The Creation of Quality Experience – How Do I Research This in My Classroom?
Stephen Bamford – Research Methods in Education, September 2006, Under examination
This paper is partly the 'story so far' of my thinking in explaining how and why I am continuing to ask the question, "How do I improve what I am doing here?" or, "How do I improve my practice?" (Bassey, 1991) and partly an attempt to mediate between this process and the given curriculum required to achieve recognition of my theories of practice within the academy in the form of an accredited qualification. I also view this writing as an opportunity to continue to communicate with other educators the changes (ontological, epistemological and methodological) that are taking place in my own learning as a result of my engagement with research methods in education, in the hope of contributing the knowledge-base in education.
I identify with Jack Whitehead's "Three Original Ideas" from The Growth of Educational Knowledge, (Whitehead, 1993). I continue to experience tension from existing as a living contradiction in my social context. I hold certain values very dear whilst at the same time I experience their denial. I hold the belief that my values could be lived more fully in my practice and that this will improve what I am doing. I believe that this description and explanation of my learning and continuing attempts to live my values more fully in practice is an emerging living educational theory. Whilst this remains unchanged and continues to form the basis of my enquiry, a fundamental shift has taken place in my thinking around the processes of practitioner research.
At first I was content to pursue what I perceived as a 'straightforward' question such as, "How will the development of a creative curriculum impact on the learning of the children I teach?" Although I framed my thinking within the zone of action research and living educational theory, providing an account of my own practice, observing, describing and explaining what I was doing and why, it was easy to see how I could also comfortably utilise conventions of practice within social science research to bring what I was noticing and hypothesising about into the public domain. I could generate knowledge about what my pupils were doing and describe and explain their actions. Using test results, work sampling, interview and questionnaires, etc, would provide suitable evidence to back up any claims to knowledge. This was a comfortable existence of sorts – pleasing, I felt, to the academy and to myself. It appeared to tick all the right boxes. However, I sensed it did not adhere to the original principles laid out in the form of the "Three Original Ideas" – where did this truly link with my values as I perceived them? The greatest measure of truth I could find as I laid out my original values was in a statement that I wished to help within my context to provide learners with the capacity to take delight in and to some degree feel uplifted by their own learning, as well as promoting an understanding that learning embraces in some way all the different theories surrounding it. Reading this, I became concerned that I was becoming too detached from the potentially rich experience of my own practice in the process of researching it to create evidence. If I was not truly attuned to the uplifting (and otherwise!) experiences of my own learning, how could this realistically influence my practice and therefore my pupils? My reading of Eisner (1988. p19) helps me to clarify this further.
Getting too close to practice hampers perspective. There is, surely, a grain of truth here. But just as surely the test of theory is how well it enables us to deal with our practical tasks. Theory is a tool, not simply an end within the professional sphere, and tools untested or misunderstood are hardly useful.
So what has changed? It is in reading around research methods in education that I started to clarify my thinking on precisely what I have begun to do to improve what I am doing as a practitioner-researcher and this formed a concern about methodology from which I could continue to develop my understanding of the influences of my thinking in my own learning, in the learning of others and the learning of those in the social formations in which I teach (Whitehead & McNiff, 2006). I believe that what I am doing has moved beyond the necessity to ask specifically about one particular element of teaching and learning, such as creativity, pupil voice, or a curriculum-based component, (although these are still very much part of my actions as a researcher). It is helpful for me at this point to again identify with Eisner, in his presidential address to the American Educational Research Association, Forms of Understanding and the Future of Educational Research, (Eisner, 1993. p5)
I came to believe that humans do not simply have experience; they have a hand in its creation, and the quality of their creation depends upon the ways they employ their minds.
A second idea that has guided my journey is the belief that the use of mind is the most potent means of its development. What we think about matters. What we try to do with what we think about matters. And so it follows, what schools allow children to think about shapes, in ways perhaps more significant than we realize, the kinds of minds they come to own. As the English sociologist Basil Bernstein suggests, the curriculum is a mind altering device (1971). We might extend his observation and say, "Education itself is a mind-making process."
It is the ideas of created quality experience and the use of mind that have become so interesting to me. I believe they point the way forward to a focus on values embedded within ontology, epistemology and therefore methodology and, for the purposes of this paper, research methods themselves. In a written response to a student's question, Jack Whitehead drew attention to what Dadds and Hart refer to as 'methodological inventiveness' (Whitehead, 2006).
