Altering the facts

 

My initial response to reading Pring’s (2004) ideas about methodology was to become even more disorientated as I grab for grip in the shifting sands of seemingly endless reflexivity. Whilst I would agree that the concepts he offers are “…quite fundamental ways of conceptualising our understanding of the world” (Pring 2004, p.58), I do find that the deeper I dig on this course, the less I can count on anything. Everything which is questioned – and I do appreciate the need for questioning – becomes ever vaguer and less reliable, including reality: “‘Reality’ is a social construction, and the boundaries between the objective and the subjective become blurred. There are as many realities as there are social constructions, which is a large number, indeed.” (Pring 2004, p.81) And yet, at the same time, I read that “One cannot get away from reality – and thus from the truth or falsity of statements which give an account of it.” (Pring 2004, p.74) Is it OK to be confused?

As Pring observes on countless occasions, the Social Sciences and the Natural Sciences are different realms entirely. However, if our work is to have any chance of objectivity, even assuming that “‘Objectivity’ refers to the way one proceeds…” (Pring 2004, p.62), I wonder if we need to find parallels: “An ideal of the natural sciences would be the replacement of qualitative by quantitative descriptions wherever possible… Such precision is demanded, too, in the social sciences, as when, for example, in psychology attitude tests are given, or deviations from the norm statistically expressed.” (Pring 2004, p.86) In my own research, I expect to make use of such quantitative approaches, as a means to give some objective clarity, whilst remaining aware that “To be objective is not the same as being correct” (Pring 2004, p.62).

I am likely to have access to a massive amount of quantitative data in the form of standardised attitudinal tests in various sociocultural contexts worldwide. At this point, I intend to make use of this, but I do not know fully how. I am considering a proposal of ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ research, with the former located in various contexts worldwide, and the latter, perhaps, at Jordan’s Syrian border. In that way, the attitudinal data could give me a background (i.e. the spread within each attitudinal factor in each school with which I work), against which I could then compare and contrast the foreground (i.e. the spread in whatever refugee communities with which I might get to work).

However, the difficulty I can already see here is twofold. Firstly, with my samples so small (in comparison, say, with the 2 billion children of the world!), how can I argue that my background is indeed, objectively, that? Secondly, and here Pring’s ideas around causation and correlation are useful, it is impossible to assume that whatever spread of attitudinal test scores in either foreground or background is linked in any tangible way to the particular contexts from which they were drawn: “…the social world we are dealing with in educational practice has such a complicated set of interacting causal factors that we cannot isolate the events under consideration from this complex reality. There can never be the laboratory purity of the scientific world where standard and limited conditions can be assured.” (Pring 2004, p.65)

Does this mean that there is no validity in comparing the two? I am reassured by Pring’s suggestions that such “causal connections must not be so easily written off…” (Pring 2004, p.65), but I cannot ever hope to pretend that there is objectivity here. This troubles, and puzzles, me, and Pring’s reference to Luntley doesn’t help me out: “Classrooms…share a common structural feature with other social and natural systems – namely, non-linearity. Ignore this and you get a faulty logic of understanding for the system at issue.” (Luntley, 2000, p.17)

In addition to exploring what messages that quantitative data communicates (or doesn’t communicate), the other main methodological approach I intend to use is to gather testimonies. I like what I have read about Gautama, and want to believe that there is intrinsic value in what somebody says. Now, here I quickly slip on those infuriating sands again, because my reflexive voice chimes in. Why did they say it? What influence did I have on their decision to do so? What motivation or intent propelled them to do so? Next – and I know I am mixing my metaphors – it is easy to peel so many layers off the onion that all that is left is a tiny dot of onion-smelling air in the middle. I am hopeful, therefore, that I can gather testimonies, provided a) that I am confident that my own role (and that of the monster of my own habitus) in shaping them has been minimal; and b) that I am presenting them not as truth, fact or reality, but, merely, as what they are: testimonies.

Ultimately, what I wish to explore is the behaviour of children within a compulsory school setting, and, in doing so, I recognise that “…to explain human behaviour requires not only reference to the intentions of the person acting (as though these were within a purely private and subjective world), but also reference to the social rules and practices within which those intentional actions take place and make sense.” (Pring 2004, p.68) I want to explore what affects a child’s attitudes to learning, and how her attitudes to learning can be improved, but, again, the layers begin to peel off that onion. Pring argues that “What constitutes a healthy person is not a straightforward empirical matter. It depends on the values one has…Values permeate our descriptions of reality.” (Pring 2004, p.76) So too, then, does a ‘positive’ attitude to learning. In which case, where do I go with this?

However, there are some ideas from Pring that I found more liberating. For example, I am very excited at the possibility that I might help even in some small way to “alter the facts” (Pring 2004, p.76), if those facts are the ‘common sense’ that perpetuates a post-industrial model of compulsory schooling regardless of its effect on child wellbeing, and if to do so lies in “a questioning and critical approach to what was accepted uncritically, a refusal to accept as self-evident what is generally believed to be true, a reflective and analytic attitude towards the fund of inherited wisdom.” (Pring 2004, p.84)

I am also excited at the conclusion reached that “…unless there can be a bridge between the common sense discourse and the more technical discourse, then theory-based research will have little or no impact upon policy or practice.” (Pring 2004, p.86) I certainly do not want the conclusions of my research to be mere “transient beliefs” (Pring 2004, p.79).

Bibliography

Pring, R., 2004. Philosophy of educational research. London: Continuum
Luntley, M., 2000. ‘Performance, pay and professionals: Measuring the quality of teaching: A challenge to the government’s proposals on teachers’ pay’. Impact, 2000 (2).

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