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Learning to teach: an introduction to classroom research
Learning to teach: an introduction to classroom research

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2 Designing your research

One of the ways in which a study becomes a research project, rather than a classroom evaluation, is through the design of the study. Underpinning that design will be a set of beliefs that you hold about the nature of knowledge and the ways of studying knowledge. Those beliefs will bring coherence to the study. For example, if you believe that knowledge in this context is subjective, context dependent and socially constructed, then your methodology should reflect that and your findings should be reported in such a way that the context in which the study was carried out is clear. If you believe that knowledge is objective, that there is a ‘truth’ out there waiting to be discovered, then you would need to conduct a study in which variables are tightly controlled and the findings would be presented as facts.

Methodology describes a set of ideas about how the research study should be designed. There should be coherence between your theoretical perspective and your methodology.

Ben Goldacre (2013) advocates the use of randomised trials in educational research. The assumption behind these is that the research will tell us ‘what works’ the implication being that this will be a ‘fact’. This sort of research is designed as an experiment and the underlying philosophy is positivist.

For the sort of small-scale studies often undertaken by teachers in their classrooms, the assumption is usually that the knowledge produced will be subjective and context dependent and that a case study or action research approach is likely to be the most appropriate. The underlying philosophy is ‘interpretivist’ rather than ‘positivist’ (Wilson, 2013).

Activity 3: Positivism and interpretivism

Timing: Time: 30 minutes

Read Two competing paradigms [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] on positivism and interpretivism from the OpenLearn unit Engaging with Educational Research. Then:

  • Make a note of the key assumptions and beliefs that underpin each paradigm.
  • Summarise the sorts of research methods that are appropriate for each paradigm.
  • Think about your own idea in terms of these two philosophical approaches:
    • Which approach fits best with your own beliefs and values?
    • Which approach is most suitable for your area of study?


The interpretivist view of the world, is underpinned by the belief that we all see things from different perspectives and that knowledge is constructed through social interaction. A positivist on the other hand sees the world as a set of ‘objects’, independent of our perspective, and believes that knowledge is accumulated through by conducting experiments in which variables are controlled.

Interpretivists are more likely to conduct interviews and focus groups, make use of reflective journals and observe situations of interest. A positivist is more likely to try to measure things using surveys, or test scores.

Those coming to research for the first time, sometimes take the view that research carried out in the interpretivist paradigm is subjective and therefore not rigorous. They need convincing that it can be worthwhile and trustworthy. Activity 6 in the OpenLearn unit ‘Engaging with Educational Research’ illustrates how these alternative view points might influence how research is carried out.