CIRE student members present at the annual SWDTP Student Conference 2018

“This is my very first blog entry. I saw it fitting to write about something close to my heart, my research and the shared experiences of researching I am currently having with my colleagues. This maybe a very descriptive entry but I think this is a start of me blogging and I believe that the CIRE blog is the best place to start as this is a platform which has given me voice, encouragement, and so much self-growth”

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By Aminath Shiyama

This years’ annual student conference organised by the South West Doctoral Training Partnership (SWDTP) was held on the 14th November 2018 in Bristol at the lovely venue of Brunel’s SS Great Britain. This year, the theme for the conference was Beyond Research: Society, Collaboration and Impact. Among the six presenters from the University of Bristol’s School of Education, three were CIRE student members.

Aminath Shiyama (third year PhD student), Leanne Cameron (third year PhD student), and Beatrice Gallio (final year PhD student) presented at the conference, sharing experiences from their research work and how they are learning to navigate the intricacies of researching and communicating research work in (un)familiar contexts. Below are overviews of these presentations.

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Aminath (Shimmi) in her presentation shared her fieldwork experiences working collaboratively with primary science teachers in the Maldives. Though collaborative approaches were presented as the ‘best-practice’ methods that guided her research design in developing ways of working with teachers as co-researchers in pedagogic innovations, her experiences in the field demonstrated somewhat different. Using quotes from her reflective journal, she shared instances where her expectations clashed with the realities of the field. Differing expectations, constant changes in plans at the schools, and clashing identities were the realities she had to navigate. Though some of these were unexpected, as researchers we have to learn to make a compromise of the situation, learn from it, and identify meaningful ways in which such clashes can impact our research mindset and the data that is generated in the process. To do so, she suggested that as researchers, it is important to construct a mutual understating of our chosen research approaches in tandem with our participants, be empathetic to the context teachers are working with, and have a positive outlook on the trajectories the research is taking on despite of the challenges that we face. The key is embracing the challenges and explore and learn the contextual relevance of the methodologies and methods we choose for our research.

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Leanne presented about her dilemmas of negotiating identity(ies), reciprocity, and the associated need for constant reflexivity in her fieldwork with teachers in Rwanda. She shared anecdotes from her fieldwork to illustrate the ongoing challenge of mismatch between her and her participants, including a mismatch of expectations and how her own identity was itself differently interpreted: participants viewed her according to her ‘previous’ identity as a teacher trainer rather than as a researcher, which made her view of reciprocity very different than that of her participants. As such unexpected issues are often part-and-parcel of fieldwork, Leanne recommended that we talk more explicitly about fieldwork and what it entails and proposed a simple framework for considering the researcher, the ‘researched’ and the interaction of the two. For our physical and emotional wellbeing, we need to explore fieldwork beyond terms such as that it is ‘messy’ and ‘challenging’ and unpack the possible issues and dilemmas fieldwork may bring us. She closed her presentation suggesting a mindful hands-on tool for researchers that can be used before, whilst, and after fieldwork. Leanne recommended that we ask ourselves three key questions regarding who we are, what we need, and what we offer. We can aim it at ourselves as researchers, present it to the participants, and consider the way each party is looking at the other, thus enabling some level of mutual understanding.

Beatriz’s presentation was about engaging policymakers in academic research, drawn from her experiences as a PhD intern at the Welsh Government. Contributing her quantitative data analysis skills for analysing the relationship between well-being and natural resources, Beatriz learnt a different angle for research impact. She shared with us five key learning experiences on how to improve the communication of academic findings with policymakers. First, she suggested making the analysis and results relevant to policymakers, possibly by connecting them to the current legislation, which enhances the chances for policymakers to take meaning from the results and engage with research. Second, as policymakers work in multidisciplinary teams, she learnt that her analysis and associated recommendations need to be ‘discipline-proof’ so that the message is transmitted to as many policy team members as possible. Third, it is important to be concise, straightforward, and precise in presenting your recommendations. Fourth, she recommended getting in touch with relevant policymakers and taking the initiative to do so is critical in getting the message across, with the earlier, the better. Lastly, oral communication works better than written communication when it comes to sharing research findings and this is done best in focused meetings with the group of stakeholders present. These are critical and practical ways in which research findings can be shared with the public and relevant parties so that research can have the impact it was aimed for.

