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March 31, 2023

Episode 9 with Marie Brennan

Episode 9 with Marie Brennan
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In this episode, we host activist, action researcher Marie Brennan. Dr. Brennan has been an important and persistent proponent of critical educational and teacher action research in the Australian action research movement. Now retired, Dr. Brennan is Extraordinary Professor, Stellenbosch University in South Africa, Professor of Education at the University of South Australia and Victoria University. She has taught and researched in five Australian universities. She and Susan Noffke were longtime action research collaborators and writing partners. Prior to 1990s, she also worked in the Victorian Education Department in a variety of roles, including in technical schools as a humanities teacher, member of the Access Skills Project Team in Curriculum and Research Branch, co-coordinating the statewide School Improvement Plan, and policy analyst in the ministry-wide Policy Coordination Division.

She has a long record promoting collaborative, school and community-based action research that examines the interconnections of gender, race, class, culture, coloniality, globalization, and corporatization with schooling, teacher education, and higher education. Today’s episode opens with her journey into Action Research (2:44). Here, topics of discussion include: successes and struggles of getting action research into the mainstream Australian schools (7:48), long term collaboration with Susan Noffke (17:00), reconceptualizing teacher reflection as a political, group act (21:55), Australian action research movement and feminist perspectives (27:56), working with Aboriginal staff, faculty, and students on AR at Central Queensland University (34:10), and the Student Voice and Agency Partnership Project (39:38). The conversation wraps up with encouraging remarks for emerging action researchers (48:36).

Learn more about our guests and their work at our companion site www.parfemtrailblazers.net.  This episode is brought to you by host Patricia Maguire and is produced by Vanessa Gold and Shikha Diwakar. Music is by ZakharValaha from Pixabay.


Participatory Action Research - Feminist Trailblazers and Good Troublemakers

Episode 9 Host Patricia Maguire with Guest, Marie Brennan -

March 18, 2023, released March 31, 20223

To cite:Maguire, P. (Host), Gold, V., & Diwakar, S (Producers). (2023, March 31). Marie Brennan- (No. 9). In Participatory Action Research - Feminist Trailblazers & Good Troublemakers [Audio podcast]. Self-produced.

[00:00:00] Patricia Maguire: Welcome to the Participatory Action Research Feminist Trailblazers and Good Troublemakers podcast, episode nine with activist researcher, action researcher, Marie Brennan, of Australia.

I'm your host, Patricia Maguire. Our podcast dives into the contributions feminist trailblazers to participatory and action research. By talking with trailblazers about their successes and struggles, bringing feminist values and ways of being to PAR, we hope to encourage you to engage in participatory and action research that's deeply informed by intersectional feminisms.

In today's conversation, we're going to make the pivot to action and teacher action research with our guest, Marie Brennan. Marie Brennan has been one of the most important and persistent proponents of critical, radical action research since she began her journey in the Australian action research movement in the 1970s.

[00:01:13] Her work on reflective teaching and school-based action research promotes teachers and students and staff as knowledge workers, as rigorous thinkers and doers capable of understanding the political nature of schooling and their labor within it. She engages in and promotes collaborative, school and community-based action research that examines the interconnected implications of gender, race, class, culture, coloniality, globalization, and corporatization for schooling, teacher education, and higher ed. She's particularly interested in being an ally with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other community groups around issues of sovereignty, environment, and supporting young people, families and teachers in community-based research and activism.

Dr. Brennan is extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, Professor of Education at the University of South Australia and Victoria University, and she's taught and researched in five Australian universities. She's worked as a humanities teacher, curriculum researcher, and senior administrator in the Victoria Department of Education before moving to university teacher ed in 1991. And she has a long record of collaborative action research, which we're going to dive into. So with that introduction, Marie, welcome.

[00:02:41] Marie Brennan:  Thank you, Patricia. 

[00:02:44] Patricia Maguire: So, Australia had a robust and an avowedly social justice-oriented action research movement in the 1970s and 80s. What brought you to action research?

[00:02:55] Marie Brennan: I think I was interested in action research, even though I didn't know the name. In my Diploma of Education to become a teacher after my first degree, we had a really interesting diploma of education, which placed us in schools for two days a week for the whole year, as well as longer placements in the same school and then another one. I came across, then, Lawrence Stenhouse’s work, which was the introduction to curriculum and curriculum research where he argued really strongly that teachers had to be engaged in research, they had to inquire into their practice and we were using a really old but fantastically innovative at the time, Jerome Bruner's, Man: A Course of Study. Pardon the man.

I worked with other pre-service teachers in the same school to teach that for quite a while and investigate it. And the school was a boy’s technical school, which had mostly immigrant and very much working or underclass students at it, and we learned to do things together like one of the boys taught me woodwork while I taught him English, for example, we swapped it over.

