How can I carry out Masters level educational research without abandoning my own educational values?
– Ed Harker
These 4150 words are a reflective and evolved record of my attempt to produce an explanation of my educational values in a way that is both of value to a wide set of potential audiences.....
.....and that is true to the values described in it.
This is a piece of "educational research" in the sense used by Whitty (2005), as it is "consciously geared towards improving policy and practise" and carried out by someone directly involved in current teaching.
I am defining myself as a "practitioner researcher" (Dadds & Hart, 2001), and hope to show that through my engagement in "methodological inventiveness", or the exploration of new ways to research my practise, I have been motivated to write this account.
The account is also a record of my attempt to produce evidence for the educational values that I believe I embody "whose validity can be tested against publicly communicable standards of judgement" (McNiff & Whitehead, 2006). I will provide this evidence through the close analysis of short video clips and photographs taken in the Nursery Class in which I teach. The video clips are a record of 3 brief moments in the school life of one boy, Daniel, capturing both his interactions with his peers, and my interactions with him. The photographs illustrate my work with the children. The account examines my choice of video and photograph analysis as a way to carry out action research, the importance of collaboration and shared reflection in making and carrying out this decision, and my personal experiences of education that have influenced this choice.
This is my first piece of writing for an MA course in educational research, and as such it has to meet a specific set of academic criteria. However, in the 13 years that I've been teaching I have never found such academic writings to be of personal value to myself. And so I face a dilemma: why would I choose to spend many hours writing an account that I would not choose to read myself? As a teacher I have been working with my school colleagues to find ways to make the taught curriculum as relevant and meaningful to the pupils as possible, believing that this is the key to profound learning that has deep and strong roots. I am in agreement with Marie Huxtable, a member of the Tuesday MA group, in that I can see no qualitative difference between effective learning in children and effective learning in adults and I aim to reflect this belief in this account.
I have worked closely alongside over 40 educators during my career and have often had fascinating and deeply reflective conversations about our reasons for teaching, and the educational values that we hold most dear. These conversations have had a deep personal influence in shaping my pedagogy, and the insights they offered were all the more powerful because they arose from the living experiences of colleagues. Until starting this MA course I had not found academic writings that conveyed similar levels of interest or personal conviction.
Formal and academic research has often informed some of the very specific ways in which I teach, for example the EPPE research findings that identify "sustained shared thinking" (Siraj-Blatchford, Sylva, Muttock, Gilden & Ball, 2002) as a key attribute of high quality early years education. Such research may sometimes have been mentioned during my conversations with colleagues, and has often provided formal support for the working methods that I have evolved with my team, but it has never been a significant influence on my learning the 'craft' of teaching, nor successfully influenced my development as a reflective educator.
I have found the conventional academic style of writing too 'objective' to be personally engaging, too heavily laden with diverse quotes and references to be readable as a flowing narrative, and too reliant on a private language to be easily understood. I feel that a reliable test for clarity and readability is whether a given piece of writing can be comfortably read aloud, and much academic writing fails this test. (As Harrison Ford said to George Lucas when reading the Star Wars script for the first time, 'You can type this shit, George, but you can't say it.') Because the writing is not driven by a personal story, it is not a "living theory" (McNiff & Whitehead, 2006), and as such cannot easily be woven into my daily practise in education. It is irrelevant within the place where I live the majority of my life, the everyday.
In contrast, as I have shared the evolution of this account with my MA colleagues, I have found that I can be both fascinated and professionally influenced by the ideas that lie buried and obscured beneath these layers of academic convention.
When discussing education with my colleagues at school, we are tacitly and informally sharing insights, aiming for new understandings, and creating afresh our own pedagogy. These are the same concerns and processes that can inform master's level research, but I rarely meet colleagues who choose to even read educational research papers, let alone engage in the process of carrying out the research themselves into the careers that they are devoting their working lives to.
