Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education reached a major milestone this month by publishing our 500th article! For more information visit our News page.

Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, EDUCATION (oxfordre.com/education). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 26 October 2020

Heuristic Inquiry in Teacher Education

Abstract and Keywords

Teacher educators often encounter novice pre-service teachers who naively declare that their chief motivation for choosing a teacher training course is their passion for teaching children and young adults. Our challenge is to sustain that passion and transform it into effective pedagogical practice. As education is a profession with a crucially important affective dimension, preparing pre-service teachers for the rigors of daily teaching requires more than facilitating the acquisition of pedagogical technique and strategy. Heuristic inquiry is a methodological approach that affords teachers-as-researchers the means to portray the lived experience of teaching so that both pre- and in-service teachers can identify with, and learn about, the holistic experience of teaching.

In contrast to other methodologies, the heuristic researcher’s own experience regarding the phenomenon informs, guides, and interacts with the lived experience of the study participants. The multidimensional, multiperspectival, and multifaceted “story” of the lived experience of teaching which emerges from a disciplined heuristic inquiry provides pre-service teachers with a window through which they can vicariously experience the joys, challenges, and risks inherent in the work of teaching. Being more deeply aware of what to expect may better prepare novice teachers to remain within the profession with their initial passion intact.

As a methodological approach, heuristics involves self-inquiry and dialogue with others in order to discover the meaning, significance, and implications of pertinent human experience. Knowledge crystallizes within the researcher in consequence of sensory input, perception, transpersonal communication, belief, and judgment. The individual and composite portrayals and the creatively synthesized essence of the phenomenon that evolve from heuristic exploration coalesce to give a powerful picture of human experience. When heuristic inquiry depicts the dedicated efforts of dynamic teachers who have managed to make a real and enduring impact on their students’ learning and transformative growth, insight is likely to emerge regarding how to ensure the vibrant sustenance of inspired, effective teaching.

Keywords: heuristic, transpersonal, holistic, passion, teaching, lived experience, intuitive, pedagogy, creative, transformative


Heuristic inquiry in teacher education is particularly valuable as it foregrounds authentic practitioner experience that drives the research quest to understand the lived experience of teaching more fully. This research approach affords an intimate relationship with the involving and evolving lived experience under exploration. Inherent in heuristic inquiry is the transformative experience of discovery. Once we have discovered something new, it changes us forever; we see our world differently. When a heuristic teacher-researcher discovers another teacher’s experience of this phenomenon and honors it with open, conscientious apprehension, the researcher’s experience of the common phenomenon intermingles with that of the other, creating a richer, keener, more complex, intersubjective understanding.

Researching the lived experience of teachers is a soulful vocation where “one comes to know what one has already known without knowing it” (Romanyshyn, 2007, p. 13). Heuristic inquiry, as an intuitive, transpersonal research approach, affords fertile opportunity for obtaining, analyzing, and creatively presenting qualitative data that offers a deeply knowing experience of the phenomenon of transformational teaching. This methodological approach has been described as “an exploratory approach to research . . . [which] is not concerned with discovering theories or testing hypotheses, but is concerned with human knowing and especially, with self-inquiry . . . explicitly acknowledg[ing] the involvement of the researcher to the extent that the lived experience of the researcher becomes the main focus of the research” (Hiles, 2008, p. 389). Thus, heuristic inquiry is well-suited to teachers wishing to research their own practice.

As a methodological approach, heuristics involves self-inquiry and dialogue with others in order to discover the meaning, significance, and implications of pertinent human experience. As the inquiry evolves, acquired “self-knowledge enables one to develop the ability and skill to understand the problem more fully, and ultimately to deepen and extend the understanding through the eyes and voices of others” (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985, p. 17). Knowledge crystallizes within the researcher in consequence of sensory input, perception, transpersonal communication, belief, and judgment.

This article provides an overview of heuristic inquiry and its suitability as a research approach for facilitating deeper appreciation of the lived experience of effective, transformational teachers. The article describe the key phases of the transformative heuristic research experience in reference to a heuristic inquiry about the lived experience of expert teachers who have sustained their passionate pedagogical practice during the greater part of, or their entire, working lives. At the end of the article readers will find examples of some of the creatively analyzed products of this heuristic inquiry as they illustrate heuristic methodology while also providing inspiring and thought-provoking perspectives of the lived experience of teaching from self-professed and independently identified, passionate, effective teachers. These excerpts may be used to stimulate discussion with pre-service teachers about the realities of teaching or to stimulate reflective discussion among practicing teachers. The heuristic inquiry “sustaining passionate pedagogy” (Fogelgarn, 2013) referred to in this article defines effective teachers as those who successfully engage students in meaningful, transformative learning. (It is important to note that passion for teaching is not necessarily a prerequisite attribute of effective teachers.)

An Affective, Relational Conception of Transformative Pedagogy

The history of pedagogy in Western cultures has been predicated on the assumptions that school knowledge is separate from life knowledge and that teachers’ professional identities are similarly separate from who they are as people (Wink & Wink, 2004). Educators who view heart, body, and spirit, as well as mind, as integral elements of holistic pedagogical experience have challenged these assumptions (Day & Qing, 2009; Noddings, 2012; Palmer, 2007; Wink & Wink, 2004).

The view that teachers’ personal and professional identities are interrelated and thus play an integral role in pedagogy is widely accepted in the 21st century (Day, 2004, Day & Qing, 2009; Fried, 2001; Palmer, 2007; Richardson & Watt, 2010; Roeger, 2012; White, 2008). This view of pedagogy conceives teachers enacting and embodying their personal pedagogical philosophy while retaining their personal identity. This integrated view of pedagogy implies a relational view of pedagogy, where relationship between teacher and student is of paramount importance to optimal learning.