That was a spinoff from the class where we were investigating big concepts like, what does it mean to be human? And how did we get to be human? And how do we [00:04:30] become more human through smaller concepts like lifecycle or whatever. And that was a really important way for me to understand how big ideas can be worked on in small ways with anybody of any age or positioning. And that helped me to think through the role of teaching and learning, which is my profession, how everybody has something to offer to analysis. Everybody has that capability and I always used to say, anyone who can learn their mother tongue is clever enough to do a PhD, the issue is what gets in the way. Doesn't mean that everyone should have a PhD.

[00:05:21] We don't need all the credentials, but everyone is very clever and they can analyze their world and so for me, also reading at the time and meeting Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, one of the key issues was Freire's concept of reading the world as well as reading the word and that reading the world comes first.

And so, trying to help people to articulate and analyze their world became a central plank of what I was doing with young people as well as with colleagues and other people in the communities.

I was a teacher in schools. The last school I was in, in the seventies, had 52 languages in it and it was a technical school though this time, thank goodness, co-ed, and we were trying to build literacy across the curriculum because everybody needed to be able to speak and understand and write and read, if possible English, in order to build a community of the school. And that meant we had a literacy project across the school involving, you know, the auto mechanics, the sheet metal, the wood workers, the home domestic science, and the fabric, and the business, and the humanities and social science.

[00:06:52] And we had a group that came to work with us from the education department because in those days we had school-based curriculum development which meant that we had to be talking to each other. We had to plan at the school level. While we didn't at that stage think about students and parents as our partners in that project, we worked really hard to do negotiation with the students and we worked hard with each other as teachers. What is literacy? How do we get kids talking and working and thinking together and build the literacy from the talking and reading came after. Learning to help get across ideas and practices with kids, so that's where we started.  

[00:07:48] Patricia Maguire: When you left the classroom and you were as a classroom teacher, later, you were a member of a team in the curriculum and research branch, I think of Victoria Education Department and you've written about doing action research with schools through there. I think one of your projects involved like every school in Victoria, and that work was also supported by the Australian National School's Network. And you said that that gave you the opportunity to put collaborative action research into the mainstream. Tell us about some of the successes or the struggles of getting then action research into the mainstream of schools. 

[00:08:30] Marie Brennan: When I joined Curriculum Research Branch, it was to work on literacy with a special group that had been set up through the technical school's division of the department, and we worked with a lot of schools who were struggling with the same kind of stuff that I had been working on with my own school at that time.

And we documented it and we had three planks. One was to research with teachers and schools. One was to document that and build materials for a clearing house that shared materials. And the third one was to develop professional development opportunities for teachers and others. And it became this kind of cyclical thing. And we produced lots of, back in those days, it was the Gestetner and the Roneo machines that smelled nicely of methylated spirits in the morning.

And we got into the habit of trying to think through making public the work that people were doing, not just in writing, but through talk and building communities of teachers in particular, and sometimes principals, and that was very helpful.

And then we had a change of government in Victoria and the Labor Party came in and they set up what they called the School Improvement Program, which I became a co-coordinator with Ruth Hoadley, and we worked with Patricia Reeve,       [00:10:03] who was the chair of our board, to try and help move from an inspectors-based system of all schools to school self-evaluation. And we developed a lot of material and the goal of that was the democratization of schooling and also at that time they put children, young people, became members - equal members, with teachers and parents on this, each school council.

[00:10:36] So there was a combination of legislative and policy work, a combination of close work with all the regions. There were at that stage, there were 18 regions in the state, and we worked across those with local, regional people to bring together teachers, parents, and young people as evaluators nominating the issues that needed to be changed in the school and trying to work through, with each other, how to improve them. And so that got them into doing forms of action research and then they were making that public by working with a cluster of schools and presenting their work to them so that they'd get feedback, but also so the cluster would be able to work together.

And that meant that they were looking for what were policy implications, what were issues or infrastructures that the school would need in order to do better. And for some were things like, we need teachers who can speak local languages. We need indigenous people on staff. We need to think through how to help young people to be listened to. And everybody, the parents as well, often mothers of course, because back in the seventies a lot of women were still not working, [00:12:06] how to build that capacity into the state policy making.

And so we tried to have multiple levels of feedback loops so that we could not just change things in the local, but feed into what else needed to change structurally and policy-wise to support what was going on in the local. Having that responsibility for a few years and trying to work through what school self-evaluation looked like brought us together with other groups in the department trying to support schools, school community officers, indigenous education workers, all the infrastructure of the department was able to find a toehold in the local as well as in the head office. 

