This article focuses on the collaborative research process, particularly on how groups work through theoretical and personal differences to reach publication and dissemination of results. Decisions about the research question, methodology, data gathering and the preparation of findings are examined within the framework of co-operative learning theory with reference to Australian Traveller education. The development of a research community is not accidental; neither is it suggested that the process examined here should be adopted by all research groups. Having a process to guide mediation, however, is likely to be more successful than embarking on joint research without any operational framework.
Over the past decade, a group of researchers at Central Queensland University has been investigating the educational issues faced by a large group of folk known in the research literature as 'occupational Travellers'. This area covers many different groups, such as itinerant fruit-pickers, sailors, and travelling actors. Our research team focussed on yet other groups, namely people (including children) belonging to the Showmen's Guild of Australasia and the Circus Federation of Australasia (Wyer et al., 1997). The research relating to show people culminated in a recent book (Danaher, 1998a), which subsequently won a prize for research excellence from the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia (ODLAA).
A foundation professor of education was appointed to UCCQ in 1991. He saw his responsibility (amongst many) as being to reshape and reinvigorate what had been a traditional teacher training institution into a university culture of scholarship and research. To achieve such a goal, research and teaching (R & T) groups were instituted within the faculty. These R & T groups were quite deliberately set up to take academic staff out of and beyond their traditional teaching roles, into broader loose groupings of commonalities in research interests. Three groups were set up: one concerned with teaching and learning issues, a second with policy issues, and a third with professional development. The third group, with which all the current writers remain identified, flourished, though soon re-shaping its identity into the Traveller Education Group.
Collaboration [in research] is most likely to be successful when collaborators meet regularly and set realistic but flexible deadlines. Basic conditions for success include respecting each other, not getting one's ego too involved, being willing to give and take constructive criticism without being defensive, not worrying about an exact division of labor being willing to explore topics that may not be of primary interest, and being willing to keep going even in the face of obstacles.The quotation from Hafernik et al. (1997) immediately struck a chord for the members of our research team because it so effectively and succinctly encapsulated the ways that we work together. Another interesting point about this quotation is that it represents a parallel theoretical position to the Johnson and Johnson (1998) theory of co-operative communities that we use as a basis to guide our operations throughout each step in the research process. In this section of the paper, the links between the positions of Hafernik et al. (1997) and Johnson and Johnson (1998) are explored at both theoretical and practical levels before being applied to our methods of data collection in the next section.
The reference to meeting regularly and setting 'realistic but flexible deadlines' (Hafernik et al., 1997, p. 35) relates to elements of the first principle of Johnson and Johnson's (1998) theory: positive interdependence. Possibly the strategy that is the centrepiece of working together in our research team is our practice of withdrawing ourselves from other aspects of university life several times per year to conduct research retreats among ourselves. These are the main occasions when mutual goals, which are part of positive interdependence, and priorities are determined, both for working at the research retreat and for the work that we continue after the retreat. In fact, this section of the paper is being written on the first afternoon of a two-day retreat, after spending the morning reviewing data that had been collected since the previous retreat, determining priorities in the light of new opportunities, reviewing time-lines and deciding what we would endeavour to achieve over the two days.
Each time that we undertake these processes in a research retreat, our shared identity is strengthened. Through our discussions this morning, we have shared the resources that each of us has brought with us, both tangible and in terms of ideas, knowing that we will also share the rewards of our labours. At this moment, we are each performing complementary goals by writing our individual parts in papers that we are writing, or scrutinising interview schedules as part of data analysis.
In working on our individual goals for the afternoon, we are also providing the opportunity for each of us meet the expectation of individual accountability, one of the principles of Johnson and Johnson's (1998) theory that is often the most contentious in many groups. It could be argued that having the expectation that each group member will contribute to the group's goals is not enough, even when each person in the group feels committed to the decisions made together. Our experience suggests that it is imperative that the responsibility for finding the time to undertake individual tasks is as much a joint responsibility as it is an individual one. Too often, people are placed in groups and expected to work together and to be individually accountable in situations in which the structures that are meant to support productivity are actually counter-productive. The research retreats enable us to have the time, space and renewed energy, which comes from the synergy of the group, to contribute to some of the tasks relating to individual accountability, such as reporting back and writing. In our busy lives as academics, we need the impetus that the retreats provide to help sustain our efforts at other times.
