Research Proposal [Draft]


Topic and Problematic

This research will be based on a participatory strategy that both acknowledges the importance of and is situated in the everyday work practices and experiences of teachers in the Vocational and Technical Education (VTE) sector. This study will involve teachers and explore their use of VTE research. I am curious to know how VTE teachers use VTE research to inform their teaching practice. Foley, Crombie, Hawke and Morris (2000, p.119) say that the “role of education and learning in a restructuring capitalism needs to be analysed at both macro and micro levels, at the level of policy formation, and at the point of practice in particular sites”. I aim to explore this relationship between policy and practice in relation to VTE research and will endeavour to do so through the lens of VTE teaching practice, so as to better understand the nature of VTE research and what it is.

A research strategy into studying this phenomenon is to first develop relationships with the teachers in their practice – in context – as co-researchers and to consider VTE research as it informs their practice, as they see it. Geertz said that “if you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first instance not at its theories or its findings, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you should look at what the practitioners of it do” (1973, p.5). Further, I propose that there is a problem in separating the ‘researcher’ from ‘teacher’, expanding on Carr and Kemmis’ (1986) critique of the separation of theory and practice, and that we need to look beyond interpretive methods towards more critical forms of VTE research, that can reveal much about the research itself.

Background and Context

Billett, McKavanagh, Beven, Angus, Seddon, Gough, Hayes, and Robertson (1999) conducted a research project presenting an overview of a decade of competency based training (CBT) in the Australian education and training system. They revealed that in order for the CBT system to be flexible and adaptable in a changing world, to work effectively for the good of students and for industry, teachers must play a key part. Billet, et al noted that “it is the quality of the ‘enacted curriculum’, something managed best by teachers with appropriate pedagogical knowledge and skills, that is central to the quality of learning and the prospect of securing the outcomes desired by industry, enterprise and individuals” (1999, para:10). We need to see what is occurring in practice to understand how best to support the development of a flexible and adaptive VTE system, with those at the ‘coalface’ playing a key part in informing decision-makers at a range of levels, including policy and practice as Foley et al (2000) described earlier. How VTE teachers understand and make use of VTE research then, is of great importance to this. It may also reveal much about the ideology that frames, or is supported by, VTE research.
Who ‘writes’ and who ‘reads’ VTE research may well give us clues as to how we might:
  • broaden the publishing and readership of VTE research,
  • further engage VTE teachers in research activities (and (re)define what these activities might be, or look like),
  • strengthen VTE research to remain an effective and sustainable investment, relevant to VTE teachers, and supporting a flexible and adaptive VTE system, and
  • ‘democratise’ VTE research through collaborative efforts with VTE teachers and others who have perhaps traditionally been 'researched on' in the sector.

Conceptual Framework and Related Literature

I will undertake this research as a naturalistic, phenomenological study through a critical theoretical approach, and Crotty supports this when he says, “phenomenology calls into question what is taken for granted…It is critical methodology” (1995, p.275). Critical theory reveals us to ourselves. It exposes us in ways interpretive and positivistic methods do not. It reminds us of the sociopolitical, historical context in which we act and that the acts we engage in are inextricably linked to who we are - our very being. This leads me to consider Bourdieu's notion of habitus (1977), as he discusses the ‘self’ in relationship with social contexts, where one mediates the activities of the other. He argues that the researcher and her research must be reflexive and necessarily political. Bourdieu sees the goal of research as making problematic ordinary events. I will frame my problematic by paying attention to the following aspects:
  • Context: the Australian VTE sector over the last five years (using a TAFE institution as a case study setting), and via the notions of flexibility and adaptability (see Billett et al 1999)
  • Knowledge: the concept of scholarship in VTE, the notion of reflective practice and VTE teaching 'traditions',
  • Process: develop the study as a critical inquiry using a phenomenological approach to fieldwork, and undertaking a participatory-collaborative research strategy, and
  • Participants: involve institute teachers and teacher trainers, including a reference group of VTE teachers.

In addition, my researcher role will also include an awareness of the reflexive ethnographer (Davies 1999) and the critical collaborative researcher (LeCompte 1995).