[00:12:55] Patricia Maguire: That's incredible work that goes from the local to the state policy making action research cycles. How long did that last? 

[00:13:05] Marie Brennan: I left it after four years, partly because I thought it was really important to not be person dependent. In Australia, schools are a state or territory responsibility, not a national one, but that the national had a remit to do things for equity and things like that. And so I was seconded to thinking about changing secondary schools and orienting secondary schooling towards different futures than the old style from the sort of post-war era. 

[00:13:44] Patricia Maguire:I think you've written at some point that Stephen Kemmis at Deakin University in 1986 had sponsored possibly an action research conference that Ken Zeichner came to from University of Wisconsin-Madison. And then the next thing you know, you're off to University of Wisconsin-Madison and studying teacher ed, action research…tell us about that period for you. 

[00:14:09] Marie Brennan: Stephen had been really important with the School Improvement Plan. We were using the British stuff, Clement Adelman and John Elliott those people, as well as Stenhouse for thinking about action research. And so the last education research and development conference that was held in Australia, through the federal government funded, Stephen brought together a range of people from across Australia. People like David Tripp who did stuff on critical incidents, and feminists from South Australia, and a range of projects.

The conversations with one another were really important. You know, thinking about what does a critical friend mean? How can you be both critical and friendly and, and trying to marry those concepts.

And at the same time, I'd been working with Yoland Wadsworth here in Melbourne. We shared a lot of information across Deakin University. They were a big distance education program and so as well as doing lots of projects with local schools. We were also sharing materials, so we prepared lots of workshops, which in those days used overhead transparencies and things like that.

[00:15:23] And Steven was preparing materials through his teaching work. And so we drew on, Lorraine Reinet’s work in South Australia, our work in Victoria through the access skills team, and Steven's materials that he had developed for in-service education to develop the first action research planner, which, was a much slimmer volume than the one that became famous in about 1988 with Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart which became the basis until 2014 when they updated it with a teacher from Canada.

[00:16:01] At that conference I met Ken Zeichner and he was a bit surprised to find I didn't have a PhD. You couldn't even get leave with pay or without pay to do a PhD in Australia in those days. And he said, well, why don't you come over and work with us? I could get you a job so you'd get in-state fees in the teacher ed program.

And I was thinking, why do I need a PhD, you know? But I had been thinking that I didn't really want to keep climbing up the senior ladder in the education department because I like working with people rather than paper, even though I don't mind writing. But the basis of my writing has always been informing or being part of actual activism of some kind. And so I knew that I couldn't do that if I became any more senior than in their senior executive service of the public service.

And I needed to keep connections, but I didn't know what else to do. So I thought, oh well, I'll take a sabbatical from being in the department and went off to work with Ken.

And on my first day I met Susan Noffke. The late Susan Noffke. I still miss her. I was reading the book you co-edited, Traveling Companions, the other day, looking at the chapter that we wrote in that book, Pat. It was such an amazing piece of work that we managed to write together and present together almost every year from when we met to when she died.

[00:17:39] Susan and I, we just kind of clicked in the first staff meeting with Ken Zeichner. We could finish each other's sentences. And it was so wonderful to have a friend that you instantly knew that you'd have a lot in common with. And we shared an office. We wrote our PhDs in the same space.

We were trying to action research our own teacher education work there and the issues on the uses of data in action research and reflection. That one got published many years later, but it was circulating everywhere before that, partly because we were trying to have different people reflecting, not just us as researchers. And that became a really big issue because both of us, not so much in universities, but with other sites, we had to continually press for recognition of action research as a legitimate form of research, as something that counted, as something that contributed cyclically to the link to making changes in practices. Both of us worked with what we would think of as the most marginalized groups in schooling and society, and that became something that bonded us too, that both of us were working class women and both of us had different struggles in our lives.

[00:19:16] And that brought us to thinking through the links between class and race and location and when we are in location for Sue, a really big issue was of course, African American students and children and families and their communities and the kind of schooling that those communities can afford to pay because in the US the issue of the resourcing of schools was a local property tax issue, and if you live in a poor community, they're not going to have as much tax money as if you live in a rich community.

In Australia, despite the fact that we had state-based funding and some top up from the federal government for equity issues, a key issue became how do we work differently with locals on the issues that they need, that they help to nominate? And what does that mean for our theory, our explanations of what action research could do and what its limits were.

And so for us, the issues of how do we understand practice, how do we understand a community of practice, as always in process of being built through what we share, both talking together, writing together, thinking together, and changing what we do together. And that that process of always in formation always emerging was something that we always had to struggle with in our ways of working and that that was where we tried to think. 

