Student teachers understanding of educational research: A research and development project at the Wits School of Education. Aim 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 futures 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.