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Dark and disruptive methodologies

March 29th, 2010

We’ve had a group interview now where some of us inside NZCER who blog here talked about the different ways this blog space shifts our thinking about what it means to conduct qualitative research. One of the key issues that arose was about purpose, about what our purpose was for being here, what your purpose is for showing up, and why we might want to do research differently in the first place. Rachel has already blogged about the purpose of this website (and used the cool idea of “cognitive surplus”). The thing the focus group left me wondering about, though, was the purpose of educational research in general and the ways that blog spaces like this one could be a disruptive and potentially frightening innovation in the world of educational research.

This website-and the conversations that are happening at NZCER because of the website and because of the AERA paper—opens up the possibility for people that there is a new thing afoot, a new way of doing and thinking about research. For some folks (like Rachel, as you may have noticed) that’s a thrill, a buzz, a fun ride. For others (maybe like me?) it’s a curiosity, a thing that is interesting and a little scary, a roller coaster ride with more than a hint of danger. For others of our colleagues (including presumably some of those we haven’t talked to about it at all), there’s more than a hint of danger. For those in the third category, this way of thinking about research –even imagining that we might call this research in the first place—puts cherished ideas and practices at risk, and just might bring down the whole show.

For people who are in the second two categories (nervous but curious and straight-out-worried), this way of thinking about educational research dismantles many good things—and maybe creates ill-advised risks. These folks (which admittedly sometimes include me) think that educational research is untidy enough already—we have all these different perspectives to understand, the messy world of learning and growing—we hardly need to go searching for new challenges! And, let’s face it, it took us YEARS to learn to do research in the first place. Some of us are still paying off our student loans (ok, me again). We took our training seriously and we worked hard to be researchers, and now we have this website where the boundaries get blurred and you can hardly tell the researchers from the researched (and in this project, you can’t tell at all).

There’s a way this reminds me of the “disruptive innovation” idea from Clayton Christensen, that truly reforming innovation has to disrupt and unsettle the entire enterprise.  He says (on his website): that disruptive innovation:

describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.”

A key example is the way personal computers totally displaced the enormous mainframe computers and drove those who were successful to the bottom of the food chain. In an established market, those who are already successfully in the inner circle tend to remain successful until the disruptive innovation climbs in (think regular phones to cell phones, Walkmans to i-pods). Then the new guy, with the new innovation, knocks the old guy off the perch.

The idea is that those who are currently successful get complacent, tinkering their way toward a better and better product rather than reimagining the whole enterprise.  In this way, success actually diminishes innovation and limits the scope for what could be possible. The new, disruptive folks make use of new technologies. They imagine new customer groups, people who were not served in any way by the original product or service. In rethinking the whole idea, they create new markets and new products which are often less sophisticated but are more useful in their own way. Could educational research be like that? Could shiftingthinking.org be a disruptive force?

Is this blog meant to be “selling” educational research, in chatty, blog-bites, to a whole new set of “customers”? And what does that mean for how we think about what we do? What does that mean for the fact that now anyone with a computer can engage with our findings, our analysis, our careful thinking? What does it mean to us that we put thinking out there before it’s even gotten very careful yet? (Or that some of us feel comfortable doing this and some of us don’t.) What is the purpose for the upmarket educational research, conducted by people with years of training, which leads to thoughtful, reflective, carefully-produced products (= journal articles, research reports, occasional resources)? What is the potentially disruptive purpose of the research we talk about in this space? Do we want to build on what has come before or dismantle it?

In the focus group, one of us talked, in moving and lovely ways, about having shiftingthinking.org and its publish-then-filter activities challenge old ways of thinking about and engaging in research. Even more, it challenged “Everything I would have believed for most of my life.” That person was open and engaged with this task, but still, that challenge is a big ask. What are we gaining by asking researchers to reconceive the enterprise? In what ways does educational research need to be disrupted? And in what ways are we losing something precious by changing the way we think about and engage in research?

AERA paper due in just over a week. Your comments are helpful constantly.

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