Perhaps the most important new insight for both of us has been awareness that, for some
practitioner researchers, creating their own unique way through their research may be as important as their self-chosen research focus. We had understood for many years that substantive choice was fundamental to the motivation and effectiveness of practitioner research (Dadds 1995); that what practitioners chose to research was important to their sense of engagement and purpose. But we had understood far less well that how practitioners chose to research, and their sense of control over this, could be equally important to their motivation, their sense of identity within the research and their research outcomes." (Dadds & Hart, 2001. p166)
I wish to identify with this concept of 'methodological inventiveness,' in as much as whilst I wish to focus my enquiry on the creation of quality experience, my greater purpose is to examine critically the how of the practitioner-research process. I see this as a means of generating a living theory that in of itself is transforming and improving what I am doing and is in turn a transforming influence on those with whom I share the leaning space. I am also thinking of Bassey here, when he talks about 'creating education through systematic and critical enquiry...through research' (Bassey, 1992).
I am developing my awareness of the pitfalls that present themselves as I choose to focus on communicating this. I am made aware of the need to define and articulate the standards of judgement I will use to evaluate my own work and make these available to the wider educational research community. In this I am influenced by the work of Whitehead and McNiff in "Action Research/Living Theory..." (Whitehead & McNiff, 2006) and like them I wish to consistently produce a contribution that stands the test of the Research Assessment Exercise (2008) standards of originality, significance and rigour. This critical examination process, then, carries with it a greater weight of expectation. It needs to respond appropriately to more than one set of standards – not only my own. Dadds and Hart go on to draw attention to this. Although they advocate the gift of controlled judgement for some practitioner-researchers to create their own methodological path through their research, they are careful to mention standards of validity and integrity in those choices:
If our aim is to create conditions that facilitate methodological inventiveness, we need to ensure as far as possible that our pedagogical approaches match the message that we seek to communicate. More important than adhering to any specific methodological approach, be it that of traditional social science or traditional action research. may be the willingness and courage of practitioners – and those who support them – to create enquiry approaches that enable new, valid understandings to develop; understandings that empower practitioners to improve their work for the beneficiaries in their care. Practitioner research methodologies are with us to serve professional practices. So what genuinely matters are the purposes of practice which the research seeks to serve, and the integrity with which the practitioner researcher makes methodological choices about ways of achieving those purposes. No methodology is, or should be, cast in stone, if we accept that professional intention should be informing research processes, not pre-set ideas about methods of techniques. (Dadds & Hart, 2001. p169)
It is not difficult to understand the need to respond with validity and integrity to critical standards of judgement in communicating with the wider educational community if I wish my work to, for example, influence debates about the future of educational policy and be considered as sound theory rather than simply examples of good practice. The framework of social science research is once again tempting because it is an accepted form of generating theory. Eisner (1988. p16) provides strong argument for sticking with the language of science when articulating theory and research:
In our schools and in research communities in education, the language of science and propositional forms of discourse have been dominant. Knowledge is defined within these forms...
There are very good reasons for the hegemony of propositional discourse in educational theory and research. Propositional language is the vehicle, par excellence, for precise communication. When terms are made conventional and the rules of syntax codified, the possibility of sharing meanings is increased.
Furthermore, sharing ones own practice with others and using purposeful investigation to gather data and generate evidence to test emerging theories should be very familiar to any teacher who has extended their studies beyond the initial requirements for qualified status. However, I think I have already touched upon reasons why I am drawn away from this approach.
I wish to generate theory about what I am doing to influence others. For this reason practitioner research seems a strong direction to take, despite the situation that there are continuing debates surrounding the forms of representation for action-research-based evidence such as narrative or audio-visual materials. As Eisner states: "We worry about claims that cannot be tested and we believe that unless assertions are made in propositional terms, we have no good way to test their truth...We seem to believe that what we cannot say, we cannot know..." (Eisner, 1988. p16) This however, is revealed as a means to communicate a challenge when later in the article he clearly advocates the pursuit of 'methods and languages that do justice to what we have seen...' In the hope that 'our politics will become a liberating force for both understanding and enhancing the educational process' (p20) This is echoed in the idea of 'multi-layered and multi-dimensional' proof of quality for this area of research that Furlong and Oancea, (2005. p9) view as 'socially robust':
Applied and practice-based research are not methodologically depleted forms of research; rather they can be innovatory modes of research that cater for a different set of needs and define quality in terms of wider social robustness.
We have also noted that applied and practice- based research stand at the intersection of many interest groups and thus of many interpretations of quality; any assessment of quality therefore needs to be multi-layered, and multi-dimensional in approach.
I certainly wish to investigate forms of representation like those stated above in providing evidence to support my theoretical ideas, as these researchers have simply whet my appetite for this seemingly risky business, by asserting that the rewards for such behaviour may, if undertaken somehow with rigour, have greater validity and impact from the context of the practitioner. Who could resist?
