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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 14, 2004
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Exploring the usefulness of a conceptual framework as a research tool: A researcher's reflections

Robyn Smyth
University of New England
This paper outlines one researcher's reflections on the development and use of a conceptual framework as a research tool. Firstly, it discusses the conditions upon which a conceptual framework was devised and used in a major research study. Secondly, it provides evidence concerning the efficacy of the conceptual framework for its purpose in that study. Finally, the paper briefly explores possible transferability of the framework more generally into education contexts. The study referred to in the discussion was a large scale study of educational change management investigating the introduction of an innovative new curriculum, Dual Accredited Vocational Courses, into the senior years of high school in New South Wales (Smyth, 2002).


In the early 1990s, I was a practitioner implementing vocational education in the senior secondary curriculum. In order to understand the complexity of the implementation and the contexts in which teachers were working, I began to research educational change management. Having begun construction of my knowledge from the bodies of literature surrounding contemporary educational change theorising and philosophical discourse, I needed an organiser. Concept maps provided some assistance but provided insufficient structure for my purpose, so I developed a matrix juxtaposing key themes from educational change literature and Habermasian philosophy. This was a significant step forward in organising my thinking. As a tool for my Doctoral research, this conceptual framework provided reference points back to the literature, assisted me to make meaning of my data and provided a structured approach to communicating my findings. It became the core of my thesis. Over subsequent years, I have reflected on the framework's generalisability to organise my thinking about other educational problems and settings since it shows some potential as a meta-analysis tool. This paper reflects my thoughts on why my conceptual framework was constructed, why it was useful as a research tool in my particular study and whether it has potential beyond the context for which it was devised.

The paper addresses these issues by providing evidence in answer to three main questions.

  1. What is a conceptual framework?
  2. Why was the conceptual framework useful in the study described?
  3. What potential is there for transferability?

What is a conceptual framework?

A conceptual framework is described as a set of broad ideas and principles taken from relevant fields of enquiry and used to structure a subsequent presentation (Reichel & Ramey, 1987). When clearly articulated, a conceptual framework has potential usefulness as a tool to scaffold research and, therefore, to assist a researcher to make meaning of subsequent findings. Such a framework should be intended as a starting point for reflection about the research and its context. The framework is a research tool intended to assist a researcher to develop awareness and understanding of the situation under scrutiny and to communicate this. As with all investigation in the social world, the framework itself forms part of the agenda for negotiation to be scrutinised and tested, reviewed and reformed as a result of investigation (Guba & Lincoln, 1989).

In my study of educational change management surrounding the implementation of vocational education in the NSW State school system, I was interested in exploring whether appropriate change management practices, identified in the educational change and leadership literature, were evident and successful. In order to investigate these ideas from the literature, I needed a metacognitive perspective. Assumptions expounded by the constructivist movement concerning the nature of knowledge provided an apparently secure philosophical tether for my investigation of complex interactions between practitioners and system administrators. These assumptions informed the development of the conceptual framework as well as the research design and the means of investigating the realities of the situation (Smyth, 2002 Ch. 3).

In my case, the conceptual framework became the heart of the study as the research gained momentum. It increasingly scaffolded, strengthened and kept my research on track by

Subsequently, I realised that the generalist nature of the principles and descriptors forming the conceptual framework were not idiosyncratic to its context and that it may have potential to assist me to gain further insight into other aspects of the perplexing failure of many educational change management processes.

Nevertheless, there are some cautions to be aware of when utilising a conceptual framework. Firstly, the framework is a construction of knowledge bounded by the life-world experiences of the person developing it and should not be attributed a power that it does not have. Secondly, the nature of a conceptual framework means that it consciously, or unconsciously informs thought and practice by increasing personal sensitivity to notice particular occurrences so this must be accounted for (Mason & Waywood, 1996). Thirdly, no researcher can expect that all data will be analysed using the framework without the risk of limiting the results from the investigation. By considering these cautions, I hoped I could remain open to new or unexpected occurrences in the data and the investigation more generally (Miles & Huberman, 1994).

