In this guest post by Dr Ewan Ingleby of Teesside University in the UK, we hear about how we might approach teaching and learning about research methods. It has a useful list of academic references at the end, and the title references Elton John’s famous song too!
‘Yikes, research methods, I’m terrified!’ It’s a phrase I’ve heard at the beginning of teaching research methods modules on a number of occasions across a range of higher education programmes. From doctoral level to undergraduate teaching, the ‘r’ word has the potential to scare. To reduce stress and enable positive teaching and learning, I use a number of strategies. To begin with, I explain the ‘yellow brick road’ image. I first saw this image being used effectively in pedagogy by Urban (2009). The image is used to outline a challenge to pedagogy in England. Urban (2009) argues that there can be an obsession with reaching the final destination. The children arrive in primary school and everyone talks about their final English, maths and science results. They get to secondary school and hear of the importance of GCSE results. In sixth form they become only too aware of A level grades. At University, the focus is on their final degree classification.
This is a theme that links to ‘The Wizard of Oz’. The characters in the story are so focused on arriving at their final destination, they fail to realise how they are being changed as the journey along the road progresses. It’s similar to studying research methods. As opposed to concentrating on the final destination- the research proposal or the dissertation- it’s essential to consider the steps along the road. This represents a way of putting method into methodology. How are you changing as a student or a researcher as you take the steps along the road? These steps include formulating an effective research question, thinking about an appropriate research objective, designing manageable research aims, applying an appropriate model of research, utilising suitable research methods and enabling good practice throughout the research process.
This might seem obvious- but it isn’t. The peril of the research methods books awaits to potentially distort the reality of the research process still further. The result can be even more fear and trepidation. Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2011) have produced a book that has many strengths as it is of epic proportions. It is regarded by my students, across all levels, as a book of seminal importance. The book can, however, distort the research process so that students again think about ‘end destinations’. This is due to the final definitions that are used for ‘scientific’ and ‘non-scientific’ research. On page 3 of the book, ‘scientists’ are portrayed as being fundamentally ‘different’ to ‘laypeople’. The key defining characteristic of scientists is that they explain ‘the multiplicity of causes for a given occurrence’. It is as if they are residing within the wizard’s castle at Oz! The difficulty with this portrayal rests in the assumption that scientific research is necessarily different to non-scientific research. Zahar (1989, 89-90) outlines that scientific research attempts to study processes to arrive at ‘a coherent, unified, harmonious and organically compact picture of the world’. Yet any good research process is like this, regardless of the philosophy underpinning the research design.
The consequence of focusing on an end destination can lead to ‘science’ and ‘non-science’ becoming viewed as separate entities. This creates further problems and can increase our fear of the ‘r’ word. It makes us feel like we are in ‘a game of representation’ (Rowbottom and Aiston 2006). ‘Dissertations’ represent ‘research’. ‘Positivism’ represents ‘science’. ‘Anti-positivism’ represents ‘non-science’. Our fears become exacerbated as we are never really in the world. As opposed to focusing on an end destination, we should remember Popper’s (1985, 259) words: ‘It is you and I who make science, as well as we can. It is you and I who are responsible for it’. This allows us to reflect on research processes within individual research projects. It prevents us from focusing entirely on the end destination. Just as we should not accept the existence of ‘tin men’, ‘straw men’, ‘wizards’ and ‘talking lions’, so we should not accept a rigid definition between ‘science’ and ‘non-science’. As opposed to focusing on the final dissertation, we need to remember to consider the appropriateness (or otherwise) of the steps along the road, regardless of whether they are associated with ‘science’ or ‘non-science’. We need to remember that research is more of ‘a poetics of inquiry’ than an end destination. Research involves ‘the messiness of human life’ (Schwandt 2004). It is more than the categorisation of roles. I tell my students to remember this reflexive thought as they go through the processes that lead to their research. Just as ‘straw men’ and ‘tin men’ are illusions, so too are ‘science’, ‘non-science’, ‘positivism’ and ‘interpretivism’. They are distractions on the horizon and take our eyes away from what they should be focusing on.
Cohen, L. L. Manion and K. Morrison. 2011. Research Methods in Education, 7th edition. London: Routledge.
Popper, K. 1985. Realism and the Aim of Science. From Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge.
Rowbottom, D.P. and S.J. Aiston. 2006. The Myth of ‘Scientific Method’ in Contemporary Educational Research. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 40 (2), 137-156
Schwandt, T.A. 2004. Hermeneutics: A Poetics of Inquiry Versus a Methodology for Research. In: H.Piper and I. Stronach, eds. Educational Research Difference and Diversity. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Urban, M. 2009. “Strategies for Change: Rethinking Professional Development to Meet the Challenges of Diversity in the Early Years Profession.” Paper presented at the IPDA Conference, Birmingham, UK, 27-28 November.
Zahar, E. 1989. Einstein’s Revolution: A Study in Heuristic. La Salle, Il.: Open Court.
About the author: Dr Ewan Ingleby is currently based in the education section of Teesside University. Ewan is the postgraduate research tutor for the school of social sciences business and law. Ewan teaches on the University’s Education Doctorate, the MA in Education and undergraduate education modules.
Image credits: CC0 Public Domain