Dissertation Supervision

It’s that time of year again. Thousands of postgraduate students across the UK are about to embark on their dissertation journeys. While some will already be knee-deep in literature reviews and organising data collection, others will be struggling to think of an original project and worrying about the next steps.

I’m currently supervising several dissertations (spanning Special & Inclusive Education, and Psychology of Education). I’m also getting emails and knocks on the door from personal tutees and students that I taught last term. Lots of people are seeking advice, but the questions asked are often similar. This blog post is something of a collective response to student questions and concerns. Whilst the post has been written for a particular group in mind (i.e. GSoE students with a qualitative focus), some of the pointers no doubt resonate across other disciplines and I hope readers outside GSoE find them helpful.

  • When it comes to choosing a topic you should follow your passions. You’ll be spending months working on your project and need to stay motivated. Make sure that you’re doing something that interests you, and not just your supervisor.
  • Take research ethics seriously. Research ethics must permeate everything you do, from research design to data collection, analysis, and writing up. Instead of thinking about ethics as a departmental tick-box exercise (a barrier to data collection), see it as an on-going relationship between you and your research participants. Put yourself in their shoes and ask how you would expect to be treated during and after the research. There are plenty of articles and books on research ethics you can consult.
  • Try not to be over-ambitious. I’ve read some wonderful research proposals lately but I’ve advised students to scale the workload back. Typically this is because (1) students only have a small window to collect data in schools, and (2) they only have 15,000 words to write everything up. Doing lots can weaken your overall grade if you lack space to critically engage with the literature and sufficiently analyse the findings.
  • Develop clear, answerable research questions. These should guide your research design and keep you focused.
  • Justify your research design. When it comes to writing up don’t simply describe what you did but explain why you did it. To help with this, read lots of methodology literature and be aware of key areas of debate. Popular textbooks on research philosophy typically dissect the research into paradigms (positivist, interpretivist, critical, etc.), methodologies (enthography, IPA, case study, etc.), methods (interviewing, observation, etc.) and analysis (thematic, discourse, descriptive statistics, etc.) Develop a critical stance and be aware of your position in relation to these debates.
  • Make sure you refer back to your literature review when you analyse your data. Too many promising projects begin with a beautifully written literature review which then becomes forgotten about later on in the dissertation. Think about the significance of your findings for the field, how different lenses in the field help or hinder interpretation of the data, and how your research design adds something new. This is what goes in your Discussion section (if you’re doing empirical work).
  • Create a timetable to help manage your workload, write as you go along, and finish before the deadline.  You may have conducted an amazing project, but if it’s poorly written-up then your final grade will suffer. Plan for chapter revision, proof reading, reference checking, and printing/binding.
  • Think about your supervisor! Academics on summer holidays won’t be reading drafts so make sure you plan to submit work way in advance of the deadline. Chase up supervisors if you have to.

Good luck!


CREAB Research in Progress Seminar

Today I gave a work-in-progress presentation for CREAB (“Centre for Research Across Boundaries in theory and practice”). CREAB is based at Bristol’s Graduate School of Education. I’m only half-way through data collection and haven’t conducted any formal analysis yet.  However, I thought I’d write a blog post to share some of the emerging findings for those that are interested in the project.

Project title:

Examining the situated and emerging sociability of children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) across educational contexts 


The aim of the research is to explore whether different school environments (e.g. mainstream and special) provide alternative social interaction opportunities for children with PMLD. The research also explores how children with PMLD respond to different kinds of social opportunities, and how this impacts on their emerging social awareness and communication skills.

Sample and time frame:

8 children with PMLD will be recruited to the project. Each child will be observed one day a week in a mainstream school and one day a week in special school for a 10-week period. A special school teaching assistant (TA) will accompany each child with PMLD when attending mainstream school.

To date, 1 reception and 2 primary school children have participated in the project. The next stage involves recruiting secondary school students with PMLD.


The methodology is similar to that developed for my PhD (you can read about that here and here).

The methodology is richly interpretivist and qualitative. It involves the researcher working with children, parents, and school staff. There are three components to this approach. First, parents and school staff are asked to describe children’s communication abilities (e.g. through semi-structured interviews). This gives the researcher a frame of reference for interpreting children’s behaviours. Second, the researcher works as a participant observer and gets to know children involved in the study by engaging with them in their daily routines. Third, the researcher generates data by writing “vignettes”, which are qualitative field notes describing observed social interactions between children with PMLD and the people they engage with in schools. The researcher and school staff then discuss observations/vignettes and share interpretations (staff are asked to comment on the researcher’s interpretation in order to help deepen his/her understanding of observed behaviours).