Research retreats therefore provide the structures for supporting individual responsibilities as well as opportunities to practise the 'Basic conditions for success [that] include respecting one another, not getting one's ego too involved, being willing to give and take constructive criticism without being defensive, not worrying about the exact division of labor, being willing to explore topics that may not be of primary interest' (Hafernik et al., 1997, p. 35). The parallel principle in Johnson and Johnson's conception of a co-operative community is interpersonal and small group skills.
At research retreats and away from the stress and urgency associated with modern academic life, it is easier to be proactive rather than reactive and to be positive and excited about what can be done as opposed to disheartened about what cannot be done. Working closely with colleagues who are also friends is not very conducive to expanding one's ego. More effort is spent on listening to what team members are saying, asking questions and making decisions that affect what we do in practice and recognising that not all members can be equally productive all the time. Encouraging members to take leadership roles in situations such as when we are exploring different possible directions helps to minimise potential conflicts because each member's ideas are valued as we take on another of the Johnson and Johnson (1998) principles, promotion of one another's success through giving help, support, encouragement and praise, as we develop our interpersonal skills further through trust-building and effective communication.
Finally, research retreats often keep us going when we are faced with obstacles; they also help keep us focussed on our goals. At our retreats, we always engage in what Johnson and Johnson (1998) have called group processing or reflection. We review the extent to which our goals are being achieved and reflect on how well we are working together, taking into account individuals' prior histories in terms of what they have already contributed to the group and their present circumstances. Considering one another's circumstances and how we can complement one another and provide support, particularly when individuals have personal reasons for why they may be less able to contribute at different times, allows the group to keep its momentum.
Another reason why we agree that interviews should be conducted by us relates to ethics. The members of our team are the ones who have negotiated with potential interviewees regarding the purpose and aims of the research, methods of data collection and the use and dissemination of results. We believe that it is our responsibility to follow through ourselves with the interviews and to be sensitive to the views of participants. In fact, in many ways, we have formed valuable partnerships in the research process that are of mutual benefit and interest and we wish to maintain this type of association.
Brainstorming, sharing individual ideas, making decisions and coming up with new ideas in the group are not only features of research retreats but have also occurred during data gathering when two or more members of the group visit a circus site together. During 1998, when two members spent a week interviewing circus personnel in Newcastle and Sydney, the idea of circuses as examples of successful co-operative communities emerged. This idea, which had its seeds in earlier research into co-operative learning by one of the team members (Moriarty, 1993, 1994; Moriarty, Douglas, Punch & Hattie, 1995; Moriarty, Geary & Turich, 1997; Moriarty & Rampton, 1998; Punch & Moriarty, 1997) was then presented to the other group members and scrutinised at the next research retreat. After careful consideration, the idea was then adopted as a major theoretical thrust in future stages of the study.
Data gathering, therefore, is an exercise that can result in more than just the collection of data, particularly if the members of the research team use a theoretical framework, such as the theory of co-operative communities, as a blueprint for their operations and provided that they do the data collection themselves. This immersion of the researchers in the field, both individually and in groups, not only impacts on the other aspects of the study such as data analysis and interpretation, but also gives the researchers an inside understanding of the 'flavour' of the circus that could not be accomplished in any other way that we have discovered.
Our view of the ways that circuses operate as co-operative communities is that we, as a community of researchers, and schools and classrooms as sites of co-operative communities, have much to learn from circus personnel that could be applied to a critical reflection of the ways that we operate within our own communities. We have found that key people who could be regarded as gatekeepers within circuses in Australia have warmly welcomed us and, together with performers and others in the circus, have been very forthcoming in sharing with us the details of how they work together successfully as a community. Co-operation has been occurring between gatekeepers at the circus and our research team members, even to the extent of producing a joint publication and a joint symposium presentation to teachers from around Australia who are interested in co-operative learning and co-operative communities (Moriarty & MacDonnell, 1998; MacDonnell & Moriarty, 1998).
