I often get asked what I mean by research. Finding a precise definition can be tricky, especially in education where the term inquiry is commonly used to describe a range of investigative and reflective work. In New Zealand, for example, concepts such as teaching as inquiry, spirals of inquiry, and action research, are often used interchangeably, creating confusion. It’s because of this that I think it timely to ask: ‘what counts as research?’. In this blog I share how I have negotiated this slippery question in my practice as a researcher and research mentor.
When thinking about research, I differentiate between ‘research-related activities’ and the more detailed and systematic concept of research, which for ease of understanding, I call ‘research projects’. Many people engage in research-related activities, and do these well, but not everyone carries out a formally recognised research project. So what is the difference?
Research-related activities involve carrying out some of the processes of research, either in isolation or combined. For example:
- Asking questions, puzzling over practice, having a hunch
- Conducting a literature review
- Collecting data (information) (for example, carrying out surveys, questionnaires, observations, document analysis)
- Making sense of data (for example, looking for trends, connections, patterns, anomalies etc)
- Reporting on findings (for example, achievement data reporting, blogs, reports, conference papers etc).
All investigations (for example, inquiries, evaluations, organisational self reviews) use research-related activities to inform decision-making and collecting data before making decisions is now a regular practice in most educational settings. As a result, teachers and facilitators are familiar with the research-related activities mentioned above, but what makes these research-related activities different from a more structured and formalised research project’?
Research projects bring the research-related activities mentioned above together in a more comprehensive piece of work that may be used to inform, evaluate, or create innovation. In addition, findings should contribute to knowledge and understandings in a given field of study (New Zealand Qualification Authority (NZQA) (2014),
To understand more about this in practice, I have found it useful to draw on the NZQA (2014) definition of research, which is abridged here:
[A research project] 1 is an original investigation undertaken in order to contribute to knowledge and understanding and, in the case of some disciplines, cultural innovation or aesthetic refinement. It is an independent, creative, cumulative and often long-term activity. Its findings must be open to scrutiny and formal evaluation by others in the field, and this may be achieved through publication or public presentation.
I think this definition provides a useful baseline from which to consider if an inquiry (or similar activity) can be counted as a research project, rather than a research-related activity. Using this definition, I focus on three key points that I have written as guiding questions:
- Is the work an original investigation?
- Is it an independent, creative, cumulative and often long-term activity?
- Are the findings open to scrutiny and formal evaluation by others in the field?
Let’s explore these three questions in more detail.
An original investigation
Last year I was working with a group of tutors and we were discussing the NZQA quotation above when one tutor honed in on the word original. She was having trouble moving past this and asked to unpack its meaning more.
I responded by sharing how I had also troubled over this when first embarking on my PhD. I still remember my professor’s (MacNaughton, 2000), response which went something like this. Original can mean:
- Trying something done before in a completely new context (e.g trying out something researched in ECE in a secondary school)
- Creating new perspectives on something, for example, introducing a new body of literature (sometimes unrelated to the field you are working in), or engaging participants from outside your profession
Since this time, I have added these:
- Asking a question that isn’t normally asked
- Asking students to start designing a project with you
- Taking an iterative approach
- Creating a new research partnership
- Imagining turning an idea inside out or upside down and start from there
- Broadening the perspective (widen the lens)
- Narrowing the focus (close in)
An investigation that is original adds constraints but also another level of depth. This is a really exciting part of research!
An independent, creative, cumulative and often long-term activity
A research project that is an independent, creative, cumulative and often long-term piece of work, sits outside the routine data collection happening in most organisations and classrooms. The Tertiary Education Commission (2012) categorises these as ‘general purpose or routine data-collection’. These are the activities that are part of everyday practice, and they do not fit the definition of research above. Some examples might be:
- Collecting and reporting on assessment data
- Gathering 360 degree feedback collected for appraisal
- Seeking regularly and scheduled parent feedback
- Carrying out Internal and regular self-reviews
- Documenting evidence for teacher registration
All of these may be part of a research project, or be the catalyst for one, but on their own they are not an independent, creative, cumulative, and long-term project.
In contrast, a study that meets these criteria will typically involve taking a deeper or broader look at an issue, question, or problem of practice, drawing on multiple perspectives to do so. As the definition suggests, this is more likely to be a creative, cumulative, and long-term piece of work rather than routine inquiries. The gray area, of course, is teacher inquiry, which I address later.
Findings must be open to scrutiny and formal evaluation by others in the field
To me, this is the criterion that really differentiates research-related activities from a research project. Asking if your potential project idea will stand up to scrutiny by others in your field of study, is helpful. To do so, it will need a robust design, which undergoes an ethics process.
