Talking Points June 2014
On Ethical Dimensions of Doing Research
An Interview with Robert Croker (Nanzan University)
Kay: Hi, Robert. It was nice to see you at Patsy Duff’s seminar on Case Study Research at Temple University Japan. I enjoyed it and learned so much. And thank you for agreeing to chat with me for Talking Points, on the ethical dimensions of research practices which you gave a presentation on at the LD SIG anniversary conference last year.
On the blog, last month, Rachelle and I discussed how we, as busy teachers, manage to make the time to do research, and how we can help each other in conducting it. But when we talk about what we do as researchers, we often neglect to think about how our research affects participants – typically our own students. This was something I had been thinking about, and your presentation led me to think about it even more. So I’m glad we got this opportunity to talk about it.
Before I start asking some questions, for the readers, could you tell us a bit about your presentation and how you came to focus on the topic?
Robert: Hi Kay! The presentation was called “Exploring ethical dimensions of doing research”. It grew out of the realization that it’s very easy to embark on a research project here in Japan without fully thinking through how your study might impact your participants and your relationship with them. Most Japanese high schools and universities do not have any procedure to review research proposals, like an ethics committee or an institutional review board. Such a procedure helps you carefully consider practical ethical issues such as how you’re going to explain your research to your participants, how you’ll get their true and honest consent to participate, and so on. In the absence of such a system, the responsibility to conduct a study in an ethical way falls to the researcher alone. Yet many researchers here in Japan that I work with are not sure how to do that, even though they may want to. So I prepared a presentation on this for the LD SIG anniversary conference last year.
Kay: I think it is now very common to see restrictions on using class time to do research, but procedures to satisfy an ethics review board or research ethics committee may be still rare. It just so happened that two places I worked at in the last nine years started such procedures while I was there. It was a pain to write a proposal in such detail but it helped my coresearcher and me to think through what we were about to do and be more responsible, just as you said. But how strictly it was enforced is another question. For example, I’m not sure how this review process was known throughout the university and among part-time teachers. I also know there are a lot of places that such procedures do not exist yet. In such places, how can we go about making sure our research practices are ethical?
Robert: There are generally accepted practices of ethical research, such as fully informing your students about the study before asking them to consent to participate, ensuring that students give that consent freely and willingly, not harming your students, respecting your students’ desire for privacy and confidentiality, and honestly and fairly analyzing and presenting students’ experiences.
These practices sound straightforward and easy, but they’re often difficult to apply, particularly for teachers researching their own classrooms. For example, how much should you explain your study to your students, if you’re trying to understand why some of them constantly misbehave and disrupt the class? It seems an invitation to misbehave even more! And in many situations, how fully can your students give their consent freely and willingly? No matter what you say or do, students might feel pressure from their peers to participate, even if they don’t really want to. And asking your students to complete a questionnaire in Japanese during class might not be helping their language development, but is it “harming” it? Sharon Rallis and Gretchen Rossman suggest that researchers often face such “ethical dilemmas”, and there may be no simple resolution. What should you do, then? Underlying these practices are two basic principles: the ethic of individual rights, and the ethic of care. That is, that you must respect the rights of your participants – and these rights are more important than your right to do a study – and that you have a moral responsibility to care for your participants. In essence, put your participants first. A study is never worth doing if you’ve disadvantaged or harmed even one participant.
Kay: I also think making research “morally correct” does not necessarily mean that it is meaningful or beneficial to students. For example, using class time to “collect data” might not ethical, but if the activity that generates the data is meaningful and valuable for the students, would that make it acceptable? To that end, what about the ethics of so-called action research?
Robert: You make a distinction between action research and research for publication. Teachers undertake action research to improve their teaching, and particularly to learn how to organize more effective learning experiences for their students.
If this has clear benefits for the students as well, then I think that creating data during class time is legitimate, within limits. On the other hand, the benefits of research for publication often accrue to the researcher and to the readers of the publication – in other words, to people outside the classroom. In that case, is it legitimate to ask students to participate, and particularly to use class time to create data? In a sense, we’re asking “From the students’ perspective, is the cost of participating in this study worth the benefits?” I think this is a question that we don’t often ask ourselves, but we should.
Kay: In that case, what should we do?
Robert: Try to build in ways that students can learn from participating in your study. For example, if you’re asking students to use different strategies to learn vocabulary, give them regular individual feedback about which ways are most effective for them – and even consider building that feedback in as an integral part of the study.
Also, explain to your students what your study is about, why it’s important, and how they will benefit from participating. If the study continues over a few classes, weeks or months, you could also have an ongoing conversation with your students about your study, sharing back with them what they have written or said. If students see the benefits of participating, they buy into the study more, become more reflective and forthcoming about their learning experiences, and coincidentally provide you with better quality data. Students appreciate it when you consider them not just as participants but also as an important audience for your research. Approaches such as exploratory practice (Allwright & Hanks, 2009) go further, advocating researching with students, not on them. That is, ask your students to be co-investigators, cooperatively exploring their language learning experiences with you. This is philosophically consistent with the tenets of language learning autonomy.
Kay: I agree that the level of engagement directly affects the quality of your research. Making the research meaningful for students can make your research not only ethical but also more valid or trustworthy. Actually, are you familiar with Critically Participatory Looping (CPL) developed by Tim Murphey and Joe Falout (2010, 2012)? It is a multi-layered procedure to involve student-participants to analyze data and check the researcher’s interpretations. In accordance with ethnographic research traditions, they adopted the member-checking practice in which individual participants check and validate the interpretation by researchers. They applied this to classroom research by making the data part of the class content. With CPL, they are also advocating the change in the power relationship between teacher-researchers and student-participants to make it more mutual and reciprocal. I’ve also noticed that there are more teacher-researchers giving presentations with their students these days at conferences, too. It is nice to see people starting to involve students more in their research in ways that can enhance their learning and help them become aware of their own learning processes. Being mindful and reflective about the ethics of our own research, then, should help us become better teachers, shouldn’t it?
Well, thank you Robert for taking the time to answer my questions and for sharing your views. Your presentation and this interview certainly inspired me to think further about the ethical dimensions of doing research with students.
Robert: Thanks, Kay, for suggesting that we explore the ethics of research.
Note: For those readers interested in Robert’s presentation, you can read about it in Tanja McCandie’s reflection on the anniversary conference in the latest issue our online journal, Learning Learning, too.
Allwright, D., & Hanks, J. (2009). The developing language learner: An introduction to exploratory practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Murphey, T., & Falout, J. (2012). “Critical participatory looping: An agencing process for mass customization in language education.” Linguisik Online, 54 (4). Accessible at http://www.linguistik-online.de/54_12/murpheyFalout.html
Murphey, T., & Falout, J. (2010). “Critical participatory looping: Dialogic member checking with whole classes.” TESOL Quarterly, 44, 811-821.
Rossman, G. B., & Rallis, S. F. (2003). Learning in the field: An introduction to qualitative research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.