Growing with re-search: Research in education

Growing with re-search: Research in education

Brian Rodrigues, Freshman English instructor and former Re-search INSET(1) participant at Sabancı University’s School of Languages, interviews Deniz Kurtoglu Eken who, in addition to her role as the director of the school, is actively involved in research, teacher development and trainer training.

B.Rodrigues : What do you understand by the term research? What does it mean to you?

D.Kurtoglu Eken: I think before anything else it’s got to do with asking meaningful questions that I feel you can’t avoid – whether you’re aware that it’s research or not is one thing, but it’s part of human nature to be asking questions. Maybe one thing about research to make it more systematic is that the questions have to be meaningful; and for me personally and professionally, the questions and the research have to be inspiring. You can’t force yourself to be involved in research; you want to explore, youwant to find out…what it means to me? In its simplest terms, it means to find out; to find out answers to your questions, to explore meaning to your questions.

B.Rodrigues : When you say meaningful and inspiring, what do you hope to achieve when you ask these questions? Ultimately, of what use are the answers you get?

D.Kurtoglu Eken: You could be asking loads of questions I suppose but the reason why I chose the word meaningful is because it goes nicely with the word inspiration; that you have to feel inspired by it. For example one of my own questions to myself is ‘How do I create meaning? What realities do I create for myself?’ Now I feel this is a meaningful question because it inspires me; it involves a whole process…and it stems from a need and interest for me to explore this area.

B.Rodrigues : And in terms of practical use, how do you see that helping you? Is it just to, basically, think about these issues, answer them for yourself or do you see them as having further use than that?

D.Kurtoglu Eken: Definitely, I do. If I feel I’m inspired, I feel I’m able to enthuse others. In my job as a director – as you know I’m involved in a variety of roles – and if I’m unable to do that then I’m not doing my job properly. But more importantly if I’m unable to have that, I’m not fulfilled in what I do. So for me it’s personal and professional fulfilment. Practical value? For teachers, definitely. Because if I’m able to enthuse people with research, I would hope – and also through the examples we share and work on together – that it transfers to the classroom in terms of classroom research.

B.Rodrigues : I also know that you like to break up the word research into its constituent parts, which are re and search. What do you want to convey by doing that?

D.Kurtoglu Eken: On my part it wasn’t a conscious decision initially; I just liked the play on words, but because I love reading outside the field of ELT particularly in the areas of psychology and philosophy, the more I read the more I am inspired by these…ideas…And one of the ideas that was so powerful for me comes from a book by Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. There’s loads of ideas there, but the one I want to refer to is not actually from this book itself but a reference made to another book by Timothy Wilson called, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious…I think there’s a lot there that we search for, that we try and find out answers to but that we are not necessarily aware of…what I really believe at least with myself as a person and a professional is that whether I’m aware of it or not or whether I even like it or not, I’m in a constant search for meaning, for ideas, for answers and that’s why the idea of re-search is based on the idea that we’re searching already but what the re stands for is…‘again’, like looking into something again or that we’re not aware of it but we’ve searched it already unconsciously and it’s re-search, the first process being unconscious, the second being conscious. Does that make sense? Sorry.

B.Rodrigues : Yes, I think it does. Is there any practical value that comes out of looking at it this way? What you’re saying is very interesting but very difficult to get one’s mind around.

D.Kurtoglu Eken: I see what you mean. I think with some of the research tools, there would be something practical there. I would strongly encourage teachers, individuals, professionals to believe in the idea that they are – whether they’re aware of it or not – in this constant search and re-search anyway. And I believe that’s a good point to start at with research because too often there is this misconception that, ‘Well I can’t be a researcher, I’m only a teacher…Research? Oh, I’ve got to do all these questionnaires…’ but it’s there. You know, you look at a student and you’re wondering about what goes through their mind, that’s finding out. So at a practical level, maybe the word ‘practical’ doesn’t do it justice. Maybe the word practical is at an awareness level.

B.Rodrigues : Can you distinguish between qualitative and quantitative research for us and perhaps tell us in what situations and why one approach is more appropriate than the other?

