Read the following text, paying particular attention to the highlighted words.
Approaches to Educational Research
It is perfectly possible to undertake a worthwhile investigation without having detailed knowledge of the various approaches to or styles of educational research, but a study of different approaches will give insight into different ways of planning an investigation, and, incidentally, will also enhance your understanding of the literature. One of the problems of reading about research methods and reading research reports is the terminology. Researchers use terms and occasionally jargon that may be incomprehensible to other people. It is the same in any field, where a specialised language develops to ease communication among professionals. So, before considering the various stages of planning and conducting investigations, it may be helpful to consider the main features of certain well-established and well-reported styles of research.
Different styles, traditions or approaches use different methods of collecting data, but no approach prescribes nor automatically rejects any particular method. Quantitative researchers collect facts and study the relationship of one set of facts to another. They use techniques that are likely to produce quantified and, if possible, generalisable conclusions. Researchers adopting a qualitative perspective are more concerned to understand individuals' perceptions of the world. They seek insight rather than statistical analysis. They doubt whether social 'facts' exist and question whether a 'scientific' approach can be used when dealing with human beings. Yet there are occasions when qualitative researchers draw on quantitative techniques, and vice versa.
Classifying an approach as quantitative or qualitative, ethnographic, survey, action research or whatever, does not mean that once an approach has been selected, the researcher may not move from the methods normally associated with that style. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses and each is particularly suitable for a particular context. The approach adopted and the methods of data collection selected will depend on the nature of the inquiry and the type of information required.
It is impossible in the space of a few pages to do justice to any of the well-established styles of research, but the following will at least provide a basis for further reading and may give you ideas about approaches which you may wish to adopt in your own investigation.
Action research and the 'teacher as researcher' model
There are many definitions of action research. Cohen and Manion describe it as
As they point out, an important feature of action research is that the task is not finished when the project ends. The participants continue to review, evaluate and improve practice. Elliott (1991: 69) takes the definition a stage further:
Brown and McIntyre, who describe an action-research model for curriculum innovation in Scottish schools, also draw attention to the principle of deriving hypotheses from practice. They write:
The essentially practical, problem-solving nature of action research makes this approach attractive to practitioner-researchers who have identified a problem during the course of their work and see the merit of investigating it and, if possible, of improving practice. There is nothing new about practitioners operating as researchers, and the 'teacher as researcher' model has been extensively discussed (Bartholomew 1971, Cope and Gray 1979, Raven and Parker 1981).
Action research is not, of course, limited to projects carried out by teachers in an educational setting. It is appropriate in any context when 'specific knowledge is required for a specific problem in a specific situation, or when a new approach is to be grafted on to an existing system' (Cohen and Manion 1994: 194). Action research needs to be planned in the same systematic way as any other type of research, and the methods selected for gathering information will depend on the nature of the information required. Action research is not a method or technique. It is an approach which has proved to be particularly attractive to educators because of its practical, problem-solving emphasis, because practitioners (sometimes with researchers from outside the institution; other times not) carry out the research and because the research is directed towards greater understanding and improvement of practice over a period of time.
The case-study approach is particularly appropriate for individual researchers because it gives an opportunity for one aspect of a problem to be studied in some depth within a limited time scale (though some case studies are carried out over a long period of time, as with Elizabeth Richardson's (1973) three-year study of Nailsea School).
Case study has been described as 'an umbrella term for a family of research methods having in common the decision to focus on inquiry around an instance' (Adelman et al. 1977). It is much more than a story about or a description of an event or state. As in all research, evidence is collected systematically, the relation-ship between variables is studied and the study is methodically planned. Case study is concerned principally with the interaction of factors and events and, as Nisbet and Watt (1980: 5) point out, 'sometimes it is only by taking a practical instance that we can obtain a full picture of this interaction'. Though observation and interviews are most frequently used in case study, no method is excluded. Methods of collecting information are selected which are appropriate for the task.
The great strength of the case-study method is that is allows the researcher to concentrate on a specific instance or situation and to identify, or attempt to identify, the various interactive processes at work. These processes may remain hidden in a large-scale survey but may be crucial to the success or failure of systems or organisations.
