Developing powerful learners through dialogue
“Learning is not a spectator sport… Students must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”
- Chickering and Gamson, 1987
I have been employed as a lecturer in Health & Social Care in a Further Education and a Sixth Form College over the past eight years. Before entering teacher training, I had intended to work in secondary school. However, after a placement in an FE college, I decided to follow that route. This is because I felt that the style in which teaching occurred was in some way "more real." At the school, I was referred to as "Sir," and was expected by my mentor and by the students to stand at the front and tell them everything they needed to know for the assessments. Indeed, in teacher training, the teacher was referred to as "an actor," which implied that they read a script from a stage, with whom interaction would be unusual.
At college, however, I was just Simon, I didn't have to give students all the knowledge, but I was there to question, to ask about their jobs, their lives, their experiences, and perhaps to let them see the value of these things in relation to their chosen area of study. The lessons were much more student-led and practical. The students had a voice in that room. I was free to say "I don't know - let's find out."
In that way of working, I was less the actor, more the improviser. In improvisation, the audience is often involved, and the direction of travel within a show is commonly dictated by the audience. For this to happen, I had to listen. I had to have respect and love for the students, and I could no longer be an actor - I had to be me. These conditions of positive regard, empathy and congruence are the core conditions for Roger's client centred therapy, and they became the cornerstone of my teaching style (Rogers 1961).
Therefore, the lessons were no longer my property, constructed in advance solely by me, but must be co-constructed by myself and the students. As I relied upon them, I needed them to make contributions. What I noticed early on was that only a few students would make the majority of contributions. If I were to propose, as Dewey (in Arnstine 1997) did, that "finding out is better than being told," then I would have to find a way to enable all participants to do their own finding out, rather than relying upon the few.
For that, I found that the structure of the classroom had to change. Any environment sends a message, and most classrooms face towards a teacher by a board, clearly sending the meaning that the person up there is the focus- all listen to him. This has been reinforced over the past two decades by the rise of PowerPoint presentations, which are pre-planned and linear, allowing little room for digression from a teacher pre-ordained structure. They have simplified the complex (Craig and Amernic 2006).
This of course has its advantages, and they are popular with students. They feel that they are getting what they need to succeed, so if they drift off the slides are printed, as well as being visible, and read out. This triple-delivery is common, repetitious, and asks little of the students (Craig and Amernic 2006). The student definition of success here will often be achieving the assessment, nothing more. They see it as the teacher's responsibility to fill them with the required knowledge (Eli 2013).
In this model, the teacher may be seen to ‘hold’ power, however Foucault described power not as a possession but a strategy. It was not something that could be wielded to oppress others, but a process that flowed through all relations (Balan 2009). “Power must be analysed as something which circulates… Individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application” (Foucault 1980). A new model could recognise that teachers are as much part of the “network of relations” (Balan 2009) as students, that they both have the knowledge, or the tools for its creation. The teacher could become the student, and the student the teacher.
To illustrate that point, there have been many times in my classes when we have discussed a topic such as the care system in the UK, and perhaps I know something of it from research. However, when a student begins to speak out about their own experience within that system, that is where real learning for me and for the class occurs. The student has acted as a “vehicle for power” (Foucault 1980) at that moment – they have the greatest knowledge, so they have exerted an influence on the power relations in that classroom at that point. The student there has knowledge that lives, experience that speaks to us. To allow this important learning event to happen, I have to signal a devolution of the supposed power that the educational structure has given me, and allow the right conditions to occur in the classroom. Through the more person-centred practice (Rogers 1957), students may feel comfortable to be themselves, and realise that they have something to offer, something to say.
It is through this dialogue, through a protracted process of negotiation that the classroom is inverted (Auster 1994). I can sit at the back, as indeed I have, and allow the students to lead. They then have the ability to hold power, which I propose is essential to their development in the world. To enter university, to get a job, to find their role in the world they must be able to express who they are and what they can offer, they must engage with the structures around them and speak with them.
