Emergent reflections

A space where I can digest some thinking through the writing process - liminal, emergent and reflective.

Research interests: VET research and the VET teacher

Margaret.OCONNELL's picture

Seeing as Dianne and I have been talking about our respective (and by no means mutually exclusive!) research interests, I thought I'd pull out some of my main research points/interests that are nesting within a heap of comments in a previous blog post. :o)

My main question: I'm primarily interested in how teachers use research to inform their practice in VET. Secondary to my research is to investigate how and why skills seem to not readily transfer to online learning (thus the online pursuit for data collection, etc).

Wrapped up in this (which I hope to also "unpack") is a broader question: "what is the nature of VET research, as defined through VET teaching practice?"

My approach: I aim to undertake this research as a collaborative participatory action research. I'm hoping that through a collaborative exploration of research with a group of VET teachers, that we can uncover a process of research ('inquiry' you might say) that perhaps identifies as VET pedagogy. Practice based and action research processes fit well with the VET teaching context, yet teachers are not rewarded for efforts made in pursuing research activities ("traditionally" or otherwise). I'd like to see this change, but I'm conscious that it's important that teachers inform that change process. I'd also like to draw on ethnographic practices too, where the teaching setting is a field site. I'd also like to acknowledge the insider anthropologist/researcher here as well.

I'm considering online based data collection, communication/collaboration and analysis to take place online in some form, so am conscious of the many questions and challenges that that exposes!

Initial concerns: I have some concerns of course; one key concern is how I manage such a time- and emotionally-hungry project along with fulltime work, yet draw very closely on my work with teachers. A second concern is managing the politics of both the collaboartion and of the broader context in which this project might sit (institutional level aspects come first to mind). A third concern has to do with my secondary research "motive" of utilising online tools to manage, collect, analyse and communicate about data - what of IP? confidentiality? co-authorship of information (even of the research itself)? ethical obligations to institute, place of study and participants?

I'm trialling a web service called Elgg (http://elgg.net) as a potential space for housing research processes, reflections and data.

This is a starting point for me and also a bit of a step to put it out there! I've been building up my reading list and would certainly welcome your suggested references too!

Dianne.ALLEN's picture

Practice and research ...

Thanks for the summary Margaret.

Last night, since I was primed, I noticed this in Tom Andersen's The Reflecting Team.  NY:Norton, 1991

p.161-167 "I find it interesting in hindsight to notice that the practical changes came first, followed by the ideas about how they could be understood. … remind[ing] us that practices perhaps inform and change our theories more often than theories influence our practices."

Given that reported research is only another person's theorising ...

Of course, given the fact that I am interested in the relationship of practice and research I probably would have collected that converging quote anyway!  Yes, it does describe my experience.  I do have a much longer draft defense of my practitioner's use of the literature from when I was being challenged about how I was/ was not using the literature in my thesis as well, if you are interested.  (http://www.communityzero.com/ctltc?go=f1279218)

Dianne Allen KIAMA, NSW

Margaret.OCONNELL's picture

I read your paper from

I read your paper from Community Zero with much interest, nodding persistently at your points Dianne! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts so readily!

And from your points, I found this quote went straight to the heart of it for me:

If I ground that understanding in my experience, past and ongoing, and continue to honour my own experience with the validity it deserves, and if I can be engaged with other practitioners engaged in the same enterprise, allowing the testing of my thinking to be subject to enunciation and negotiation, then the understanding that develops for me will be my working hypothesis. In time it might ripen to something worth publishing, for others to use to test their thinking and to relate to their experience as a grounding for validating. [I love the bold bit!]

In this sense, I wish to focus on an ethnography of practice as much as participatory research (and where experience also constitutes an "anthropology of the senses", as much as the relationship between theory and practice). Then, your proceeding points after this make much sense to me too - you have a way of clarifying your position that I envy Dianne! A true reflective practitioner! :o)

Schon's article on the new scholarship needs a new epistemology (if I'm thiking of the same one I've read) was one I focused on in one subject on educational change. It speaks volumes about our traditions, converntions and the need for creative thinking! I also enjoy reading Mezirow's transformative learning. But as one lecturer noted, I am inclined to reference those authors I agree with more so than I oppose - perhaps something I need to reflect on further?

