Qualitative Research in Education


Liz Atkins & Susan Wallace

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Research Methods in Education

    Each book in this series maps the territory of a key research approach or topic in order to help readers progress from beginner to advanced researcher.

    Each book aims to provide a definitive, market-leading overview and to present a blend of theory and practice with a critical edge. All titles in the series are written for Masters-level students anywhere and are intended to be useful to the many diverse constituencies interested in research on education and related areas.

    Titles in the series:

    Atkins and Wallace Qualitative Research in Education

    Hamilton and Corbett-Whittier Using Case Study in Education Research

    McAteer Action Research in Education

    Mills and Morton Ethnography in Education


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    About the Authors

    Dr Liz Atkins is a lecturer and researcher in education at the University of Huddersfield. She originally trained as a psychiatric nurse, moving to education in 1992. Since then she has worked in schools, further education (FE) colleges, universities and as an LEA Advisor. She is an active member of the British Educational Research Association SIG Post-compulsory and Lifelong Learning, for which she was co-convenor 2007–10.

    Liz's research is concerned with in/equalities in education; she has particular interests in the formation of learning identities among marginalised students and policy contextualisation of the FE sector. Her work in this area has been widely published and she has also produced a number of practitioner texts drawing on her teaching experience with students undertaking a broad range of education programmes including teacher training, MA, EdD and PhD.

    Lydia Spenceley is the Coordinator for Teacher Education Programmes at Grantham College where she manages and contributes to a range of initial teacher education programmes. Her main areas of research interest are the development of teacher identity, special educational needs and visual research methodology. She has published papers on the development of identity, autoethnography, and the problems encountered by ‘beginning’ teachers in an FE setting. She has a broad experience in education and training, having previously worked in settings ranging from commercial training to prison education and most recently further and higher education.

    Susan Wallace is Professor of Continuing Education at Nottingham Trent University, where much of her teaching involves supporting the professional development of teachers and other education professionals. She has two particular areas of research interest: the behaviour and motivation of 16- to 19-year-old learners in FE colleges; and the purposes and processes of mentoring in education.

    Susan is the author of several books for teachers, including Teaching, Tutoring and Training in the Lifelong Learning Sector and Getting the Buggers Motivated, and is co-author of two recent books on mentoring, including Dial M for Mentor: Reflections on Mentoring in Film, Television and Literature. She has also taught for ten years in the further education sector, and has worked in a local authority advisory role for post-16 education.


    We would like to thank friends and colleagues for sharing with us, and with our readers, the stories of how their research was disseminated. They are, in alphabetical order:

    • Joanne Cassar, University of Malta
    • Paul Drury, Nottingham Trent University
    • Helen Sage, Board of Education, Diocese of Blackburn
    • Caroline Tomlinson, Rushcliffe School, Nottingham
    • Jonathan Tummons, Teesside University.

    In addition we would like to thank William Barry for his kind permission to quote from his PhD thesis in Chapter 7 and Jon Melville for his kind permission to quote from his MA research in Chapter 4.

  • Conclusion

    Qualitative Research in Education

    As we have tried to make clear in this book, qualitative research in education is a wide-ranging and complex process. Qualitative research is a ‘generative form of inquiry’ (Peshkin, 1993) which draws on both interpretivist and critical paradigms (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000: x). Thus, qualitative enquiry is not a thing in itself, but rather a description of a broad field of research which encompasses diverse approaches and theoretical understandings, some of which are complementary and some of which are contrasting, but all of which seek to understand rather than prove or measure. This means that, for example, you could not do a piece of research which was both case study and action research, which are contrasting and very different approaches; however, as we demonstrate in the chapters discussing those approaches, you might undertake research which fell into either of those categories and which also drew on ethnographic methodology in terms of using particular methods to observe people and phenomena.

    However, as we have also illustrated throughout this book, irrespective of the approach taken and however clear and well-considered your theoretical framework, undertaking a qualitative enquiry presents many potential pitfalls and is not something to be done lightly. That said, if we are committed to the values associated with education, such as the importance of the pursuit of knowledge, respect and social justice, it is incumbent on us to work for positive change in a critical and thoughtful manner. Such change cannot take place without first understanding the phenomenon, situation or context, and subsequently exploring what might lead to improvements: thus, research and education are interdependent. A commitment to professional and ethical practice means that our research has to be – and has to be seen to be – both ethical and moral. Also from an ethical and moral perspective, we are concerned with developing understandings that might lead to positive change, so research must have a positive purpose. Finally, as well as being moral and ethical, our research must be rigorous and systematic: it is highly unethical to predicate understandings or change on research which is open to question.

