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The humble school teacher's dilemma: Reflexion on the paradigmatic debate

Maj Reugebrink
This is a somewhat unorthodox paper written four years ago by 'a humble school teacher' embarking on a postgraduate research degree. After almost ten years of classroom teaching she had hoped to find, through her own and others' research endeavours, ways to improve her teaching. The tale told here represents the many insights she gained on her journey through the world of research.

The is the story of a humble school teacher and a very special tree that appeared in her garden many, many years ago.

Now you must understand that the humble school teacher's garden was no ordinary run-of-the-mill plot. It overflowed with the most extraordinary and spectacular variety of exotic plants, blossoming and intertwining in a splendid profusion of colour. Needless to say, the garden was the humble school teacher's pride and joy. She spent many long hours each day watering, fertilising, pruning and talking to her plants, making sure her beloved charges received just the right amount of everything they needed to help them develop and grow--not too much water, not too little; not too much fertiliser, not too little; not too much pruning, not too little; not too much conversation, not too little; just the right amount of everything.

People travelled from the far reaches of the globe to admire the magnificent beauty of the humble school teacher's garden. Famous and distinguished persons such as prime ministers, curriculum reviewers and educational researchers were regularly seen visiting the garden.

One day, however, a very strange thing happened. Right in the middle of a long straight row of petunias, a tiny and most unusual sapling struggled boldly up through the rich brown earth to bask in the warm sunlight. The humble school teacher and distinguished visitors watched in amazement as the tiny tree grew taller day by day, for with each new day it sprouted a new leaf and each new leaf was slightly different to the last. By the time the little tree was two weeks old it had fourteen new leaves, none of which resembled each other.

This perplexed the humble school teacher, for if no two leaves were alike, how could she identify the species of the tree? Without that vital information how could she hope to know just how much water, fertiliser, pruning and conversation it needed to grow healthy and strong?

In her efforts to nurture the little tree, the humble school teacher tried a great many permutations and combinations of water, fertiliser, pruning and conversation. As a result of - or perhaps in spite of - her care and attention, the little tree maintained a steady rate of growth, and continued to sprout leaves of unique shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, however, it soon became apparent to the humble school teacher (and to the many visitors to the garden) that the little tree was not in peak condition. Although many of its leaves were a bright, glossy green, many others took on dull, unsightly colours. Try as she may, there seemed to be nothing the humble school teacher could do to help the little tree, since she could not determine its specific needs.

One fine Spring morning, as the humble school teacher was busily pruning some particularly troublesome rose bushes and contemplating the plight of the little tree, she stumbled across a most incredible find. There, in the thick of the thorny ornamentals, lay one of those educational researchers who had been studying her garden. She carefully helped him extricate his extremities from the tangle of thorns he had lodged himself in, and enquired as to his purpose for being in the rose garden.

"Heavens madam", he replied, "an ethnographer doesn't need a purpose (Kemmis, 1976), it seemed important so I went in".

"You must have been in there for quite a while!" remarked the humble school teacher, as she surveyed his dishevelled appearance.

"Oh yes", answered the ethnographer absently, as he removed rose thorns and petals from his audio-visual equipment, "I've had an extensive time in the field, I mean in the rose bushes".

"How is it that I've never seen you before then?" asked the humble school teacher.

"Oh, we ethnographers are quite unobtrusive (Spindlier, 1982)", he replied, "you probably mistook me for another rose bush".

The humble school teacher thought this highly unlikely, but decided not to pursue the matter. The ethnographer introduced himself as Dr Yabbi and, in the tradition of all good ethnographers, proceeded to interview the humble school teacher after they had established a comfortable rapport. Through clever use of descriptive, structural and control questions and careful Spradleyian analysis of the interview transcripts (Spradley, 1979), Dr Yabbi realised how very important the little tree was in the life of the humble school teacher. He consequently narrowed the focus of his study to the little tree.

Since the humble school teacher dedicated much of her time to the care of the little tree, she and Dr Yabbi would often meet in the garden. The humble school teacher regularly found him studying the tree from many different perspectives, filming it, interviewing it and gesturing at it. Dr Yabbi referred to the latter as establishing an interactional context (McDermott, Gospodinoff and Aron, 1978)".

One day when there was an inordinately large contingent of educational researchers visiting the garden, one of them noticed Dr Yabbi's activities and called out to him, "Good heavens man, what are you looking for?" Unfortunately, Dr Yabbi had reached a rather critical position in his research developments and was swinging precariously from a neighbouring tree to gain an alternative view. This unexpected outburst caused him to lose his grip and fall unceremoniously to the ground with an almighty thud. The humble school teacher rushed to his aid and helped him "find his feet" (Geertz, 1973). When he had regained his composure she enquired, somewhat hesitantly, "Well, what are you looking for?"

