacy position with informant groups; displaying a commitment to praxis; and being activist in celebrating ‘local responses’ to global issues. Smyth’s research is pursued with vigour through the lives he researches, as he interrupts and punctures ‘bad’ theory, supplanting it with more democratic alternatives, which, by his own admission, makes his research (and all research), political.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Authors
  • About the Book
  • Praise for Doing Critical Educational Research
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Chapter One: Opening up his ‘Intellectual Craftsmanship’
  • Searching for a Hook
  • ‘Stimulating the Sociological Imagination’
  • Some of Mills’ Key Anchor Points
  • Some Major ‘Critical’ Anchor Points for John Smyth
  • How to ‘Read’ this Book
  • Chapter Two: Teachers’ Work
  • Towards an Imagined Future—Some Reflections from John Smyth
  • Prolegomenon
  • A Policy Exorcism Around Teachers’ Work
  • The Politicization of Teachers’ Work
  • De-humanization
  • Instrumentalization
  • Final Reflection
  • Progressing the Conversation—Scoping a Critical Research Agenda for Teachers’ Work
  • Introduction
  • What are We Fighting Against?
  • Becoming Critical: Challenges and Possibilities
  • Interrupting Monday Morning: Critically Reflective Practice as a Way Forward
  • Describing … What do I do?
  • Informing … What does this Mean?
  • Confronting … How did Things Come to be like this?
  • Reconstructing … How might Things be done Differently?
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Three: Students’ Lives
  • Towards an Imagined Future— Some Reflections from John Smyth
  • What’s Someone Like Me Doing in an Area Like this?
  • ‘Personal Troubles’ and ‘Public Issues’—As this Applies to Young Lives
  • Student Voice—A Way into a New ‘Imagined World’
  • Being political
  • Creating space
  • Starting from immediacy
  • Speaking data into existence
  • Advocacy position
  • Progressing the Conversation—Listen to Me, it’s My School too! Making Students Critical Agents
  • Introduction
  • The Very Idea of Researching Student Lives at School
  • Contribution to Knowledge about Young People in ‘Disadvantaged’ Secondary Schools
  • Naming the Problem
  • Shift in Research Problem … from Leaving (Alienated) to a Second Chance (Reengaged)
  • Cartographer of Schools
  • The Relational School
  • Surveyor of Identity Work, With or Without School
  • The Research Approach: Critical Policy Ethnography
  • Policy Ethnography
  • But then Educational Ethnography Comes from Anthropology …
  • ‘Poetics’ and School Ethnography
  • ‘Epistemology’ and Educational Ethnography
  • ‘Politics’ and Educational Ethnography
  • Chapter Four: Community Engagement
  • Towards an Imagined Future—Some Reflections from John Smyth
  • What has Community Engagement got to do with Research?
  • Moving Beyond ‘Socspeak’ to ‘Public Sociology’
  • Coming to Critical Engagement—Communities, Schools and Learning
  • A Question of Moral Responsibility?
  • Progressing the Conversation—A Critical Perspective
  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Perspectives: ‘Authentic Participation’ and Capacity Building
  • Authentic Participation
  • Community Capacity Building
  • Capacity Building in Australia
  • Methodological Strands of a Critical Ethnographic Approach to Community Engagement
  • Reinvigorating Critical Ethnography
  • The Power of Portraiture
  • Community Engagement at Wirra Wagga
  • ‘We want a hand up not a handout’
  • Pedagogical Strands: A Critical Approach to Place-Based Learning
  • Place-Based Pedagogies
  • Communities as Resources for Learning
  • ‘It’s all about me providing them with an opportunity to make a choice’
  • ‘We teach differently here’
  • Towards a Critical Pedagogy of Place
  • Concluding Comments
  • Chapter Five: Educational Policy and Leadership
  • Towards an Imagined Future—Some Reflections from John Smyth
  • Whither Critical Approaches to Leadership?—And the Emergence of Zombie Leadership
  • A Focus on the Wrong Leadership and Policy ‘Scripts’
  • Progressing the Conversation—Critical Educational Policy and Leadership
  • Introduction
  • Neoliberalism and Education Reform
  • ‘So Much of What I Hear at Principals’ Meetings is about Managerialism’
  • A Socially Critical View of Educational Leadership
  • Advocacy Leadership
  • An Alternative Version of School Leadership at Wattle Plains School
  • ‘If you want to learn, then you have to model leadership’
  • Educational Leadership: A Socially Critical Research Agenda
  • Linking Empirical Research to Critical and Social Issues
  • Advancing Advocacy Research
  • Educational Leadership that Fosters Student Voice
  • Showing what is Possible
  • Creating Dialogic Public Spaces
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Six: Synthesis of Future Directions for Action
  • Introduction
  • ‘Doings’ in Critical Research
  • What Next?
  • Teachers’ Work
  • Students’ Lives
  • Community Engagement
  • Educational Policy and Leadership
  • References
  • Subject Index
  • Author Index
  • Series Index



We express our sincere appreciation to Shirley Steinberg and Peter Lang Publishing, especially Chris Myers and Bernadette Shade as well as others who work behind the scenes, for the unique opportunity to bring this work into existence. We know of no other publisher who does anything as novel as what is attempted in this Teaching Contemporary Scholar Series. We applaud Peter Lang Publishing for the truly remarkable space they have provided for this crucial work.

