lørdag 10. oktober 2015

Practical Explorations of Research Methods

The new early childhood teacher education program in Norway is in its third year for the first time. New graduates, with a brand new profession name “barnehagelærer”, are expected in Spring 2016, after they pass a number of exams; Among the obligatory exams there is an bachelor-degree-assignment to be carried out for the first time as a part of the new national program. The novelty may, in fact, be more exciting for the university teachers who are teaching at the program for the first rime, than for the students (who preferably attend the program only once and have nothing to compare it with). As one of the teachers, I am curious and a bit anxious about the outcomes of the program: would the changes we have been working so hard on pay off in form of more self-confident, attentive, caring, responsible early childhood teachers in close future?

In their bachelor-degree-assignment students are supposed to conduct a small research project and experience a role of a researcher. They can use a wide range of methods that are applicable to problem questions of their choice, possibly including collecting data in early childhood settings. I believe that a researcher is responsible not only for the way one conducts the research and how one treats subjects in her/his research, but also responsible for the choices of problems one wishes to address. Would the young unexperienced students be modest and reflected enough to pose appropriate questions that can fit the scope of their assignments? Will they be respectful and careful enough when they meet early childhood teachers, children or parents? Will they be able to recognize the influence of their values and attitudes on their conclusions and on people they meet? If not, I dread that their projects can do more harm than positive contribution to the practice field. 

I recently had a chance to introduce research methods to a group of third year students, and since I believe that theory is often difficult to understand prior to experience, my lecture stated with a small exploratory assignment. In order to illustrate how many choices have to be taken in an research process I gave the student groups of 4-5 students different objects and questions to discuss: One group, for instance, got a pile of Lego blocks of different sizes, shapes and colors and were told to find “the average block”; another group was given three different kinds of grapes and were to decide which type tasted best; yet another group was given a shoe to analyze in order to make a story what had happened with the shoe. (The specific shoe had, in fact, received an extraordinary treatment last summer when the shoe soles fell off under the feet of an unexperienced young friend I inited to a dangerous mountain trip.) 

It was interesting and surprising to see how the students went on in solving their assignments. None of them did it the way I expected, which made it even more interesting. The group which was given a bag of strange dried fruits (something I bought on an exotic marked and had no idea what it was) was supposed to find the fruit piece that had “the best quality”. I hoped the question would intrigue them to, among other things, discuss the notion of quality and how it can be uncovered. They did do so, but the definition they came up with was quite a surprise: Their definition of fruit quality did not concern the shape, size, smell, color, dryness or something that could be of importance for something eatable; they instead tested which of the fruits had the best bouncing quality. Just like that, my students’ creativity disclosed my delimiting expectations! But, of course, I though: if the fruits were considered as objects for play, one could assign new meanings to them disregarding of their original function. The student’s playful attitude made them apprize the qualities invisible for those who would focus on the objects’ original functions. Not knowing is a gift to open-mindedness.

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