On observations: 4 approaches from Harry Wolcott

I’ve been reading Harry Wolcott’s book “Transforming Qualitative Data” (Sage, 1994) and have really enjoyed the chapters on observation. Wolcot takes more of an ethnographic stance on observation than I do, but there is much to ponder in what he says, and lots of interesting questions .


Wolcot relates how in discussion with students about conducting observations he is surprised at how quickly the conversation digresses into ethical issues about the process of observation and the role of the observer, and the “how” and the “what” are largely overlooked. I think that the role of the observer and the how and the what are closely connected. If I think about how I am going to observe teachers in learning rounds, I need to be aware of what I am doing. In the “doing ” of observation I can look around, look at,   look for, record and listen, without needing to interact much with the others in the room, but do I want to be a passive observer? I might not have much choice as Wolcott points out that in schools there is a “prevailing institutional norm”   (Wolcot 1994:155) which usually turns visitors into passive observers, and it doesn’t take much imagination to understand how that works.  I need to accept that in classrooms, observing teachers who are in turn making their own observations, my role will be passive, as will theirs, I suspect, but maybe a little less so.

What exactly will I observe? There are problems with approaching this and  knowing what you’re looking for so strategies are necessary, and awareness of  the context is also important.  Wolcot talks of the dangers of over-familiarity with the observational environment. I think this could be something that teachers conducting observations might need to acknowledge as Wolcott points out the tendency in teachers to want to evaluate, not observe when they are in their own familiar environments. Being  aware of this might mean assuming a “business as usual” understanding of the situation (e.g.  business as usual in classrooms might be: teachers give instructions, students follow instructions and check for clarity, accuracy until task is complete, or something similar). What might be interesting to focus on using  this model would be the interruptions to “business as usual” – the events which disrupt it; specifically what constitutes an interruption? How are interruptions dealt with and what are their effects?

Wolcott describes 4 approaches to observation which are helpful:

1: Observe and record everything. It’s fair to imagine that this will result in a mass of data, which quickly prompts the researcher to be selective, and also to be reflexively aware of observing and recording habits, which can be a useful exercise in itself. Observing everything especially in the early stages, Wolcott suggests also allows for the researcher to provide a broad overview of the observational situation. It may be helpful to revisit this at the writing -up stage for the purpose of  offering a new-comers’ viewpoint to potential readers who will need some orientation towards the project, while  the researcher having been immersed in the project may be well beyond this stage and overlook that need.

2. Observe and look for nothing in particular. If the situation is too familiar (as in the classroom situation describes above) or too unfamiliar ( e.g. perhaps the green room in a TV studio; inside a petro-chemical refinery; somewhere you’ve never been and had no experience of) this might be a useful approach. It acknowledges that too much might be occurring too quickly for the unfamiliar observer to make sense of, so instead of trying to take everything in, imagine the  observational landscape is flat and focus on the “bumps” – the things that seem to stand out. I can see how this might work in the classroom situation for a teacher, but I’m finding it difficult to imagine separating out the “business as usual” from the disruptions in an unfamiliar situation – how do you know which is which?

3. Look for paradoxes. Wolcott’s idea is that there is  interest in the contradictions and dilemmas of observational situations. He gives an example from his experience observing a  fishing community, but I can imagine this will be something I can work on. The obvious paradox for me will be the observation/evaluation problem. In previous research I found that in spite of clear intentions and statements indicating that they would not evaluate practice in observations, teachers in all situations I researched used judgemental language and expressed concern about reporting their findings to colleagues. This was useful data for me as the study was looking at what teachers do when they say they are doing learning rounds, but for this study the focus is more on the processes -what actually goes on inside a learning round so the observation/evaluation dilemma will play a different part perhaps revealing the nature of some relationships, the purpose of the LR within the school/LA national policy context etc.