A relational conception of pedagogy recognizes the affective complexity that teachers encounter in striving to improve their best practice while addressing the vast range of needs inherent in a diverse group of students within an emotionally healthy and organizationally effective classroom. In order to maintain connectedness that is marked by humor, caring, interpersonal warmth, patience, empathy, and support of students’ self-esteem, teachers need to be connected with their own inner selves, comfortable in their role as teachers and engaged in ongoing self-reflection that culminates in increased self-knowledge (Day, 2004; Noddings, 2012). Effective teaching and learning are best experienced in communities where learners feel safe within their relationship with their teacher, their learning, and each other (Palmer, 2007).

One of the most challenging facets of holistically conceived educational practice is the cultivation of positive student-teacher relationships. Relationship-building is an affective pursuit, demanding integrity, authenticity, and sound interpersonal understanding and skill. Relationship is critical to effective learning (Day, 2004; Fried, 2001, 2007; Hattie, 2003; Palmer, 2007). Empathic, compassionate, supportive, caring relationships with students enhance self-image; self-efficacy; validation; feelings of emotional safety that conduce to sensible risk-taking in learning; student willingness to accept and act on timely, constructive teacher feedback about their work and in developing a personal care ethic (Hattie, 2008). A trusting and respectful relationship among students and teachers [enhances] everyone’s ability to work collaboratively and fosters a classroom climate necessary for learners to take the kinds of risks that learning requires (Fried, 2001).

In addition to understanding the relational nature of effective pedagogy, effective teaching requires a deep, integrated understanding of educational theory and professional practice. Teacher readiness requires a complex synthesis of professional knowledge and skill. Effective teachers require an appropriate level of discipline content and pedagogical content knowledge. Supporting the needs of all learners demands an understanding of differentiated pedagogy to address diverse learning needs and child and adolescent developmental psychology. Competent professional practice necessitates effective lesson planning and evaluation skills, assessment design and data analysis to inform learning, effective reporting, and constructive feedback. Fostering a positive, safe, and inclusive classroom climate entails responsive classroom management that promotes relational well-being and the ability to cultivate professional, supportive relationships with parents, caregivers, and other agencies. This is indeed a lot to learn, practice, and master.

Teachers work in a contemporary climate rife with unconducive working conditions, burnout, and reported significant rates of attrition (Dawson, 2008; Plunkett & Dyson, 2011). Intense emotional drain, challenging student behavior, assessment and reporting demands, extracurricular duties, and the disruption of technology in the classroom are just some of the impacts on early career teachers’ energies and attitudes toward their work. Furthermore, “greater societal expectations and lower societal recognition; greater accountability to parents and policy-makers; pedagogical and curriculum changes being implemented at an increasing rate; increased need for technological competence; increased demands beyond the pedagogical task; increasing diversity among students; and more administrative work” make teaching particularly difficult for graduates (Le Maistre & Paré, 2010, p. 560).

Teacher education must grapple with the question of how best to prepare and support novice teachers so that they remain within the profession. Sustainable, meaningful, effective teaching involves so much more than technique and information (Palmer, 2007). Teacher educators need to expand the repertoires of methodologies used in the service of preparing and supporting teachers to thrive. Heuristically researching practice, by discovering, sharing, and analyzing penetrating accounts of authentic lived experience, holds the potential to nurture and enlighten both new and experienced teachers.

Heuristic Inquiry

Heuristic inquiry requires that one be open, receptive, and attuned to all facets of one’s experience of a phenomenon, allowing comprehension and compassion to mingle and recognizing the place and unity of intellect, emotion, and spirit.

(Moustakas, 1990, p. 16)

heuristic derives from the Greek heuriskein, meaning discover or find. “Heuristics is concerned with meanings, not measurements; with essence, not appearance; with quality, not quantity; with experience, not behaviour” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 42). Heuristic inquiry provides a conceptual framework for human science research without prescribing a singular methodological approach. It is a holistic methodology, well suited to discovering a holistic view of teaching. Douglass and Moustakas (1985) contend that “passion in the process of discovery distinguishes heuristic research from other models of human science” (p. 41). The integral role that passion, inquiry, discovery, and meaning-making play in both transformative pedagogical practice and heuristic inquiry is clear.

Clark Moustakas, a humanistic psychologist, initially used this exploratory methodological approach to qualitative research in his exploration of loneliness (Moustakas, 1961). According to Hiles (2008), heuristic inquiry has remained peripheral to the qualitative approach, despite its relevance to the study of the human and social sciences. It is increasingly being used in education (Campbell, 2010; Cannon, 2009; Conway & Holcomb, 2008; Craig, 1978), psychology (Djuraskovic & Arthur, 2010), psychotherapy (Nuttall, 2006), nursing (Kenny, 2012; Vafeas & Hendricks, 2017), and counseling (Etherington, 2004), as well as in theological and transpersonal studies (Farley, 1994).

Heuristic inquiry is a deeply personal process whereby researchers have deep personal interest and utilize their own lived experience as an antecedent to the research undertaking. One of the hallmarks of heuristic inquiry is that the researcher shares the intensity of the experience with the study participants or co-researchers. In studying the dynamics of art classrooms, Emery (1996) observed that heuristic inquiry is particularly suited to the exploration of “heightened aesthetic experience or experiences in learning and teaching which are very powerful, highly exhilarating, or self-absorbing” (Emery, 1996, p. 28). In an exploration of the role that caring and compassion play in teaching, Baker (2006) conducted a heuristic inquiry because it required the researcher to turn inward for deeper awareness of the phenomenon. Baker taught thousands of students during 32 years of teaching and valued a methodological approach that encouraged him to open himself up “completely and passionately to the experience” (Baker, 2006, p. 17). The fundamental epistemological role that tacit knowing and knowledge (Polanyi, 2009) play in heuristic inquiry seemed eminently suited to Baker’s exploration of the caring dynamic between teachers and their students. While teachers may feel they know something, they may not be able to identify or articulate when or how they came to know it. Vafeas and Hendricks (2017) suggest that this tacit knowledge or “gut feeling” may actually be what enables heuristic teacher-researchers to recognize, understand, and validate the experience of others.

