Seminar: Understanding Educational Research – Research Ethics

Earlier today I ran a session on research ethics for the EdD/PhD unit Understanding Educational Research. Being a member of the GSoE Research Ethics Committee I was asked to cover the formal research ethics application process. I also talked about a range of philosophical approaches to ethics – deonotology, consequentialism, situationism, virtue ethics, and relational ethics. Exploring these topics with 35 doctoral students was great fun. The level of debate about sensitive and controversial ethical issues was outstanding, and the students challenged both myself and each other for the best part of 2 hours. Textbooks in the field of social science ethics sometimes present the different approaches as oppositional. However, I was keen to explore how educational researchers can think around these philosophies in complimentary ways. Whilst deontological approaches help mandate obligations (e.g. Mental Capacity Act), consequentialism helps us appreciate the need for forward planning and anticipation during application processes. Situationism allows us to appreciate ethics on a case-by-case basis, whilst virtue ethics suggests that we reflect about who we are as researchers and how we can strive to develop our ethical mindfulness. Finally, relational ethics or the ethics of care helps us deepen our understanding of the meaning of an ethical relationship.   These ideas have been flying around my head for a while, but the seminar provided a great space for drawing together the approaches and debating them with keen early career researchers. Great stuff!

Autumn Teaching (2016)

Within the next couple of weeks the university will be welcoming new and returning students. I often find this time of year exciting – there’s a buzz about the place as students arrive and the campus feels festive.

This term I’m teaching two units. The first – Controversial Issues in Special & Inclusive – is a fantastic MSc unit that Helen Knowler ran for many years before I was lucky enough to take the reigns. It’s currently being redesigned to include some hot topics including controversial research, alternative forms of education, challenges to the Global North’s concepts of inclusion, and the function of ‘personhood’ in educational discourse. The unit offers a safe space for students to discuss big themes and develop critical insights into some rather sensitive topics. It should be fun!

In addition, I’m also a tutor on the undergraduate unit Education and Society. The unit is led by Dr Debbie Watson and is part of the BSc Childhood Studies programme based at the School for Policy Studies. The aim of the unit is to explore the role of education and the social impact of different education systems and policies. I’ll be delivering material on disability and inclusion, whilst also leading a seminar group.

Roll on Teaching Week 1!

 

(Pictured: Wills Memorial Building, from the perspective of Berkeley Square.)

 

New Book Chapter (sort of…)

I was emailed over the summer and told that a paper I co-authored had been published in a book. This was a lovely surprise as I had no idea that a book was in the works! Edited by Berni Kelly and Bronagh Byrne (Queens University Belfast), the book is essentially a reissue of papers written for a special edition of the Child Care in Practice journal. At first I was a little sceptical about charging readers for already-published work. However, given the potentially modest readership of the journal, the book should increase the amount of interest that the papers receive, which is usually a good thing in academia!

You can learn more about the book by clicking the link below.

Kelly, B. & Byrne, B. (Eds.) (2016) Valuing Disabled Children and Young People – Research, Policy, and Practice. London: Routledge.

9781138687080

Book Review: Seeing with the Hands, by Mark Paterson (2016)

UPDATE (27th October 2016): the review is now available to read online here:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09687599.2016.1249637

I recently reviewed Mark Paterson’s Seeing with the Hands for Disability & Society. Given Paterson’s previous work on embodiment I was expecting an historical account of sensorimotor subjectivity (even Paterson’s website goes by the name sensory-motor.com). Instead, I was (pleasantly) surprised to read an authoritatively-written book about the history of blindness and touch in philosophy and literature. For copyright reasons I’ll only post a snippet of the review below, but it’s a book I’m more than happy to recommend to researchers in the field. The review has only just been submitted but I’ll let you know when it is in print.

Seeing with the hands is Mark Paterson’s latest offering in a trilogy of books exploring the role of touch. As the title suggests, the topic of touch is approached in relation to Early Modern articulations of vision and blindness. Through exposition of philosophical and historical texts on touch, sight, and blindness, Paterson documents the emergence of ‘visionist’ culture in Europe over the last 350 years. This gives way to a convincing discussion of how such thinking influenced psychological investigation, technological invention, and contemporary attitudes towards the blind by the sighted, what Paterson refers to as an on-going “fascination with what the blind ‘see’” (p. 3).

