Collecting all your thoughts together

Some researchers find it very helpful to have a whiteboard or a large piece of paper on a wall where they can collect key pieces of information as they emerge and group ideas together. Stick)' notes are ideal for this task because they are provisional and can easily be rewritten and refined as your thoughts progress. This process can make writing up much easier. The sorts of headings that you might include are:

• Area of concern/problem

о In this section you collect ideas that describe the field you are interested in.

• Assumptions/paradigm/philosophical position

о Here you are looking to identify issues that you are not including as well as any methodological position you are taking.

• Ethical issues raised

о An important section where you will collect ideas relating to research procedures and wider issues.

• Litcraturc/rcfcrcnccs/kcy contributors to the field

о A summary of the findings of your literature search, including summarising any limitations that you have identified in existing literature.

• Hypothcsis/rcscarch questions

о Sometimes clearly articulated from the beginning in experimental science but emerge and evolve in other disciplines.

• Samplc/contcxt

о Purposive, random etc.?

• Research methods

о Research methods considered; those chosen and those discarded.

• Thcorics/findings

о In this section you are getting close to some conclusions.

• Impact/stakcholdcrs/gatekeepers

о Identifying why this research might be important, for whom, questions for further research.

These issues can all be marked up on a canvas, whiteboard or spare wall, and used as a sorting place for ideas (see Figure 5.3).

Sample noticeboard design

Figure 5.3 Sample noticeboard design: collecting it all together (amended and adapted from the Research Design Canvas; original available from www.academic-

If you have the opportunity' to present this as a ‘work in progress’ in a collaborative forum, perhaps with other research students, you might like to use a digital tool to gather ideas from the group. Padlet is one useful tool (currently free) for doing that:

Solving problems in alogical manner– applied research projects

Problem solving is part of critical thinking, but it also has elements of action implied within it and is therefore important for applied projects. It can be linked to project planning in terms of skills, and requires some critical thinking skills, planning skills and some people management skills.

Swartz and Perkins (1990) describe a typical problem-solving procedure which I have adapted here to include elements of implementation suggested by Coverdale (Taylor, 1979; see Figure 5.3). There are three key stages: description, investigation and implementation. The descriptive stage can call upon similar critical thinking skills to those introduced by Donald (above), but Swartz and Perkins add in specifically an evaluation of working in an uncertain world. This leads to the need for a risk assessment of each option eventually identified (which is part of the dialectical procedure).

This problem-solving procedure also introduces the concepts of key values. Ethical issues were discussed briefly in Chapter 3, but it is obvious that they cannot and should not be kept out of the picture when we are considering critical thinking.

The investigation stage should provide much of the information needed for the implementation stage. For example, if the necessary resources come as a surprise in the final phase, it means that the investigation was not carried out thoroughly.

For the planning and implementation stage there are a variety of project planning tools available, as we saw in Chapter 3. Figure 5.4 summarises the links between the functional and critical thinking approaches, as applied to project planning. A version of this simple staged approach can be used by students at all levels to help them design a research project.

A problem-solving procedure

Figure 5.4 A problem-solving procedure

Reflecting metacognitively on performance

Metacognition refers to observing, reflecting and directing our thinking. The question is: ‘how do we learn how to do this?’ The ability to reflect at a high level is not only required by those undertaking social science degrees. Researchers from the hard pure subject groups spoke of the need for students to learn from mistakes and how coming to terms with failure could make them better scientists in the long run. We look at how to deal with this type of situation more in the next chapter on emancipation.

Definitions of reflection

The term ‘reflective thinking’ was used by John Dewey (1933) to describe the thinking process people use when faced with questions of controversy or doubt for which their current understanding or solution, for whatever reason, is no longer satisfactory. According to Dewey, a ‘reflective judgement’ is the end goal of good thinking: the judgement or solution that brings closure to the problem (if only temporarily).

The definition of reflective learning provided by Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985, p. 19) states that reflection is about providing intellectual and affective activities for learners to explore their experiences ‘in order to lead to new understandings and appreciations’.

Reflecting metacognitively will help you to answer three important questions about your research:

  • 1 What is the impact of your own subjectivity on this work?
  • 2 What cultural frameworks have you espoused?
  • 3 How has this changed as your research has progressed?

A comprehensive overview of reflection as an aid to learning was carried out by Moon (2000), which largely built upon and evaluated the work of Schon (1991) and Brookfield (1995). Schon looks at the reflective practitioner as someone who remains open to discovery and seeks that discovery by reviewing and reflecting on their actions. As Moon also points out, Schon’s famous distinction between reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action may not always be clear-cut and in his original work he discusses whether reflection in action is possible for the artist, or whether deconstruction ruins the art form.

Brookfield (1995) argues strongly for reflection when he asks teachers to ‘build in some element of self-evaluation whereby students can show you that they are learning, even if to you their progress seems non-existent’ (p. 180).

There is growing belief that solidifying the reflective part of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle aids student learning. The original learning cycle had four separate stages which suggested that (1) learning took place when action and

A model of reflection

Figure 5.5 A model of reflection

experimentation became (2) conscious experience which the individual used to (3) reframe their understanding of what was happening; this act of reframing led to (4) generalisation and the creation of theory' (Cowan, 2008).

