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Chapter Six

#[p110] PART 3

Refining the method.

#[p111] Chapter 7. Off-shoots.

Given the nature of this project, an exploration which evolved as my ideas on what and how to study evolved, it is perhaps no surprise that the course of inquiry was far from linear. I pursued many side issues, some of which stayed just that, side issues. Some fizzled out, collapsed under their own weight, strayed too far from the main path or otherwise came to be abandoned. One became the main path: "how to research". My problem then was, what to do with these "flowers" which never properly bloomed? I could have simply buried them, as irrelevant to the study, a kind of distraction; like other glitches, just noise in the system. My commitment to honesty, however, made me uneasy about this.

As confidence in the method developed I began to see these excursions as hallmarks of this kind of work: "Research is the process of going up blind alleys to see if they are blind" (Bates 1967 cited in Green 1982 p.217). Knorr-Cetina (1981) argues that theories of innovation must also include a theory of "failure and mistakes" (p. 6, emphasis in original). By a loose analogy, my description of methods could (should?) incorporate accounts of "failures". At the very least, the tale of the research would be lop-sided without them. But were they of any use?

I gradually conceived two ideas: (a) the abandoned themes might still act as triggers for other researchers and so, perhaps deserved at least a mention and (b), more importantly, they could add to the believability of the account. This latter aspect is explored in chapter 11. In addition, consideration of two of the side issues, chaos and "circular epistemology" (see appendix B) , led to some clearer thinking on when to abandon such lines of inquiry. Although fascinating in their own right, both of these topics seemed to depart too far from the path, without becoming the path:

...a warning sign of the imminent failure of a problem is when the difficulties begin to ‘diverge’; when the subsidiary problems called into being by new difficulties become larger and more fundamental ... [a]n important part of the craft skill of a scientist ... is to detect signs of incipient divergence ... and decide when to abandon a doomed venture (Ravetz 1971 p. 131).

#[p112] They began to collapse about me. I decided to cut my losses and spend no further time trying to rescue them. They seemed to be moving far outside my field of competence.

Initially I described such abandoned topics as "blind alleys" then began to look for more positive sounding labels as I started to value them. "Probes" had an immediate attraction, with its aura of scientific respectability. I finally settled on off-shoots, in keeping with the banyan tree metaphor of chapter 6.

For the further development of the project, the off-shoot concerning reflection is most relevant. This raises the issue of honesty which becomes very important for me. The other off-shoots I have collected together in appendix B and these need to be read in conjunction with this chapter.

1. Off-shoot : reflection.

As with reflection-in-action (see appendix B), I initially thought reflection could be the major focus of the study. Although it came to be part of my working practices, and, in a broad sense, "reflection" was the means by which my data - my research and practice diaries - were brought into being, in the end my project coalesced around a much less tidy theme: mess. The study of reflection, however, had some lessons to give to the rest of the research, especially on the topic of identity, and in particular, on my concern over honesty. I will recount my experiences of writing the article "On reflection" (Mellor 1998a reproduced in appendix C) to illustrate these concerns.

As I recall I had a number of reasons for publishing this article. One was simply to draw a line under a lengthy investigation which I felt was reasonably well done but which I had, by the time of its completion, passed by. I also wanted to build up my academic confidence. I refer in Mellor 1998b to the idea of "cheering on". I had quite happily completed some writing in the field of practice (Mellor 1997 a and b) but my main research interest was by now becoming well entrenched in an area, methodology, where the ground constantly shifted and I had grave doubts about the viability of the study in practical terms, let alone its academic respectability. I needed a boost. I needed "cheering #[p113] on". I needed a publication. I did not expect an easy ride from colleagues (I submitted the article to the refereed journal, Educational Psychology in Practice) but the opposition, when it came, was from a most unexpected quarter. I will explain.

