October 05, 2017

Reflections Of The Past Academic Year Part B

Complexity of my Philosophical beliefs


I again have written extensively about philosophical beliefs, both ontologically and epistemologically related, particularly during the past year as I explored my ideas further and explored, and continue to explore, published philosophical literature. I found that my beliefs do not fit exactly within any particular and specific ontological framework or theory and therefore, have become consciously aware of the complexity of my ontological beliefs. For several months I have experimented with different ontological theories and frameworks and have found that I am drawing on authors and ideas related to mild forms of realism (namely Michael Hammersley’s “Subtle Realism”), Philosophical Phenomenology, and Complexity Theory. This realisation has come about through observations in the data collected so far, observations that have led me to form the belief that events and instances of concepts are perhaps not quite so straightforward in their existence and appearances that perhaps some analytical models would perhaps lead a person to believe that represents reality.


I also found this to be the case with my epistemological beliefs. I spent many months trying to fit my beliefs within a particular framework with the final attempt being with constructionism. With constructionism, I was convinced that I found a framework or theory that aligns with my own epistemological beliefs (the way that we can come to know reality). After reading further into constructionism, I came to realise that I was only agreeing with parts of the theory, and not all parts.


I am finding that I am beginning to draw on authors and concepts related to contextualism, relativism, constructivism and interpretivism.

Becoming aware of the complexity of my own beliefs has been a milestone, because this has altered my conceptions of the learning phenomenon as possessing a more complex existence than I had previously imagined. Additionally, coming to recognise the complexity of your own philosophical beliefs, and having a sound and comprehensive understanding of how you have come to recognise the nature of your own beliefs (meta-ontology and meta-epistemology, or meta-philosophy) begins to form the basis of your own identity. That is a positive step towards you becoming self-aware as a researcher, which enables you to begin to situate your identity within the complex world of academia.

It’s really important that you don’t fight against your self-awareness regardless of the extent to which your beliefs are complex. If you fight against what you have observed in yourself and you try to pigeon-hole your beliefs within a framework that really isn’t compatible, you start to develop a false identity based on your anxiety and unwillingness to explore further. If you fight against what you have observed in yourself and you don’t explore further, you would be lying to yourself, lying to your supervisor, lying to the thesis assessment panel, and lying to the academic community. Be real.

Multiple Literature Reviews


The fourth key milestone is the development of multiple literature reviews. I will talk more at length about this in the future, but at the moment it suffices to say that I have become aware of the possibilities of structuring and outlining the thesis in different ways. Through reading through more literature on constructing literature reviews, I have become more aware of my own aims and objectives with the literature review. And the complexity of these aims, the amount of different aims as well as the different types of literature that shall be used within the thesis has led me to believe that multiple literature reviews are required.


Each literature review deals with a set of particular aims and different types of literature, and each subsequent literature review builds on the ideas and concepts presented in the previous chapter. The first literature review chapter deals with the backdrop as discussed in a previous blog post. The second literature review chapter deals with specific debates and discussions regarding specific concepts related to the phenomenon of interest and relevant to the research. The third literature review chapter critically evaluates existing analytical models pertaining to identifying and assessing the learning phenomenon. Then following all these literature reviews shall be a summary section that provides a summary of my arguments regarding the need for the research.


I do feel better with developing three literature reviews as in my opinion, trying to write a single literature review chapter that serves to achieve multiple goals and objectives and utalises a variety of different types of literature would make the literature review appear disjointing. Patterns of thought and the development of argumentation would not be easy to follow through.


Developing three literature review style chapters entails a logical, progressive narrative of conceptual and argument development and progress where each chapter logically develops and progresses the concepts presented in the previous chapter(s). Idea and concept development shall be easier to follow therefore, and reading shall be more flowing and easier and comprehendible.


Summary:


I feel that it’s been a successful academic year with key milestones reached and achieved.

After the brief time off I can plan to move forwards and progress with developing the theory, and produce the best thesis that I can possibly write!


Reflections Of The Past Academic Year Part A

There are no formally set “terms” or “semesters” on a Ph.D. You are responsible for organising your holiday periods and this should be based on the status of your work. The nature of the Ph.D. entails difficulty in planning exactly when to organise time off (if you wanted to plan a while ahead) because you cannot tell what leads and possible directions that shall come about because of your reading, experimenting and analysis of the data. This is both exciting and challenging: challenging because some people cannot handle uncertainty and the relative academic freedom that a Ph.D. entails, but exciting because those who can handle uncertainty and relative academic freedom shall feel energised and determined.


It is usually around this time I have a short amount of time off from the Ph.D. to recharge my batteries. I try to keep it around August / September time but it has been a little late this year because I really wanted to complete the outlining, structuring and drafting of the literature reviews and the methodology chapter as much as can be achieved at this point in time. I also wanted to update the searching, selecting and sorting of literature as much as can be completed at this point in time. Evaluation of the literature shall take place following the short time off. Plenty of blog post material here!


Before I take some time off I usually enter a period of reflecting and planning. It has been quite a year between the previous September to this September (traditionally defined as the academic year) with various important milestones achieved:


Successfully Passed Upgrade Stage


When you first begin the Ph.D., you are not immediately placed on the Ph.D. course but are enrolled on the Master of Philosophy. Some people can get confused with the terminology here when referring to the term “Philosophy” in this context.