Case studies may be carried out to follow up and to put flesh on the bones of a survey. They can precede a survey and be used as a means of identifying key issues which merit further investigation, but the majority of case studies are carried out as free-standing exercises. The researcher identifies an 'instance', which could be the introduction of a new syllabus, the way a school adapts to a new role, or any innovation or stage of development in an institution - and observes, questions, studies. Each organisation has its common and its unique features. The case-study researcher aims to identify such features and to show how they affect the implementation of systems and influence the way an organisation functions.
Inevitably, where a single researcher is gathering all the information, selection has to be made. The researcher selects the area for study and decides which material to present in the final report. It is difficult to cross-check information and so there is always the danger of distortion. Critics of the case-study approach draw attention to this and other problems. They point to the fact that generalisation is not always possible, and question the value of the study of single events. Others disagree.
Denscombe (1998: 36-7) makes the point that 'the extent to which findings from the case study can be generalised to other examples in the class depends on how far the case study example is similar to others of its type', and, drawing on the example of a case study of a small primary school, cautions that
Bassey holds similar views, but prefers to use the term 'relatability' rather than 'generalisability'. In his opinion,
He considers that if case studies
A successful study will provide the reader with a three-dimensional picture and will illustrate relationships, micropolitical issues and patterns of influences in a particular context.
A word of warning. Single researchers working to a deadline and within a limited timescale need to be very careful about the selection of case study topic. As Yin (1994: 137) reminds us:
He considers that 'the more a study contains specific propositions, the more it will stay within reasonable limits' (p. 137). And we all have to keep our research within reasonable limits, regardless of whether we are working on a 100-hour project or a PhD.
The ethnographic style
The ethnographic style of fieldwork research was developed originally by anthropologists who wished to study a society or some aspect of a society, culture or group in depth. They developed an approach which depended heavily on observation and, in some cases, complete or partial integration into the society being studied. This form of participant observation enabled the researchers, as far as was possible, to share the same experiences as the subjects, to understand better why they acted in the way they did and 'to see things as those involved see things' (Denscombe 1998: 69). This approach is no longer limited to anthropological studies and has been effectively used in a good many studies of small groups.
Participant observation takes time and so is often outside the scope of researchers working on 100-hour projects. The researcher has to be accepted by the individuals or groups being studied, and this can mean doing the same job, or living in the same environment and circumstances as the subjects for lengthy periods. Time is not the only problem with this approach. As in case studies, critics point to the problem of representativeness. If the researcher is studying one group in depth over a period of time, who is to say that group is typical of other groups which may have the same title? Are teachers in one school necessarily representative of teachers in a similar school in another part of the country? Are canteen workers in one type of organisation likely to be typical of all canteen workers? Generalisability may be a problem, but as in the case-study approach the study may be relatable in a way that will enable members of similar groups to recognise problems and, possibly, to see ways of solving similar problems in their own group.
The aim of a survey is to obtain information which can be analysed and patterns extracted and comparisons made. The census is one example of a survey in which the same questions are asked of the selected population (the population being the group or category of individuals selected). The census aims to cover 100 percent of the population, but most surveys have less ambitious aims. In most cases, a survey will aim to obtain information from a representative selection of the population and from that sample will then be able to present the findings as being representative of the population as a whole. Inevitably, there are problems in the survey method. Great care has to be taken to ensure that the sample population is truly representative. At a very simple level, that means ensuring that if the total population has 1000 men and 50 women, then the same proportion of men to women has to be selected. But that example grossly oversimplifies the method of drawing a representative sample, and if you decide to carry out a survey, you will need to consider what characteristics of the total population need to be represented in your sample to enable you to say with fair confidence that your sample is reasonably representative.
In surveys, all respondents will be asked the same questions in, as far as possible, the same circumstances. Question wording is not as easy as it seems, and careful piloting is necessary to ensure that all questions mean the same to all respondents. Information can be gathered by means of self-completion questionnaires (as in the case of the census) or by means of questionnaires, schedules or checklists administered by an interviewer. Whichever method of information gathering is selected, the aim is to obtain answers to the same questions from a large number of individuals to enable the researcher not only to describe but also to compare, to relate one characteristic to another and to demonstrate that certain features exist in certain categories. Surveys can provide answers to the questions What? Where? When? and How?, but it is not so easy to find out Why? Causal relationships can rarely if ever be proved by survey method. The main emphasis is on fact-finding, and if a survey is well structured and piloted, it can be a relatively cheap and quick way of obtaining information.