    Ethical and Moral Issues in Qualitative Research

    Coming to terms with these complexities, together with developing an understanding of the literature in your field and the notion of a conceptual or theoretical framework, can be challenging, particularly if you are a novice researcher. It is important to be clear that, while undertaking qualitative research in an educational context can present you with many ‘big’ questions or issues, there are rarely any ‘right’ answers to these. This is particularly the case where ethical issues are posed: as we have illustrated throughout this book, these can be significant. In these situations, as we have tried to make clear, your responsibility as a researcher is to consider the situation or issue impartially, and make sure that your research practice, as you continue, is moral. Sikes and Goodson (2003: 47–8) provide a summary of what they believe moral research practice to be. They suggest that moral practice is grounded in the researcher's life trajectory and seldom originates in contemporary marketised models of education which are concerned with profit rather than issues of social justice. Further, they go on to argue that adhering to a code of ethics ‘reduces moral concerns to the procedural: a convenient form of moral reductionism’ and that moral research should be conducted with ‘regard for the specific conditions and circumstances of each particular research context’. Reflecting on these arguments can help when you are faced with ethical or methodological problems or dilemmas, and also presents challenges. These arguments make it clear, for example, that actions such as promising anonymity to research participants do not, in themselves, guarantee ethical and moral practice. They also imply, as we have argued elsewhere in this book, that it is necessary to think about our own moral and ethical values and how they influence both our research and our professional practice.

    While we have made broad arguments around the need for moral and ethical research, we have, perhaps, emphasised two particular ethical issues which are particularly relevant to educational research: those of human relationships, including power relationships, and the thorny issue of informed consent. We have also discussed ways in which these issues might be addressed, primarily through the consideration and acknowledgement of the researcher's positionality.

    Relationships and Power Relationships

    Human relationship issues are a significant consideration in educational research, where they are often entangled with or developed from, professional relationships with children, students and colleagues. As we have discussed, they can be influenced by your role as an insider/outsider researcher, by the nature of the approach you are undertaking to your research and often by the sometimes unexpected outcomes of your research which can lead you into a position where the role of researcher may come into conflict with the job you are employed to do, or leave you with competing loyalties as you uncover different pictures to those that are accepted as reality by the organisation and the people within it. Such issues can impact on existing and future professional relationships. For example, people may trust you less as a researcher than they did as a fellow professional. The potential for challenges and conflicts of this nature highlights the necessity to be conscious of the way in which different relationships and perceptions of the research process might influence the outcomes of individual studies, perhaps in terms of trust and/or conflict. This is of particular concern where power issues also form part of the relationship complexities within the research and, given the hierarchical nature of education systems and structures, power relations will invariably form part of the relationship issues you will need to consider as part of your study.

    As we have suggested, the power in the researcher–participant relationship is inevitably with the researcher, who often inhabits a very different social and political context to that of the participants and in turn this can increase the oppression of the participants through specific gendered or class-based interpretations of the research process and data. This is particularly the case where other participants in the research are from traditionally oppressed groups, such as women, those with disabilities or people from specific ethnic groups with a history of oppression. Undertaking research which is moral and ethical therefore, and acknowledging these issues, might involve a rethinking of the relationship with the participants in the research, and consideration of ways in which more collaborative and empowering relationships could be engendered which would act to minimise any constraints arising from perceived or actual power dynamics.


    Achieving a more participative and empowering approach, which can be argued to be both moral and ethical, involves the acknowledgement of positionality, giving consideration to how that may influence the design of the study, the collection and interpretation of data and relationships with other participants in the research. Sikes and Goodson (2003: 48) suggest the use of interior reflexivity, arguing that this is a better ‘anchor for moral practice’ than any external guidelines and this is a useful approach to take as you attempt to understand and clarify the relationship between your own values, assumptions and experiences and your research practice. During this process, the researcher attempts to question their own assumptions and behaviour at each point in the process, in order to achieve a degree of ‘reflexivity, or ‘introspection and self-examination’ (Wellington, 2000: 200), something which forms another recurring theme in this book. Griffiths (1998: 96–7) also advocates that the researcher demonstrates reflexivity about their own position and interests, and reflexivity about their own understanding and values, arguing that this approach is designed to emphasise to researchers the need to take responsibility for their own practices. However, she does sound a note of caution in her suggestion that researchers need clarity about what types of responsibility they are, in fact, able to exercise, either as an individual or a group, pointing out that ‘No one is responsible for everything’.

