Thursday, 5 April 2007

Research tonic

Did you spot that an anagram of Action Research is ... A research tonic?

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

J Nias, Article 9, Reader 1, Primary Teachers Talking

Enough about me, let's talk about you ...

Nias makes teachers of primary school the primary subject of her research, and that was her success in a nutshell. At first, she was interested in evaluating the PGCE teaching they had received; how applicable it was … etc. However, she discovered apathy so changed to a discursive approach, simply taking to teachers about themselves and their lives in and out of school. This naked naturalism resulted in baring the souls of the practitioners in a comfortable natural setting of professionals chatting about work and its pressures, stresses and rewards. For Nias, it meant uncovering of meanings, perspectives and understandings that would otherwise have been unfathomable.

Nias stresses process, which was about as straightforward as it could be: chatting. However, she stresses that she kept questions succinct and tried to ask everyone she interviewed the same open questions but being prepared to go where serendipity took her. She was careful to record as surreptitiously as possible, and admits that ethically her practice was ethically questionable, as she did not always make subjects aware of potential consequences – she pleads naiveté.

Her inductive analysis is grounded in the values of the teachers themselves. She sees understanding herself - her own values, preconceptions, prejudgements and personal agenda - as vital to making sense of her study because she was the leading participant in the discussions that she recorded, on which her findings and analysis were based. Validity is internal.

Chance played a big part, as shown by here happy-go-lucky approach to interviewing. She makes sense of data over a long time looking for key words and common themes that she can make sense of, publishing piece-meal in different media. The fact that the heart of her findings was the result of shared experience proved a problem as an author; in fact, one of the criticisms of qualitative research by outsiders is participants' fear of exploitation.

The strength of her research was that she listened stoically with tenacity and tact and recounts it for us to read. The weakness is that her findings do not necessarily reflect the truth, but a perception of it from the point of view of some teachers at some time from the perspective of one researcher. But that is the complexity of life and the very weakness of qualitative research.

As a practitioner myself, although for much older folk, I sometimes think that one should have an opportunity to chat with a counsellor or share troubles with caring knowledgeable and empathetic person in constructive way. I am not sure that I would do it in my own time though, and I do not think I’d welcome a video or audio recording …

Hightown Grammar Article 8 by C Lacey, reader Vol 1

The Accidental Action Researcher ...

Once one gets over the fact that the research is so old that dust blows off the metaphorical pages, and the phrasing of Lacey, who gets no gold star for fluency, one realises that something interesting happened back in the 70s. Lacey accidentally got immersed in practitioner-led Action Research. He starts off as an outsider researcher, becomes an insider researcher and produces findings that gain respect for thickness of description and authority that comes from straddling both camps at once; a kind of beneficent double agent bereft of ill intent or perfidy. He was a spy from the beginning, an agent of the headmaster, but, by the end (after a change in headmaster), he was a spy for the boys and the staff. The role changes caused local friction for short periods but, by staying three years and by sociological Chinese theft, he stealthily liberated his study participants from their distrust.

He starts off overly ambitious and naive, but like Mister Tom slow tracks to success through industry and love of the poor boys. He overcomes bias with fairness, convincing most that he plays a fair game of Cricket in more senses than one. The detail (and there is a lot of that) is quaint; talk of caning indeed! The 3 years of being inside the abstract sociological "black box" provided insights that enabled sophisticated, if slightly specious, modeling; what Lacey calls "spirals of knowledge".

It seems to me that Lacey preformed a continuous reconnaissance on the school, finding facts out by whatever method he esteemed likely to succeed or fortuitously was allowed to get away with, even allowing boys to visit his home and he theirs. The validity and relevance of his research must have been seminal in his day, and it resonates today ... a bit like the big bang when time began is evidenced by cosmic particles we may consider background radiation.

Did he achieve his goal of evidence that boys from poor backgrounds underachieve and under performing at Grammar school? No, in fact quite soon he lost sight of it, and then let it go. His own values and preoccupations were transformed by his practice of research, and he believes that he found the evidence why newly trained teachers soon forge new personal and individual practices and coping stratagems on becoming a professional practitioner.


The strength of Lacey's research was his earnestness and his honesty as a researcher. His methodology had an intrinsic cultural and catalytic validity; he admitted bias and sometimes lack of understanding. For example, he admits to a feeling that he missed much more than he found and identifies his pre-judgements. The weakness of his research methodology was a lack of definitive structure, being forced continuously to refocus and change actions on findings and on knowledge gained. These are strengths and weaknesses of Action Research and, arguably, qualitative research in general.

In Science, many discoveries were made by accident e.g. Pasteurisation. As an unqualified teacher spying on staff and students, it could have all gone so wrong, but Lacey shows that outside researchers or inside researchers can sometimes have happy outcomes from serendipity. Like the lotto argues, to win it, one has first to be in it.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

M Hammersley, An Appraisal of "Labouring to Learn", Unpublished, p10, Vol2 Reader

Labour in Vain?