Impressionistic findings:

No formal data analysis has taken place so the following statements must be taken tentatively. However, an impressionistic reading of the data suggests that:

  • To date, all children participating in the project experienced meaningful opportunities for social interaction in both mainstream schools and special schools.
  • The nature of social interactions in the special schools was often respectful yet functional, and typically involved school staff. (For example, school staff interacted in order to teach children how to communicate.)
  • There was little interaction observed between children with PMLD and their special school peers.
  • By contrast, there was lots of interaction between children with PMLD and their mainstream school peers. The nature of this interaction was often spontaneous, playful, and unstructured.
  • One child exhibited a potentially new form of symbolic communication – a hand gesture – in his mainstream school that was never observed in his special school.
  • Whilst two children appeared reserved in mainstream school when they first started, they soon became more confident and learned to enjoy being in the presence of other children.
  • Groups of “friends” formed around children with PMLD in mainstream school. (These were peers who regularly played with children with PMLD, pushed their wheelchair, supported them in class, read to them, held their hand, gave them sensory objects , etc.)
  • Targets set by special school teachers were sometimes met in mainstream schools. (For example, one child’s target involved lifting his head for 30 seconds in the presence of others. Early on in the research we noted that he raised his head for 3-4 minutes in the presence of mainstream school peers.)
  • The success of mainstream school placements for children with PMLD depended on the flexibility of the school and the creativity, knowledge, and confidence of the special school TAs who accompanied the children.

Future research:

There are 18 months left of the project. The aim is to recruit 4-5 for more children/young people in secondary school and (if possible) post-16 settings. Formal data analysis will take place in 2017 and the findings will be reported in due course.

Talk on Applying for Postdoctoral Funding

Yesterday I gave a talk to early career researchers at Bristol University on writing postdoc funding applications. I’ve talked to applicants and run sessions on the topic in the past. As an applicant myself in 2013 I remember benefiting a lot from these kind of sessions before securing funding from the British Academy  (pictured above). Applicants can often be anxious, particularly given how competitive these awards are. To combat nerves and help with your application, here are my top 10 tips.

  1. Plan your time. Successful applications take time to write and revise. There is so much to consider that last-minute applications will never succeed. You’ve got to think about peer review, draft revisions, completing complicated on-line applications, chasing up references, improving your CV to match the funder, working with finance to cost your project, etc. Plan sensibly and start early!
  2. Take peer review seriously. If you’ve never won postdoctoral funding before you may not know what a successful application looks like. However, your research directors and senior academics will do. Address the issues they refer to.
  3. Be concise. Word count is limited and on-line forms will cut you off if you write too much.
  4. Avoid jargon and be clear what your research is about. Reviewers are unlikely to know your subject specialism inside out.
  5. Target your application to the funder. Different funders want different things.
  6. Read everything you can get your hands on and read between the lines. Funders often say what they want to see in your application so make sure you put it in!
  7. Improve your CV. Some schemes (e.g. ESRC Future Leaders) demand a first-class CV so make sure you publish, teach, take on admin etc.
  8. Applying feels egotistical. I don’t like selling myself but that’s part of the game. Become that kind of person and be confident and bold.
  9. Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket. There are several schemes out there so make sure you apply to them all. Competition is fierce.
  10. Be tenacious. If you get turned down apply again. Failure is an essential component for learning. Dust yourself off and do better.

Good luck!


I recently attended the Graduate School of Education’s Research Ethics Committee Annual Conference. (Not as a presenter but as a keen Tweeter! #GSOEethics) A range of researchers discussed diverse issues related to ethical encounters in their research.

First up was Dr Helen Manchester (Lecturer at GSoE, Bristol). Helen’s work on the Tangible Memories Project explored ways to combat loneliness and loss in older people through digital technologies. What was impressive about Helen’s work – which resonated with my own – was the framing of ethics in terms empathy (as opposed to sympathy) and the capacity to inhabit the other’s perspective. I’m currently using Merleau-Ponty’s work (The Phenomenology of Perception and the Visible and Invisible) to help theorise this process, particularly in relation to intercorporeality. However, I think I’m taking a slightly different route to Helen as my theory is about the co-constitution of self and other in the act of participatory observation. By this, I mean that I’m not simply trying to inhabit the other’s perspective, but be reflexive and sensitive to how the “we” emerges as an original feature of a distinct, affective epistemological stance. These ideas are emerging and will hopefully be written up for publication soon (so keep following my blog!).

