On methods: The need for dialogue and reflective practice

The conventional status hierarchy for methods of research could (should?) be inverted.

It is conventional for social science and education doctoral programs to include courses on quantitative methods (statistics and perhaps survey and experimental design).  Sometimes such courses are supplemented by qualitative methods.  Action Research may be mentioned, but the value given to the products of Action Research is lower to the extent that there are multiple authors, including non-academics, and distributed in non-academic venues (e.g., reports, meetings).  Moreover, tools and processes for dialogue, collaboration, and reflective practice are rarely if ever included in methods courses.  After all, how are they related to evidence-based practice?  Let us consider where this status hierarchy gets us.

An emphasis on results backed by quantitative data runs into the following issues:

1.  The recurrent complaint that policy- and decision-makers didn’t use the results, or selectively (mis)used them.

2. Analyses are shaped by the categories of data collected (http://wp.me/pPWGi-8M).

3. Lack of theory or of attention for where questions that warrant examination come from (http://wp.me/pPWGi-gI).

4.  How are statistically significant factors translated into action? (http://wp.me/pPWGi-ol)

5.  What if the causal factors underlying a statistically significant factor are heterogeneous? (http://wp.me/pPWGi-se)


ACTION RESEARCH: Action Research (AR) addresses #1,  because it begins when you (as an individual or as a group) want to do something to change the current situation, that is, to take action.  If the action is your idea, AR involves building a constituency around the idea, which may well involve the idea for action being revised and becoming the group’s idea.  If the action emerges from a group that is affected by some problem, the group is already invested in using the results (http://wp.me/pPWGi-pO).  Typically AR is informed by review of results from previous actions and involves data collection and analysis to evaluate the effect(iveness) of new actions.  However, formulating ideas for action can be supplemented by qualitative research, especially in the background research phase of thinking about what the situation is(e.g., what motivates you to change this situation?) and what needs changing.

STUDIO & REFLECTIVE PRACTICE: Constituency building may happen in a studio (http://wp.me/p1gwfa-vW) or other space for reflective (or “refractive”) practice (http://wp.me/p1gwfa-sr).

TOOLS for DIALOGUE, COLLABORATION & REFLECTION: To build such spaces and make interaction within them fruitful, it makes sense to learn and practice tools and processes for dialogue, collaboration, and reflection.  More generally, there is room in dialogue, collaboration, and reflection for “creative habits and critical perspectives,” which may be informed by psychological and philosophical research on thinking.

The following schema depicts education that emphasizes the development of a person’s capacity to engage and leaves quantitative and qualitative methods as something to be put in place (perhaps through collaboration with a specialist) later, after constituencies around action have emerged thus making issue #1 less likely.



It is beyond the scope of this post to argue that this inversion of emphasis also addresses issues #2-5, but see http://wp.me/pPWGi-hX for a start.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

One Response to On methods: The need for dialogue and reflective practice

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    I was told today that I don’t do left brain and right brain thinking that actually I do top/bottom thinking and so I found this post really insightful on how to intentionally practice this besides the reason they found for this observation. The inversion and AR ideas are helpful reminders of the limits of one way thinking and methodology–if researchers saw results for trying this out, perhaps there could be a radical rethinking of blurring the boundaries of directional studies.
    How to encourage this though? Maybe there can be some other perspective changers such as using terminology out of context as a reflective practice to see what happens–this might be just one way to embrace ambiguity and anomalies instead of attacking them. For instance, do traditional methods of reflective practice assume rerun predictability? (This is using my generic definition of this specialized term which I saw as follows: get the conditions as close to the first success as possible and then the actions you repeat will have the same results.) Do scholars compare even their topical studies as if they are within groups or across groups in general–how do they see their place as well?
    Getting back to this post: do researchers avoid action research and reflective practice because it is used by non-experts or without certain established parameters controlled by these same researchers? (In other words, if these tools are used too generally or too imprecisely won’t they be avoided due to stigma of their other users or the messiness perceived?) How then do we doers of action research and reflective practice more thoughtfully include evidence based data into our use of these tools to allow a richness of meaning to more fully develop and to impact the learning not just of ourselves but of others who might decide to participate? Do we work to change our minds and these tools and practices to invite others or do we work to change the minds of others by the invitation to try these tools?
    I also wondered if AR and reflective practice need to be limited to qualitative and quantitative research…is a deeper skill of play also part of the maturing thinking and if so, in what ways could these tools beneficial here as well in how to play ‘better?’

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