What do we mean by pedagogy? (Part 4) Thinking about Curriculum 2

In my last post I suggested that the masters framework developed by the QAA for HE in Scotland (2013) offered a very useful basis for developing pedagogy. I also argued that curriculum needs to be more than a list of content, instead seeing the roles of emergence and process as crucial to the work of masters students and therefore in designing curricula. In developing this perspective on curriculum, how might a practical framework look?

priciples of curriculum design

This model is an attempt to capture the complexity and process orientation towards curriculum which is informed by the work of Knight (2001). This model starts from a position of seeing knowledge as a central element of any curriculum. Knowledge is the building blocks on which debate and argumentation are based. Therefore, it is a crucial element in constructing any curriculum. However, by itself it is not enough. Of equal importance is the structure which supports these building blocks – the explicit discussion of concepts. Threshold concepts (Meyer, Land and Baillie, 2010) have become a useful basis for developing the overarching framework for a course, and indeed modules (whilst accepting that in any given module threshold concepts for many may remain liminal). At masters level there is every chance that students will move from a core area of knowledge to pursue and specialise in particular spheres within a module. The explicit use of threshold concepts allows this process to occur within a coherent, wider ‘field’ of study; whilst individuals may begin to investigate different subject areas and contexts the concepts ensure a level of coherence and allow a common point of contact for discussion and engagement with the work of others. The use of an explicit conceptual framework also gives a general scheme for the process of learning to operate within. In this sense, the interplay of a conceptual schema (boundary settings) with individual investigation and growth (freedom) is in keeping with Davis and Sumara’s (2006) identification of factors necessary for emergence in their work on complexity theory.

If knowledge and concepts are engaged with alone however, then there is a deficit in the applied/practical use of the emerging learning. Hence, application is also important as this is where schema, a developing knowledge base and understanding are utilised and ‘tested’.

It is at the intersection of the three dimensions of knowledge, concepts and application where curriculum as process (Knight, 2001; Stenhouse, 1975) can be made real. Together, they give the possibility for emerging understanding (here used in the way I’ve interpreted Van Camp (2014) to emphasise the connection of ideas and knowledge in networks) and application based on engagement with knowledge, concepts and their application. It is in this emerging interpenetration (Byrne and Callaghan, 2014) of these systems that both new insights and new knowledge can emerge. But at this level, this is a personal journey for each student with different contexts, interests and applications driving learning. Hence, curriculum as product (Stenhouse, 1975) makes little sense as the possible outcomes are hugely diverse whilst still operating within a loose framework and from common starting points (For an example of how this model for curriculum has been used in our work so far see an earlier post & our research methods pedagogy website)

As suggested in earlier posts, to understand and develop curricula where diversity and process are key, we need to have a clear understanding of the role of assessment in aiding the emergent process model, but as I’ll also reflect upon in future posts, interpenetration has major ramifications for the way we understand learning and teaching; to reiterate, to suggest that pedagogy can be the study of teaching alone makes little sense.


Byrne, D. & Callaghan, G. (2014) Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: The state of the art. Abingdon: Routledge.

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

Knight, P.T. (2001) ‘Complexity and Curriculum: A process approach to curriculum-making.’ Teaching in Higher Education, 6(3), 369-381.

Meyer, J.H.F., Land, R. and Baillie, C. (2010) Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, (eds), Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2013) What is mastersness? Discussion Paper. Retrieved from: http://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/docs/report/what-is-mastersness.pdf [Last accessed 5/7/15]

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.

Van Camp, W. (2014) ‘Explaining understanding (or understanding explanation).’ European Journal of Philosophy of Science, 4(1): 95-114.


