2012, Volume 15, Research Articles

Early Childhood Practitioners ..Making Sense of the Research Process

Article Index

nzrece journal

 

Original Research Paper
© ChildForum 

 

Early Childhood Practitioners Developing an Academic Voice and Tutors Making Sense of the Research Process 

By Rosie Walker and Michael Reed
University of Worcester, UK

 

Full reference
Walker, R., & Reed, M. (2012). Early childhood practitioners developing an academic voice and tutors making sense of the research process. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 15, 132-144. Retrieved from http://www.childforum.com/research/2012-nzrece-journal-articles/890-early-childhood-practitioners-practice-based-research-publish.html

 

Abstract

The study shares insights into the way undergraduate students who are early childhood practitioners in their final year of study developed an academic voice beyond the walls of a University. It was designed by two University tutors who followed the progress of a number of student/practitioners who came together with the intention of editing and publishing summaries of their own practice based research. A qualitative approach was adopted and the authors describe their research position and the way literature surrounding active learning and communities of practice, impacted on their thinking. Methods of inquiry included, phenomenological interviews, research notes, participant observation and content analysis. The resulting information was examined in order to reveal the way students were making sense of their experience and the way the researchers were attempting to make sense of the research process. This included the way the researchers were both inside participants and outside researchers in the process. A reflexive stance was used to look back and learn from the process and consider how the methodology was shaped as the study progressed. Issues discussed include group motivation, the interrelationship between research and practice and the transformational nature of the process on students and tutors. The authors suggest what motivated, sustained and transformed thinking and action, was seldom a defined product or aim. It was more to do with subtle and less easily seen concepts such as personal and collective pride, learning from others, concern for others and the desire to share practice.

Key words: Community of practice, andragogy, practice based inquiry. 

 

Introduction

The research reported in this paper focuses on a group of Foundation Degree students, studying early education theory and practice in England. All had completed a part – time Foundation Degree and came together  as a writing group to edit, publish and share (for an audience within their own Local Authority) the results of their own practice based investigations. These were dissertations developed as part of the last phase of the degree. Our role was to explore the process and our position from the outset was (as tutors) to encourage and motivate students to celebrate their achievements and learn from what went on. This built upon a teaching approach used on the degree programme which sees students as active learners and importantly supports them in learning how to learn. A position influenced by the work of Coffield et al (2004) who regards the learner as needing encouragement in implementing higher order skills of evaluating information. It was also influenced by Hase and Kenyon (2000) and Ashton and Newman (2006) who argue that learning is a process and learning how to learn an important part of that process. It can be described as moving from a first culture of knowledge transfer which we might call  pedagogy; to a second culture of dialogue and interaction we see as andragogy; to a third culture of learning how to learn, which encompasses, heutagogy (Callan, Reed and Smith 2012). A process of teaching and learning which can inspire as well as challenge students and is usefully described by  Brown and Duguid (2002, p. 139) as like a “splash, or pebble breaking on the calm of a still lake” as learning takes shape. We were therefore conscious of the pedagogical experience held by the students and also conscious of the social context we were studying.


It was a group of students who had known each other and although they might have a shared goal in producing a publication we were aware they might have different views and experiences. It was therefore important to explore the body of knowledge surrounding the actions of learning groups or communities of practice. In particular we were influenced by the work of Wenger (1998; 2002) who sees the characteristics of those involved in forming such communities of practice as mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoires. Effectively, doing things with others that have an agreed purpose, shared expectations, shared experience and finding ways of developing strategies to solve problems. Eraut (2002) sees this as potentially transformative and the considerable body of work from Engstrom (1999) made us consider how the group perspectives might be shaped and move in practice. The literature also generated an interest in the concept of reification used by Wenger. This he saw as the way communities of practice give “form to our experience - producing objects that congeal this experience into thingness” (Wenger 1998, p. 58). A concept explored by Tusting (2005, p. 39) who suggests the community may be driven by a desire to produce a physical product but can equally be motivated by abstract concepts such as ‘concern’ or ‘motivation’. She asks that we perceive learning and interaction as being as fleeting as a smoke signal or as solid as a pyramid. This helped us to understand the motivating factors which might influence the group and caused us to consider how we might identify intangible aspects that gave form to the way the community was shaped and “interplay between competence and experience” (Wenger 2010, p. 1).

