Approaches to educational research

Busy day today but thankfully it didn’t involve 8am pre-exam piano lessons for my son, a lost schoolbag, piano exams, bashed cars, builders de-constructing my kitchen, emergency visits to the optician and meetings with students about laggy attendance. Like yesterday did –  before lunchtime. It did involve a supervision meeting and a research seminar. My supervision meeting with both supervisors provided the right amount of inspiration, affirmation and questions about possibilities: it was really quite significant in that the discussion around the field work I’ve done so far points towards a possible re-framing of my project into more of an action/participatory research orientated one rather than a case study. I’ve assembled some methodological reading on this and am really quite excited about it as it’s turned up a whole new dimension to my project. However this research project turns out I really want it to make a useful and maybe even usable contribution to what we already know about teacher professional learning. That, I feel is the very least I can do to justify the time and effort it will take me and everyone else who invests in me by indulging my pursuit of something I’m interested in.
There is no baseline indicator of the usefulness of educational research. There are checks and balances which serve as quality indicators like the Vitae framework which elaborates SCQF level 12; review processes; the involvement of external examiners; peer review etc but usefulness or impact of a piece of work is not always the same as its quality. To be fair, the impact agenda in research is now a massive concern of funding bodies like the ESRC and of universities for formal research excellence assessment processes and maybe that’s the same thing, I’m not sure. I see impact as a changing effect that happens as a reaction to or interaction with something.
The impact debate in academia is heated and polemic and I don’t want to open it up here, but I would like to ponder for a moment the usefulness of educational research. If research isn’t useful and useable (to paraphrase Margaret Archer talking about social theory) does it amount to anything other than self-indulgence? I listened to a talk today about a study  from a post-human perspective in the HE context and I found myself asking this question more than once. Foucault, Barad, Deleuze and Guitarri, Lather, Neitsche, Lyotard, Haraway, Bennett, Heidegger and Kant among others were all referenced but I still didn’t really understand what this study actually found out and what its contribution was. I might be wrong, but I’d be surprised if anyone did because the presenter didn’t actually tell us. I didn’t really grasp what questions the study was asking. I’ve listened to talks about educational research projects like this before, where theoretical work eclipses the empirical to such a degree that the participants who took part in the study are barely acknowledged and their voices so feebly represented that they really might as well not be there at all. For me there is an ethical issue here about using people’s time as well as the usefulness question. I fully accept that some studies make a theoretical contribution and not an empirical one, but again I would refer to Margaret Archer’s axiom I paraphrased earlier- a social theory should be useful and useable. If this isn’t the case, there are questions remaining as to purpose and also for me the question of when in academia does usefulness stop and self-indulgence begin? I will make it my pledge to try to always stay on the right side of that line – if it exists.

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Last month a few of us held a workshop to discuss agency in a way that was relevant to our work. Discussion time is invaluable, and we’re gradually widening our research post-graduate network to include colleagues in other disciplines so this all adds value to our sessions. I circulated an open invitation to our school and our online community and in the end three education research students (myself, Anna and Beth) and Avril from the NMAHP Research Unit signed up. Small is still beautiful! We each brought a paper on agency to explain and share with the group. We used the tried and tested democractic teachmeet format and stuck rigorously to our seven minute presentations. However we did without the sponsorship and round tables etc. as there were only the four of us! A quick pause after the presentations for coffee and then onto an enlightening discussion.born1945_-_A-

The papers we chose were all very different. Beth was first up with a funny, quirky and very interesting Actor Network Theory view of a very everyday phenomenon – a door-closer. Door closers can of course be human or automated (non-human), but either way, they each cause a number of effects, therefore each has agency, and the paper explores social relations, effects and the ways in which agency can be demonstrated by a non-human object. I really enjoyed this paper and I’ve only just realised it was actually written by Bruno Latour!

Avril was up next and she, like me is taking a critical –realist view of agency for her study on interventions in speech and language therapists’ practice. This paper was by Sam Porter and was taking a swipe at Pawson’s realist-evaluation interpretation of critical realism. In this paper, Porter suggests a notion of agency that is based on an understanding of causation and is more consistent with the original philosophy of Roy Bhaskar. In Bhaskar’s thinking, structure (any form of organisation made up of components) and agency (the capacity to make a difference to outcomes) are mutually constitutive through causation (or generative mechanisms), but are analytically distinct, unlike in realist evaluation where they are conflated (as far as I can work out, in realist evaluation resources and reactions in combination are understood to constitute agency).

We next heard from Anna who had chosen a theoretical paper by Kathryn Hayles discussing the use of metaphor in the work of Richard Dawkins and Deleuze / Guattari. All three have “displaced” the notion of agency from the human domain; Dawkins suggests genes, not humans have agency and Deleuze and Guattari talk about desire, not agency. This paper, I think suggests a theoretical framework using the language of the extended metaphors these authors espouse but recognises that constraints are needed if the work is to be useful empirically and give us a way of understanding agency (this was the most challenging paper for me and I haven’t read it all).

My paper was the most empirical and returned to a critical realist view of agency. The paper will be a chapter in a forthcoming book by my supervisor, Mark Priestley and others and is about the role of teacher beliefs in agency. Drawing on a wide range of theorists and authors on agency and teacher beliefs (Archer; Biesta and Tedder; Emirbayer and Mische; Priestley; Nespor; Meirenk), it adopted an ecological perspective on agency, whereby agency results from the interplay of many factors, including resources, environment, structural arrangements and individual efforts. The paper aims to find out how teachers achieve agency in the context of the new curriculum and what might promote or inhibit agency in this context. Findings are interesting and expose varying degrees of tension and contradictions in teacher beliefs relating to how they view young people; how they see their own roles; what their understandings of the purposes of education are and the apparent inadequacy of the available discourse to express these purposes. There was a very useful theoretical framework outlining the conceptualisation of agency used. It combined ideas of agency as a result of interactions and structural/cultural elaborations and Emirbayer & Mische’s iterational, practical-evaluative and projectional view of agency. I’d have liked to learn more on how agency in the teacher-participants in this study was actually determined using this model.

So this was our first edu-research meet. We have another one planned for the 24th March and the theme this time is professional learning. We enjoyed the session and the format worked really well so we’re going to use it again. Details have been posted on our google+ community and an open invitation is extended to anyone interested. Please get in touch if you’d like to come along – remember your 7 minute presentation on a paper of your choice!

Refs: (sorry about the mess)
Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer
Jim Johnson Social Problems Vol. 35, No. 3, Special Issue: The Sociology of Science and Technology (Jun., 1988), pp. 298-310

Desiring Agency: Limiting Metaphors and Enabling Constraints in Dawkins and Deleuze/Guattari Katherine Hayles, 2001 SubStance 30 (1&2)

The uncritical realism of realist evaluation. Sam Porter (2015) Evaluation, 21(1), 65-82.

Biesta, G., Priestley, M. & Robinson, S. (2015, in press). The Role of Beliefs in Teacher Agency.Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice

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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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