What the Grammar School debate tells us about understandings of social justice in/through education: a tribute to Vicki Gardner

By Angeline M. Barrett

Vicki Gardner’s outstanding 2017 Masters dissertation, Grammar Schools & the ‘Mayritocracy’: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Social Justice in/through Education, has been published posthumously in the Bristol Working Papers in Education Series. This blog overviews the paper and announces the launch this year of the Vicki Gardner Prize for Outstanding Masters Research in Education Policy.

Grammar Schools and the ‘Mayritocracy

Critical policy sociologists, worried by growing inequalities and increasing corporate interest in the English public education system, will read Gardner’s work with interest. The sudden resurfacing of the grammar school debate in 2016, championed by the Prime Minister Theresa May, whose name is cheekily incorporated into the title, came as a surprise to many British education academics. Gardner states her own reasoned and unequivocal position on the ‘myth of meritocracy’ that underpins selective schooling very clearly. However, the main focus in this dissertation is not to argue her own position on grammar schools but rather to critically analyse the notions of social justice deployed in the popular debate triggered by May’s policy. By taking a specific contemporary debate as the “prism” through which to identify and analyse enduring discourses of global reach, Gardner produced a piece of research that was relevant beyond time and place. In short, she made a contribution to theoretical scholarship on social justice in education. The sophistication and theorisation of her arguments are remarkable for a researcher in the very earliest stage of her academic career.

Gardner was centrally interested in the battle ground of ideas, ideas concerning what is a socially just education and the relationship between school and society. She viewed meritocracy as a version of “the myth of the enterprising individual” (Apple 2001, 421), an assumption that is central to the neoliberal argument for the pseudomarketisation of public education. To understand the rules and parameters of the battlefield, she drew on Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony. Gramsci, a philosopher, sociologist, linguist and political activist, produced his most influential writing during 11 years of imprisonment by Mussolini’s Fascist government. His theory of hegemony explained how political elites use cultural power, alongside violent coercion, to control the masses. Cultural hegemony is created through discourse, i.e. verbal and written texts and associated practices that carry, create and promulgate ideologies. Discourses are hegemonic when they exclude other ways of reasoning. Schools are key institutions for transmitting discourses and hence creating public consensus around the world view of the ruling class. However, Gardner also argues that education has the potential to be the site for the reversal of hegemony when it is used for the development of critical consciousness. Education then is a site of contestation, complicit in the historic formation, deconstruction and reconstruction of public consensus or common sense.

Mass media is another site of hegemonic contestation where competing ideological discourses vie to represent and shape common sense. Gardner turned to broadsheet newspapers to find texts representative of the grammar school debate. Her analysis covered a total of seven articles from publications associated with the political Left and Right (The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph) published within two separate one week periods when the grammar school debate was hitting headlines.

She used the analytical tools of Fairclough’s Dialectic Relational Approach to dissemble and deconstruct the intent and messages of the newspaper articles. Using these tools, Gardner identifies strategies of legitimation and interrogates how social actors are represented in the articles. For example, she showed how authors on both sides of the debate named policies after the individuals, who champion them to imply that policy positions are nothing more than a personal agenda with no basis in research evidence or relation to broader public consensus.

Gardner’s analysis reveals the semiotic and deontic moves made by grammar school champions to represent them as a necessity, a democratic and counter-hegemonic redistribution of resources. She shows how proponents assert a horizon of possibilities for education in English constructed by a neoliberal world view of increasing economic competition. “Thence, the promoting message is that selective schooling is needed for every child to fulfill their potential and contribute to the knowledge economy” (Gazdner 2018, 33). Another strategy deployed by proponents of grammar schools is to represent May and her cabinet as “ ‘new’ intellectuals” (Gramsci 1999, 818), her ‘socially representative’ cabinet a contrast to David Cameron’s privately-educated elite. The grammar school policy is then presented as a virtuous ‘politics of interruption’ (Apple 2013, 66). By contrast, Gardner argues that the central rationale of meritocracy, that it expands opportunity for low income families, neglects the systemic and sociocultural dimensions of disadvantage and hence oversimplifies social class:

by exacting a problem-solution relationship that conceives of the problem as selection dependent on income, common sense is limited to the economic realm. (Gardner 2018, 40)

She finds that whilst social mobility is understood by commentators on the Right as a matter of individual human rights, on the Left it is understood as a structural issue or class formation. Both sides, however, reduce social justice to social mobility, treating the two as synonymous.