What makes good research? Some reflections

Some ideas concerning the features of good research in education developed through dialogue with colleagues and international masters students:

  • a focus on a definable issue or problem. Research needs to be focused and have a clear area for exploration. If it is too broad it becomes too unwieldy and difficult to collect meaningful data. In attempting to develop a coherent focus for research the use of research questions is extremely important;
  • the need for an ethical approach. All research in education should be developed with an explicit understanding that it should be an ethical process. The vast majority of research in this field includes human participants in some way. Our research should always protect the well-being and dignity of both the participants and researchers. This is often the stated purpose of research ethics, the ‘legal’ aspects which are often the focus of review panels. However, we also stress that ethical research should also focus on the need for honest and transparent reporting so that the work completed can be read critically and fairly by peers. This includes the reporting of research approaches, any conflicts of interest and the context of the research. It also requires that when we rely on the work of others we reference them fully so that they are given due recognition for their work;
  • give a clear outline of the context of research. The process of education is highly complex. Therefore, when writing about research it is always important to give readers a clear context (albeit anonymised) for the research. If a small-scale study is completed with a class of 12 and 13 year olds, in an inner-city school, composed predominantly of more able students then it is important the reader has this information so that they can understand the context of the research data gained. This also allows the reader to consider the degree of relevance of the research to their own situation. It is a central part of honest and transparent educational reporting and debate;
  • making use of research literature to inform the research design. The vast majority of research builds on work already done. It is important to begin to gain an understanding of the research which has been published previously in an area of interest. We need to be good at reading and assessing research so that we can judge the degree of evidence on which we might build our own work;
  • gives a clear outline/discussion of the methodology and methods which have been used to collect data. Ethical research should make the methodology and methods which have been used to collect data transparent. Readers need to know how our research has been carried out as this is crucial to being able to interpret data, and therefore engage critically with any claims which are made. Decisions concerning preferred methodologies gives an insight into the way the research is positioned and the nature of claims made.An account of the data collection tools (methods) used are equally important for the same reasons. If a study has used interviews, are the questions reported so that we can judge the level of neutrality? Where observations are used, is the focus and method of data capture explained? If these issues are not thought through and reported then a considered, critical reading of the research cannot be achieved. Where research occurs at a meta-level, through the use of literature reviews for example, it should include a methodology outlining search criteria, filtering processes and how publications have been analysed. If the literature review merely presents an area of research with no methodology, it needs to be read with caution as we have no way of assessing its validity;
  • uses appropriate methods which clearly link back to the initial issues/problems and research questions. Well-conceived research will be able to make clear as to where particular methods help in investigating the chosen issues/research questions; this gives the research coherence;
  • analyses collected data in a transparent way. In the same way as it is important to carefully consider the reporting of methodology and methods, so it is the case with analysing the data which has been collected. Analysis is often not considered to the same level of detail as methodology and data collection, but it is crucial in ensuring a reasoned and valid consideration of the data, particularly in trying to minimise biases and selective use of data. To make the process transparent it is again important to report how data has been analysed;
  • develops explanations and discussion derived from the data. Good research develops a clear discussion of the data which has been collected. This is at the centre of reporting research as it is where the interpretation of the project is developed. It is crucial that explanations emerge from the data provided and is not dissonant with the evidence provided. In addition the discussion of the data should be related to the literature which you have engaged with and which is the foundation upon which the research study rests;
  • offers measured insights/conclusions. Finally, good research is measured in the claims made. Small-scale research cannot easily make claims which can be scaled up to a large scale, in other words an analysis of one cycle of action research focusing on improving questioning practices in one class cannot act as the basis for national policy. However, small-scale research can still provide extremely important insights for further study and for practitioners by providing useful information as to where good practice might be found. Where conclusions include polemic and assertive language, it can often be the first sign we need to explore the study and its messages further. Many large-scale research projects rely on quantitative analyses. Insights are often based on statistical manipulations and offer a great deal of useful exploration of patterns and trends. However, in-depth explanations are sometimes more problematic as this type of research is often much stronger in providing answers to the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’. All research has potential shortcomings as no approach is perfect or has all of the answers to an area of interest. Often, deep insights occur through a long-term application of a number of both qualitative and quantitative approaches, used to augment understanding, and giving progressively fuller and more critical perspectives on the issue of interest.