Cheers, Marg :o)

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Dianne.ALLEN's picture

Agreement and the Disagreeable

Ah Margaret you have put your finger on the 'hot spot' for the academic world.

And where I would be struggling to 'enjoy' producing a PhD thesis.

Somewhere in the PhD thesis (so I am told, I don't remember seeing it clearly yet in anyone else's PhD thesis that I have read) one has to demonstrate what one has read that one doesn't agree with, or that doesn’t agree with one’s own point of view.   And presumably the task is then to display how and why one disagrees, and how that contributes to one's argument.

I can unpack another’s writing, and their ‘research paradigm’.   Course work at UTS helped me see how I do that and then how to write about it, and you can see the results in http://www.communityzero.com/ctltc?go=f1217533

I can recognize when someone else has made a point that clearly challenges my own thinking, where such a challenge is pertinent to the issue I am exploring.   I made a brief comment to that effect in my thesis and what I saw as the implications and application at pages 48-50 of my masters thesis.

The questions that arise for me, in extending these steps, in a PhD thesis, include

(1) what would be the benefit to me, or any other, including any reader, in taking these two elements much further?;

(2) how much time would be involved in doing that, which would be better spent working on some other practice-related issue?;

(3) to what extent would working on that do anything beyond demonstrate those ‘academic’ skills?;

(4) to what extent does developing those academic skills, in me, only increase my capacity to be critical in a negative sense, and work against my learning how to be ‘appreciative’ so that I can take the appreciative eye to the work of others, and then to my own work, to be able to work on enunciating what does work, and what has become quickly embedded, since it does work?.

My critique of some of the field of social critical theory is that it might well tell us all the reasons/ arguments, why such-and-such a stance is faulty, but it doesn’t take us (me) any forrarder in undertaking a useful action.   In some cases, I end up with the impression that what the author has done is mount a straw man, to demolish it.   All that these processes tend to do, in me, is stimulate cynicism and disengagement, and provide me with another set of reasons ‘why not’.   I then find that the process of critique itself starts to come under critique – in whose interests …? … might this position be slanted?   How soundly based is such a critique, anyway?   In the end some arguments turn on themselves and consume themselves.   No argument, in its fundamental argument form, is incontestable – what is gained in the contestation?

I am reluctant to engage in the ‘academic’ exercise, and because of its pejorative ‘academic’ outcomes.

Again, from Tom Andersen comes the point: sometimes, in opposition, there is too much difference, so that the ‘difference’ does not/ cannot make a difference.   Andersen cited Bateson’s work for the idea of the ‘difference that makes a difference’, and its impact on developing change.   I also made a connection with Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Difference’ and its role in learning (which, in my view, is a synonym for ‘change’ and vice versa).  

There is the psychology of comfortable that seeks only the confirmatory.   Overdosing on that is a poor bias: in the end it doesn’t work!   The pragmatist in me knows that and seeks useful difference.   The unknown is to what extent I can take a relevant challenge, without descending into defensiveness and personal protective mechanisms, including developing an argument, and work with that challenge to move to a more creative synthesis.

Dianne Allen KIAMA, NSW

Dianne.ALLEN's picture

Postscripts of raw nerves apparently ...

What has been interesting, Margaret, in drafting this, and then trying to settle back to another task, is that I haven't been able to settle to the other task.   Not without taking a long walk, and having dinner, and washing up, and taking time out for reading something else quite different and getting engaged with that, by undertaking a prayer exercise.

So it appears that this is still a significantly sensitive area for me, and it is worth reflecting on the sensitiveness.

(1) I continue to struggle with settling to a journal article draft where I am being asked to frame it in the ‘literature’ when there is nothing there currently, and where the most likely time for relevant literature might well be back in the 1960’s and 70’s before things were in electronic databases.

