Saturday, May 14, 2011

Research Methods and Critique

Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that “rules are not necessarily sacred; principles are” (as cited in Wiggins and McTighe, 2007, p. 111). One notion is to believe that teaching has become too personalized and has lead to criticism of teaching practices that make most educators “defensive and resistant to the message” (Wiggins and Mctighe, 2007, p. 111), while others may feel that a “principled eclecticism” is more appropriate that allows each teacher to take on a personal methodology that teachers “work out for themselves what is effective in their own classrooms” (Scrivener, 2005, p. 40). Consequently, reaching an interpretable consensus as to what makes a good teacher and learner depends on the particular ontological stance one takes within a critical constructivist worldview.

How one becomes a good teacher depends in part on how subjectivity is engulfed through the notion of critical constructivism. The term constructivism itself can be viewed as the absence of objectivity whereby “nothing exists before consciousness shapes it into something we can perceive” (Tobin & Kincheloe, 2006, p. 8). Indeed, “how humans learn by building knowledge cooperatively through social interaction and the application of prior knowledge (as tools) in a continual interpretation of ongoing experiences” (Bentley, Fleury, & Garrison), 2006, p. 7) becomes the basis of a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. Critical constructivism derives from constructivism and critical theory forwards how power imbalances that exist in schools and knowledge relationships mature or dissipate within particular contexts (Love, 2008). In terms of becoming a better teacher, negotiating interpretations links what one does in the classroom to a personal identity within a community. Since social interactions develop and recede through an iterative and reciprocal process, social connections become expressed also in terms of being intersubjective versus being dichotomized in terms of objective and subjective opposites.

Critical constructivism and its focus on relationships leads to an entitled approach to leadership. “Entitlement seeks to place those who have the ability to act in the forefront of decision making (Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 43). Empowering individuals to act can be influenced by self-perception. Zmuda (2010) put forth the notion that “the way I see myself and the contributions I hope to make affects the way I conduct myself as a learner” should replace the myth “the way I want to be seen by [others] affects the way I conduct myself as a learner” (p. 171). Hence, as members of a community are empowered and who have the will and ability to act (i.e., to change), the idea of meaning becomes “assigned” instead of being “inherent in external phenomena” (Bently, Fleury, and Garrison, 2006, p. 16). Accordingly, the act of decision-making becomes an ever-important 21 century skill (Dodge, 2008) for all learners as negotiation of meaning becomes distributed throughout a network.

A variant albeit supportive view of critical constructivism is accepting the process of learning via a network as a metaphor. The epistemology of connectivism is the assertion that learning occurs through the formation of networks that are formed by the individual; that is, knowing rests in the individual and resides in the collection (Siemens, 2006). As with critical constructivism, interactions with others form the (strong and weak) ties that make one’s reality personal. But reality in and of itself consists of not only subjective objects and facts - as is the case in constructivism - but also objective objects and facts as well (Boghossian, 2006). Therefore, connectivism (as a learning theory) rejects the assumption that knowledge is propositional and instead assumes that knowledge (i.e., knowing, truth, etc.) is emergent, nonreductivist, and contextual. How one views knowledge impacts the way research is conducted.

Researchers choose designs based on a particular worldview. Creswell (2009) mentioned that the type of design one chooses (e.g., quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods) will depend on the particular worldview one subscribes to: “postpositivism, constructivism, advocacy/participatory, or pragmatism” (p. 6). The researcher who adheres to a critical constructivist approach incorporates to various degrees critical theory, pedagogy, and thinking as well. Critical theory in particular can be defined as being “normative: delineate a more just and free future. The term critical refers not only to a critique of social conditions, but also to Kant’s idea of self-reflective examination of the limits and validity of our own knowledge and understandings (McLean, 2006, p. 9). Moreover, researchers who subscribe to participatory action research (PAR) grounds human interactions as “participative, interdependent ecology of life” (Reason & Bradbury, 2008, p. 17), a framework which underpins a critical constructivist approach.

Critical constructivism unites social constructivism theory with critical theory in a way that begins to blur the distinct differences researchers once had when classifying data strictly in terms of being quantitative or qualitative. The interactions themselves are central to entitling members of a network to take on leadership roles that are based on will and ability and not solely on title, position, or pay grade. By distributing leadership throughout the network, participants begin to have a voice as power laws begin to shift in favor of those who were once marginalized or on the peripheral. By establishing the “relational trust and social capital” (Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 21) that teachers need to achieve personal goals, the whole network (i.e., all stakeholders) begins to flourish as interdependent teachers begin forming a Gemeinschaft; that is, a community that considers more the “we” as opposed to solely the “I” (Sergiovanni, 1999). When assessing teacher capacities in terms of what makes a good teacher, social capital, community, and relational trust viewed through a critical constructivist lens become an integral part of an individual’s perception, perspective, and social constructions.