Book Review: An Introduction to Qualitative Research Synthesis

Major, C.H. & Savin-Baden, M. (2010) An Introduction to Qualitative Research Synthesis: Managing the Information Explosion in Social Science Research. Abingdon: Routeldge.

Over recent years there has been a valourisation of large-scale, quantitative research from some quarters. In some ways this is no surprise as there is a ready appeal to see ‘generalised’ patterns in data which can then be used for decision-making and policy formation. However, in this scramble for the use of ‘big data’ there has also been some criticism of qualitative research as being ‘anecdotal’, too focused on the particular, and therefore of little use when it comes to decision-making and policy generation; this has unfortunately also led to a shift in educational research funding which often appears to follow this logic. This book instead focuses on qualitative research and provides a very well argued case for the synthesis of qualitative studies as an additional route to providing insights for practitioners and policy-makers.

The book has three parts, the first two of which (‘Arguing for qualitative research synthesis’ and ‘Doing qualitative research synthesis’) outline and discussion the approach, whilst the third offers examples and frameworks for carrying out qualitative research synthesises (QRS). The first section includes a very clear argument for the use of QRS as an approach for combining and interpreting qualitative research studies. A refreshing element of the first chapter is a clear engagement with the possible problems and restrictions of QRS under the title ‘Top ten criticisms of the approach, point and counterpoint’. This helps develop an honest debate about the potential limitations of the approach whilst making transparent the philosophical and methodological foundations of the approach. This critical voice is retained throughout the book and I think provides an excellent example to those new to educational research in how to build arguments whilst being transparent about both approach and possible restrictions and problems. As the authors state at one point in the book, no methodology is perfect and honest discussion of the limitations and problems which occur as research is undertaken is important. The second chapter in this first section then goes on to locate QRS within the wider field of research syntheses, discussing how it is linked to, but different from, traditional literature reviews and structured reviews such as those developed by EPPI.

The second section goes on to outline the stages in carrying out a QRS, from development of a question around which the synthesis is structured, through designing and completing a search, analysing, synthesising and interpreting the data to presenting the outcomes. The overall explanations are very clear and with the examples provided in section three, there is a good overall explanation of the approach. Importantly, the outlining of QRS is not given in the form of a ‘recipe’, as the process involves a lot of reflexivity, and therefore it is only possible to outline principles and general structures rather than giving a step-by-step ‘how to’ guide. I particularly liked the sections on establishing plausibility, including validity and trustworthiness, which stress the need for qualitative research to be clear in developing contextual information as well as clear explanations of methodology, data collection and approaches to analysis so that the coherence and quality of evidence can be transparently assessed. One table which is provided to highlight this need is given on page 61, based on a template from the Joanna Briggs Institute and could act as a more general starting point for qualitative researchers as they develop reports of their research.

A rating schedule to establish rigour in findings

  • Unequivocal

Findings supported with clear and compelling evidence

  • Credible

Findings that are plausible given the weight of evidence

  • Unsupported

Findings that are suggested but not supported by data

Reading this section, I was struck by the degree to which it would act as a useful starting point for discussion into considering quality research writing not only in QRS, but in qualitative research writing more generally.

Section three goes on to provide some interesting and useful examples of QRS studies which can be considered alongside the earlier sections to see how the process can be understood through the final product.

This book is a very useful introduction to QRS and offers both a critical and clear overview of how qualitative research reports can be synthesised and interpreted to provide broader insights into educational problems and issues. In my opinion, it sits well alongside Pope et al’s (2007) book focusing on the synthesis of qualitative and quantitative evidence in health. The approaches are different, a point which is stressed by Major and Savin-Baden, but together these two books offer critical approaches to bringing together evidence from across the research spectrum to offer new and interesting insights into educational issues.