I have found that something which I thought would help me along with my lessons has evolved into something which I believe will help students develop towards their potential, as Maslow (1962) would have it. However, I see now through my reading that education is a political act (Freire, in Darwish 2009). What is said comes from a structure, and reinforces that structure. All words have a taste to them - each profession uses its own language, and without that people cannot access them readily. To allow students to develop their skills of dialogue is to develop their skills of thought. Vygotsky proposed that thought developed socially, and this must be allowed to unfold in the classroom. My ultimate aim is to be unneeded by the students at the end of their time with me.
I propose to research if dialogic teaching can empower students, allowing them greater engagement with their current and future study and career, and if so, how this may be promoted.
Robin Alexander introduced a theory of classroom talk known as ‘dialogic teaching,’ and I feel that dialogue in my study will be most clearly defined as “using talk effectively for carrying out teaching and learning. This involves ongoing talk between teacher and students, not just teacher-presentation” (Alexander 2011). It is this definition that I choose to focus on in my study, rather than note-taking or other methods of participation. I aim to enact a shift from teacher-presentation towards a more inclusive classroom, where every member has some responsibility for creating the content through talk. I will reflect on this process through my own experience of it, and through the experiences of the students.
A framework for dialogic teaching, adapted from Alexander, 2011
I have adapted the work of Alexander (2011) into a framework that suggests a four-stage process for development of dialogue in the classroom. If the teacher first structures the environment and the interactions in a way which encourages dialogue, changes their questioning and feedback styles, then the discussion that could result may become more ‘generative’ in nature, allowing for expanded student contribution. The nature of this framework is that the process starts simply and becomes more complex.
Process in the dialogue-led classroom
This framework aims to offer an overview of the proposed process in a dialogic classroom. From dialogue between students and teachers, ideas may emerge, as described in the framework above. The teacher then has a role in aiding student integration of these ideas into the structures of the course, or other structures as appropriate. This guided co-construction of knowledge may result in the creation of new ideas, which the student has assimilated into their current knowledge, and applied to the relevant structure. I will use these frameworks as a guide to my own practice, showing some of the conditions that would be preferable in the dialogic classroom. The principles contained within will be the focus of my study. The frameworks will also be useful when discussing these ideas with colleagues and students, perhaps simplifying the ideas and providing an illustration of the overall process.
It is important to define dialogue for this study. Green’s study found that students defined dialogue as “an active intervention by providing either spontaneous or unsolicited contributions, such as giving opinions, answering questions, making comments, talking about a topic, participating in group discussions, reading, and asking questions” (Green 2008). Auster and MacRone hold a similar definition – the authors agree that it is difficult to define, and that there is not a consensus on it, however they settle with the understanding that it “consists of asking and answering questions, and participating in discussions or debate” (Auster and MacRone 1994).
Robin Alexander introduced a theory of classroom talk known as ‘dialogic teaching,’ and I feel that dialogue in this study is most clearly defined as “using talk effectively for carrying out teaching and learning. This involves ongoing talk between teacher and students, not just teacher-presentation” (Alexander 2011).
This definition shows that it is talk that I will be focussing on here, rather than note-taking or other methods of participation, and that the underlying shift is from teacher-presentation towards a more inclusive classroom, where every member has some responsibility for creating the content through talk.
WHY IS DIALOGUE IMPORTANT?
According to interviews by Fritschner, students consider verbal participation essential: “I think that the more people participate, the more questions they raise, the more comments they make it stimulates everyone else's thinking; ... you net more information than if you just sit passively” (Fritschner 2008)
Petress (2006) supports this view, asserting that learning is an active, not passive process. He says that it is by joining in with lessons, where students relate the theories to their own experiences that result in them being able to relate the learning to multiple areas through transference, rather than by trying to see common threads in lessons passively learned. Students have been shown to retain learning that they actually ‘do’ rather than listen to, much more effectively (Petress 2006).
Petress refers to learning through simply listening to the class discussion as ‘vicarious.’ This implies that their learning is second-hand, or perhaps achieved through the work of others. He proposes that classroom activity should be part of the assessment process, with grades for class participation acting as “both motivation and reward for quality student classroom involvement” (Petress 2006). The way these contributions can be evaluated occur along three scales: quantity, dependability, and quality. However, he notes that it is not desirable that one or a few students are depended upon for almost all the answers – this leads to too high a level of support for others in the class (Petress 2006).
