Final version holistic research for holistic practice: making sense of qualitative research data

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Prevalent models of research advocate technical methods supposed to guarantee ‘truth’, and ensure that all draw the same conclusions from a set of data. They suggest the discovery of a single ‘effective’ way to develop learning and skills through isolating categories and variables. In practice, when researching issues of considerable complexity, that required individual experiences to be located in much wider social and economic structures, we found that standard coding techniques fragmented highly personal stories, distorted key issues, and over-simplified complex processes. These failings parallel the weaknesses of managerialist approaches to FE, and the way in which current policy constructs the processes of teaching and learning.

Our experiences of research challenge the notion that there is one ‘right’ way to do research or to analyse data. Our concern with regard to the development of an ‘R&D Toolkit’ for practitioners within the learning and skills sector (cf. Norman, 2001) is that such a kit needs to incorporate a range of alternative tools that can facilitate making sense of different kinds of data. Anyone who has ever tried to tighten a slot-headed screw with a Phillips screwdriver will surely agree. The enhancement of research capacity should also include the ability to recognise the need for the appropriate item from a well-stocked toolkit according to the task in hand, as well as to recognise (and make informed judgements about) the tools that others have used in their research. That in turn means acquiring some of the more tricky and time-consuming philosophical tools which have underpinned the divergence of holism from more mechanistic approaches to understanding. If colleges should champion ‘a spirit of enquiry, an experimental culture and support for diversity’ (Norman, 2001: 25), this experimentalism and diversity has to apply also to the research methods that are made available to practitioners within the learning and skills community, and that are welcomed and promoted by the research community itself in both FE and HE (Hodkinson, 2001).

The TLCFE project sets out to investigate the complexities of teaching and learning processes for those that work and learn in FE colleges, given their social backgrounds, cultural communities and life experiences. It brings into account factors such as the pay and working conditions of lecturers, funding régimes and policy shifts, professional practice and identity; as well as student support arrangements (including financial support), life transitions often associated with participation in FE, and multiple and fragmented learner identities. In short, it represents an holistic approach to understanding learning cultures in FE and how they may be transformatory or transformed. This holistic understanding of the subject of the TLCFE project seems to demand a correspondingly holistic methodology for making sense of the data it generates. Such an approach may prove supportive of professionals in the community of FE practice, who wish to enter the community of educational research practice, and serve to draw the two communities together. Our belief is that holistic research is at the very least likely to be more accessible for practitioners, to resonate with their experiences, and so to have relevance for the sector as a whole. Moreover, we hope that it will also provide the kind of evidence that practitioners will be able to relate to, and find useful in their own professional reconstructions of FE.


This paper is based upon work within the Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education Project (TLC), L139 25 1025, which is in turn a part of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP). We are grateful for the financial support of ESRC, and the contributions of the project team to the writing of this paper. In particular we would like to thank Martin Bloomer and Phil Hodkinson for their encouragement to produce the paper, and David James and Tony Scaife for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.


Helen Colley, Lifelong Learning Institute, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT

Tel: 0113 233 3598 e-mail:

Kim Diment, Faculty of Education, University of the West of England, Bristol BS16 1QY

Tel: 0117 344 4278 e-mail:


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