A set of broad ideas and principles taken from relevant fields of enquiry

One of those curious, yet illuminating experiences where several threads of thought coalesce beautifully led me to realise that two apparently separate, but extensive, bodies of knowledge could be used as cornerstones for organising my thinking. From philosophy, Habermas' three orientations to knowledge formation (Grundy, 1987b; Mezirow, 1981; Young, 1989) could be aligned against contemporary theorising about educational change.

In particular, Michael Fullan's (1981; 1991) theorising about educational change is detailed, grounded in case study research, maintains currency over an extended period and is prominent in the literature of educational leadership, change and management (Hargeaves, Lieberman, Fullan, & Hopkins, 1998). Over the last 30 years, Fullan's writing and educational change theorising has shown us a way forward through perplexing mazes of educational change failures by providing many useful signposts. The focus of his most recent theorising and reflection (Fullan, 1998), amidst the continuation of unexplained failures, made me consider whether his theorising could be enhanced by closer reference to modernist philosophical discourse exploring the basis for individual's belief systems.

Significantly, my reading of Shirley Grundy's application of Jurgen Habermas' ideas to an educational setting seemed to provide the metacognitive cornerstone I needed (Grundy, 1987a, 1992; Grundy & Schibeci, 1987). Habermas' philosophy appeared suitable because of its coherence as a macro-theory underpinning extensive subsequent theorising (Elliott, 2001) and its inherent applicability to the analysis of educational change as an activity undertaken in the social world. In his theory of knowledge formation, Habermas theorises that human beings socially construct their knowledge and that the perspective that they generally use, governs their actions with respect to each other and their environment. He proposes three interests or perspectives, which he calls the technical, practical and emancipatory interests. He asserts that these three interests influence the values and behaviour of every human being (Frankel, 1979).

The extent and currency of these two bodies of literature provided me with a sound foundation for my conceptual framework because I could draw on this extensive and collaborated theorising to devise a common language, guiding principles and reference points from which to structure discussion and analysis. How well my conceptual framework fulfilled these conditions in its initial application is the subject of the major discussion below.

A structure for discussion and presentation of research findings

Structuring the framework so that I could communicate it was my next challenge. After several iterations, I decided to construct a matrix divided horizontally into five main themes derived as principles from the educational change literature. These were presented as horizontal bands intersecting vertical columns of descriptors aligned to defining characteristics of Habermas' knowledge-constitutive interest, which headed the vertical columns.

Choosing the language for the descriptions in the body of the matrix took careful consideration but in the end, Grundy's (1987b) insightful discussion of each of Habermas' interests and Fullan's (1991) description of his educational change principles provided ample guidance. My descriptors formed the common-language reference points for discussion, judgements and reporting.

In a two dimensional framework it is difficult to illustrate how commonplace it is for most people to act, knowingly or unknowingly, from more than one interest even though one may dominate. For example, how could I show the tensions that arise between the need for control, typical of the technical interest, and the need for collaboration and freedom typical of the practical and emancipatory interests, respectively? In addition, I was aware that elements of each theme overlap considerably so I considered the horizontal rows to be permeable, parts of an intertwined context rather than isolated strategies making independent contributions to the situation under consideration. To indicate some sense of this vertical permeability and potential for horizontal transition, the internal divisions between descriptors were shown as dotted lines. Similarly, my awareness that people continually develop their professional and personal beliefs and attitudes in complex ways made it essential that I be reminded of the framework's limitations. Despite these reservations, I found it useful to include a section of the matrix as a structural organiser for my discussion of each research question and the analysis of data relevant to it. (See Table 1)