D.Kurtoglu Eken: There are loads of books on this and I wouldn’t claim at all to be an expert…I wouldn’t like to see it as a dichotomy but I think…qualitative has been done some injustice… in one of the key books in the area by Miles and Huberman called Qualitative Data Analysis, Fred Kerlinger says, “There’s no such thing as qualitative data. Everything is either 1 or 0” as opposed to an idea by Donald Campbell, “All research ultimately has a qualitative grounding”. If we try and put those ideas together, as Miles and Huberman state, “Numbers and words are both needed if we are to understand the world. Quantities are of qualities…” I think this is a really useful way of looking at it. And to exemplify this maybe I could share with you a couple of extracts which I think you certainly couldn’t embrace with quantitative research. A student says,

The teacher should do this job because s/he loves it, not just to earn a living. You can tell very easily if the teacher loves what s/he is doing. For example, from the way s/he responds to your questions. Some teachers could explain something ten times to help you…but others would just give you a quick evasive answer or would ask, ‘Have you still not understood?’

…Now these are from students and if I could just share a couple from teachers, when they were asked to choose a metaphor to describe where they see themselves in their own professional development. This is from one teacher with two and a half years’ teaching experience:

I feel like a crawling baby, I know how to walk but when I try it, people do not reward me. They see the mistakes that I do while walking and ask me to crawl.

Another teacher says,

Like an athlete who hasn’t displayed her best, most outstanding performance yet [but] who is still working hard and hopefully can do one day or who can get injured and quit the field any time.

I feel this is an excellent way to distinguish between qualitative and quantitative research…My love for research comes from the idea that if we want to explore something in depth, then numbers are not going to be enough. Things like this that I’ve read out, I don’t think that there is any way that quantitative research can capture that [i.e. the meaning, the message, the intensity with which the emotions are expressed] so maybe one useful way of looking at it is to see them as complementary because we can’t do without numbers either…If we take student involvement as an example, you can approach it both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitatively, you could be tallying the number of times the teacher nominates each student, you could look at male/female student involvement, what sort of percentage, etc. Qualitatively and very usefully, you could take that further and talk to students about their involvement, look at non-verbal features such as facial expressions, etc…In qualitative research, there’s a lot there that’s already happening as long as we don’t shy away from our own insights as researchers… As teachers we’re also researchers and we have every right to be a researcher…as a manager I’m a researcher, as a trainer I’m a researcher, as an individual I’m a researcher.

So what are the features? It’s descriptive…and I don’t think we should be worrying about subjectivity …we can still try and distance ourselves from our data…meaning is of high importance…and not starting with a hypothesis… We want to keep an open mind basically…assumption-free as best as possible…so again going back to this example of student involvement, I can say, ‘Well my students are not involved in the lesson because it’s Friday afternoon.’ That’s an assumption. Why should I assume that? A much richer way of looking at it would be exploring students perceptions of their own involvement in class and not really adding any ‘color’ to it, saying whether it’s Friday afternoon or not… That will help us to analyze our data inductively…You might remember this term by Glaser and Strauss, ‘grounded theory’; it’s a bit like theorizing from the classroom…so this is theorizing from your data; let the data speak rather than saying, ‘This is what I’m going to get out of it.’ …

B.Rodrigues : …It’s interesting that you mentioned getting students’ opinions on certain things. In your work you lay great store on learner-based research. Can you explain what learner-based research is, and why is it so important in your eyes?

D.Kurtoglu Eken: I don’t think such a term or phrase exists and I haven’t been using this term just so that we have another posh term out there…but I felt the need to distinguish between other… mindsets on research…It’s a bit like learner-centered teaching. You can look at it in two ways but before I expand on those ideas, to me learner-based research is any form of research that is inspired by learners and learning; and by learners I’m not necessarily referring only to language learners, I’m also referring to myself as a learner, teachers as learners, any person who would hopefully view themselves as a learner…How does it happen? What sort of examples can we give there?