Hammersley critiques an article by Atkinson et al back in 1981 - he is probably writing a decade later, still before the DDA 1995. He uses methodological analysis.

He analyses the article's focus, case studied, descriptive claims, evaluative claims and its conclusions drawn. I wrote about the same article in a previous blog. There is not much daylight between my views and his.

He finds much to fault, including that the article is probably not generalisable; that it lacks sources; that it has parts that are questionable. He thinks the article offers valid and useful information. He finds the conclusions are of general interest but not generalisable.


I think that Hammersley is too generous in his appraisal.

Right at the start, Hammersley declares the 1981 article
"...retains relevance given the persistence of high levels of unemployment and the continued existence of government-sponsored training initiatives of this kind."
I doubt that was so in 1993. Did either of those conditions pertain then? Perhaps that is why the article was never published as a paper - it lacked generalisability by failing to have transferability or pertinence. Perhaps the paper was written much closer to the 1980s and was simply published in the reader much later.

Hammersley is unsure absence of evidence to support the authors' conclusion learners did not improve machine-competence fatally undermined the article's generalisability. I am certain it did. The authors opined in the way Her Majesties Inspectorate does when evaluating a teaching institution - subjectively, but they lacked such authority. Before-and-After testing of students' abilities and personalities would have made the paper much more useful and generalisable.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Labouring to Learn? Industrial Training for Slow Learners, P Atkinson et al, 1981, Vol 2 Reader, p3

Last century, 14 years before the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and this centuries' amendment (2005) and the Commission was established, and before mental health was incorporated and the Acts were enforced on educational institutions too, there was concern over the disadvantages that slow learners had in the industrial job market.
"Slow learners, along with the mentally and physically handicapped generally, experience special difficulties in competing effectively in the labour market."
Indeed, the authors considered positive discrimination advisable!

The authors set out a chapter in a book to examine an Industrial Training Unit and consider how effective it was in preparing transition for slow learners from education to the workplace and how valid similar studies were, such as those by the then existing government agency, they conclude the mixed sex Unit was a failure and most studies do not internally critique their own aims and objectives.

There sources and authorities included the Manpower Services Commission and the National Advisory Council on Employment of Disabled People, particularly a document called Positive Policies (1977). The Disabled Persons(Employment) Acts of 1944 and 1958 were statutory authorities of their day.

This is a thick description qualitative research paper, and much of what is recounted is merely telling us where they were and what they found without particular judgment. Indeed, much of what they find they consider to be atypical e.g. the Unit was not typical... the lectures were not typical ... the allocation of jobs was unusual (seemed to be as a reward for behavior). Notwithstanding that, I got the impression that accounts were selected to suit the empirical generalisation the authors wished their chapter to have, namely that the Unit failed to prepare slow learners for the world of work, conveying them no positive advantages in mindset or skill sets. This may be incorrect; it may be that its values are prescriptive rather than evaluative. The details read now more like a social history of past generations than useful data for contemporary researchers.

The Unit's failure was put down to not progressing slow learners in competence with industrial machinery or improving performance. And skills taught were inappropriate for the workplace.

Pretty bleak really - seems the authors wasted their time on the face of it.


  1. Did they waste our time? On the whole, yes. They argue that they wish their results to be of "general interest". To be useful to us, surely the article needs to have generalisability. I think it is the former but is not the latter.
  2. In 1981 it may have been of general interest due to the clime of high unemployment and a disquiet that disabled people were discriminated against in the workplace, but by 2007, the report is not of general interest. So, in 1981 it may have met its goal of general interest (but not generalisability, as I shall discuss later). But, arguably, it ceased to be of general interest in 1995 when the DDA made its findings redundant, and certainly this century when unemployment is low and even the terms slow-learners and handicapped are unusual because they may harbour pejorative, judgemental, prejudicial inferences, post DDAs.
  3. At the time they wrote, the authors were of a mind that young people were often failing to get industrial employment because of bad skills, attitude and personality flaws, and, significantly a poor attitude to work within an industrial environment. This was supported by MSC data, and I see no reason to doubt that. I do challenge the authors using that to support the investigation focus on an Industrial Training Unit in South Wales (why not England where most of the MSC data pertains?) that is exclusively for slow learners and the handicapped. Young people are statistically not slow learners, nor handicapped, so the factual data underpinning the motivation for the research is inappropriate.
  4. They deliberately chose an atypical Industrial Unit to study, a fundamental flaw to achieve generalisability and a specious choice for general interest outside of Wales too.
  5. They opine failure of improvement of student personality/work-preparedness and machine-competences without use of pre- and post- diagnostic instruments.
  6. Generalisability for such a mixed descriptive-evaluative case study seems an excellent goal, but it was not the goal of Atkinson et al; they chose atypical foci of study and aimed for general interest. However, had they aimed for generalisability they would have failed because the study has not precise location (we are there with them, but we do not where that is other than in a pat of South Wales); has no precise time line (we do not know when we are there, unless, presumably, 1980, and we do not know how long we stayed with them); it has no addenda of schemes of work, or even an example timetable (so we do not know precisely what we observed along with them, only what they select to suit their agenda of general interest); and I could go on and on about what is missing for one to be able to transfer from their results any fit to any other time or place or institution. A good generalisability test is to check for a study showing what is, what may be and what could be (J W Schofield, 1989). This study is non-generalisable because it only arguably shows what is, does not really attempt to show what may be, and does not begin to question what could be.