Table 1: Vision building and evolutionary planning strategies

Habermas' knowledge interest characteristics
technical interestpractical interestemancipatory interest
Educational change strategyControl of the environment; action according to proven rules of behaviour; product-oriented curriculumUnderstanding of the environment; action based on interaction and considered judgment; curriculum as practiceAutonomy from the environment; action is moral and implies justice and equality; curriculum as praxis
Formation of beliefs and attitudes towards changePlanners formulate objectives of change. Reinforcement of existing traditions and structures through objectification of reality. Power rests with bureaucracy.Shared vision, consensus decision-making among individuals and dynamic, interactive evolutionary planning to achieve multiple goals. Subjective realities change towards objective reality as meaning is derived.Collective action is planned to achieve justice and equality in society. Genuine negotiation within a culture, which agitates for change for the betterment of the group.
Goal formationGoal formation rests with policy-makers. Autocratic, usually top down orientation to management.Loosely coupled individuals and groups actively share in participatory decision-making and goal formation. Individual focus although group action is possible.Critical reflection and authentic insight reveal goals. A group focus committed to right moral action - social improvement.
Commitment to change by practitionersPractitioners' commitment is assumed because change is logical and enforced. Fidelity is assumed.Commitment is developed through interaction and involvement of individual practitioners in planning.Collective commitment by participants forms the basis of action to achieve social justice.
Assumptions of plannersFidelity of implementation is assumed and planned for in an orderly input / output process. Reform by brute sanity.Recognition that there are multiple ways of achieving change. Adaptation of initiatives to suit local conditions is preferable.The evolution of critical theories, which explain how freedom is inhibited by ideology, underpins all action.
Source: Extract from Conceptual Framework (Smyth, 2002)

By their position within text, the extracts acted as reference points back to the literature as the principle elements of educational theorising were used to explicitly derive research sub-questions. The literature review supported the investigation through the conceptual framework where it provided reference points from which judgements could be made following the data analysis in subsequent chapters.

The fulfilment of certain conditions is necessary to ensure the credibility of the framework as a research tool supporting investigation. The criteria I used for making judgements about the appropriateness of my conceptual framework queried whether it

Was the conceptual framework useful?

My study set out to

Recommendations included alterations to change management strategies to reduce tensions and miscommunication through more authentic collaboration, vision building and evolutionary planning.

As part of my conclusion, I indicated that my thesis had achieved its aims, despite some reservations, by using a robust qualitative methodology guided by the underpinning philosophy of the conceptual framework and developed in conjunction with it. Since it assisted me to organise my thinking and complete my investigation successfully, the conceptual framework also served its purpose. This assertion of usefulness resulted from justification against the external criteria discussed above. Those conditions for verification of a conceptual framework were interrogated within the research (Mason & Waywood, 1996; Minichiello et al., 1999). The discussion of that interrogation provides the basis for the remainder of this paper.

Did the conceptual framework provide a common language from which to describe the situation under scrutiny and to report the research findings?

Although the common language of the framework was tethered to the philosophical foundations of the research, it relied on my understanding of very complex educational change theorising and philosophical discourse. By attaching common language from one (Habermas' theory) to the other (educational change theory) I hoped to

  • ensure consistency in the discussion
  • provide a broad foundation for the investigation
  • increase the clarity of reporting.

    The elements of educational change theory discussed in the literature review and the actions of stakeholders, reported in the data, were both described using the language of the conceptual framework. By using the descriptions in the cells of the conceptual framework as my primary language, I attempted to identify the dominant knowledge interest underlying communications and actions that stakeholders reported in my data. I used this language in my analysis and reporting. For example, these quotes from the literature review and presentation of findings, respectively, use language from the centre cell in the first row of the conceptual framework quoted in the extract above.

    The literature predicts that shared vision becomes the driving force of change. It is during the vision building process that stakeholders can form beliefs, attitudes, and goals developing the commitment to support change (Smyth, 2002)

    The implementers' responses indicated that the development of a clear, shared vision did not appear to be planned and explicitly developed in system-wide implementation strategies Consequently, the breadth of initial implementation appeared to depend on contextual factors such as the complementarity between the beliefs and attitudes comprising the cultural milieu of individuals in particular school sites and the policy handed down by the system. (Smyth, 2002)

    From the research outcomes, I believe that this common language increased my clarity and consistency of communication by being a useful means of describing, analysing and communicating the indicators of personal belief systems exhibited in the data. Recommendations drawing on literature and data also utilised the descriptors from the framework:

    Sergiovanni (1998) concludes that changes in school structures and arrangements in the short run are the result when schools are viewed as economic resources. In contrast, change forces leveraging deep change over the long term are premised on views of schools as communities. Rephrased in line with this researcher's conceptual framework, quick structural changes will result from actions to control change mainly using the technical interest while longer-term deep changes require broader-scale action aimed at improving the social good mainly using action in the practical interest. (Smyth, 2002)

    The descriptors in my conceptual framework provided me with a useable common language to consistently describe, analyse and report implementers' perceptions of the implementation of Dual Accredited Vocational Courses by the Department of Education and Training in NSW. Since then I have found that the descriptors provide useful triggers for broader reflection about the role of interpersonal communication in educational change management generally.