"I'm not sure", he answered, "All I know is that I'm searching for something that's really important in the life of the tree".

"Oh, that's simple", sighed the humble school teacher, "the most important thing about that tree is its leaves. Every single one is different". Dr Yabbi immediately whipped out his notebook and wrote this down. Once more he reached for his tape recorder and interviewed the humble school teacher, but this time his resulting transcript analysis provided him with new understanding and insight into the meaning of the little tree in the garden.

Early next morning he waited by the little tree for the humble school teacher to arrive and told her what he had induced from his studies. She listened, and when he had finished the humble school teacher nodded sadly. "Yes, you're absolutely correct", she agreed, "I'm feeling quite inadequate. No matter what I do I can't seem to find a way to help all the tree's leaves attain a healthy green sheen because I can't determine what kind of tree it is". As she spoke the ethnographer's eyes lit up. He had found the meaning he had been seeking in the culture of the garden, the reality in the humble school teacher's life. "I'm going to write an ethnography about what I've found in your garden", promised Dr Yabbi, "and when it's finished I'll bring you a copy".

"Do you think it will help me to find a way to help the little tree?" asked the humble school teacher hopefully.

"It may", replied Dr Yabbi, "but I'm afraid that's not for me to decide (Wolcott, 1985)". He thanked the humble school teacher for her hospitality and help and away he went.

Years passed, and the little tree continued to grow taller and taller under the persistent care of the humble school teacher. It became one of the tallest trees in the garden, providing welcome shade for the smaller plants in the garden and a cool place of rest for its many visitors. Its leaves, however, remained an odd assortment of colours, some were a bright, shiny, healthy green but others appeared dull and lifeless.

One hot summer's day, Dr Jocko, another educational researcher, had occasion to visit the garden and seek the cool shade of the now huge tree. By this time it had thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of leaves on it, each one different from every other. This of course intrigued him. He asked the humble school teacher what kind of tree it was, and the humble school teacher reluctantly had to admit to yet another of the garden's many distinguished visitors that she had not succeeded in identifying the species of the tree.

"My, what a dilemma", exclaimed the researcher enthusiastically, "I can probably find the answer for you!" The humble school teacher listened intently as Dr Jocko explained what he proposed to do. The only way to identify this tree, he argued, was to find the leaf which was most likely to be the significant predictor of tree-type. The humble school teacher eagerly agreed to allow Dr Jocko to conduct what he referred to as a "quasi-experimental study (Campbell and Stanley, 1986)".

Bright and early the following morning, while the dew still glistened on the grass, Dr Jocko cycled purposefully and rigorously down to the garden. In his backpack he carried his essential tools of trade - one mainframe computer, one pencil, one notepad, one SPSSx Version 3.1 manual (1989) and his most recent copies of Ferguson (1981) and Pedhazur (1982). He lay his tools carefully out on the ground, sat down at a detached distance from the tree, and observed it thoroughly and objectively for a very long time.

Later that morning when she had finished weeding the strawberry patch, the humble school teacher joined him, and together they sat watching the tree in silence. Finally, she asked, "What are you waiting for?"

"Well dear lady", Dr Jocko explained patiently, "I'm considering the type of data I'm collecting and deciding on the most appropriate research design and analysis" (Campbell and Stanley).

"And have you reached a decision yet?" enquired the humble school teacher.

"Yes, I believe I've pontificated on this long enough!" answered Dr Jocko. He reached for his pencil and paper, drew a most elegant rectilineal diagram and sighed with self-satisfaction. "I have it!" he announced, "since we will have a combination of categorical and interval data, a one-shot, single group experiment using multiple regression analysis is the only way to proceed"(Campbell and Stanley). At that, he approached the tree, counted the leaves on one branch, and from this sub-total estimated the total population of leaves on the tree to be approximately 19, 538. He then randomly selected a sample of 500 leaves and placed them in the computer, being very careful not to distort the data. Having accomplished this, he consulted his SPSSx manual, typed in a command file and in no more than a few seconds the most voluminous array of inferential statistics spewed forth.

Dr Jocko studied this confusing display of variables and values for some time, then suddenly sprang to his feet and shouted "Eureka, I have it!" With that he reached into the computer, drew out a single leaf and handed it to the humble school teacher. "This, dear lady", he announced, "is the leaf which is most likely to identify your tree". The humble school teacher was elated. At last she had the answer to her problem! She thanked the kind researcher for his help and rushed off to the nearest tree doctor for specialist advice on identifying the tree and determining its specific needs.

Over the next few weeks the humble school teacher meticulously followed the remediation program developed by the tree doctor and studied the tree's progress during the course of each new day. Certainly there seemed to be some improvement. Many more leaves developed a healthy green sheen, but there were still some leaves that retained their dull pallor. Nevertheless, the obvious improvement in the tree's overall appearance gave the humble school teacher renewed hope that the tree would one day reach its full potential.