This positional starting point led us to design the study with a collaborative openness as a means to elicit views on what was happening and what worked. In essence a stance which we felt was important when considering individual and collective perspectives and one that also required a reflexive position. This is usefully explained by Finlay and Gough (2003, p. 9) who suggest, reflexive means to “bend back on oneself” which meant a consideration of our own professional heritage and professional position in the process. This required a degree of self-reflection and made us think carefully about the dynamics between researcher and the researched and immediately exposed a tension between being insider researchers as part of the community or outsiders looking in on the group. A theme that we explored as the process moved forward.


 

Design

The research took place over a period of 14 months and involved the active participation of 13 students, who were early years practitioners studying part-time for an award. All were experienced early years practitioners (with an average of eight years practice based experience) who had studied together as a cohort for two years.

The methodological approach was examined and refined as we engaged in the research, but initially it was based on a dual interpretation (double hermeneutic) framework where participants are making sense of their world and the researcher is attempting to make sense of the process and critically examining  their own role (Smith and Osbourne, 2003; Smith, 2009; Biggerstaff and Thompson, 2008). This was a stance we felt mirrored and was consistent with the teaching and learning philosophy of the degree programme in that it reinforced the need for critical self-analysis and underpinned the way we had encouraged students to reflect upon their own practice based learning.

Methods of enquiry included an examination of the literature surrounding the subject and this was completed following the process recommended by the National Foundation of Educational Research (Lawson and Benefield, 2007). Other forms of inquiry involved phenomenological interviews with students, content analysis, as well as journal and diary entries from meetings with students. We kept research notes, minutes of meetings and engaged in participant observation. This information was triangulated with content analysis taken from written responses from students, pre-and post-inquiry. The quality of the design was influenced by the CASP Self Review of Qualitative Research (2002) and the work of Furlong and Oancea, (2005). In terms of interrogating its meaning, the work of Denscombe (1998, p. 223) was used to evaluate and re-evaluate material collected. The intention in using these analytical tools was to check that we were positively engaged in the analysis of the data which was then transferred into interrelated themes. Some of which we report with the proviso that they are indeed interrelated and do not fall neatly into easily defined ‘areas of study’.


 

Our Findings

Motivation

The product, around which the group formed, was a publication. This was produced as a bound booklet containing a collection of research summaries and photographs. Its writing style followed academic conventions and the layout used sub-headings and contained written extracts and sometimes diagrams taken from the original research dissertations. Its production was supported financially by the Local Authority and when published, was well received by colleagues in the locality and other students following the degree programme.

The design and development took some time but all those that started the process were actively involved at the end. The process of editing itself was not an easy one. It involved additional time, effort and study as well as dealing with the fatigue created by drafting and editing work and producing as one student said: “even more written material”. Such adversity was something the group responded to by actively supporting each other and there developed a genuine desire for mutual success and this became an important motivational aspect of what was a developing community of practice.

The importance of the publication or ‘product’ in relation to motivating the group should not be minimised. It was innovative, in that no other local student community group had done this. It also facilitated a desire to (as many within the group said) to “finish” or “publish” or “finally end” their practice based inquiries. When questioned about what “finished” actually meant, this was explained as seeing it (the dissertation) as “far more than ‘resting on a shelf at the University.” Other motivating features were: “I want to be published” “having our names in print” and “being valued” (in this case by the Local Authority employer). Pride was also apparent: “It’s an honour for anybody to have even considered publishing my work” We also began to see ways that motivation was assimilated into the learning process and as the publication took shape. Sharing with each other became apparent and we certainly observed a collective supportive mechanism to succeed in producing a publication, which engaged participants and sustained involvement.


What we also saw was a wider influence that motivated the group and as the process moved forward this became more pronounced. We  heard voices  saying: “letting others learn from my actions’”, “sharing is important”, “this might be quite useful to others” and we observed the  group  move from a  position of  valuing the way others wanted to share their individual work; to recognising the value of letting others learn from the group’s collective experience. Interplay between individual experience and a developing collective competence was also revealed when the group made presentations about their work to other student colleagues who were developing research dissertations. Terms such as “take care”, “be rigorous”, “plan carefully”, “justify your methodology”, “use a critical friend”, “share with others” were all used. This specific, almost tutoring/mentor role changed the dynamics of the group in that they became not only editors and writers, but instructors and mentors to others and this role became owned by the group. It revealed the way the group was developing as a community of shared practice and highlighted the way that motivation and purpose was being refined and could not be seen solely as a product. It was more related to wider concepts such as support, help, concern or sharing with others.