[00:21:003] After I came back to Australia in late 1989, Sue and I, we both had email because the department had just introduced computers. We talked regularly on the email and a number of times we presented together. One time I remember sitting back to back at the front and reading bits of our email together as the basis of the to-ing and fro-ing and the construction of our papers. For me, having a good woman friend to do work with, was such a joy. It just made such a difference because most of the people interested in action research at Deakin were men. And while I love them all dearly, there is something very special about having a good woman friend to work with. 

[00:21:55] Patricia Maguire: I want to talk a little bit about some work that you and Sue Noffke did together, because I was just rereading it the other day. In the late eighties, you were reconceptualizing teacher reflection as a political act through which teachers could examine their school practices and then “zoom out to a more critical understanding of the power relations in schooling” and you discussed group reflections that teachers, staff, students, again, group reflection could be a [00:22:30] political act.

And I think it was in part a counter to sort of the watered down, individualized teacher reflection that was more technical. And in writing about that, you and Sue wrote that you turn to feminist studies, particularly the work of Biddy Martin and Chandra Mohanty and Mary Belenky's work on women's way of knowing and that that helped you create a more political framework for teacher reflection. Can you talk about that a little? 

[00:23:03] Marie Brennan: One of the key issues that both of us noted was that there were very few spaces for group reflection and because practice is always a social activity, even if you're doing it in your own classroom, it's part of a social institution. And, that it is often only through dialogue or multilogue that you can actually get different ways of seeing the same issue. And different understandings of why it has been that way.

And because action research is kind of like touching a spiderweb - you look at this little bit of the practice, the whole web shimmers and moves. And it became really important to us to see this beyond private, just my journal, my thinking, I will do.

To see practice as something that was shared and structured by a range of forces that we didn't even understand, but were historically there, and therefore we couldn't just treat reflection on practice as just a local activity that is privately done by the person. And so what we were interested in was how do you build capacity for dialogue?

[00:24:34] I remember in working with the Australian National Schools Network where we were using some of the materials that people like Joe McDonald and others had been talking about, about kind of protocols and ways to talk and think.

We used to go to work with teachers and get people to go for walks together to talk. And what we found and what the teachers often reflected on was, it was really hard to talk for more than a sentence because they were not used to talking for more than a sentence, before something else would come along.

And how having someone to ask questions gently, just clarification questions and whatever, after a few sessions, people could find themselves talking. And if you have extended talk, you move into analysis. We too found it quite hard to get teachers to be able to talk. To do analytic work requires building sustained relationships with others, and that has to be based around trust and a shared sense of the practice.

[00:25:51] And if we were then immersed in that as perhaps facilitators or co-researchers, depending on where the reflection was going, where, what the site was, we would understand the practice better, And we would actually be able to see how it was structured. Stephen called it the practice architectures. When I look back now, that's what Sue and I were struggling after. We didn't have that term, which was the sayings and doings and relatings that Stephen wrote about to extend Schatzki’s work on practice theory. But what we were trying to do was to help people analyze, you know, in that Freirean sense, analyze their world.

[00:26:37] And because most teachers, like in Australia, 75% of public school teachers are women, and people aren't used to listening to women, and women are used to kind of doing the outside work or talking to each other, and being able to make your analysis public, you know, by starting with the walking and talking, and then coming back to groups. What we were interested in was thinking through that analysis, which enabled you to understand your practice as part of a tradition, as part of institutional traditions, part of theoretical traditions, part of practices which were held in place by the ways we talked and how we related to each other. And so for us, that had to change what we meant by reflection because it wasn't just something that you did in your head by yourself. It was something that you had to push and that you needed other people's infrastructure. And for Sue and me, part of that infrastructure was writing, writing out to each other. 

[00:27:56] Patricia Maguire: Well, in the article that you two co-wrote for Traveling Companionsabout action research and feminisms, and I think it was titled “Doormats and Feminists: Who is the Community in Action Research?” And you wrote about using public resources as a senior officer to address women's issues. But you noted there was a struggle of control for access and expertise in authoritarian, patriarchal organizations.” And so feminist perspectives provided questions that you said, “unsettled the edges as you work from within.” And so how do you think feminist perspectives unsettled the edges of the Australian action research movement? 

[00:28:45] Marie Brennan: I mean, that concept of doormats was really interesting. For me, it's the place at the edge of the safe home. And we had to understand that where we were at was always going to be on the edges unless we claimed and remade both home and outside.

Moving across borders became a really interesting issue for us. And Sue particularly got into thinking about whiteness. She wrote a wonderful paper about the Incredible Whiteness of Being. Because she'd been working both with colleagues like Shuja and others and school districts in Buffalo and then Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Therefore, there were many more black teachers. And the issue for us, how do we use action research as a space for the marginalized to actually be listened to?