Seeing with the hands indirectly presents a history of research on blindness and the positioning of the visually impaired in the research process. For example, early chapters demonstrate a disconnect between philosophy (particularly rationalism) and people with visual impairment: blindness is fetishized and theorized via thought experiments, but blind people themselves are never considered to be authorities of their own experience and hence rarely consulted. In the middle of the book (and the middle of the eighteenth century) we see the emergence of medical experiments to cure the blind (e.g. cataract removal) and a desire by philosophers (such as Diderot) to seek out blind people and inquire about the nature of their experience. Whilst it may be a stretch to label these approaches ‘positivism’ and ‘interpretivism’, the seeds of these research traditions are certainly being sowed.

Seeing with the hands: blindness, vision, and touch after Descartes, by Mark Paterson, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2016, 288pp., £19.99 (paperback) ISBN 978-1-4744-0532-4

(Pictured: my son, Caleb, “working like Daddy”.)

IMG_4375

Reasons to Publish your Masters Dissertation

As the summer term comes to a close there will be thousands of students working under pressure to submit draft dissertation chapters to supervisors. Some will spend most weekends in the university library whilst others will pull all-nighters to submit on time.  (No doubt a number of unlucky students will end up doing both.) Writing a top-grade dissertation requires hard work, and yet it’s probably true that the vast majority of dissertations are only ever read by students, supervisors, and examiners.  In today’s ‘publish or perish’ culture, anybody with a dream of working in academia needs a decent publication record to go far. However, even if the dream is to escape the ivory towers and get back to the real world there is still something to be said for trying to get your dissertation published. In this post I’ll share a few thoughts about publishing master degree dissertations based on personal experience. The aim is to motivate students I’m currently supervising, but hopefully others will feel inspired to give publishing a go too!

Impact: the social media revolution

I recently chatted to students who desired to make a difference in their field of research but felt that their dissertations would be of little interest to other researchers. As a masters student I had similar concerns. However, being ambitious, I decided to give publication a try and was shocked when my manuscript was accepted by the British Journal of Special Education. What surprised me further was the amount of interest generated by the paper. According to Google Scholar the paper has been cited every year since its publication. Academia.edu shows that the paper has been downloaded 2,000 times, and I’m told  by students that it finds its way on to university reading lists. Why is this? It’s not because I wrote a great paper (in fact, I’m a bit embarrassed by the paper’s naivety!) Instead, the reach of the paper partly stems from social media. In today’s digital age it’s easier to gain exposure to new audiences outside your home country, and postgraduate dissertations are no exception. You can tweet, blog, and upload drafts to places like Research Gate to spread the word. Concern over a lack of audience shouldn’t prevent today’s students from publishing dissertations so give it a go!

PhD studentships, postdoctoral fellowships, and research assistant posts

Publications look great on a PhD application and can make a big difference if you’re competing for a studentship. As a (very) early career researcher you may have little data to work with, and against this backdrop master degree dissertations can be gold mines. Don’t relegate the dissertation to dusty shelves in a university library. Revisit your hard-won material and make it suitable for public consumption. If you’re applying for a postdoctoral fellowship then publishing becomes even more urgent – essential even. (When applying to the British Academy I was asked to submit a sample of published work). Whilst postdoc applications may require PhD-level publications, getting your publication skills up-to-scratch by publishing your dissertation is a great first step. Furthermore, in today’s competitive job market even junior research assistants are asked to demonstrate an ability to publish. If you’re applying for an RA post then having publications under your belt can go a long way (especially when 50+ people apply for the same job).

It’s not too taxing…

If you’ve already submitted your dissertation then you’ve done the hard work! All you have to do now is cut it back and get it ready to submit. Not every paper has to be submitted to a top-flight journal and you’re unlikely to get your first paper in to Nature (or whatever the equivalent is in your own field). There are plenty of accessible journals or practitioner/professional publications that offer a great space for disseminating your work (in my field there are journals like SLD Experience and PMLD Link). Perhaps invite your supervisor to be second author and share some of the burden of beating a paper into shape, or co-author a paper with former classmates. (I did the latter after my second masters and felt that it enriched the paper).

