This thesis is a description of my research experience while engaged in full-time occupation as an educational psychologist and registered as a part-time student at the University of Northumbria. The project began in autumn 1993. The account is intended as a contribution to the literature on practitioner research: it is my vision of how practitioner research can be.
1. An outline.
The text is in four parts. The first part sets the personal and academic context of the inquiry. The second concerns the development of a research method. The next section recounts how I tried to refine the method. The final part draws together some concluding comments. The investigation, involving reflection on practice and reflection on the method of researching this practice, followed a very fluid course; it contains, however, a backbone of systematic diary entries.
The record of this work differs from more conventional reports. It is an unfolding narrative which mirrors the evolving course of the research. The tale is not built around a simple structure such as introduction, literature, methodology, results, analysis, discussion, conclusion. I draw, for instance, on sources from a relatively wide range of perspectives to form a synthesis of my ideas and there is no central "literature review", material is explored as and when it is relevant in each chapter. The research is mainly about my efforts to develop a method of inquiry, so a "methodology", in the sense of providing a rationale for the means of carrying out the inquiry, is not presented as a separate element: struggles with methodology permeate the text.
"Findings", such as I imagine might arise from analysis of interviews in a "grounded theory" approach, for example, are not included. The diary notes which form the main "data" are subjected to a developing "analysis" (the reason for the quotation marks will become apparent in chapter 8), the outcome of which is an evolving understanding of the
#[p2] method of research: a kind of history of how I learnt to see what I was learning to do. There were no neat stages but I have, retrospectively, imposed a structure on the project to help along my explanation of what was at times a most confusing process.
The energy which has carried me through the past few years arises partly from my commitment to a particular form of case work. The original aim of the research was to investigate these interventions, but the focus shifted to exploring the process of research itself and a new source of energy came in to play: a desire to communicate my unfurling comprehension. The importance of communication for me is a theme I return to in the concluding chapter.
Although there are some practice outcomes (books and articles published and in preparation) and I describe some exploration of the work which triggered the undertaking, the emphasis in this thesis is not on any results flowing from these. The reader will not be a better educational psychologist at the end of the tale. I wish instead to convey my ideas on research to practitioner researchers from a variety of background. It is research I hope to develop, not practice.
The project is based mainly on two diaries collected over about six years as I studied my practice and my own research processes. In form these diaries were nearer to scrap books, they included for examples tapes, cuttings, jottings and longer reflective pieces. One diary, concerning practice, my reflections around it and attempts to improve it, plays a more minor role in the account. An article, reproduced in appendix C, and the interview tape accompanying the thesis (in appendix A) are two examples of the kinds of records I kept in this practice diary. They are included partly in illustration of my work as psychologist for those unfamiliar with the field. Further details of some of the practicalities of the study (the number of cases I rely on etc.) are included in chapter 4.
I draw to a limited extent on two other diaries, a counselling diary and a "science" diary which were in existence before the project began and continued throughout, but the main source of data for the project is my research diary, kept mainly as a hand-written record. I use the notes in these pages as if they were interview transcripts and quote them verbatim,
#[p3] they are largely in colloquial speech. Many of the views which are to be found in the diary extracts are not developed, they represent my changing positions at various times throughout the period, thus the arguments referred to in the data are not necessarily the arguments of the thesis.
PART 1 "Concerning myself and my practice"incorporates some personal history; an account of the development of educational psychology; and a description of the starting point of the inquiry: my interest in a particular form of case work, heavily influenced by a (now deceased) colleague, Eric Harvey. This work has at its centre short term, highly focused and directive interventions with the parents of children referred for emotional and behavioural difficulties and employs the key concept of attention seeking.
Chapter 1 is an autobiography written two years into the project, some comments on the uses of autobiographical accounts are included. This personal description foreshadows a discussion of the role of emotions in research and the potential complexity of identities we may carry which are developed in chapters 9 and 10.
Chapter 2 gives a brief history of educational psychology in this country. This introduces my concerns over teacher stress and the scientific nature of psychology and illustrates some potential tensions in the job around identity and other issues.
In Chapter 3 I explore what I call "the Eric Harvey method" and its associated central concept of attention seeking. Consideration of this concept and the practical difficulties of discussing it with teacher colleagues, led to the publication of an article and a book for teachers "Attention Seeking". The book is placed in appendix A together with an audio tape of a recent interview for illustration purposes. The Eric Harvey method itself, the idea of attention seeking and the book are, however, not subject to criticism in this thesis.
PART 2 "Evolving a method" describes the first stage in developing a research method, initially to explore this practice. The method became, however, a way of exploring this very exploration, as my concerns shifted to issues around "how to research". Emotional issues pervade the research, these are covered in passing in chapters 4 and 10, the main discussion is in chapter 9.