This was always a struggle in feminism within [00:30:00] feminist work itself, of how do we listen to the diversity of women? You know, it's not just professional white women running the feminist boat. It's actually how do we learn to listen, in my case, to indigenous women, to multiple cultures. I mean, Australia has got over 2000 different groupings. The feminists were asking those key questions. So I found Iris Marion Young's work really, really helpful in thinking about the relationship of neighborhood and the wider world and the ways in which women's work was absolutely central, whether it was paid or unpaid to the ongoing work of society.

[00:30:48] And so for me, I was also reading, Feminist Marxists, particularly the Germans, and Sue got into the Germans there because she spoke good German having lived there. And she was very good in her historical work of thinking through the role of feminist action researchers, for example.

We found that because women were marginalized in the power structures, they were often able to see, by looking and tweaking at the local bit, you could see the whole structure of the ways in which women were positioned as not speakers, as subjective, as emotional, all of the things that were supposed to be anti-science, anti-real knowledge.

We could see that if women's work was understood differently, and that in the case of education in schools where we were working, if women - the vast majority of the teachers - could start to think differently about using their analysis of power, you might be able to start building a more equal and different sets of practices that would democratize, that would help to reduce the oppression of marginalized groups.

[00:32:20] How do we use women's words and women's analysis of the power structures to understand why it's so hard to change practice, and therefore how do we do it in a different way? How does action research not just look at what gets in the way of me being able to get kids to talk or me being able to relate differently to families at home who send their children to school, but to understand the system of schooling as systematically skewed in favor of white middle class males, for example.

That's shown in the content of the curriculum, in the favored ways of learning and knowing, and that's what's valorized in schools. So we had to think about changing curriculum, changing pedagogy, and that meant having to interact with policy makers or school districts and all of those issues as well.  

[00:33:24] Patricia Maguire: I think it was perhaps in that same work that you said that feminism in and of itself isn't enough. That you had to have feminism that was anti-racist, anti-colonialist, which today we'd call intersectional feminisms. You wrote about a project that you did at Central Queensland University where your team sponsored university-wide action research groups to kind of name and tackle persistent problems, and they were persistent problems, particularly as experienced by the Aboriginal students, community members. Tell us a little bit about that project, because it brought together indigenous, aboriginal school, community members, and white researchers.

[00:34:10] Marie Brennan: Central Queensland is a regional area of a very large state. So it's a regional university. We don't have a lot of those in Australia because most of our population lives around the rim of Australia and are living in six main cities. Queensland is the most regionalized of the Australian states, and Central Queensland was a relatively new university when I went there and the projects were based in the university, trying to work through and build capacity in the university.

I was on the university's research committee at the time, and we were also anxious about the number of women scholars in the university who weren't researching. And so we got a grant to bring together groups of researchers to do action research on a range of issues, and to try and build the university more as a research place rather than an old college of advanced education in the country. This transitioned to become a university college and then became a full university, Central Queensland University. And there were people from across the university trying to think through what were key issues as a whole for the university that we could improve.

[00:35:41] One of them was the issue of how do we help students make the transition to being in university? So, first year was a really key issue for every faculty. The Indigenous Unit was particularly worried about the fact that many of the indigenous students, they went into the business college to try and get some capacity to learn to run their own businesses, to set up indigenous businesses, for example. And that many of the students had had very racist times at schools and coming into the university, they were likely to receive very much the same thing.

And that meant that the business faculty had to learn, that staff members had to learn to listen to the indigenous people from the unit in the same way as they worked out they'd have to learn to listen to indigenous students and to different forms of thinking about business because business, generally, the business faculties think of it in the same way as you might think of getting a master of business administration or something.

[00:36:50] It's all very much strongly in the private sector running big businesses. Whereas indigenous people were interested in thinking through what might it be to be part of an indigenous business, a community business, those kind of issues. And the indigenous unit people had to learn how to work through how to say things that they saw in a way that wouldn't appear accusatory, blaming and saying you’re a racist bitch. And so there were a whole range of issues also that the indigenous staff didn't necessarily understand what it was to teach in a business faculty. And of course all the people who were doing this in the business faculty were the women and they were all junior and they had very little control over even their own role in the program for the degree.

[00:37:47] And so the Indigenous Unit had to understand the processes of a university faculty, how they developed their programs, their courses that were in, went into them, who controlled them? It wasn't just a private issue, had to get approved at the academic board and things like that. So what that started to do was to build really stronger relationships and understandings within the indigenous unit about their role on academic boards, which they had now understood differently, and how that meant they would have to ask questions of all of the programs, not just business. And how they dealt with in health, for example, how indigenous health becomes an issue because indigenous health in Australia is extremely poor with much shorter lifespans and very difficult issues that needed more indigenous support of indigenous workers to actually work with indigenous communities.

