May 2016


Fourteen of us met up on Sunday May 15 for the second get-together of the new school year. Taking part were Alex Shaitan, Alison Stewart, Andy Barfield, Blair Barr, Caroline Ross, Hiromi Tsuda, Huw Davies, Jenny Morgan, Ken Ikeda, Martin Cater, Mayumi Abe, Rob Moreau, Sumire Shiba and Tim Ashwell (with regrets from Fumiko Kurosawa, Lee Arnold, and Mike Nix). We were delighted to welcome Sumire to her first-get-together, as well as to have Hiromi, Huw, Mayumi, and Rob joining the 2016 get-togethers for the first time.

We started off by talking in small groups and pairs about our current work and learner development interests and continued for just about an hour. After a short break, the get-together continued with Alex and Caroline leading a 2-hour workshop workshop on using interviews in practitioner research. The combination of sharing learner development interests and then going into a workshop session seemed to work really nicely, with the workshop generating a wealth of fascinating discussions in small groups and across the whole group (see the reflections further below for more details). A very big thank you to Alex and Caroline for leading such an interesting and thought-provoking session.

The next get-together is taking place on Sunday June 19 14.00-17.00 and will follow a similar format of sharing learner development interests, questions, puzzles, and quizzles (!) with a 90/120-minute workshop. The June workshop will be led by Masuko Miyahara and will focus on different issues to do with using narrative research in practitioner research.

Masuko has extensive experience of using narrative research. She is also the author of Emerging Self-Identities and Emotion in Foreign Language Learning (Multilingual Matters, 2015), which uses a narrative-oriented approach to explore processes of identity construction and development among Japanese university students of English. Many thanks to Masuko for leading the workshop at the June get-together.

We will also be holding a get-together in July on Sunday July 24, details of which will follow in June. We’re looking forward to seeing you in both June and July!

Part One: Learner Development Conversations and Interests

Martin: I was able to speak with Blair and Tim in the first part of the session, and a considerable portion of the conversation centred around tackling issues we are having in our current classes.  I am teaching a new course at one of my universities which puts considerable emphasis on outside study, but a number of my students – and actually several students in similar classes taught by other teachers at my institution – are falling well short of what is required.  Blair suggested setting specific targets and using technology to encourage students to get involved, while Tim shared his experience of using more traditional methods to ensure that progress was made.  I was grateful to have their insight and will consider trying some of these options down the road.  In addition to this, we also talked of our (generally positive) experiences of using M-Reader for extensive reading; teacher and learner expectations of what is required of them in classes; and student attrition rates.  

Andy: In the first part of the get-together Mayumi and I talked about her work with introducing the Middle Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate into her school. This innovation faces different constraints, one of which is assessment and moving from term exams and knowledge memorization towards alternative forms of assessment that focus on learner performance and reflection on their own development. Understanding for the MYP is however growing, as last year’s Year 7 students move up into Year 8 and new Year 7 students come into the programme. Next year should see further support as these Year 8 students move into Year 9 and the critical mass of a group of students in three out of 4 years between Years 7 and 10 ‘do the MYP’.

We also talked about how (and why) the school library at Mayumi’s school is physically organized, and whether (and why) students’ work, students’ reflections, and MYP posters about different ways of learning and doing research are displayed or not in classrooms and corridors – these all seem to be important dimensions of creating a learning-centred discourse in a school, in as far as the school literally starts to become the medium for the new educational ideology of learner-centredness and inquiry-based learning.

Our discussion made me consider looking at how different spaces at my university display student work and what is communicated about learning, studying, and research (and, remembering April’s discussions about exploratory puzzles, how and why). Whether I will actually get round to doing this is of course another question (!), but in a brainstorming kind of way it might be interesting and useful to talk with different teachers, students, and admin about such issues to do with the wider learning environment at an educational institution, whether here or elsewhere.

Ken: Huw told about his new capacity as a learning adviser in a self-access center. As it is his first year at his university, I agreed with him that it would be best to observe his settings, the students who come for advice, and the interaction with his colleagues. I spoke about my current situation how I felt I should take a backbench approach to research this year since I have tasked myself to get 18 third- and fourth-year students in my seminar to write their graduation theses. Jenny talked about her teaching situation of getting students to begin to grasp the understanding of research by finding sites (in that particular moment on gender roles).

What Jenny spoke about proper email etiquette by students to their profs has greatly colored my perspective this past week. While this might seem unrelated to our discussion of learner development, I have made my students be more mindful of crafting their emails to me instead of just bluntly writing “This is my homework. Please check it”. I think along with our efforts to enable our students become autonomous learner-users of English is for them to also develop a sense of responsibility and accountability that comes with communicating in it.

Robert: I spoke to Alex about conducting interviews as part of doing research. We talked specifically about a 3-position method of analyzing narratives proposed by G. Barkhuizen in his 2010 study An Extended Positioning Analysis of a Pre-Service Teacher’s Better Life Small Story. We also talked about the difficulties in choosing participants when doing classroom research and Alex gave me some tips, such as doing a questionnaire to peak students’ interest in the research. Another tip that I found quite useful was the idea of having participants speak in small discussion groups as opposed to one-on-one interviews to produce different results.

