Teaching A-level Research Methods: Part 2

Virtual Research in a Real Location

The idea here is that we use students’ knowledge of a real location as the basis for virtual research: while the scenario is real – a location such as a high street, shopping mall, school or college – students aren’t required to carry-out any real (time-consuming) research. Rather, they use their knowledge and experience of a real-world location to inform their understanding of research methods.

  1. Walk the Talk

How to prepare the ground for the Border Walking and subsequent teaching is something for individual teachers, but a couple of things can be usefully observed.

Firstly, in terms of how to organise Specification teaching, my preference is:

a. Education: this gives students a good understanding of ideas, issues and concepts (such as hidden curriculum) they can later apply to research methods. Their familiarity with the sociology of education guides both the Walk and how they can apply different methods to different questions.

b. Methods: An in-depth knowledge and understanding of the research methods etc. students are expected to know.

c. Methods in Context: practice questions and the like that brings together all they have previously learnt.

Secondly, a general introduction to research methods / methodology would be helpful, if only to give students some indication of the range of methods available and how they might be used to research different aspects of education. In Part 1 we detailed a range of different methods to consider, keeping in mind that different exam boards may:

• ask for a slightly different range of methods

• use different terminologies when referencing methods (such as “group interviews” rather than “focus groups”)

You can make this Introduction as extensive as you like but the initial objective is just to give students a general feel for Methods they can take into their Walk.

Note: A variation here is to introduce research methods prior to starting education in a very broad way. This might, for example, include things like: outlines of the different methods to cover, the difference between primary / secondary sources / data, the difference between quantitative and qualitative sources / data etc.

The idea here is that a basic introduction to methods gives you the opportunity to discuss / signpost different methods in the context of educational research.

  1. Walk the Walk

We need to anchor teaching in a real location – preferably one already reasonably familiar and that can be relatively easily walked. My preference is somewhere like a High Street or Shopping Mall, particularly if you’re looking at methods in the context of crime, but if you want to anchor methods to education then an obvious place to walk is your school or college.

If you go down this particular route, so to speak, it would be as well to get necessary permissions, warn your colleagues etc. in advance of your plans. This can work to your advantage if, for example, you have colleagues willing to let your students into their class for a few minutes to observe what’s going on etc.

Wherever you choose the Walk should, ideally, be a physical one: teacher and students should share a stroll around their chosen landscape. While it’s possible to take a virtual walk – especially if you’re going to study a place very familiar to everyone – a physical walk adds to the sense of identification and attachment. A-level students may rarely participate as a group “outside the class” and this simple “act of exception” makes things more memorable.

How long you spend Walking is entirely your choice but it’s probably best to do the Walk in class time when all your students are together – and you might want to encourage students to record their Walk; active observation helps keep them focused on the task at hand. Ask them to:

• Write down observations, questions etc.

• Take pictures of the landscape

• Record the sounds of the landscape

• Take short video clips of things that catch their attention.

If you’re on private property (such as a school / college or Shopping Mall) you will need permission to film, take photos, etc. On public land, such as a High Street, there are no such restrictions, even where you might be filming or photographing someone on their private property. There are also issues involved with filming / photographing those under the age of 16 – something you will need to take on board if this is a potential issue. On the other hand, if these issues intrude they can be incorporated into the teaching process when you talk about various research methods, their uses and limitations, ethics, safety and the like.

Recording your walk gives you the option of recreating it in the classroom, as either a real-world display or, if your students have the skills, a virtual display. This is useful because:

  1. It’s always available for students if they need to reference it.
  2. You can build it into a wider resource by adding the methods’ materials you develop in the later stages of the process. This is helpful for both revision and future students.
  3. It gives you the opportunity to share your resource with teachers / students in other schools or colleges.

Part of the reason for doing the Walk is to stimulate ideas about possible areas of research (from the hidden curriculum through differential achievement to pupil subcultures and styles) they can take back to the classroom for the next stage in the process.

A further reason is that “Walking” (physically, mentally or a combination of the two) involves thinking about how different methods could be used to study the location. This makes students think about methodological questions (ethics, reliability, validity, representatives, generalisability) as well as the nuts-and-bolts of using a particular research method.

The third and final part of this series looks at how you can Talk the Walk.

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