    Did the conceptual framework develop a set of guiding principles against which judgements and predictions might be made?

    The guiding principles of the conceptual framework were consistent with the methodology underpinning the study since these were necessarily derived from constructivist paradigms suited to inquiry in the social world of education. Congruence was explicitly established between the means of investigating the situation (methodology), the nature of the situation's reality (ontology) and the form of the knowledge (epistemology) suited to the research. This congruence supported an overarching framework of guiding principles assisting me to make meaning from my investigation. The epistemology of the framework was grounded in Habermas' practical interest where the prime motivation involved understanding the environment within which actions were taking place. The ontology resided in the social world of human interaction so a primarily qualitative methodology was most appropriate. The risk that my na´ve understanding could lead me to derive and/or use my framework inappropriately was a concern but the research outcomes indicated that my understanding and interpretation of theorising was credible.

    In terms of the context provided by the analysis of the implementation of an innovative new curriculum, judgements and recommendations were made about the structures and processes used to manage the implementation. Therefore, the guiding principles provided by the conceptual framework fulfilled these criteria. Now, the basic tenets of the conceptual framework should be tested in further scholarly and research activity.

    Did the conceptual framework act as a set of reference points from which to locate the research questions within contemporary theorising?

    The research goals and questions were framed within the context of contemporary educational change theorising as well as the assumptions about knowledge and its formation arising from philosophical theorising. Combined, these bodies of relevant enquiry provided the structural reference points maintaining the integrity of enquiry and the focus of investigation. As indicated above, the framework was conceptually aligned with the methodology and epistemology driving the research so it provided a suitable backbone for the thesis, in line with the broad aims of the research.

    The constructions of my own knowledge shaped the detail within the cells during the early work of the investigation but this process generally halted once the review of the literature was completed and no new or relevant information could be added. Subsequently, the framework remained stable with minor modifications to improve the clarity of language being the only changes. Since the reference points inherent in the framework were established in concert with the literature review, this enabled explicit location of the research questions within that theorising.

    My evolving understanding of the theory underpinning this work and the implications of using my conceptual framework as a research tool were important learning experiences derived from the research activity. The acknowledging of the risks associated with limiting the research findings by using a conceptual framework to inform the research task was essential. As with any relational analysis, development of a conceptual framework assists the researcher by providing tools with which to complete two processes (Bliss, Monk, & Ogborn, 1983). Firstly, the process of deriving the framework gives broad scope to thinking about the research and conceptualising the problem. Secondly, it provides a means to link ideas and data so that deeper connections can be revealed. My conceptual framework did inform much of my thought and practice by increasing my sensitivity towards the possible influence of Habermas' knowledge constitutive interests and the principles of educational change theory enunciated by Michael Fullan, in particular. However, these bodies of literature were not exclusively considered even though they largely provided boundaries for the research. Indeed, my reading of complementary literature challenged my emerging framework as it informed my decision-making and judgements about its development.

    I was cautious about the applicability that my framework has as a set of reference points locating my research within contemporary theorising but concurrent literature (Fullan, 1998; Hargeaves, 1998a, 1998b; Sergiovanni, 1998) and the outcomes of my investigation vindicated its usefulness as a set of reference points relative to contemporary theorising.

    Did the framework provide a structure within which to organise the content of the research and to frame conclusions within the research context?

    The organisation of the conceptual framework into a matrix was rather simplistic because this structure implies clear boundaries between conceptual elements and such clarity is not usually evident in human interaction. Nevertheless, excerpts from the framework were useful organisers from which to structure the review of the literature and were a means of providing reference points for the investigation.

    Procedurally, I approached my data analysis with an open mind but acknowledged my sensitivity towards data clearly demonstrating issues and concepts, which were highlighted in the literature. As mentioned earlier, I was cautious not to expect that all of my data could be analysed using my conceptual framework. My choice of NVivo (QSR, 1999) computer software as a data analysis and management tool not only complemented my methodology but it provided added assurance that I could collect and thoroughly analyse unexpected data (QSR, 1999; Richards, 1999) from 285 respondents addressing eight themes concerning the introduction of a competency-based curriculum, the adequacy of resourcing and professional development and the organisational aspects of teaching senior students who were learning in the workplace as well as in the school classroom. The measures against which the trustworthiness of my data analysis were evaluated indicated that I had adequately accounted for unexpected occurrences so I believe that my framework did provide an adequate means of reporting data without constraining my analysis.