Article Review

Huang (2010) conducted a case study (i.e., qualitative research design) of an English language teacher at the Nanjing University in order to see what makes a successful English-as-a-foreign (EFL) teacher in China. The EFL teacher who was the target of the research was Miss H (pseudonym) who taught general English courses to undergraduate students studying Chinese Medicine - English courses are a requirement in order to graduate. Other participants included “24 English-major students who were in their second year of university and who had a teacher-student relationship with Miss H; and eight English teachers who were in the same staff room as Miss H.” (p. 22). The purpose of the study was to investigate the following three research questions:

  1. What are the unique qualities of Miss H (including her personal traits, professional achievements and teaching style) that make others perceive her as a successful EFL teacher in China?

  2. How does Miss H teach English effectively in the classroom?

  3. What other roles does Miss H undertake in her teaching position” (p. 20)?

The results of these questions are not meant to be inferential to other populations, but rather generalizable to a particular group outside the given context.

The theoretical framework for what makes a good teacher, in principle, was summarized into three categories: (a) “professional knowledge or achievements”, (b) “personal traits”, and (c) “teaching style” (p. 21). In order to determine how Miss H was classified within these three categories, data collection involved interviews, surveys, and focus groups with the participants previously mentioned. The first step was to interview Miss H in order to get personal data about her education and experiences. The second step was to apply a survey to Miss H’s eight colleagues so to obtain an outside perspective of Miss H. And the final step was to interview and conduct focus groups with a sample of Miss H’s students, getting yet a third perspective of Miss H’s knowledge, skills, and disposition as an EFL educator.

The findings of the study included a variety of perspectives. Miss H believed that motivation was crucial to becoming a successful EFL teacher in China and went on to mention that “learners play the central role in teaching” (p. 23). Some of Miss H’s colleagues described her as enthusiastic, responsible, having rich knowledge, cross-cultural awareness, and communicative competency among many other descriptors. Students mentioned that “practising as much as possible, interest in the language, and perseverance” (p. 24) were the three main aspects of Miss H’s teaching that they enjoyed the most. Additional roles Miss H takes on involves working with parents and students with life problems and working with faculty in exchanging teaching methods and techniques. The authors overall purpose was to expose what a successful EFL teacher is and does in China with the hopes that others will reflect on their own practice in finding ways to improve.

Article Critique

At first glance, Huang’s (2010) qualitative study into what makes a successful EFL teacher in China appears to place perspective on that of the participants and not on the researcher. For example, a triangulation approach was taken that included interviews, surveys, and focus groups and included collecting data from not only Miss H (i.e., the target of the study) but also from her students and colleagues. Opinions from Miss H, students, and colleagues were then categorized and represented using a vast number of descriptors: “responsible attitude, easy-going, good command of the language” etc. (p. 24). Thus, one could infer that the researcher was sharing only the values and the assumptions of the participants by simply reporting what participants said. But this positive description of Miss H was mainly presented with little contextual background. What is left out of Miss H’s profile is whether she has tenure, the number of her colleagues that have tenure, the profiles of her colleagues who participated in the study (e.g., professional achievements, educational background, professional experience, etc.), the relationships the colleagues have with Miss H, the number of hours in front of a group Miss H has in comparison with her colleagues, and the criteria used to select the students and colleagues who were to participate in the study. As a result, there is the possibility that the lack of contextual description with regard to how Miss H works and the hidden assumptions that exist as it pertains to the research methodology used to conduct the study might blur the objectivity, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity of the constructions.

The notions of objectivity, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity as cognitive and social constructions emerge through a network. Huang (2010) failed to demonstrate the two key components required of any type of personal network: “connection” and “contagion” (Christakis & Fowler, 2009, p. 16). The authors added that networks adhere to the following rules: (a) “we shape our networks”, (b) “our networks shapes us”, (c) “our friends affects us”, (d) “our friends’ friends’ friends affect us, and (e) “the network has a life of its own” (pp. 17-24). Therefore, instead of applying a research methodology that limits perspectives (i.e., reality) on the individual, decontextualized accounts of reality (i.e., subjectivity), constructions should emerge by investigating who Miss H interacts with (i.e., the connection) and the type of tie (i.e., the contagion) that exists with each person or node that makes up her personal learning network. A “macro” view of human interactions, indeed subscribes to Freire’s unabashedly appeal “to an ‘objective’ reality that we all can come to know through careful, critical analysis” (Olson, 2006).

The way in which constructions are formed are also representative of how the world is shaped. Huang (2010) seems to view the world primarily in terms of personal accounts of reality, absent of the actual interactions that actually are required in order for an individual to form a perception in the first place. As there are a variety of key principles at play - “communication, transparency, knowledge, innovation, regulation, accountability, ownership, citizenship, and power” (McCarthy, Miller, & Skidmore, 2004, pp. 11-21) - communication, knowledge, and power will be considered in ways of offering addition insight into the subject of what makes a successful EFL teacher. A change in focus as to how the world is shaped would imply a different set of research questions that would shift the direction of the research as well (see Table 1).

Table 1

Current research questionsNew set of research questions

  1. What are the unique qualities of Miss H (including her personal traits, professional achievements and teaching style) that make others perceive her as a successful EFL teacher in China?