It had been almost four years to the day when the humble school teacher once again received a visit from Dr Yabbi. He arrived quite unexpectantly late one afternoon as she was cleaning out the garden shed. He had kept his promise and returned to present her with a copy of the ethnography he had written. She thanked him for his thoughtfulness and assured him that she would read it very carefully and let him know what she thought of it.

That night, after she had finished her work, the humble school teacher settled into her most comfortable armchair to read Dr Yabbi's ethnography. She found that it portrayed life in her garden and her role in it very well, but nowhere did it offer an answer to the problem of the tree's leaves. After she had read it for a second time, just to make sure, the humble school teacher placed the ethnography on the coffee table and rose to make herself a cup of tea. Through the window she could see the tree clearly silhouetted against the brilliant red sunset. She wondered whether she would ever discover the right way to care for the tree.

The next day was Saturday, and the humble school teacher was to receive a visit from another humble school teacher who lived on a neighbouring property. He also was a very keen gardener and they often met to share their horticultural discoveries and successes.

When he arrived, she noticed that he also had a copy of Dr Yabbi's ethnography, which was tucked firmly under his arm. It was with an overwhelming sense of relief that the humble school teacher remembered the ethnography had been written with complete confidentiality, to protect her identity and that of the garden. The two teachers had discussed many horticultural issues over the years, but never the problem of the tree's leaves. This topic had been carefully circumvented on many occasions due to the humble school teacher's fear of perhaps being regarded as inept by her colleague. After all, how many expert gardeners would admit being unable to identify a plant species growing in their very own garden?

As it turned out, however, the reason her colleague had brought the ethnography with him was that he also had such a tree growing in his garden and had been equally reluctant to share this information due to his feelings of inadequacy. Dr Yabbi's ethnography had revealed that he was not alone in his dilemma and had given him the courage to seek the advice of his colleague.

When the two humble school teachers realised all this they initially felt a bit uncomfortable, but they eventually saw the funny side of the situation. As a result of their newfound willingness to share their problem and probe alternative interpretations and perspectives (Woolgar, 1988; Kemmis, 1982), they succeeded that day where the distinguished researchers had not, and found a solution to the dilemma of the tree's leaves.

And what was the solution? Well, like most expert gardeners, the two humble school teachers are reluctant to publish such information indiscriminately, in case amateur gardeners should apply it as a cure-all to any situation. They regard the culture of every garden as unique, believing that no two gardens are exactly alike So, what proves to be a worthwhile practice in one garden may be of little use - or worse still, detrimental - in another garden. Their advice, if you have a problem in your garden, is to do what they did - consider alternative perspectives and interpretations of the problem and seek out the assistance and involvement of other local gardeners in trying to solve it.

Incidentally, as a result of their success in solving the dilemma of the tree's leaves, the two humble school teachers have become quite famous and very well respected in educational research circles. In fact, they are no longer referred to by friends, neighbours, colleagues or distinguished academics as the two humble school teachers. They are now known as "the two humble action researchers"... and the tree has become very well known in horticultural circles as "the tree of humanity".


Campbell, D.T. & Stanley, J.C. (1986) Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Research, Chicago: Rand McNally.

Ferguson, G.A. (1981) Statistical Analysis in Psychology and Education, 5th Edn., New York: McGraw-Hill.

Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books, p.13.

Kemmis, S. (1976) 'Telling It Like It Is: The Problem of Making a Portrayal of an Educational Program', in Rubin, L. (Ed), Handbook on Curriculum, Vol. 2, Boston, Mass: Allyn and Bacon.

Kemmis, S. (1982) Action Research, Geelong: School of Education, Deakin University.

McDermott, R.P., Gospodinoff, K., & Aron, J. (1978) 'Criteria for an Ethnographically Adequate Description of Concerted Activities and their Contexts', Semiotica, Vol.24, No.3/4.

Pedhazur, E.J. (1982) Multiple Regression in Behavioural Research, 2nd Edn., New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Spindler, G.D. (1982) Doing the Ethnography of Schooling: Educational Anthropology in Action, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Spradley, J.P (1979) Tbe Ethnographic Interview, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

SPSSx User's Manual, Version 3.1 (1989), New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wolcott, H.F. (1985) 'On Ethnographic Intent', Educational Administration Quarterly, Vol.21, No.3.

Woolgar, S. (1988) Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge, London, Sage Publications.

Please cite as: Reugebrink, M. (1994). The humble school teacher's dilemma: Reflexion on the paradigmatic debate. Queensland Researcher, 10(2), 46-53. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr10/reugebrink.html

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Created 4 Sep 2005. Last revision: 4 Sep 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr10/reugebrink.html