    At a higher conceptual level, Habermasian theory provided an appropriate and contextually consistent structure from which to analyse the data and to frame conclusions. Thus, the conceptual framework provided a multi-level structure supporting the research. Therein lay another dilemma. As indicated above, the organisation of the conceptual framework into a matrix was simplistic because clear boundaries were implied between the cells within the matrix. In all probability, transition zones existed between cells, allowing individuals freedom to utilize different orientations depending upon their circumstances. In addition, the matrix-type structure could be criticised for being technical in the Habermasian sense because its presentation appeared to define characteristics as discreet entities and to confine thinking to two dimensions. I acknowledged that a multi-dimensional layering and overlapping of orientations was more likely in the social world and that this complexity demanded a more dynamic arrangement than the structure portrayed by the matrix. Indeed, my pursuit of understanding about the context of educational change prompted my thinking at levels of abstraction not illustrated by my two dimensional conceptual framework and I identified at least three dimensions including time and circumstance or role, which could have been added to increase realism. Similarly, the boundaries within the framework could have been more flexible and porus to indicate the potential to move out from one orientation towards another or retreat from a new position when challenged.

    Even though a flexible, multi-layered, three dimensional, loosely-bounded structure could have portrayed the innate flexibility and diversity of human interaction in the social world more adequately, than my two dimensional matrix, it may not have been suitable for this analysis of the tightly bounded organisational and cultural fabrics of the schools and system under scrutiny. Nevertheless, the conceptual framework for my study did provide a useful structure for me to organise the content of the thesis, to analyse one educational change event, to draw relevant conclusions and to make appropriate recommendations.

    What potential is there for transferability?

    The usefulness of the conceptual framework, as a research tool, is illustrated by my ability to identify and account for occurrences of actions and behaviours in my data through the descriptors in the cells of the framework. To me, the power of the framework as a way of organising my thinking about educational change was its great strength because of the cognitive bridge provided by philosophical discourse which assisted me to theorise more abstractly about the inexplicable reality of continuing educational change failure. That strength arose from the juxtaposition of two bodies of theory previously considered in relative isolation from one another. By applying the language of Habermas' theory to my thinking about the principles of educational change theory, I made strong connections between the potential for the unarticulated belief systems of stakeholders to create blockages to the achievement of educational change.

    The conceptual framework developed to support my study enabled me to answer my research questions by

    The most important outcome from the research was that my conceptual framework demonstrated its potential as a meta-analysis tool by fulfilling the conditions set for it. By the criteria outlined above, it was judged to be a useful research tool in the context for which it was developed. These are the criteria that any researcher should satisfy regardless of the simplicity or complexity of the framework being evaluated.

    In my case, I constructed a complex framework because it suited my need to organise my thinking about a complex situation. The juxtaposition of primary theorising from educational change literature and Habermasian philosophy provided a common language, a set of guiding principles and a series of reference points that I believe have efficacy as a meta-analysis tool with potential for organising my thinking about other educational change contexts because these cornerstones are founded in large bodies of educational change theorising and philosophical discourse rather than the particular context of my research study.


    The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of her doctoral supervisors, Drs David Laird and Ted Redden of the School of Education Studies, University of New England, Australia. Their advice, guidance and encouragement considerably improved the outcome of the research.


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    Author: Dr Robyn Smyth is now a Lecturer in Higher Education in the Teaching and Learning Centre of the University of New England, Australia. Robyn has strong research interests in the management of change in education settings, the use of rich media in distance education and in the practices of curriculum development and academic staff support.
    Email: rsmyth@pobox.une.edu.au

    Please cite as: Smyth, R. (2004). Exploring the usefulness of a conceptual framework as a research tool: A researcher's reflections. Issues In Educational Research, 14(2), 167-180. http://www.iier.org.au/iier14/smyth.html

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