‘Through a glass darkly’ Part 2: reflection and the agile researcher

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June 12, 2013 by Leigh-Anne Perryman

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Photo credit: Lotte Grønkjær CC-BY-NC-SA via Compfight

In Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus (173-174), Socrates talks about the philosopher whose mind is not in the city, where his body is, but is instead ‘in the heights above the heaven’, far away from ‘what lies near at hand’.  Socrates’ observation on the dynamic between the real world and the world of philosophical abstraction has parallels with the relationship between real world practice and the processes involved in being a reflective practitioner, either as an educator or as a researcher.  In Part 1 of this blog series on reflection I looked at the ways in which open educational resources might prompt critical reflection by educators. Here, I shift focus to consider the role of reflection in research, specifically how reflection might be recorded by the roving researcher in an accurate and timely way that is not unduly burdensome.

Donald Schön (1983) suggests that a reflective practitioner might conduct reflection in-action – a process that reshapes thinking and action while we are acting – and reflection on-action, which takes place later. However, van Manen counters that there is not enough time to both think and act when engaged in the practice of teaching, which is very much an in-the-moment activity.  Educational field research is also very in-the-moment, generally requiring complete concentration on the task at hand, be it conducting an interview or focus group, or performing a classroom observation. As an educator-turned-researcher, my experience is that reflection in-action itself is not incompatible with practice; it is an automatic and ongoing process during both teaching and research activities, leading to micro decisions and changes in practice.  However, the accurate and timely recording of reflection in-action does pose a challenge, especially for researchers and educators whose days are already bursting at the seams.

Reflection and the recording of reflection demands time and both in-the-moment and out-of-the-moment thinking space. Finding that thinking space can be difficult, however, and it is not uncommon to find educators, researchers and theorists alike problematising the relationship between the abstract and detached world of reflection and the gritty realities of real world practice. The challenge, then, is to capture in-action and on-action reflection in such a way that minimises the burden on the reflector and maximises the value of the reflection process.

These considerations are currently the focus of my work for the OER Research Hub, where one of my responsibilities is to design the project evaluation strategy and framework. The framework I’ve devised (soon to be available via the OER Research Hub website) includes an iterative and formative phase of evaluation during the lifetime of the project in addition to a summative end of project evaluation report, in line with the Kellogg Foundation Evaluation Handbook recommendations that evaluation should be used to ‘strengthen projects during their life cycle’.

The OER Research Hub researchers are central to the formative evaluation process, which is informed by their reflection in- and on-action, both during day-to-day work and whilst away on research visits in the UK and abroad. A big challenge is capturing this reflection via methods that:

  • are timely and take place as soon after key events as possible, while memories are fresh;
  • are not overly onerous or time-consuming;
  • allow the results of the reflection process to be shared with others in the team so that collective interpretation of their significance can inform the future development of the project;
  • will feed easily into the body of evidence informing the formative evaluation process;
  • can, where appropriate, be disseminated beyond the project.

So far, I’ve had the following ideas for ways in which the researcher might capture reflection:

(1) A reflection in-action journal to be used during interviews, focus groups and other in-field activities.

This would require the researcher to be quite fleet-of-foot in combining reflection with close listening and facilitating the interview or focus group.  This becomes easier when the research is supported by technology (e.g. where research activities themselves are captured through voice recorders and/or video) or by a note-taker with responsibility for recording the detail of the interview or focus group interaction.  I tried this approach myself during a recent research trip to India (look out for the ‘India Diaries’, to be blogged soon) and found it quite taxing to record the reflection in-action process whilst also staying in the moment. I used colour to mark out the reflection points to allow them to be collated but over the course of my visit the process was largely hit and miss.

notes

My field notes from an interview with a teacher-educator at an Indian District Institute of Education and Training, showing reflection-in-action recorded and highlighted in green

(2) Research field trip-based reflection on-action video diaries, whereby the researcher reflects at the end of each day.

For me, the notion of a research-focused video diary conjures up recollections of the video diaries recorded by actor Ewan McGregor during motorcycle adventures such as The Long Way Round, and his video diaries for the Soccer Aid campaign. Following Brookfield it’s arguable that such diaries may benefit from a pre-defined structure such as that featured in the critical incident technique, which I discuss in Part 1 of this series of reflection blog posts.