Ultimately, the discursive moves “to recontextualize concepts such as democracy, class equality and even social justice itself and, as such… disguise itself as counterhegemonic” (Gardner 2018, 41) did not win the grammar school policy argument in 2016-2017. Yet for intellectuals on the Left engaged in the “war of position” it was not a hopeful time. Gardner wrote her dissertation mere months after the Brexit vote in UK and the start of Donald Trump’s presidency in the US. Within her dissertation, Gardner holds onto and repeatedly returns to two concepts from Gramsci’s work. These tell us much about her hopes for herself and society. First is the notion of an ‘organic intellectual’, i.e. an intellectual engaged with civil society, affiliated with a class or group and who may assume a hegemonic or counterhegemonic stance. Gardner identifies herself as a “subaltern organic intellectual” (2018, 4). The second concept is the ‘cathartic moment’ and captures the utopian vision that steered Gardner’s work. The cathartic moment is the point where purely economic reasoning is superseded by ethical and political reasoning, so that:

structure ceases to be an external force which crushes man …; and is transformed into a means of freedom, an instrument to create a new ethico-political form and a source of new initiatives. (Gramsci 1999, 691-2) (cited on p.15)

And so,

the organic intellectual, be that journalists or the researcher herself – now needs to stand up from their desk and find a means of connecting this theory with practice (Gardner 2018, 44).

 

Biography

Vicki Gardner was a research associate at the School of Education, University of Bristol, where she worked with Leon Tikly, Angeline Barrett and Marie Joubert on a review of secondary science, technology and mathematics education in sub-Saharan Africa. She completed the M.Sc. Education in 2017, specialising in Policy and International Development and producing an outstanding dissertation. Her first degree was in German and Russian languages and she worked for four and half years as a German language teacher in secondary schools in Devon and the Bristol area. Vicki had hoped, and the staff who worked most closely with her had known, that the Masters programme would be the start of a long academic career. In her unexpected absence, we are publishing her dissertation in its entirety not just to remember Vicki, but because it is a piece of research which deserves wider readership.

 

References

-Apple, M.W., 2001. Comparing Neo-liberal Projects and Inequality in Education. Comparative Education, 37, 409-423.

-Apple, M.W., 2013. Can Education Change Society? New York/ Oxon: Routledge.

-Gardner, V., 2018. Grammar Schools & the ‘Mayritocracy’: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Social Justice in/ through Education. Bristol Working Papers in Education no. 09/2018. Bristol: School of Education.

-Gramsci, A., 1999. Selection from the Prison Notebooks. tr. Q. HOARE & G.N. SMITH. London: The Electric Book Company Ltd.

Global Imaginaries and the Capacity to Aspire

 
Every Wednesday at 4.30 pm, 14 November – 12 December 2018 
Room 4.09, 35, Berkeley Square 
 
CIRE Reading Group
The decisions that people make in and through education are often influenced by their view of globalisation, the opportunities it offers them or the exclusions it creates. Literature theorising how we imagine the globalisation and how we imagine the future may help us to understand why some young people decide to the West to study higher education; how they respond when they are denied access to education; the career decisions of foreign language teachers or why some policy ideas become global policy agendas.
This reading group engages with texts primarily from anthropology and cultural studies in order to explore how dominant or widespread ways of imagining globalisation shape the possibilities that individuals imagine for their own future, or their aspirations. Some readings are concerned with how globalisation is experienced by internationally mobile individuals living within hybrid communities. Others focus on poorer, marginalised communities and individuals, with identities strongly associated with specific localities.
Week 1: 14 November 
Taylor, C. (2002) Modern Social Imaginaries. Public Culture 14(1): 91-124. Introduction (pp. 91-2) and Section 3 (pp. 105-111) 
Charles Taylor coined the term social imaginaries in order to explain how ideas about individuals and society that originated with a small number of European thinkers came to shape modernity in the West. 
Canclini, N.G. (2014) Imagined Globalization. Translated by Yúdice, G. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Ch. 2.  
Canclini focuses on how globalization and identity is conceptualised and represented at a time of unprecedented mobility. Nestor Garcini Canclini is an Argentinian anthropologist with an interest in hybrid cultures.  
 