Another dynamic model of reflection adopted is represented by the flow chart which also becomes a continuous loop (Figure 5.5).

The importance of discussing your work with other researchers

By engagement in peer discussion and linking it to scholarly literature, we can monitor our developing experience. This provides alternative perspectives that support critical reflection.

The conceptual underpinning of this model of reflection is rooted in constructivism, the learning theory' which also underpins research and argues that you cannot simply give others your understanding of an area - yve have to constructively engage to build our own understanding. Moreover, social constructivism argues that in building complex understandings, an essential role can be played by peer collaboration to promote reflective development. This links to Schon’s (1991) notion of the reflective practitioner and to the identification of tyvo sorts of professional reflection - reflection-on-action that occurs after the event, and reflection-in-action: ‘the idea that professionals engage in reflective conversations yvith practical situations, yvhere they constantly frame and reframe a problem as they work on it, testing out their interpretations and solutions’ (Calderhead & Gates, 1993, p. 1).

Cowan takes the Kolbian model one stage further when lie expands on Schon’s distinction between reflection-in action and reflection-on action. He argues that there is also reflection-for action, and that in between each stage different reflecting skills are required.

This well-known model of reflection in action, on action and for action can help us to identify three sets of questions that prompt these different types of reflection (see Figure 5.6).

Moon reminds us that the ability to reflect may depend upon maturity (thus introducing the whole person into this generally more depersonalised approach). She gives examples of students’ work and approves of those that:

  • • show evidence of an internal dialogue and self-questioning
  • • take into account the views and motives of others and consider these against their own
  • • recognise how prior experience, thoughts (their own and others) can interact with the production of their own behaviour
Questions to support reflection in, on and for action Source

Figure 5.6 Questions to support reflection in, on and for action Source: After Cowan, 2008, p. 53

  • • show clear evidence of standing back from the event
  • • show diat die students helps themselves to learn by splitting off die reflective process from the points they want to learn (e.g. by an asterisk system)
  • • show recognition that the personal frame of reference can change according to the emotional state in which it is written, the acquisition of new information, the review of ideas and the effect of time passing.
  • (Moon, 2004, p. 209)

There is a balance that needs to be struck between the need for guidance against the desirability of students doing their own thinking without too much help. How much help to give must be influenced by level of study and prior experience, together with the goals of the course.

Becoming a reflective professional is about including some of these processes in our daily lives. Moon also recommends keeping a reflective diary as a way of capturing incidents and focusing our attention on our own professional development. Increasingly, requirements for continuing professional development (CPD) are asking for evidence of reflection and subsequent professional growth. Some students using qualitative research techniques will already be keeping such a diary and will need to incorporate evidence from it in their final thesis. Box 5.1 summarises a range of questions that you can address through writing a research diary. They will help you develop your metacognitive skills.

Box 5.1 Helping to develop metacognitive skills

Do you keep a research diary to:

  • 1 Show evidence of an internal dialogue and self-questioning, especially questioning why you are doing this research now
  • 2 Seek to understand the views and motives of others and consider these against your own
  • 3 Recognise how prior experience (both yours and that of others) can affect your research
  • 4 Demonstrate that you can stand back from the event
  • 5 Identify your learning points and then examine how you learned them?

Recognise that the personal frame of reference can change according to the emotional state in which it is written, the acquisition of new information, the review of ideas and the effect of feedback.

This chapter ends with two quotations from supervisors which demonstrate the centrality of critical thinking to working with postgraduate students:

An outstanding student, is someone (who) really has a lot of get up and go and is I think an average student is someone who just really needs a lot of help to try and question ... What we teach fundamentally in graduate school is how to solve a problem, research methods and theoretical tools and methods and how to take a problem and solve it or address it in a convincing way we teach them how to do things, how to answer questions.

What we don’t really teach people in a systematic way is how to recognise the questions and to frame them in tractable ways. That’s really the difference between a good and an average student. They all have the methods, research methods and skills and the literature and you know have ... the ambitions for writing a thesis, for example, but the really good students are the ones that can go that next step and actually can formulate interesting problems. Those are the ones that really stand out because those are the ones that are going to really advance the field. The ones that have sensitivity in respect to a question ... that is something that you don’t teach in any courses. It’s like my seminars, that’s what I talk to students about. OK that is what I praise them for when they do, that when I feel like I have to give them a lot of affirmation for, when they take that step, because that’s really the unusual part, the part where I kind of stand up and applaud.

The stages of development that were first identified by Perry (1970) have spawned profound research about how we can move our beliefs about knowledge (epistemological development) and embrace an ontological perspective (become and embody whatever philosophical position we decide to espouse). This element of how critical thinking can lead to transformation is further explored in the next chapter on emancipation.

Questions for further contemplation

How does knowledge appear in my subject? How does knowledge appear to me?

What questions should I be asking of my data?

In this chapter we have explored a range of approaches to critical thinking, both from the purely analytical perspective and aspects such as reflection and metacognition, which also enable an increase in personal awareness. It is these aspects that can be particularly difficult to entangle if trying to allocate interventions to either the critical thinking or emancipator)' approaches. The dividing line is whether the intent of the intervention is personal growth and autonomy or the purer development of just a cognitive ability. In the next chapter we consider emancipatory interventions in more detail.

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