#[p4] Chapters 4 and 5, which are closely linked, outline the work in the early part of the project, the techniques used as I struggled towards an appreciation of how I was researching. I begin to develop the idea of the "messiness" of the process (see below) with its ethical concerns, worries over how far and what to change, inputs from many colleagues and reliance in part on serendipity and incubation. I start to leave a simplistic view of "scientific method" behind and come to accept my searching for a method to be the method.
Chapter 6 provides a copy of the paper, "Notes from a Method", which appears in the journal Educational Action Research. This paper outlines my provisional understanding of this method of inquiry, up to summer 1997, and offers an organic metaphor for the study: the banyan tree. It gives a snapshot of my position at the time of writing and sets the scene for the next part of the project as I begin to refine my ideas.
PART 3 "Refining the method" involves a further development of the method of part 2. Some aspects are expanded, such as a description of the "off-shoots" of the inquiry, those excursions into areas outside what came to be the central theme of researching researching. Inclusion of these is later justified as part of the process of seeking "validity". The main element of this part, however, is the explanation of how I tried to clarify the method further, for instance by examining two new areas: the topics of identity and "making sense". An outline of the second version of the method is the outcome of these further inquiries.
Chapter 7 explores part of one of these off-shoots, about the topic of reflection. This off-shoot continues concerns over the scientific stance of colleagues and introduces new concerns over identity and honesty (arising from efforts to publish a paper on the topic). Appendix C is a copy of this paper, "On Reflection", published in the journal Educational Psychology in Practice. This chapter should be read in conjunction with appendix B and C. Appendix B gives a summary of the other "off-shoots" of the project: early plans for "scientific" investigations of practice; action research; chaos and circular epistemology; interviewing psychologists; and reflection-in-action.
Chapter 8 describes a mini-project, "making sense". This outlines my approach to "analysis" but also provides an opportunity to explore the unfolding method further. #[p5] Making sense is seen as a reciprocal process involving "data", "writing", "exploration" and "ideas". All these terms are seen as problematic. The process involves angst and unlearning and raises questions about claims to knowledge.
Chapter 9, another mini-project, on identity, creates an additional occasion to further examine this evolving method, especially the theory dependence of data. Undefined curiosity is replaced by a "proto-question" as the starting point. This, however, raises difficulties of premature closure. I also focus on the role of counselling in research and the implications of this for managing subjectivity.
In chapter 10 I lay claim to a number of identities. The identities themselves may, however, be contradictory internally and between each other. Some identities were re-discovered, some newly created by the research. I argue that tensions between identities helped shape the project. The chapter concludes with some discussion of issues raised by such an assertion, for example over the definition of and consistency or otherwise of identity; aspects of transformation; the nature and site of tensions between identities; and knowledge claims thrown up by the discussion.
Chapter 11 "Method after the paper ĎNotes from a Method" gives my latest understanding of the research method, synthesising ideas from the article "Notes from a Method" and ideas arising from the two projects on identity and making sense. In this chapter I consider notions of research strength, in place of validity. I argue that an "honesty trail" adds to research strength. Relatability and communication are seen as useful concepts but the size of any relevant community is problematic.
I describe how the research process involves a constant interplay with many sources. Finally, I offer questions which other practitioner researchers my wish to take into consideration when evaluating this project.
PART 4 "Concluding thoughts" As chapter 11 fills most of the role of summarising the research method, this section provides an opportunity for a more reflective view of the project.
In chapter 12 I offer some critique of the study, arguing that such opening up of shortcomings adds to the strength of research. Future inquiry might focus back on issues of practice.
#[p6] I draw out what appear to be, for me, three main principles in this version of practitioner research: an emphasis on coping with the messiness of practice and research; a concern for values; and a concern for communication.
A post script returns briefly to an issue raised in my autobiographical account, the identity project and at other points in the inquiry: my changing view of myself as scientist.
2. A description of the arguments of the thesis.
My background is very strongly in "scientific methods", however, I decided quite deliberately near the outset of this study to seek, for me, a new form of inquiry. "Data" (reflections in my diary) were collected from the start of this period, before any clear idea of the method of research crystallised.
The project evolved, it was not planned and executed in a precise manner. For much of the period I was trying to understand what it was I was trying to understand. The central argument of the study is, in essence: this is how I research and this is how I research my research. Embedded in this account is a description of the process of "making sense" of the data that I employed (my approach to "analysis").
I argue for the need to deal with emotional issues arising from research and offer a way of achieving this, through counselling. I also maintain that tensions between identities help to create a unique research path. In addition, I present a subsidiary argument, tied up with my attempts to explore the "validity" of the method: that this method is a description of how some other researchers may, in part, research, some of the time. Establishing such agreement, however, I contend is beyond the bounds of the present project. I offer the argument that an important criterion is that the material should be readable, and my concern with communication underlines the two-way nature of the process.