Week 2: 21 November 
Steger, M. B. (2009) The rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship online. Introduction.  
Steger also draws on Charles Taylor’s concept of social imaginaries to understand concepts and experiences of globalisation but his analysis has a more political focus. 
 
 
Week 3: 28 November 
Appadurai, A. (2013) The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. London & New York: Verso. Chapter 9 – The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the terms of recognition. 
This week we turn to the aspirations. Appadurai discusses the capacity to aspire in relation to the voice and agency of oppressed communities to imagine and navigate an alternative future. Arjun Appadurai is an Indian-born anthropologist, who has conducted extensive research with slum dwellers in Mumbai. 
 
 
Week 4: 5 December 
DeJaeghere, J. (2018) Girls’ educational aspirations and agency: imagining alternative futures through schooling in a low resourced Tanzanian community. Critical Studies in Education 59(2): 237-255. 
In the last week, we look at one example of the application of the Appadurai’s concept of the capacity to aspire to education. Dejaeghere also draws on the capability approach to conceptualise agency and Bourdieu, to understand structure. 

Comparative Education and Development Alternatives: CIRE at the BAICE Conference 2018

By Angeline Barrett

This year, the British Association of International and Comparative Education (BAICE) annual conference was held at the University of York from the 12th– 14th September. Professor Michael Crossley delivered the Presidential Address titled Policy Transfer, Sustainable Development and the Contexts of Education. This report highlights Michael’s Address and summarises the other Bristol contributions to the conference.

It was fitting that Michael should be BAICE President in the year that the Association celebrated its 20th anniversary. Michael has been an active member of BAICE throughout its twenty years,  serving as Vice-Chair and Chair, and later creating its archive, an open online record of reports on projects and awards sponsored by BAICE, short discussion articles, and, of course, BAICE Presidential Addresses. Michael was the Editor of Comparative Education from 2003-2010, a world-leading journal in the field, and he continues to serve on the Editorial Board of that and other leading journals and was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (FAcSS) for his contribution to the field. Michael was the founding and long-time Director of CIRE, including many years when it was known as the Research Centre for International and Comparative Studies (ICS), and he continues to support CIRE as Emeritus Professor.

The Presidential Address: Policy Transfer, Sustainable Development and the Contexts of Education

The voice of Aretha Franklin singing Sam Cooke’s American civil rights anthem, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, announced the start of the Presidential Address. Her legendary voice evoked the 1960s and symbolized an emerging ‘disruptive and creative youth culture’. And so, Michael’s address began with an introduction to the cultural, local, and global milieu within which he, a young Yorkshire man, became a secondary school teacher and developed a practical and theoretical interest in comparative and international education. This led to a PhD from La Trobe University in Melbourne (an ethnographic study of policy transfer from the UK and Australia to a remote Southern  Highlands school in Papua New Guinea), a first academic post at the University of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and an extensive body of published work, inspired by early research in PNG, challenging the uncritical international transfer of educational policy and practice.

 

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Michael’s address took us on a grand tour of international education policy transfer and ‘borrowing’ and its critique by comparativists. We started with a historical long view. The field of comparative education, since its origins in the early 19th century, has been influenced by a rich spectrum of changing theoretical and methodological approaches, with some practitioners favouring positivistic research, intended to furnish policy makers with ‘scientific’ evidence,  and others developing more theoretically-oriented, sociocultural analyses, with critical theory and postcolonial perspectives that foreground the contextually situated and contested nature of education policy and practice.  We quickly moved to a critical and theoretically informed interrogation of the contemporary era of ‘deterritorialised’ policy making (Steiner-Khamsi and Waldow 2012) enabled by global-scale international surveys and an influential network of consultants (Auld and Morris 2014). We were shown how big data and global league tables have become technologies of global governance and how international power differentials and inequalities often constrain the agency of local policy actors in aid-dependent nations (Crossley, 2014).

Sustainable development was a strand of Michael’s research before it became a headline international development agenda. Michael’s interest arose from his long association with small island developing states (SIDS). In the Address, we were thus invited to contemplate the potential to learn from such contexts at the ‘sharp end of climate change’. This potential was effectively illustrated by recent British Academy and USP-funded research collaboration between the University of the South Pacific, and the universities of Bristol and Nottingham, conducted between 2012 and 2016, with work continuing in the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Winston (see Crossley, Koya Vaka’uta et al. 2017).