An intrinsic dimension of heuristic inquiry is the researcher’s immersive involvement with the phenomenon. Teachers who have been teaching and reflecting on their practice for some years might be mystified by a question or captivated by an aspect of teaching they wish to better understand. “This question or problem, whether explicitly or implicitly, will always reflect a personal concern with respect to understanding . . . the human world in which they live. . . . This intense and passionate interest or concern with respect to important social and universal meanings [always has] personal implications” (Hiles, 2008, p. 390). This teacher may deeply ponder this problem then choose to discover other teachers’ experiences of this aspect of teaching in the quest to find a satisfying answer to the question.

In order to discover the essence of their phenomenological quest, heuristic researchers must have an openness to any potential inputs that may enrich understanding and articulation of the phenomenon. Douglass and Moustakas (1985) suggest that energetic openness positions the researcher to encounter literature, other people, institutions, and elements of the natural world or human nature that can illuminate the mystique of the phenomenon in question. When the heuristic researcher is in the spirit and flow of immersion, the moment of readiness to collect data is tacitly known. When a heuristic teacher-researcher is authentically searching for intersubjective validation of deeply felt pedagogical experience with teachers who share a common internal frame of reference, due to the reported serendipitous nature of heuristic quests, he or she will likely discover them (West, 2001).

An important distinction between heuristic and phenomenological inquiry is that the researchers are present and dynamically active throughout the heuristic exploration and their own lived experience is integral to the research. As the project progresses, the researcher gains a more insightful understanding of the phenomenon of lived experience under investigation and this enhanced knowledge reflexively infuses successive stages of the inquiry. The heuristic researcher’s presuppositions regarding the phenomenon inform, guide, and interact with the project, while honoring the integrity of the stories contributed by the research participants. Perhaps the most salient distinction between heuristic inquiry and phenomenology is the passionate relationship the researcher has with the phenomenon prior to, and during, the research study. The voice of the researcher is an organic component in the inquiry.

The ultimate aim of heuristic inquiry is to creatively articulate the phenomenon, to create “a story that portrays the qualities, meanings, and essences of universally unique experiences” (Moustakas, 1990, p. 13). Each participant’s story, intermelded with the researcher’s own deeply considered experience, culminates in the transformative, creatively synthesized, emblematic story of the phenomenon produced by the heuristic process.

Seeking to Authentically Capture the Lived Experience of Transformative Pedagogy

Teaching is a multifaceted act that is almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Many novice teachers struggle with the multiple demands teaching involves and the attendant drain on their time, patience, creative capacity, and both physical and emotional energy. Whereas quantitative research methods seek to measure outward behaviors in classrooms, approaches that invite participants to reveal their deep emotional attachments to their calling and the transformation they experience in teaching hold the potential for sharing a richer understanding of the complexities of teaching.

Conventional research methodologies, including quantitative surveys, highly structured interviews, and video analysis, may be able to capture what happens in the course of classroom teaching—when it is observable—and theorize why it happens. Douglass and Moustakas (1985) argue that “traditional empirical investigations pre-suppose cause-effect relationships . . . while the . . . heuristic scientist seeks to discover meaning . . . and to illuminate it from direct first-person accounts” (p. 38). An authentic understanding of the experience of teaching necessarily involves how the teacher feels during and about the experience. It is arguably impossible for conventional research to capture the essence of a teacher’s inner perception of the teaching experience. Discovering this inner experience provides a more holistic, truer view of what teaching actually feels like, as opposed to what it involves or how it looks to an observer.

Sitting within the overarching phenomenological research paradigm, heuristic inquiry focuses on discovering and creatively representing “lived experience” as “experience that is already passed or lived through” (van Manen, 1990, p. 10). The researcher’s lived experience may be the sole subject of a self-inquiry or the study may involve a number of participants (co-researchers) who have encountered the same phenomenon (Moustakas, 1990). Researchers seeking to discover the lived experience of their participants offer open-ended prompts intended to elicit candid, revelatory responses. When teachers share their anecdotes, memories, and critical moments in their careers, their experience emerges with unique yet universal significance.

Heuristic and phenomenological inquiry differ in that the researcher is present and dynamically active throughout the heuristic exploration. As the inquiry develops, the researcher gains more insightful understanding of the phenomenon and this enhanced knowledge reflexively infuses successive stages of the research. The heuristic researcher’s presuppositions regarding the phenomenon inform, guide, and interact with the evolving inquiry, while preserving the integrity of the stories contributed by the research participants. In contradistinction, phenomenology requires the researcher to undertake the study without presupposition. Another salient distinction between heuristic inquiry and phenomenology is the passionate relationship the researcher has with the phenomenon prior to and during the research study. In contrast to phenomenological reports, the voice of the heuristic researcher is an organic component of the inquiry. When this researcher is an experienced teacher with an intense interest in teaching, an intersubjective resonance with teacher-participants is conducive to rich, emergent data about the phenomenon.

Autoethnography and heuristic inquiry are both reflexive ways of knowing thatt accord primacy to the researcher’s own experience. In contrast to autoethnography, heuristic inquiry is not predominantly about one’s own story—although “the self of the researcher is illuminated” (Moustakas, 1990, p. 11)—but rather it seeks to discover deeper understanding of human phenomenon common to both researcher and participants. Although individual life stories form the substantive body of the heuristic project, in addition to acquired self-knowledge, it is the discovery of a common experience and understanding of the phenomenon that is vital. This differs from autoethnography, which is primarily concerned with cultural analysis and interpretation (Chang, 2016), and issues including identity politics and social justice (Holman-Jones, 2007).

Transpersonal Research Approaches and Heuristic Inquiry

In research about teaching, transpersonal research approaches (Braud & Anderson, 1998) afford tremendous opportunity for obtaining and experiencing data in fields involving subliminal or subconscious communication between two or more people such as teaching, therapy, and nursing. Transpersonal approaches allow for, and respect, spirituality and spiritual sensitivity, and accept without judgment that research participants may draw connections between the mystical and the mundane (Kenny, 2012). Whereas objective measurement, statistical evaluation, or scientific examination cannot authentically capture or portray the nature of the relational transactions inherent in these professions, where one is epistemologically prepared to honor the primary experience of a research participant who describes his or her lived experience, such testimonials qualify as empirical data. Gathering a range of revelatory experiences from different participants may provide astonishing corroboration of commonality, such that a truth emerges regarding the empiric nature of a transpersonal phenomenon.