(2) the thought that came to mind on my walk was the ‘prayer’ for my Myers Briggs Type (INTJ prayer = Lord, keep me open to others’ ideas, WRONG thought they maybe!)

(3) I was concerned that I might have unfairly maligned others’ scholarship, knowing that most authors are struggling honestly to present an argument fairly.   If I have been told once that I have not addressed the literature ‘properly’ I have been told that at least five times in the last ten or so years, but not then told what I must do, and how I must do it, to address the ‘unsatisfactory’ approach, in a way that satisfies my sense of values, so that I can travel down that route.   On one occasion I did take back the material referred to me, having read it a couple of times, and then shared why I was not satisfied with the author’s approach to the opposed article and argument.   The referrer then conceded that they hadn’t been as careful as they ought in making that referral, and that my critique of the critique was ‘reasonable’.   That has affirmed me in my judgements!

(4) the trigger that did help me short circuit some of this was a comment from one of the academics at UTS, pondering (if I remember the incident correctly) – do practitioners do research/ inquiry differently?.   I then took to describing what I was doing, when I was working with the literature and what were my reasons for doing it.   So here we have one ‘practitioner’s’ practice description and understanding of what is going on, and supportive reasoning for that practice.   It will take other users of literature to think about what they are doing and why, and sharing that, to show another way of doing it that I might learn from.

The other scholar’s input that I frequently draw on to think about the difference of looking at and looking from within, is CS Lewis.   CS Lewis, (1945) Meditation in a Toolshed (in Lewis, CS Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics. London: Bles, 1971.) 

"I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through a crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam.  From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place.  Everything else was almost pitch-black.  I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. 

"Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes.  Instantly the previous picture vanished.  I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam.   Instead, I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90-odd million miles away, the sun.  Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are two very different experiences."


"As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question.  You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it.  Which is the "true" or "valid" experience?  Which tells you most about the thing?  And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted.  It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some "ideology", you must listen not to those who have lived inside it, but to sociologists. 

"The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten. "


"I could allow a scientist to tell me that what seemed to be a beam of light in the shed was "really only an agitation of my own optic nerves".  ... The cerebral physiologist may say, if he chooses, that the mathematician's thought is "only" tiny physical movements of the grey matter.  But then what about the cerebral physiologist's own thought at that very moment?"


"We must, on the pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along.  One must look both along and at everything.  In particular cases we shall find reason for the one or the other vision as inferior.  Thus the inside vision of rational thinking must be truer than the outside vision which sees only movements of the grey matter; for if the outside vision were the correct one all thought (including this thought itself) would be valueless, and this is self-contradictory.  You cannot have a proof that no proofs matter.  .. We do not know in advance whether the lover or the psychologist is giving the more correct account of love, or whether both accounts are equally correct in different ways, or whether both are equally wrong."  

Dianne Allen KIAMA, NSW

Dianne.ALLEN's picture

How you intend going about your research


You comment about your prospective research methodology 'I'd also like to draw on ethnographic practices too, where the teaching setting is a field site. I'd also like to acknowledge the insider anthropologist/researcher here as well.'

Can I ask the more general and open question?   Can you elaborate on this for me? 


Can I ask some more pointed questions?   How do you see these two items complementing the 'collaborative participatory action research'?   Are there points where you see competition rather than complementing?   Where do you see the boundaries between 'collaborative participatory action research' and 'ethnographic practices' and 'insider anthropologist/researcher' or are these terms semi-isomorphic (ie mapping the same territory, but labeled differently because of their different heritages)? 

Dianne Allen KIAMA, NSW

Margaret.OCONNELL's picture

Thinking about your questions...

Hi Dianne,

I've been thinking about your questions, which made me revisit my research proposal. I'd like to make a considered response, but have been pretty busy lately, so will respond to your questions about ethnography over the next week or so.

These are important and necessary questions as they will no doubt test my methodology and implementation!

...stay tuned....!

Cheers, Marg :o)

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