The term “Philosophy” in this context does not refer to you actually engaging with the academic discipline of Philosophy, but in my view (and many people will have other ideas) the philosophical aspects refer to the requirement of engaging your philosophical thinking. This engagement is at both the ontological and epistemological levels and such questions you might ask are: “what do I know?” “What can I know?” “How can I know?” “What are the limits to what I can know?” “How do I know what I know?” “What does it mean to know anything?” “Is knowing anything even possible?” “Can we acquire knowledge?” “How do we acquire knowledge?” “Does reality exist?” “How can we know reality?” The answer to these questions, and many others, form a part of the development of your research design, because how you answer these questions can determine the methodologies and methods that you can use in your research project. That being said, it’s not quite as straightforward and linear as what some introductory textbooks suggest as there is much fluidity depending on your discipline, your background, your research interests, and the problem context.


Transitioning from the Masters level to Ph.D. level involves writing what is known as an “upgrade paper” where you outline the background, provide some form of literature review, and be descriptive and explanatory of your research methodology and methods along with providing some initial research findings that you might have obtained through a trial study. I have talked much about this at significant length throughout the past year and a half on this blog, but it suffices to say that the upgrade paper eventually reached seven thousand words! And following changes that I knew I had to make, the University passed me through. I’ve been upgraded from Master of Philosophy to Doctor of Philosophy and this in my view is a defining moment. I was shocked and happy to receive the news. This does not mean, however, that I have or will actually receive a Ph.D., only that I am working at Ph.D. level.


Successful Conference Attendance and a subsequent Published Research Paper


These two are separate but related key achievements for me personally. Again I have written vastly on my conference experiences earlier this year on this blog, but it suffices to say that this really has been a milestone. Presenting at the conference has been beneficial for me personally as I feel more confident with presenting my own ideas and methodologies to a wider audience, and it has been beneficial academically as it has changed the structure of my thesis (shall discuss this more in part two), leading to what I think shall be a more detailed and comprehensive thesis. It really was an incredible experience and I am excited about any future conferences that I attend!


Relating to the conference is the publication of my second journal paper. This research paper was written as a critical review of my attendance and presentation experiences of the University of Warwick’s Centre of Educational Studies’ Fifth Annual Postgraduate Conference. Writing this paper was itself a beneficial experience for me personally and professionally. In the paper, I presented my ideas and arguments about the way in which attending conferences can be a positive experience in terms of thesis development and professional development. I also presented arguments about the existence of a relationship between our epistemological beliefs and the way that we perceive reality, and the way that we therefore engage with conferences. I am suggesting that our philosophical beliefs directly influence the way that we perceive and engage with conferences. I was pleased to have written this paper, and pleased that the editorial board accepted it for publication.

Part B is coming up!


The Difference Between Research Background and Research Backdrop

In the previous blog post I suggested that there is a difference between a research background and a research backdrop, and that it is my belief that both need to be treated separately though in relation to each other. What do I mean by this? Let’s take a look at each term for clarification.


The Research Background


The research background typically comes as a separate chapter in a Masters dissertation or a Ph.D. thesis. The chapter typically outlines and details the problem context of your research. By this, you are specifying the exact research problem; explain how you are exploring this problem, and why you are exploring this problem. When I say what you are exploring, you are describing the research problem: what is the research problem that you are exploring and what are its defining features and concepts. When I say how you are exploring the research problem, you are briefly explaining the methods and approaches that you are going to use in order to explore the problem and provide a possible solution. When I say why you are exploring the problem, I am suggesting that you explain your interest in the research problem, explain why you are carrying out your research, and why there is a need for your research and reasons for solving this problem.


The background therefore addresses the relationship between the research problem and your reasoning behind the research, but it does not address the relationship between the research problem and the general disciplinary context. This is where the backdrop plays a role.


The Research Backdrop


The research backdrop situates your research within the wider disciplinary context. The background is the explanation of the research problem and problem context, and the backdrop is the explanation of the wider disciplinary context therefore appropriately situating the research problem and research context and establishing the relationship between research problem context and the wider disciplinary context.


Using my research as an example, my research focuses on the description and explanation of a learning phenomenon, therefore my research can be classed as both descriptive and explanatory. It explores the learning phenomenon from, what I believe to be, a different philosophical perspective than most research projects. As for the research problem, briefly I am attempting to argue that this particular learning phenomenon has not been explored in a particular way, leading to fairly narrow assessment opportunities over a longer period of time or larger amount of instances. And, that there are benefits in moving away from a typical view of the learning phenomenon to another way that from what I can understand has not been properly or fully explored.


Because of my increasing interest in the Philosophy of Education, I am situating the learning phenomenon within the backdrop of Philosophical considerations of Education. Typical questions involved with the Philosophy of Education are: what is the goal of Education? What are the aims of Education? What is the nature of teaching and learning? What is the nature of the teacher and the learner? What are the contemporary characteristics of teachers and learners? What are the contemporary characteristics of learning environments? What is the relationship between Education and the wider society? What is the nature of society and what is the role of Education within contemporary society? What are the nature, role and function of classrooms? What is the nature of the relationship between teachers and learners?