Exploring the lived experience of effective teachers who passionately strive to enact competent, transformational pedagogy, necessitates plumbing the “interiority of our experience” (Sela-Smith, 2002, p. 54). Whereas quantitative research methods may seek to measure outward behaviors in classrooms, approaches that invite participants to reveal (unreservedly) their deep emotional attachments to their teacher-hood hold the potential for richer understanding of what teachers mean when they profess love for any aspect of pedagogical practice.

Three concurrent elements in the transpersonal research experience coalesce when conventional demarcations between research, practical application, and personal transformation dissolve (Braud & Anderson, 1998). For teacher-researchers investigating their own practice in relation to the experience of other teachers, transpersonal interviews can be enlightening, affirming, and transformative for both parties. The act of disclosing deeply held perceptions to facilitate disclosure from others is integral to the heuristic inquiry process. Depth and sensitivity of interpersonal interchange contribute to the transpersonal flow of perceptual truth between teacher-researcher and participating teacher. This synergistic process stands in stark contradistinction to conventional research practice, which seldom stimulates or fathoms the deep perceptual and instinctual realms of human experience. When researchers offer participants the opportunity in semi- or unstructured interviews to share their experience in their own way, the following occurs:

  • First, the interaction becomes a research session by providing new information and knowledge that can contribute to the development of our discipline.

  • Second, it also becomes a clinical session by offering the participants/co-researchers an opportunity to learn more about themselves, and work through important issues more thoroughly than before. . . . [T]he opportunity to tell one’s story and to speak one’s own voice has healing power.

  • Third, hearing the stories of participants/co-researchers and working together with them on the issues addressed in the research project can result in change and transformation in ourselves [sic] as investigator. (Braud & Anderson, 1998, p. 43)

Anderson (1998) recommends incorporating aspects of intuitive inquiry into research projects seeking to explore the rich dimensionality of human experience. She observes that intuitive inquiry as a methodological approach draws significantly on heuristic inquiry, sharing several core principles and applications. A brief overview of these shared methodological attributes follows.

As a personal attribute, compassion enables sympathy, empathy, and nonjudgmental acceptance; these are critical attributes for a transpersonal researcher. Anderson (1998) notes that “compassionate listening allows our research participants to speak to us freely and honestly about the depth and value of their human experiences” (p. 71). In this intimate relationship, the intuitive researcher gains a more coherent grasp of the experience’s complexity, interrelatedness, and essence. In transpersonal research, sympathetic resonance has a “capacity for immediate apprehension and recognition of an experience spoken by another and yet (surprisingly and refreshingly, perhaps) be true of the researcher, as well” (p. 73). In this sense, one might view sympathetic resonance as a form of validation of the researcher’s intuitive insight. Reflective listening is a skill involved in facilitating a field of sympathetic resonance that enables participants to listen to themselves and others more deeply. Anderson notes that “as the researcher’s awareness of the dimensions, qualities, and wholeness of the topic expands, the field of resonance available to successive participants correspondingly increases” (p. 83).

Intuitive inquiry honors the experience of the individual and the intersubjective awareness and understanding of the researcher and the individual research participant. “The depth of the researcher’s intuitive understanding gives a universal voice and character to the research findings” so that the personal is universal (p. 75). Transpersonal research recognizes that we are able to appreciate the general from an understanding of the particular because nature is replete with holographic patterning. Intuitive inquiry builds on this truth and invites devotees of the rational paradigm to consider that “what is sacred in human life is also manifested in the individual and community aspects of our lives and in the unity that brings us together” (p. 79). An aspect of interconnectedness in a personal sense is intersubjectivity, a pervasive perspective in the interaction between researcher, participants, the data, the creative analytical presentation, and the audience.

Auspicious bewilderment is the state of confusion or disequilibrium occurring at different stages of most research projects, when data challenges assumptions or theoretical postulates. For the astute researcher, it should signify imminent, enriched understanding. Anderson (1998) suggests that in transpersonal research, this potentially fertile state may last for weeks or months. This period is conducive to the employment of nonconventional forms of cathartic expression that may connect the perplexed researcher with the source of bewilderment. Anderson cautions against complacency in transpersonal research, as the nature of transformative experience is typically fraught with periods of confusion. Auspicious bewilderment occurs at critical moments of the heuristic quest; patterns and themes richly embroidered in the textured tapestry become interwoven by data, focusing, incubation, creative analysis, and presentation.

Transpersonal research approaches require disciplined procedures and protocols. Anderson notes the importance of faithful adherence to research practices for ensuring organic integrity, rigor, and validity of data collection, interpretation, and representation. She maintains that “good methodologies . . . generate trust” (p. 79) and that the research methods prudently employed will yield fruits of essence and authenticity. Member checking, labor-intensive transcription processes, indwelling, critical redrafting, peer debriefing and mentoring, periods of withdrawal and incubation, total presence, honesty, commitment, accuracy, sustained immersion, and integrity of the researcher contribute to a portrayal which is authentic and credible.

The Integral Elements of Heuristic Research

Moustakas (1990) identifies six elements that are integral to heuristic research:

  • Identification with the inquiry focus requires “getting inside” the research question in order to gain an intrinsic understanding of its nature and implications . . . “becoming one with what one is seeking to know” (p. 16). Hence, the term “immersive” is used to describe the relationship between researcher and the research focus.

  • Self-dialogue is fundamental when seeking to understand the wholeness of a phenomenon one has experienced in relation to the accounts of the same phenomenon shared by coresearchers. Thus, the heuristic researcher begins with self, works with self and others, and ends the research process with (enhanced or transformed) self. Therefore, it is integrally important to question and listen to oneself.