There is another concern here in my case, however. The very action of recording my own research, even as a narrative or on film, creates within me a detached, social scientist that is looking in from the outside at someone else's practice. How can I avoid this? There is another helpful step upon my journey to be found at this point. If I am settled on the role of research-practitioner, in turning the lens upon myself, I can further rise to the appropriate critical standards of judgement by drawing on the idea of living theory in action research. As I have mentioned, I am influenced by the work of Jack Whitehead and Jean McNiff in this and understand my practice as a form of real-life theorizing. An important aspect of this approach is related to the standards of judgement I will use to evaluate my own work. A living theory approach asserts that I should use living standards to make critical judgements about the quality of my practice and that these should be based on my values. By doing this I hope to avoid the detachment I may experience through producing an appropriate narrative of the process of my practice, whilst still producing an accessible account through which my claims to knowledge may be tested for validity through the critical feedback of others.
It must be important, then to further clarify the values upon which my own standards of judgement will be based. This will be essential at the stage where I wish to submit my generated knowledge for public scrutiny, particularly if I am to adhere to the practices of action research when it is being used to generate living theory. These will also form an essential part of my response to the original question here: 'the creation of quality experience – how can I research this in my classroom?' Remember my interest is in the action of examining my practice, relationships and influences as I engage in a 'mind- making' process with my pupils, and I believe that it is the energy and experiences released by this action that will continue to feed it. I wish to briefly describe what I perceive as my social purposes and my values through engaging with my ontological perspective and describing its subsequent impact on my ideas of epistemology and methodology. This framework is taken from "Action Research/Living Theory," (Whitehead & McNiff, 2006).
How I perceive myself has been profoundly affected by experience within education. I am interested in emotional engagement with others in learning. Reasonable and transformational accountability has a firm foothold in my values base, but producing paper for its own sake does not. I can happily work to a series of aims and outcomes defined by an agreed syllabus but context should and will be mine to decide as an educator. This includes the possibility of creating new aims and outcomes with others as we think and learn together. The idea of messing with the 'genetic code' of context fascinates and delights me. I have a sense of my own purpose as an individual who through critical engagement with decision-makers has an opportunity to promote justice in relationships within education and raise relevant questions as well as challenge assumptions about best practice. I have as a result of this, experienced existence as a 'living contradiction' on many occasions, in that I have held these values and others to be true, whilst at the same time I have experienced their suppression or denial. The current climate, for example, of securing professional accountability through evidence presented in propositional written and spoken form (Eisner, 1988) has done little to change my position. Each time this has happened I have discovered that engaging with my lived experience emotionally and examining the relational aspects of learning has created an energy I have been able to harness to give meaning to these experiences, and furthermore, I consider that engaging with this as a process has had a transformational effect on myself and on those with whom I share the learning space. This particularly is what I want to examine more closely, and share with other educators to question its validity.
This of course influences my epistemological stance. Creating knowledge in the company of others is something that has occupied my thinking before. I have in mind here the work of Michael Lewis in "Next: The Future Just Happened" (Lewis, 2001). His view is that it has become essential that educators such as myself must move well beyond the role of simply providing access to knowledge, in that we cannot hope to compete with resources such as the internet. This is not a new idea in a climate of 'learning to learn' and 'lifelong learning,' but it strengthens my resolution that recognising, drawing on and testing the validity of new knowledge and the process of collaborative knowledge creation itself is a sound one. I believe that this may lead to 'better' knowledge and that the processes I have spoken of engaging with in this paper are a result of this epistemological viewpoint, and as such provide a window onto my methodology.
At this time, I associate methodology with 'frameworks for doing.' It is easier here to outline the frameworks I will attempt to hold true to in conducting action research, as a mirror for my values. In doing this I am only sharing part of the story as I wish to not only outline but also ultimately examine critically the how of the practitioner-research process to create my living theory. This is the current methodological framework I am using as a basis for my thinking:
(Whitehead & McNiff, 2006. p. 89)
It is productive to have clear actions in mind when attempting to examine a process itself. The choice of the above method allows me at the same time to experiment with other action-reflection cycles such as Belle Wallace's TASC wheel (Wallace, 2004). This should prove useful as it presents a form of action-reflection that is accessible to both myself and my pupils and therefore informs a process of creating new knowledge individually and collectively, as well as providing disciplined structure in which to test understanding and claims to knowledge against the critique of a wider audience. Note that according to the process outlined above, I am stating that I fully intend to engage in the same kind of evidence gathering exercise as I have alluded to in the first part of this paper. I still intend to generate knowledge about what my pupils are doing and this may involve utilising conventions of practice that can be seen to sit comfortably within the social science research. I do not view this as problematic regarding the decision to pursue action research with the intention of generating living theory. The context and meaning of such evidence gathering does, I believe change fundamentally if a narrative enquiry is pursued. There can be no detachment if my very values, that I am in the process of outlining here, inform the critical judgements I am making about my findings. In addition, as I have previously stated, I wish to explore in depth the 'alternative forms of data representation' (Eisner, 1997) that are finding stronger voice within the action research community. The use of video, though it may be argued can be interpreted by each viewer in their own unique way, provides a unique opportunity for the observation of self. In 18 or so years of teaching, having been observed by friends and strangers, colleagues and critics, I have never seen myself teach. This must surely present a window into the 'how' of the practitioner-research process, as well as challenging my value-based judgements about how I influence those with whom I share the learning space. Are my intended purposes identical to my lived purposes? Are my values lived in practice?