However he does not propose that dialogue should be forced upon the students – unlike some other commentators who ask for numerous directed questions, asked of students by name. Instead, he says that teacher modelling, where positive behaviours are rewarded, and the teacher demonstrates that they value contributions highly will be more effective. Use of force can damage the social group of the class (Petress 2006). This idea seems to promote dialogue more than the directive methods.
A problem with the ‘spoken word’ definition of participation, if it is thought to be an essential element of classroom practice, could be that it excludes those that participate in other ways, through active listening, note-taking and thought. Bean and Paterson found that, just as students have their own learning styles, their preferred participation styles differ too. Their study was in response to the growing number of US teachers who were using participation as an activity that contributed to final grades, considering spoken contributions only as participation (Bean and Paterson 1998).
DEFINING AUTONOMY AND CONTROL
As it is up to the student to decide whether or not to make a contribution, then a study which aims to encourage these contributions must examine any influences on this decision. In my classroom, students have a choice to answer a question or not. In other words, they have some degree of autonomy. Autonomy can be defined as “a sense of being choiceful in one's actions and experiencing oneself as the locus of initiation of those actions” (Connell & Ryan 1987). Therefore, autonomy refers to the relationship between volition and action, and describes how far an individual feels that they can express themselves in a certain manner (Patrick 1993). For example, the teacher may say that the students can learn today’s lesson in any way they want – all they have to do is make a suggestion. The students therefore have a high level of control. However, forces such as conformity may make each student less likely to speak out - they may feel embarrassed to be the one who holds the responsibility for what they will do that day.
These variables of autonomy and perceived control could together have an influence over dialogue in class as “perceived control is a powerful influence on behaviour and emotion” (Patrick 1993). Bandura showed that higher perceived control and autonomy were good predictors of exertion, persistence and attention in the face of difficulties (Bandura 1986), but how are these two concepts different? Is having full control the same as full autonomy? Patrick (1993) argues that the opposite of control is helplessness, and that control refers to the connection between behaviour and outcomes. Control “is the extent to which a person feels capable of producing desired and preventing undesired events” (Patrick 1993) which is clearly important in the classroom – if the student feels they have control, then they may feel better placed to move what is happening in the classroom towards their own desired outcomes. However, this may not always happen. For even if the student feels they have control, they may not have enough autonomy to execute these desired behaviours.
An increase in the levels of student control and autonomy has been a feature of the more shift to more student-led learning in the late 20th century. “The paradigm shift away from teaching to an emphasis on learning has encouraged power to be moved from the teacher to the student” (Barr and Tagg 1995). The promotion of self-esteem in students has aided this. Fasinger found that students with low self-esteem would make fewer spoken contributions, as would females (Fasinger 1995). This finding, along with those expressed by some respondents in Fritschner’s study has led some writers, such as Atwood, to call for a more ‘inclusive’ definition of participation in classrooms, beyond simply dialogic contributions (Atwood 2004).
However, I would like to argue that it is our society today that demands contributions to be spoken, as this is the method of communication through which jobs are secured, teams built, and ideas generated. I can see that for my students at least, to get ahead in their chosen fields of health care and social work, they will need to be able to express themselves in front of others using words, and I must support them in developing that skill. There is a long history of research to support this point of view, perhaps gaining widespread notice with the Plowden Report in 1967.
This report into primary education for the Central Advisory Council For Education in England (CACE 1967) laid down much of the ‘student-centred’ or ‘experiential learning’ frameworks which would be adopted over the following years, sometimes amid some controversy, as education was shifting from the idea of the teacher at the front, with students who assume that their role is to be the passive recipient of the teacher’s ideas and knowledge (Tinto 1997).The report claimed that “'finding out' has proved to be better for children than 'being told,’” and that “the gloomy forebodings of the decline of knowledge which would follow progressive methods have been discredited” (CACE 1967). This supported the ideas of Rogers (1959), well-known for his theories in person-centred counselling, whose work predates the report, and is the foundation for much of this change in technique.