The article has as its centrepiece one fragment of casework. I reflected on this fragment, using a rather cumbersome protocol which, nevertheless, raised, for me, challenging issues, for instance over ethics. I felt, and still feel, that reflection should be a valued and recognised part of good practice (not necessarily following the procedure I used), and took some steps to raise this with the membership and qualification board of the BPS, hoping this could perhaps be included as one element in the professional doctorates being developed currently[1].  Apart from this long term consideration, however, my main worry, embedded in the content of the article, centred on the question of knowledge, an area where I felt vulnerable.

My feeling is that psychologists generally regard themselves as scientists; educational psychologists I believe, on the whole, do not differ. Although a range of positions is apparent in recent arguments in "The Psychologist", the BPS bulletin, (see volume 11 issue10 on the qualitative v. quantitative debate), Thomas, writing recently in the book "The Profession and Practice of Educational Psychology - future directions" , can state quite boldly "[e]ducational psychologists are steeped in the view of themselves as applied scientists" (Thomas 1992 p.52). Whatever the truth of the matter, my belief is that that is the reality.

The protocol for reflection I adopted pointed to four "ways of knowing" (Carper 1978) : personal, ethical, empirics and aesthetics. I have concerns over these as the most appropriate breakdown(see comments in appendix C) and hope other colleagues will take the matter forward, perhaps by examining the day-to-day work of psychologists, but my main worry was the inclusion of forms of knowledge other than scientific. I reasoned that psychologists might regard these as unacceptable diversions from the path of "true knowledge", with phrases ringing in my ear such as : "it is potentially misleading ... to invest these [qualitative] methods with the authority of objective science" (Morgan 1998 p.488). Maybe my worries were unfounded. Maybe educational psychologists can readily #[p114] accommodate a broad range of perspectives, I have no way of knowing; what was surprising, however, was the reaction to one aspect of the article I thought quite reasonable: honest recounting of errors. The issue of honesty later became a major theme for me.

2. Errors and honesty.

The original article was sent to two referees, and then to a meeting of the full editorial board of the journal. I was sent all their comments, some five pages worth. Many of the comments were helpful - on length; use of bullet points; certain issues to clarify; an inaccurate reference; confusion over the overall nature of the project this article was drawn from; grammar; the place of reflection in normal supervision; style of writing and so on. I trust the final version benefited greatly from these. My surprise was the repeated concern over what apparently could be seen as a lack of "professionalism" especially in admitting errors.


[I have removed a number of comments here, now that the thesis is becoming more public. I have no wish to cause any distress to any colleagues. Their comments were not particularly controversial but I have no way of knowing how representative the comments were that I received, or whether the comments would have been made in quite the same way if they had been intended for publication. I have no way of knowing who said what or how accurate the record of their comments was.

As I point out in the original thesis, I stress that I am not criticising the editors. I know them personally or by reputation, to be of high standing, committed to furthering psychology, and in the end, their decision to publish, despite concerns over the possible negative impact on the profession, was courageous. The point at issue is my reactions, not their’s].






#[p115] I felt vulnerable. I also felt even more committed. I had no wish to harm clients or the profession but honesty was very important to me. Some of the comments I thought missed the point. Yes, I had omitted some thinking and reading, but that was the nub of the article: it was not meant to be an example of good practice but an example of, I trust, good reflection. In the re-write I repeated this at several places.

I discussed the new version with colleagues again. One commented that if we found it difficult to be honest when reflecting, then that was a problem for a whole service. In the first version of the paper I had taken a rather critical stance towards senior staff for not promoting reflection, in the light of this comment I re-wrote this part and aimed for a tone which would not risk alienating those (the senior practitioners) who could have influence. I wanted everyone "on board". More importantly I submitted my revised version to our service manager. In this revised version I decided not to duck the issue of professional errors but to highlight it with Eraut’s opening quote: "Too many theories of professional expertise tend to treat experts as infallible, in spite of much evidence to the contrary..." (Eraut 1994 p.155). I carried on, towards the end of the article, with his observation: "As [professionals] are confronted with ... loaded in-trays ... plans get ‘cobbled together’ ... decisions are made ‘on the hoof’ " (Eraut 1994 p.149) and an underlining of my aim "to demonstrate one model of reflecting openly on practice, warts and all" (Mellor 1998a p.173). My final, emotional but, I hoped, uplifting, plea was for honesty:

We can all go through the motions of reflection: the point is, to make it work. And that requires a deep level of trust if our genuine problems are to be opened up to others (ibid p.174)

I worried about the issue of "professionalism", at least in undermining a "storybook" image of EPs by my writing, and have still not resolved how far I can be open with clients about "errors" . Simply being open with ourselves may be problematic enough, and Eraut underscores the guilt-ridden burn-out which may arise when we fail to measure up to our ideal types. Eraut also emphasises, however, a counter position in dealing with errors, for #[p116] instance, how readily medical students acquire a vocabulary "which virtually annihilates the concept of ‘making a mistake’" (Eraut 1994 p.227). While calling for honest self-examination, he asks whether "professionals, their employers and the public [can] find a proper balance between the guilt-ridden and the callous" (ibid p.227)[2].  Such dilemmas are, for me, still current.

A revised version of the paper was eventually sent off. The editor’s response to the re-submitted article, following updates from the two original referees (one positive, one still negative), rehearsed some of the earlier concerns:

On balance, I think we should publish your article, although I too have some reservations about the image it portrays of practice at a time when there is hard questioning of the need for EPs ... and there are a number of non-EP readers [of the journal] who are influential. The ‘on balance’ bit is that some may find it provocative, some infuriating, some refreshingly honest, some maybe too close to home ... I think you are making an important point about reflection as ‘theory in use’ versus ‘espoused theory’ and the culture of the profession that either facilitates or inhibits a reflective approach. (letter from editor 11.11.97)

At the time of writing (November 1998) I have abandoned reflection itself as a topic for continued research, and relegated it to the status of an off-shoot: an (important) diversion from the main path, but not the main path. The subject of honesty which it threw up, fed into a later line of inquiry, around identity. Given the nature of that inquiry into identity, employing quite consciously the "messy method" I had by then established, I have labelled it a "mini-project" rather than an off-shoot (see chapters 9 and 10).

The complete article "On reflection" is included later (see appendix C) not so much to illustrate my thoughts on reflection, as to provide a background for my concern for honesty. Although the protocol for reflection illustrated in the paper has potential for unlocking the assumptions and theories of practice "[t]he practice of any teacher is the result of some theory or other, whether acknowledged or not" (Griffiths and Tann 1992 p.77), and my practice diary records some of these, there is, I feel, still a long way to go in this regard. The remainder of the thesis turns, however, to matters of research rather than matters of practice.

#[p117] 3. Key points emerging from the chapter.

The kind of research I undertook involved many side issues. I argue later that a record of these adds to the believability of the account as a whole. In pursuing these I became aware of the need, underlined by Ravetz (1971), to judge when to abandon such ventures.

Reflection raised questions about the nature of our professional knowledge base. These have not been resolved. Writing about reflection raised problems of honesty in reporting casework difficulties in a public forum. Honesty is later seen as a vital element in inquiry. It is explored further when considering identity in chapters 10 and 12.


[1] Communication from the membership and qualification board of the BPS in October 1998 indicated that this would be taken up as a result of a copy of the article I had sent earlier. A paper in the November issue of "Link", the Continuing Professional Development group’s newsletter from the BPS (Elliott 1998), now proposes reflection as one of the accepted elements of CPD for doctoral training.[BACK]

[2] My comfort is taken from a dimly remembered comment from a celebrated mathematician. He claimed he made as many mistakes as his students, the crucial difference was, he was able to spot them in time. Perhaps this is the hallmark of the professional: not an error-free paragon, but someone with the ability to work on limited information, under pressure, and to get it right the vast majority of the time; coupled with the ability to detect and correct errors quickly and, where necessary, seek further guidance; and all this embedded in an over-riding commitment to the well-being of the client. The (dedicated) G.P.’s five minute consultation might illustrate this model. This is, however, perhaps, the subject of another study.[BACK]

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Chapter Eight