There are different ways of approaching educational research depending very much on how you see your classroom, the school and wider world. Researchers use the term ‘paradigm’ to describe two approaches to research (Figure 2.6.1). A paradigm is ‘an idea that at any one point is held by those working in the particular field based on common ways of working and common ways of looking at issues’ (Newby, 2010: 660).
Classrooms are complex places and for some researchers the best way of understanding what goes on is to adopt a scientific method of trying to ‘measure’ behaviour through careful observation and other quantifiable means of collecting data. Their stance is known as ‘positivism’ (originally a philosophical term which meant dealing only in facts) and researchers are seen as independent observers seeking to identify objective knowledge.
Social, interpretive paradigm
On the other hand there are researchers who see the world in less black-and-white terms. For them, knowledge is constructed as learners, teachers and others interact. In other words, they prefer interpretive approaches, such as interviews, which value dialogue between the researcher and those being researched.
We will briefly review here some of the more popular research instruments.
Questionnaires seek out the views of people on a range of topics. They enable the researcher to quantify the responses because they are usually framed with how strongly the respondent agrees with a given statement. Often questionnaires include closed questions where boxes are simply ticked along a scale, such as the commonly used Likert scale (named after psychologist Rensis Likert), which has the following format.
To what extent do you agree that . . . ?
- Strongly disagree
- Neither agree nor disagree
- Strongly agree
Most questionnaires use a combination of closed and open-ended questions to maximise responses. They can be completed online using sites such as Survey Monkey (external link) and Survey Gizmo (external link).
Interviews are among the most popular research techniques and offer insight into what people know, think and feel about subjects. Face-to-face interviews can be either held individually or in groups. You might interview a group of learners (e.g. boys, girls, those from ethnic minority backgrounds, newly-arrived learners) to find out their particular perspectives or you might opt to interview individuals. Group interviews inevitably triggers debate and exchanges that can provide rich data, but presents a challenge in managing the dynamics to ensure all contribute. Establishing a rapport with the group is important so that they feel comfortable about sharing their feelings.
It is particularly challenging to interview when there is an obvious gap in the power dynamic. For example, when interviewing children that you teach it is likely that they will tell you what you want to know. While this can’t be removed, it is possible to reduce the impact by verifying the responses through other sources such as surveys or observations. Another radical option is to arrange for interviewees to interview themselves.
You should seek to triangulate your data by comparing it with another source and, preferably, a third. Such data can be interviewees and reports, as well as statistics.
Interviews can be structured around pre-set questions or they can be more open-ended with general questions to keep the interview flowing. Specific follow-up questions then emerge depending upon the answers. Questioning is central to interviews. Questions might be directed at interviewees in the following areas:
There are lots of practical considerations with interviews.
- Who will be interviewed and why?
- What will they be told ahead of the interview?
- Will they be given the questions beforehand?
- How many will be interviewed?
- When and for how long?
- Where will the interview take place, e.g. school library, outdoor area, classroom, headteacher’s office, canteen, out-of-school?
- How will the data be recorded, e.g. note-taking, video or audio recording?
- How will the interview end?
Observations are popular in education research and can be conducted by the participants or non-participants (outsiders). It is important to decide what or who to focus on, where, for how long and how to record findings. Most researchers use schedules, photographs, field notes, videos or memory, or a combination of these. Schedules use codes to analyse the frequency of recorded behaviours, such as every 30 seconds, so that it becomes easier to analyse the findings compared to other forms, which then generates richer but much more data. Software such as Nvivo (produced by QSR International) can help researchers undertake discourse analysis, where the focus is on language.
Participants are sometimes asked to complete diaries as part of the research. This can be empowering and enable diarists to record their feelings and analyses which might otherwise escape the researcher. In England, the Department for Education has used workload diaries (external link) as a means of gathering the views of teachers over many years.
Photographs, films and diagrams
Photographs, films, diagrams and concept maps can be used both to record data and as prompts for discussion with practitioners. For example, ‘still’ images taken from parts of a lesson, such as the closure or group activity can be examined with particular pointers, e.g. what does body language suggest? Video stimulated reflective dialogue is a particular approach that invites participants to film their lessons and to reflect upon what this tells them about their teaching and learners’ learning. A skilled coach works alongside the practitioner to prompt deep reflection.
For more detail, the University of Plymouth’s Research in Education (RESINED) (external link) website provides comprehensive coverage of different research tools and paradigms.
Watch this short video of a practitioner discussing her action enquiry and consider:
- planning – what she wanted to find out
- action – what she did
- observation – how she collected data
- reflection – what she learnt from the research.