His perspective was “that human beings have an inherent tendency toward growth, development and optimal functioning” which he termed the actualising tendency (Rogers 1959). To achieve this ‘self-actualisation,’ however, the conditions must be right. He proposed that the person needs to feel understood, valued, and accepted for who they are (Rogers 1959).
It is in that relationship and that moment, that learning can occur (Rogers 1969). As Freire puts it, at that point “there are neither ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only men who are attempting, together to learn more than they now know” (Freire 1972). This way of thinking starts to move a little away from a purely person-centred viewpoint towards a more dialogical stand – as both teacher and student aim to learn together.
However, there may be resistance to these ideas – especially from students who have had success from a more teacher-led approach in the past, who “may reject the student–centred approach as frightening or indeed not within their remit” (Prosser and Trigwell 2002). Other writers claim that a student focus may detract from the advantages of being part of a social group, one study “highlighted [student] concern over being abandoned or isolated from other supports in a student–centred learning approach” (Lea 2003). A process of negotiation, explanation and openness may help address some of these concerns, showing the student why they wish to work in a more student-led manner.
ROLE EXPECTATIONS AND POWER
This may reduce the student assumption that their role is to be the passive recipient of the teacher’s ideas and knowledge. However, often the way that the course is set up can reinforce this idea – the teacher has control, if not over the syllabus, then at least over how it is approached, what is to be discussed, how the students will be assessed and graded (Auster and MacRone 1994).
This reinforces the idea that the educational system is structurally biased towards a system of the teacher as expert, who gives out the “truth” to the students (Tinto 1994). The use of the word “truth” here implies that students see the teacher’s information as reliable. The students see their role as the respectful note-taker, finding out all they need to know by listening and writing it down. However, in survey responses these students see this passive relationship as their own weakness. They feel that it is a failing of theirs, not of the teacher as authority figure (Fritschner 2000).
From these observations, both the student and the teacher create a definition of the classroom as a social setting. Sociologists have highlighted that it is possible to create a different social structure for the class “that emphasizes and enhances the student's role in creating knowledge” (Hamlin and Janssen 1987).
THE VALUE OF DIALOGUE
So what is the goal of dialogue? Auster and MacRone propose it to be greater engagement with the intellectual materials, and allowing the students space to approach them in their own way, to come to their own understanding of them. The authors assert that participation through dialogue only matters to the individual making that contribution. It is they who will benefit or lose out (Auster and MacRone 1994). However, dialogue may have effects beyond the individual – Alexander claims it “build understanding through cumulation,” allowing all to benefit from individual’s contributions. Additionally, Neil Mercer proposes dialogue as “a tool for both solitary and collective thinking,” with his proviso that the students “need involvement” (Mercer 2003).
Tinto continues to add support to the thread that greater involvement in the class through dialogue and beyond, into the life of the institution results in greater levels of learning and acquisition of skills. It goes beyond the classroom, and perhaps has a wider demonstration of the value of dialogue than we have discussed so far, as it talks about the ‘investment’ in class activities and the level of effort put into them, proposing that “the higher the level of effort, the more students learn” (Tinto 1997).
Alexander proposes that this type of dialogue is essential for teaching. The author places it above reading and writing in its importance to education. He claims that it is not given the weight that it deserves, and the way that the National Curriculum refers to only “speaking and listening” undermines the true value of dialogue (Alexander 2011).
This means we tend to reflect less on what is said in the classroom, rather than written. The author claims that lower educational status is ascribed to speaking in British classrooms. Even after a discussion, the instruction often follows: “Now write about it.” The writing seems to be the activity of value, the bit of the session that feels like work, that proves that something has been learned (Alexander 2011).
Alexander examines the shift from the Piagetian view of the child as the ‘lone scientist,’ in the 60s and 70s towards a more Vygotskian view of learning through engagement, through language, with adults, peers, and the culture in general. It emphasises the role of interaction in the process of learning, arguing that “the true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the social, but the social to the individual” (Vygotsky 1962).