4. Identify the key problem confronting the group.

As far as I understand this relates more to interview questions than the process of observation. Wolcott gives an example of medical students who come to realise they cannot learn everything they need to know to practice medicine in medical school, so they focus on what they need to learn first, to be able to stay in medical school. For me I understand this as:  If LR is the answer – what is the question? What need/ requirement is this collaborative learning activity responding to? What are people’s reasons for engaging with it and what are their expectations of it?  What questions might it answer for them? These are questions I will be seeking answers to in my interviews, I’m not sure observation would be the method for eliciting these answers.

The context for observation is subject to past present and future influences. Future because the observations always serve a future purpose – the paper, thesis, film etc that results from the study. Present influences can often be limitations (or enablers) imposed upon the study by contextual factors -e.g. time or funding constraints. Past influences will be found in the body of literature surrounding the focus of the study, and the culture of the organisation where the observations are taking place.

All in all this chapter offers good guidance and pointers on framing and  conducting observations which I’ll try to make good use of in coming months.


Wolcott, Harry F. (1994) Transforming Qualitative Data: description, analysis and interpretation. Sage Publications

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SERA conference 2014: a study of the provenances and processes in learning rounds

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Hierarchical focusing in interviews

Tomlinson, P. (1989). Having it both ways: hierarchical focusing as research interview method. British Educational Research Journal15(2), 155-176.


I am steadily working through methodology issues from my review and have submitted a more extended piece of writing on it for a forthcoming supervision. I’m still working on interviews however and am hoping to pilot some very soon.  My supervisor has suggested I investigate Tomlinsons’s (1989) method of hierarchical focusing in interviews, and having finally managed to track the paper down, I think it is worth a try. Given I have some, but not huge, experience in interviews, and no experience with hierarchical focusing I think a pilot is essential and I’m hoping to set some up immanently.


What is hierarchical focusing?


Tomlinson’s argument is that interviewing in research is far from straightforward data-gathering and can be complex and problematic. The possibilities for misconstruing language and interpretation, the social and relational dynamics of the interview situation, the possibly competing agendas of researcher’s concern with their topic and interviewee’s responses all represent dilemmas and tensions which have to be navigated in the interview situation. Hierarchical focusing is a method of interviewing which attempts to mitigate these tensions by attempting to achieve a balance between  “emergence of the interviewees perspective [and] the researcher’s own research agenda” (Tomlinson 1989: 155), hence the perspective of “having it both ways” from the subtitle of the paper.

Hierarchical focusing starts with acknowledging the need to be aware of differences in variations of humans understanding of phenomenon under research, including reflexive awareness of the researcher towards their investigation. It strives to balance the need for an open approach towards interviewees’ construal of the event with the necessity for the researcher’s requirements to be met without their agenda exercising excessive influence on the situation or the interviewee. It advocates a five stage process involving:

  1. outlining the content and structure of the research domain as seen by the researcher
  2. Identifying the research focus within the domain that is to be elicited from interviewees
  3. Devising a hierarchical framework of questions for the interview which move from conceptual to contextual or from more open/general to more closed/specific
  4. Carry out the interview using the hierarchical model in an open-ended way; adopting a non-directive, non-judgemental style and not paraphrasing what is said but sticking to terms used by the interviewee.
  5. Transcribe and analyse.


What does this look like in practice?

Start with the outline of the domain. What are the main concepts involved in this piece of research? What terms are being used? How do these ideas inter-relate? This will provide a hierarchical structure for the interview to be built around. To try to give a very simple example this could be: the nature of learning rounds; the outline of the different stages of the process;  the relationships between participants; the actions and interactions at each stage; the effects of these interactions.

So our main concepts are outlined here and would need to be elaborated in a fuller rationale. The next step is to prioritise content and what I want to elicit in the interview. Thus the hierarchical structure begins to take shape:
HF interviews

From this I would work on questions which are designed to ensure that all aspects of my concepts as illustrated above are elicited. This schema shows that there is a movement from generality (conceptual) to specific( contextual) understanding of the research problem. A thoughtful and fulsome approach to question construction is required. The conceptual provides the starting point in hierarchical focusing, and the process moves iteratively from there to more contextual framing. Encouraging open-ness and deploying a non-directive approach is essential.Only when all possibilities and any spontaneous development of the themes concerned with a particular set of questions has been exhausted do  I move to the next  more specific level in the hierarchy, where the same process is repeated.

