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Enriching the outcomes of action research: Connecting the local with the global through a hermeneutic spiral1

Ross Brooker, Ian Macpherson and Tania Aspland
This paper discusses an iterative process whereby insights gained from investigations and actions conducted at local sites are shared with, and enriched by, wider networks. We have begun experimenting with the use of what we have termed a hermeneutic spiral. Such a spiral engages critical friends both within local sites and wider contexts to critique and reconstruct our interpretations of data and actions. The paper contends that such an approach has the potential to incorporate local insights into broader unified alliances, which in turn, have the potential to transform local data into more generalisable and universally useable data. The paper concludes with a proposed research approach along with a consideration of some of the issues and challenges in developing and sustaining such a methodological approach.


The purpose of this paper is to focus on the issue of how localised, qualitative data can move beyond description to authentic levels of analysis and interpretation as a basis for making an impact in the more global arenas of policy formulation and implementation within education systems. A hermeneutic spiral, engaging critical friend networks in a process of ongoing analysis and interpretation of locally generated data and the formulation of implications, is proposed as a way of enlarging the sphere of influence of such data in these more global arenas.

The core issue of the paper relates to matters of quality, authenticity/evidentiary warrant, ethics and responsibility. This paper, then, is a means of sharing reflections on our work with others who confront similar challenges in their research endeavours. The impetus for the paper came from reflections on our recent research history that is summarised in table 1.

Table 1: Context for development of a hermeneutical spiral

YearResearch FocusPhases of Development
1997-1998Theorising curriculum leadership from a large research project (funded by ARC) (Aspland, Macpherson, Brooker & Elliott, 1998; Brooker & Macpherson, 1998; Macpherson & Brooker, 1998a, 1998b).
1998Subsequent exploratory work in four cultural contexts (concerning the creation and discovery of space for the voices of significant stakeholders in curriculum leadership) (Macpherson, 1998).Initial development of national and international critical friend network.
1999A process used to develop a paper for the AERA Annual Meeting (Macpherson, Brooker, Aspland & Elliott, 1999).Asynchronous conversations (via an electronic medium) with our critical friend network.
1999-2000The research approach and strategies used in an investigation of places and spaces for teachers, parents and student in curriculum decision-making/curriculum leadership (not yet reported).Development of research based on input from asynchronous conversations and an expansion of our critical friend networks.
2000
Presentation of ideas at the AERA Annual Meeting (Brooker, Macpherson & Aspland, 2000).

As can be seen from the table, our own research journey has been an iterative process based on a number of 'conversations'. The spatial and temporal dimensions in our journey have been significant. The development of the ideas and reflections in this paper has come from engagement in multiple conversations over time and in different locations, both local and global. Our research journey, mapped out in table 1, exemplifies the process that we are describing and advocating.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

This paper is located within the context of our recent work in the area of curriculum leadership for effective learning and teaching. Our investigations have adopted multiple strategies within an action research approach that has been both critical and collaborative (Aspland, Macpherson, Proudord & Whitmore, 1996). This work places teachers at the centre of curriculum leadership and, more recently, has focussed on the inclusion of other significant stakeholders (particularly parents and students) in curriculum leadership (see Macpherson, Aspland, Brooker & Elliott, 1999; Macpherson, Brooker, Aspland & Elliott, 1999).

Curriculum leadership has been viewed as any initiative that teachers in the multi-faceted contexts of teaching/learning sites may undertake to encourage more effective learning and teaching. It is about leading learning and seizing opportunities that appear to have the potential to enhance learning and teaching experiences and outcomes (Macpherson, 1998). Such a view is derived from a theorised position about curriculum that celebrates the centrality of teachers in curriculum decision-making and their role as curriculum decision-makers (Brubaker, 1994; Clandinin & Connelly, 1992; Henderson and Hawthorne, 1995; Macpherson, Elliott & Aspland, 1995; Moller & Katzenmeyer, 1996).

Our current work is focussing on the place and readiness of significant stakeholders to engage in curriculum leadership, using the lifeworld perspectives of teachers, parents and students as data (Habermas, 1987). These data are being used to elicit implications for supporting and sustaining the engagement of these stakeholders in curriculum leadership actions (Darling-Hammond, 1998). Such data, then, become the basis for theorising notions of place and readiness within the context of contemporary curriculum practice.

What is significant in our position about curriculum leadership is that while there may be broad factors which operate to shape it, the actual shape at particular sites is distinctive if not unique. It is important, therefore, to work from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in to understand curriculum leadership and how it might most appropriately be supported and sustained. The local descriptions and interpretations of curriculum leadership are crucial. How these might combine into a platform for politicising the issues in wider arenas becomes the challenge for modes of inquiry and ongoing action.

METHODOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK

A considerable amount of our energy in this work has centred on the use of narratives and conversations in generating case study accounts of curriculum leadership as perceived by teachers, parents and students at a small number of individual teachi ng/learning sites (schools). The case studies have explored instances of curriculum leadership in an endeavour to understand how curriculum leadership is enacted at a school site and to identify the factors that have influenced curriculum leadership action. While these accounts are largely descriptive, they have been and are being used as a basis for generating propositions about meanings/interpretations and implications for both policy and practice. Within an action research framework, the accounts have been generative of propositions emerging from a critical perspective that values opportunities for stakeholders to critique 'what is'. This has formed the basis for considering and acting upon 'what could be' in terms of optimising learning opportunities and outcomes for all learners and of creating and discovering space for the voices of significant stakeholders in curriculum leadership.

The difficulty arises, however, when an attempt is made to move from the local to the global with these descriptive data from which, at best, tentative ideas have been generated. The obvious reaction is to take a positivist way of thinking and to use such data to develop a survey instrument for distribution to and completion by a much wider (and supposedly a more representative) sample of the relevant population. Such a reaction is not new and there are numerous examples of using a mixed methodology (for example, Brewer & Hunter, 1992; Greene, Caracelli & Graham, 1989) in an attempt to confirm case study data or indeed, to use a case study approach to amplify survey findings. Indeed, we have used such an approach in some of our recent work (Elliott, Brooker, Macpherson, McInman & Thurlow, 1997). Another reaction, deemed to be post-positivist, has been to develop software packages to manage unstructured qualitative data. The use of such technology in analysing data has more traditionally been associated with quantitative approaches to research rather than, for example, a grounded theory approach (Richards & Richards, 1998; Strauss & Corbin, 1990, 1998).

This paper does not argue that such reactions are inappropriate. Rather, the paper is the articulation of a reflective search within the context of our own work for a way of analysing, interpreting, theorising and authenticating localised and largely qualitative case study data that does not resort to positivist and quasi-quantitative approaches and strategies. If data are generated through narratives and conversations (Aspland, Macpherson, Brooker & Elliott, 1998), then these data, we maintain, may also be analysed and interpreted from broader critical perspectives via the ongoing use of narratives and conversations (see also Denzin & Lincoln, 1998).

Action research has always been an iterative process and has been characterised often as a spiral of planning, acting, observing and reflecting (Kemmis, 1994). Our work, using action research, has emphasised critical and collaborative aspects - critical in the sense of having theorised positions about curriculum leadership for effective learning and teaching and about teachers' (and other significant stakeholders') place and readiness to engage in curriculum leadership and collaborative in that we have worked with teachers and not on teachers in collecting, analysing and interpreting data contained in initial narratives and transcripts and in summaries of ongoing conversations (Aspland, Macpherson, Proudford & Whitmore, 1996; Aspland, Macpherson, Brooker & Elliott, 1998; Macpherson, Brooker, Aspland & Elliott, 1998).

Our approach elaborates on that iterative process of theorising, by articulating a place for critical friend networks that seek to take the narratives and the conversations about the narratives (which are about analysing, interpreting and theorising the data) beyond the local to the global. A significant part of this elaboration is to define critical friend networks (Chapman, 1996) and to establish principles and protocols for inviting colleagues to be members of these networks and for facilitating and maintaining the networks as a hermeneutic spiral.

Critical friend networks as a hermeneutic spiral (taken from the notion of a hermeneutic circle, as outlined by Gallagher, 1992) intertwining with an action research spiral may be considered broadly in three phases. First, university researchers may engage colleagues in higher education, locally, nationally and internationally to refine critical frameworks that surround initial and emerging ideas for ongoing research. Second, colleagues at the levels of policy and systemic leadership can be engaged to define the potential relevance of initial and emerging ideas for ongoing research. Third, colleagues at the levels of school and classroom practice can be engaged to define the potential applicability of such ideas for empowering practitioners to critique and reconstruct themselves, their professional work and their work contexts. Critical friends (and the alliances which they may form) who emerge at this stage have the potential to continue as a way of scrutinising localised descriptive data, of analysing and interpreting it critically and collaboratively, and of taking it forward as critically-informed and collaborative thinking (and action).

Such networks could then move into successive stages (Carspeckan, 1996) in tandem with the notion of an action research spiral and they could be the vehicle through which a living educational theory (Whitehead, 1989) emerges and impacts upon both policy and practice at local and more global levels. The merging of the two spirals helps to emphasise the importance of theorising by practitioners, academics and policy makers in collaboration, and to narrow the gap often perceived as a bifurcation of theory and practice on the one hand, and of the atheoretical nature of practice on the other (Smith, 1987). Such merging also has the potential to provide the space for the distinctive voices to be heard.