In our approach to research, as indicated above, data analysis and interpretation are integrated with, rather than separated from, data collection. This is partly a practical response to the situation that confronts us when we return to work from our data collection trips. On our return, we are consumed by the daily exigencies of busy academics, and may be unable to analyse and interpret the data that we have gathered in a sustained way until the next time that we are together again - usually another research trip or retreat. Accordingly we work hard to maximise the outcomes of our research trips, by analysing and interpreting as well as collecting the data from our interviews and observations.
This approach is appropriate methodologically as well as practically. We see the processes of data collection, analysis and interpretation not as a linear sequence but rather as an integrated whole, with constant dialogue among the elements of conducting and reporting research. This means that we 'read' interview statements against our existing knowledge of Australian Traveller education and against the particular conceptual framework/s that we are deploying. There is thus an expectation that the data analysis and interpretation will contribute to theory building and not simply passively apply a pre-existing theory.
Integrating data analysis and interpretation with data collection in this way also accords with the theory of co-operative communities, particularly in relation to interpersonal and small group skills and group processing as outlined above. We use times between interviews, evenings on site and the journey home to reflect at length on the meaning and significance of what we have seen and heard. This requires us to listen to our colleagues, be prepared to put forward our own explanations and engage with one another's responses to those explanations, and manage any conflicting interpretations, either by reaching consensus or 'agreeing to disagree'. These activities involve decision making, trust building, communication and conflict management skills, and they might also involve leadership if one or two group members have been particularly responsible for advocating a specific conceptual framework for that phase of data gathering.
Similarly, data analysis and interpretation include returning to the aims and research questions outlined in the research grant application that funds the current round of data gathering, in order to ensure that we remain focussed on the specific approach outlined in that application. This involves reflecting at length on our shared understandings of what the data convey - shared because of our joint responsibility for the expenditure of the research funds in accordance with our stated intentions. This provides an opportunity for us to consider how well we are achieving the project's goals, and how effectively we are working together towards that achievement - both key elements of the group processing dimension of co-operative communities.
The first of these principles - positive interdependence - is reflected in the different writing styles and interests that each member of the research community is able to bring to collaborative writing tasks. It is important here to acknowledge the practice of writing in the broad sense, encompassing not just the production of refereed research articles with their evident value to the group, but also other material relevant to the work of a collaborative research community. This work ranges from grant applications to sharing ideas within an e-mail network. The ongoing production of text emphasises one of the principles that teachers of creative writing have been known to preach: 'A writer writes!' According writing a fundamental role within the work of the research community helps to habituate members in the demands of writing across different discourses and genres for different audiences with different outcomes. It is through such habitual writing that members come to develop individual (perhaps even idiosyncratic) stylistic flourishes, on the one hand, and a discipline that moulds their writing to fit in with the specific needs of the activity being undertaken, on the other. Habituation of writing also helps each member of the group accommodate the writing styles of others, such that the writing composition might constitute a symphony of differently modulated tones and melodies rather than a cacophony of discordant notes.
Individual accountability is evident in the division of labour within the writing process. This is negotiated in the organisation of the particular text being composed, and is contingent on considerations ranging from the relevant expertise of each member to deadlines that must be met. In a research publication, it is customarily the first named author who drives the process forward, playing a leading role in editing the publication so that it reflects the broad objectives of the paper and satisfies the demands of the journal for which it is being submitted. Other members are allotted particular sections and are guided in terms of word length and made aware of how their piece contributes to the paper as a whole.
Interpersonal and small group skills are evident in the way in which the research community negotiates particular issues arising from the writing process. These may range from fairly minor stylistic points to larger concerns about the overall effect of a certain writer's section. In some cases, a change of tone or emphasis, or a structural or methodological adjustment, can be negotiated so as to resolve these concerns. An open and co-operative research community recognises that there is a diverse array of strategies and approaches that can be brought to the writing process. Recognition of, and facility in engaging with, this diversity is important in de-personalising any possible tensions and circumventing individual sensitivities.
Promoting one another's success comes in the production of a successful writing outcome, such as the acknowledgment of a refereed publication or a grant application success. It is also evident, however, in valuing the different stylistic idiosyncrasies and imaginative flourishes that individual writers bring to these collaborative efforts. As much as anything, this helps to sustain the joy and excitement of the writing process, even as it is subject to particular constraints tied to the particular writing task being undertaken.