I strongly believe that effective learning is "active, creative and personal" (QCA 2001), for both children and adults and I would not be as enthusiastic about this writing if it did not meet these criteria. However, I must add further standards by which I will judge the success of this account, and these are clarity and usefulness. If my account is not both clear and informative for the wide range of people who I believe to be my potential audience then it has served no purpose beyond being a private intellectual journal.
Therefore, as well as submitting this account for appraisal as masters level research within the University of Bath, I will also be offering it to the colleagues who share my staff room, and the parents of the children in my nursery class. Their personal responses to this writing will help me to gauge my success in meeting my own criteria for this account. The conversations that I hope the account may start will further deepen my understanding of the educational values that I embody.
Identifying the "concern"
Since I started to attend Tuesday evening sessions for the MA Educational Enquiry Unit at Bath University in October 2005, I have often doubted my reasons for attending. Although I love to discuss the craft of pedagogy with fellow educators, I find the writing of essays about education to be especially difficult, and have previously failed to complete a different MA course. My personal education has involved many years of essay writing, and the 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis', or dialectical model of essay writing that I was taught to follow became an increasingly empty exercise.
This was especially true when it involved the rehearsal of other people's research and opinions when studying for a degree in politics, and reached its apotheosis when I was studying for a Diploma in Law. The citing of a long series of past cases and statutes amounted to a linear and polarised record of other people's arguments, and the dullness of this practise led me to give up my attempt to become a barrister. Fortunately I started temporary work on a play-scheme in Paddington shortly after abandoning my legal studies, to usefully occupy my time, and realised that I enjoyed working with the direct, spontaneous and vital nature of young children. This was a pivotal moment in my life. I know that some of the most important opportunities for learning in my life have been similarly unplanned, and I try to create the conditions for such naturally emerging learning in my setting. This is through ensuring that the children enjoy the "time, space and attention" (Bancroft, Fawcett & Hay, 2005) that an "emergent curriculum" grows out of, and this work has been strongly influenced through my involvement in the "5x5x5=creativity" project.
My discussions with colleagues at the Tuesday sessions have helped me realise that my choice of Early Years teaching, and Nursery in particular, is part of my drive to avoid abstract learning and to be more connected with the immediacy of life. I love my job as a nursery teacher, and achieve great satisfaction from the "flow" (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) of a successful day's work in a school community that is guided by a vision of education that I share.
A large part of this pleasure comes from the physically grounded and process based nature of Early Years work (QCA, 2001), and the rich opportunities it offers for shared reflection, and the participation in "human flourishing" (De Botton, 2002). I believe that there is clear evidence of this in the 'grabs' from the video of my work with Daniel. The picture that Daniel has drawn is of secondary importance to the shared process that has enabled the picture to be produced.
I was attracted to the Tuesday sessions by the offer of a new model for research, one carried out by myself into my own fascinations with the art of teaching, in the company of other reflective practitioners. I share the principle that young children's learning should be "active, creative and personal" (QCA, 2001), and believe that this principle should be extended to encompass all learning, including my own. My initial pleasure in finding a group of colleagues with whom I could share accounts of professional enthusiasms and challenges, became gradually clouded by the realisation that at some stage I would have to start writing my own account!
I understood that I needed to find a "concern" (McNiff & Whitehead, 2006) within my practise as a focus for my enquiry but found it hard to identify one that I felt a natural urge to spend many hours writing about. I believe that high quality education must be rooted in experiences and fascinations that have a direct value and relevance to the life of the participants, both educators and pupils. As I tried to find the necessary 'concern' through which I could begin to articulate my educational values, I found myself creating the false dichotomies and artificial arguments that had made much of my previous education feel 'fake', or contrived.
I initially considered focussing on the experience of teaching my daughter, a pupil in my class this year, but was wisely advised by a Tuesday evening colleague, Robyn Pound, that this was potentially too large and emotionally charged to be the subject of my first account. Following a further conversation with Robyn I identified the challenge of working with a specific group of nursery children as a present concern within my practise. This year's nursery cohort has a higher than average number of children with language delay, and the contrast between their personal language abilities and my self-image as an overly 'verbal', or spoken language fixated practitioner, seemed to be a clear challenge, or evidence of myself as a 'living contradiction'.