The experimental style
It is relatively easy to plan experiments which deal with measurable phenomena. For example, experiments have been set up to measure the effects of using fluoridated toothpaste on dental caries by establishing a control group (who did not use the tooth-paste) and an experimental group (who did). In such experiments, the two groups, matched for age, sex/gender, ratio of boys to girls, social class and so on were given a pre-test dental examination and instructions about which toothpaste to use. After a year, both groups were given the post-test dental examination and conclusions were then drawn about the effectiveness or otherwise of the fluoridated toothpaste. The principle of such experiments is that if two identical groups are selected, one of which (the experimental group) is given special treatment and the other (the control group) is not, then any differences between the two groups at the end of the experimental period may be attributed to the difference in treatment. A causal relationship has been established. It may be fairly straightforward to test the extent of dental caries (though even in this experiment the extent of the caries could be caused by many factors not controlled by the experiment), but it is quite another matter to test changes in behaviour. As Wilson (1979) points out, social causes do not work singly. Any examination of low school attainment or high IQ is the product of multiple causes:
So, the experimental style does allow conclusions to be drawn about cause and effect, if the experimental design is sound, but in education and the social sciences generally, large groups are needed if the many variations and ambiguities involved in human behaviour are to be controlled. Such large-scale experiments are expensive to set up and take more time than most students working on 100-hour projects can give. Some tests which require only a few hours (e.g. to test short-term memory or perception) can be very effective, but in claiming a causal relation-ship, great care needs to be taken to ensure that all possible causes have been considered.
It is only recently that I have become interested in the use and interpretation of narratives and in particular the acceptance of stories as valuable sources of data. Stories are certainly interesting and have been used for many years by management consultants and others who present examples of successful (and unsuccessful) practice as a basis for discussion as to how successful practice might be emulated and disasters avoided. What has always taxed me has been how information derived from storytelling can be structured in such a way as to produce valid research findings. It took an experienced group of postgraduate and postdoctoral students who had planned their research on narrative inquiry lines to sort me out and to explain precisely what was involved. I was not even sure what 'narrative inquiry' actually meant and so, always believing the best way to find out is to ask an expert, I asked one member of the group, Dr Janette Gray, to tell me. She wrote as follows:
Colleagues to whom I had earlier spoken and who had success-fully adopted a narrative inquiry approach to one or more of their research projects had always made it clear that stories were not used merely as a series of 'story boxes' piled on top of one another and with no particular structure or connecting theme. The problem I had was in understanding how such structures and themes could be derived. Jan's explanation was as follows:
Jan added that 'the benefit of considerate and careful negotiation will be a story allowing an incredibly personal and multi-faceted insight into the situation being discussed'. I am sure this is so. I have become convinced of the value of this approach and that stories can in some cases serve to enhance understanding within a case study or an ethnographic study. However, narratives can present their own set of problems:
Problems of this kind can arise in almost any kind of research, particularly those which are heavily dependent on interview data, but the close relationship needed for narrative inquiry can make the researcher (and the storyteller) particularly vulnerable.
The fact that the narrative approach carries with it numbers of potential difficulties, particularly for first-time researchers, and researchers operating within a particularly tight schedule, certainly does not mean that it should be disregarded when considering an appropriate approach to the topic of your choice. Far from it - but as is the case with all research planning, I feel it would be as well to discuss the issues fully with your supervisor before deciding what to do, and if possible to try to find a supervisor who is experienced, or at least interested in narrative inquiry.
Classifying an approach as ethnographic, qualitative, experimental, or whatever, does not mean that once an approach has been selected, the researcher may not move from the methods normally associated with that style. But understanding the major advantages and disadvantages of each approach is likely to help you to select the most appropriate methodology for the task in hand. This chapter covers only the very basic principles associated with the different styles or approaches to research which will suffice - at any rate until you have decided on a topic and considered what information you need to obtain.
Further reading is provided at the end of this chapter. As far as possible, I have tried to indicate books and journals which should be available in academic libraries. However, always consult the library catalogue. If there is an on-line facility, the librarian will show you how the system operates. Then take advantage of what the library has in stock or is able to obtain from another library in the area - preferably without cost. Borrowing books through the interlibrary loan system can be quite expensive - and it can be slow.
(Doing your research project by Judith Bell)
Now try the exercises: Exercise a, Exercise b, Exercise c, Exercise d, Exercise e, Exercise f, Exercise g.
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