 So the projects started influencing each other, and for me, the indigenous [00:39:00] group became emblematic of the kind of institutional analysis that I had learned from feminist work. That as part of reading their world, they had to understand the institutional world that they were operating in and think differently about where you might tweak it, where you might push it hard, where you might change policy, where you might have a different recruitment policy. All sorts of issues like that became, for me, a really important learning experience. 

[00:39:38] Patricia Maguire: One of your more current projects was the Student Voice Agency and Partnership Project in which students, and I love this emphasis, research problems that matter in their communities, problems that matter, and those were problems that mattered from students' perspective, especially indigenous students who are often marginalized in the schools. And in that project you talked about everyone, all the collaborators, being “problem apprentices”, that everybody could learn something new about the problem. Talk about that, The Student Voice and Agency Partnership Project. 

[00:40:20] Marie Brennan: That project was trying to work with building students as researchers in schools. We worked through how to build with students who were mostly working class, refugee and immigrant, and teachers in three schools that started off as an elective class in year nine or ten, where students could leave the school to do some research with and for and on their communities.

The class was interesting because it nominated a number of issues that were important. So for a number of people, the issues in this area were about gentrification, and then for others, will that mean we can't get a house here? [00:41:17] We can't afford to live if there's gentrification. And for others it was, can our community still run businesses? And for others it was about safety in a multicultural area which is not good at dealing with difference. And for others it was the issue of how do we deal with racism as the place gentrifies? So they were looking towards the future, because one of the problems we see in schools, that most of the knowledge that we structure kids to learn about is the past. And the conditions for the urgent problems of the present where we see capitalism at a tipping point, we see environment at a tipping, just as two examples.

42:19 But what we were seeing there was what Isabelle Stengers calls the Glitchfrastructures, the glitches that people experience in their local of the infrastructure that makes their lives able to be lived. Whether that's roads or institutions like schools, or public transport, or accessibility of jobs.

And what the students were thinking about, [00:42:35] were those kinds of issues that I just outlined as something that we need to address for building a different future. And so that project helped us to understand the ways in which schools deal with the hierarchy or the stratification and the stratificatory processes of sorting and selecting kids to go further, you know? And to unpack all those promises that if you just work hard, you will go on.

And they keep away from the kids the capacity to think hard about what they need for the future, what they want for a future, and getting any sense of agency in that. So there was an international conference here in Melbourne where a group of those students came and presented. We had to sneak them in cause the school didn't have money to send them. They only came for the session where they presented, but they were at the ratbag kids and they were the most analytic and articulate about community and the community needs and kids being researchers. And the other kids who were there were, they were the achievers at the school who represented the school.

[00:44:02] That really got us into thinking about who gets to speak in class? Who gets to represent the school? Which students? Whose knowledge? And can they act on it? Those are the same action research kind of questions of how do you build the knowledge that is relevant to, in changing the practice.

The issues we are dealing with, the lack of employment, the poor climate, the food insecurity, pollution, all sorts of issues in a poor region. [00:44:39] The students wanted the education department to understand that their research could make a difference. And it would change school curriculum. What we could show publicly was the so-called “ratbag kids” who were disengaged from school could run major projects, could mentor junior students from primary school and, you know, year seven, eight of the high schools, and brief the teachers and brief the education department on telling them what was needed to make schools, places where they would want to go and to make schools relevant to communities.

That demonstration on its own was such a powerful way to not only giving a reason why schools needed to change and the department had to have different curriculum, but also getting people to understand that young people need to participate. And so one of the good things that has happened, in recent times in this state of Victoria, is that they've returned young people onto school councils. And that has meant there is a systemic way in for young people to have more voice.

[00:46:00] The feminist work of people like Lauren Berlant and her work on infrastructure and glitchfrastructure, and Isabelle Stengers, a feminist philosopher of science. Those analyses on how to make a difference at the local level, helping us to understand that we can't just do it alone, but you can start from the local.

And to me, that's the big challenge now for the future for action research. And that requires that kind of intersectional analysis that you were talking about before and it requires the students to think through, as part of their work, how the parts fit together. And so what we are thinking about now is how the interdisciplinary work enables you to do a much more rich set of analysis because you see the connections between the past. And that requires new languages, that requires new practices of listening to different groups and their knowledges, and it also means different kinds of research are needed.

