4 Identifying the researcher’s role
Carrying out practitioner research can offer a unique perspective on a research topic – because of the in-depth knowledge of the particular research context that is being explored from within – but it can have disadvantages as well as advantages. In this next section, you will begin by listening to Nicola Smith talk about her practitioner research study, conducted in two nurseries with contrasting ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities, and to her reflections on her role.
Being a practitioner researcher
Aim: to consider a first-hand account of conducting practitioner research.
Listen to the audio and make notes on the following points.
Transcript: Alison Clark Interview with Nicola Smith
Hello, I’m Alison Clark, Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies at The Open University and a member of the module team, and I’m talking to Nicola Smith about her PhD research. Nicola, could you begin by giving a brief outline of your research study?
My research study was carried out in two settings, which were both primary schools, and I was researching in the two nursery classes. They were both settings that I’d worked in as a nursery teacher. One of the settings was attended mostly by children of Pakistani and Bengali origin, and one of the settings was attended mostly by children who spoke English as a first language and who were of white ethnic origin. What I was interested in finding out in my study were how practitioners, parents and children perceived parental involvement, and were there differences between individual parents and between groups of parents, and were there differences in perception between practitioners, children and parents. My aim at the end of the research study was to think about how practice in working with parents might be improved from the practitioners’ perspective.
This was a practitioner research study. What do you see as some of the advantages and maybe disadvantages of this type of research?
I think the main advantage for me was that because I was one of the practitioners who worked in one of the settings and had very close relationships with the other setting, whatever I discovered in my research I would be in a position to affect the practice. So I felt that my research had a good opportunity of making a difference for parents and children, and that was important for me, that was why I started the research in the first place, because it came from a concern about my own practice, I felt that I wasn’t working in a very effective way with parents. So that was a really important thing to me about my research, and I felt that was a strong advantage. I think another advantage was that because I worked in one of the settings and I had worked in the other setting, I already had some good relationships with the parents and the children. I think that became really important once the research started because we had to build up trust between us, and I think some of that trust was already there.
But having said that, I think our previous relationships also served as a disadvantage as well, because I’d been in a position of teacher, and parents and children viewed me in a certain way, and I think there were quite a lot of issues of power that I had to think about quite closely in my research, particularly from the point of view of how teachers were perceived by parents and how previous practice had reinforced those kind of relationships. So I felt that parents and children, there was a danger that they could be thinking, when I was asking them questions in the research, that they could be thinking ‘Well, what’s the right answer here, what does she want me to say?’ when I really wanted to find out what did they really want to tell me, and that was quite a hard thing to negotiate to start off with.
Also I think the other disadvantage was, as in any sort of research working with children, that you’re working with quite vulnerable participants, and I had to be really careful to make sure that children understood what I was doing and what might happen with the things they told me. That was particularly true for the children but also that was true for their parents, and also for the practitioners who I was working with, because I was interviewing practitioners and I was critiquing their practice really in the analysis, and I think there was a lot of trust involved in the research and I was asking a lot of the participants, so that was something that I had to work through in my own head but also talking to the participants about what the research was going to involve and what I was going to do with the research when I’d finished it.
How did you see your role as a researcher, and did your understandings about your role change during the process?
The most important thing for me was that I felt my research was about giving participants an opportunity to talk to me about things that nobody had asked them about before, and that’s how my research started, because I was worried about the way I was working with parents; I felt as though our relationships weren’t as good as they could be, and I felt sure that parents and children weren’t really talking to me about how they wanted things to be in the nursery where I was working. So my research was about asking them, because I started thinking ‘Well, I wonder how parents would like things to happen in the nursery’, and then I realised that nobody had ever asked them. So I very much saw my role as… well, one of the expressions that I came across in my reading was about opening up a space where people’s voices could be heard. So for me it started from that point of view, from wanting to give participants an opportunity to talk to me, but also I think it changed over time, because I think I realised I was in danger in conducting the research in reinforcing the sorts of things that I was wanting to change; because I was in the position of researcher and I didn’t want to be saying to participants ‘Here I am and I’m giving you this opportunity to tell me’, because that just was reinforcing the imbalance of power that I was worried about in the first place. So I think it changed as I went through, I realised that it wasn’t about me just going in and opening up that space, it was about me negotiating with the parents and the children and the other practitioners and letting them have a kind of say in where the research was going, so I think there is a degree of facilitating going on as well.