Pope, C.; Mays, N & Popay, J. (2007) Synthesizing Qualitative and Quantitative Health Evidence: A Guide to Methods. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Teaching Research methods – Some initial reflections

On March 20th, we finally finished teaching a research methods module which is a core element of our MA International Education (MAIE) course. As I outlined in this blog last autumn (here, here and here), I have been working with a colleague in the School of Education to develop a new approach to our research methods course.

Having finished the course and the data collection we have captured from a parallel research project of our own on the module, it feels like a good time to consider some initial reflections about our work. This is obviously an initial perception, we need to spend many months analysing the very rich dataset we have collected. Any reflections can’t be taken as a detailed and accurate account. However, several issues seem to have emerged across the module:

1) Thinking about threshold concepts. As we began to develop a curriculum framework we discussed possible threshold concepts in research methods as a basis for instructional design. In a past post, I listed threshold concepts identified by Kiley and Wisher (2010). They saw the threshold concepts relating to research methods as being:

  • argument
  • theory
  • frameworks
  • knowledge creation
  • analysis
  • paradigm

We started from this point, but through discussion emphasised the following concepts as being both central to understanding research methods and also having the potential to be transformatory. Consequently, our list of threshold concepts became:

  • criticality
  • theory
  • methodology
  • ethics
  • analysis
  • epistemology/ontology

In the event, we spent less time on theory as a concept than we had expected, but all of the other concepts became a major part of the course. In student interviews criticality was seen as central to developing an ability to read research and from this to writing well considered and careful texts. Methodology and analysis were also seen as being important for assessing papers as well as being central to a critical and deep understanding of how to carry out research. One student reflected that previously she had read the ‘start and end’ of papers to engage with the main messages; now she first engages with the ‘middle’ to assess the degree to which the research could be used or trusted. Ontology and epistemology were the most difficult concepts to tackle and at the end of the module I would argue that some are still in liminal space in this respect. Some students reflected that at undergraduate level the nature of reality and knowledge, as well as paradigms, were assumed and hence never discussed. As an interdisciplinary pursuit education needs to engage in these debates as researchers from many different traditions meet at this particular crossroads and there is therefore a level of philosophical complexity. Methodology, analysis and ethics were all equally important in aiding students to gain a deeper and holistic understanding on which to base their expanding knowledge and practical experience.

One additional concept which we had not included in our original list but which I would be minded to include having completed the module is that of ‘sampling’. Some struggle with this and yet good understanding often acted as a basis for logical, well considered and critical bridges between methodology and data collection tools. Where sampling was not well understood this bridge was less, if at all, secure and logical explanation of research design began to default to general description and a lack of criticality.

2) Importance of language. We have started to see the research methods module more and more as a language course. This is not only the result of developing a course which predominantly attracts international students, although this is obviously important. We have a number of English speaking students and yet they often commented on the difficulty of engaging with the language. Research methods language is conceptually rich and difficult; we are teaching this language and regardless of student origin, we need to ensure that students understand the language and the concepts underlying it.

3) Research methods as an applied activity. In our planning, we also developed a pedagogic model which sees conceptualisation, knowledge and application as equally important, and intertwined.

understanding elements of learning for a master's RM programme

At the end of the module I feel this is a very useful framework and has aided in developing a critical approach to the module. Conceptualisation is vital as a basis for constructing and developing knowledge. However, where these began to really make sense for students was when they actually enacted their ideas. The application of research methods started from day one of the course and revolved around two practical exercises. Firstly, students acted in pairs to consider the characteristics of good interviewing before developing a set of group research questions based on a research problem given to them by ourselves. From the research questions they discussed and agreed interview questions before splitting into pairs to complete their interviews. Once complete, the pairs then transcribed and encoded their data. This process shadowed their work in face-to-face sessions and therefore their emerging understanding of the module. The final exercise focused on comparing codes across the group to identify re-occurring themes as well as outliers.

