Welcoming Kim Allen and Geoff Bright

We are delighted to welcome two new colleagues to ESRI.  Starting on 1st October Dr Kim Allen will be joining us as a new Research Fellow and Geoff Bright is starting as Research Associate, having been a Visiting Research Associate for the last academic year.

Kim Allen joins ESRI from London Metropolitan University where she has developed an impressive publication record writing on young people’s identity, aspirations and transitions.  Kim is co-PI on a new Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) project ‘The Role of Celebrity in Young People’s Classed and Gendered Aspirations’, with Dr Heather Mendick, a Reader in Education at Brunel University.  The project has just started and will build on Kim and Heather’s previous work on celebrity culture (in Discourse, 2012) and on social class and Reality TV (in Sociology, 2012) as well as Kim’s PhD research.  You can read more about the project’s theme in a recent blog post on the Gender and Education Association website.

Geoff Bright brings to ESRI his considerable and varied experience of practical and academic engagement with social justice in marginalised communities, especially focusing on young people in former coal-mining communities in Derbyshire.  Geoff’s work is mainly conducted using an ethnographic approach.  He is currently finishing a book based on his PhD study, to be published by Tufnell Press, entitled ‘Youth and Educational Disaffection in an English Coal-Mining Community: an intergenerational ethnography’.  Geoff will initially put his energies into further developing projects in which he is already involved. A first step will be to pick up on the legacy of July’s Space, Place and Social Justice in Education seminar (see his previous post about the event) by pursuing publication and network opportunities that have emerged.

Everyone at ESRI is looking forward to working with Kim and Geoff and, once again, we offer them a warm welcome.

Curating learning lives: from personal data to learning resources

Have you ever wondered what to do with those millions of digital photographs you have saved on your computer but rarely share with anyone?  Or considered the data that institutions such as your doctor’s surgery, old school or last employer might hold about you?  What about those CCTV cameras that ‘track’ you as you walk to work and the data that you create about yourself as you interact with social media platforms?

Learning to dance the cha cha cha: recording of a live event

Keri Facer (Bristol University) and I have recently completed a piece of research, with Howard Baker at BBC Learning, exploring how the increasing amount of personal data gathered by individuals, institutions and by ‘intelligent’ environments might be used to support emancipatory learning.

We wanted to find out more about whether the possibility of capturing, mining, representing and reflecting on personal data might be a new means of making individuals’ (learning) experiences visible to themselves and others? How might we use data to tell new tales and make visible different accounts of our experiences across the lifecourse?

Through a series of workshops and in depth case studies with a wide range of people of different ages and cultures we found out about the (learning/ life) experiences that were important to them, the prompts for their experiences and the learning resources they drew on.  In addition, because we were interested in personal data, we asked our case study participants about current strategies for recording their lives and to collect data about their experiences over a period of a week using an ipod touch. We wanted to find out more about how the data that they were collecting might support reflection and recollection.

We observed four broad prompts for learning: personal events, practicalities, participation and pleasures.  Participants drew on 5 key types of learning resources; cultural, people, commercial, embodied and reflective.  Through asking about strategies for recording life experiences we found that all cultural artifacts can be used as a basis for reconstructing experience, that anything can ‘stand for’ anything else for recollection (proxies) and that such a ‘material’ proxy can evoke the immaterial (a sensory experience/ feelings and/or emotions).

A  collection  of  snowdomes:  telling  tales  about  a  learning life

We identified 3 ways in which participants used the artifacts, records and souvenirs that they gathered:

  • Collecting – collecting personal data, artefacts and records of past activities, combining with other resources
  • Telling Tales – ‘curating’ personal data, and records of past activities, and using it to share perspectives on ourselves
  • Audit and Reflection  – uncovering hidden patterns, telling new tales

The research emphasised the need for us all to consider the pressing need to guarantee our rights to view and use the personal data that is being gathered about us, and that this data has the potential to be profoundly educational.

We’d love to hear from other researchers interested in similar questions, and please do download the report to the BBC here.

Helen Manchester

ESRI@BERA – A symposium report

This month saw this year’s British Educational Research Association Conference at the University of Manchester. Widely regarded as the ‘showpiece’ event in educational research the conference represented a valuable opportunity to present, discuss and engage. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the ‘Hands Off’ Sports Coaching symposium along with our very own Heather Piper and Bill Taylor and also Dean Garratt from Chester University. Based primarily upon an ESRC funded project undertaken by Heather, Bill and Dean entitled ‘No touch’ coaching – the politics of presumed guilt, and my attempts to position these themes within a PE teaching context, the symposium addressed the issue of intergenerational touch and its problematic associations. Contact between adult and child is routinely seen as ‘risky’ in contemporary circles, as suspicion and mistrust now dominate narratives and discourses, presupposing that adults who work with children are both capable of and likely to commit acts of abuse. The symposium confronted this within a range of contexts using a number of approaches.