This challenges the view of the teacher as hands-off facilitator, but does not go as far as a return to the teacher at the front just telling students what to write, or imparting knowledge. Both of these are an extreme – there is much more activity on one side in each model. The dialogic approach requires both student engagement and teacher intervention. The author proposes that “the principal means by which pupils actively engage and teachers constructively intervene is through talk” (Alexander 2011). Daniels adds that that “Classroom talk mediates not just teaching and learning but the wider culture” (Daniels 2001).
This idea supports my view that I need to equip the students with the wider social skills to be able to interact better with prospective employers and educators. They need to be able to think for themselves, and “teaching must provide them with the linguistic opportunities and encounters which will enable them to do so” (Alexander 2011). This is a challenge to the idea that “knowledge, truth and understanding can be transmitted form one person to another by verbal statements” (Halpern 2002). As this didactic stance has increasingly fallen out of favour in the discourse of education, “some would deny that they hold it, even though their practice implies it,” suggesting that it is a shift in ideology that may not be seen as practical (Halpern 2002).
STRATEGIES TO INCREASE DIALOGUE
So far we have seen the views of researchers who see dialogue underutilised, and who call for greater active learning and increased involvement. However, I should highlight that a lot of the strategies are based only on anecdotal evidence, and that more research is required (Auster and MacRone 1994).
With this in mind, we can now look at strategies that have offered promise in increasing participation. One study looked at ‘tag questions,’ which are statements that are turned into a question by the addition of a tag such as “He was born in London – wasn’t he?” These are described as cues that encourage the listener to contribute. It is also noted by Tannen (1990) that female teachers often provide more listener noise, such as “mm-mm” and “uh-huh.”
The researchers carried out a study where they asked a class to think of the sessions where they spoke the most that term, and the session that they spoke in the least. They then asked the same set of questions regarding each session. Questions looked at teacher behaviours that could distance the teacher from the traditional role, which they hypothesised would result in the creation of the classroom as a social setting, encouraging dialogue (Auster and MacRone 1994).
The behaviours they asked respondents about included allowing time for the students to answer questions, without the teacher answering their own question, encouraging students to elaborate on their answers, and offering supportive feedback and encouragement. The presence of these behaviours was claimed to demonstrate to the students the importance of their contributions.
They found that these behaviours would encourage more dialogue, however the researchers pointed out that increased quantity did not mean increased quality. They do propose that the increased quantity of contributions will lead to less emphasis being placed on each item, perhaps meaning that making additional contributions will be less daunting, making students feel more comfortable to do so (Auster and MacRone 1994).
What these researchers discovered additionally, was that student’s self-reporting on participation can vary dramatically from their actual observed participation. This raises methodological issues – perhaps observation will be needed to increase credibility.
This research shows that teaching cannot be a process of pure autonomy for the students – the teacher must be a skilled helper. Teaching must be an intervention, not a facilitation. The dynamics in the classroom, therefore, are of as much importance as the content of the talk. Like Auster and MacRone’s ‘class as a social setting,’ we must explore how interactions unfold, and where control lies. Jackson looked at the unequal relationship between teacher and student in his work in the 1960s, and saw that there was a risk that the teacher would dominate the setting, doing most of the talking, having an answer in mind to his ‘open’ questions which leads to less free thought or idea generation, more towards students trying to guess the answer that he is thinking of (Jackson 1967). It is this level of control that I am looking to reduce in my classroom, with the aim of investigating whether this can encourage greater student dialogue.
Alexander proposes the following principles to encourage greater quality and quantity of classroom talk:
interactions which encourage students to think, and to think in different ways
questions which invite much more than simple recall
answers which are justified, followed up and built upon rather than merely received
feedback which informs and leads thinking forward as well as encourages
contributions which are extended rather than fragmented
exchanges which chain together into coherent and deepening lines of enquiry
discussion and argumentation which probe and challenge rather than unquestioningly accept
professional engagement with subject matter which liberates classroom discourse from the safe and conventional
classroom organisation, climate and relationships which make all this possible (Alexander 2011).
I shall investigate these ideas within my study, aiming to see how far these can promote dialogue, and what value that may bring to our learning. I aim to see what will challenge these proposals, and how the students experience them. These principles for practice will guide my methodology.