  • Tacit knowing is composed of both visible, discernible input (facial expression) and implicit or subliminal input (mood or energy). We can acquire a sense of the wholeness of something from an awareness of its constituent parts. This awareness may not be attributable to concrete evidence. We can recognize positive energy in a room of people without anyone saying or doing anything overt or intentional in order to convey their feelings. Experiencing a room full of positive energy may even defy our powers of accurate description, yet we know the truth inherent in our experience.

  • The realm between tacit and explicit knowledge is intuition. This internal capacity to perceive, infer, surmise, reconsider, and intuit knowledge without the need for logic and reasoning enables the heuristic researcher to gain a sense of integrated wholeness of experience which cannot be achieved by rational methods alone.

  • Indwelling is an intrapersonal process of intimate engagement with the phenomenon of study. It seeks to recognize and understand the constituent elements or attributes of an experience as well as its wholeness. It enables incrementally enriched understanding by virtue of patient, deliberate, nonlinear “sitting with” the focus of inquiry. Authentic insight and extended comprehension emanate from the depths of indwelling.

  • Focusing is a critical aspect of the heuristic process, which is essentially “a sustained process of systematically contacting the more central meanings of an experience” (Moustakas, 1990, p. 25). Focusing is a practice that assists in attaining a state of relaxed responsiveness and receptivity. Through focused discernment, one is able to more easily recognize that which is not vital to the matter at hand and relocate it for future consideration.

Only those who have had any particular common experience can validly portray it, empathically understand it, and accord it authentic validation. This honoring of common experience is contingent upon a common internal frame of reference born of experience and reflection and is enhanced by sharing portrayals of the experience with others who have experienced the phenomenon. Conversely, observed behavior or authentic portrayals of unfamiliar experience may appear irrational to an observer with an external frame of reference. Thus, it is vitally important for the heuristic researcher to recruit participants who share his or her internal frame of reference regarding the phenomenon of study.

The Methodological Phases of Heuristic Research

Heuristic research relies on integral transpersonal, epistemological, ontological, and methodological approaches. “Whatever presents itself in the consciousness of the investigator as perception, sense, intuition, or knowledge represents an invitation for further elucidation . . . the research question and the methodology flow out of inner awareness, meaning and inspiration” (Moustakas, 1990, pp. 10–11). While the need for methodological rigor and discipline is critical to any research study, heuristic inquiry utilizes validation strategies that may seem unorthodox to conventional research. The total presence, honesty, commitment, accuracy, sustained immersion, and integrity of the researcher are prerequisites for credible heuristic research.

Moustakas’s (1990) recursive, reiterative design for heuristic inquiry “enable[s] the researcher to achieve repeated verification that the explication of the phenomenon and the creative synthesis of essences and meanings actually portray the phenomenon investigated” (p. 33). The six methodological phases that guide the design and implementation of rigorous heuristic research require the researcher to return repeatedly to the data to check for resonance, consistency, clear patterns, and relatedness. I will refer to my own heuristic inquiry, Sustaining Passionate Pedagogy (Fogelgarn, 2013), to illustrate these phases.

Despite the intimate, intuitive, and passionate pursuit of meaning that disciplined heuristic research demands, it “begins with something that calls out from the challenges and attractions of everyday experience” (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985, p. 53). For me, the beginning of my heuristic journey began within the vicissitudes of the classroom.

Initial Engagement

During this phase, the researcher searches inward for the context of his or her passionate interest or concern. Intensely reflecting on experience should generate a question the researcher feels encapsulates what he or she wishes to understand more, inevitably providing the means for self-transformation in the process of discovering a satisfying answer. A long-standing passionate desire to better understand how to infuse pre-service and neophyte teachers with passion for teaching and to help them actualize this passion into sustained effective pedagogy has challenged me throughout my teaching life, culminating in my doctoral quest to discover the essence of passionate pedagogical practice and how it may be sustained. For me, the discovery and creative representation of the lived experience of sustained passionate pedagogy has been the product of deep, protracted, retrospective reflection.


Those with an external frame of reference may deem this phase obsessive. During this period, the heuristic researcher is literally and holistically preoccupied with the chosen question and how it might be answered. Whereas during the initial engagement the objective is to discover what the question should be and why it “should be” answered, the focus of immersion is in the identification of how it can be comprehensively answered. This phase of the research endeavor entails a relentless search for, and voracious consumption of, any text relating to the research question.


This is the nonactive stage of the research process. In contrast to immersion, here the researcher consciously retreats from an intimate engagement with the focus question, allowing tacit knowing and intuition to operate in an unscrutinized context. Moustakas compares the incubation phase with consciously “letting go” when trying to find a misplaced key or to recall a forgotten name. Often the act of “not actively thinking” about something provides the elusive answer. Incubation occurred at unscheduled times throughout my research journey. For me, it was usually during intentional periods of conscious withdrawal from the research focus that unexpected illumination occurred. Although it sometimes seemed counter-rational, when confronted with seemingly congested and paradoxical thought processes, determinedly retreating from the research quest to focus on something completely different, eventually yielded clarity and unanticipated insight.


When the heuristic researcher is “open and receptive to tacit knowledge and intuition” (Moustakas, 1990, p. 29), astonishing patterns, associations, and implications appear seemingly from “out of the blue.” Reflectiveness at this point often rewards the “expansively minded” researcher with realizations regarding misunderstood or previously unnoticed aspects of the inquiry. Thus, illumination may add rich layers of meaning and symbolic significance to the evolving study. A painstaking, iterative transcription process and the use of creative analytic process (Richardson, 2005) provided powerful illumination during my study. This meant discovering unexpectedly that what drains passionate teachers’ energy emerged as far weightier data than what sustains them.


During this phase, the researcher attempts to elucidate the various constituent themes, features, anomalies, or mysteries that indwelling and focusing have propelled to the surface of conscious awareness. This process should reward the researcher with a more holistic apprehension of the phenomenon through a comprehensive understanding of the components of the experience. Constructing an individual portrait for each participating teacher and then intensively analyzing these portraits for common themes in order to produce composite depictions indeed yielded a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon and the elements that obstruct and sustain its practice. The iterative process of personally transcribing interviews and then distilling interview transcripts into distilled poetic portraits provided me with unexpected insight into subtleties and nuances that may have eluded the notice of more conventional transcription and data analysis methods.

