Student teachers understanding of educational research:

Student teachers understanding of educational research:
A research and development project at the Wits School of Education.
The aim of the research and development project we are proposing is to optimise the
effects of undergraduate research for preservice teachers, as a preparation for the
professional practice (Cockran-Smith and Lytle, 1999; Darling-Hammond, 1999; Leite,
2006), as an important practical part of the overall new Bachelor of Education (B Ed)
programme (Government Gazette, 2000) and as preparation for entry into postgraduate
programmes. All three aims are consistent with the institutional strategies of the
University of the Witwatersrand (Strategic Plan Wits 2010, 2006).
Issues for research and development
The project we are proposing is based in participatory research and is aimed to improve
the B Ed programme and the practices of the lecturers engaged in delivering the
programme. This proposed project will aim to reveal the ways in which undergraduate
students understand and experience the research processes and methods that they are
exposed to throughout their four year programme and with particular emphasis on the
final year research project which all students need to undertake. The development part of
this proposed project will aim to inform and improve practice with respect to research in
the B Ed programme, by achieving a better understanding of the variation in ways
students experience it, and by engaging the lecturers who supervise the project, in an
action research mode.
This work seeks to tackle the issue which is common to many programmes in higher
education, namely the ways in which students understand the nature and the significance
of research methods and processes in the disciplines and professions they aim to enter. It
is well known that many students entering a new field tend to see the knowledge they
meet there as absolute, with teachers carrying the key to this knowledge and text-books
as the medium of knowledge (e.g. Perry, 1970). Thus, introducing students to research is
not unproblematic, in that the problematisation of what they might be taking for granted
as given and absolute can be seen as revealing gaps or worrying uncertainties in the
lecturers’ knowledge. On the other hand, introducing the students to the broader field of
research can be seen as an essential step in developing a more mature epistemological
standpoint, as well as introducing them to a rich resource for their future professional
practice. As Osman and Casella point out, concerning the first stage of professional
development for teachers: “The new discourse in teacher education is about whole school
development linked to wider social development. This discourse is reflected in the norms
and standards for educators (Government Gazette, 2000), a powerful influence on
curriculum change in all initial teacher education programmes in South Africa.” (Osman
& Casella, manuscript).
The overriding research question is: What is the qualitative variation of ways in which
students understand and experience educational research as they progress through the
professional BEd – as they encounter it, as they learn of methods and processes and as
they undertake their undergraduate research project? The corresponding question for
development is: How can we as academics change our teaching by creating learning
activities which build on the insights of the proposed project and enable our students to
move on in their understanding of the nature of and the significance of research as an
important foundation of teaching and learning practices?
Three specific questions will be tackled in the course of our proposed project:
 How do entering students understand the nature and relevance of educational
research, for their own professional development?
 How do intermediate students experience the research they have met in their BEd
programme and the forthcoming project they will take on?
 How do final year students experience the research project they are undertaking (or
have undertaken), the methods and processes they have met, and the relevance of
research to their future practice as teachers?
As will be described below, such research will expose an analytical description of the
multiplicity of ways in which students understand the phenomenon of research, with
which participating lecturers can engage in changing their approaches to teaching with
respect to research.
The developmental aims of our proposed project are built directly on the research results,
and also in the research process. Lecturers who teach the introductory courses in the first
year and those who mentor students during their final research projects will be engaged in
both the research and development aspects of the proposed project. Each of the three
research questions will result in an outcome space expressed as a number of qualitatively
distinct categories of understanding, which, taken together, will indicate what constitutes
the most complete and effective way in which undergraduate students experience
research in the context of the teacher education programme, and the less complete and
effective ways that are also to be found in the student population at various stages of their
studies. In this way an overall picture will be obtained of nominal progressions through
the educational programme with research in focus.
Thus, the lecturers who are engaged in mentoring the research projects, and lecturers who
prepare students for the teaching profession as a whole, are able to meet what they see as
deficiencies in their students’ work, and develop their teaching practices accordingly.