One form of learner-based research is learners as informants; any research that involves the learner as a research participant can be viewed as learner-based. However, with this term, I take it even further than that…we want students as researchers and as re-searchers…And how do we do that? One example is to involve…students as observers of teaching and learning… involving language learners in observing classes…with simple yet useful observation tasks…

Another example is, I borrow classes from teachers because I don’t get to teach regularly…and…I try and fit my teaching and research work into the curriculum…so whatever the teacher would like me to do, I do using the course book and the core material but at the same time I use this idea of a learner diary where I get them to explore through little, interim re-search tasks… I get them to look at themselves, …to explore their own ideas…One example was…in a unit on beliefs and values one of the little research tasks was based on…for example, I said to the students, ‘Please think about and write down two or three concepts that come to your mind for the following concepts…life, society, people, family, learning, teaching and I even asked them to choose a seventh concept themselves and to do the same…And then in another task, I got them to…go back to these concepts and to write down a strong belief – related to one of these concepts – that they might have…learner re-search diaries can be a thread running through the teaching-learning process…but…I don’t think learners should be forced at all to share what they write with you…; they should keep it to themselves and there is a beauty in that; there’s a beauty in having those ideas to yourself and in having that space to yourself… However, we could give them an option that if they want they could share some of those ideas with us as teachers or as researchers…

And maybe a third example to learner-based research in the second strand that I’ve been mentioning is the idea of role reversal which I love…it is basically reversing the process of research in terms of who leads the research…for example…I had this meeting with a student…there and then…I asked the student because I felt that I had to support him with his self-confidence and self esteem…I said to him, ‘Would you like to carry out an interview with me?’ And he sort of sat up and ‘Yes’ he said ‘What about?’ I said ‘Well about…anything you feel you might want to ask me about if you had the opportunity.’…The interview went so well…this is just one example because I’ve been using the idea since then with students and teachers…from the process…I learned…that the questions people choose to ask you are most often questions that they want to ask themselves or they want someone to ask them. So this idea of role reversal is excellent in the sense that you’re putting the learner in the lead…

B.Rodrigues : Excellent. Talking about the Re-search INSET…I found this writing in the diary most useful for me; me reflecting on myself; maybe learning about myself…for me, the re-search thing was looking into my own mind and seeing what I thought about certain things and looking at my own views and my own approach and comparing it with what other people were doing and I found that really fascinating and I think it made me a better learner as well…

D.Kurtoglu Eken: …Thanks so much for sharing that…too often research is based on like this ping pong thing…you ask me, I ask you…the arrows that are missing are the arrows going back to us…I also use it…on my computer in my drafts folder I have a draft e-mail; I’m the recipient, it’s addressed to myself and the title…keeps changing depending on my mood although I keep the previous titles…and every now and again even if it’s a couple of minutes – which, as you know, I call space rather than time…I find myself writing away, maybe just a couple of lines and that’s an excellent tool for talking to myself…and from time to time going back to it and seeing…I wonder why, how I felt like that at the time…

B.Rodrigues : Thanks very much Deniz…It’s been very enlightening…Is there anything else that you would like to add before we sign off?

D.Kurtoglu Eken: Probably loads more but maybe to finish off with something that inspires me these days…This comes from Sketches of Satie by John and Steve Hackett, it’s actually a very inspiring piece of music and inside [the CD cover] there’s a quotation that says, ‘Ah but there’s the beauty in the things he didn’t do.’…With re-search, there’s a lot of hidden beauties…there’s a lot of inspiration that we maybe haven’t found yet, but if we can enthuse ourselves…there will be things we do and things we don’t do, but that there’s a beauty in everything and anything out there…Going back to the idea of qualitative research…there might be one person out there who chooses not to do what you might be asking them…to do, but that there’s also a beauty in the idea that he has chosen not to do it. I find that very inspiring.

(1) The Re-search INSET is a professional development course offered by Sabancı University School of Languages. The course offers input and hands-on practice on classroom and learner-based research. More information is available here.

[Published in IATEFL Research SIG Newsletter Issue 22 Autumn 2008 pp.21-4]