Next up was Dr Jacqui Shepherd (Lecturer, University of Sussex). Jacqui discussed alternatives to semi-structured interviews for people with autism such as card sorts and walking interviews. I was deeply suspicious at first (having seen and written about the problems with Talking Mats as an approach to interviewing children with PMLD.) However, Jacqui was sufficiently reflexive to talk about the strengths and shortfalls of these approaches. Furthermore, she presented interview data which demonstrated how the quality of talk between the interviewer and interviewee was enhanced through her research design. By the end I was very keen to find out more. Apparently this way of working is common in Human Geography…

Next up was Dr Jocelyn Wishart (Senior Lecturer, GSoE, Bristol). Jocelyn’s work in the area of mobile technologies is far removed from my own. I’m usually suspicious of technology advocates in the PMLD field as (in my experience) the technology doesn’t replace the underlying assumptions about the lack of abilities of children with PMLD and becomes just another tool for behaviourist or cognitivist interventions. However, Jocelyn’s talk was about ownership of data and the kind of research that can be undertaken using technology in the classrooms. She then presented her framework for conducting thought experiments around ethics when preparing research project.

We closed the day discussing controversial case studies (the session was run by fab staff at GSoE: Wan Yee and Helen Knowler). Great fun and lots of challenging debates! I look forward to the 2017 event…

Australian Association for Research in Education 2015 (University of Notre Dame, Fremantle)

I recently presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) annual conference, based a the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle. The conference was surprisingly intimate given that it’s Australia’s main educational research conference, but the presentation themes were diverse. It’s clear that Australia has a strong body of critical researchers with a passion for social justice. I sat in presentations on gender violence in schools, exclusion of aboriginal Australians in the educational system, and the role of poverty in rural communities. The methodological creativity was astounding, with narrative inquiry and post-structuralism at the heart of most presentations that I saw.

However, I was also deeply disappointed with how scientific the inclusive education stream was, and the lack of criticality and creativity in that stream. I sat through presentations on experimental designs, interventions and treatment, and academics trying to flog their behavioural programming packages to members of the audience. (The promise being that people with social emotional and behavioural difficulties would sit down for longer and make more eye contact). What did all of this have to do with “inclusion”? Presenters happily revealed the names of schools participating in their research and failed to adequately theorise the the topic of discussion. In many ways this was my worse nightmare. However, there were some saving graces. Vijaya Dharan from Massey University (New Zealand) presented a paper which called into question the meaning of SEBD itself, the experiences of people with SEBD in mainstream schools, and the patterns of school exclusions owing to unusual and strict rules in New Zealand. I chuckled to myself at the state of New Zealand exclusion policies, then discovered that a school close to where I grew up actually excludes people if they colour their hair!

My own presentation seemed to go “OK” (Qualitatively mapping the social interaction opportunities of children with PMLD in school contexts). This presentation was basically an interim report based on the descriptive findings of my postdoc to date. The behavioural psychologists didn’t like to make eye contact with me during the presentation (go figure!), but a keen group of teachers and early career researchers were genuinely interested in the topic of “PMLD”. To my surprise, interested parties had never met people with PMLD and the concept was entirely new to them. We spent time a fair amount of time chatting about everyday classroom practices, the type of staff that work in special schools, and the needs of children with PMLD. This left me wondering about the absence of children with PMLD in the inclusive education literature. If there are academics in inclusive education that have never heard of PMLD (or “PMD” – the Aussie term) then how can we take them seriously? Their models of inclusion are not inclusive of all children. And this is the crux of the problem in the field – no matter how complex debates are about inclusion, or how extensive the research literature is, if we are trying to forge a new world without asking what all children want and need then surely we are missing the point. “Nothing for us without us” rings so true here. This makes me think of the work undertaken recently by Melanie Nind on “Inclusive Research”. Admittedly, I’ve yet to read her latest book, but I hope that it’s full of promise regarding ways of supporting children with PMLD in the research process. Children with PMLD do have a voice and academics need to learn to listen before their models of inclusion can be taken seriously.

Dr Debbie Watson and I recently published a paper that may hold promise in the area of methodological innovation for children with PMLD. I’ll soon post about this in more detail, but you can read the paper here.


British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship (2014-2017)

I’m a very fortunate recipient of a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. These are three-year funding awards for early career researchers to be a principle investigator and develop their research and teaching profiles. The funding is generous (mine is worth about £310,000 plus additional grants) and not surprisingly the competition is fierce. About 800 people apply each year for 45 fellowships, making the success rate about 5%.

The official title and abstract is below. Follow this blog for future publications!


Examining situated and emerging sociability in children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) across educational contexts


This study will address the dearth in research about how different learning environments (special and mainstream, from nursery to post-16) afford alternative opportunities for children with PMLD to engage in social interaction. The study will explore how such interactions support emerging sociability, understood in terms of agency (intentional action), intersubjectivity (awareness of the subjectivity of others), and symbolic communication (deliberate exchange of information). A richly interpretivist participatory methodology will be employed to explore how social engagement impacts on development. The research will broaden understandings of the mechanisms through which learning and development occur for children with PMLD, demonstrate how non-traditional methodology leads to new insights into the lived experiences of children with PMLD, and challenge notions in the PMLD literature that some children are too cognitively impaired to engage with mainstream settings.