The address concluded with an in-depth analysis of implications and challenges for the future of the field of comparative and international education and, in its 20th anniversary year, for BAICE itself. I highlight just one of these: the challenge to apply ‘comparative and international education, and the policy transfer literature to new research priorities and contexts that have urgent human rights and global security implications.’

Aminath Shiyama:  Science process skills and environmental education in the Maldives

 

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In her conference presentation, Aminath presented her PhD work, which is also concerned with a low-lying island context, vulnerable to climate change, and focuses on science education and curriculum development. From a curriculum and pedagogy development perspective, she presented findings from a scoping study, which explored how and whether upper primary school teachers are developing learners’ science process skills and addressing environmental education. She analysed learners’ work books and then used samples of their work to stimulate conversation with teachers. She found that teachers tended to focus on learning of content rather than the development of process skills (e.g. argumentation, observation). Hence, they taught about the environment rather than for the environment, meaning children were not engaged in action with respect to the environment or encouraged to analyse the social and political causes of environmental degradation in the Maldives. She concluded by showing how these findings informed the design of her main study for her PhD, in which she collaborated with a small group of primary science teachers to prepare curriculum materials that support the development of science process skills.

Angeline Barrett and Leon Tikly: Sustainability and social justice

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Angeline and Leon revisited their framework for conceptualizing education quality, to consider whether or how it could be extended to address the concerns of sustainability. Our original framework had drawn on theories of social justice. Hence, we turned to environmental justice literature. We found this highlighted the deeply social nature of environmental justice. Environmental injustices, such as contaminated water supply or polluted air, are inevitably experienced by communities. Further, communities subject to maldistribution and misrecognition (socioeconomic and sociocultural injustices) are most vulnerable to environmental injustices. This focuses attention on the role of education in expanding the ability of communities to reason about the environment (relevance), including through engaging with postcolonial critiques of scientific reasoning.

Sustainability also offers us the analogy of complex systems as a device for understanding and modeling education processes. Complex systems are dynamic; they self-organise into patterns that may rhyme but never repeat and that are made unpredictable by feedback loops. Complex systems are not isolated systems but co-evolve with other systems. We applied the analogy to understanding the relationship between classroom pedagogy, formal curricula and disciplinary subject knowledge, modelling these as nested co-evolving systems that change at very different rates. We concluded that making the curriculum inclusive and relevant involves creating coherence in processes of translation between knowledge production (research), the formal curriculum, and classroom pedagogy. Making them democratic involves opening up of these processes to active participation and knowledge co-production.

 

References

Auld, E., and P. Morris. 2014. “Comparative Education, the ‘New Paradigm’ and Policy Borrowing: Constructing Knowledge for Education Reform.” Comparative Education 50 (2): 129-115.   doi:10.1080/03050068.2013.826497.

Crossley, M. 2014. “Global League Tables, Big Data and the International Transfer of Educational Research Modalities.” Comparative Education 50 (1): 15-26.

Crossley, M., C.F. Koya Vaka’uta, R. Lagi, S. McGrath, K.H. Thaman, and L. Waqailiti. 2017. ‘Quality Education and the Role of the Teacher in Fiji: Mobilising Global and Local Values.’ Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education 47 (6): 872-890. doi: 10.1080/03057925.2017.1338938.

Steiner-Khamsi, G., and F. Waldow, eds. 2012. The 2012 World Yearbook of Education: Policy Borrowing and Lending in Education. New York: Routledge.

 

Making Sense of CPD Policy: The Quest for Transformation of Teacher Professionalism in Malaysia

By Faizulizami Osmin

Amis Viva

Faizulizami Osmin recently completed her PhD (above a picture captured right after the Viva). We celebrate her success and give a flavour of some of the excellent doctoral research carried out by CIRE members. We share the abstract for her dissertation.