Methodological background
The methodological approaches which frame this proposal are phenomenography and
action research. Phenomenography has its origins in attempts to illuminate the ways in
which students experience the matter they are learning in higher education, by adopting
methods to reveal qualitative variation in ways in which they experience (or understand,
conceptualise, see or perceive) phenomena they meet (Marton, 1981). Phenomenography
builds on a non-dualistic epistemological assumption, which is to say that priority is
given to knowledge conceptualised as a relation between the knowing subject and the
known object. Learning is characterised as coming to see a phenomenon in one’s world
or features of one’s world in qualitatively new ways, becoming able to discern new and
critical aspects of the phenomenon, thus making new meaning or sense of it, or seeing
new meanings in different contexts. On the basis of empirical studies, a theory of learning
in pedagogical situations has been developed (Marton & Booth, 1997), which describes
learning as a change in awareness, the process of discernment. Briefly, the conditions for
a person to become aware of a phenomenon in a new way, or to become aware of a
feature of it that was not previously apparent, involve awareness becoming open to new
ways of seeing it, ways previously taken for granted have to be brought into a new light,
be placed alongside new possibilities. Thus, lecturers who wish to optimise the conditions
for learning need to be aware of the ways in which students might understand the work
they are engaged in, what constitutes a satisfactory conceptualisation and what might be
missing from a less satisfactory one. One aspect of this phenomenographic approach to
developing the teaching practices of higher education is that phenomenographic research
engages university teachers in the disciplinary and professional subject matter that is
central to their own research field. This presupposes, however, either that they participate
in the studies themselves or that ways of working with university teachers are employed
where reflection on the variation of ways in which students can be experiencing both
subject matter and learning tasks are central.
Action research provides the framework for professional lecturers to engage in research
into their teaching practices and related learning outcomes. Starting from a (more or less
vaguely expressed) concern in teaching, there ensues a cycle of problematisation,
enquiry, research specification, data collection and analysis, and implementation of the
insights thereby gained, to be followed, if appropriate, by further cycles of deepening or
broadening interest. The action research framework allows for various empirical and
theoretical approaches to the identified research issues, but will here be constrained to a
common phenomenographic approach coupled with its associated theory of learning
(Marton & Booth, 1997).
The research and development project
The research will be carried out predominantly by the lecturers involved in the BEd
programme, as far as data collection and analysis is concerned. This will be supported by
a number of workshops for those unfamiliar with the research approaches of
phenomenography and action research. Workshops will focus on the theoretical
underpinnings of these approaches, on data collection and data analysis in the
phenomenographic tradition, and on writing conference and journal papers. This
proposed project addresses one of the seven strategic objectives of the University, which
is the “promotion of research among undergraduate students” (2006:7). Furthermore, the
Wits School of Education, where this research will be carried out, has identified the
development of research capacity among junior staff as one of its priorities for the next
three years (2006:5)
Data generation and collection
Three sets of data will be collected, in accordance with the three specific research
questions. The 10-15 lecturers involved in the proposed project will be invited to take
part in a series of workshops to achieve mutually agreed protocols for data generation in
the early stage of the project and to share the analysis in the later stages.
Set 1. Lecturers (5) involved in the first year of the teacher education programme will
meet and devise an interview protocol in the phenomenographic tradition, and then use it
to interview five students each, chosen purposefully to cover a variation in educational
and social background. The interviews will take up their understanding of research in
general terms, and the ways they experience research as it pertains to their professional
Set 2. Lecturers (5) of courses in the third year of the programme will ask their students
to write a short essay on the meaning of educational research as it pertains to their final
year undergraduate research project and to their future profession.
Set 3. Mentors (5) of final year undergraduate research projects will undertake the same
process as the first year lecturers, of developing and implementing an interview for final
year students. Here focus will be more on the methods, processes and experiences of
research and its significance for their future professional development.
Data analysis
The interviews and the essays will be analysed inductively in the phenomenographic
manner (Marton & Booth, 1997), by seeking, in the first place, significant qualitative
differences in fragments of the data and then by working iteratively with the whole data
material to place the differences in a context of similarities. Thus, eventually the whole
data is analysed to reveal categories which describe the overall experience of the
phenomenon – here, research in its various aspects – as given by the data. It has to be
noted that the analysis does not focus on individual interviews, but rather on the whole
data as collected from all the students interviewed. Thus the results are not classifications
of students per se, but are categories of ways of experiencing the phenomenon of
undergraduate research in all its ramifications.
Implementation and dissemination of the research results
Dissemination of results will take three paths. First, the participating lecturers will
disseminate through reconsideration of and change to their own practices. Second, a
meeting will be held in late 2007 or early 2008 to spread the results to colleagues in the
Wits School of Education and at neighbouring universities. Thirdly, 2 research papers
will be written for presentation at conferences and 2 for publication in peer-reviewed
journals to disseminate to the wider public of higher education.