The identification of this area of my practise as a 'concern' led me to take a short video clip of one pupil who was finding it hard to relate to his peers, and it was the close analysis of this clip that started to offer a new way of carrying out my enquiry. The shared reflections of my Tuesday evening colleagues enabled me to see myself as a very physically demonstrative teacher, enacting my 'embodied' values most clearly through the things that I was not saying. This was a direct challenge to the self-image that I had developed over 12 years of teaching, and provided me with a dynamic paradox that I would enjoy exploring.
A subsequent Tuesday session (April 2006) helped me to refine my approach to this research, and enabled me to realise that it might be possible to elicit clear evidence of my educational values from a detailed examination of the body language, spoken words and underlying context recorded in selected video clips. This allowed me to start writing this account with the energy and enthusiasm that naturally flows from the 'active, creative and personal' nature of the research, and is therefore in full accord with the values that I have described above, and that I believe are evidenced below.
This sharing of the account's development also ensured the validity of the evidence that I was producing to validate my claims.
Analysis of Video 'Grabs'
My initial attempt at analysing the video clips was highly detailed, and reflected my excitement at being able to study 6 minutes of education moment by moment. Each frame of the video represented 1/10th of a second, and once I started to examine them I was able to discover many aspects of my interactions with pupils that are normally hidden. I identified 48 frames within the first video clip that I believe illustrate significant moments or instances of my particular style of pedagogy. These include sequences of hand and facial movements 'echoing' between myself and Daniel,
moments of direct connection and understanding,
and small gestures that reassure or invite a response.
I created a grid format that allowed me to analyse each of the 48 frames in turn, using each individual image to evidence my educational values.
For example, I see this next frame as evidence of my belief that one of my roles as an educator is to be the children's advocate. Here I am annotating Daniel's drawing. I have already asked his permission to write on his picture, and am now acting as his scribe, adding his comments to the drawing, adding meaning to the image, and enabling it to be appreciated by a wider audience. I am demonstrating a respect for his ideas and interests, and he is witnessing the translation of his chosen languages (oral linguistic and graphic), into another (written).
The next frame demonstrates the fact that I am able to turn my back on my class for minutes at a time and while giving Daniel this quality of attention. Daniel has turned round as he has heard a loud bang behind us. I am relying on my colleague Ruth to deal with the situation if necessary, while I can maintain my focus on Daniel. This is evidence of the working environment that I work to create in with my nursery team, an environment in which the children are empowered through specific skills training (how to access and tidy resources, how to resolve conflicts), are trusted to be "rich in potential, strong, powerful and competent" (Edwards, Gandini & Forman, 1998), and in which the adults can rely on a high degree of mutual support and trust. We invest large amounts of time at the start of the academic year to enable the children to be independent and intra-dependent learners, and this investment pays large dividends later in the year when we are able to spend our time as real educators, not just as the resources police!
When I presented my 48 frame analysis of the clip to my colleagues in the Tuesday evening MA group, it was generally perceived to have missed a key element of the video when seen as a whole, that is the poetic and aesthetic response. In focussing on the micro-gestures and details I had lost the heart, or spirit, of the moment that was documented in the clip. (Further discussion then centred on whether this type of analysis was typically "male", and whether this was a problem.) This was another example of my work being submitted to the critical scrutiny of my peers. It shows that my "claims to know my educational influences in learning have been subjected to the mutual rational controls of critical discussion (Popper 1963)", (extract from an email from Jack Whitehead 2006).