Students then moved on to complete a module assignment which asked them to develop an area for research, develop research questions from this, before creating a research design which was then piloted. Subsequent to the pilot, students were then asked to reflect on their experience and how they would change their research design as a prelude to developing their dissertation work.

This proved very challenging, but also, according to some of the students, allowed them to consider how far their understanding of research methods developed.

I am currently discussing the potential for a new master’s degree focusing on praxis-based approaches to education. Having developed our work on research methods I fully intend to embed an emergent element of research methods across all modules of the programme, leading towards a specialist research methods module. Research methods needs to be engaged with over a period of time and within different contexts to give a wide critical and experiential basis for discussion and theoretical understanding.

These are some of the basic reflections from the course, but as I said above, these are only initial and need to be considered in far more detail as we begin to engage with the very large amount of data we have collected from this course. In my next post, I will continue my reflection, by considering the process of researching this module and the utility of considering the learning environment as being a complex adaptive system.

Troublesome knowledge: what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander?

Over the past 12 months, I’ve consciously started to move my own research agenda away from working on school-based projects to those focusing on curriculum and pedagogy in higher education contexts. This has been an exciting time as higher education provides a fertile ground for developing innovative pedagogical approaches based upon a notion that lecturers can be trusted to create, develop and execute modules and courses which relate to their subject expertise. The past 18 months has been the first time in my professional life that Ofsted has not cast a long and negative shadow over my professional autonomy and opportunities for innovative practice.

In re-orientating my pedagogical and, as a consequence, research interests, I have also started to attend a different set of conferences. I’ve just got home from my first attendance at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education which has been a very positive and thought-provoking experience. There has been a very wide-ranging set of presentations from considerations of organisational leadership and governance in universities, through developing reactions and alternatives to policy, international work, the work of lecturers and student experiences, to utopian perspectives concerning the futures of universities, learning technologies and digital universities as well as teaching and learning. Because my own research interests centre on pedagogy, curriculum and increasingly research methods, I have spent much of the last three days listening to and discussing issues as wide-ranging as the use of concept mapping to understand student conceptualisation of master’s dissertations (Dr E Buyl), and the opening up of the ‘Space of Reasons’ (Dr G Hinchliffe) (based on the work of John McDowell) as an alternative to understanding what is essentially a case of ‘epistemic access’ as outlined in Plato’s cave.

One session was presented by Ray Land who developed an interesting perspective on threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge as it focused on the role these concepts can play in disrupting and counteracting neoliberal discourses within the University. I’ve used these ideas in my own research for more than five years to help in developing curriculum models and pedagogies at both school and university level. Because their work is focused on the troublesome knowledge which students face in making sense of their studies as they begin to move towards crossing thresholds at a conceptual level I have tended to view this theoretical perspective in the same way. However, perhaps due to my relatively recent adoption of a focus on higher education pedagogy linked with the opportunity to listen to a lot of interesting and theoretically rich perspectives across the three days of the conference, it dawned on me that in understanding both my own emergent subject knowledge and my continued emergence and growth as a teacher troublesome knowledge and threshold concepts are as relevant to my own changing thinking and practice as it is for helping the development of knowledge and understanding in students.

In one of those moments where two ideas come together, I happened to be giving a presentation on the use of Lesson Study in higher education, in particular considering our current research into research methods pedagogy. One technique which we are using in this research is to ask students to create concept maps at the end of each session, which they are then asked to record a short audio commentary about before sending both files to us so that we can begin to gain another perspective on their emerging understanding. In some recent interviews a couple of the students talked about the importance of the concept maps and explanations in helping them to begin to get a more conscious understanding of the degree to which they do or don’t understand important principles and concepts within research methods. Having discussed this in the seminar with academic colleagues, it dawned on me that we all have conceptual and knowledge-based schemata that however knowledgeable or expert we are within a field, always offer new thresholds and troublesome knowledge with which to engage. By considering my own work and research in this way it is beginning to help me reframe the degree to which risk, grappling with the unknown and long periods of uncertainty and hard graft are as important for me as a researcher and teacher as it is for the students with whom I work. How often do we tend to inhabit a space which feels comfortable and from which we can feel a sense of authority, rather than searching out new areas of troublesome knowledge through which we can stumble towards new thresholds in our own understanding? Perhaps there is as much to gain from thinking about our own knowledge and work in this way as there is in considering how we engage students in their learning.