 

Transformation

The student dissertations were constructed using a practice based ethical framework influenced by Cullen, Bone and Hedges (2009), and the British Educational Research Association BERA (2011). All of these frameworks were predicated on the importance of a sound ethical stance in order to safeguard those involved. The student/practitioners were therefore well aware of the need for ethical propriety when they became involved in the process and they expected the researchers to model such ethical practice.

The research design was reviewed by a University Ethics Committee.This was an important procedural aspect and was a starting point for building a culture that demonstrated research with students not on students. Consequently, the group began to see the research as something they could shape as it moved forward and become active participants in the process. For example, students suggested: “any inquiry should be supported by action to have any impact” and "ethical considerations should be woven into all areas when reflecting on questions, answers and action". They questioned what we did and many started to conclude “there is not really a right or wrong approach is there?”


From the tutors there were also changes. Our field notes indicate trying to rationalise what was going on and answer questions such as: “when we stand back are we helping ourselves to understand people in groups or developing a laboratory approach to the research”. As a consequence, some of our own views and actions were transformed and in subsequent research (Reed and Walker 2012) students and tutors worked together to prepare the research proposal that went before the University Ethics Committee. A simple change but one that has had a profound influence on the way we now perceive collaborative inquiry.

There were also transformational aspects that continued beyond the time scale of the actual research. This is best illustrated from interviews conducted with workplace colleagues of the students and with officers from the Local Authority. These revealed the way participants used their experiences to inform others about their work and became critical friends to others completing a degree. When this happened they began to transform their experiences into a role which was not built into the process.

We saw a transformational aspect allied to learning how to learn. This was given form when we observed experienced practitioners developing their skills as competent writers for an audience that lay well beyond the walls of the University.

 

Research, practice and learning from each other

Students were personally engaged with their own dissertation projects and the projects of other colleagues as part of the editing process. All were transforming what might seem like ordinary day-to-day practice into something quite special (Le Gallais 2004). Some started with a practice-based issue or policy or a theoretical position which led to ways of changing or informing personal or professional practice or both. The studies were therefore rooted in practice and shaped personal views and policy formation. This can be illustrated using the words of participants:

This study has brought to my attention, the benefits to the setting of research ...

I have learnt to become an ethical researcher.

I now have more confidence in talking to my colleagues ...

My research has made a valuable and innovative contribution to the setting.

This research has given rise to the implementation of a policy that defines and supports collaborative practice in relation to risk. This policy includes parents’/carers’ perspectives, taking the home environment and culture into account.


Content analysis of the final published works also confirmed the way the projects were set in practice and had an impact on practice and was for practice and we found such a focus articulated throughout the studies. The reason may be result of what Goodfellow (2005) suggests is the way professional inquiry sits well with early childhood professionals. In the main because they value reflection and are always concerned with refining their approaches to working with children. A stance that Claxton (2003) views as involving personal and professional qualities that merges as we develop a personal sense of responsibility. We also observed a deepening reflection about what the group had achieved in their studies as part of group discussions which involved co-constructing ideas, shared expectations, shared experience and finding ways of developing strategies to solve problems. In effect much of what is seen within Wenger’s description of a community of practice. This is something best shared by looking at examples of what we have called postscripts. These formed part of the editing process and the publication.

The subject for my study was perhaps not the easiest to undertake for my first small scale research project. The size and scope of issues which have been uncovered have meant it has been a challenge to maintain focus.

The study has confirmed my beliefs about letting children try something new … and the way it has a positive effect on their self-esteem and emotional wellbeing.

I am aware that improvements within the setting are on-going.

I feel that conducting an investigation and gathering relevant information to support my aims has had a positive influence on me both personally and professionally. I have become more confident and willing when working with different people in one-on-one situations and in groups.

There were other examples and when pressed about why these ‘postscripts’ were emerging the answer was because the study was now over (meaning it had passed through the examination system at the University) and it was possible to reflect with others. This was both revealing and disappointing because however much emphasis we placed upon developing active reflective learning within the degree programme, the pressure to follow a particular pattern of dissertation design and individual submission for examination was all too real.


As a footnote, we should add that we have subsequently, remodelled our advice (to students) on dissertation construction and suggested an integrated personal postscript reflection on learning. There is also now in place procedures for students to share their research focus and research summaries online. This again provides evidence of the way this collaborative process informed and transformed our professional practice and thinking.