And just as I've had to do every institution I've worked from the education department research branch to every one of the universities, I had to spend time talking to ethics committees to give a rationale for action research as a legitimate form of research to understand that human-centered, social work that feminists have articulated so well in terms of different ways of knowing, different understandings of what a question might be, and that questions change as you understand things differently, and that you can use this to change, and you can't pre-plan an action research project. [00:48:10] So that means a different form of human ethics. For me, working on community projects and having schools work on community projects and bringing community into universities working with schools, working with communities, is a really helpful way for the future, I think, for teacher education as well as for school curriculum.

[00:48:36] Patricia Maguire: Well, let's wrap this up and I'm going to ask you one final question. What would you say to emerging, beginning, action researchers today that would be encouraging to them?

[00:48:50] Marie Brennan:  I'd say look for the most marginal peoples around whatever the important issue is, because they will already have analysis of the power forces going on, and that will build the capacity to have important dialogue to nominate the issues that you want to work on, and to together re-read the world, to think through what's most important.

If you want to think about what's important to research, you've got to think from the position of the most marginal about what most needs to change. That's an ethical stance. [00:49:40] And trying to understand the ways in which most issues emerge from the structural. From gendered, classed, colonialized, capitalist structures - that are all at tipping points at the moment.

And I think there are many opportunities to find the cracks, to open the cracks up a bit more. And to start making links with other people working on similar issues, and not just for you as an action researcher or a scholar but for the others in the project. They will all bring together a capacity to work with others. To me, that capacity gives you then the option for political work, for project-based work, that can actually build infrastructure that is needed to keep people thriving in the planet. 

[00:50:46] Patricia Maguire: Well, thank you so much. Thank you for talking with me today and sharing a lot of your life's work in action research and action research in Australia and globally. I mean, you've had quite an impact on the whole field of action research. So thank you for being on today.

I want to thank our listeners. Our listeners can help expand our listenership by sharing the link to this episode with your colleagues and networks. A transcript of today's podcast and additional info about Marie Brennan's work will be posted on our companion website https://www.parfemtrailblazers.net

 So if you missed earlier podcasts, you'll find them on that website.

And that's it for Participatory Action Research: Feminist Trailblazers and Good Troublemakers. So as John Lewis urges, go make some good trouble of your own.


Marie BrennanProfile Photo

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan has been an important – and persistent - proponent of critical, radical action research since she began her journey in the Australian Action Research Movement in the 1970s. Her work on reflective teaching and school-based action research promotes teachers – and students and community – as knowledge workers, as rigorous thinkers and doers, capable of understanding the political nature of schooling – and their labor within it.

She engages in and promotes collaborative, school and community-based action research that examines the interconnections of gender, race, class, culture, coloniality, globalization, and corporatization with schooling, teacher education, and higher education.

She has been particularly interested in being an ally with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other community groups around issues of sovereignty, environment, supporting young people, families and teachers in community-based research and activism.

Having earned her PhD. at the University of Wisconsin Madison, now retired, Dr. Brennan is Extraordinary Professor, Stellenbosch University in South Africa, Professor of Education at the University of South Australia and Victoria University; she has taught and researched in five Australian universities. She collaborated extensively with Susan Noffke regarding critical teacher action research. She’s worked as a humanities teacher, curriculum researcher and senior administrator in the Victoria Department of Education before moving to university education faculties in 1991.


Brennan, Marie, Eve Mayes and Lew Zipin (2022). The contemporary challenge of activism as curriculum work. Journal of Educational Administration and History 54, no. 3: 319-333.

Brennan, Marie (2017). Struggles for teacher education in the age of the Anthropocene. Journal of Education (University of KwaZulu-Natal) 69: 43-66.

Brennan, Marie and Lew Zipin (2016). The work of teacher- educators. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 44 (4). 302 - 305. ISSN 1359-866X

Brennan, Marie (2016) Complexities of Vietnamese femininities: a resource for rethinking women’s university leadership practices. In Globalised re/gendering of the academy and leadership. Routledge

Brennan, Marie, Lew Zipin, and Sam Sellar. (2015). Negotiating with the neighbours: Balancing different accountabilities across a cluster of regional schools. In Greg Thompson, Robert Lingard & Sam Sellar. National testing in schools, pp. 199-211. Routledge, 2015.

Brennan, Marie (2014). A necessary thought experiment: Changing the secondary school template. In Susanne Gannon and Wayne Sawyer (Eds). Contemporary Issues of Equity in Education. Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Newcastle Upon Tyne, pp. 231-244.

Brennan, Marie (2014). Sue Noffke: activist scholar-teacher. Educational Action Research 22, no. 4: 462-465.

Brennan, Marie (2013). Learning: in, through and as action research. Educational Action Research 21, no. 1: 1-3.