When answering the questions relevant for my research, the focus is on the learning phenomenon. The learning phenomenon becomes the key guide in all of my questions and discussions that shall involve three different literature reviews that addresses different questions using a variety of different types of literature.


Summary:


Remember: the background addresses the characteristics and concepts of the problem context as well as your own interests in the problem. The backdrop situates your research problem and problem context within the wider, traditional and contemporary discussions and debates of the discipline within which the problem is based.


October 01, 2017

A Personal Insight Into Reworking Research Paper / Essay Ideas Into A Thesis

The Ph.D. journey is full of opportunities and experiences. Opportunities to showcase your research design and research findings in many diverse, creative, expressive and individual ways: setting up seminars, presenting at conferences, writing research papers, entering various video and poster based competitions, among many other opportunities. The thesis is obviously the key piece of work; the key outcome, of your Ph.D. and the journey to this outcome is beyond description! When you take part in other activities you have to balance out those activities with the thesis writing. Every opportunity that I listed is of some benefit, especially getting papers published and presenting at conferences, however you should not feel that you have to try to do absolutely everything: you don’t have the time for that. You have to choose carefully and make sure that what you do is not so distinct from your research that you cannot reuse it in some way in the future.

During the past few weeks I have been working on an essay referring to the Philosophy of Education but due to personal reasons (nothing terrible!) I had to forfeit the essay. One of the personal reasons was that I felt exhausted after completing and sending in the previous research paper that has now been accepted for publication. You know, it’s not just the act of writing and thinking (and thinking about what you are writing) that can tire you out, I can handle that, it’s the emotional side as well. Those feelings of doubt, of wondering if they are going to accept that paper, those slightly nervous feelings that can keep you on your toes. And then comes the feeling of elation and excitement that only academics can understand when they are told that their journal paper is to be published! Not to mention immense feelings of relief and personal satisfaction. All these mixed emotions can tire you out and that’s not including the fact that you are continuing to work on different aspects of the Ph.D. through these experiences (e.g., thesis chapters, and continuing to search for and evaluate different types of literature and determine their position within the thesis). This is the Ph.D: it’s the highest academic publically accessible award you can achieve (others such as Professorship and the Doctor of Letters or Doctor of Science are available to those ‘inside the circle’). It is challenging. It is an emotionally charged experience.

But I had to forfeit the essay, which wasn’t a formal requirement anyway just something else I would have liked to have published. I didn’t feel disappointed either, because I quickly realised that something more substantial was in the offering, only I just had to realise it………

Arise, Phoenix!

Greek Mythology aside, it’s been a couple of weeks since I made that decision and I’ve been going flat out in my attempt at reworking the essay into the thesis in some way, and then I came to a realisation. I could rework the essay to act as a foundation, or a backdrop, to my research problem, research design, and eventually the research findings. I have always known the research problem and the background to the research problem (e.g., the way I identified the problem, the genesis of the problem etc.) but I had no backdrop. You can describe the background to the research such as, what your research is about, what do you propose, what is the research problem etc. but I think a thesis can be further enhanced by using a backdrop that you can place the research on. This backdrop provides a clear relationship not only between research problem and research methodology, but relate both to a much wider, grander research context where you can fully contextualise your research proposal, your research design and, eventually, your research findings.

What this has led to me now proposing and developing are what I would call three separate but related literature reviews within the thesis. This reflects the general backdrop idea, the complexity of the research phenomena, the diverse types of literature that shall be used and continue to collect, and the diverse set of aims and purposes that I have of the literature. The use of the literature, in my opinion, is made more dynamic and complex because of grounded theory. Grounded theory utalises different sets of literature in ways that are much different to other research approaches. I shall be writing about this more in a future blog post.

Three different literature reviews (I call them literature reviews at the moment: I shall be giving them more formal names as the writing proceeds) are now being proposed and developed for the thesis after reading through various theses and realising that this is actually possible. I am obviously not going to go into too much detail of the content of the chapters on here, but it suffices to state that the first literature review chapter is based on providing a background. Here I shall be talking about the relationship between Society and Education and be detailing how contemporary society and Education demands particular understanding, perspectives and views of the way in which the world behaves, and of the characteristics and behaviours of modern classrooms and learners. The second literature review shall be much more specific to the phenomena of interest, identifying gaps in the literature and providing various philosophical and practical justifications for the need of my research and for understanding and exploring the phenomena of interest in a different way.

The third literature review shall then launch a series of critiques and explorations of, and comparisons between, different analytical models related to the phenomena and this shall provide the theoretical and practical foundations upon which I can argue the need for my research. These critical reviews of the literature shall then be followed by the methodology chapter, followed by the findings and discussion chapters, which shall emerge as the theory develops.

In summary:

The key message here is, don’t try to do everything and most importantly don’t throw away any ideas that you might have. I had to forfeit the essay but this turned out to be the best option because I was able to rework ideas of the essay into my thesis, from which three separate but related literature reviews have been generated. This I feel shall now provide a much richer reading experience of the thesis, and a more substantial and comprehensive understanding of the phenomena of interest. This has actually meant more to me than the actual essay, because, when all said and done, and as much as I will be writing more papers in the future, the thesis is the top priority!