    Informed Consent

    Taking responsibility for one's own research practices, as Griffiths suggests, is, as we have seen, a complex and challenging process which demands not only that we examine our own values, beliefs and prejudices, but also that we give detailed, rather than merely instrumental, consideration to a whole range of ethical issues and challenges. Key among these is that of informed consent, which forms another recurring theme in this book.

    Within any study it is necessary to consider the ethical implications of requesting ‘informed’ consent from an audience which may consist largely of student participants (of varying ages and abilities) who will be unaware of the human relationship issues arising from educational research, particularly where these are ethnographic in nature. This lack of familiarity is also likely to be the case where, for example, parents or guardians give consent for their children or for vulnerable adults to participate in a study. These participants (or parents/guardians) will, by definition therefore, be giving consent but not informed consent. While this may satisfy some ethical guidelines, in terms of conducting educational research as moral practice it is merely an instrumentalist approach which is ‘a convenient form of methodological reductionism’ (Sikes and Goodson, 2003: 48). We have suggested that the best way to address this dilemma is by taking a situated, reflexive approach, while bearing in mind that ‘taking account of my own position does not change reality’ (Patai, 1994: 67).

    Interdependence of Teaching and Research

    The centrality of values to both teaching and research is one of the many ways in which the two practices are related. Other similarities are concerns with knowledge and with learning and with the role of the professional as both a teacher and a researcher. As we have argued throughout this book, research is central to the concept of teaching as a profession which regulates, monitors and improves itself. In this context, the ‘professional’ in education undertakes research which is moral in both its execution and in its outcomes and which provides a critical and analytical exploration of phenomena, culture, policies and practices, thus informing ongoing knowledge generation and development of practice. In other words, research is part of our professional practice as teachers, rather than an addition to it.

    Stenhouse (1975: 143), in his call for a research-based model of teaching, argued that the teacher could be a restricted or extended professional: part of being an extended professional involved concerns around linking theory and practice; in other words, undertaking research and contributing to making those links. More recently, the notion of a researching professional was proposed by Wellington and Sikes (2006: 725) in the context of people undertaking professional doctorates. In the context of this understanding, a researching professional also implies an extended professional, as the individual works to extend their own knowledge, and form new understandings and develop new practice in education through the medium of their own research, and may be applied to anyone undertaking any form of practitioner research.

    These notions of the researching professional engaged in ongoing systematic enquiry which responds to the challenges and questions faced by education professionals on a daily basis illustrate the interdependence of teaching and research as part of a complex and mutually dependent set of relationships. The focus of the research activity undertaken is, inevitably, disparate, reflecting the different settings professionals work in – formal and informal, from nurseries to universities and including alternative educational provision such as that offered by professions, prisons or charities – and their particular interests and concerns which may be as disparate as issues related to identities, sexualities, gender, motivation, inclusion, teacher education or social justice, but ultimately the research will inform or contribute to the development of professional practice. This diversity is reflected in the experiences of our contributors to Chapter 12. However, the interdependence of teaching and research is perhaps most obvious in the chapter on action research. In Chapter 12, the day-to-day practice of the professional becomes both the research focus and part of its process in an ongoing attempt to make positive change and, in this way, practice is enhanced, as in Helen Sage's study around the perceptions of the value of collective worship in Anglican schools, which began as a short-term project several years ago. Acting on the outcomes, she has engaged in long-term and ongoing action research to develop and implement new resources for this area, now widely used and impacting on practice on a daily basis.

    In contrast to this ongoing cycle of change and evaluation, the ethnographer is immersed in a particular setting, perhaps as an insider researcher, and seeking to explore and understand social and cultural issues and lived experiences. Taken at face value, one might ask ‘How does this impact on professional practice?’ However, the ethnographer is undertaking a research process argued by Hammersley and Atkinson (2007: 209) to have an immediate goal of the ‘production of knowledge’. The production of knowledge and new understandings change us as individuals, and where we change, our practice as education professionals – and sometimes the practice of others – can also change and develop. This is clearly demonstrated in Chapter 12. Joanne Casser's study on the emerging sexualities of young women, which, apart from instigating academic debate around the issue, has enabled her to contribute to a consultation on the provision of sexuality education in schools in Malta, thus influencing the curriculum in a very specific way and contributing to a research-based curriculum.

