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February 04, 2018

From a Structured Plan to an Emergent Design: the Pause–Reflect Process

A complete change of Structure!


Furthering the developments noted in the previous blog post, I have now thrown out the original structure plan and have come to realise that the structure is a product of an emergent process. To recap, the original plan was for discussions of society, culture and education to be defined, characterised and discussed separately before discussing their relationship leading onto discussions specific to my research. After tangling with the likes of Macrosocieties, different types of societies and realising that society and education are embedded within cultural definitions, separation of discussions of society, culture and Education proved to be impossible.


This experience illuminates the proposition that whilst structuring, designing, organising and laying out a chapter is beneficial for guidance, sometimes a structure can only come about through an emergent process. Simply getting down to the task of writing and placing the process of writing above the need to structure can be more beneficial. With that, the structure of the first literature review chapter is still emerging; therefore, I cannot determine exactly the way the chapter shall be structured, although I do have general ideas of the topics I want to cover in that chapter.


It is through the process of reading more material, of writing and thinking about what I am writing that has enabled the structure to be viewed as emergent. This is a continuous and cyclical process, swapping between writing and reading, reading and thinking, and writing and thinking; therefore, the way the structure is now might not be the same in the future. There are no absolutes here: the structure, and the content, are adaptable and changeable through the process of reading and writing, in accordance with the chapter’s objectives and intended outcomes. I have even found this weekend, and as I was writing the first draft of this blog post, the possible ways that the chapter could change.


It has been challenging at first: the moving away from the idea of needing to structure a chapter to the idea of letting a structure emerge. But, I have a strategy that frames the way in which these changes take place so that it’s not ad hoc or on the spot emotional moment of needing to include something. It’s a strategy that emphasises the importance of pausing and reflecting.


The Pause-Reflect Process


I found a gap between what I thought I understood, the structure of the chapter, and observations and abstractions I was making from reading the literature. Identifying this gap caused a change in my conceptual understanding of the social and cultural. It’s a cognitive, mental process that requires an objective approach and an open mind, guided and framed by the research context, research problems, and research questions. An open mind is important here, because the impact of a closed mind is spending so much time trying to fit reality within your own conceptions that you miss what is really going on. Subjective biases, emotionally driven responses and personal frameworks would be placed above the truth of reality, or any sense of trying to understand what this truth is. That’s not what doing a Ph.D. is about; that’s not what writing is all about; that’s not the way our mental and psychological processes should be applied.


What did I do exactly to overcome the gap identified, and to therefore change the structure? Writing was paused, and existing knowledge of the concepts and emerging conceptual knowledge from the writing process were reflected upon. These reflections were then compared with, and further reflected upon, the research context, problem, questions, aims, goals, objectives and intended outcomes.


Essentially, it is the research context and its defined problems and questions that provide a general framework for the early literature reviews and the methodology chapter. Whatever you write, always keep the context in focus and try not to go off on a tangent that has nothing to do with the research context. It is through the reflective process that discussions within a chapter can be appropriately managed and reframed and, therefore, enables you accurately and effectively judge and measure the validity of your current understanding, knowledge and meaning. And, additionally, it is through this reflective process that you can make decisions on the path that you are on. Remember: writing is never a set, absolute process; it’s not a long, linear path. There are many twists and turns and forks that you shall come across. But using some sort of reflective, framing process, for me, is helping me to guide the directions of the discussions. It is therefore through this reflective, comparative process that I found that the chapter structure, at least with this chapter, is an emergent feature. It all started because of that element of doubt that I had with regards to the way I was trying to separate the discussions of society, culture and Education.


In general


Every word, sentence and paragraph has an interrelated existence. Every word or series of words should illuminate a subject-object relationship (though this is not always the case); every sentence must contribute towards the overall context and message of the paragraph; every paragraph must contribute towards the aims and purposes of the chapter or section in an interrelated way. Every paragraph deals with a different topic referring to the section of the chapter, and builds upon what has been said previously.


It's not a case of adding a sentence or a paragraph and not giving it any further sound, logical thought. Adding a sentence is easy: it’s the act of logically, critically reflecting upon the purpose of every word, sentence and paragraph and comparing against the context of research and the goals and purposes of a section or wider chapter that offers the challenge. But it is these challenges that shape and develop you as a thinker and as a writer.


Where am I now with the chapter?


I’m at the stage in the draft process where I have gone beyond society and culture and now onto discussing Education and learning theories; however, because of the now emergent nature of the chapter, the structure and layout will more than likely change. Therefore, because I say I have gone beyond the discussions of society and culture I do not mean this in an absolute way, never to be returned to. What I mean by this is, I have written enough to be able to progress onto the next section in draft form, with the motivation and willingness to return to the previous sections as and when is deemed necessary. I might have written enough based on my understanding and knowledge of the concepts in relation to the purpose of the chapter within the context of the research, but this does not mean that at any time what I have written reflects the totality of what I might know and understand at any time in the future.