Oh, and keeping your sanity is also important……..


September 13, 2017

Phenomenology: what is it, and what are its possibilities for my Research?

Phenomenology has been defined as both a philosophical perspective and as a basis for various research programs and methodologies. My current understanding and interest of Phenomenology leads me to focussing on it as a philosophical movement as founded and discussed by the famous philosopher Edmund Husserl. Whilst I am sure that a phenomenological ontology can lead to a phenomenological research design it is not my intention to carry out a phenomenological study. Therefore, discussions of phenomenology as a research methodology are not relevant for this blog. At least, not at this time. My understanding of Phenomenology is continuous, therefore this blog post represents a snapshot of what phenomenology is.

What is Phenomenology?


There are many definitions of Phenomenology, but I shall focus this discussion on the definitions of it by its founder Edmund Husserl, who originally discussed phenomenology within the context of realism. It is the study of phenomena, the ways in which we experience phenomena, and what the structures of these experiences are, all from a first-person perspective. It can be suggested that phenomenology also includes the study of the relationship between phenomena, experience, and experiential structures in relation to that phenomena being experienced. Experiential structures is considered a main focus of Phenomenology, and various structures have been defined including intentionality, consciousness (of objects), perception, self-awareness, and consciousness of the self and others.


Phenomenology offers descriptive accounts of experiences with little or no concern with causes or explanations of these experiences. This is because, according some writer suggestions, causes and explanations are concepts situated exclusively within the natural sciences and not contexts appropriate to phenomenology, notably social sciences and qualitative contexts. However, this is a subject of much debate, with writers and researchers arguing for and against the adoption of causal and explanatory accounts within social sciences. On a personal note, I have the belief that causes and explanations can be play a role in understanding social reality and social phenomena from a qualitative perspective, particularly theoretical development projects that uses grounded theory as the methodology. Although my research does not use grounded theory to discover and explain causes, grounded theory is used to develop a theory that provides non-causal explanations and understandings of specific learning phenomena


Phenomenology suggests that experience always involves some sort of object of reality. We cannot experience something without having an object of experience, therefore we cannot have an experience ‘about’ something or an experience ‘with’ something. It has to be an experience ‘of’ something. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word ‘of’ defines a point of orientation, and hence when we experience something there has to be an object of that experience that exists and that we can experience. Before experiencing an object however, we must be consciously aware of that object’s existence and therefore, I find it difficult to agree with the notion of separating and isolating fully an object’s existence and the experience that it provides. How can something be experienced if you have not considered the existence of that something? This, I am coming to know, is not an easy question to answer in the social world because in the social world, what comes to existence is a result of interactions between people. More specifically, certain types of interactions bring about the existence of certain social objects.


Going deeper there is a question (of many): if interactions bring about the existence of certain objects, is it the process of interaction itself that brings social objects into existence or is it that the participants of that interaction are consciously aware of its existence? This leads to another question: can we be consciously aware of the existence or, perhaps better to suggest, the possibility of existence of social objects before engaging with interactions? We could, based on our reflections of previous interactions, but here we are thinking abstractly or theoretically and therefore, we cannot call abstracts an experience. This is because we would be thinking ‘about’ something, not thinking ‘of’ or experiencing ‘of’ something, or be conscious ‘of’ something. We would simply be thinking or being conscious about the possibilities and not experiencing the actualities, as far as I can currently understand. To be conscious we must be conscious of something, and therefore when we say that we are consciously aware we are effectively stating that we are consciously aware of a particular object.


This is just a snapshot of my current and ever developing thinking of the idea of consciousness and its relationship with awareness, experience, objects and existence. It’s a huge subject!


The Possibility of Phenomenology in my Research


A typical phenomenological project involves exploring the way in which participants experience the phenomena, with relevant data of such experiences collected most commonly using interviews. This is not what I am thinking about though. What I am thinking about is using phenomenology as a mode of introspection, self-analysis and self-reflection, which is a part of being conscious of who we are as Ph.D. researchers and therefore is a fundamental part of the Ph.D. experience. The Ph.D. and each example of a Ph.D. experience such as writing a journal paper, writing the thesis, attending a conference, attending specific presentations, setting up a seminar, etc., could all be explored phenomenologically.


When I read through some of the transcripts that I have collected, I observe things. I observe happenings, events, actions and possibilities that the participants appear not to have been able to perceive or realise. I can view beyond what the transcripts are telling me. I can hypothesise and theorise about what is happening, and what might happen in the future within similar situations in other transcripts. Using Grounded Theory, I can test and evaluate these hypotheses and develop them as part of the theory if necessary. But why? Why am I able to perceive social objects resulting from certain interactions but the participants were not able to perceive them? Do social objects that I perceive or become consciously aware of exists in reality at the time of perceiving or being aware of their existence, or possible existence? If not, then how can I perceive what exists and is there a need to hypothesise their existence and test against similar conditions and situations using grounded theory? How does this compare to what is perceived by the participants? How can I claim to know that what I perceive is real? What is the nature of my own awareness as a researcher?