The PMLD Ambiguity (Book)

I’ve just learned that it’s been two years since The PMLD Ambiguity was published by Karnac Press (March 2014) so it seems fitting that the first blog post is a tribute to that work!

The PMLD Ambiguity is a book I wrote with Dr Debbie Watson (Reader in Childhood Studies at Bristol). You can read an excerpt from the book by clicking here.


In many ways the PMLD Ambiguity is a controversial and complex book. It provides the first critical review of the “PMLD field”, challenges some of the core concepts that the field relies upon, and explores alternative terrain in order to provide a counter view to the deficit-based accounts of children with PMLD found in the literature.

For those new to the field, “PMLD” or “profound and multiple learning disabilities” is a term used in the UK to refer to children with the severest forms of cognitive impairments. Typically, children with PMLD are deemed to experience “global developmental delay” and present (at least cognitively) as infants. If you pick up a book in the PMLD field you’ll probably end up reading all about the pre-verbal stages of development, how children with PMLD have yet to pass through these stages, and how they struggle to understand and engage with the world around them.  Based on this understanding of developmental delay, a range of interventions and assessment tools have been devised which aim to push children with PMLD through the earliest stages of development. These interventions are often used in special schools, and some teachers have argued that children with PMLD would never benefit from participating in mainstream schools until they reach an appropriate developmental level.

In the PMLD Ambiguity we make several challenges to the above picture. Because of space constraints we cannot cover everything, but of particular note are the following challenges:

  1. We demonstrate that the core ideas in the PMLD field are often based on old-fashioned and contested psychology. For example, in Chapter 3 we explore the cognitivist literature that has inspired the PMLD field. What we present is not a coherent theory of child development, but a range of perspectives which are in some respects radically opposed to each other, particularly with regards to the nature and emergence of social awareness in infants. If children with PMLD are defined first and foremost as being “developmentally delayed” then this debate calls into question the very meaning of “PMLD” itself and shakes our confidence in the definition.
  2. We show that alternative understandings of consciousness and cognition are needed if we are to fully appreciate the rich experiences of children with PMLD. Classic psychological accounts hold that children with PMLD lack the ability to explicitly represent the world and so struggle to engage with it. This contrasts to a phenomenological account of consciousness and cognition. From a phenomenological perspective, first meanings are not thematically represented but enacted; it is through action that we make sense of the world, and this sense is intuitive or tacit. Instead of presupposing that some children are too disabled to participate in mainstream life, a phenomenological perspective asks how different environments afford alternative opportunities to develop a sense of self, other and surrounding world. This exciting theory opens up debate about the nature of learning for children with PMLD by moving away from “neuro-reductionist” accounts and situating learning in broader contextual factors.
  3. We present evidence that mainstream (or what some would call “inclusive”) classroom environments can support the social and communication skills of children with PMLD. The book presents my doctoral research project on the topic. The project involved working longitudinally and intensively with a young boy with PMLD called Sam. (The “richly interpretivist” methodology is described in detail in the book). I observed Sam one day a week in a mainstream school and one day a week in a special school for an academic year. What became apparent was that Sam was more socially active in his mainstream school than in his special school. Furthermore, Sam demonstrated greater levels of social awareness (understood in terms of intersubjectivity and agency) and developed increasingly diverse communication skills when around mainstream school peers. Near the end of the project he transferred these skills to his special school and began to initiate interaction with his special school peers

The role of theory

The PMLD Ambiguity received strong critical reviews from Tillie Curran (Disability & Society) and Rob Ashdown (PMLD Link). However,  both reviewers noted the demanding nature of the theory and the complexity at the heart of the book. Good theory is meant to challenge our most basic presuppositions about the nature of the phenomena we are addressing, problematising what we take for granted, daring us to think differently, and forcing us to ask new questions. (I’m sure the reviewers agree.) As a Postdoctoral Fellow I find myself once again knee-deep in challenging texts, searching for answers (and having fun creating new problems!). The reading can be daunting and frustrating but at the same time exciting and compelling. It’s clear that we have a world of academic resources at our fingertips: post-structuralism, phenomenology, enactivism, etc. Each of these areas challenges the preconceptions we have of ourselves and our relationship to each other and the world . Whilst empirical research is necessary, it is theory that allows us to state what the problem is in the first place and how we address this problem. The PMLD Ambiguity is an exercise is advancing “PMLD theory” and will be the first of many publications in the topic.


Full reference

Simmons, B. & Watson, D. (2014) The PMLD Ambiguity: Articulating the Life-Worlds of Children with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities, London: Karnac.