My overall impression after examining the clip was that I had discovered a hidden gestural dance that had been improvised by teacher and pupil, in which neither took the lead, and which neither were conscious of having 'performed'. In fact it is this very lack of self-consciousness which seems to ensure the natural and unforced quality of the interaction. As a teacher I had a specific educational goal in mind when I initiated the conversation with Daniel. He had recently returned from a 3 month trip to Peru, and I was keen to help him share the experiences he had had, helping him develop his language skills within a context that was "active, creative and personal" to him. But once the exchange had begun, I was totally absorbed in the process of maintaining a meaningful and personal connection with another person.
My role became that of Daniel's enabler, his fixer, his translator and his re-presenter. I offered him materials to draw his experiences, echoed his body language to show that I understood him, and fetched a large model aeroplane to help him add detail to his account.
All of these behaviours are central to my vision of the role of the teacher, and when asked to describe my feelings during and immediately after the exchange with Daniel I used the word 'satisfaction', that is the pleasure derived from a job done well. There is clear video evidence of the delight and engagement that was shared during the conversation, but the experience was so absorbing that I was unaware of any particular emotions at the time. I believe that this is an example of a "flow" state (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). I will now explain the role I believe that "flow" states have to play in Early Years education.
I first heard about the concept of "Flow" from a colleague describing the high level of involvement she had witnessed in a girl painting in her setting. She was fascinated by the sustained intensity of the child's focus, and how emotionally drained the child was when she finally completed the work after 2 hours. When observing children deeply engaged in play, I am often struck by their straight faces and intensely serious expressions. Here is a photo that shows Daniel exploring the marble run:
He is alert and highly involved in his work, but does not show overt signs of "enjoyment" or having "fun".
Although I aim for the children to enjoy their time in my nursery, they naturally gravitate to activities that contain more challenge than "fun". Csikszentmihalyi has dubbed such experiences "Flow States". He sees them as vital element in achieving "happiness" in life, and as a common factor in the lives of highly creative people in all areas of life, from the arts, to sports and the sciences. His research has involved the analysis of over 100,000 reports of "flow", and he describes 4 key features of the experience, each of which seems to echo my understanding of good early years practise....
1- Undivided attention on the activity (the uninterrupted time and space children need for rich play and deep learning),
2- Having the skills necessary for the activity (the curriculum that should be "challenging but not overwhelming" (QCA 2001)),
3 - Clear goals, set by the person themselves (the importance of child-initiated learning),
4 – Immediate feedback on progress (the sensitive attention and documentation of the interested educator).
Csikszentmihalyi emphasizes the necessity for a clear balance between skills and challenges, enabling people to avoid boredom on the one hand, and anxiety on the other. This tension is lived out daily in all good early years settings.....
He shows that the distinction between work and play is ambiguous and misleading, and sees life as a series of opportunities for learning and growth.
(Although his book is subtitled "How to achieve happiness", it would be better described as an examination of how to live a satisfying and creative life. It has helped me to understand and appreciate the serious business of play. I have enjoyed such states of mind when engaged in writing this account, and when discussing our accounts with my MA colleagues.)
My final picture to illustrate this account was going to be this one of Daniel with his afternoon nursery group on a walk up Charlcombe valley, near to the school. When I initially showed it to my MA colleagues I suggested that it showed a confident and happy child, clearly comfortable with both peers and adults, and who is happy to lead the way into unknown areas, trusting that his educators have "framed" an experience that is appropriate to his personal needs. I felt that I had learned to see in this picture the educational values that I hold dear. (I have obscured the faces of people whose ethical permission for the use of their image has not been gained).
My colleagues response made me question this view. One suggested that the photograph needed a lot of explanation as to the particular circumstances of the valley walk before the photo could be seen as "validated evidence" for anything! Without such contextual information it merely stood as a 'nice picture'....