Heather Piper foregrounded the discussion with a particularly illustrative piece of footage. Taken from the NSPCC initiative ‘keeping children safe in music’, the video advises music teachers on the ‘dangers’ of touching their pupils, stating that ‘touching students can make children uncomfortable’ and ‘can leave teachers open to accusations of inappropriate behaviour’. This is a salient example of the preventative culture which adults are directly encouraged to facilitate. It arguably becomes more pronounced and the implications more severe when an environment as tactile as sporting engagement is introduced. The requirement for sports coaches and PE teachers to touch has placed such practitioners in a markedly invidious position. The video is almost laughably contrived, the look of concern on the young violinist’s face (00.59) when the instructor places a hand on his shoulder gives a good indication of the extent to which fear mongering can be so manifestly exploitative.

In addition to this, Both Bill and Dean made use of Foucauldian perspectives, drawing attention to the notion of ‘gaze’ and behavioural conditioning in sports coaching. An examination of the interplay between external pressure to conform to a circumscribed archetype and increasing internalisation of such contemporarily conventional thought, helped to identify the damaging and all-consuming capability of a climate of discursive fear. Both presentations made specific reference to the Paul Hickson case, a chapter that signalled a seismic shift in the public and institutional perceptions of sports coaches. Sport was subsequently regarded by Celia Brakenridge as ‘the last bastion of child abuse’ as the pendulum swung firmly towards imperatives of child protection.

Dean called upon Foucault’s concept of Governmentality, describing the significance of self-regulation in contemporary circles and its largely automatic maintenance. When applied to intergenerational contact it becomes evident that adults are subliminally subscribing to the idea of tactile prevention in a way fully consistent with Foucault’s theory. As litigation and accusation is now such a potent threat, a mechanism is in place with the aim of regulating behaviour with simultaneous subtlety and influence. By producing ‘guidelines’ which discourage contact between teacher or coach and pupil, practitioners are far more likely to moderate their action than they would perhaps be if explicit rulings were imposed. It is the relative ease with which such manipulative techniques have emerged that represents a cause for considerable concern here.

Alongside this, Bill evoked notions of moral entrepreneurism, contending that the outrage engendered in the discussion of child abuse creates an environment in which any allusion to the victimisation of adults working with children is swiftly dismissed by the self-righteous piety of those adhering to consensus. Going ‘against the grain’ presents problems when contestation is viewed by a majority as repugnant, and it is with this that the researcher must wrestle when attempting to construct an investigation which is itself actively extricated from moralistic populism.

I attempted to situate PE teachers within this narrative of fear using, amongst other theoretical tools, Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society. Not only are conceptions of risk at the core of this climate of intergenerational fear but they are also utilised, exploited or rejected in a myriad of different ways. Risk implies that there is inherent danger within a particular environment however a great deal of the danger that resides in intergenerational contexts is a fabricated distortion based largely upon reactionary public concern. As one of the defining characteristics of Beck’s risk society is an increasing awareness of and aversion to uncertainty, a sweeping and hysterical approach to the interrogation of intergenerational contact combined with a distinct lack of knowledge about the subject of child abuse makes for a climate in which confusion and clouded judgement predominate. ‘Not knowing’ and the increasing public frustration at what is perceived to be a lack of control has proved to be remarkably unsettling here, the consequences of which have been the categorical removal of adult from child in PE and other contexts, in a bid to reclaim some semblance of publically legitimate authority.

The symposium’s audience was truly international, with representatives from Norway, Sweden, New Zealand and Preston in attendance. The Scandinavian contingent notably remarked that they had themselves witnessed significant increases in the attention paid to child protection. This was an interesting and somewhat disconcerting reminder of the transcendental reach of what can perhaps now be described as a ‘movement of fear’. In the words of Bill Taylor ‘it’s coming……..’


Simon Fletcher

What is data?

What is data?  As qualitative researchers we spend our time collecting, interpreting, theorising and communicating data.  This straight-forward and linear process belies the complex, challenging and opaque processes by which researchers, for example, differentiate between and attend or ignore data, and decide which theoretical frames to apply.  Not to mention the political and ideological context in which qualitative research is conducted, communicated and assessed both in universities and in wider society, especially in relation to quantitative research. Indeed, despite the importance of data to qualitative research we rarely stop to consider what counts as data beyond any taken for granted notions.