To really understand a previous experience, I find that talking about it helps. Putting an event into words can help untangle what happened from what it felt like. In talking about something which has happened, I need to give it some coherence – it becomes a story, if I am successful in this. As a teacher, I care about how knowledge is created, and how my students can create it. The ultimate aim of my work is perhaps not to teach, but as Heidegger had it, “to let learn” (Heidegger, in Haverkamp 1995). I find that these dialogues with others are where I am let to learn, and where new knowledge is created, by the dialectic between two views, two ways of seeing – two stories.
Narrative enquiry is a “collaboration between researcher and participants, over time, in a place or series of places, and in social interaction,” (Clandinin & Connelly 2000) which is where I see its potential as a research methodology. I want my research to have a real effect upon my classes and how they learn, I want them to be active participants. Of course, there are so many variables in to consider in that relationship, but narrative offers "insight that (befits) the complexity of human lives" (Josselson 2006).
I want to understand the experiences of my students, so that I can build a better relationship with them, enabling better learning. Rogers proposed that his ideas of humanism, that each individual has a desire to achieve the best they can in life, should be the foundation for all teaching and learning (Rogers 1985). For that to occur, there needs to be a positive, honest and empathic relationship between student and teacher. For that relationship to develop there needs to be open dialogue, and interpretation of it (Rogers 1985). Rogers proposed that close attention needs to be paid to what happens in a classroom. He proposed that the student should have choice over how they learned, that they have some control of proceedings. He aimed to develop the ‘whole person,’ looking beyond simply academic achievement. As the humanistic relationship develops, ‘felt concern,’ the teacher’s understand of the students’ interests and needs must develop (Rogers 1985). In narrative research, presentation and understanding of participants’ experiences are central (Cresswell 2005), as in Rogers’ humanistic approach.
Another benefit of the focus on the individual experiences of participants is that “narrative inquiry amplifies voices that may have otherwise remained silent” (Trahar 2013) My studies have focussed on encouraging participation in classroom dialogue by all, not just a few, and this methodology places great value on these voices.
As I explained above, I put together thoughts into words and they get expressed as a story. “The narrative scholar (pays) analytic attention to how the facts got assembled that way.” Therefore I will need to be aware of how, why, and for whom this story is being written. I certainly feel that I am trying to promote a dialogic method of teaching, but is that me imposing my view, rejecting those of others, pushing ahead regardless? “What cultural discourses does it draw on—take for granted? What does it accomplish?” (Riessman and Speedy 2007) I need to be aware that my background, the structure that have shaped me, and the way I practice may not be suitable for all. When looking back upon my own development, as my study may take an autobiographical approach, I have to be sure that I don’t reject stories that don’t support my views, and overlay meaning on events that wasn’t there at the time, as when “making stories … we are engaged in processes of languaging and describing that modify the past… Thus we need to resist the temptation to attribute intentions and meanings to events that they did not have at the time they were experienced” (Riessman and Speedy 2007).
Yet it is this reliance on the past to help inform the future that we must engage with. Often, it is only on looking back that we come to understand events, and their meanings (Polkinghorne 1995). It is only when we overlay the drive of a narrative that we connect events that may have seemed disparate at the time, but now form a chain of cause and effect, each one speaking, as it were, in light of the previous.
However, this meaning may be imposed upon events in retrospect, when it wasn’t an intention at the time, as “memory is always selective and plays tricks on us. It is far from autobiographical – it is grounded in what is tellable” (Atkinson and Coffey 2003). Therefore, I must be aware that both the advantage and the risk of narrative is the story taking over. In music, rhythm is both the song’s charge and its manacle. It both drives it forward and holds it back. Here, the focus on story may enhance events that support its tale, and disregard what is not easily tellable.
But as dialogue, teaching through talking, is the focus of my study, I feel that a methodology that values the spoken word would be appropriate, as “narrative inquiry embraces narrative as both the method and the phenomena of study” (Pinnegar and Danes 2007). In other words, I want to talk about talk.
It is this openness to the students’ lived experiences that makes a narrative inquiry so appealing. It is important to try to access and understand the students’ different social constructions, asking them how they experience learning through conversations and questions, inviting them to become story tellers and speakers too, creating a holistic understanding of the classroom (Berger and Luckman 1967).
