Recently, I was at a networking event and someone asked me what I do for a job. When I said ‘I am a researcher’ they replied, ‘I feel sorry for you’, going on to share how they thought this must be the most boring job in the world. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback by this comment, as I have never found research boring. Hard work maybe, but never boring. Being a researcher means I have the space to follow my curiosity, to think broadly about life and learning, and to ask what if questions — and all in my workplace. How can this be boring?
As a researcher, I am constantly challenged, as I am exposed to new ideas and perspectives, which has caused me to see things differently on many occasions. As a result, I find that I am always learning, which, for me, is an exciting outcome of my job. These positive experiences with research have not just happened, however. They have evolved as I have developed a disposition towards research, one that I believe is different from the characteristics typically valued in educators.
I have a teaching background, and so I have learnt to think on my feet and make decisions in a moment. As a teacher, I looked for ideas I could implement straight away in the classroom, and my planning often became a bit of a snatch and grab process. I liken this to being a magpie — seeking out useful ideas and resources from a range of sources, and using these to build a programme that is varied, on trend, and best practice. Teachers are expert at this, but as a researcher I found this approach the antithesis of inclusive, innovative research, and I had to change.
The process of research requires a slowing down and letting go of being the knower. My own experience has taught me to be friends with questions and uncertainty, and to be patient as I wait and see what happens. I am not alone in this; I have observed those I mentor in research go through the same process of unlearning old patterns to become a more curious and intrepid explorer. Cultivating a disposition for research in my own work has involved learning and relearning how to question and listen more.
Learning to question more
I have always been good at solving problems, and through life I have been rewarded for this. As a result, I have learnt that answers are good because having the the right answer meant I got high grades in school, and entrance to university. Having answers also gave me recognition as a teacher and teacher educator. Seeking answers is part of the Western discourse of success that I have lived and breathed, and it is this part of my history that I have had to unlearn as a researcher. It’s not that research has no answers; it’s just that I have learnt to love the process of questioning without concentrating on finding the answer.
It wasn’t until I did my PhD that I really learnt to sit with unsolved problems and to ask questions just to pique and develop my curiosity. I am grateful to my supervisor, Professor Glenda McNaughton, who taught me to love questioning just for the sake of it. Once I got hooked, I began to value the process of deconstruction and disruption more than finding quick-fix solutions. Questioning unsettled what had become normal and natural in my world, and so my patterns were disturbed, which became the prerequisite for me to think, act, and become different.
In my work with fledgling teacher researchers I have noticed the struggle some have to defer finding an answer. In the fast paced profession of teaching It seems easier and quicker to jump to conclusions rather than take the sometimes painstaking alternative, which is to open up a world of uncertainty and insecurity. Those that take the plunge however, are the researchers who inevitably have the most depth in their projects, and these are the teachers who go on to use their findings in innovative ways.
Learning to listen more
Experts share their knowledge with others and, as a result, they are often the speakers, rather than the listeners. Teachers and researchers are no exception to this. What I have learnt, though, is that my best work has been the result of listening to fringe voices and noticing more what is happening around me. The more I want to listen, the more others want to share, and the more they share, the more I learn and the broader and deeper my research findings. It can be quicker and easier to rush through a set of pre-planned questions than devote time to being with and listening to others, but, for me, the listening has become the time when possibilities have opened up.
Listening well means finding a mode of communication that is familiar and comfortable for those I am working with. This requires adaptability, and sometimes means returning to the conversation more than once. In my research, for example, I have used graffiti with alternative education students; drawing with young children; and filmmaking with students who prefer to tell their story from behind a camera. For me, listening is not restricted to the mode of speaking — the means to hearing are endless when I am prepared to put aside my own knowledge and preconceptions and give myself temporarily to another person. When I do this the stories of others find a way to emerge.
One of the ways I help researchers to listen more in their work is when they plan their data collection. Rather than start by asking, ‘What do I want to find out, and, how will I gather this information?’, ask: ‘Who can I learn from?’ This variation in methodology may only be a small shift, but it changes the position that listening has in the research process. Repositioning the participant as the first priority signals that you see them as a powerful contributor to the research outcomes. This slight change moves the focus from what I will be doing to and with participants, to what I can learn from being with them. This then naturally moves the researcher to consider how they will go about the listening.
It’s worth it
Asking lots of questions and listening without hurrying are part of a process that requires patience, and so, I have also had to learn to wait more. I have discovered through waiting that my thinking shifts the most during these times. Slowing down encourages me to mull over of what others have said, and makes me less likely to disregard the importance of their contributions. Waiting also affords me the space to play around with my emerging thoughts and entertain possibilities I might have otherwise overlooked. When I let the findings simmer, I am usually surprised at what I find in the intersections between the planned, the random, and the contradictions. The more I wait and trust the research process, the more I value research as a vehicle for challenging the taken-for-granted and for fostering innovation.
Developing a disposition towards research has created the space for me to cross borders into the unfamiliar, dream about what might be, challenge what is accepted as normal, and bring about positive social change. Because of this, I find research endlessly exciting — and not the least bit boring!