To engage with this lack of discussion researchers at ESRI were joined by colleagues from around the world for a pre-BERA seminar on data in qualitative research, convened by Prof. Maggie MacLure.  In a series of broad-ranging discussions, the participants explored three key questions: What counts as data?  How does qualitative research relate to ‘the world’?  What is the appeal of qualitative research and how can we promote this? The event was very much a beginning of what we hope will be a long and productive process of reflection and discussion about the fundamental building blocks of qualitative research.

We at ESRI want to express our gratitude for those that attended and enriched the discussions.  Each of the participants brought data from his or her research, from traditional forms such as interview transcripts to more experimental engagements in relation to interpretations of dance and other more subjective and provocative data. We’re in the process of determining how we can share these forms of data and the perceptions and challenges they pose to research and how these are being approached. Watch this space for more information about this on-going exploration of data in qualitative research.


Early childhood education: if things are so different, how come they look the same?

In the mid to late 1970s, I spent many hours as a researcher in ‘infant’ classrooms (5-7 year olds) in the Bristol area. More than 30 years later, I returned to research in ‘reception’ classrooms as co-director of an ESRC project called ‘Becoming a Problem’, which looked at how 4 and 5 year olds in four schools in Greater Manchester come to acquire a negative reputation in school.[1]

It so happened that both projects had made classroom video recordings (in the 70s this was whizzy stuff, technically speaking), so we have a neat natural experiment that could show whether and how things have changed – at least on the ground, in the everyday busy-ness of classroom life during children’s first years of compulsory education in England.

The trouble is, even though I was ‘there’ during both projects, I can’t decide whether or how things have changed. Or even where to look. If you look at education policy you would have to conclude that things have changed drastically, and at increasing speed, between the Plowden report of the mid 70s and the contemporary scene of Every Child Matters and the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Teachers are now subject to the demands of league tables, quality assurance and the relentless accountability of ‘standards’. Curriculum, assessment and inspection frameworks penetrate ever more deeply into practitioners’ work and children’s lives, from birth onwards, shaping competence, pedagogy, aspirations and educational identities (every school child is a ‘Key Stage’ child now)

But on the other hand, maybe things don’t change so quickly. Notions of ‘the child’ and her developmental needs, and assumptions about what counts as good early years teaching, may not be all that different these days. Certainly, one of the puzzles that has dogged me over many years, reflected in the title of my BERA paper, is that despite the policy deluge and complex socio-political changes, infant classrooms look and feel very similar to those ones that I sat in 30 years ago.

So I went back to the old, grainy, black and white VHS tape recordings that I had helped to make between 1976 and 1979, and viewed them alongside the colourful digital recordings of  2006 – 2008. And yes, there were many deeply familiar elements. Then and now, children sit cross-legged on the carpet at the feet of teachers, talking when permitted. Teachers still get the lion’s share of the talk, and ask questions to which they already know the answers. There’s the same paraphernalia of reading books, wall displays, art materials, sand and water tables, toys, library areas and home corners (though they were Wendy Houses in the 70s). There are interactive whiteboards now of course, though I’m not sure how far these have transformed pedagogy. Children still line up, tidy up, mill around, jostle, fidget, snigger and yawn.

And yes, some things are different. Children spend much more time on the carpet, taking part in learning activities as a whole class, whereas group work was the norm in the Bristol classrooms of the 70s. A familiar sight in the Bristol schools was the teacher at her chair or table, mobbed by a crowd of children waiting to have their work checked. There are more adults in the contemporary classrooms, as teaching assistants, and perhaps a greater diversity of needs and capacities among the children, following the 1981 Act and inclusive education. Maybe there are more elaborate systems of rewards. And there seems to be greater emphasis on social and emotional development, or training, in the contemporary schools.

I could go on. But the point is, it’s pointless to try to weigh and measure all those differences, because this doesn’t tell us anything about what they all mean. And in any case, change is constant, and most of it is imperceptible. Moreover it is clear that things are moving and changing at different speeds and scales. So I started thinking about what tends not to be seen, and ended up looking at the invisible or ‘junk’ moments in the interstices of classroom life, when children wander round, humming to themselves, carving something out of nothing, or out of chaos, through improvisations involving rhythm, movements and word play. Deleuze and Guattari called this kind of thing the refrain or ritornello, and this is what the Bera paper turned out to be ‘about’. I think this kind of mundanely creative activity is much more significant than we often think, in terms of children’s capacities for experiment and their potential for learning.

Maggie MacLure.

Presentation to the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester, 4-6 September 2012

(Symposium: Provocations of ‘the child’ in uncertain times)

Session 2.06, Wednesday 5 September, 9.00-10.30

[1] Becoming a Problem: How Children Develop a Reputation as ‘Naughty’ in the Earliest Years At School’. ESRC RES062230105 2006-2008.  Project outline: http://www.esri.mmu.ac.uk/resprojects/project_outline.php?project_id=1