I also need to construct a recording framework to annotate spontaneous, prompted or partial responses. This serves as a reminder to return to questions which elicited only a partial response before moving to the next level, and also to track the different responses in order to remind me what to return to for more developed answers before moving on. Helpfully this sets up the beginnings of a system for initial analysis of the data.

There is lots I need to refine about this, but I’m feeling hopeful that it will offer a robust, systematic and justifiable method to support my forthcoming interviews. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s already used it.


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Old Glow is dead. Long live Glow.

A day of days. The world’s first national intranet for schools had a significant moment today. Glow, the original running mate in 2004 for our new curriculum policy, Curriculum for Excellence has been shut down to give way to its new incarnation, Glowconnect. (The hashtag seems to be #glowscot but that might just be me not quite up to speed). This has taken a while. There have been loads of delays and mistakes. However, looking back across the broader piece, in early stages lots was done to encourage young people in schools to make best use of this ground breaking technology, but the system didn’t quite seem to be capable of moving with the times. And how times have changed in online terms since 2004. In spite of this huge attempts were made in encouraging educators as well, to collaborate online for their own professional development within the structure of a system increasingly being left behind as online collaboration advanced faster than could have been imagined. A sizeable network (2000+ educators) was developed to support these interested professionals. Glow hosted online communities where these people could meet, share and work together in a time and cost efficient way, while using secure advanced technology to do so. Where else (outside some businesses) might this have been happening at the time?
The focus in the early stages of Glow was definitely on user involvement where the user was a school-aged person. Imagining the possibilities for educators within this system was something that seemed to go beyond the original scope. This imagining was made possible by the hard work of my former colleagues Con Morris(adviser) and Margaret Alcorn (coordinator, leader) both of the former National CPD Team. Both Con and Margaret knew that if real and significant change was to happen in schools then teachers had to be at the heart of it, at the very start of it to parody a song. Both had expertise to make this happen. I was utterly privileged to work with them in this team. Today seems a bit like a second chance. Let’s hope those in charge can make it work for everyone this time.

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Policy reunion event – Curriculum for Excellence


On Friday I attended the above seminar at Glasgow University. I’d never attended an event like this before. It was run by the Policy Scotland people who worked with the Robert Owen Centre, I believe, to put on this event. It was a free and open event, attended by education professionals, representatives from relevant agencies and members of the public. The panel of speakers were all key policy – makers at the early stages of CfE, including the then minister for education, Peter Peacock; the senior civil servant in charge of the policy, Philip Rycroft and professor Louise Hayward who was involved with the Assessment is for Learning programme which was developing at around the same time. George McBride, formerly of the EIS also made some recorded contributions, and chair of the event was Policy Scotland director, Des McNulty.

It felt very unusual for several reasons. Firstly, the event took the form of a retropsective analysis by those involved of how the policy developed. This is not something we are used to in Scotland. Education policy tends to emerge from sources, usually government, or close to government or identified by government, then goes through implementation or perhaps acceptance (or some may even call it enforcement). The implementation processes of CfE have been expertly documented on this blog so I don’t wish to elaborate this now, but the unusual feature here is that rarely, if ever has a post-mortem on such a high-stakes policy been carried out in a public forum.