Creative Synthesis

When the researcher is intimately familiar with the data and its interpretative implications, he or she is ready to “creatively synthesize” the fruits yielded by protracted and conscientious study of the data, intuitive reflection, and inspirational insight. Incorporating a variety of data into the final research report produces a richer, more compelling representation of the essence of the phenomenon, the individual experience of each participant, the transformative heuristic journey of the researcher, and the implications yielded by the study. The creative synthesis is the culminating step in the heuristic process, incorporating the “tacit-intuitive awareness” of the researcher regarding knowledge that has been “incubating” throughout the phases of heuristic research including initial engagement, immersion, illumination, and explication of the phenomenon. The creative synthesis is an “aesthetic rendition of the themes and essential meanings of the phenomenon” (Moustakas, 1990, p. 52). It is created by the researcher and represents the culmination of enlightenment about the essential qualities and dimensions of the phenomenon that has been the focus of the self-inquiry. This work tends to be creative or artistic and it encapsulates both the researcher’s own experience as well as the collective experience of those who have participated in the research journey.

My creative synthesis is a prosaic integration of the essential components of the experience of being an educator who is passionate about holistic, transformative pedagogy and who deeply desires to see its practice sustained. This text integrates all the knowledge generated from the raw, examined, analyzed, and synthesized data as well as the knowledge gained prior to, and throughout, the methodological journey of the research project. It is a completely original text that seeks to capture the feelings, beliefs, pedagogical stance, and aspirations of the passionate educators it represents.

Creatively Portraying the Essence of the Lived Experience

Heuristic inquiry is a conceptual framework and therefore does not prescribe methodological approaches. Moustakas (1990) does, however, provide clear guidelines for data analysis. These procedures include creating individual depictions, composite depictions, two or three exemplary individual portraits, and a creative synthesis. Authentic heuristic research is a “comprehensive story that is portrayed in vivid, alive, accurate, and meaningful language” which is “elucidated through poems, songs, artwork, and other personal documents and creations” (p. 19). Moustakas contends that individual and composite depictions are complete in themselves and do not demand further interpretation.

In line with Moustakas’s (1990) guidelines, each of the 21 individual depictions included in my heuristic inquiry “retains the language and includes examples drawn from the individual [participating teacher’s] experience of the phenomenon” (p. 51). In order to preserve the authentic integrity of each teacher, I utilized Creative Analytic Process (CAP) poetry, a creative-analytic process recommended by Richardson (2005).

The aim of this interpretative exercise is to authentically capture the essence of each participant’s lived pedagogical experience. The words and syntax are taken verbatim from interview transcripts. The researcher carefully selects, omits, reorders, and repeats original phrases or sentences in order to highlight important elements or themes. This process involves analytically reducing transcripts of several thousand words to a free verse, poetic distillation.

This process requires creative artistry in order to authentically portray the person within the experience and provide an accurate view of the nuances of their passionate pedagogy. To comprehend the underlying feelings and opinions of the participant in order to “re-express” them in the participant’s own words, the researcher needs to exercise disciplined indwelling to obtain illumination. This process demands intense, critical intersubjectivity and an uncompromising adherence to the essence of the shared experience in order to portray the participant’s truth. While the researcher’s experience of the phenomenon enables an intimate understanding of the lived experience, the rendered portrait must be uniquely that of the participant’s perception of their unique reality.

In the interest of methodological rigor, a poetically distilled portrait was emailed to each participating teacher for validation and comment. The responses from each participant validated the trustworthiness of the creative-analytic process and verified the truth ensconced in what potential critics (with an external frame of reference or a paradigmatic aversion to research as intuitive artistry) might deem romantic, poetic pretense.

Reimmersion in the data, with particular emphasis on the emerging themes regarding what nurtures, sustains, and threatens each individual participant teacher’s passion for effective, holistic pedagogical practice, followed the compilation of poetically distilled individual portraits. The same CAP method was used to create composite depictions representing the strikingly common feelings, attitudes, experiences, insights, and concerns of the participating teachers.

Heuristic Wisdom from Expert, Passionate, Transformational Teachers

Heuristic inquiry is a rigorous research discipline that melds passion, intuition, and intellect. Metacognitive reflection on one’s own processes of transpersonal knowing in relation to the critical moments and incidents shared by participants is fundamental to the research pursuit (Emery, 1996). The teacher-researcher who seeks a fuller understanding of effective pedagogical practice is fortunate in finding teachers who may not be readily able to articulate what they do but who are passionate about teaching and empowering learning. The employment of transpersonal approaches fosters intersubjective transferral of perceptions, anecdotes, and feelings about the phenomenon. To discover, comprehend, and articulate the more elusive aspects of effective transformational teaching, an earnest investment of patience, perseverance, and precision in the various phases and stages of heuristic research is required. When this commitment yields heuristic fruit, insights into the inner world of effective, transformational teachers can enrich anyone who is interested in transformative pedagogical experience.

The following selected excerpts of individual depictions illustrate the powerful experience of sustained passionate, transformational teaching (Fogelgarn, 2013). I produced them in the creative data analysis phase of the heuristic inquiry “Sustaining passionate pedagogy.” They are creative distillations of interview transcripts authenticated by the participating teachers.

These portraits may be used as development tools with pre-service teachers to trigger deep discussion about what authentic, effective teaching is. They might also be used with in-service teachers to stimulate reflection, introspection, and sharing about the affective dimension of their work.