By showing this through my narrative, I aim to show that the dialogue that occurs between a teacher and a class can be a generator of learning – for both sides. Being able to reflect upon my own practice and motives in changing contexts, as I move between institutions, courses and socio-economic groups has enabled me to become more sensitive to context, and to become aware of possible ‘cultural imperialism,’ where my own ideals may be uncritically transferred to my students (Crossley and Watson 2003).
I hope that my inquiry will aid my own development, testing theories of education in practice, testing my own ideas, seeing what works, in a conversation “between theory and the stories of life contained in the inquiry” (Clandinin and Connelly 2000)
How this will happen isn’t fully clear to me at the moment. To stay true to the ideals of improvisation, I wish to react to what happens, to be open to new experiences, to use everything. In the same position as other qualitative researchers, my “methodological positioning is not fully conceptualised before the study begins” (Kohne 2006) It feels a little worrying, but also exhilarating, just like improvisation, where I am not pre-bound by structures imposed beforehand, but I am allowing them to develop as we, me and the class, progress. I want to hold on to “not knowing,” embrace uncertainty, as this is what I propose results in the greatest learning in the classroom – therefore I should practice it myself.
As the researcher, I have to understand my position within this research. I decided to be very much part of it, along with my students, and the reporting of through narrative will show my presence clearly. I have explained what is happening to the students consistently throughout, and will discuss my initial observations, this research, and its purpose with the students. I will ask for their ideas, their feedback, and always show them that they are participants, being of use to me, certainly, but hopefully being of use to themselves too, making improvements in their own course (Mantzoukas 2004). This position may influence the outcome, therefore I must be aware of where I am in the research, and ‘reflect on my reflections.’ My positioning “means that the technicalities of the research process are no longer artificially detached from the political, ethical and social arena, but that they include the motives, feelings and experiences of the researcher” therefore I must declare these in a reflexive manner.
It has to be considered that I am researching field because of my curiosity about it, my own personal ideas about ‘what could be better.’ Stenhouse (1972) accepts that this is “the impulse behind all research,” and that it stimulates inquiry. The ethical question here is not the removal of bias, but the clear declaration of it. In this study I would like to discover effective techniques for encouraging dialogue, because I feel from my own experience that life becomes better when you can engage with it through dialogue. However I am very much open to evidence to the contrary and to suggestions supporting other methods of learning, and how this one method may not ‘fit all.’ I aim to capture these reflections through a reflective journal and give the students a voice in the research through interviews.
I believe that this openness will show ethical consideration towards my students. I will give them all the information that I have, I will explain, ‘show my working,’ say why I am doing it all. With informed consent, the participant needs to be well informed.
However, there is an unequal level of authority or “power” in the teacher-student relationship. No matter how far I attempt to distance myself from the role, I still admit them to the course, assess their work, oversee disciplinary matters, write reports and references and have some control over the classroom (Tribble and Jones 1997). Therefore, I have to be aware of matters of consent. I have tried to keep them as informed as possible, as discussed above, but perhaps the students could feel coerced, that if they did not participate, they may fall out of my favour or their grades may suffer.
I aim to avoid this by explaining at the start of every intervention or questionnaire that their results will remain anonymous and confidential, that their data need not be included if they do not want it to be and that they can withdraw their consent at any time, at which point their data will be destroyed and of course not included in any reports. I will demonstrate this by allowing the students to return any forms or questionnaires anonymously to a box that is not observed by me, and if they do not wish their data to be included, they need not return their paper. I wish to demonstrate a genuine desire for the students to have their voice heard, to make improvements, and also to help me as I help them.
A major consideration is the protection of research subjects, and in this study I will continue to meet for individual tutorials with these participants, and have open discussions about their educational and social lives, and aim to discover if they are having any difficulties. Van de Berg claims that protection of subjects in research may be condescending, as “the discourse regarding the protection of subjects takes place between the researchers, not between researchers and their subjects” (De Berg 1993), therefore I have aimed to keep my students at the centre of this study, ethically as well as educationally.
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