Secondly, panel members spoke openly and frankly about the work they did at the time. Decisions that were made were questioned and honestly analysed, positively or negatively. The emphasis on the importance of achieving consensus was questioned; the lack of a critical voice anywhere in the early stages of the process was also questioned. Related to this, little or no theoretical knowledge about curriculum seemed to be represented in the original design group – Prof Hayward’s involvement was on a parallel, but different programme for assessment. The lack of evidence of progression, or of assessment as a feature of the new curriculum was also challenged – the two policies of AifL and CfE seem to articulate with each other more by accident than design. “Assessment was not addressed as clearly as it should have been.” The initial big ideas which were established were left underdeveloped intentionally, but the expectation that teachers would move effortlessly from a highly prescriptive linear curricular model (as was 5-14) to a much less structured, more open framework without the necessary space to develop their own thinking on this was misguided.As George MacBride said, they “underestimated the acculturation of teachers to prescriptive curricula.” More than once was it mentioned that things would be done differently in the benefit of hindsight, which is only human after all. It was good to hear acknowledgement of the shared responsibility for the success of CfE which extended beyond the teaching profession.

Lastly I was struck by how arbitrary the organisation of government can be. In these early stages, two of the key individuals were removed from the process: Peter Peacock through health had to step down and Philip Rycroft was moved from his brief in this policy area. He had come from breweries before, but his time was up in education so he had to move on. Peter Peacock’s tenure in education would always have been subject to government prerogatives so he could have been moved at any time. The timing of these events undoubtedly had an impact on the process, however. For me it highlights how civil servants are there to serve the system of government above anything else. It may well be in the system’s interests to have agile servants who can slip into a different ministry with ease but I’m not sure if it is always in the interests of in this case, children in schools.

A very interesting event. Will it help us push on with the evolution of CfE? I’m not sure but If mistakes are acknowledged and if barriers and blockers are identified, and if this can help us inform our approach to CfE then there might be a chance.The hitherto lack of clarity in this policy process has obscured many of the barriers and blockages – if we can’t see how power is circulating within this process then we can’t capture it, learn from it or build on it. This brief peek behind the policy curtain may or may not be a prelude to further discussion. If it is (who knows?) and the tone of the debate remains honest and doesn’t revert to defensiveness, then maybe we can be hopeful.

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My progress review was two weeks ago and I passed. I knew where I would be challenged, and I knew where I was strong. The challenges left me feeling a bit exposed (in methodology and analysis especially) and this is where I need to focus my attention. Even in the short time that’s passed though I’ve gone back to some readings and papers and feel more secure in my understanding of critical realism. In the last post I mentioned I needed to do more work on  methodology.  Post – review, I know I still need to explain methodology in clearer terms, and in particular to highlight the ways in which it relates to my research questions and how both of these inform the methods I choose. Therefore, a piece of more extended writing on methodology, a clearer articulation of my research questions and a set of methods which will elicit the answers to the questions I want to ask is now required, with a degree of urgency as I’m hoping to get started on the empirical work very soon.

Structure, culture and agency

In discussion with my supervisor today we talked in detail about the key concepts of critical realism of structure, culture and agency and how to define them. Culture in CR terms is an independent realm of  ideas and knowledge (Archer 1995) which can sometimes conflict with each other, as in for example, a new set of cultural forms such as a new curriculum. This can offer a challenge to existing cultural forms and ideas ( i.e. existing ideas about curriculum) but  can also result in complementarities and/or tensions. The new cultural forms might  replace the old ones ( archetype A in Archer 1995) but a straightforward replacement is unlikely. Alternatively the new ideas could be entirely rejected, but this is also unlikely; what tends to happen is a hybridisation, mixing and matching of old and new, where existing cultures might change as a result of exposure to the  new culture.

Structure is a bit more slippery.  Social structure means systems of human relationships  amongst social positions (Porpora 2000). The relationships within a system can be understood by the ways in which the connections operate i.e. the relationships can be strong or weak; symmetrical,  where power, trust or respect passes back and forth between two individuals, or asymmetrical where power flows in one direction only. What passes between two individuals is an emergent property of their interaction. Structure exists independently of culture, but there is interaction between the two. The interactions will be key to my study.

