(A brief free preview of my forthcoming book, which I’ve been working on solidly all week, (it was already 80% done) and which I hope to send off to the publisher tomorrow, or Sunday at the latest.)
I’m not talking about vampires here, all cool and stylish in their evening dress and Transylvanian castles. No, the undead I have in mind are zombies, lurching forth from the grave, bits falling off them here and there, in a single-minded search for BRAAINNSSS to consume.
The chapter that leads off this collection is my first real foray into writing about how the new complexity sciences might serve as metaphors for research in education. In that chapter I argue that theory is dead: that the quest for theory has done more harm than good in terms of serving the profession of teaching and learning. And yet…
The remaining eleven chapters demonstrate that, despite my protestations, theory has been an abiding concern in my work over the past ten years or so: perhaps it could even be called an obsession. I’ve always problematised it, never seen it as a simple goal in research, and perhaps that’s my over-arching theme here: the attempt to understand (and perhaps to redefine) the role of theory in educational research.
This book is essentially a retrospective of the first ten years of my academic career. The earliest paper I ever published was in 1995. That one doesn’t appear here, but one from 1996 does. It might seem a little early in my career to be creating a ‘collected works’, but I think this collection is valuable for a couple of reasons. First, some of the pieces here were published in rather obscure journals or ones without a wide international circulation, so that the papers are difficult to obtain. One of the journals, FID Review, has even essentially disappeared, Second, I think there are themes and threads, ideas and theories and perspectives, that run through these papers, even though they are in a variety of quite disparate fields of study. Work collected here explores science education, philosophy, educational research methodology and educational technology – fields that often don’t overlap very much. But there are commonalities to my work in each of these fields that can best be explored by bringing the work together and comparing and contrasting it.
skipped a bit here for brevity: the next section discusses the themes of the book
First, last and always, there is the notion of ‘serving the field’. I began with it, and have attempted to be true to it in all the work I’ve done, but working with Mark Hirschkorn as a graduate student over the past couple of years has brought it home to me once again. If the work that educational researchers do does not significantly and positively effect what happens in classrooms, then it is essentially unproductive – I’m trying to resist the metaphor, but ‘masturbatory’ about covers the notion. And our efforts have to go beyond deploring the ‘theory-practice gap’ and wondering why teachers refuse to implement our finely presented research findings in their work. I’ve talked with colleagues about the range of possible responses to the ‘theory-practice gap’, and it seems to me to boil down to four possibilities:
- Fix the teachers – teach them to read and implement research. This happens to some extent in graduate studies, but does not reach all teachers, would be prohibitively expensive and may not even be well adapted to their needs anyway.
- Fix the researchers – teach them to write their research reports in ‘teacher language’ and work more closely with practitioners, and to choose questions that have useful answers. This is happening to some extent, but is constrained by ‘what counts’ for academics in terms of tenure and promotion.
- Provide translators – people who have a specific role in reading research and translating it into ‘teacher language’ and working alongside practitioners. Seems like a great idea, but (a) who funds these people and (b) some of the research may not be useful to practitioners even after translation.
- Fix the research – transform the kinds of research that are done in education so that (a) the results are of use to teachers in classrooms and (b) the reports are written in language that teachers can understand and that addresses their needs.
One way of understanding the values and commitments I bring to my research is to think of it as focused on implementing the second and fourth of these approaches – exploring ways in which research can be modified, and I as a researcher can modify what I do, in order to do work that is generative, productive, fecund.
A second theme is the importance of metaphor as a tool for exploring theory. It seems to me that many of our theoretical perspectives are essentially metaphorical in nature. ‘Constructivism’ for example, takes its name from building metaphors, and is largely understood in terms of metaphors of ‘foundations’ on which knowledge is built and of the articulation of the pieces. We also use ‘lens’ metaphors to talk about the theory-ladenness of observation and metaphors of hierarchy and ladders to think about the arrangement of knowledge and about students’ development through the lifespan. I have employed a ‘spiderweb’ metaphor to think about relationships in classrooms, and explored the notion of ‘the centre’ that is implicit in the metaphors of ‘student-centred learning’. Peter Taylor and I explicitly used the exploration of teachers’ metaphors of teaching and learning as part of the web-based course we taught.