More questions: What is the nature of existence of social objects? Do these objects really exist? How do these objects come into being within social interactions? Does existence entail perception? What about awareness? Do we have to become aware of something in order to perceive a social object as being real? What if our perceptions are fallible and that what is perceived to exist does not really exist? How can I tell that what I perceive is real, and, how can I tell that the way that I perceive is just and sound? What if I am able to be aware of the existence or occurrence of a social object but the research participants did not become aware of such? Would that mean there is an issue with my own awareness or their awareness? These are just some of the questions that I am now asking myself with regards to the occurrences / existence of social objects within a social reality. This is important because how can we say that something exists if we are just perceiving it? How can we know that what we perceive really exists and what gives us any justification to claim that something exists?


So many questions! Essentially, I am interested in investigating and exploring my own consciousness and awareness, and the ways in which these affect the experiences that I have and what I can perceive that others do not, and perhaps try to reason out why. This is, obviously, an ongoing process!


September 11, 2017

Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part C

The problem I had with critical realism was, to maximise the potential of critical realism, I had to use multiple data collection sources and ideally access to the beliefs and thoughts of the participants. The more I thought about the implications of the context of my research (e.g., I had no access to participant beliefs and perspectives, and they were not required to complete the core aim of the research), the more I realised that this was too risky an option to take. I doubted that I would be able to complete the Ph.D. or make a quality Ph.D. with critical realism, given the new awareness of the research context. Other reasons why critical realism would no longer work include its stratification of reality (reality split in multiple layers termed the real, the empirical, and the actual: read tutorials on critical realism if you are interested in knowing these further) and its emphasis on locating causal mechanisms. Causal mechanisms are multiple, unobservable objects that are theorised to have produced an observation or an event. Whilst applying critical realism to my own beliefs and context it was decided that there was no way I could identify causal mechanisms in the way that critical realism prescribes them. And, besides, the research is based on increasing understanding of the process of a particular learning encounter as well as explaining the way in which this process evolves over time and hence, evaluate its quality. I simply cannot find a way in which causal mechanisms can play a part in this and, also, the data collection methods used simply do not provide the appropriate data to identify causal mechanisms. I had to change tactics.


After reading many papers I came across Michael Hammersley’s ‘Subtle Realism.’ This aligns perfectly with my ontological beliefs: that there is a reality and objects of reality that exists independently of our conceptions of them, but that we shall never fully attain the truth of reality. The best that can be achieved is to edge closer towards truth through critically evaluating our conceptions and reformulating our conceptions of reality. Subtle Realism I have found works well in terms of framing my understanding of the nature and structure of social reality, and the way in which social reality behaves in certain learning contexts.


But the more I read about social ontology and social reality, which refers to social interactions and their nature, the more I became aware of something else that I was doing incorrectly. Perhaps not actually incorrectly, but in a particular way that could be enhanced (how can I assume that I was incorrect at the time if I cannot assume with absolute certainty that I am correct now, etc.)


Objects of the social world differs to that of the natural world. In the natural world objects such as trees, mountains, rivers and weather systems exist outside of our conceptions of them. We do not need to conceive, perceive or become aware of these objects in order for them to exist in reality: they exist regardless of whether or not we have any knowledge of them. In the social world, this is different, and after a while of trying to develop arguments about the existence of social objects I have come to the following couple of key questions: does our consciousness play an important part in the existence of social objects? If we are not consciously aware of the existence of a social object at a particular time during an interaction, does that social object have any existence?


I didn’t think about the role of consciousness before because I was too focussed on the social objects themselves detached from our consciousness. But as I have thought about some of the data that I have collected I was beginning to perceive the existence of social objects that the participants had not perceived. I also noticed differing perceptions among participants: some could perceive certain events whilst others did not, and it is interesting to think about why this might be the case and to test any hypothesis that might be developed. I have many questions, some of which were presented as part of a post yesterday, and ideas forming about the role of consciousness and is therefore a current and ongoing task.


What I do know or am coming to know (and I appreciate that I might not be completely correct at this time, or at any other time) is that subtle realism does not appear to address the role of consciousness with regards to the existence of social objects. But I think with some workarounds it can be used to represent or contribute towards understanding the role of consciousness. I am unsure at this time if subtle realism can be worked around to accommodate consciousness, but upon a search of literature I have found possibilities but have yet to read through these papers to gain a full understanding of what might be possible.


What is known, however, is that I am finding myself returning to a perspective I once dismissed as being irrelevant but now coming to know that it might actually be relevant for my philosophical conceptions, and that is Phenomenology. It might be relevant because phenomenology is the study of the nature and structure of our consciousness including perceptions and awareness.


Reexploring Phenomenology and its possible relevance to my research is another continuous and ongoing task, and shall be the subject of a blog post coming at a later time!


Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part B

As a research philosophy, Constructivism emphasises an active relationship between researcher and participant. This is to mean that the researcher co-constructs, negotiates and validates meaning and knowledge with the participants. Truth, meaning, knowledge, understanding and our knowing about the phenomenon of interest is not discovered or interpreted, but is constructed or developed. Therefore, constructivism suggests that there are multiple truths and that no single truth is more valid than the other truths. For various reasons, I was beginning to experience problems with this conception of understanding the phenomenon of interest. Firstly, because I have no actual involvement with any of the participants, therefore, there is no co-construction occurring between myself and the participants. Secondly, because the intention is to contribute to classroom practice it is impossible to conceive of multiple truths. Products that are developed for practice-based disciplines cannot function on the idea of multiple truths, because you cannot have, for example, two models that evaluate the same aspects of critical thinking. One model has to be viewed as being more true to the reality of critical thinking, based on some criteria set, than the other. You can have, however, two models that evaluates different aspects of critical thinking, but not same aspects.