Brennan, Marie (2009). A school system takes on exhibitions through teacher action research. In Susan Noffke and Bridget Somekh (Eds.). International Handbook on Educational Action Research. London: SAGE, pp.158-166.

Brennan, Marie (2009). Steering teachers: Working to control the feminized profession of education. Journal of Sociology, 45, no. 4: 339-359.

Brennan, Marie & Susan Noffke (2009). Social-Political theory in working with teachers for social justice schooling. In Susan Noffke and Bridget Somekh (Eds.). International Handbook on Educational Action Research. London: SAGE pp. 432-441.

Brennan, Marie (1997). Researching in ACFE-Adult, community and further education-: a troubled task. Literacy and Numeracy Studies 7, no. 1 (1997): 25-45.

Blackmore, J.A., Marie Brennan, M. & Lewis Zipin (Eds). (2010). Re-positioning university governance and academic work. Rotterdam: Sense Publications.

Bunda, Tracey, Lew Zipin, and Marie Brennan (2012). Negotiating university ‘equity’ from Indigenous standpoints: a shaky bridge. International Journal of Inclusive Education 16, no. 9: 941-957.

Furlong, J., Marilyn Cochran-Smith, & Marie Brennan (Eds.). (2009). Politics and policy in teacher education: International perspectives. London & New York: Routledge.

Green, Bill, Jo-Anne Reid, and Marie Brennan. (2017). Challenging policy, rethinking practice; or, struggling for the soul of teacher education. The struggle for teacher education: International perspectives on teacher education governance and reforms: 39-55.

Hattam, Robert, Marie Brennan, Lew Zipin, and Barbara Comber (2009). Researching for social justice: Contextual, conceptual and methodological challenges." Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education 30, no. 3. 303-316.

Hodgetts, K. & Marie Brennan (2011). Senior secondary study as a part-time phenomenon? Implications for policy and practice. In T. Stehlik & J. Patterson, (Eds) Changing the paradigm – education as the key to a socially inclusive future. Adelaide: Wakefield Press. pp. 62-75.

Luk-Fong, Yuk Yee Pattie, and Marie Brennan (2010). Women teachers in Hong Kong: Stories of changing gendered identities. Asia pacific journal of education 30, no. 2: 213-229.

Noffke, Susan E. and Marie Brennan (2005). The dimensions of reflection: A conceptual and contextual Analysis. International Journal of Progressive Education 1, no. 3.

Noffke, Susan E., and Marie Brennan (2005). Reconstructing the politics of action in action research. In International action research, pp. 75-81. Routledge.

Noffke, Susan E. and Marie Brennan (2004). Doormats and feminists: Who is the “community” in action research? In Mary Brydon-Miller, Patricia Maguire, & Alice McIntyre (Eds.), Traveling companions: Feminisms and participatory action research (pp. 97-113). Westport, CN: Praeger.

Noffke, Susan E., and Marie Brennan (1988). The Dimensions of reflection: A conceptual and contextual Analysis. ERIC Number: ED296968

Noffke, Susan E., and Marie Brennan. (1988). Action research and reflective student teaching at UW-Madison: Issues and examples. ERIC Number: ED292793

Nuttall, J and Marie Brennan (2016). Teacher education as academic work: the affordances of a materialist analysis. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 44 (4). 364 - 378. ISSN 1359-866X

Popkewitz, Thomas S., and Marie T. Brennan. (2017). Foucault's challenge: Discourse, knowledge, and power in education. Teachers College Press.

Reid, J. & Marie Brennan (2013). The standards cage: Contradictory politics of control in Australia teacher education. In Lori Beckett (Ed.). Teacher education through active engagement: Raising the professional voice. London: Routledge.

Van Hanh Thi Do & Marie Brennan (2015) Complexities of Vietnamese femininities: a resource for rethinking women's university leadership practices, Gender and Education, 27:3, 273-287, DOI: 10.1080/09540253.2015.1024619

Zipin, Lew, Sam Sellar, Marie Brennan, and Trevor Gale. (2015). Educating for futures in marginalized regions: A sociological framework for rethinking and researching aspirations. Educational philosophy and theory 47, no. 3: 227-246.

Zipin, Lew, Aslam Fataar, and Marie Brennan. (2015). Can social realism do social justice? Debating the warrants for curriculum knowledge selection. Education as Change 19, no. 2 (2015): 9-36.

Zipin, Lew and Marie Brennan (2012). Re-imagining the university: governing the claims of global futures; in B. Adamson, J. Nixon & F. Su (Eds.) The Reorientation of Higher Education: Changing the East-West Dichotomy. New York and Hong Kong: Springer and The Comparative Education Research Centre of The University of Hong Kong Springer. pp. 247-268.