Research ethics

A while ago I subscribed to an internet forum for parents and practitioners of children with complex disabilities. Whilst browsing the forum I stumbled across adverts asking for participants to join various research projects. To my surprise, I also found posts written by parents who were complaining about researchers not sharing the findings of their work. In my view, leaving parents out of the interpretative process is a methodological flaw. However, completely ignoring parents who shared personal stories on sensitive topics is deeply unethical and unsettling. The point I’m trying to make here is that feeding back to participants should be part of a every researcher’s protocol and there should be a good reason not to inform people of the research findings. (Perhaps universities should encourage feedback by ensuring that all dissertations have an appendix with a 1,500 dissemination report.) Extending this point further, participants who give time to projects often want to make a difference and publishing the findings is a great way of honouring their participation.

Reputation-building

As a researcher (PhD and postdoc) I find recruitment a little easier when people already know my work. Not only do I spend less time convincing headteachers to participate in the project but staff appear more enthusiastic after reading my publications. People are keener if you’re fighting a cause that they feel passionate about and almost celebrate the fact that research is going on. I imagine that this is the same when it comes to job interviews – if you’ve written an article in the TES on inclusive education and apply for a teaching post in a school which is passionate about the topic then you’ve got something extra on your CV to chat about!

Publishing your dissertation can be a tricky endeavour but in my experience well worth the effort if you pull it off. Good luck!

 

(Pictured above: Bristol University’s Wills Memorial Library)

Last Day of Fieldwork

Tomorrow is (probably) the last day of data collection for the PMLD social inclusion project. I’ve spent two years driving up and down the country, visiting schools, developing relationships with staff and students, observing different forms of practice, and learning a lot about the nature of social engagement for children with PMLD who experience both special and mainstream placements. I’ve been fortunate enough to observe children in preschool, foundation, primary and secondary education. The settings have been diverse, and include an integrated nursery, informal dual placement arrangements, a special unit in mainstream school, and a co-located site. The amount of data I’ve collected is somewhat daunting in terms of its quantity and depth but I have a year to analyse the research and write it up so hopefully I’ll be OK!  As cliche as it sounds, the experience has been eye-opening. Some children with PMLD do remarkably well in terms of peer interaction in mainstream schools while others seem to be almost hidden from sight. Time is needed to dig deeper into the data to explore these issues further.

Although eight children were recruited to the study, only seven were observed in the end. It was clear that one teacher was pressured into supporting the project by senior management so I made the decision to cancel data collection. As such, if timetable and budget permits I may collect more secondary school data. (Given my teaching and supervision commitments I’m not confident that I’ll find the time until the summer term).

If you would like to learn more about the background and design of the research you can read my book ‘The PMLD Ambiguity‘ or a paper published in Child Care in Practice. These publications refer to my PhD work. Publications on my postdoctoral work are forthcoming, though you can contact me via email (ben.simmons@bristol.ac.uk) and I’d be happy to share the findings as they emerge.

(Pictured above: part of my weekly commute to schools)

 

Fieldwork

I’m back on the road again for fieldwork, spending several hours a day commuting to schools across southern England, travelling across both motorways and single lane dirt tracks in order to reach sites participating in the project.  Fortunately, it’s the summer term so when my alarm goes off at 5:30am the sun is already up and the birds are singing!

This term I’m based in an integrated nursery, a co-located primary school, and a secondary school with a PMLD unit. I’m immensely grateful to the children, parents, and school staff for supporting the project. The sample is the epitome of the diversity of provision for children with PMLD in England. According to the Salt Report (2010), 82% of children with PMLD attend special school, 15% attend mainstream primary school, and 3% attend mainstream secondary school. Despite 18% of children with PMLD attending mainstream school, there has been very little written about what mainstream education looks like for children with PMLD, and the research literature is so sparse that publications on the topic are sometimes decades apart.  In fact, even the Salt Report (2010) is thin on the ground when it comes to detail – the report fails to make it clear whether children are in mainstream schools part-time or full-time. The report also overlooks the kinds of provision that children attend (e.g. single site vs. co-located sites). It is this lack of information that partly makes the current project fascinating. There are strong feelings for and against mainstream education for children with PMLD but there are so few studies on the topic that arguments are ideological, or based on anecdotal evidence rather than sound research. My current research is suggesting a more complex picture on the subject than I previously anticipated (e.g. I’ve seen wonderful social interaction opportunities in mainstream school and special school, though for potentially for different reasons). Hopefully the fieldwork will continue to provide rich data to inform passionate debates about “inclusion” and I look forward to sharing the findings in due course. 

 

Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol

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