Group processing occurs in the editing of the writing. While, as mentioned above, customarily the first named author takes a leading role in determining the overall shape and feel of the finished article, each member of the writing community has a role to play in reflecting upon the contribution that her or his section has made to the publication as a whole. It is in this sense that writing, perhaps traditionally thought of as rather a solitary and even a lonely affair, can be moulded into a vital and integral part of the work of a co-operative research community.
The ethical dimension of research publication can be seen in specific issues arising from our primary responsibility: to the research participants. For example, we must endeavour to ensure that our public writing and speaking about Australian occupational Travellers remain faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the information sheet provided to interviewees and the consent form that they signed, such as by maintaining their anonymity. More broadly, we must limit the possibilities, among others, of advocating on behalf of Travellers, appropriating their 'otherness' and being complicit in their further marginalisation (Danaher, 1998b). While these issues are present throughout the research process, they are most likely to assume a public form in connection with the publication and dissemination of research findings.
The political dimension of such publication and dissemination is also significant. This includes the crucial fact that research publication constitutes public accountability for both the appropriate expenditure of research funds and our professional roles as academics. A complicating factor is that, with recent changes to government policy on funding universities, there is increased pressure on us to publish our research findings in refereed publications. While we have a number of such publications to date, we have declined to proceed exclusively down that path, preferring instead a 'mix' of publication forums that include non-refereed and professional journals and conferences that might be selected for their overall relevance to our research rather than for their perceived academic status. The point to emphasise is that we are seeking to construct a specialised field of research whose 'public face' is our publication and dissemination of findings and that is at once ethically defensible and politically responsible.
This brings us to the connection between research publication and dissemination and co-operative communities. Firstly, our writings provide an opportunity for the exercise of positive interdependence. Publication is a visible sign of the attainment of mutual goals; any resulting rewards are joint and enjoyed equally by all group members; roles of authors are publicly and clearly complementary; and all contributors share a developing identity. This outcome is enhanced, not diminished, by the fact that several of our writings are written as sole authors: this allows us to develop our distinctive personal interests while cross-referencing to other team members.
Secondly, publication is also an opportunity for promoting one another's success. As pressures on academics increase and the constraints on publishing and disseminating research findings grow, we use our group identity to help, support and encourage one another, for example by alternately taking the lead on particular writings and exhorting our colleagues to contribute what they are able for a specific paper. The publication of an article is the occasion for praising one another's efforts, the extent of such praise existing in proportion to the degree of difficulty in reaching publication.
The ethical and political dimensions of our publication and dissemination of findings, and the connections between those processes and outcomes and co-operative communities, are also apparent in our relations with the national and international contacts and networks that have arisen as a result of the research project. In Australia, these networks have included former and current executive officers of the Showmen's Guild of Australasia and the Circus Federation of Australasia, as well as the principal and staff members of the Brisbane School of Distance Education. Internationally, these networks were immeasurably enhanced by one team member's acceptance of an invitation to attend and present a paper (Danaher, 1996) at an international congress on Traveller education organised by the European Federation for the Education of the Children of the Occupational Travellers (EFECOT). Contacts made at that congress were subsequently cultivated and extended during the team member's recent study leave in Europe and Venezuela.
These Australian and international contacts and networks constitute opportunities to enlarge our co-operative research community to involve individuals and groups who, while they are not formal team members, are nevertheless included among the people with whom we engage in positive interdependence and praising one another's success. The example of a key circus person who has engaged in collaborative publications with us has already been cited. The principal of the Brisbane School of Distance Education has extended his support for the research project to providing access to his school, and his personal store of experiential knowledge, to two postgraduate students of a team member. Several of the international contacts are contributing to a special issue of the International Journal of Educational Research to be devoted to Traveller and nomadic education research (Danaher, 2000).
The procedures and outcomes of 'looking outwards', then, are very much in keeping with, and logical extensions of, the other elements of the research process. They demonstrate yet another crucial benefit of our actions and values as a co-operative research community: that, as more and more individuals and groups become connected with the project in multifarious ways, the team members and the project itself are indispensably affirmed, strengthened and validated.
Secondly and relatedly, the foregoing account is certainly not intended to represent a 'formula' or a 'recipe' for other educational researchers considering developing their own co-operative communities. Each co-operative community is unique; while the underlying principles might be the same, their application varies considerably from community to community. This paper, therefore, is very much 'our story', and we are definitely not telling that story in order to exhort others to tell the same story.