Talking about metaphor leads fairly naturally into consideration of the role of narrative in both conducting and representing our research in education. Story is a major theme that runs through my work. This goes beyond the fictional and ‘fictionalised’ narratives that make up some of the reporting of the research to include small fictional pieces used to introduce and connect theoretical discussions. It includes the awareness that even the most propositional-logical research paper has a ‘storyline’, and thinking about how every story is a selection. In Paul Feyerabend’s (1999b) terms, we are overwhelmed by the abundance of the world, and need to slice out manageable pieces of it in order to simply be able to function. Being more explicitly aware of our own selection processes can help to make the stories we create more powerful and valuable.
Stories – particularly the ‘fictionalised’ kind I used in some of the research reported in Section Three – are not a regular part of the canon of academic research in the social sciences. Even within the qualitative research community such stories risk being seen as ‘coffee house tales’ (as one reviewer called some of mine) rather than as serious research texts that make a contribution. So another theme that runs through much of this work is an attempt to stretch the canons of academic writing in interesting ways. I’ve avoided moving entirely toward writing in stories, and sought an on-going dialectical tension between narrative and more propositional-logical forms of writing. Both forms in juxtaposition seem to me to be both more interesting and more powerful for my purposes than either alone.
Of course, a simple dichotomy doesn’t really capture the variety of stylistic attempts to find new and interesting ways to talk about the research. There are also pieces that speak directly to the reader, and dialogues between authors, and a variety of other experiments. Not all experiments are entirely successful, of course – I’ll leave it to you to judge which of the things I’ve tried here have potential (maybe in the hands of a better writer) and which should perhaps be avoided in future!
Another pervasive theme is my strong preference for ‘both-and’ answers rather than ‘either-or’ ones. That is, if someone asks ‘should we use either social constructionism or radical constructivism as a theoretical frame’, I’m very likely to say ‘both’. (For that matter, the same principle applies to steak and prawns.) My pleas for a ‘disciplined eclecticism’ in educational research, and for researchers to get beyond turf wars (qualitative/quantitative, constructivist/transmissivist/enactivist or even between the different ‘brands’ of constructivism) are driven by the conviction that energy spent in controversy and defence could be better spent in actually choosing and using a given perspective or blend of perspectives to do good research work.
Of course, different perspectives are not simply able to be synthesised – they’re different for a reason, and they may even be incommensurable. The notion of holding different theoretical perspectives in a ‘dialectical tension’, where each illuminates some facets of the problem of interest and throws others into darkness, seems to offer a potential way forward. Using such an image it becomes clear that two perspectives are better than one, and maybe three than two, but four or five might be unwieldy. I used to use the metaphor of a ‘toolbox’ to talk about the repertoires of both teachers and researchers, and I still think that image of a well stocked toolbox, and the skill to choose the right tools for the job, is a useful one. I’ve recently started thinking and talking of it more as a ‘toybox’ though, and of theories as things to play with, and things that enable us to play old games in new exciting ways and to invent new ones.
These are the themes that I see in looking back over the research – there will, if I’ve done my job well and written richly, also be other themes and ideas and resonances that will strike you, given your own experiences and interests. Those may well be more important and significant than the ones I’ve been able to name – and that’s how it should be.
That may in fact be a final theme: Umberto Eco’s (1989) notion of ‘The Open Work’. A closed work is one in which all the interpretations have already been made, and the text tends to support only those pre-specified interpretations. An open work is one that is rich enough that there remains interpretive work to be done by the reader, and materials with which to do it. In much the same way, John Van Maanen (1995) speaks of reading the written reports as the Third Moment of Ethnography. You have an active role to play in making meaning as you read this book.
So, in defiance of ‘the death of theory’, these particular theories get to lurch forth one more time. They move slowly but inexorably. Sure, some bits are falling off, and they’re a bit the worse for wear. They weren’t all that pretty to start with, and their adventures have left marks. But I hope they still have a sort of primal power. At least enough to give them access to your BRAAIINNN.