Harris et al (2001) noted a lack of data on VTE teachers and trainers in undertaking their research into the changing role of staff development in VTE. Interestingly, the study highlighted tensions between industry and staff needs in the sector, where staff development challenges were found to be presented “almost entirely in terms of compliance with the immediate agendas of various external agencies to whom the providers are accountable” (2001, para:9). This study highlights to me the lack of a VTE teacher's 'voice' amongst the literature currently available. Through this study, I hope to further explore the reasons as to why this may (or may not) be so.
There is a range of sources that will help guide my understanding of the development and dissemination of contemporary VTE research, namely via the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (AFLF), publications from the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) (which is no longer in operation), and other publications and research projects available through the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST). I will also explore the research undertaken by the Centre Undertaking Research in Vocational Education (CURVE), a local research centre based at my institution. In addition, I will monitor the research undertaken by other institution-based centres such as the Research Centre for Organisational, Vocational and Adult Learning (OVAL Research) at the University of Technology, Sydney, Deakin University's Research Institute for Professional and Vocational Education and Training (RIPVET), and the community of scholars undertaking Research in Vocational Education and Training (RIVET) at Charles Sturt University. Centres of this kind provide somewhat of a longitudinal view of the development and direction of contemporary research in VTE, the nature of which I will seek to uncover through VTE practice itself.

Methodology and Ethics

Lincoln and Guba, in their book on naturalistic inquiry, highlight the dilemma I potentially face in undertaking this study; that “naturalistic studies are virtually impossible to design in any definitive way before the study is actually undertaken” (1985, p.187), and so my approach will be structured on an emergent design. Emergent design is best characterised as the design of a study where
  • meaning is determined by context,
  • multiple realities exist,
  • what is learnt is dependent on the interactions yet to occur, and
  • the nature of ‘mutual shapings’ can’t be known until witnessed (1985, pp.208-11).

As the study unfolds I will attempt to seek a ‘pattern of flow’ from the conversational interviews, close observations and personal life stories of participants (as Van Manen 1997 outlined). Such a process assumes the presence of human elements or ‘instruments’ and an awareness of both tacit as well as propositional knowledge, and is iterative (and in situ) by nature. So too, Geertz (1973, p. 19) notes that we can take a simple incident and “widen out into enormous complexities of social experience” through ethnographic writing.

Consideration of reflexive ethnography, together with more recognisable forms of critical reflection espoused in educational practice (Brookfield, 1987, 1995; Carr and Kemmis, 1986) would enable me to challenge the powerful position of the researcher and then also examine this influence from within the accounts of teachers and my interactions with them. Instead of attempting to rationalise a (re)positioning of the researcher as such, I would perhaps focus more on the fact that the researcher can develop a relationship with participants (as a co-worker) and use this to reveal more about the context and the problematic of this study, through this relationship:

Instead of making the ethnographer disappear, they make themselves more visible, even central in the production with the idea that in doing so, in presenting their gropings towards understanding, they undermine their own authority so that their interpretations become simply one perspective with no superior claim to validity (Davies 1999, p.15).

I will invite teachers to be collaborators in this study. In doing so, I am conscious that there will be an ‘awakening’ of sorts, which will likely engage teachers in an exploration of research in VTE. For example, where one may not be using VTE research, one may be compelled to delve into it after an interview with me for example, and change their perceptions, experience, or point of view of the way in which VTE research informs their practice. This is something I hope the collaboration will itself highlight and so I am explicit about the fact that this process is very directly a learning process for those who wish to participate, myself included. My role as researcher-ethnographer is made explicit according to the interactions with others in the study. From this, subsequent questions may arise, to be incorporated into the study as a way of continuously adjusting and refocusing the study, like:
  • Why would I want to use research?
  • What sort of research?
  • Whose research?
  • Where would I get this research?
  • How would I get it?
  • What do you mean by research?
  • What research are you talking / asking about?
Or similarly, statements like:
  • I teach, I do not research.
  • This is VTE not university, we don't do (or use) research here.
  • There is no research in my trade or area teaching.

In relation to ethics, I am concerned that, in developing a collaborative approach embedded in critical theory, I must anticipate and be able to manage the impending conflicts, tensions and instabilities that come with asking ‘why’, challenging that which is ‘given’ and authoritative VTE research. Additionally, I must contend with LeCompte’s warning that “the aim among many educational evaluators who advocate collaborative approaches has been to smooth over conflict” rather than address arising conflicts (1995, p.97), and that I would need to consider ways in which to address such tendencies.

Research Plan and Timeframe

The table below outlines how that time will likely be spent, indicating the milestones over an 18-month period (for a part-time Masters), subject to work commitments. The writing and reporting column indicates the thesis components and their development over the 18 months. Thesis chapters will include an introduction, literature review, methodology, procedure and analysis, discussion and a conclusion.