 

Discussion and Reflection

The interchanging roles and responsibilities of those engaged in participatory research as insiders and outsiders and the tension that this brings, have been articulated by many writers and researchers (e.g. Dobson, 2009;  Mercer, 2007; Pack, 2011; Wadsworth, 1997; Wainwright and Sambrook, 2009, and Zeni, 2001). Much of what emerged from these studies and the work of Denscombe (1998) about active participatory research emerged as we engaged in the inquiry. Sometimes we declared our role as outsiders looking in on the community as researchers. Sometimes we were insiders within the community and active participants in the formation of the publication. Of course, such honest declarations could be seen as nothing more than adopting sound ethical propriety or maintaining a degree of distance by clearly delineating a separate research identity between researcher and participants. A view we can accept, but do not share. We suggest that practice based researchers are an integral part of the social world they investigate and therefore involvement is inevitable and needs to be carefully considered and managed.  It is therefore no surprise that we discovered we were sometimes making transitions between the position of an insider and an outsider (Dobson 2009).

As to whether such flexibility helped or hindered the research is an important question. In this case we would argue that it helped considerably. It raised important issues to be discussed with participants and made us very mindful of bringing our own level of experience and competence to bear on the community. We were also able to stand back see some of the transformational aspects within the process - especially when these were intangible and fleeting and required a more distanced analysis. As to whether this stance blurred what we saw and understood is an interesting point. We were conscious that it might, so we were careful in revisiting and evaluating what was going on. It can be argued this required us to demonstrate the same interrelated interpersonal and professional qualities of reflection found within a shared community of practice.


Our original methodological approach drew upon dual interpretation (double hermeneutic) framework. As the research progressed we reflected on the whole process and realised we were also using elements of ‘co-operative enquiry’ (Reason and Riley 2008). This additional perspective prompted us to consider if the stance we had originally adopted adequately represented what was going on. Our conclusion was that the approach used and the methods of inquiry did allow us to seek out information that was useful in understanding what had gone on. We also felt we had captured the voices of those involved and the dual interpretive framework was valuable, especially in terms of reflecting on the process. However, such reflection also meant a consideration of the methodological stance and we identified a praxeological base to the whole study. Our reasoning was influenced by the key features of a praxeological approach identified by Pascal, et al (2012). They suggest praxeological research is grounded in real world situations and acknowledges the unpredictability of human beings and their interactions. It is carried out by practitioners as insiders within a context that will have an immediate use for the results of their work; it is done with people not to people and always done in the company of others. It is likely to generate theories of action which reveal underlying assumptions, in effect to discover why we do what we do. Pascal argues the methodology is underpinned by a strong purposeful ethical code and involves critical self-evaluation, reflection and action (praxis). It may result in evidence which alters views, sheds light and can be transformational. Interestingly, it is also an approach which relies upon systematic evidence gathering, usually involving an action based mixed method approach which needs to be flexible, and adjust to a variety of phenomenon as these occur - elements that we had included in our work. Of course, we recognise that our reflection on the research approach may suggest a confused stance or taking a fashionable stance or one that masks a less than rigorous approach.  We hope this is not the case. It helps us understand there are many ways of researching practice and to learn from any research process in which we engage. Therefore, we do no more than share our experience and doubts and reflections in order to inform and we hope assist others.

 

Conclusion

The whole process was a learning journey for us as researchers and the students/practitioners. We learnt much about the way groups organise themselves and recognised a number of elements from the established literature about communities of practice. We also learnt how students perceive practice based inquiry and the importance such inquiries can have on the person and practice. If we were to pinpoint two key things we learnt the first would be to carefully reflect on the research design and consider the impact the researcher has (inside and outside) on those most closely involved and themselves. The second would be to see that what motivates groups is seldom a defined product or aim. It is more to do with subtle and less easily seen facets which as Wenger suggest: ‘congeal into thingness’.


 

References

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About the Authors

Rosie Walker is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Worcester, Institute of Education, Centre for Early Childhood. Before joining the University she led a large Children’s Centre in England. She has a particular interest in practice based inquiry with students and professional support for parents. She has recently completed research exploring the effectiveness of a parent intervention programme. Rosie is currently completing a textbook on practice based inquiry.

Michael Reed is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Worcester, Institute of Education, Centre for Early Childhood. He has long standing educational experience working with schools and early years settings. He has a particular interest in the way students learn and his research interests focus on how to enhance quality provision for young children. Michael has presented research papers at national and international conferences and writes textbooks about work based research, quality improvement and early childhood studies.

 

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