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Academic Word List: Exercise 51

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

essentially an on-the-spot procedure designed to deal with a concrete problem located in an immediate situation. This means that ideally, the step-by-step process is constantly monitored over varying periods of time and by a variety of mechanisms (questionnaires, diaries, interviews and case studies, for example) so that the ensuing feedback may be translated into modifications, adjustments, directional changes, redefinitions, as necessary, so as to bring about lasting benefit to the ongoing process itself rather than to some future occasion. (Cohen and Manion 1994: 192)

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:

It aims to feed practical judgement in concrete situations, and the validity of the 'theories' or hypotheses it generates depends not so much on 'scientific' tests of truth, as on their usefulness in helping people to act more intelligently and skilfully. In action research 'theories' are not validated independently and then applied to practice. They are validated through practice.

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 research questions arise from an analysis of the problems of the practitioners in the situation and the immediate aim then becomes that of understanding those problems. The researcher/actor, at an early stage, formulates speculative, tentative, general principles in relation to the problems that have been identified; from these principles, hypotheses may then be generated about what action is likely to lead to the desired improvements in practice. Such action will then be tried out and data on its effects collected; these data are used to revise the earlier hypotheses and identify more appropriate action that reflects a modification of the general principles. Collection of data on the effects of this new action may then generate further hypotheses and modified principles, and so on as we move towards a greater understanding and improvement of practice. This implies a continuous process of research and the worth of the work is judged by the understanding of, and desirable change in, the practice that is achieved. (Brown and McIntyre 1981: 245)

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.

Case study

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

this means that the researcher must obtain data on the significant features (catchment area, the ethnic origins of the pupils and the amount of staff turnover) for primary schools in general, and then demonstrate where the case study example fits in relation to the overall picture.(p. 37)

Bassey holds similar views, but prefers to use the term 'relatability' rather than 'generalisability'. In his opinion,

an important criterion for judging the merit of a case study is the extent to which the details are sufficient and appropriate for a teacher working in a similar situation to relate his decision making to that described in the case study. The relatability of a case study is more important than its generalisability. (Bassey 1981: 85)

He considers that if case studies

are carried out systematically and critically, if they are aimed at the improvement of education, if they are relatable, and if by publication of the findings they extend the boundaries of existing knowledge, then they are valid forms of educational research.(p. 86)

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:

Case studies have been done about decisions, about programmes, about the implementation process, and about organisational change. Beware these types of topic - none is easily defined in terms of the beginning or end point of the 'case'.

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:

To isolate each cause requires a new experimental group each time and the length and difficulty of the experiment increases rapidly. It is possible to run an experiment in which several treatments are put into practice simultaneously but many groups must be made available rather than just two.. The causes of social phenomena are usually multiple ones and an experiment to study them requires large numbers of people often for lengthy periods. This requirement limits the useful-ness of the experimental method. (Wilson 1979: 22)

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.

Narrative enquiry

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:

It involves the collection and development of stories, either as a form of data collection or as a means of structuring a research project. Informants often speak in a story form during the interviews, and as the researcher, listening and attempting to understand, we hear their 'stories'. The research method can be described as narrative when data collection, interpretation and writing are considered a 'meaning-making' process with similar characteristics to stories (Gudmunsdottir 1996: 295). Narrative inquiry can involve reflective autobiography, life story, or the inclusion of excerpts from participants' stories to illustrate a theme developed by the researcher. A narrative approach to inquiry is most appropriate when the researcher is interested in portraying intensely personal accounts of human experience. Narratives allow voice - to the researcher, the participants and to cultural groups - and in this sense they can have the ability to develop a decidedly political and powerful edge.(Gray 1998: 1)

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:

All forms of narrative inquiry involve an element of analysis and development of themes, dependent on the researcher's perspective. Stories share a basic structure. The power of a story is dependent on the storyteller's use of language to present an interpretation of personal experience. The skill of the narrative researcher lies in the ability to structure the inter-view data into a form which clearly presents a sense of a beginning, middle and an end. Even though the use of story as a research tool is a relatively new concept in the social sciences, historically story has been an accepted way of relating knowledge and developing self-knowledge. One of the major strengths of such a means of conducting inquiry is the ability to allow readers who do not share a cultural background similar to either the storyteller or the researcher to develop an understanding of motives and consequences of actions described within a story format. Narrative is a powerful and different way of knowing..

Data collection for narrative research requires the researcher to allow the storyteller to structure the conversations, with the researcher asking follow-up questions. So a narrative approach to the question of how mature-age under-graduates perceive their ability to cope with the experience of returning to study would involve extended, open-ended interviews with one or two mature-aged students. This would allow the students to express their personal experience of the problems, frustrations and joys of returning to study. It might also involve similar 'conversations' with other stakeholders in their education - perhaps family members; their tutors and lecturers - to provide a multiple perspective of the context of the education of mature-aged undergraduates. (Gray 1998: 2)

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:

Interviews are time-consuming and require the researcher to allow the storytellers to recount in their own way the experience of being (or teaching) a student. This may not emerge in the first interview. Until a trust relationship has developed between researcher and storyteller, it is highly unlikely that such intimate information will be shared. Such personal involvement with the researcher involves risks and particular ethical issues. The storytellers may decide they have revealed more of their feelings than they are prepared to share publicly and they may insist either on substantial editing or on with-drawing from the project. (Gray 1998: 2)

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.

Which approach?

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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