This research investigates how teachers in Malaysia are experiencing recent changes in the direction of their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) which have shaped their sense of professionalism. The new CPD policy known as the Pelan Pembangunan Professionalisme Berterusan (PPPB), has been developed by the Ministry of Education but is profoundly influenced by the results of international student assessments. It is intended as an instrument to develop a teaching workforce that would turn Malaysia into a top performing nation in international assessments, such as (and particularly) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Teachers, however, must understand the choices and decisions made by the Government and to accept, adapt or ignore the possibilities created for their professional development. The research in this study is guided by a review of international literature on educational change, the influences of globalisation on policy trends and practices as well as teacher professionalism.

The research adopted interpretivism as an epistemological stance and has two strands. The PPPB policy was investigated through review and interviews with policymakers involved in writing the policy. Teachers’ perspectives on the policy were collected through focus groups and individual face-to-face interviews. By exploring teachers’ perspectives on policy rhetoric, the Spectrum of CPD Model developed by Kennedy (2014) is employed to analyse and evaluate the policy. Indeed, this is especially useful in determining the level of synchronisation between the directions set in the policy and the policy’s intended outcomes. The findings suggested that teachers question and challenge the nature of the policy and its implementation which have adversely affected their mindset and attitude, in turn, impacting their involvement and commitment towards implementing the present system-wide reform.

When the PPPB Model of CPD is positioned within the global context of teacher professionalism, it is argued that the dominant conception of professionalism reflects rather, a managerial perspective and adopts a standards-based approach. In other words, professionalism relates to the needs of an individual teacher to meet and maintain prescribed government standards. Further, it was found that a collaborative concept of professionalism within the policy is limited, indicating that teachers continue to remain a compliant workforce. Although professionalism is being cast into the direction that the Government considers to be the best fit, in the current teaching profession, teachers are deploying and working towards different concepts of professionalism. Therefore, this transformation strategy, for teacher professionalism, could be much better understood as the Government’s attempt to change not only the public’s perception of teachers and teaching but also how teachers themselves view their own professional roles and practice.

Nevertheless, some teachers may have struggled in the process of changing their existing controlled-compliant professionalism (which requires them to comply with the Government’s change agenda) into more collaborative-activist professionalism that adopts collaborative work cultures. In this vein, professionalism emerging from the managerial and democratic discourses is not static or two-dimensional but instead, evolves and changes according to the teachers’ working conditions thereby allowing the teachers to embrace several discourses of professionalism simultaneously. In brief, this study represents the relationship between CPD and professionalism and the range of conflicting models that co-exist when a system is in a state of change. It highlights the unevenness of change and the contradictory views of CPD-professionalism that it can generate.

“Peace education has been worked without asking students neither teachers how they understand peace”

Interview with Ariel Sanchez, author of “Knowledges of the War: Memory and Intergenerational Understandings of Conflict in Colombia”

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By Marcela Ramos

How education might contribute towards processes like peacebuilding? How education can promote knowledge and skills to build a culture of peace and non-violence? These questions highlight some of the challenges set by the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in times where the role of education in the promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence commands widespread global attention. Within that context, to know and understand some of the key features of the research undertaken by Ariel Sanchez in Colombia is particularly illuminative.

In his book “Los saberes de la guerra: Memoria y conocimiento intergeneracional del conflicto en Colombia” (Knowledges of the War: Memory and Intergenerational Understandings of Conflict in Colombia) (2017), Sanchez approaches the topic of peace building from two interesting and unexpected angles: the experience of conflict and the voices, reflections and memories of young people from different parts of Colombia. He engaged with students from private and public schools, girls, boys and mixed schools, urban and rural schools, mestizos and indigenous, who grew up within a context of an internal armed conflict, which lasted over 40 years. “Their voices were recorded through their responses of questionnaires (…) The questionnaire allowing anonymity to provide answers that I don’t think they would be able to give face to face”, explained Sanchez. Among the unexpected findings was that Pablo Escobar, leader of Medellin Cartel, the most violent organization involved in narco-trafficking, was mentioned by youngsters as one of their favourite Colombian historical figures.

-What do you think when you realise how alive is the image of Pablo Escobar?

-Escobar is a ghost you cannot get rid of. Maybe if it comes back once and again, instead of running away from that image, what we need to do is to incorporate it into the institutional educational dynamics, to avoid that image being reproduced exclusively by the media in the way the media does.

-Among the aims of the book is to present how young people in Colombia understand their country’s past, present and future. Why is it important to put the focus on young people?