When we first embarked on the process of scaffolding and writing this volume, we were extremely mindful of the aim of the series which was to ‘highlight the work of those who have profoundly influenced the direction of academic work’ in challenging ‘dominant frameworks of particular disciplines’. No tall order!

We hope that what we have encapsulated here lives up to that aspiration by providing an up close and ‘deeper, yet accessible’ reading of the extensive body of socially critical work of John Smyth. Above all, we hope it not only provides testimony to arguably one of the most feisty scholars to come out of ‘down under’, but at the same time, that the book will provide some urgent new entry points with which to negotiate and expand the research and thinking of this influential socially critical Australian scholar—if it does that, we will have succeeded spectacularly!

One of the most significant defining hallmarks of John Smyth’s scholarship and research has been its enduring collaborative nature. Early on in his career as ← ix | x → a fledgling scholar at Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria, he learnt about the efficacy of working with others—it was a standard rule at Deakin that nobody did any scholarship or teaching on their own. Throughout his long career, John has held on passionately to the idea of working with others—in this case, Barry, Peter and Rob. For John, collaborative research and writing is not only enormously satisfying collegially, but for him it is quintessentially the only way to garner the most interesting insights. He is profoundly appreciative to have had colleagues so prepared to share in what would otherwise have been an extremely lonely activity.

Research of the high caliber John has become internationally recognized for, has been highly contingent on the support of a range of others. It is rare, even exceptional, for governments to support research that has as its raison d’etre, critiques of what they are up to—but that has been the case in Australia, through the auspices of the Australian Research Council, who through its fiercely independent peer review process, has provided twenty grants to support John’s research. He is extremely grateful for that financial assistance, along with that of various ‘industry partners’ (the uniquely Australian idiom ascribed to collaborating institutions, like schools and education systems) who have willingly come on board with him to explore some of the most sensitive, challenging and contentious educational issues of our times, anywhere in the world.

It would be hard to try and attach value to the incredible courage and preparedeness of hundreds of schools that have participated in John’s research throughout Australia, and the thousands of teachers, students, principals and community members who have given not only of their time but have taken considerable risks to ‘tell their story’ in the kind of accounts John and his colleagues have rendered of what he calls ‘insider’ perspectives. He expresses his heartfelt gratitude to every single one of them.

Finally, it is our partners in life—Jenny Down, Jan McInerney, Michelle Hogan and Solveiga Smyth, who have acquiesced (seemingly!) so willingly and graciously on the encroachment of this book into the family life of their ‘other halves’, and to whom we say, thank you!

Nobody has been more central or crucial to John’s lifetime project than Solveiga—not only as his long-suffering partner, but as an absolute gem (Joe Kincheloe called her a ‘living treasure’ in the foreword to John’s first Peter Lang book) in all facets of John’s work—fieldwork, organizing the data, executing her magic in formatting books, not to mention taming feral references, and a multitude of other tasks! ← x | xi →

We hope this book serves as an admirable exemplar—along with others like Maxine Greene, Peter McLaren and Joe Kincheloe, in this series—of what it means to be a critical scholar.

Ballarat, Victoria


February, 2014 ← xi | xii →


← xii | xiii →



This book is the culmination of a longstanding relationship founded on a commitment to creating a more humane, democratic and socially just school. The ideas driving this intellectual labour and enduring friendship originated about twenty-five years ago and continues today in various collaborative research projects, publications, conferences, and workshops across three Australian states. The fact that a book of this nature can be written in an era of rampant individualism, competition and commodification of academic labour is testimony to the enduring passion, doggedness, and scholarship championed so adeptly by John Smyth. This book is, therefore, a rare opportunity for us to come together and reflexively describe our experience of ‘doing’ critical educational research in uncertain times. We hope the book can serve as a useful resource in terms of ideas and inspiration for students, practitioners and colleagues wanting to pursue a critical research agenda in their own schools and communities. Above all, we hope it will inspire a spirit of ‘intellectual rebellion’ (Thomas, 1993) and ‘playfulness of mind’ (Mills, 1971) among educational researchers as an antidote to virulent forms of positivist research currently holding sway in official circles.