Dave Elder Vass (2007) develops this conception of  social relationships to include both the people in the relationship and  the emergent powers of the interactions between them. He uses the term “people in community” to signify this more developed idea of  social structure.

Archer’s model of analytical dualism offers a  way of understanding structure and culture as autonomous systems whereby culture influences interaction through ideas; structure influence actions through power and individuals influence interactions through their own capacities, skills or knowledge. The interaction of these three separate but connected domains is central to this model. Interactions between the three domains is described in CR terms as  morphogenesis/morphostasis. Interactions are key here as they provide a methodological point of entry (Scott, 2009), and for my study, this will be a major focus.

Morphogenesis describes what happens when the three domains act upon each other. In the social interaction whereby an individual meets cultural forms and social structures, each element acts upon the other, and in the process of interacting,

Ideas can therefore be held in place by power structures, but the power structures can also reinforce the ideas. Think of South Africa pre-1996, for example. Change happens in the interaction between all three domains. So a series of interactions of individuals with structures and cultural conditions might result in emergent properties or powers which may bring about change in each domain. This could be described in Archer’s terms as a morphogenetic loop or cycle which over time,  might result in significant change.

Morphostasis would represent the same interactions resulting in reproduction, not change of existing norms, ideas (culture) and structure (relationships).

I need to develop a method that is systematic and congruent with CR for my study. My research questions need to reflect this more clearly. The task is underway!

PS: I knew my evidence of critical literature review was strong; they asked me if I’d be happy for a section of it to be made available to a final module in one of the professional learning programmes going on for teachers in the school. Of course I was: it’s here if anyone is interested:Excerpt from doctoral review report 2014 Please cite appropriately if you feel the urge :)

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Supervision meeting 26th May 2014

The pace of things is increasing in advance of my forthcoming review and the agenda for this meeting was focused more or less on my draft report which I need to submit 2 weeks before the meeting. My date is August 28th, so I have all summer to stress about this.

So as my project gathers pace I need to think more and more concretely about it, tighten the focus on what questions I am going to ask and make sure the methodology supports and articulates with the literature and questions I’m asking.  I’m hoping for a successful outcome to the review – this will mean that I am deemed competent enough to conduct the research I’m proposing and the decision will be made on how well I can justify the choices I’m making about every aspect of the project design so far. So all going well I’ll be able to pilot some methods early next school session and begin fieldwork sometime after that, hopefully around September.

I submitted a draft report for discussion at this meeting. Discussion with Mark was as usual hugely helpful and encouraging. There is work to be done but apparently it’s about 90% of the way there.  I know what I need to do. Certain parts of its need re-structuring or refocusing and I need to align my research questions more closely with my methodology. And I need to flesh out my methodology.

I will be doing a case study which is underpinned by critical realism as a theoretical framework and the methodology will be congruent with this.  I’ve been skirting around critical realism for a while and it’s only now that I am really beginning to see how useful it will be for me. I think part of my avoidance has been the language and expression of some of the writing – not the most accessible, but in terms of theory and philosophy I guess it’s never going to be easy.

So after discussion I have a clearer understanding of what purpose it will serve. What I want to look at is learning rounds as social processes – interactions among humans within existing structures and conditions. Critical realism, and in particular Margaret Archer’s model of analytical dualism gives me a way to frame this study and analyse the processes involved in these interactions and observe what changes might or might not be taking place. . From what I know about the literature around professional learning communities so far is that most of it is  a-theoretical, only some of it is empirically based and little of it looks at the actual processes involved in the work these PLCs do. My study aims to illuminate these processes. It will hopefully provide some new empirical knowledge which is supported by social theory for an under-researched area. Having already conducted a literature review into learning rounds and instructional rounds I can say with certainty that no empirical studies have been carried out into this and reached publication. Only five peer-reviewed papers were identified to consider as part of this literature review.  I hope that the work I’m about to embark on will ultimately provide something useful for the profession that will be recognised as an academically sound piece of research. Let the grafting begin!

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