The research path had many twists and turns as I explored diversions, I have included these "off-shoots" in appendix B. A further subsidiary argument I present is that what I #[p7] have called an "honesty trail", an account of these off-shoots, enhances the believability of the report.
3. A pictorial overview.
Given the non-linear nature of the inquiry, the following diagram (figure 1) provides a schematic summary to aid understanding of the course of the study, although it gives a false picture of the lived experience of the research. I have chosen in the write-up, however, not to attempt to engender a vicarious experience of my confusions in the readerís mind. My aim has been "to write as openly and clearly as possible about the very perplexing path of the inquiry" (Mellor 1998 b p. 458), to communicate my understandings, not my puzzlement. In keeping with the emergent nature of the project, however, the account reproduces the gradual process of the simultaneous uncovering and creating of the research method, thus its form and content are closely linked. The verbal description below moves across the diagram from left to right and down the page within each section:
Left hand side: The research is located over one period of about six years in my life. There was a "me" before the project and I argue my identities help shape the inquiry. At one point, identities themselves become a mini project. The research is also a stage in the evolution of my practice and my practitioner concerns will continue after the project, with further professional inquiry and intended publications, and, hopefully, feedback.
Central portion: The nebulous area labelled "practice" contains many aspects which could have been investigated. I focus on one aspect I am curious about: the Eric Harvey method in family case work. An unsteady path of research develops, with a number of off-shoots that are not pursued. After about two years, research questions are established, although, in the mean time, some kind of "research" has been under way, without a guiding question or established method. The wavy lines connecting the various steps represent the twisting course of the inquiry.
After a further two years, a preliminary understanding of the research
method is established. Four publications arise, three associated with practice,
one with research.
#[p8] Figure 1: A pictorial overview.
| ®[BEFORE THE RESEARCH] [TESTING WHILE PROTECTING]
¬ ------- counselling
| -------- Reflection-in-action
| -------- Action research
¬ ------feedback from
|--[2 yrs] [QUESTION] [PUBLICATIONS]
¬ --- counselling
| ---------® Attention seeking---|
¬ ------feedback from papers
|--[4 yrs] [METHOD]
|---®APPLYING THE METHOD
TO IDENTITY AND
MAKING SENSE ¬ -----feedback from
¯ ¯ ¯
|--[6 yrs] [ WRITTEN ACCOUNT - THE METHOD REFINED ]
--® [AFTER THE RESEARCH] ¬ -----final evaluation
of the project
to view the original hand drawn version of Page 8.
#[p9] This method is then further refined by application to two minor projects, one on identity, one on "analysis" or "making sense". The publications are then incorporated into the written account of the project as a whole together with an enhanced understanding of the research method.
Right hand side: Throughout the project support is sought from many quarters (friends, colleagues, counsellor, publication). At the same time, the evolving ideas are subject to increasing external criticism: a process I later envisage as "testing while protecting". A final evaluation of the project, I argue, may only be seen much later, when others have had the opportunity to indicate whether or not it "has resonance" for them and they are willing to follow such a method.
4. Additional notes.
A. The case work interventions of part 1 are illustrated in the accompanying tape of a parent interview (placed in appendix A). Discussion of emotional issues connected with such tapes is included in part 3.
The tape is to form the centre-piece of a forthcoming training pack for psychologists. Attention seeking is examined, from the teacherís point of view, in the book "Attention Seeking: a practical solution for the classroom" ( placed in appendix A). These two publications, for psychologists and teachers, together with a third book for parents, currently in draft, are planned to form a trilogy dealing with the subject of attention seeking. Their arguments do not, however, form part of the arguments of this thesis.
B. I refer in the thesis to terms such as "the research", "the study", "the project", "the inquiry" and "the investigation". These are simply stylistic variations deployed to improve the readability of the material. Terms such as "the account", "the story", "the narrative" and "the text" are used in a similar manner.
C. At points I employ the phrase "messy method" to capture the challenging nature of the project; this shorthand description may, however, have negative connotations. To clarify, #[p10] I am using "messy" here as in "difficult to deal with, full of awkward complications" (Concise Oxford Dictionary) and would want to distinguish this from "sloppy": "unsystematic, careless, not thorough" (C.O.D.).
D. The terms "science" and "scientific method" occur throughout the account, their definition is potentially troublesome. The postscript to chapter 12 offers an extremely limited attempt at a very personal resolution of the matter.
E. In view of the organic nature of the study and the incorporation
of previously published material, some repetition is inevitable in the
to return to the thesis index.