-Peace education has been implemented without asking students or teachers how they understand peace. (The aim was) to listen to the new generations to hear how they perceive themselves and others and create a proper initial diagnosis before assuming what we have inherited supposedly as a conflict (…) Those claiming to work and talk about peace and peace education did not even bother to listen to the new generation before setting a whole framework and defining whatever peace should look like and whatever peace should be wanted by the new generation. Finally, is about acknowledging them also as producers of knowledge, historical agents.

-Another interesting feature of the research is the role assigned to memory…

-This is a project of recognition of a constant unending process of reviewing our history and the way meaning is produced around that history; it’s also a way of making a transformative action story from different angles, on the assumption that memory is actually a generative epistemic process. In this way, the construction of memory is understood as a constant process, without any ultimate version. Thus conceived, memory can be understood as a mechanism of reconciliation.

Positionality from a wooden stool: a blog post about my fieldwork in Rwanda

By Leanne Cameron*

Leanne Cameron is a PhD student at the School of Education, University of Bristol. Currently she is at the end of her second year and her research topic on English teacher professionalism in Rwanda. In this post Leanne reflects on how researchers, while doing data collection, act as “filters” for data and construct knowledge in trying to understand and grasp what is happened out there.

Leanne picture

It’s all unsettlingly familiar: honey-colored brick buildings surround a bright, manicured quadrangle, edged with shrubs and featuring Our Lady encased in glass. In the classrooms, wooden desks in tight rows are carved with years – decades? – of teenage musings. Our glow-in-the-dark Lord and Savior hangs on crucifixes above the blackboards. The full picture is strongly reminiscent of my own parochial childhood – with a few substitutions beyond the plastic Jesus: the wood carvings are 21st century-centric (“Kylie” and “Kendrick Lamar”), not to mention that the location is probably six thousand miles from my idyllic Northern California hometown.

I’m at a boarding school in the Southern Province of Rwanda, not quite awake for the 7:40 start time. The school specializes in science concentrations at A-level (Senior 4-6), but the student body also includes O-level (Senior 1-3). All of the students are gathered in the quad, grouped around the headmistress on the basketball court. After singing the school song and national anthem, they scatter to their classrooms and she comes to shake my hand. Like any ex-Catholic school girl, I forced a smile and tried not to dwell on memories of my own strict, similarly short and square headmistress wringing a cheating confession out of an eight-year-old me.

It’s the first day of proper data collection: my research is with a teacher association, and one aspect of the many methods I have engineered for the project involves observation and interviews with individual member teachers. Thus, I am wearing a dress and functioning as the center of school gossip on a cool morning: the thing about quadrangles is you can’t hide, and the thing about being white in Rwanda is you really can’t hide. Students in royal blue sweaters and white shirts and ties embroidered with the school crest rush past me; one kind, brave Senior 5 soul greets me and takes me to the Teacher’s Room where I find the “Maurice,” the association teacher that I will shadow today.

Back in my teaching days, I would always get a little nervous when being observed, regardless of whether it was my boss, some visiting delegation, or even a colleague. But today, the roles are reversed: Maurice seems cool, collected, and unbothered by my presence, and I’m the one who’s sweating and shaking a bit and constantly dropping her pen. As a PhD student, starting your data collection is declaring your allegiance to one philosophical orientation and beginning the process of knowledge construction. Knowledge begins with data, and it is especially important for qualitative researchers that extensive thought and care should be put into how you collect that data. I have put in that thought and care, but this is where it becomes something real.

Until this point, it’s all been theoretical. Who I am as a researcher is passionate but theoretical, recorded in proposal documents and argued in an upgrade panel, but it is a construction, an ideal. Data collection is when you morph into that person, or a totally different one, where you start to work and communicate and face decisions and problems and become mired in messiness. It’s where things can get personally uncomfortable. Not just sitting in the back of the class, balanced on a stool, trying to remember what I am supposed to be looking for and recording for this observation, what will set me up for our later series of prompted interviews.