Could you explain the process you went through to identify your questions? What did you find helpful in this process?
I think to start off with, as I’ve already said, the questions came from my own practice, so my research didn’t actually start off as a research study as such, it started off with me thinking ‘Oh, here’s something that I need to change, how am I going to change it?’, which is I think the way you work as a practitioner anyway, isn’t it, it was the way I’d been used to working with children if something wasn’t working in the nursery. So I think that was helpful for me, reflecting on my own practice and thinking about my own ideas, and then that led to me thinking about starting a PhD in terms of conducting the research, and that was when I started reading a lot. It was almost kind of like following a trail, so I’d start reading one thing and then that would lead me on to something else, so kind of following that trail through the literature helped me to see which way I was going, and sometimes I read about things and realised that they weren’t relevant to my research so I had a few kind of dead ends along the way. But I think the other thing that helped me was to keep talking about my ideas and my thoughts with other more experienced researchers, like my supervisors and like people that I met, and talking about what my ideas were and letting them ask me questions, and other researchers who had had a lot more experience would always suggest things and say ‘Well, have you thought about this and have you thought about that?’, and that really helped me refine my ideas. I think I moved from a more kind of practical approach in the way that I’d been used to working as a practitioner and thinking ‘How am I going to change practice?’, to kind of bringing that together with a theory, and that helped me put my ideas into a context, to come up with the research questions.
Thinking about making sense of the research data, can you talk about how you brought together your academic and your practitioner knowledge?
I think to start off with I almost had to set aside my practitioner knowledge so that I could look at what the participants were telling me in the research. I wanted to put my own interpretation on it because it was about my practice and it was about my understanding of theory, but before I could do that I kind of almost had to set that to one side and just try and look at what the participants were telling me and trying to look at how their ideas related to each other before I started to think about how what people had told me related to what I’d read or to what I thought. But also I had to think really carefully about what my perceptions of good practice were and how they related to what participants were telling me. So it was kind of trying to bring the two ideas together, trying to bring together from a top-down and a bottom-up perspective, so trying to look at what people were telling me first and then trying to match that to things that I’d read and my thoughts about what I’d read.
Thank you very much, Nicola.
- Focus of the study
- Researcher’s perspectives on the advantages of practitioner research
- Researcher’s perspectives on disadvantages of practitioner research
- Your views on advantages and disadvantages of practitioner research
This practitioner research study focused on different perceptions of parental involvement in nurseries, drawing on accounts by practitioners, parents and young children. The researcher’s specific interest was in how parental involvement was perceived in contrasting settings according to the ethnicity of the participants (white ethnic origin or British Asian).
Smith highlights the importance of being able to have a direct impact on practice as the main advantage of carrying out practitioner research. Her previous experience and current role at the time of carrying out the research placed her in a position in which she could act on the findings to bring about change. She also highlights the advantage of already being known by parents and children, and of having some level of relationship on which to build her research. Some foundation of trust had already been established, rather than her needing to gain the trust of parents and children.
However, Smith also identifies pre-existing relationships between researcher and participants as a potential disadvantage in practitioner research. She discusses how her position as teacher could reinforce the power differences between her own position and that of the children and parents. There was also the complication of potentially being seen to criticise her own colleagues’ work.
Drawing on your own experiences, you may have identified other advantages and disadvantages of this particular positioning of a researcher in relation to practice. One further advantage might be the recognition of a particular issue that your day-to-day work has identified but that may not have been the focus for a wider research study. A disadvantage might be the difficulty in distancing yourself from a research topic to see the issue from different perspectives.