Tim: Thank you Blair and Martin for putting me on to M-Reader. I hope to be able to introduce that at my university next year to support the extensive reading program we have had in place for many years.

Part Two: Interviews in Practitioner Research Workshop: Discussions and Reflections

Caroline: I was surprised at being asked to co-lead this workshop as I am an inexperienced researcher and don’t know much about interviews! But then I thought, this is the Learner Development group, I am a learner, and I’d like to develop. I thought it was a good opportunity for me to gain more from the workshop by taking a more active role. From the preparation process and the workshop itself, I feel I gained both a broad overview of issues of using interviews in practitioner research as well as some of the finer points to consider. I wonder how many hours of reading I would have had to go through to reach the same point?! It was both reassuring and unsettling to know that experienced researchers continue to struggle with similar challenges to those I’m experiencing right now. From a practical perspective, it seems there is often no answer, and all we can do is our best to inform ourselves of the major potholes to avoid, to acknowledge the limits to what we are doing, and proceed with humble caution. I’d like to thank Andy for his contributions to the preparation stage and Alex for sharing her experiences as a researcher and for covering so much ground. I enjoyed the combination of “expert” and “novice” leading a workshop together, and feel that it aligns nicely with the philosophy of the Learner Development group. (Perhaps I should write a paper about my experiences as a “reflective researcher” on the research process in general…..but other papers have to take priority for now!)  I’m also looking forward to Alex posting her references because even though I don’t have time to check them out now, when the time comes I’ll know where to look for my one-stop-shop on all things interviews! Thank you very much for this learner development opportunity!

Martin: The workshop offered an interesting overview on the academic literature on interviews, and was nicely balanced by the two presenters – Caroline and Alex – being at the beginning and end of respective journeys using the format.  I particularly appreciated the candid accounts offered of some of the challenges faced by researchers who go down this route, and the opportunity to critically evaluate genuine PhD data.  It was interesting to discuss the difficulties of trying to facilitate the emergence of authentic data through interviewer and interviewee interaction, recognising the interviewer as participant and co-creator of narratives.  I was also interested in the authenticity of the final product, having previously been interviewed myself as part of TESOL-related research.  Despite approving a transcript of the interview, sitting through the resulting presentation was slightly uncomfortable as I felt the researcher, while accurately quoting one of my views, was not entirely correct in contextualising it as concordant with a particular narrative which did not entirely reflect my feelings.  It was challenging experience for me because I tried to put myself in the position of the researcher, and could not find any easy answers to the puzzle.

Before group members went home, I was able to briefly ask Alex to share some of the findings of her research.  Having spent some time with her data, had time permitted it I think the group would have enjoyed hearing her speak for a few minutes about this.  Perhaps we will be able to find out at a presentation at some point in the future?  Many thanks to both presenters for an informative and enjoyable workshop!

Ken: I was greatly stimulated by the input given by Alex and Caroline, and also by comments of others. I came away thinking that transcription is indeed needed as evidence. But I also felt that politics gets into transcription. CA (conversation analysis) researchers try to keep the interaction.

What Martin said about having utterances taken out of context as a participant in TESOL research made me look into my experience as one of several participants in a recent TESOL research study. I hope you’ll bear with my musing on it.

I recently received a copy of the research study from the author (sorry to be vague about the details). Reading the parts in which I recognized my personal input, I came across one piece of information I shared was published. It was not really intended for public consumption because it would personally identify me as that particular person for anyone who would read it. I have a sinking feeling that this research work will be read by a wider audience than originally intended. I feel particularly stung by the pseudonyms used by the author, because I did not feel they properly concealed my identity as a participant. I wish the researcher had checked with me if these pseudonyms were acceptable. But I must admit that my inattention to that researcher’s development of the work may have nixed my consent opt-out. I do think the researcher was sincere and meant to give voice and power to the participants, as well as being dedicated to fulfill the research purposes of the study. But without checking with the participants, I feel a bit let down in terms of dissemination of particular interview data and pseudonyms. Of course I have no way of knowing who the other participants were, but I wonder now all the more about the rights embedded in the ‘informed consent’ by an interview participant – to what extent can it be borne to modify a research study, especially when such a work gets to the dissemination stage?

Andy:  At the end of the workshop I was thinking about questions to do with transcribing interviews and listening to interviews, and how a transcript of an interview is quite different in nature from the unfolding spoken interaction of an interview itself. Reading the two example transcripts and discussing them in our group, I realised afterwards how much interpretation work third parties must do to reconstruct the moments of an interview that they they haven’t taken part in, but that they read as a transcript. Could I hear Alex’s voice? Why did she respond in this way or that? What was in the interviewee’s voice? What were their silences between turns? How did they each respond to those silences? Does an interview with short interactive turns point to actively co-constructed knowledge? Does an interview with longer interviewee turns point to limited co-construction of understanding? So many questions, so many possible positions, and so many rabbit holes too! This was a thoroughly engaging workshop, packed with thought-provoking moments. Many thanks to Alex and Caroline, and everyone at the get-together, for this fascinating session.

