Mod 4 Week 1 Initial Post

Module 4 is entitled “Ways of Knowing: Perspectives on Educational Research and Practice”. It promises to be both intensely theoretical and practical: the twin aspects of research. The first week began gently with a task that required us to look at what kinds of knowledge different academic disciplines prioritised. As per usual, there were a number of resources that were the base for our investigations. However, I got side-lined by two notions that seemed to inhibit a true grasp of what constitutes knowledge. Without really discussing the core resources, I elected to address these notions first with the hope that I could explain my thoughts on the resources later.


The twin concepts of the classification of knowledge and the sociology of knowledge need to be kept separate. By considering why “academic cultures and disciplinary epistemology are inseparably intertwined” (Becher & Trowler, 2001, p. 23), a broader perspective can be seen. A useful metaphor for academic culture may be the Blind Man and the Elephant. This ancient Indian poem centres on the various descriptions six blind men give when first encountering an elephant. Each man only touches one part of the animal, and, correspondingly, only describes one of the animal’s features. The trunk is likened to a snake; the legs to a tree, and so on. Without attempting to view the whole, the natural and obvious result is an incomplete depiction of an elephant. It is trivial to state that different intellectual foci generate different sets of data. More interesting is to see how various academic disciplines prioritise their view, often without recourse to other perspectives and, perhaps arrogantly, make claims to ‘grand’ or ‘unified’ theories.

As for the classification of knowledge, a second position may be identified that is more interesting but also ultimately limited. Kurosawa’s epic movie, Rashomon, is the story of an investigation into a murder that was witnessed by four individuals. The movie shows how the physical locations, the personal relationships to the victim and the motives of the witnesses conspire to produce four very different and often conflicting accounts of the murder. Rashomon is predicated on the notion that there actually was a single truth, a real version lying at the core of all accounts (Heider, 1988). However and unless (hard and soft) scientists agree to study the same phenomenon for the same reasons from their diverse perspectives, such a real truth remains an illusion.

As a foreign language educator, I work with other professionals, but the reality is an egg-crate existence: a “one-teacher-one-class-division of labour” (Mullen, 2009, p. 21). However, we take a few actions collectively. Our 1st-year cohort do a standardised test for placement purposes, and occasionally we discuss the general trends in the current year groups often in comparison with previous years’ cohorts. Table 1 summarises the two broad types of knowledge that is utilised.

Data Type Epistemology Theoretical Perspective Methodology Method
Student placement score Objectivism Positivism Experimental research Statistical analysis
Student motivation Constructivism Interpretivism Grounded theory Interview

Table 1. Information about student level and motivation (after Gray, 2009)

Zins’ (2007) information science presents a framework that conceptualises data, information and knowledge. The scores and students’ self-reports are data points that form the basis for information (e.g. a ‘high’ score) which in turn enable a teacher to construct knowledge of the student body. Students’ levels are reified objectively as scores and are manipulable statistically and conceptually. This acceptance of scores as entities indicates the groups’ perspective of the ontological status as ‘being’ because they are immutable and lack a temporal dimension (Barnacle & Mewburn, 2010), in accordance with most positive and post-positive science (Gray, 2009). A test score is seen as an attempt to represent the underlying and unobservable construct of English ability. The belief that such constructs can be modelled and manipulated externally as variables underpins positivistic research and offers the methodological basis for experimental research (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011). Zins’ (2007) ‘knowledge’ is enabled due to the inferential capabilities provided by statistical techniques (Moses & Knutsen, 2012).

Space forbids an account of how student motivation is seen. In conjunction with the positivistic outlook demonstrated by the above, how motivation is understood is achieved very differently and together they highlight the sense of “tribe” (Becher & Trowler, 2001) dominant in educational faculties: a multi-modality “wide-ranging” mindset described by Dr Anne Qualter (Laureate, 2011). Perhaps that analysis can be investigated as the week progresses.

References

Barnacle, R., & Mewburn, I. (2010). Learning networks and the journey of “becoming doctor.” Studies in Higher Education, 35(4), 433–444. doi:10.1080/03075070903131214

Becher, T., & Trowler, P. R. (2001). Landscapes, tribal territories and academic cultures. In Academic tribes and territories: intellectual enquiry and the culture of disciplines (pp. 1–22). Buckingham: Open University Press.

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2011). Research Methods in Education. Professional Development in Education (7th ed.). Abingdon: Routledge. doi:10.1080/19415257.2011.643130

Gray, D. E. (2009). Theoretical perspectives and research methodologies. In Doing research in the real world. Los Angeles: Sage.

Heider, K. G. (1988). The Rashomon Effect: When Ethnographers Disagree. American Anthropologist, 90(1), 73–81. doi:10.1525/aa.1988.90.1.02a00050

Laureate. (2011). Disciplinary differences in ways of knowing .

Moses, J. W., & Knutsen, T. L. (2012). Ways of knowing: Competing methodologies in social and political research (2nd ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mullen, C. A. (2009). The Handbook of Leadership and Professional Learning Communities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

Zins, C. (2007). Conceptual approaches for defining data, information and knowledge. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(4), 479–493. doi:10.1002/asi

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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