Individual Portraits Created from Distilling Teachers’ Interview Transcripts

Gran-nan (pseudonym)

  • I believe I have been given a gift to teach
  • To enable them to Learn; not information
  • Learn as in Awe, Wonder, Curiosity
  • Learn as in knowledge
  • That becomes part of their psyche
  • I donsdt take that gift lightly
  • This passion, this feeling
  • A desperate need to translate
  • What you find beautiful and magical
  • Share the wonderment you find
  • In whatever you are looking at
  • In the magic of evolutionary biology
  • Mathematical formulae
  • Or something very simple in the kitchen
  • Often in the staffroom
  • People are talking about the curriculum
  • And they’re not talking about learning
  • Parents hand their children over, trust us
  • Total engagement, keenness, awareness
  • Of where their children are at
  • Even when a child has been jolly difficult
  • I am there to help them
  • Find it out for themselves
  • A child will want to learn
  • From someone they respect and admire
  • Who makes them want to find out ‘Why?’
  • Some teachers don’t have the courage
  • To go beyond the curriculum
  • We are very physically restricted in school
  • Chairs, tables, benches and paper
  • We’re not allowed to climb up somewhere
  • Throw paper darts to see how far they fall
  • We’re all so regimented and restricted
  • Learning isn’t about that at all
  • It’s about experiencing it, Life
  • It’s about Respect for Knowledge
  • Why did the Romans build this building?
  • Why does French have a Latin base?
  • Why do we need to know anything?
  • The desire to know is absolutely critical
  • You’ve got to learn how to learn
  • So that you have skills and tools
  • To translate into any other environment
  • There’s no black and white in teaching
  • Learning has to be open-ended
  • Curiosity, extension, expansion
  • Respect for Awe and Wonder
  • Are absolutely critical
  • I once walked into the classroom
  • Two boys holding another boy down
  • Punching his head; another boy
  • Threatening to throw a desk out a window
  • In two seconds you work out
  • Which is the worse problem?
  • You physically climb under the kids
  • And you look up, smile and say
  • ‘Could you just do this at recess?’
  • You disarm them; it’s a very powerful tool
  • You break the cycle very quickly
  • You don’t go in there and start shouting
  • The most powerful thing you can do
  • Is not have a power struggle
  • Our society goes in for the power-play
  • We watch it all the time on the television
  • In politics or even within the family
  • We need Respect, Love and respect students. See them as people

Johannes (pseudonym)

  • I was very lucky; having good mentors
  • Instilled in me that love of teaching
  • And really deep pedagogical practice
  • A brilliant guy called Peter
  • Shared with me his love of his subject area
  • He kept grinding it right down to tin tacks
  • What are we really trying to do?
  • Is this the best way of doing it?
  • His pedagogical practice was so sharp
  • So focused on where the students were
  • Coming from, what they were learning
  • He was asking deep questions
  • About his own practice
  • I reckon some of that rubbed off on me
  • Listening in an empathic way
  • Modulating my voice; acting as an echo
  • Towards what the students are doing
  • I can share the excitement and buzz
  • ‘Why it is it important?’
  • The difference between watching
  • A podcast you couldn’t interact with
  • Compared to a dialogue with someone
  • You cared about who is weaving
  • The Conversation to your needs, feelings and thoughts. The difference between tutor and lecturer - Somebody who may not be prepared to answer student questions
  • And somebody who is prepared to ask someone to justify their answer
  • And build upon it. I get excited where the kids respond in words that reflect what I’ve taught them. Not paraphrased, but re-adapted the technology and the language
  • Something different to something new
  • The students say that I don’t shout at them
  • And that doesn’t sound like much
  • But that means that I am being respectful
  • I don’t lose my patience; I come close to it
  • But then that’s also a little bit of a feint
  • I very respectfully step them outside
  • Not to discipline them but because
  • I want to have a private conversation
  • ‘Do you really want to come back?
  • We’d love to have you but we can’t learn
  • Unless you’re following the rules
  • Have you got a different way of looking at it?’ And reconnect.
  • Bureaucratic imposition cramps my creativity, shackles my thinking, overwhelms opportunities for being innovative. Bureaucratic requirement means The School throwing its Bureaucracy onto me; always being interrupted. The principal walking in
  • ‘I know you don’t like interruptions
  • But you turned your mobile phone off
  • I’ve got a very important message.
  • I need you; could someone else
  • Take this class?’ I’m thinking
  • ‘I’m actually Teaching, that’s not how it works’


Heuristic inquiry in the service of teacher education is a methodological approach that respectfully portrays participants’ experiences, opinions, feelings, and professional perspectives. It can tell a compelling story about teachers’ challenges, sacrifices, frustrations, disappointments, aspirations, victories, and accomplishments experienced in the pursuit of pedagogical mission. Stories are definitively subjective; participants tell their own stories and these recorded stories are reframed by the heuristic teacher-researcher. Heuristic research considers retold, creatively analyzed, and synthesized personal stories as valid representations of the truth of the lived experience. Indeed, the individual and composite portrayals yielded by a heuristic inquiry generate a collective, powerful story of a valid human experience that is not known until it is heuristically discovered and embodied. In the interests of preparing teachers to remain in the profession and enjoy sustained effective practice, teacher-researchers might consider heuristic inquiry as a suitably rewarding, transformative, alternative methodological approach. Researchers could use this qualitative, transpersonal approach to discover and expose important aspects of teachers’ experience for the edification, inspiration, and sustained practice of future, neophyte, and experienced teachers.

Further Reading

Anderson, R. (1998). Intuitive inquiry: A transpersonal approach. In W. Braud & R. Anderson (Eds.), Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences: Honoring human experience (pp. 69–94). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

    Braud, W., & Anderson, R. (1998). Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences: Honoring human experience. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

      Douglass, B., & Moustakas, C. (1985). Heuristic inquiry: The internal search to know. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 25(3), 39–55.Find this resource:

        Emery, L. (1996). Heuristic inquiry: Intensifying subjectivity in art education research. Australian Art Education, 19(3), 23.Find this resource:

          Hiles, D. R. (2008). Heuristic inquiry. In L. M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods (pp. 389–392). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

            Kenny, G. (2012). An introduction to Moustakas’s heuristic method. Nurse Researcher, 19(3), 6–11.Find this resource:

              Moustakas, C. (1961). Loneliness. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Find this resource:

                Moustakas, C. (1990). Heuristic research: design, methodology, and applications. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                  Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                    Sela-Smith, S. (2002). Heuristic research: A review and critique of Moustakas’s method. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 42(3), 53–88.Find this resource:

                      West, W. (2001). Beyond grounded theory: The use of a heuristic approach to qualitative research. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 1(2), 126–131.Find this resource:


                        Anderson, R. (1998). Intuitive inquiry: A transpersonal approach. In W. Braud & R. Anderson (Eds.), Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences: Honoring human experience (pp. 69–94). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                          Baker, R. M. (2006). How caring informs teaching (Doctoral disssertation, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma).Find this resource:

                            Braud, W., & Anderson, R. (1998). Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences: Honoring human experience. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                              Campbell, K. P. (2010). Transformative learning and spirituality: A heuristic inquiry into the experience of spiritual learning (Doctoral dissertation, Capella University, Minneapolis, Minnesota).Find this resource:

                                Cannon, L. M. (2009). Teachers teaching diverse learners: A heuristic inquiry of culturally relevant instruction. Phoenix: Arizona State University.Find this resource:

                                  Chang, H. (2016). Autoethnography as method. London, UK: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                    Conway, C., & Holcomb, A. (2008). Perceptions of experienced music teachers regarding their work as music mentors. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(1), 55–67.Find this resource:

                                      Craig, P. E. (1978). The heart of the teacher: A heuristic study of the inner world of teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest Information & Learning.Find this resource:

                                        Dawson, M. (2008). Understanding and preventing teacher disengagement: The role of the school leader in helping maintain teacher passion. Paper presented at the ACEL International Conference: New Metaphors for Leadership in Schools, Melbourne, Australia.Find this resource:

                                          Day, C. (2004). A passion for teaching. New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.Find this resource:

                                            Day, C. (2009, January 30). A passion for quality: Teachers who make a difference. Paper presented at the Graduate Research Conference, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin, Ireland.Find this resource:

                                              Day, C., & Qing, G. (2009). Teacher emotions: Well-being and effectiveness. In P. A. Schutz & M. Zembylas (Eds.), Advances in Teacher Emotion Research (pp. 15–31). New York, NY: SpringerFind this resource:

                                                Djuraskovic, I., & Arthur, N. (2010). Heuristic inquiry: A personal journey of acculturation and identity reconstruction. Qualitative Report, 15(6), 1569–1593.Find this resource:

                                                  Douglass, B. G., & Moustakas, C. (1985). Heuristic inquiry: The internal search to know. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 25(3), 39–55.Find this resource:

                                                    Emery, L. (1996). Heuristic inquiry: Intensifying subjectivity in art education research. Australian Art Education, 19(3), 23.Find this resource:

                                                      Etherington, K. (2004). Heuristic research as a vehicle for personal and professional development. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 4(2), 48–63.Find this resource:

                                                        Farley, E. (1994). The place of poetics in theological education: A heuristic inquiry. Theological Education, 31(1), 133–148.Find this resource:

                                                          Fogelgarn, R. (2013). Sustaining passionate pedagogy (Doctoral dissertation, La Trobe University, Melbourne).Find this resource:

                                                            Fried, R. L. (2001). The passionate teacher: A practical guide. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

                                                              Fried, R. L. (2007). The passionate learner: How teachers and parents can help children reclaim the joy of discovery. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

                                                                Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Paper presented at the Building Teacher Quality, Melbourne, Australia.Find this resource:

                                                                  Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                    Hiles, D. R. (2008). Heuristic inquiry. In L. M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods (pp. 389–392). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                      Holman Jones, S. (2007). Autoethnography. In G. Ritzer (Ed.), The Blackwell encyclopedia of sociology. New York, NY: Wiley.Find this resource:

                                                                        Kenny, G. (2012). An introduction to Moustakas’s heuristic method. Nursing Researcher, 19(3), 6–11.Find this resource:

                                                                          Le Maistre, C., & Paré, A. (2010). Whatever it takes: How beginning teachers learn to survive. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(3), 559–564.Find this resource:

                                                                            Moustakas, C. (1961). Loneliness. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Find this resource:

                                                                              Moustakas, C. (1990). Heuristic research: Design, methodology, and applications. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                                Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Noddings, N. (2012). The caring relation in teaching. Oxford Review of Education, 38(6), 771–781.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Nuttall, J. (2006). Researching psychotherapy integration: A heuristic approach. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 19(4), 429–444.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Plunkett, M., & Dyson, M. (2011). Becoming a teacher and staying one: Examining the complex ecologies associated with educating and retaining new teachers in rural Australia. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 36(1), 32–47.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Polanyi, M. (2009). The tacit dimension. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Richardson, L. (2005). Writing: A method of inquiry. In Y. S. Lincoln & N. K. Denzin (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 959–978). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Richardson, P. W., & Watt, H. M. G. (2010). Current and future directions in teacher motivation research. Advances in Motivation and Achievement, 16, 139–173.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Roeger, E. B. (2012). A qualitative inquiry into community college students’ perceptions of teacher passion (Doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois).Find this resource:

                                                                                                  Romanyshyn, R. D. (2007). The wounded researcher: Research with soul in mind. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal Books.Find this resource:

                                                                                                    Sela-Smith, S. (2002). Heuristic research: A review and critique of Moustakas’s method. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 42(3), 53–88.Find this resource:

                                                                                                      Vafeas, C., & Hendricks, J. (2017). Applying heuristic inquiry to nurse migration from the UK to Australia. Nurse Researcher, 24(3), 13–18.Find this resource:

                                                                                                        van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. New York: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          West, W. (2001). Beyond grounded theory: The use of a heuristic approach to qualitative research. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 1(2), 126–131.Find this resource:

                                                                                                            White, J. (2008). Sustainable pedagogy: A research narrative about performativity, teachers and possibility. Transnational Curriculum Inquiry, 5(1).Find this resource:

                                                                                                              Wink, J., & Wink, D. (2004). Teaching passionately: What’s love got to do with it? Boston, MA: Pearson Education.Find this resource: