Holistic research for holistic practice: making sense of qualitative research data
Helen Colley, Research Officer, Lifelong Learning Institute, University of Leeds
Kim Diment, Research Associate, Faculty of Education, University of the West of England
A paper submitted for the Learning and Skills Research Network Annual Conference 2001, Cambridge, 5-7 December
Prevalent models of research advocate technical methods to guarantee ‘truth’. They suggest the discovery of a single ‘effective’ way to develop learning and skills through the isolation of particular categories and variables. We argue, by contrast, that holistic research is needed to inform the holistic practice that is pursued by many professionals in Further Education. In order to support the development of research capacity in FE (a key aim of the project on Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education), this paper considers how holistic data analyses and interpretations were effected in two different qualitative research projects: one on secondary school pupils’ responses to Shakespeare in the National Curriculum, and one on mentoring relationships with ‘disaffected’ young people in post-16 pre-vocational training. We discuss how standard coding techniques fragmented highly personal stories, distorted or obscured key issues and over-simplified complex processes and contexts. In conclusion, we offer arguments for alternative methods of data analysis which may prove supportive of FE practitioner research, as well as providing evidence relevant throughout FE.
The Learning and Skills Sector may have been comparatively under-researched in the past, but this is changing rapidly, with a government-backed call for the creation of a strong evidence base for the development of policy and practice. In Further Education (FE) there is an expectation from both government and research funding councils that practitioners themselves will be instrumental in creating such evidence. This has prompted a lively debate in the recent pages of College Research (see, for example, Culham, 2001, Davey, 2001, Webb et al, 2001).
Much of this debate has focused on the culture of FE, and whether that culture is amenable or resistant to the development of research from within (see Scaife, Colley and Davies, 2001, also Bates et al, 1997, Brotherton, 1998). We propose to take a different approach in this paper, starting from a recognition that some FE professionals and institutions are increasingly involved in research. We will argue that, if research is to become embedded in FE and the wider learning and skills sector, the transformation of culture required is not one-way. The Higher Education (HE) research community also needs to ensure that it plays a partnership role in enhancing research capacity in FE, in part by promoting research methods and approaches that are relevant to practitioners.
We should include in these introductory remarks our own interests in these issues. We are both university-based researchers in the project Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education (TLC-FE), funded for over 4 years by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of its major Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP). Dissemination support is being provided by the Learning and Skills Development Agency and its Research Network (LSDA and LSRN). An important aspiration of the TLC-FE project is the enhancement of research capacity among practitioners in the sector. TLC-FE is the largest ever research project conducted in FE, and it is also unique in the HE-FE partnership it is constructing. Four universities are involved, each one in partnership with a local FE college. Each local team comprises a senior academic as Director, one university-based research fellow and one research fellow seconded from the FE college. In addition, four tutors at each college are participating in the research, providing access to their students and learning sites, and collaborating with the research team in introducing and evaluating innovations in their practice.
Building strong partnerships with our colleagues in FE is of prime importance for us. This involves a reciprocal process whereby we learn from as well as in FE, and we hope to help our FE partners learn about doing research. The ideal towards which we are working is to create a project that conducts research in, not ‘on’, FE (Bloomer and James, 2001).
At the same time, both of us are doctoral research students, approaching completion of our PhD studies in other areas of interest. Both of us have encountered difficulties in our research, particularly in making sense of our qualitative data using methods of analysis which dominate educational research and are advocated in the majority of research training courses and textbooks. Whether in the study of secondary school pupils’ responses to Shakespeare in the National Curriculum (Diment), or of mentoring relationships between volunteer mentors and ‘disaffected’ 16-18 year-olds in pre-vocational training (Colley), such standard procedures brought us, in different ways, into conflict with the dominant research culture, resulting in a re-thinking of textbook approaches to data analysis and a consideration of alternative approaches (which we shall each be discussing in accounts of our own data analyses later in the paper).
How do these two aspects of our experience as researchers – our own doctoral research studies and our present research in the TLC-FE project – come together? In order to make the links more explicit we need to begin by reflecting on what we feel to be an important aspect of the culture of FE – that of professionalisation. This is a vital element of that community of practice, and central to our commitment to enhance research capacity.