This paper is an article in a book from the previous century and is more a journalistic piece than a proper study.

However, the authors found that such Units and studies set up to help the disadvantaged learners were need. They may well have contributed to the positive improvements and revolution that culminated in the DDA and Commission by writing a piece of general contemporary interest.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

The Politics of Method: From Leftist Ethnography to Educative Research, A Gitlin et al, 1989, Vol 1 Reader, p191

Educative Ethnographic Research Exerts Emancipatory Change

A Gitlin, M Stegal and K Born exhort emancipatory educational researchers using ethnographical (writing about people) methodology to be more critical, to adopt a conceptual framework that is political. They call this alternative framework Educative Research.

Educative Research:

  1. Is "in and for education"
  2. Conceives of "application and understanding as bound up in a single moment"
  3. Puts "the researcher back into research"
This is more than pedantry because the practice 18 years ago was that validity and rigour in ethnographical studies required
  1. Research on and about education - descriptive, rather than interpretive
  2. Separation of understanding from application - critique by the researcher was absent (i.e. the researcher had a voice as a fieldworker but not as an author)
  3. The researcher presented without prejudice.
The argument is simple but effective: if you want change to result from the sociological system that you are researching, say so up front and select an appropriate ethnographical methodology, enter into dialogue with participants and subjects as necessary during the research to affect that change, and write it up with your politics and interactions available for critical scrutiny. Thick description is less important than honesty of purpose.
"While most ethnographic research has looked back to show how it is objective and therefore is as valuable as the dominant positivistic paradigm [quantitative research], educative research looks forward to the fulfillment of purpose. " (p205)
The question begged, of course, is what will provide the validity and rigour for educative research?
"The rightness of educative research is based on the relation between normative frameworks established by a dialogical community and the specific practices of the study." (p207)
The educative researcher will explicitly state embedded pre-judgements, opening them up for critical scrutiny.
"The political moment inherent in all method is made explicit."
How radical is this paper?

This paper appears to be radical, as it sets out to define a new framework, educative research. However, it is focused on emancipatory motivated ethnographic researchers, and it may simply be an extension of work by Phillips, and perhaps, Kemis. It justifies itself by embedded pre-jugements being explictly stated and available for critical scutiny. In the field, anyone carrying out educative research would undoubtledly be bold.

S Kemis (1988) argued that practitioners in Action Research could also participate, and that may have influenced this paper. How far removed is participative practitioner research from politically influenced ethnographic methodology?

D C Philips's (1989) argued that action researchers may achieve consensus with peers about their aims and methodology so that it becomes objective in a practical sense. In the case of educative research, it is an explicit emancipatory purpose that is exposed to scrutiny.

Phillips and Gital et al seem to be of the same mind and Action Research in the 21st Century may have been greatly influenced by these 20th Century papers.

It should be noted that this paper attempts to apply "praxis" as a justification for educative research. It is superfluous, but also flawed. It argues that theory and practice are equal, just as Carr and Kemis did in their papers. Theory is subordinate to practice, as Aristotle who coined the term argued; his rationale was that logic could produce paradox but practice overcomes such circumlocution. In context, research practice must be more important than theory or the tail will wag the dog. Imagine an experiment to weigh water. Theory dictates it weighs 1 Kg for a litre but scales show a different value. If theory and practice (praxis) are co-equal, the water must weigh 1 Kg and the scales are wrong. In fact, the temperature and atmospheric pressure must be taken into account and the theory changed to accommodate. Thus, theory is subservient to practice - they are not and can not be co-equal. Carr, Kemis and these researchers do seem to have been obsessed with redefining praxis.

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Increasing the Generalizability of Qualitative Research, J W Schofield, 1989, Vol 1 Reader, p91

What is, may be and could be - solving the riddle of generalisability.

At last a paper that says what it says it will say, says it succinctly and imparts a genuine new and useful understanding of educational qualitative research. The summary says it all really: the paper itself is full of reasoned argument and examples drawn from the author's own experience.

Janet Ward Schofield argues that there are two questions one should ask if one wants ones research to be transferable to others:

1. What do we want to generalise to?
2. How do we design to maximise generalisability?

If Schofield is right, generalisability "is best thought of as as a matter of the 'fit' between the situations studied and others ..." To be able to judge how fit a study is, one needs information about the studies' concepts and conclusion - a thick description.

There are 3 useful targets for generalisation:

1. what is (e.g. accepted best practice)
2. what may be (e.g. unusual, but possibly good practice)
3. what could be (e.g. practice that could take off, but might not)

I would re-write these as more the more mnemonic present, possible and potential practices.

An enjoyable paper with sage advice.

NB p107 has an error, penultimate paragraph where "may be" should be "could be".