Once I realised this, I realised that I was conflating truth, meaning, understanding and knowledge in terms of the way in which we come to understand each of these terms in our research contexts. They had to be treated separately and differently to the way I was conceiving them. But in what way? Where could I possibly begin? What on Earth does it mean to have single truth and in what way can I come to understand what this truth is? I came to understand that my philosophical beliefs of the time were not compatible with the research context. I could not possibly continue with a constructivist philosophy given my new awareness of the research context and given the nature of a practice-based discipline. And then, I came to know the philosophical concept of ontology, and I realised my mistake: I was conflating ontology and epistemology. I was treating knowledge that we have of reality as mirroring reality itself. I came to know ontology as a separate study unit in itself, so I embarked on separating epistemology and ontology, and studied them further. I shall discuss the journey of epistemology another time.


Now that I separated ontology and epistemology I could focus on understanding my own beliefs of the nature and structure of reality itself. Remember that ontological beliefs refer to our beliefs about the nature and structure of reality, and epistemological beliefs refer to our beliefs about attaining knowledge about this reality. As I read papers and book chapters of ontological books, I came to understand that I didn’t perceive reality as internal within our minds, but that there is a reality external to our minds. In other words, that there is a reality independent of our knowledge and conceptions of it. This was actually a revelation, and not something that I expected. However, now was the time to find out where my developing beliefs could be situated within the existing ontological frameworks and beliefs.


As I reflect on this point in my journey, I remember that I still had that behaviour of trying to pigeon hole my beliefs or fit my beliefs into a pre-existing set of ideals and frameworks. Why was this? I think it was initially more to do with convenience because I was trying to understand the existing frameworks that are available to possibly evaluate and critique them whilst attempting to apply them to my own set of beliefs. With the awareness and understanding I have now, I find it neigh-on impossible to situate my beliefs within any single existing framework. But at the time I just wanted a better understanding.


After reading widely around the topic of philosophy I came across the notion of realism, and this supports the idea that there is a reality out there independent of our conceptions of it. But what version? There are many versions available and it took me a while to align myself with the correct ontology, or what I thought was the correct and relevant ontology. I did settle on critical realism for a fair while due to my research methodological approach of mixed methods. But I came across problems in the mixed methods approach and, therefore, critical realism.


I had to question and really contemplate my ideas about reality, as discussed in Part C!


Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part A

I am hoping that I have made clear the importance and value of understanding your own ontological beliefs so far in writing this blog. This is not to suggest that you should know everything about ontology as this would be a pretty impossible task unless you were doing a Ph.D. specifically in dealing with ontological issues. But, I do feel that it is important to engage with ontological issues in the context of your research, in terms of attempting to understand your own ontological beliefs, to situate these beliefs within the wider published field of ontology, and the way in which your ontological beliefs shape your overall research design. For me, this has been a long journey of twists, turns, introspection, doubting, experimenting and challenging my own ideas. And, this is a journey that is still unfolding itself!


The changes that have occurred with my ontological (and epistemological) beliefs over the years lead to the following question: is it that we actively construct and alter our beliefs of reality? Or is it that we simply become more aware of the complexity of reality itself and of our beliefs about this reality? There are no easy answers to these questions, but it is the role of a Ph.D. candidate to explore their own beliefs, and to situate them within the wider published frameworks and theories. I originally thought of this as straight forward, but really, it isn’t, despite the way in which some academic textbooks attempt to portray it as straightforward. Situating beliefs and trying to find where they fit within the wider literature can depend on the research problem, the research context, and the overall, general discipline within which a researcher is situated. But even then, research problems and research contexts can be philosophised in several ways, and can therefore be explored using a variety of different approaches sometimes in combination.


When I first began the Ph.D. I was convinced that I was a constructivist. I conceived reality and knowledge of reality as a personally constructed entity with no real objective existence. Therefore, I had the idea at the time that everyone constructed their own truths and it was the job of the constructivist to find out the way that people perceived the truth of certain aspects of reality based on their experience. My preference towards constructivism was driven by my favourable position towards constructivism as a teaching and learning theory. However, as I found out fairly quickly into the Ph.D., constructivism as a teaching and learning theory is completely different to its philosophical orientation.


The idea of constructivism as a teaching and learning theory is that learners are able to construct their own understanding and knowledge about subjects instead of passively listening to a teacher. Learners are active participants in their learning, and through experimentation and collaboration they build their understanding and knowledge. This is in some sense similar to constructivism as a research philosophy: researchers construct their knowledge of what is going on within a research setting through actively participating within the setting, typically through co-constructing and negotiating meaning and knowledge with the research participants. What is usually found is each participant constructs their own truth about reality therefore leading to multiple truths, and constructivism treats truth of all perspectives as the same.


Whilst this might initially be appealing, I did come across stumbling blocks as I shall discuss in Part B!


