Critical perspectives on methodology in pedagogic research

Does the way in which we conduct research into higher education matter all that much? For instance, research conducted by John Biggs on constructive alignment has had a significant influence on the sector. But did the way that he conduct this research affect the nature of his contribution to knowledge, or the uses to which it could be put?

I have recently written a research paper that addresses these issues. The paper was published in today within the Special Issue of the journal, Teaching in Higher Education, (Volume 20, Issue 4, 2015). The journal itself has now been in existence for 20 years, and this issue of the journal marks out the anniversary. The Special Issue comprises an article from each of the current Executive Editors of the journal, along with contributions from two former editors, Professor Sue Clegg and Professor Jon Nixon. Taken together the contributions highlight a range of different perspectives and approaches to research.

My contribution stems from a critical realist perspective, and argues that the approach taken to pedagogic research does indeed influence the characteristics of the knowledge that emerges, and the uses to which it can be put. There has been a longstanding assumption that higher education represents an emancipatory endeavour, but recent changes in the sector have emphasised the way that higher education can lead to personal advantage rather than to the fulfilment of wider social responsibilities. The study considers ways in which methodology in pedagogic research subsequently affects the sector’s emancipatory potential. There will be many ways in which student learning is affected.

Take, for instance, the research that led to the Structure of Learning Outcomes (SOLO) taxonomy, research that underpins constructive alignment. My paper suggests that the methodology employed in the research that led to the taxonomy could have been more sensitive to differences in knowledge across different disciplines. As a result, there is an inherent tendency built into constructive alignment to frame learning around a set of aggregated attainments, rather than in a way that takes into account the open-ended nature of human activity, and to the wide diversity of students’ aspirations, responsibilities and needs. While this approach may be suited to the production of employable subjects, the scope for learning to be framed by limitations of knowledge, reflexivity and the role of social relations is attenuated.

The paper goes on to consider a set of further research studies, drawing out ways in which they display sensitivity to these and other issues. It suggests that planning processes in higher education should reflect a wider set of concerns as well, for instance allowing one to consider the relevance to teaching of stable social relations and disciplinary variation. There is also potential for the analysis to assist in developing methodological approaches that are distinctive to research into higher education.

Dr Peter Kahn, Centre for Lifelong Learning