    Other aims of ethnography (Hammersley and Atkinson cite political aims, for example) are perceived by them to be less important. However, in the longer term, political aims such as social change can have significant outcomes and again, Casser's study is illustrative of this, as she influences changing practice in a sensitive area within a traditional society. Similarly, Jonathan Tummons's research (also in Chapter 12) exploring ‘taken-for-granted’ aspects of teacher education in the context of assessment and reflective practice has generated debate – some of it contentious! – and now informs practice in the critical area of teacher education, demonstrating how the practitioner who undertakes ethnographic or case study research develops deeper understandings of phenomena or situations impacting on the educational setting, thus setting the scene for pedagogic developments and further study.

    Undertaking Research Which Is Systematic and Rigorous

    We have referred to ‘sloppy’ research in a number of chapters (see Chapter 6 on case study for an example of this; also Chapter 8 on ethnography and Chapter 7 on action research) and emphasised throughout the importance of undertaking research which is systematic and rigorous and positioned within a clear theoretical framework. Unless your research is systematic and rigorous, it will always be open to question and criticism as being potentially unreliable. It will also mean that any changes to practice based on it, are not truly evidence based, and this raises a whole host of ethical issues. All too often initiatives in education are introduced based on little research, questionable research or even no research at all. It only takes a few people to be influenced by such initiatives and they become common practice and taken for granted across education. A good example of this is the use of learning styles questionnaires, still much in evidence in education, at least in the UK, despite most of them having been heavily discredited in a study by Coffield et al. as long ago as 2004 as well as being subject to more recent critique (for example, see Wheeler, 2011). If such approaches have dictated a particular teaching approach for a particular group or individual, based on faulty evidence, this implies that they could have been taught in a style or way which is not going to enable those students to reach their potential in that classroom: in effect, they have been harmed. Similarly, if you change practice based on sloppy, rather than systematic and rigorous research, then you too run the risk of causing harm to your students. By implementing change based on work which is ‘systematic, credible, verifiable, justifiable, useful, valuable and trustworthy’ (Wellington, 2000: 14) it is far more likely that you will be successful in undertaking research which contributes to real understandings and positive change in education.

    Theoretical Framework

    A key criterion for undertaking research which is systematic, credible and so on, is, as we have argued, the use of a clear theoretical framework for the conceptualisation of the research process and data analysis. As we have acknowledged, this can be a daunting prospect. However, the use of a set of (coherent and credible) ideas or theories will facilitate both the practical aspects of your study (as in which type of approach to use, which methods and how to implement them) as well as the theoretical in terms of undertaking processes such as data analysis and interpretation. To use an analogy familiar to most teachers and drawn from reflective practice, it is merely using a particular ‘lens’ to view your research. Similarly, the theoretical framework might be viewed as a map providing direction through a study, or as a thread which gives coherence to each part of the research, from the question, through the literature review, method and methodology, data analysis and conclusions. Irrespective of the analogy which best explains the meaning of theoretical (sometimes called conceptual) framework, and of the complexity or otherwise of the ideas you use, a theoretical framework is an essential component of a credible and coherent research study.

    Working within such a framework is a process which will also help you to construct meaning and thus develop knowledge as your research progresses. As we have seen, it has been argued that the main purpose of ethnographic research at least is the ‘production of knowledge’ (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007: 209) and we have illustrated throughout this book the multitude of ways in which the production of knowledge directly impacts on practice.

    Educational Research for Positive Change

    By positive change, we do not necessarily mean the development of new and different teaching and learning strategies, for example. What we do mean is increased understandings of the situations, phenomena and people among which we find ourselves. In turn, these understandings inform our professional practice. The understandings generated in this way may be as diverse as establishing that a particular behaviour management strategy is more effective with a particular group of young children to gaining insights into the lives of older, disaffected students and coming to understand how and why they come to exert individual agency in a rejection of the conformist education culture. Irrespective of the nature of the area you have researched, you will make changes. Implementing a behaviour management strategy which you have demonstrated to be effective with your class is clearly a positive change. Others are more subtle. Gaining insights into students’ lives, as in the second example, may lead you to reflect critically on your practice to ensure that you are responding to all your students as individuals, rather than as a homogenous ‘disaffected’ group. Treating people with more respect in this way enhances relationships and, ultimately, will improve the teaching and learning within that group: another example of positive change.

    Finally …

    On our own research journeys we have both found qualitative research in education to be exciting and challenging – a real ‘buzz’ in our professional lives. It has provided us with new insights into everyday situations and occurrences, informed our practice and changed our thinking. We hope that you find your own journey similarly rewarding.

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