Reflecting on a new Research Methods course – Some initial musings

Since September, we have been running the research methods course the planning for which was outlined in this blog earlier in the year. The ideas which I set out below are first impressions – we haven’t started to analyse the large dataset we’ve already accrued over this first term. That will be a long, if enjoyable, job!!

Working on an MA in International Education is both rewarding and also extremely thought-provoking. The groups with whom we engage are very diverse in just about every way possible; the stereotypical view that ‘academics’ don’t know anything about teaching seems somewhat wide of the mark when working with international groups. They are wonderful, and developing ideas with such groups are some of the most positive, difficult and enjoyable teaching experiences I have ever had.

What follows is a series of initial musings because any systematic understanding of our experiences thus far are a long way ahead of us due to the large scale process of in-depth data analysis which we will need to undertake once our project finishes at the end of the academic year. This post can only hope to give initial impressions and reflections on some apparently important elements of an emergent and very different pedagogy which we are developing as we gain insights from the course and the students.

International groups are often very diverse, and the group with whom we are working this year is no different. We have students from China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Kurdistan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and the UK. This leads to a wide spectrum of language ability, but students are also coming straight from undergraduate degrees, including Chinese literature to Chemistry, others have trained as teachers and taught in schools, and some have Masters degrees in other subjects. Consequently, the diversity of prior knowledge and understanding of both education and of research methods is huge. However, educational research has some interesting characteristics which are different to many single discipline approaches to research, and together with a rich conceptual language has led us to consider a number of ideas and approaches, some of which are outlined below as a series of short reflections rather than a single synthesised narrative.

Language is a central element in helping a diverse international group engage with, and understand, research methods. This area of study has a rich conceptual character with an equally rich and at times abstract language associated with it. To begin to gain a working understanding of research methods requires students to begin to have confidence in their use of terminology, and the ways in which that terminology links to important concepts. Interestingly, this means that a research methods language is not only new to those for whom English is an additional language, but also for native speakers. At the end of each session we have been asking students to identify terms which they still have trouble understanding, which then become the basis for developing an online glossary and subsequent quizzes at the start of following sessions. In interviews, both native and non-native speakers have suggested that a conscious consideration of language has helped them to develop their conceptualisation of research methods in the early part of the course. Conscious consideration of vocabulary is useful to everyone.

The development of a blended approach to learning also appears to have had a very positive impact. The use of a flipped classroom approach together with pre-reading has been important for the learning of students. A number of individuals have reflected on the importance of narrated PowerPoints which they watch before a face-to-face session. They can pause, rewind, and watch a video several times if they wish, allowing them to understand both language and concepts in their own time which they can then utilise more fully within the sessions. Likewise, use of pre-reading with focused activities has allowed students to further define and embellish their basic understanding of an area as well is providing them with concrete case studies and examples of research approaches. These papers can then be used to exemplify concepts in face-to-face sessions, concepts which might otherwise remain very abstract and difficult to understand. This approach means that a large part of face-to-face sessions becomes focused on paired and group work which allows for debate and extension of ideas which they have already come across. This is particularly important in helping students to develop active and authentic use of language.