The use of video and similar media clearly raises ethical issues. Although my own values provide a moral base for my actions and respect and trust are very much part of what I bring to my teaching, I am also guided by the published rules and procedures available to me, including the BERA guidelines for ethical research. Ethical permissions must be sought from all those represented in my research. Parents and children must assent to images and information being shared. I am mindful of the guidelines regarding the sharing of images of pupils published by Bath and North East Somerset, as well as our own school policies. I adhere to these closely. I will not publish anything damaging to a child. Any person or group involved in my research may choose to opt out at any time and evidence linking them to the enquiry will be destroyed at their request. It will be as important to explore this territory of ethical legitimacy as it will be to examine the evidence generated through the enquiry.
In conclusion, alongside the concerns of evidence and ethics, I want to engage with the idea of quality assurance. I have provided an insight into the values that will influence my standards of judgement in assessing the quality of my own research and theorizing. This on its own is not enough. I must also expose these standards of judgement to the wider research community, alongside my created narrative of experience, in order to demonstrate rigour of process. Catherine Snow, in her Presidential Address to AERA in 2001, examines the importance of accumulating and publicising knowledge, in order to establish validity, as well as pointing out that systemizing and linking embodied knowledge to 'bodies of knowledge established through other methods' is essential:
Good teachers possess a wealth of knowledge about teaching that cannot currently be drawn upon effectively in the preparation of novice teachers or in debates about practice. The challenge here is not to ignore or downplay this personal knowledge, but to elevate it. The knowledge resources of excellent teachers constitute a rich resource, but one that is largely untapped because we have no procedures for systematizing it. Systematizing would require procedures for accumulating such knowledge and making it public, for connecting it to bodies of knowledge established through other methods, and for vetting it for correctness and consistency. If we had agreed-upon procedures for transforming knowledge based on personal experiences of practice into 'public' knowledge, analogous to the way a researcher's private knowledge is made public through peer-review and publication, the advantages would be great. (p9)
I view this process of 'systemization' and validation as taking the next step with an educational enquiry, with the public domain being one station along the way and the academy another. I cannot rely solely on my own perspective to ensure the 'truth' of my enquiry. Quality assurance comes in the form of testing my standards of critical judgement and claims to knowledge against those of others, then submitting my accounts for validation according to appropriate academy criteria. From the outset, I attempt to create knowledge with the intent of public examination, that it should be shared by teachers, open to 'discussion, verification and refutation or modification' (Hiebert, Gallimore and Stiegler, 2002).
How can I, in my current context, make communicating my generated knowledge a regular, systematic, reflective part of my action research, as well as somehow connect it other bodies of research? Sharing ideas with colleagues in the workspace provides a beginning point for this process, but in the interests of systemizing the process, I believe the answer in terms of regular, reflection may partly lie in the criteria which the 'validation group' that I attend is required to use when questioning my drafted work. These criteria are taken from the work of Habermas (1976. p2) and make use of his four criteria of social validity:
I shall develop the thesis that anyone acting communicatively must, in
performing any speech action, raise universal validity claims and suppose
that they can be vindicated (or redeemed). Insofar as he wants to
participate in a process of reaching understanding, he cannot avoid
raising the following and indeed precisely the following validity
claims. He claims to be:
a) Uttering something understandably;
b) Giving (the hearer) something to understand;
c) Making himself thereby understandable. And
d) Coming to an understanding with another person.
These criteria have been organized for the purposes of our discussions into four key questions regarding our shared accounts:
(Whitehead and McNiff, 2006). As I in turn question the accounts of my colleagues, I seek to find mirrors and inconsistencies in my own practice, further strengthening the critical standards of judgement I am using to evaluate my own enquiries. I must confess I wish my generated knowledge to be tested even beyond the suggested rigour of these questions. A continual evaluation of practice is desirable in more than my own context. Do my theories of practice hold value outside of the upper Key Stage Two context? Do they have a contribution to make within adult education, or elsewhere, outside of direct teaching and learning? Can my action research and its corresponding living theory somehow contribute legitimately to the knowledge base of education?
I want to draw a final thought from Eisner (1993. p9) whose work first highlighted for me the idea of the creation of quality experience, and how engaging with this process could enable me to address the question, "How do I improve what I am doing here?" I remember through the words below my original purposes for asking that question:
In the end, our work lives its ultimate life in the lives that it enables others to lead.
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