Becoming an ethical researcher
Becoming an ethical researcher

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Becoming an ethical researcher

4 Making a difference: why is research important?

Described image
Figure 6 Making a difference in the world: Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Greta Thunberg, Nobel Peace Prize nominee

Many people aim for their research to make an impact and some degree of difference to the world, whether imagining they can offer a big or small benefit. Some research arises from a desire to explore another angle on a social justice issue or a desire to find a new way of doing something. Research often needs courage as well as curiosity.

Now you will turn to some researchers discussing their work.

Activity 6 Researchers introduce their research studies with youth workers and teachers

Timing: Allow approximately 25 minutes for Part A and 10 minutes for Part B

Part A

As you listen to two contemporary researchers from The Open University, think about the prompts below and then complete the following grid.

Think about:

  • what are they researching?
  • why have they chosen to research their topic?
  • what is the context for their research?
  • what is their position towards the research – insider or outsider (or both)?
  • why do they consider their research to be important and beneficial?
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Action research: Kate Breeze
Skip transcript: Action research: Kate Breeze

Transcript: Action research: Kate Breeze

ALISON FOX
Hi. My name's Alison Fox, and I'm looking forward to speaking to Kate Breeze over the phone about a doctoral research about working with young people and their families. So welcome, Kate. Please, could you tell us about the context for the research?
KATE BREEZE
I'm going to talk about the research that I undertook as part of my PhD study. I was a part-time practitioner and a lecturer in HE. When I got the opportunity to undertake a sponsored PhD, it was pitched as sponsored by a university, a major education trust, a national youth development charity, and a federation of schools. So there are a lot of stakeholders involved in it.
And for me, it was a great opportunity both to reflect on and build on my own experience of interdisciplinary work, and particularly, work with young people, and bring my expertise to that agenda. So yes, it was a great privilege to have that opportunity.
ALISON FOX
So how did you go about choosing your research focus, Kate?
KATE BREEZE
That was one of the big challenges for this particular piece of research, because there are many different ways in which I could approach this, and many different potential focus and different theoretical frameworks, which are produced within this research. So what was really important for me was undertaking a broad literature review to start with, as I could really understand the context in which this particular area of practice sat. And also undertake a pilot study.
I was very fortunate in that a local family center approached me, having heard about the PhD, and asked me to work with them to articulate a similar program of which those in my case studies, so that they could have something to give to their funders, and also give their workers more confidence in what they were doing. And this was a great opportunity for me to think both about what were the key issues in this area of work, but also with the best ways to research it with practitioners.
And that really helped me locate myself in the study, then, and really appreciate what skills I was bringing, what experience I was bringing, and what I could add to the whole picture as well.
ALISON FOX
So how did you develop your research question for your doctorate, then, from these experiences and this thinking?
KATE BREEZE
The main thing I had to do was really listen to practitioners' perspectives on this whole area of research. I had my own critical questions I wanted to bring to this area of practice, but had to go through a process of checking out where practitioners were coming from on that, what their thoughts and concerns were, and then understand what sort of theoretical framework could be used to explore those ideas.
And it became apparent during my pilot study and my initial relationship-building with the practitioners in my case study organizations that they absolutely welcomed a piece of work which would encourage critical reflection on their practice and develop a critical framework for them to both analyze what they did, articulate what they did, and drive forward their practice.
ALISON FOX
So why would you say this study was important, Kate?
KATE BREEZE
Well, I discovered very early on that the actual practitioners involved in the research would find this extremely useful to them. But also whilst I was doing my initial literature review, my initial explorations, I discovered that there is actually very little existing research into this area of work. So hardly any research at all into how working in the outdoors and through residential experiences can be of benefit to young people and their families.
And also, this is a very important area of practice, because there's been a great shift in this professional field, particularly in youth work to working with families. And a lot of practitioners have found themselves involved in this work with very little preparation and very little opportunity to stop and think about what does this mean to be a youth worker, to be an informal educator working in this new context of practice.
And these changes to professional practice have been driven by changes to social policy in the last couple of decades, really. And that's why some of my sponsors, and particularly the educational trust, were very keen to support this area of research, so that they could represent and strengthen their representation to policymakers through using evidence from my study, along with other evaluations and other studies going on. So it contributed to a larger and stronger voice and representation back to government.
End transcript: Action research: Kate Breeze
Action research: Kate Breeze
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Download this audio clip.Audio player: Action research: Teresa Cremin
Skip transcript: Action research: Teresa Cremin