In this first term we have focused on the philosophical and theoretical foundation for research methods, covering principles of what defines research as well as basic introductions to ontology, epistemology and paradigms. These have then formed the basis for a consideration of methodology and ethics. In addition to these core ideas we have spent a day exploring approaches to critical reading, and one developing frameworks for critical writing. Anecdotal experience of research methods courses is that these issues can become separated foci which rarely crossover one to the other leading to atomised and incomplete understanding. We have attempted to constantly revisit ideas as we move forward, leading to a strong narrative within the module. Critical reading has been discussed as a process of ensuring that the understanding of research methods underpins a critical reading of literature within their other, content focused modules. Therefore, having introduced ontology, epistemology and paradigms, these concepts have been used as a way of understanding different approaches to research covered in pre-readings. Then having focused on other issues within a critical writing day we came back to ontology etc through a consideration of methodology and ethics, leading to a degree of interleaving. This also allowed us to develop an understanding of the need to create a clear philosophical and practical narrative within the development of research projects. For example, given a project title, the outlining of context should lead to research questions and from here ontological and paradigmatic foundations. These principles should then act as the basis for appropriate methodologies and methods as well is outlining ethical considerations. By revisiting these concepts and vocabulary on a number of occasions and within a number of worked examples and contexts there is evidence that students’ confidence and understanding has started to develop well.

The last reflection which has been of interest in this first period has been the use of summary concept maps at the end of each face-to-face session. As a final activity each day students have been asked to reflect upon what they believe have been their main areas of learning and then to relate these to each other. Given that it might be possible to create a concept map which gives the appearance of a well-developed level of understanding without that understanding being present, we have also asked students to create five minute recorded narrations explaining the form of their concept maps. They then send a photograph of the concept map with recordings to us so that we can understand any misconceptions or holes in understanding which might be apparent. Students who have been interviewed towards the end of term believe that this activity has helped them gain a clearer understanding of their own level of learning within sessions and has also helped them to revisit terminology and concepts in a structured way. Their inclusion within our pedagogic framework has been both useful and popular.

Reflecting on what we have learned during this first term from this revised approach to research methods, central to our thinking has been the ways in which we build linguistic and conceptual understanding to help form coherent and strong narratives concerning the foundations for understanding research methods. Linking this to varied pedagogy which includes more transmissive approaches linked to more independent, project-based and group-led work, we have started to develop a very enriched approach, one which a ‘methodology of glimpses’ appears to have helped uncover.

Thinking Through Learning and Research – 2

In the first post on thinking though learning and research I briefly outlined how we define the process of learning (through the work of Knud Illeris), as well as some of the contextual assumptions we make. In this post, I want to explore how these foundations translate into a conceptual model and from there to the curriculum model outlined at the end of the first post and which is augmented here.

Our first theoretical standpoint is that we are dealing with a complex adaptive system (as outlined in the first post) which leads to the acceptance that the processes involved are non-linear, interact in unpredictable ways and are therefore emergent in nature. We are also assuming that student learning rests on developing ever more complex and detailed schemata relating to research methods. These develop and coalesce around a small number of threshold concepts (which I first discussed here). The threshold concepts we believe a master’s level course should address are:

  • Criticality (in reading and writing)
  • Theory
  • Methodology
  • Analysis
  • Epistemology/Ontology/World View
  • Ethics

These are central to understanding, designing and competing small-scale research projects. They are therefore the basis for laying a strong foundation for those advancing to doctoral-level study.

A schema, or schemata, will emerge and coalesce around these concepts. These will then, hopefully act as an emerging framework for critical engagement with published research in the form of both empirical research and the research methods literature itself. In addition, the framework will be the basis for the practical application of these ideas and for the development and completion of small-scale research activities and projects which will eventually culminate in a master’s dissertation.

In considering the threshold concepts at the core of the course development, we decided at an early stage that we needed to give ourselves and students time to engage with both content and practical application. To do this we want to be able to introduce areas of research methods, for example methodology and its various forms, or ethics in a critical and in-depth way. In introducing each area we need to continually build links so that knowledge development is situated in both a wider schematic of research methods, whilst also being deeply rooted in relation to concepts. As a consequence, all research methods sessions will last for a minimum of one day (Figure 2).