Time
Activity
Writing/Reporting
3 months
Initial site/scoping visits Literature review Negotiate and develop relationships with teacher collaborators Consultation period to pilot thesis framework with teacher collaborators
Paper on thesis argument/rationale
Develop thesis framework
Draft literature review chapter
Draft methodology chapter
7 months
Field work and data collection (negotiate collection methods) Data/content analysis
Short papers/works reflecting on progress and experiences recorded

Draft procedure and analysis chapters ||
3 months
Progress report discussion with teacher collaborators
Draft procedure and analysis chapters (continued)
2 months
Revisit data collected for group analysis with teacher collaborators
Paper on initial conclusions and collaborative experiences to date
1 month
Present draft thesis to teacher collaborators for comment
Revise thesis for submission
2 months
Contingency
Final draft
18 months
Submission of thesis


Writing

In addition to the reporting outlined in the table above, I am aware that in working with others (as collaborators) on this study that the ‘text’ must be seen as “contested space” and “polyvocal” (see LeCompte 2005, p.100) and that it is necessarily important for me to develop an awareness of what this means to myself, co-collaborators and perhaps to the wider VTE research and teaching community.
I would also like to explore the boundaries by which we record and “publish” data and information in our research. I am a user of weblogs, wikis and other social software tools (known to many as Web 2.0, a term coined by Tim O’Reilly, 2005). There would need to be due consideration given to using such tools, as all are offered as web based services, running on external servers on which data would be housed, and ultimately can become public and sharable items of information. Geertz says that “through analysis we can sort through the structures of the significance of a ‘confusion of tongues’” (1973, p.9) and I take this to mean that at every possible moment I attempt to capture that which is said, done and observed and then unpick the threads through the process of analysis. In my experience of social web tools, I have found their immediate availability to present many opportunities to capture phenomena in ways perhaps not fully realised before their inception. Thus, I will seek to explore the feasibility of using such tools for specific needs and aspects of the study, in consultation with participants on an individual basis.

Bibliography

Billett, S., McKavanagh, C., Beven, F., Angus, L., Seddon, T., Gough, J., Hayes, S. and Robertson, I. 1999, The CBT decade: Teaching for flexibility and adaptability - An overview. Executive summary of project report (nr7029) to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), Australia, 11 June 1999. Retrieved from the World Wide Web 28 October 2006 from http://www.ncver.edu.au/research/proj/nr7029e.htm
Bourdieu, P. 1977, Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge University Press, London UK.
Brookfield, S. 1995, What it means to be a critically reflective teacher. In Becoming a critically reflective teacher, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, pp.1-27.
___ 1987, Encouraging active learning through personal relationships. In Developing critical thinkers, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, pp.211-227.
Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. 1986, Becoming critical: education, knowledge and action research. Geelong, Deakin University Press.
Crotty, M. 1995, Doing phenomenology. In Willis P. and Neville, B. (Eds.) (1996), Qualitative research practice in adult education, Melbourne, David Lovell Publishing, pp.272-282.
Davies, C. 1999, Reflexivity and ethnographic research. In Reflexive ethnography: a guide to researching self and others, London, Routledge, pp.3-25, pp.26-44.
Foley, G., Crombie, A., Hawke, G. and Morris, R. 2000, Policy formation in adult education and training. In G. Foley, (Ed.), Understanding Adult Education and Training, Sydney NSW, Allen and Unwin, pp.117-126.
Geertz, C. 1973, Thick description: towards an interpretive theory of culture. In The interpretation of cultures: selected essays, New York, Basic Books Inc. Publishers, pp.3-30.
Harris, R., Simons, M., Hill, D., Smith, E., Pearce, R., Blakeley, J., Choy, S. and Snewin, D. 2001, The changing role of staff development for teachers and trainers in vocational education and training. Executive summary of project report (nr8018) to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), Australia, 5 July 2001. Retrieved from the World Wide Web 28 October 2006 from http://www.ncver.edu.au/research/proj/nr8018e.htm

Lincoln, Y.S. and Guba, E.G. 1985, Naturalistic inquiry. California, Sage Publications.

O’Reilly, T. 2005, What is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software. O’Reilly Media, 30 September 2005. Retrieved from the World Wide Web 28 October 2006 from
http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html

Van Manen, M. 1997, Researching lived experience: human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Ontario, The Althouse Press.