Transcript: Action research: Teresa Cremin

ALISON FOX
My name's Alison Fox. And I'm looking forward to talking today by phone with Teresa Cremin about her research as part of a study which adopted a randomized controlled approach. So welcome, Teresa, and thank you for agreeing to talk about the decision-making involved with this study, teachers as writers. Could you start by telling us a little about the context for the study and who you were working with please.
TERESA
Well, our partners were Arvon, which is a creative writing foundation, and when I say our, I'm referring to the University of Exeter, because the Open University and Exeter University, we did it together alongside Arvon and funded by the Arts Council England, actually, a research team. And our project took as a starting point a writing residential course to teachers, which now I've been running for many years, which sort of gives the teachers a chance to write for themselves, to engage in communal writing workshops, one-to-one tutorials with professional writers. And they, in effect, across a week, get real space and time for individual writing and for sharing and celebrating each other's writing.
And so within the teachers writers, we tracked the teachers moving from the Arvon residential into the classroom. We also added an additional experience of co-mentoring, where each of our 16 teachers work collaboratively with a professional writer-- after Arvon, that is-- both outside and then inside the classroom and were sharing the planning, the teaching, and reflecting upon teaching a unit of narrative writing. It was really a fun project and very fascinating.
ALISON FOX
Thanks, Teresa. So can you explain what you chose as your research focus?
TERESA
Well we chose to look at teachers as writers and how their engagement with the professional writers-- both those at Arvon and those they're working with as co-mentors in their classrooms-- how that engagement might impact on the teachers' experience of writing, on their classroom practice, and teaching writing, and obviously, as a consequence, whether and how this might improve writing outcomes for the young people that we're working with.
ALISON FOX
So Teresa, why did you think this was a really important focus?
TERESA
I think there were two main reasons, really. One, because there's a longstanding view that teachers of writing need to be writers themselves. And two, because in a systematic literature review I did into teachers writers with Lucy Oliver from Exeter University, we found that there was relatively little vigorous research in this area. So perhaps I could expound on both of those in turn.
I mean, in relation to the first point, we'd all expect, wouldn't we, that teachers of mathematics can do maths, teachers PE are competent sports folk, and those who teach French surely can speak it. We wouldn't expect a French teacher not to be able to be confident within the language. Yet partly in the way higher education is structured, teachers of English and literacy and primary-secondary schools are more likely to have taken English literature as an A level or degree in English literature than any kind of program which addresses creative writing.
And there's also quite strong research that have been suggested teachers see themselves more as readers than they do as writers. So as a consequence, in our classrooms, there's a real chance that professionals may be qualified and enthusiastic about reading, and not necessarily confident or indeed knowledgeable producers of written texts. They may not even enjoy writing.
The importance of teachers writers has been debated and researched for decades mainly in the US, but also in Australia and in this country. And lots of people argue, teachers must be writers. It's really important. And in a sense, I don't disagree that there may be lessons to be learned from writing if you engage as a writer, lessons to learn from the inside of it. But whether those lessons are then applied to the classroom is an interesting issue, and one we wanted to explore more fully. Does that answer your question?
ALISON FOX
Yeah, that's great. Thank you, Teresa. That's really helpful in hearing about how you gained confidence that the study would be a valuable one. And so who did you imagine it benefiting?
TERESA
Well, in essence, we hoped that the teachers would benefit, and that their classroom practice would benefit, and then as a consequence of that, the young people themselves as writers would benefit. We were particularly interested in whether if we could help teachers get inside writing with the support of the professional writers they were working with, would that be another route to enriching their practice, to offering new opportunities, that might shape children's experience of writing? And if those new opportunities would impact on the young people's quality of their writing. That's what we wanted to find out, really.
But we shouldn't forget that Arvon, our creative writing partners who run the residential training courses for teachers, they also wanted to know whether their work impacted on teachers, and their pedagogy and their students. They were really up for it, actually, Arvon, and they're really open as an organization to learn and to adapt their work, depending on what the findings indicated.
In relation to the professional writers, we're interested in documenting the way their own journeys impacted on their understandings of education. And that really was the most interesting. We had strong feedback from them about a wider understanding of the complexities, the challenges, and the context in which teachers are working. They commonly told us that they expected to come into classrooms and-- I'm going to put this phrase in quotes, but-- "do a star turn," come to share their strategies, their approaches, which have been honed over years, but often had been kind of packaged up into a "I'm a writer, here some activities we'll all do." and that might be the same school on school, as they go to work with different school students sets.
What they told us was this project had enabled them to realize that that wasn't necessarily efficacious for the students concerned. That they needed to know more about the students as writers themselves. They need to support the teachers on their long-term journeys as writers themselves. And many talked about how they were now wanting to be more flexible, more responsive, and planning in context rather than planning as a separate piece. So I think professional writers gained a very great deal from it. And Arts Council England were particularly interested in that strand.
End transcript: Action research: Teresa Cremin
Action research: Teresa Cremin
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While you listen to the interviews, make notes in the relevant column in the grid below, leaving the last row blank until you have listened to both audios and moved on to Part B.

Kate’s doctoral research with youth workers Teresa’s research about teachers as writers

Positionality?

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What?

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Why?

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For whom?

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A key issue you can imagine

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Part B

After you have listened to both interviews, imagine a key ethical issue for each, which might arise for the researchers due to their positionality in relation to their chosen research context of the selected topic. Complete the last row of the table. Then reveal the table in the discussion below to see some suggested issues you might have identified.

Discussion

Kate’s doctoral research with youth workers Teresa’s research about teachers as writers
Positionality? Insider as a former youth worker but outsider as commissioned to work with centres hadn’t previously worked with Outsider as a university academic – but she had originally been an English teacher
What? To critically examine youth workers’ experiences of supporting children and families in outdoor education centres To examine whether by supporting teachers with their writing it impacts on their practice
Why? Under-researched and a new opportunity to learn how to use outdoor centres effectively with different groups Teachers of English are not prepared well as English graduates in terms of their writing and that this is likely to lead to a lack of confidence and expertise in their teaching of writing in English
For whom? Policy-makers; leaders of the centres, to improve their practice; youth workers, to help them be critical about how to use the centres as part of their work Ultimately for the students of the teachers being worked with during the project; the Critical Writing foundation, to learn from the feedback generated on how to develop their courses
A key issue you can imagine
  • The children and young families are likely to be experiencing challenging circumstances, which need to be handled sensitively and safely.
  • As an outsider working with practitioners and families, there will be tensions between confidentiality and safeguarding practices.
  • Not knowing the families might lead to uncomfortable interactions.
  • It is not straightforward to make a direct cause and effect connection between teaching teachers and their students’ performance.
  • Teachers will respond differently to the training programme but will it be clear which responses are more effective?
  • How will better teacher performance be measured?

You will learn more about the way these questions led the researchers to make ethical decisions about research design, data collection, analysis and reporting if you decide to register for one of The Open University’s Masters qualifications in Education or Childhood and Youth.

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