Robert: I was very impressed with the presentation made by Alex and Caroline. It outlined some of the pitfalls that can come with this line of research, including practical issues such as how the location of the interview or how the recording of the interview might affect how participants’ answers to questions. Related to this, it was very interesting how Alex said that interviewing people who are closer to you can, at times, actually be more difficult and produce less robust answers than in the case of interviewing strangers. As in the case of several reflections above, I also thought that the discussion on transcribing was interesting. It reminded me that we must be careful in choosing exactly what we need to transcribe for the purposes of the study. Also, how important it is not to present the participants’ views in a way that changes the meaning from the way they intended them to be understood.

Alison: I very much enjoyed the latest get-together focused workshop and discussion on interviewing, led by Alex and Caroline. Hearing about Alex and Caroline’s recent experiences of interviewing (or not!) for their research, I was able to reflect on my own experiences of interviewing and to think about issues that are not so easy or possible to resolve.

What is the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee? Establishing rapport with the interviewee is supposed to be important but what if rapport between the interviewer and interviewee has already been established earlier in a different context? Alex explained that in her study of “hafu” identity in Japan, the least successful interviews turned out to be those where she already knew the interviewee – something I also experienced when I did my doctoral research.

What is an interview and what are the ethics of using information you learn outside the interview? Talking about her recent trip to Yap in Micronesia, Caroline described the difficulty of gaining access and permission to do research through official channels. She also recounted that most interesting conversation was with a man who turned out to be a local leader, who simply invited her to have a beer with her. Would he have opened up to her so readily, or even agreed to talk to her if she had asked for an interview, or tried to record the conversation they had? What he told her becomes part of Caroline’s knowledge or evolving understanding about Yap, but will she be able to write about this conversation? What does it mean to be an “insider” or an “outsider”? Can we/should we write about our own journey from being an outsider to being an insider or to being a trusted person that insiders can talk to?

Of the issues that we discussed, the most interesting for me concerned reliability – how do we really know that we understand what the interviewee means? Of course, we can ask them to read the transcript and check for accuracy or clarify meanings we are unsure of, or we can write summaries of what we think was meant – both of which I have tried in different studies. However, this still does not get over the problem that eventually, the researcher must take those words out of their original context and re-present them in a new context in which those words are interpreted or analysed or explained. Thinking back to my dissertation, I remember that I felt “blocked” for a long time because I felt so uncomfortable about writing about people’s experiences, as if writing it down would be the last word on these people. In the end, I forced myself to think of my interviewees as characters in a novel, so they became “mine” and I could write about them in a way I thought made sense and felt true. But is this ethical?

Thinking along these lines, Alex raised the issue of the truth value of what interviewees tell the interviewer. In her own example, she related that one of her participants (a 53-year-old man, just like one of the members of the get-together!) constantly referred to problems that “hafu” people experience as if they happened to others but not to himself. She believed that in this case she was sure that the man himself had experienced these problems, and suggested that his sense of pride or status and a need to save face hindered him from being more direct about the difficulties he had faced when he was a child. It struck me that there is always a risk that the interviewee tells the story in a way that puts him or her in the best light possible, particularly if they feel a need to impress or not appear at a disadvantage in front of the researcher. But what should the researcher do in this case? Is it ethical to challenge or criticize what the interviewee tells you?

Interviewing still seems to me to be the best way of understanding another person’s experience, but the session highlighted some of the difficulties involved in conducting them effectively and in handling the resulting data accurately and ethically.

Tim: Thank you also to Alex and Caroline for a very stimulating workshop about interviews. You asked us at the end to note down any “quizzles” we had about interviews. Here is my list. Some of the items heavily overlap with one another.

  1. When does a conversation become an interview? (Or vice versa).
  2. Interviewer detachment – how much? how?
  3. Do you need to establish a good relationship with the interviewee over a number of sessions or can the interviewer get in, get out, and go home?
  4. Does a skilful interviewer make it look/feel like a conversation while holding on to quite a strict agenda of questions?
  5. Should the interviewer aim for as informal a setting as possible so that the interview feels more like a casual conversation in order that the interviewee can exercise some control over the talk?
  6. Should an interview ideally be a conversation from which both parties stand to gain something? (Inspired by Caroline’s anecdote about her chance encounter on Yap.)
  7. Does the interview have to be transcribed for it to be analysable?
  8. Does the transcription have to be analysed using Conversation Analysis or Discourse Analysis methods, for example, or can these methods be combined with listening to the recording repeatedly to experience it again as an aural/oral “text”? (Inspired by Andy’s question.)
  9. How can we deal with the inauthenticity/artificiality of interviews?
  10. Or, in other words, what other issues surround the validity and reliability of interviews?
  11. Should the interviewer show the interviewee the transcript? What happens if the person wants to withdraw his/her participation? (Inspired by Alison’s comment about sharing transcripts with participants.)