September 10, 2017

Ph.D Update: Philosophical Thoughts, Critical Review, and The Literature Review

Since the previous blog post, I’ve been working on various edits of an accepted critical review, along with writing an essay about Education (shall discuss this more another time), the literature review, and have been rethinking ideas about reality.


Conceptions of Reality


You might remember previous blog posts where I have conceptualised my epistemological beliefs as Social Constructionist and the subsequent posts where I have discussed my doubts about my own conceptualisations (yes, folks, you are allowed to question your own conceptions!). I am absolutely convinced that because of my increased awareness of the ontological existence of the phenomenon of interest that my epistemological beliefs go beyond constructionism


Constructionism, according to my current understanding of it based on the readings I have so far completed, originated in sociology and focusses on the importance of language and culture. It suggests that language is the driving force behind knowledge construction and attainment and cannot be separated from its culture. In other words, access to knowledge of reality is provided by language alone, and our understanding of reality and therefore knowledge attainment and construction is culture-specific.


Despite initial acceptance of this I began to struggle with knowledge derived from language and culture. The grounded theory methodology can allow language to be considered in its representation of nuanced occurrences of what might or actually exists, represented as concepts in the data and relationships between these concepts, there is no way I can gain understanding of cultural influences on the behaviours of the participants. I as a researcher am not embedding myself within any particular culture, and I do not have any direct access to the participants’ beliefs and perspectives. Therefore, as mentioned, I have no way in determining the way in which culture impacts the behaviours and thoughts of the research participants. But this, I realised, doesn’t really matter because investigating culture and its impact on participant behaviours isn’t relevant to the research problem that I have identified.


Another reason I began to struggle with a pure constructionist epistemology is that I have become more aware of the complexity of my epistemological beliefs and because of this, I am now taking inspiration from various epistemological perspectives including constructionism. Just very recently, I have come to understand that consciousness and awareness are important features of my thinking about reality and thinking about the existence of the phenomenon of interest.


What really is reality? What is the nature of existence of social objects? Do these objects really exist? How do these objects come into being within social interactions? Social objects come into existence because of interactions, but does that mean that if a particular social object does not occur at a particular point that they don’t actually exist? What if they do exist within a particular social interaction but are not perceived to exist? Does existence entail perception? What about awareness? Do we have to become aware of something in order to perceive a social object as being real? What if our perceptions are fallible and that what is perceived to exist does not really exist? How can I tell that what I perceive is real, and, how can I tell that the way that I perceive is just and sound?


These are just some of the questions that I am now asking myself with regards to the occurrences / existence of social objects within a social reality. This is important because how can we say that something exists if we are just perceiving it? How can we know that what we perceive really exists and what gives us any justification to claim that something exists?


This is where phenomenology comes into play, and I’m only just recently beginning to appreciate its potential value. I originally rejected it as anything relevant to my research because I was perceiving the value of phenomenology through the lens of a research methodology, and not a philosophy. Phenomenology as a philosophy is different to its conceptions as a research methodology, and understanding this is a continuous task, and there shall be a blog post about this soon.


The Critical Review


The critical review of my conference experiences back in May has appeared is complete and sent in for final confirmation and publication! It has most certainly been a learning curve given that this is the first time I’ve ever written a critical review for publication, but at the same time it has been a fulfilling, satisfying learning experience. Writing the critical review has really helped me to shape my understanding of how experiencing the conference, engaging with the audience and their feedback and engaging with various presentations at the conference contributed towards further development of my thesis structure, content and layout. This will lead to a stronger, more comprehensive thesis with a tightly integrated structure, with the concepts taken from the conference leading to a theory that is closer to the truth and reality of the phenomenon of interest than previously conceived.
Specific to the thesis, the background, literature review, results and discussion sections have been enhanced with new concepts to explore and where possible, develop hypotheses to test and possibly include in the theory as part of the validation and verification process. Speaking of the literature review……..


The Literature Review


The original plan of the literature review many months ago was to divide it into independent, loosely coupled sections titled Knowledge, Argumentation, Interaction and Technology. I have no idea what possessed me to think of these sections as independent and loosely coupled, because it doesn’t make any sense to do so. I think at the time I was feeling overwhelmed with the sheer amount of existing literature that has been published and the relationship between literature and the grounded theory approach. I think at the time I wanted to gather a sense of understanding the sheer volume of existing literature in each of the categories (and by this time I had already been reading about some of these topics for many years) within the context of my research problem (context is important! I cannot emphasise this enough because context plays a part of the lens from which you shall view the literature). Several months on I am now changing my approach to the literature review to thankfully something a bit more logical.


I’ve come to realise I cannot talk about one category independent of other categories. I can to a certain point, however, but I cannot view each category as fully independent. I can, for example, discuss relevant types of technology in terms of its features and affordances, but beyond this I cannot talk about technology independent of the research context and the research questions, and I cannot talk about technology independent of the way in which it, for example, facilitates interaction. Similarly, I can discuss argumentation to a certain extent but I cannot talk about argumentation fully independent from the way in which knowledge is handled through argumentation. A strong example of how my thinking about the dependency / independency relationship between these categories of literature is with argumentation. I attempted to write draft critiques of and relate definitions of argumentation. However, after reading a paper from Andriesson et al (2003) I became aware of the difficulties that I would have if I continued along the path of attempting to define and critique definitions of argumentation independent of discussions of other literature categories, even if only to understand the diverse literature that exists within each category.


