Research in schools is messy. Things change fast and decisions need to be made on the fly. As PhD students doing research in schools, we (Kate and Matt) learned that challenges quickly arise and that tough decisions need to be made.
Our PhD research took place in vastly different contexts. Kate went to Zimbabwe to research the proliferation of philanthropic edu-tourism, and Matt explored differences in the teaching of drama and maths at a school in a regional town in NSW. Despite these “worlds-away” classrooms, we experienced similar challenges and discovered a gap in the literature on education fieldwork for postgrad students.
That’s what our new paper explores,and from that we have four key lessons for PhD students.
Four key lessons
We started our PhDs by ‘going with the flow’ of doctoral study. This meant we designed our research with the support of our supervisors. We presented our research plans to a panel of academics. We gained ethics approvals to conduct our studies. We undertook recruitment procedures. We went into ‘the field’ to collect data at schools. Then the flow changed.
Our paper explains how this early ‘flow’ became more like ‘rapids’ (Lonergan & Cumming, 2017) as we undertook classroom-based research in Australia and Zimbabwe.
In our research, we faced challenges and had to act in the moment. One such moment was when the classroom teacher left the classroom Kate was observing. What do you do? If you leave the room, where do you go? If you choose to stay, how long do you wait for them to return? If the class begins to misbehave, do you step into a teacher role or do you stay silent? If, and how, do you have a discussion with the teacher and ask them not to do this in the future?
In another example, the teachers participating in Matt’s study were both absent from school but failed to tell him beforehand. This encounter resulted in wasted time travelling to and from the school. It also highlighted that research involves adaptive responses and planning on-the-go.
Together, our reflections throughout the paper shed light on some of the emotional challenges during fieldwork. Even though one of us was geographically close and the other was far away from our supervisors, we were both unable to access their knowledge in the moments of shifting plans.
Four key lessons
Here are four key lessons we wish we knew before starting fieldwork:
- Communication is key. Having clear expectations and conversations about the research with the school community is integral to the success of the research. Do not assume that everyone in the school community will understand the intricacies of your study – the reality is this is an ongoing part of the process.
- Developing rapport with research participants is crucial. While it is important to ‘give back’ in research and avoid disruptions to schools, it is equally important to be on the same page with participants about your role/s within the research.
- Plan for a range of different scenarios, be open to how you might negotiate them as they unfold. Anticipating changes to your research plan may help you cope when these changes happen and allow you to know which components of your research plan you are willing to change or remove.
- Keep a diary. Your field notes are hugely valuable when it comes to writing up and reflecting on your research. And a daily diary reminds you of all the things you’ve achieved (big and little) when the going gets tough.
We hope that others find these key lessons useful in thinking more broadly about their data collection plans. We are also mindful doctoral students have a range of resources at their fingertips when preparing for fieldwork that should not be overlooked. PhD supervisors are vital in the learning and development of doctoral students. Methods textbooks abound. And, there is a range of very insightful blogs, such as The Thesis Whisperer and Patter. Our research brings attention to these resources and the need for continued conversations about fieldwork.
Kathleen Smithers is a lecturer in the School of Education at Charles Sturt University, Australia. Kathleen has worked across a number of projects with a focus on the sociology of education and higher education. Her doctoral thesis investigated developmentourism in schools in Zimbabwe.
Matthew Harper is a PhD candidate and research assistant across a range of projects at the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, School of Education, University of Newcastle, Australia. His doctoral thesis compares teaching practice and the student experience in high school mathematics and drama.