Sunday, 9 February 2014

Methodology and Thinking (Part 4 of a Short Introduction to Thinking about Education and Technology)

'Methodology' is one of the first words budding researchers are confronted with. Like an aspiring artist who approaches a master and says "I want to paint", the master says "first you must acquire technique", so the budding researcher says "I want to research", the (not very good!) supervisor says "you must acquire a methodology". But technique doesn't make an artist; and methodology certainly doesn't make a researcher. Artists have to find their voice - and they do this by discovering their technique in the heart of what it is they want to express: it can be a slow and tortuous process of trial and error. Researchers in the social sciences must too find their voice, and off-the-shelf methodologies will rarely deliver this (they represent, after all, the voices of the inventors of the methodology!); only profound critical engagement with the researcher's problem will lead to a methodological approach that is representative of the researcher's voice.

The issue of the discovery of "voice" is closely related to the issue of personal "values", and it may be surprising at first to see "values" connected with "methodology". But every methodology comes with its own assumptions about how the world is, and how it ought to be. The crude experimental paradigm of before-and-after tests assumes a world of regular and uniform human behaviour where the results of an experiment in a sample can be extrapolated to the larger population. Is that how the world is? ... many will ask. Equally, the phenomenological reduction of Grounded Theory carries its own presuppositions - particularly in the possibility of 'bracketing out' experience, and in the neutrality of processes of coding and development of theory. (Grounded theory often doesn't seem very grounded!)

Whatever method we choose, in education research there is a tendency to want to say "intervention x is good", "conditions y are bad", and so on. Such statements may be supported with methodological practices like Grounded Theory, Action Research, interview analysis, etc, etc. But in the end, the research is evaluative, declaring something good or bad. Accepting this means that our own values must be inspected. Indeed, this is a good starting point for really being able to grapple with the (often unwelcome) monster that is 'methodology'.

So this week, I want you to take a piece of work you have done in the past (it can be a paper, an essay, a blog post), and write a short passage of text answering the following questions:
  1. What is your conclusion in your work?
  2. By what method do you reach your conclusion?
  3. If you think your method is sound, describe how the world must be for your conclusions to be true...
  4. If you're unsure about your method, why did your choose it?
  5. What does your choice of method tell you about what YOU are like?
This is a challenging exercise. But the real value in exploring methodology is that it challenges us to think about our values through examining the values of those who promote different methodologies.

These are the most challenging questions any researcher has to ask themselves because they strike at the heart of our own identity. Unfortunately, too often methodology is treated as a kind of recipe, and this self-inspection doesn't happen. The result is bad work!

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