In my more general views, you cannot write what you think you know and understand and pretend that this is the totality of all that you could know about the subject. If you start to think in an absolute way, you begin to miss the point. The point is to continuously challenge and question what you think you know and understand, and have the mind to seek answers to questions, hypotheses, thoughts and ideas that you develop as you progress with your investigations and explorations. As indicated therefore, I accept that what I have currently written about society and culture and what I am currently writing and shall write in the future shall be a continuously changing, emerging set of discussions and debates relevant to the purpose of the chapter, and the context of the research.


It’s an ongoing journey that continues…….and continues…………..and continues………….and continues…………..and continues…………..and continues…………….and continues…………


But that’s the fun of it all!


Further Reflections on the Importance of Discussing Society, Culture and Education

*AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have not had the time to write this post till now; therefore, consider this post to contain valid thoughts on the subject up to W/C 28th January 2018. I have decided to post this anyway at this time simply for me to track and share my own thinking*

Exploring the importance of Macrosociety in my Research:


In the previous blog post, I discussed the view of Education from a couple of possible general sociological perspectives: the Macro and Micro. I indicated that the Macro perspective could be used to study Education in a variety of ways: impact of social and cultural contexts upon the individual learner; or from a structural perspective that explores the impact of social institutions (Education, law, finance, politics, etc.) on each other. I also talked about and focussed on the Micro perspective, which focusses analysis and explorations on the smaller scale interactions between humans either on a one to one or small group basis, and defines the individuals as having agency that can change institutions.


I suggested the relevance of Macrosociology for the first chapter of the literature review, in terms of explaining what Macrosociological research is, what it entails, what are its characteristics and therefore explain why I am not adopting a Macrosociological perspective. As I began to write about this however I quickly realised that I would have had a problem: pages and pages written about a perspective that has nothing to do with the actual research context, research questions and research problems. It wouldn’t make any sense to include discussions about Macrosociology because although my research is in Education, it is not looking at Education from an institutional level. If I were looking at Education from a Macro perspective it would have made more sense to talk about it, and to talk about which theoretical perspective of Macrosociology I would adopt relative to the context and in comparison with other theoretical approaches.


Exploring the importance of discussing the relationship between society, culture and Education

After battling with the way in which I should present discussions on society and culture, I arrived at the point where I identified the importance of carrying on with relevant discussions. Not in terms of macro or micro perspectives, but in terms of how society has changed, and the way in which these changes, challenges and opportunities have given rise to the importance of types and modes of learning, and therefore, the relevance of the Ph.D.’s research contexts and explorations.


Another cause of change to the way I am structuring the sections and content of the chapter is the definitions of culture. There are many definitions of culture from anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and Educationalists, but essentially all define culture as a set of knowledge, beliefs, values and skills that are transmitted and acquired from one generation to another, but are changeable over time. I had to be mindful of language here, because the words “transmitted,” “acquired,” and “changed” illuminate processes of learning. Culture, however, does not define the actual process of learning, but it can shape and frame the process. This identification of commonality across different cultural definitions made me question my approach of attempting to separate discussions between society, culture, and Education. I’ve now concluded that it is impossible to do, because at the level of definition, society and Education are embedded within the definitions of culture; therefore, there appears to be a strong interrelation between society, culture and Education. They cannot be discussed independently and separately from each other. Society cannot exist without culture, culture cannot exist without society, and discussions about Education simply cannot take place, therefore, without placing it into some sort of social and cultural context


Personal Thoughts and Summary


I am happier with what I have come to realise recently, and have begun to alter the thesis chapter accordingly through merging the discussions of society and culture, and reduce the word count that was over seven thousand words mostly talking about society and culture, but little at that point about Education. Another concern, therefore, that caused a change in approach was that the VIVA assessment panel might have questioned why I wrote so much on society and culture and not Education till after a certain point, especially given I’m doing a Ph.D. in Education and not Sociology or some branch of Cultural Study.


It’s a fascinating journey, and I’m pleased that I have come to realise that acknowledge that the structure isn’t working and therefore change tactics. Do not fight this: it’s important that you are adaptable enough to change, and enable a mindset open enough to be guided by the writing and the reading, rather than religiously adhere to a structure that perhaps did not reflect what you could have known at the time.


Keep reading, and keep writing!


January 19, 2018

Update on the First Literature Review Chapter: The Function of Education in Society

Society and Culture


Returned to the writing of the thesis, concentrating at the moment on the first literature review chapter with the tentative title of “Function of Education within Society.” The chapter is providing an example of the importance of conceptual definitions, detailed clarity of concepts, and the importance of building a contextual basis early so that people will be able to grasp early on what it is you are specifically talking about.


Currently, I have discussed and gave initial critiques and evaluations of some of the broader definitions and characteristics of society and culture stemming from the disciplines of anthropology and sociology. I have also discussed briefly the relationship between society and culture. All discussions shall be expanded upon in the future with further definitions, arguments, explanations and critiques as necessary therefore all current discussions and critiques are tentative and changeable. All discussions shall assist with contextualising my discussions and critiques of Education later in the same chapter and in subsequent literature review chapters.