Thirdly, and as a corollary of the second point, we are ambivalent about any temptation to 'bureaucratise' the procedures that we have discussed. On the one hand, public recognition of co-operative research communities such as ours is to be welcomed - particularly if it is accompanied by increasingly scarce resources like research funds and time release from other commitments. On the other hand, administrative 'short cuts' do not work and in fact are highly counter-productive. So an administrator's edict to 'form some groups and produce some research outcomes' should be treated with the contempt that it deserves, partly because it derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of the principles of co-operative communities. A striking illustration of what we mean here was a system of 'compulsory mentoring' introduced to some Australian universities in the mid 1990s. The emphasis was on compliance and conformity (so that 'mentor' and 'mentee' were chastised for not returning a formal record of their meetings, for example), rather than on facilitation of authentic and productive professional relationships.
Fourthly, there is an evident need to balance the institutional forces driving research of the kind described in this paper with a desire to maintain the openness, dialogue, co-operation and energy that have driven the research project throughout its history. This balance informs the group's deliberations on the costs and gains of various initiatives and issues, such as: strategic directions; opportunism; managing change in personnel; division of labour; and questions of access.
Strategic directions refer to the ways in which the group has some idea of avenues that it might follow in the future. These directions are generally broad, commonly acknowledged pathways along which the group can travel with reasonably clear goals and outcomes in mind. For example, a strategic direction may involve seeking a greater international focus to the Traveller education research.
Opportunism, or looking for opportunities as they emerge, can be recognised as the other side of the coin from strategic directions. These opportunities might carry the Traveller education group down interesting alleys and by-ways as they emerge into vision. For example, if a member of the group was able to make contact with a family who is circumnavigating Australia by yacht, this could provide an opportunity for a research-related activity that may or may not be followed up with further work on this group of Travellers. Both strategic directions and opportunities need to take account, not only of the group's individual and shared interests and priorities, but also the institutional goals and strategies within which the researchers and the project are located.
Managing change in personnel relates to the fact that, as this project has evolved over nine years, there have been inevitable changes in personnel. The keys to managing such changes seem to be providing space for interested parties to enter and leave the group as circumstances dictate. As befits a group committed to travelling down diverse routes and engaging multiple sites of interest, the Traveller education team has been demonstrably open to different perspectives, methods and audiences, both in terms of its research publications and in its relations with Traveller communities.
Division of labour reflects the openness with which the research group has conducted its business, and which has contributed to a fair and equitable division of labour in terms of collecting and accessing data, writing publications, and communicating with various parties. This relates particularly to individual accountability, but it also resonates with the other principles of co-operative communities.
Access has been an important consideration in managing such a research group. This entails access to research grants, access to Traveller communities and access to publications. The research team is large enough for numerous and diverse opportunities to conduct and publish research to arise, yet small enough to operate reliable channels of communication, so that no single team member should feel slighted about not being involved in a particular grant application or publication.
Overall, then, we see the five principles of co-operative communities - positive interdependence, individual accountability, interpersonal and small group skills, promotion of one another's success and group processing (Johnson & Johnson, 1998) - as characterising not only Australian circuses (Moriarty, 2000) but also our own actions and beliefs as a research team. As the competing demands on the public and private lives of Australian academics grow in number and intensity, we take considerable heart from our development and ongoing regeneration of our co-operative research community. While perhaps not quite a case of 'all for one and one for all', the Australian Traveller education research team at Central Queensland University exemplifies the truth of the adage 'strength in numbers' while also allowing for individual creativities and interests. These are the deceptively simple findings of this reflection on our team approach to the research process.
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|Author details: The authors are all from Central Queensland University. Beverley Moriarty, Peter Hallinan & Patrick A. Danaher are in the Faculty of Education and Creative Arts; Geoff Danaher is in the Faculty of Informatics and Communication.
Address for correspondence: Dr Beverley Moriarty, Central Queensland University, PO Box 1319, Gladstone QLD 4680. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Moriarty, B., Hallinan, P., Danaher, G. and Danaher, P. A. (2000). All I know is what I learned from my colleagues: Reflections on research from Australian traveller education. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 16(1), 56-75. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer16/moriarty.html