The networks, then, provide a means whereby research participants can step outside their research in order to critique and reconstruct their research processes and outcomes in collaboration with significant others (Davidson Wasser & Bresler, 1996; Newman & MacDonald, 1993; Rossman, 1993) in an ongoing or iterative manner. The networks, in fact, become an iterative and cumulative vehicle for establishing and maintaining meta narratives and conversations about the research and its implications in the more global arenas of policy formulation and implementation within education systems. The inclusion of critical friends at the levels of higher education, policy and systems, and schools and classrooms (which could well include parents and students) has the potential to harness the distinctive perspectives represented in educational communities into an exciting praxis of analytical investigation, critical interpretation and reconstructive action. The confluence of these various levels of critical friend networks as a hermeneutic spiral seeks to value the subjective ways in which stakeholders see and interpret their lifeworld and to incorporate these perspectives in both descriptive and critically interpretive terms at the stages of analysis and application. A hermeneutic spiral as a meta-conversation does not ignore or try to simplify the messy complexities of such subjectivities. Rather, it welcomes such complexities as representing a more authentic and thicker picture of lived reality and as providing a basis for pursuing an iterative conversation in the search for appropriate actions in the short-term and for new challenges in the long-term in both local and broader global arenas.

THE ONGOING CONVERSATION

The search for ways of making qualitative data and their analyses more significant in shaping policy and its implementation in education systems is appropriate for researchers who work within frameworks which are informed by critical perspectives and oriented towards collaborative and transformative practice. In our qualitative research work we have perceived the areas of analysis and interpretation to be something of a 'black box'. This paper is an attempt to open the lid of that box and to explore a way of thinking about and acting upon the issue of making localised qualitative data available to interpretation and application in more global arenas.

Such an approach values the subjective nature of our work and the ways in which collaborative efforts (involving a range of critical friend networks as outlined above) have the potential to harness the 'checks and balances' within iterative conversations to take localised data authentically into broader arenas. In such exploration, the paper has implications for debates in qualitative research that are focused on issues of quality, authenticity/evidentiary warrant, ethics and responsibility.

Emerging from our early experiences with the adoption of hermenuetic spirals, we have identified a number of questions that expose and problematise our thinking on the issue of how localised, largely qualitative data can move beyond description to authentic levels of analysis and interpretation as a basis for making an impact in the more global arenas of policy formulation and implementation within education systems. We propose the following questions as a conclusion to this paper but in doing so, offer them as a starting point to ongoing debate and conversation that will develop further understandings about the generation of and generalisation from qualitative data. In essence, this paper is another stage in the hermeneutic spiral.

ENDNOTE

  1. The research on which this paper is based was supported by grants from the Faculty of Education, the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), the Australian Research Council (ARC) and Education Queensland (EQ). QUT personnel who have been involved in these projects include Tania Aspland, Ross Brooker, Bob Elliott, Ian Macpherson and Christine Proudford.

REFERENCES

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Aspland, T., Macpherson, I., Proudford, C. & Whitmore, L. (1996). Critical collaborative action research as a means of curriculum inquiry and empowerment. Educational Action Research, 4 (1), 93-104.

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Author details: Ross Brooker is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education (Human Movement) at the University of Tasmania. He coordinates the Centre for Human Movement which has teaching and research programs in the areas of health and physical education teaching, exercise and sport science and sport management. His research and teaching is focused on curriculum, pedagogy and the development of professional knowledge in the health and physical education field.

Ian Macpherson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Learning and Professional Studies at the Queensland University of Technology. He coordinates a Research Unit in Curriculum and Professional Development within the Centre for Professional Practice in Education, Leadership and Training. His research focus is curriculum leadership and his research approach has been critical and collaborative action research, using a range of qualitatively-based strategies.

Tania Aspland is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Learning and Professional studies at the Queensland University of Technology. Currently, she is the Assistant to the Dean (Undergraduate Programs) in the Faculty of Education and she is leading the reconceptualisation of the preservice BEd program. Her research interests lie within curriculum leadership, inclusive curriculum and graduate supervision and she is actively involved in an action research support network.

Please cite as: Brooker, R., Macpherson, I. and Aspland, T. (2001). Enriching the outcomes of action research: Connecting the local with the global through a hermeneutic spiral. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(1), 16-28. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/brooker.html


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Created 21 Oct 2004. Last revision: 1 Dec 2004.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/brooker.html