I am finding, however, that I am being drawn to a certain category of definitions, and I believe this attraction could be explained by my own philosophies of the social. My own developing philosophical framework from which I view and understand the world is therefore shaping the way I value different definitions and classifications of definitions of society and culture. This is an interesting observation, because it shows again the importance and value of our philosophical beliefs and the role they play in our research beyond the methodologies and methods used. Your own philosophical beliefs could provide the valuable platform upon which your entire construction of the thesis sits upon. Therefore, I might have to explain in the thesis not just the way that my Philosophical beliefs influence the research design, but also the way that they draw me to certain classifications of society and culture. The research context and phenomena of interest in themselves also might necessitate the drawing towards of certain classifications of definition, but even then the context and the way that we view the phenomena of interest might be influenced also by our philosophical beliefs.


Society, Culture and Education


My current task in the literature review is to discuss Education and its relationship with society and culture although, as I have just been finding out, this is where I am finding various forks in the road leading me into possible directions that I had not previously thought fully about


Generally, sociological literature define society from a broad perspective. However, as I explore educational literature that investigates the relationship between society and Education I find that both society and Education are defined in very specific ways, which differ across the literature. Such conceptualisations of society include: “Post-Industrialised Society”, “Post-Modernist Society,” “Open Society,” “Democratic Society,” “Digital Society,” “Information Society,” “Learning Society” and so on and so on. Specific types of Education include: “Distance Education, “Primary Education,” “Secondary Education,” “Higher Education,” “LifeLong Learning,” and so on.


Obviously, I have encountered these Educational conceptions before, but conceptualisations of society are relatively newer encounters. I know the Education sector I am working on, but the challenge now and the forks in the road refer to questions about whether I should subscribe to a specific type of pre-defined society, or critically evaluate, analyse, and synthesis current definitions of society to develop a new social conception or reconceptualise an existing social conception.


I am asking these questions because I doubt the legitimacy and validity of using an existing, pre-defined type of society to hold my conceptions and discussions of Education. Using a pre-defined concept of society could negate the value, importance, worth and usefulness of the learning phenomenon of research interest. I do not actually know this to be true as I have not tested the ideas yet, but it is possible due to my experiences of trying to fit my philosophical beliefs within an existing philosophical classification: it just doesn’t work. Plus, there are characteristics from, say, a democratic society and a digital society that aligns with my thinking about what society is or should be in order to accommodate the phenomenon of interest.


My key question here is, what are the characteristics of society that give rise (in part) to the existence of the phenomenon of interest that is being explored?


Update:


I have been thinking about the concept of society more since writing the previous discussion yesterday. Have I really been thinking about all of this correctly? I have been thinking more about the concept of society during the day and all I have been reading about it, and it does involve every aspect of human interaction and collaboration: law, business, Government, industry, commerce, health care, Educational institutions, and more besides. But I’m only exploring Education institutions, and even then, a specific type institution; a specific level of Education. However, the development and application of Education systems are influenced by the social and cultural constructs and values of the time, which can be plainly observed when learning about the Industrialised Education system. Here, the relationship between student and teacher mimicked that of employer and employee: students were not necessarily allowed to challenge anyone or asked questions, and collaborative learning was an unheard of concept that would have strongly contested the authoritarian philosophies that existed at the time, and would have been strongly opposed. Strong Conservative social order and authoritative hierarchies were preferred in Victorian society over conceptualising learning as a natural, progressive concept that should not be controlled and regimented. I cannot remove the fact that characteristics of a society along with its culture enables the existence of certain Educational systems, and certain learning patterns and activities within that Educational system. In some respects, therefore, society as a concept simply has to be considered and defined, but to what extent?


I have just been reading a paper by Paul Armstrong that evaluates and critiques the term “Learning Society.” In this paper a part of the critique is that the term “Learning Society” has been politicised by Governments in order to push their own political agendas. Whilst this blog remains apolitical, what the author suggested with the way in which “Learning Society” has been used as a means to promote marketisation, choice, and competition restates the fact that society is a social construction that can be reused in different contexts to mean different things. It could be argued here therefore that perhaps it’s not a case that looking at society itself is incorrect, but I’m perhaps trying to understand society from an incorrect perspective. E.g., instead of looking at society from the political lens, I need to look at society purely from the basis of Education and forget about perceiving society from the lens of politics, economics, etc. unless I find any reason to view society further from those lenses.


What can society do for Education, and what can Education do for society? And, what are the conditions and characteristics of society that give rise to Education systems that accommodate the learning phenomenon of interest?


This is an ongoing issue, and I will update on my progress with another blog post during the next week or so.


The journey continues…………


Reference:

Armstrong, P. (n.d): Rhetoric and Reification: Disconnecting Research, Teaching and Learning in the 'learning society.' Available At: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/000000706.htm


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