So, how do you go about making sure you’ve got a robust research design? Well, here’s what I’ve found helps.
Creating a robust research design
One of my roles is to help researchers-to-be, turn their ideas into a project that is robust in design and ethical in practice. The design process will usually take some time, but it can be a really creative exercise (Hayes, 2010). I begin by unpacking the whys behind emerging ideas starting with the background before moving to the purpose. This can be quite messy, but in my experience, the process of digging deep into the key idea(s) ensures the project has a strong foundation.
The purpose statement, according to Creswell (2014), is the most important part of any research design.
It is the most important statement in the entire study… from it, all other aspects of the research follow… (p.123)
My experience is that researchers-to-be find this step quite difficult. Thinking beyond the immediate issues of practice, to some of the bigger questions of education, citizenship, human rights, and equity, for example, is challenging, but once addressed, the project really begins to gain substance. An important question to ask at this time is: who will benefit from this work and how?
Next comes the main aim or question, followed by any minor questions. Again, this is a process that takes time and hard work. The questions need to flow naturally from the background and purpose and lead on to a carefully considered methodology 2 that includes the who, how, what, and when of data collection. Once completed, the design should work from purpose through to methodology and back again. The design may also outline the literature / theory influencing the investigation.
Anyone preparing a robust research project should also be considering any ethical implications. This is so there is no harm to participants, and that they are fully informed about what they are signing up for, and how information shared will be used (Kara, 2012). Consideration needs to go into how:
- information about the project will be distributed
- participants will be recruited and selected to minimise bias and inequities
- participants will be informed about their rights including their right to withdraw
- confidentiality and anonymity be addressed
- informed consent will be gained
- data will be represented in ways that are respectful and ethical
- data will be stored and who will have access to this.
Going through an ethics process builds the project's credibility by showing that the design has already been scrutinised through a peer-review process. Schools who want to carry out a research project, but who do not have access to an ethics committee, can create a formal peer-review process (using guidelines such as those found on the NZCER website) 3 .
What about teacher inquiries?
By now, I am sure some readers are asking where teacher inquiries fit. From my perspective, a teacher inquiry may fit in either of the categories above. It may be a research-related activity, or it could be counted as a research project. To help, try asking: Is my intended investigation:
- Independent, creative, cumulative (and possibly long-term)?
- Able to withstand the scrutiny of others in the field of inquiry?
- Does it have a robust design?
- Has it been through an ethics peer review?
My understandings of research continue to evolve as I work with colleagues to open up the spaces traditionally located in academic institutions. Together, we are exploring the transformative potential of research — in the everyday. This is another blog.
Creswell, J. W. (2014). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative and mixed method approaches. California: Sage Publications Inc. (Kindle book).
Hayes, A. (2010). Design issues. In G. Mac Naughton & S. A. Rolfe (Eds.), Doing early childhood research: International perspectives on theory and practice (pp. 103-125). Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
Kara, H. (2012). Research and evaluation for busy practitioners. A time saving guide. Bristol: The Policy Press. (Kindle book).
Logan, K. (2016, February) .Shaking up Government processes by Listening2Kids. Keynote presented at the Equity through Education Symposium, Auckland, New Zealand.
Mac Naughton, G. (2000). Personal conversation.
New Zealand Qualifications Authority. (2014). Degrees and related qualifications — Guidelines for programme approval and accreditation to provide programmes. For tertiary institutions other than universities. Version 1.0 July 2014. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nzqa.govt.nz/assets/Providers-and-partners/Registration-and-accreditation/guidelines-degree-approval-and-accreditation.pdf
Tertiary Education Commission Te Amorangi Mātauanga Matua. (2012). Performance-based research fund quality evaluation Guidelines 2012. Retrieved fromhttps://www.tec.govt.nz/Documents/Publications/PBRF-Quality-Evaluation-Guidelines-2012.pdf
1 For the purposes of this blog, and to create consistency, have changed the NZQA (2014) use of the term ‘research’ to ‘research project’.
2 A methodology outlines the research kaupapa (research philosophy), the research approach (e.g., qualitative, quantitative, mixed method, narrative, evaluation, action research etc), and the methods that will be used to gather data.
3 Currently in New Zealand there are some exciting innovations happening in the area of ethics, particularly amongst diverse Māori and Pasifika where these questions are being addressed in creative ways. This is also happening at the Office of the Children's Commissioner where the right of the child to be heard (United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12) impacts on decisions about ethics (Logan, 2016).