The basic fact is, when I talk about argumentation, interaction, knowledge, technology and other possible concepts, all discussions must be situated within the context of Education. This is a Ph.D. in Education and obviously, the thesis is the product of the discipline within which it has been written, therefore it would not make sense to talk about these concepts outside of the context of the discipline and particularly outside of the context of the research problem. It doesn’t really matter if conceptions and perspectives are bought in from other disciplines such as sociology, psychology etc. the key guiding focus of the literature review is the disciplinary context and the research problem.


In Summary


There have been various changes during the past few weeks with the key changes being the literature review and its structure and content. The other key changes have been my continuous increasing awareness of my own beliefs of reality and the way in which we can obtain knowledge of this reality, but this shall be discussed more in another blog post. And to emphasise, managing the literature is a huge part of the Ph.D. especially for grounded theory based projects. But for the purposes of the literature review, all discussions of all concepts have to be situated within the context of the discipline, in my case Education. And, I am now finding it impossible to discuss concepts fully independent of each other and really, this is what the literature review entails. It’s not just some bullet pointed facts-of-the-matter chapter, it’s a serious business of critiquing, analysing, evaluating and synthesising literature in order to provide the intellectual and evidence filled basis for the need of your research.


References


Andriessen, J., Baker, M.J. & Dan Suthers, D. (2003). Argumentation, computer support, and the educational context of confronting cognitions. In J. Andriessen, M.J. Baker & D. Suthers (Eds.) Arguing to Learn: Confronting Cognitions in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning environments, p.1-25. Dordrecht, The Netherlands : Kluwer Academic Publishers.


August 19, 2017

Should Ph.D. candidates be talking meta–ontology and meta–epistemology?

Continuing to engage with writing the first drafts of various sections of my thesis, and this week I began to redevelop and construct an outline of some of the sections of the literature review. A part of the literature review shall refer to theories of epistemology (knowledge) and justification (methods of providing evidence or reasons of any claims about reality). The section is being written to link with other sections relating to collaborative learning and collaborative technologies and therefore attempting to write a reflective, critical narrative of existing, relevant literature. I want this to flow logically and not be disjointed. This is ongoing work.


As part of this task I have been rereading many different theories of knowledge and justification to identify theories that I can critique and relate to various aspects of the research phenomena of interest. What I have unexpectedly discovered during this reading is that not only can I critique and relate theories of knowledge and justification to different phenomena of research interest, but also relate some of the theories to research design. Many textbooks advise Ph.D. candidates to discuss and explain their ontological and epistemological beliefs and their impact on the research design, but they do not appear, from what I can understand, to request students to go further and jump up to the next level of abstraction. What do I mean by this? I’ll provide an example.


I have the belief that in the social world or social reality there are objective objects that exist independently of our consciousness and mental activities: we do not need to be consciously aware of their existence in order for them to actually exist (I’ll be describing this term in more detail in the thesis). But how do I know this? How do I know that there are objects out there that exist in that way? On what grounds have I based these beliefs on? In what way can I tell that I have developed these beliefs reliably?


Similar questions can be applied to my epistemological beliefs (which, as explained in the previous blog post, are changing; or, more accurately, I have become aware of their incorrectness). Therefore, in addition to discussing and explaining my epistemological beliefs and their relationship to my ontological beliefs, I should also be asking about the genesis of these beliefs. How do I know that the way that I perceive the acquirement of knowledge is correct? Where do my epistemological beliefs come from? On what grounds do I base these beliefs on? In what way can I tell that I’ve developed these beliefs reliability? And in the changes to epistemological beliefs over the years I should ask an extra question: did my epistemological beliefs change, or did I become more consciously aware of their existence? Either way, I need to ask more general questions: on what grounds were these changes made? How exactly did this change occur? Why did the change occur? What impact have these changes had on my research?


I guess these can be loosely termed meta-ontology and meta-epistemology. I am talking here about going beyond the level of discussing, explaining and justifying our ontological and epistemological beliefs to discussing how these beliefs were made, why they were made, and the grounds upon which we have formed these beliefs. This is an extra level of discussion and an extra level of abstraction that does not contend with discussing the acceptability and correctness of the beliefs themselves. Acceptability and correctness of the beliefs themselves shall be judged by the general criteria of the research project. What I am talking about is the method or approach that we have taken to form, come to know, become aware of, and ground our ontological and epistemological beliefs. I appreciate that some people might not view the worth of such discussions. I’m not entirely sure myself as I’ve only just thought about this since writing the previous blog post, but I think it is something that is worth thinking about further. Also, I am not entirely sure that, if these discussions do go ahead, they should be a part of the methodology chapter of if discussions should be in a separate chapter perhaps based on researcher reflexivity.


These are all tentative, initial ideas, but might be something worth pushing for. I shall have to ask for advice on this from my supervisor but I think perhaps discussing the core question how we know what we know should be considered more important.


Keep asking questions and never think that any idea is ridiculous because at Ph.D. level anything is possible. Remember, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, but the strength of argumentation!


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