Saturday, July 26
by John Schostak, Enquiry Learning Unit on Sat 26 Jul 2008 04:10 PM BST
The issue with 'data' is whether we all see the same thing. A way of illustrating this is by considering those famous 'gestalt' images that can either be seen as say a 'vase' or as 'two faces' looking at each other. Data depends on how you configure, or make meaningful, the mass of sense experiences impacting upon you.
As a researcher, I'm always collecting 'data' whenever I'm on fieldwork. There is, of course, an overwhelming amount of it. It's composed of the interviews I record, the photos I take, the documents or other artifacts I collect. It just doesn't stop. The task is to try an make sense of it, or better, to learn how those I am researching make sense of their world(s). So I look for opportunities for them to teach me what they see, feel, hear - that is, what they consider to be real and not just rubbish.
That reminds me of the research strategy of an old friend and colleague of mine - Bev Labbett - who decided that what was really interesting is what people threw away. At the time (early 1980s) he was a researcher on a project headed up by Lawrence Stenhouse at the Centre for Applied Research in Education (CARE) at the University of East Anglia. This project focused on how 17 -18 year old students made use of school libraries when they were making notes or writing essays. Rather than looking at the finished product - the essay, the notes - he rummaged through the rubbish bins in the library to see the earlier drafts. It's like that annoying gestalt image that won't show both images at once - the rubbish is repressed in the effort of making the final good copy. The bad copy is thrown away. It is too easy only to collect the 'good' data and ignore the 'bad'. To put it another way, the good data is often the only data that is visible within a given context. To see alternatively requires, very often, changing the context or viewpoint.
Early on in my career as a researcher, my research meant that I had to observe classrooms. Very soon, I realised that the most obvious data I was collecting was the voice of the teacher. My attention was typically drawn by the centrality of the teacher's position in the classroom. I thus consciously changed the focus of my attention to look around the classroom - what were the students saying, doing? When I videoed classroom activities and replayed them to teachers they were often surprised at what they saw (see the Listening and Talking project). While they were in the thick of teaching, their attention was very much focused on what they needed to do next and on classroom management. They made interpretations of what they considered to have happened during the class, like: "It went well, the children worked conscientiously', or 'It didn't go so well, there was too much talking', and so on. These interpretations were typically challenged by the details shown by the video. Those chattering children sometimes turned out to be the one's most engaged in discussing the topic of the lesson. Those who seemed to be writing conscientiously were sometimes simply doodling or daydreaming or thoughtlessly copying.
But all this looks like you can ultimately find out the truth simply by close study or by getting a different perspective on what is really going on. So, if one can adopt, say, scientific procedure then the data required to tell us what is 'true', 'real', 'good' can be identified. But that just leads us into another debate - the debate about ontology, that is, the essential nature of everything that there is, and how we can - if we can - get to know it.
I'll work on this issue in the next posting.