By having longer, but less frequent sessions, time is given for introduction and discussion of new knowledge, the development of understanding of the links of that knowledge to concepts, as well as a consideration of practical application and use. This then suggests a set of inter-related processes (figure 1), such that

understanding elements of learning for a master's RM programme

The diagram in Figure 1 is an initial attempt to create a framework for research methods learning. It takes the growth of knowledge, the understanding of threshold concepts through liminal processes of thought, discussion, and reflection, and the application through the enhancing of practical skills as a holistic model of emerging research ability. All three elements are vital, and need to be intertwined to bring a critical understanding and practical ability in carrying out research. Each element is important for if there is any element missing there is less than a holistic approach. If students are given knowledge and told to apply this, then they may see application as a simple set of tick lists, a ‘mechanistic’ application as the knowledge instilled will tend to be technical in form where it is not underpinned by conceptual understanding. This also means that research quality will be compromised as when difficulties arise, or alternative approaches need to be developed in a particular context, the lack of deep, conceptual underpinning will lead to less flexibility and possibly to the use of inappropriate approaches.

Likewise, if concepts are explicitly discussed, but are not linked to a breadth and depth of knowledge, any link to application will be weak as a knowledge-base is important for practical application. Finally, the cross-over between concepts and knowledge is where I would place the recent surge of interest in ‘research literacy’. Here, engagement with the conceptual framework of research methods, together with a developing knowledge of approaches and examples, will lead to an emerging theoretical engagement and understanding. However, it will be devoid of practical skills in application and the ‘messiness’ of research as it is planned and executed. This is not a major weakness for those wanting to engage with the research of others, but will mean that some of the messiness inherent in research is not clearly or critically understood.

It is where all three elements of learning are focused on and developed that critical understanding and application will emerge. However, this has to be seen as an iterative process, one which extends beyond the end of any level of formal learning and training. It is the interplay of these elements which, over very long periods of research activity, lead to individuals who can be identified as ‘experts’ in research.

Taking the intertwined development of knowledge, concepts and application as the core of a research methods course, we have developed an approach which tries to engender these principles. As a result, the course has the following form (Figure 2).

RM course final

The course covers each of the main conceptual areas, beginning with a consideration of what we actually mean by research and moving forward to cover each area in turn, thus creating a ‘research methods’ narrative. These build on each other, and once an element has been covered it will be enfolded into later discussions. No session is less than a day long, and some are longer. For example, research design and tools is a 3 day session. This allows for revisiting of previous knowledge and conceptual bases, and the incorporation of research design as a further element of successful research planning. Having introduced these elements more formally, the length of the session will give time for discussion, planning, creation and problem-based and discovery learning. The result will be the development of a draft research design for a dissertation, as well as a research tool to be trialled as a pilot.

As well as the knowledge and conceptual bases being developed in the face-to-face and online materials, an application strand will start from early in the course. Initially this will take the form of pairs of students carrying out semi-structured interviews with established researchers to investigate their views concerning research, preferences of research approach, as well as some idea of research career history. Results will then be shared later in the course. Having completed this component, students will then need to carry out individual piloting of a research tool which they have created based on their work in the course. This will give them an opportunity to develop and critique research tools in a supported and structured environment. The data from both exercises will then act as the core for a two day session on analysis tools making use of the authentic data sets collected by the students themselves (supplemented where necessary to ensure engagement with both quantitative and qualitative analysis).

The development of application, knowledge and conceptual understanding throughout the course will culminate in the completion of a dissertation. By developing all strands together in a holistic approach, this will be the ‘acid-test’ of how well the students have developed a deepening, critical and positive potential in carrying out their own small-scale research.


The final post of this strand will consider how we can capture a useful understanding of the various elements and processes in the course.