Research in Our Classroom

Structure, Photo by p medved

Structure, Photo by p medved

I have been questioning lately what methods I can use to understand my students better – not just their work, but their experience of mathematics in my classroom and of the subject in general. I’m taking a uniquely structured (I mean this as a good thing!) research methodology class with Dr. Susan Gerofsky and Dr. Cynthia Nicol here at the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC (In fact, it can only be characterized as “standard” insofar as it is a course requirement for my program). Our exploration of research methods has been helpful both in learning methods that one can use for academic research and in reflecting on ways I will be able to investigate my practice when I return to the classroom.

I’ve been used to some pretty standard ways of “getting to know” students. We give them assessments to perform – a variety of types of tasks from tests to open-ended, long-term projects – to give us a sense of their understanding of the concepts of the course they’re taking. Throughout the year we might give them written surveys telling us a bit about how they’re feeling about our teaching or about the course’s progress or our teaching subject in general. We likely give formative checks for understanding through observation, a quick chat, an “exit card“, or visible thinking routines. Regardless of how much information that can be gained from some of these standard and non-standard ways of collecting data, might there be something missing? Might there be something to be gained from collecting information through a different medium – and from involving them in the information gathering process?

Freedom, Photo by Josef Grunig

Freedom, Photo by Josef Grunig

In Donal O. Donoghue‘s (2007) article on boys’ masculinity in places outside the classroom, Donoghue uses photography and a/r/tography methodology to create meaning with boys aged 10 and 11 rather than to use them to discover and make truth claims (as most research does in treating research “subjects” as if they are being used to gain knowledge about something). According to Donoghue (2007), “doing research in and through art offers opportunities to capture and represent that which is not always linguistic – that which can be more profitably represented and understood through nonverbal forms of communication” (p. 63). My conflict with this type of research is that I see both sides. I see that it offers a different way to view a sensitive topic – using non-verbal “data” (i.e.: photographs) through the view of 10 and 11 year olds – a  view that has the potential to reveal something never before explored. However, I can see also the risk of  photographs to be open to a much wider scope of interpretation than written data might be. So, based on what this method offers us – and does not offer us – Donoghue’s (2007) words make me both optimistic and nervous: “how we do and represent research is inseparable from what gets communicated” (p. 64).

Comparing our work with interviewing methods for research purposes, and reflecting on similarities and differences with the use of photography as detailed by Donoghue (2007), I notice more similarities between them. As with interviewing, photography has the potential for inviting the participant into the research process, and offers non-verbal representation (interviewing does this through gesture and tone of voice). Both need to be examined within the social and cultural contexts in which the product (speech, photograph, art, etc.) is produced. However, which is liable to produce more accurate interpretation? For example, are we more likely to get an accurate view of what a child thinks of our subject if we ask them to tell us, or if we ask them to take a picture that represents how they feel and discuss the photo choice with us? The old cliché about pictures and words comes to mind, but beyond that, one could argue that reading and re-reading a script made from an interview can continue to create just as many new meanings as can having a look and a second/third/fourth look at a photo. The difference between interviewing and photography that I can see is that interviewing offers the potential for a much more fixed, rigourous process, whereas the use of photography, to a large extent, is itself a commitment to embrace a research method that involves the participant much more in the process.

Regardless of these structural aspects, there might be something to the use of photographs to find out more about students’ thinking. Consider school culture. When you ask a student to write down feedback, like in a survey, this structured written form is similar to what students experience in other parts of school and there may be strong psychological aspects at play governing their answers. However, exit cards are casual and quick, often on 3×5 cards which is not specifically how class tasks are done – which may cause them to open up a bit further. So, if you ask students to send you a digital photo with a description as a way of answering a question (of course, if this is logistically possible in your context), this could provide you with different information that you would have otherwise received using a different format.

References

Donoghue, D. O. (2007). “James always hangs out here”: making space for place in studying masculinities at school. Visual Studies, 22(1), 62–73. doi:10.1080/14725860601167218

Categories of Research in Education

Photo: Balance, by BCth

Photo: Balance, by BCth

Humans characterize things as a way of gaining a better understanding. Research methodologies are no different. However, as Lawrence Sipe and Susan Constable (1996) point out in their article summarizing research paradigms, we need to beware the oversimplification that characterizations can bring – not so easy when what we naturally like to do as humans is categorize things, especially as we are coming to grips with them. We can’t stop characterizing altogether, but Sipe and Constable rightly point out that categorizations may imply a dichotomy (either THIS way or THAT way) or assume a univocality (neat word, eh?) – that there is only one way to look at a concept. The consequence in research, and anything else in life for that matter, is that unique characteristics get lost.

Sipe and Constable are specifically referring to the categorization of research as either “qualitative” or “quantitative” – but of course, one might use both these strategies to triangulate data, or a more reflective research method that doesn’t really fit into either of these categories. Then we run into the problem that these categorizations mean something slightly (or perhaps drastically!) different depending on the field you’re in. So here we see an example of where categorizations, especially long standing ones, fail us.

One aspect of the article that made me stop was Sipe and Constable’s (1996) point that characterization of a research methodology does NOT imply the use of a particular method. Surely some methods would lend themselves to be used by those utilizing certain research methodologies. For example, a clinical interview method might be used by someone prescribing to a qualitative methodology. However, one would not say uniformly that using one research methodology (i.e.: qualitative) means that the researcher is necessarily using a particular method (i.e.: interview). This makes perfect sense, but is not something I had thought of before reading this article. Quite a few of our guest presenters in my Research Methodology in Education course use multiple methods, each of which supports the use of the other!

Another place that made me stop was the characterization of the relationship between researcher and researched given by Sipe and Constable (1996). I have read enough educational research to know about clinical interviews and the various ways this is done to understand students and teachers and others in the educational research process. However, the characteristics given in the article highlight the importance for me in deciding whether or not the research subject should be informed about the research process or not, and to what extent the researcher her/himself lets themselves be analyzed as part of the research process. While some could argue that research data is confounded if the researcher becomes part of the research, there are other schools of thought – A/R/Tography and Currère as examples – where the subject matter is enhanced by the exploration and questioning of the researcher’s worldview (deconstructivist – see article). If we truly respect reflective practice in our teachers, then surely why not reflective practice in our educational research? I can see, of course, the difficulty this may cause for those in the context of copyright laws and BREB ethics approval applications that demonstrate the serious, disciplined side to research. However, I can see now the arguments that could be given for different forms of educational research and how heated the debate could become!