When visiting India last month to conduct TESS India-related research I had great plans about recording a daily video diary that would allow me to share my reflection on the day’s events with the wider world. However, despite my enthusiasm I filmed just one video diary and even that was more like a travelogue than reflection-on-action. Why did my plans come to so little? On reflection, events overtook me. The 45 degree heat was exhausting. Planning and booking transport when a reliable internet connection was hard to come by sapped much of my resourcefulness leaving me little energy for creative expression. By the end of each day my mind was on preparing for the next day’s activities, making sure all of my tech was still working and fully-charged, removing layers of mosquito repellent, sun cream and dust ready for reapplication the following morning, drinking sufficient water and getting sufficient sleep. The considerations both distracted me from the process of filming and found their way into the one video diary I did produce which, in turn, was much too long to be useful.  I’m comforted by the fact that two OERRH researcher colleagues – Bea de los Arcos and Beck Pitt – also travelled on research trips during May, visiting different parts of the US, and neither of them recorded video diaries. Again, both reported that a focus on ensuring the research activities went as smoothly as possible distracted them from self-reflection via a video diary.

(3) ‘Postcards home’ style emails back to OERRH colleagues, both reporting and reflecting on events during a research trip.

I did manage this during my trip to India, and the content will find its way into the ‘India Diaries’ blog posts. My roving colleagues Beck and Bea also sent postcards home emails, as did OERRH Co-Investigator Martin Weller and fellow Research Associate Rob Farrow, who were out of the country at conferences. One advantage of this approach (especially when you’ve a dodgy Internet connection) is that the same email (more or less) can be sent to friends and family!

Trainee teachers at Harpur DIET, Uttar Pradesh, India
Photo credit: Leigh-Anne Perryman CC-BY

(4) Research diaries.

Again, Soccer Aid offers an example in Kiera Knightly’s online diaries. This, more traditional option could be brought up to date by presenting the diaries in Google Drive, making them accessible to other team members and allowing for the ‘rational discourse’ that Mezirow suggests is a valuable component of critical reflection, with colleagues offering a range of perspectives that may prove useful when analysing the diary contents to inform formative evaluation. As with the video diaries, the use of a pre-defined structure could help to focus reflection and maximise its use for evaluation purposes.  The diaries could also provide a home for the postcard-style emails mentioned above.  One disadvantage here is the time burden involved in researchers checking each others’ diaries for updates.

(5) Reflection after-action via collaborative discussion with peers, either online or in person, the results of which are then diarised or blogged so that they can inform the formative evaluation process.

Key theorists on reflection (e.g. Mezirow, Brookfield and Serafini) emphasise the importance of critical discourse with peers as a vital aspect of the reflection process, allowing a multiplicity of perspectives and increased critical distance during the analysis stage. The OER Research Hub researchers have plentiful opportunities for collaborative reflection but again it’s arguable that such reflection is likely to be of more value in the context of the project evaluation process if it is shaped by a pre-defined structure.

(6) Blog posts, like this one.

These can be written soon after the event that is the focus of reflection (ideally), when memories are fresh, even if they are posted a little later.  I did write some blog material whilst in India, though unreliable Internet connectivity prevented me from publishing the posts. They will appear soon… Impressively, OERRH researcher Beck Pitt did some live blogging whilst at the Connexions conference in Houston, Texas, in addition to reflective blog accounts of the research she was doing. An advantage of blog posts is that they reach a wider audience, offering the opportunity to draw on perspectives beyond those of one’s immediate colleagues.  My OERRH blog posts appear at www.artofoer.wordpress.com. Other OERRH bloggers include Bea de los Arcos, Rob Farrow, Beck Pitt and last, but not least, Professors Martin Weller and Patrick McAndrew.

(7) Tweets.

They’re short, can be sweet, and can be released to the outside world immediately, should connectivity be possible.  You can see my India trip tweets at @laperryman. Check out the tweets from fellow OERRH researchers Beck Pitt and Robert Farrow too. They’re off to Baltimore this week so they should have something to tweet about…

The list of reflection-recording methods I’ve provided above is certainly not definitive and, on reflection, feels quite staid and not particularly inventive. Other options could include techniques drawn from digital storytelling and…. well, do please share any ideas or experiences of your own.

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One thought on “‘Through a glass darkly’ Part 2: reflection and the agile researcher

  1. […] In Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus (173-174), Socrates talks about the philosopher whose mind is not in the city, where his body is, but is instead ‘in the heights above the heaven’, far away from ‘wha…  […]

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Blogging on open educational resources (OER), open educational practices (OEP), educational research methods and online practices in the developing world, and in the voluntary sector.

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