At the outset, we are pretty clear about what we don’t want to do. We are loath to write yet another text on ‘how-to-do’ research. We believe critical research is ← xiii | xiv → far too complex and sophisticated to slavishly follow some kind of ‘methods fetish’ (Bartolome, 1994) or checklist of instructions. Instead, we attempt to depict a richer sense of the craftsmanship involved in making meaning based on the lived experience of the most marginalised voices in school communities. We reject the pretence of objectivity and impartiality that leads to sanitised and domesticated forms of knowledge production. We maintain that all research is political and demands of us an unapologetic declaration of where we stand on the big issues confronting education and society. At the heart of this work, is a commitment to creating spaces where young people can speak back to dominant deficit discourses and reclaim a sense of power and agency in their lives. Finally, we hope this book is not read as some kind of living obituary or self-congratulatory text. In a more modest way, we seek to contribute to a much broader pedagogical and political movement dedicated to the emancipatory values of critical research in conservative times.

In this spirit, we attempt to provide some insights into the processes of ‘doing’ critical research based on our own experience, like: (i) conceptualizing a problem, question or issue for investigation; (ii) getting our hands dirty in the field; (iii) reading, reflecting, and theorizing; (iv) making sense of data through the lens of theory; (v) writing up and developing narrative portraits; and (vi) starting all over again with a new set of questions. We believe this book offers a distinctive take on the ‘doing’ of critical research by tracing a series of significant research themes generated by John over four decades and illuminating how all of this intellectual activity actually happens. In short, we hope this book will provide some handy clues for a wider audience of academic colleagues, teachers, school leaders, parents, community activists, and policy makers committed to the struggle for social justice. At a more personal level, it is also an opportunity for us to acknowledge and engage with John’s substantial contribution to the field of critical policy ethnography and his single-minded pursuit of a fair go for the least advantaged kids in society.

Barry, Peter and Rob

February 2014 ← xiv | 1 →


Opening up his
‘Intellectual Craftsmanship’

We are extremely mindful that if we are not very careful, the overview chapter of this book could well blow-out into becoming a book-length document in its own right, not necessarily a bad thing, but possibly not the right place in which to do it. We thought long and hard about how to come up with a framework, a way of captivating, getting up close and inside, and understanding the extensive and complex body of work of John Smyth, in order to have a conversation with it—and by implication to cast some much needed light on our primary title Doing Critical Educational Research, which after all was our animating objective. In the end, we decided to do this by invoking the sociologist John most admires—Charles Wright (C.W.) Mills, especially his defining work The Sociological Imagination (Mills, 1971). To borrow from Mills (1971), good sociological work requires an ‘anchor point’ (p. 222), and often identifying and deploying such points can make or break a piece of work. Often identifying anchors can be based on best guesses or hunches, and that is what we intend doing in what follows.

Searching for a Hook

While John Smyth has never been a slavish or cult follower of C.W. Mills, or anyone else for that matter, he has always been an avid admirer of CW’s work, and ← 1 | 2 → John’s 1971 paperback Pelican Book copy of The Sociological Imagination bears all of dog-eared hallmarks and heavily annotated pages indicative of a book that has had some hard use over the years, and for good reason. For John there could be no better exemplification of a scholar who simultaneously demonstrated depth, perspicacity, and clarity around what Todd Gitlin (2000) noted to be one of Mills’ favorite words ‘craftsmanship’ (p. 230)—a word Mills used repeatedly to refer to how he did what he did as a sociologist. In Gitlin’s words, Mills was:

…an indispensable, brilliant voice in sociology and social criticism—and in the difficult, necessary effort to link the two. He was a restless, engaged, engaging moralist, asking the big questions, keeping open the sense of what an intellectual’s life might be. His work is bracing, often thrilling, even when one disagrees. One reads and rereads with a feeling of being challenged beyond one’s received wisdom, called to one’s best thinking, one’s highest order of judgment.


XIV, 193
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
pedagogue praxis theory
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 193 pp.

Biographical notes

John Smyth (Author) Barry Down (Author) Peter McInerney (Author) Robert Hattam (Author)

John Smyth is Research Professor of Education, Faculty of Education & Arts, Federation University Australia, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. He is the inter-disciplinary Research Theme Leader for Addressing Disadvantage and Inequality in Education and Health. His research interests are in policy sociology, policy ethnography, social justice and sociology of education. Barry Down is the City of Rockingham Chair in Education at Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia. His research focuses on young people’s lives in the context of shifts in the global economy, employment, poverty and disengagement. Peter McInerney is Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Faculty of Education & Arts, Federation University Australia, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. His research interests are forms of school reform that promote social justice. Robert Hattam is Associate Professor and Associate Head of School (Research), School of Education, University of South Australia. His research interests are in socially critical research, sociology of education, and social justice.


Title: Doing Critical Educational Research
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
212 pages