Maurice has so many class periods, I lose count: maybe seven? Some are short, only 30 minutes; others are more than an hour. All of the classes are A-level and divided for the concentration: MCB (Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology), MCE (Mathematics, Computing, and Economics), and MPC (Mathematics, Physics, and Computing) – but I probably got at least one of those wrong. It all seems like my own high school subject nightmare. So. Much. Math. Some of the rooms are expansive concrete boxes like classrooms from my previous tenure in Rwanda as a university lecturer: rooms that are loud and echo with every movement across the uneven floor, every scraping chair. They are lit by daylight, with peeling, crumbling blackboards painted on the walls. Some are bricked, hung with ubiquitous net curtains and featuring detailed images drawn on the boards: one classroom for MCE has an elaborate drawing of an Excel spreadsheet. The teacher-artist has used multiple colors of chalk and indicated screen details down to the battery percentage on the bottom toolbar. It’s a clever work-around when teaching technology with limited materials.

For each classroom, I introduce myself. By the seventh class, it’s rushed and to the point. Leanne. Research. American. UK for Phd (yes, I know it’s strange). PhD (don’t do a PhD, you’ll go crazy). They ask me many of the same questions. Married? No. How old? Guess (they are either very polite or very poor at estimation). Some of the classes ask detailed questions – how do I improve my public speaking ability? Others are less interesting – what’s your favorite drink? I wasn’t going to say “gin and tonic” out loud at a Catholic school, so apparently it’s a mocktail of mango juice and Vittolo, the local sparkling water option. After the introductions, I take a position in the back of the room.

Qualitative researchers are (rightly) neurotic over this idea of position and positionality– beyond my wooden stool. Kant famously argued that we cannot possibly experience “things-in-themselves” but can only experience them as they appear to us, encapsulated here by writer Anais Nin: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Whatever the world is, we process it through our selves. It doesn’t mean that research is some therapeutic self-exploration but it means that we are aware that we exist as a filter for that data and subsequently constructed knowledge.

Without getting too far down the research philosophy rabbit hole, I hold a critical constructivist research philosophy which argues that the world is messily put together, and knowledge reflects this: critical constructivist capo Joe Kincheloe (2005) argues that from this perspective, it is “misleading to merely study random outcomes… isolated ‘facts’ and ‘truths’” (p. 2). Rather, knowledge always involves a knower who is permanently linked to a historical and social context: “how the knower constructs the known constitutes what we think of as reality” (p. 2). Thus, for researchers, especially, our position in this place is important. We can’t just fade into the background, become the nameless automaton behind the experiment. As researchers, we play an exaggerated role in constructing knowledge and deciding what “counts” as knowledge. Ultimately, practically, this perspective requires humility, caution, and social awareness in the practice of research.

As such, critical constructivism requires being aware of who you are, what you’re doing, how you’re behaving, how you are reflecting on your work, how dynamics of power and postcolonialism enter the equation. It means examining your biases and what goes into the questions you ask, how you hear the answer. Obviously, you can’t remove yourself from the work – and to believe that is possible is itself naïveté. Instead, we have to recognize who we are in the situation. To quote from my progression document, the solution is an anti-solution: observe, listen, ask questions and be ready to receive responses that cut at the base of who I think I am, recognize the privilege I have and be able to talk about it with honesty and openness. Gadamer (1989) suggests laying bare your affiliations or “horizons” and consider their impact on your interpretation, what he labels a “fusion of horizons” (p. 370). When this is done fully and intentionally, it is meant to be deeply painful in separating what I actually believe and value from what I express as beliefs and values. It I am asking this of my participants in examining their own practice as teachers, I should be doing the same thing. There’s the discomfort.

I tell myself that this classroom, this moment of mentally pressing record is where it all begins, but that’s not exactly true: PhDs require you to define and package your philosophy, epistemology, ontology, and axiology, but really, none of this is linear – just like travel, research requires that you keep going back over yourself, learning more about who you are and what you think and how all of that changes when you are confronted with things that are different and unknown. So I settle in and watch as Maurice divides the blackboard into sections for the class to review last week’s material: “What I know” and “What I want to know.” Fitting. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a girl nudge a folded note towards a broad-shouldered boy while her desk mate furiously copies Maurice’s board composition. In my own notebook, I start making margin notes in pink pen. Honey-colored bricks, a bright quadrangle, glow-in-the-dark Jesus. 

 

*Leanne personal blog with more writing on her experiences in Rwanda can be found at http://athousandhillsfromhome.wordpress.com/

 

References

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (2nd, revis ed.). London: Continuum.

Kincheloe, J. (2005). Critical constructivism primer. New York: Peter Lang.