Lisa then pointed out the fact that as the photograph was clearly taken by somebody ahead of Daniel, it does not show him "leading the way" as I had originally suggested. I had taken the photograph, and we then realised that Daniel's expression was actually a reaction to my photographing of him. He is reacting directly to the attention that I am giving him with the camera. As a result of this discussion I now believe that this picture stands as evidence of my educational influence on Daniel through the trusting and enjoyable relationship that emerged during his year in my nursery class, the kind of relationship that underpins deep learning. Through the year that Daniel was in the nursery the educational values that I enact in my daily practise enabled him to learn the skills and dispositions that he needed to learn at that time
When I returned to the photos taken on the valley walk I then decided to choose a different photo to end this account with:
Here I am clearly alongside Daniel, and as we walk we are both aware of the other. It is a stronger image of the educator as collaborator, giving "time, space and attention" (Bancroft, Fawcett & Hay, 2005) to the pupil.
I showed this picture to Daniel and talked to him about it:
Ed: "What can you see in this picture?"
Daniel: "I can't see....the sun..." (he is squinting because the sun is in his eyes).
Ed: "What is happening in the picture?"
Daniel: "That's your arm! I'm holding your hand."
Daniel: "We go in road..."
Daniel connects our holding hands with safety on a shared journey, and this seems to be a fine metaphor for the relationship between myself as an educator and Daniel as a pupil.
In writing this account I have learned that I can carry out academic research that is consistent with my educational values, and that the "framing" for the writing of this account, provided by the Tuesday evening MA group, has enabled me to produce a clear narrative that both explains and evidences these values.
The process of writing my account has been an excellent example of the key role that reflection and communication play in effective learning, and has illuminated another clear parallel between my learning and the children's. The infant school that I teach in has been using a simplified form of Belle Wallace's TASC wheel for several years (Wallace, 2000). TASC is a framework for the process of learning, and we reduced her 8 stage model down to 4 stages to enable 3 year olds to use it independently. In simplifying it we removed the stage where learners consider how they can communicate their learning towards the end of the process. We have only just reinstated it after realising that it is the process of translating our experiences and feelings into a shared language that consolidates and secures our learning. (It is also the stage in the process where a new enquiry can emerge, and the area of enquiry for my next account has naturally arisen from the writing of this one.)
Writing this account has made me consider both my educational values and the ways in which they can be clearly and effectively explained and evidenced. I have had to document my own practise using the methods I habitually use to document my pupils learning (video clips, photographs, transcripts, observations and annotations).The reactions of my colleagues and the generosity of their responses to the documentation that I have produced have provided the energy necessary for producing this account, and the motivation to attempt the next one!
Note: Ethical permission has been given by Daniel and his parents for sharing the images in this account. I take care not to share the digital images of children who might be damaged by the exposure. I abide by the guidelines about the sharing of digital images of children from my Local Authority employer, Bath and North East Somerset. My account also abides by the ethical guidelines of the British Educational Research Association (BERA, 2004).
Bancroft, S., Fawcett, M. & Hay, P. (2005) '5x5x5=creativity in the early years'. Bath. Arts Development B&NES Council.
BERA (2004) Revised Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research (retrieved 6/9/2006).
Csikszentmihalyi, M.(2002) Flow. London. Rider Press.
Dadds, M. & Hart, S. (2001) Doing Practitioner Research Differently. London. Routledge-Falmer.
De Botton, A. (2002) The Art of Travel. London. Hamish Hamilton.
Edwards., Gandini, L. &Forman, G. (1998) The Hundred Languages of Children – Advanced Reflections. Greenwich, Connecticut. Ablex Publishing.
Qualification and Curriculum Authority (2001) Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage. London. QCA Publications.
Siraj-Blatchford,I., Sylva, K., Muttock, S., Gilden, R., & Ball,D. (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years. London. DFES.
Wallace, B.(2000) Teaching the Very Able Child. London. David Fulton Publishers.
Whitehead,J & McNiff, J (2006) Action Research Living Theory. London. Sage Publications.
Whitty, G. (2005) Education(al) Research and Education policy making: Is Conflict Inevitable? Presidential Address to the British Educational Research Association, University of Glamorgan, 17 September 2005.