  1. How does Miss H teach English effectively in the classroom?


  1. What other roles does Miss H undertake in her teaching position

  1. How does Miss H cultivate a personal learning network in a way that makes others perceive her as a successful EFL teacher in China?

  2. What type of ties exist within Miss H’s personal learning network that have the most impact on her current teaching practice?

  3. How influence does Miss H have on her personal learning network that extends her role beyond her teaching position?










Clearly, changing the focus of the study in this fashion changes the scope of the investigation as well. Researching constructive processes requires a more narrow and in depth look at a particular phenomenon, and in the case of Miss H, perhaps the need to limit the study to one or two research questions. But in doing so, a more descriptive account of what is takes to be a good teacher would result.

Continuing the network metaphor, psychosocial dispositions also impact how adult learners are influenced by and how they guide others through ongoing social interaction. “Psychosocial dispositions act as mediating pathways between the students’ demographic characteristics (e.g., parental education, age, and gender), academic programs (e.g., arts or sciences), and their academic achievement in college” (Clifton, Perry, Roberts, and Peter, 2008, p. 687). Those adult learners about to enter the education profession also have doubts about their chosen career and the control they have over what they can teach (Daniels, Clifton, Perry, Mandzuk, and Hall, 2006). The issue of control and career anxiety among those participants in Huang’s (2010) study was not addressed but might influence perspective and the manner in which both students and colleagues expressed opinions. However slight, a diversity of opinion (e.g., psychosocial dispositions of the teachers) can provide additional context when interpreting the attributes needed to be a successful teacher. From a critical constructivist approach, the act of allowing Miss H. to express her opinions on career anxiety and control over what she does in the classroom and the control she has with regard to her personal learning network would provide a more informative description of her perceived success. In other words, instead of presenting current attributes that she possesses, a look at her becoming a successful teacher would provide more insight into the process of formulating personal psychosocial dispositions.

Having control over one’s teaching practice and how one views the role within the profession is a complex and emergence phenomenon. As mentioned earlier, three general interactive types are constantly in motion: (a) how an educator affects others (either directly or indirectly), (b) how others affect the educator, and (c) how the network itself emerges as a whole (Christakis & Fowler, 2009). As a complex adaptive system (Fryer, n.d.), an educator recognizes how one adapts or co-adapts to a “learning ecology: formal learning, experience/game, mentor, performance support, self-learning, community-based learning, and informal learning” (Siemens, 2006, pp. 39-40). Power relations, sustainability, and decision-making are but a few examples of how different contexts can influence and be influenced by the type of interactions that take place between individuals and artifacts. Huang’s (2010) research ignored how Miss H arose from the determinants of her ever-changing environment or what affect her socio-cultural background had on her success. Specifically, what effect did Miss H have on her environment, what effect did her environment have on her, and what transformative change of events emerged on their own. Knowing when and how she made decisions over time would better explain how she became a successful EFL teacher.

The decision-making process as part of a three-part harmony also includes andragogy and critical thinking skills (Moore, 2010), and links cognitive and social constructions via personal perception. When teachers are entitled to make decisions, an increase in the following domains exist: affective aspects, job satisfaction, job commitment, and perception of workload (Chi Keung, 2008). Each of these domains create personal constructions that are both cognitive and social in nature. Researching the relationships that exist between the participants of the study allows personal reflection and learning and the critical skills required to make decisions under particular contexts. It is precisely these type of analysis where behavioral and perspectival patterns begin to emerge. By analyzing the conditions by which constructions arise, researchers explain phenomena in terms of individual impact on others (i.e., the network), as well as the impact others have on the individual. Moreover, researchers who investigate the process of construction through relationship building may also see self-organisational tendencies as the network itself grows and develops on its own. Understanding what makes a good EFL teacher lends itself to an analysis based on critical constructivism that ultimately empowers not only the successful teacher but those who are in contact with the successful teacher to improve as well. Thus, learning that is meaningful and relevant to personal goals emerges through both independent and interdependent experiences (Moore, 2010).

Understanding the purpose of a critical constructivist approach helps researchers to decipher meaning through context. Individual perspective that stems from the participants themselves allows for a more descriptive and explanatory account of a particular phenomenon in terms of time and space. Temporal and spatial relations that are shared through multiple interpretations not only provide the constructions but also the conditions by which the constructions emerged. For example, if we understand the context by which an EFL teacher made a particular decision or a self-reflection that demonstrates a particular habit of mind, the reader has a better understanding of an intersubjective reality. A critical constructivist approach to research is not only epistemological but is also ontological as well. Knowing how one becomes a good EFL teacher is equally important (perhaps more so) as knowing what a good EFL teacher is as a final conclusion. As a result, the reader gains a better understanding of the learning ecology (i.e., environment, socio-cultural context, etc.) by experiencing the interactions (i.e., connections and contagions) that determine (a) the affects the EFL teacher has on others, (b) the affects others have on the EFL teacher, and (c) the self-sustaining attributes of the learning network itself. Having said experiences underpins the notion that actionable understandings are better positioned when they lead to a more suitable praxis.


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