Thesis: getting closer to the mark

Posted on: April 6, 2010

A few months back my reflection on my PhD research project took me into a space where I started to explore in realistic terms about its contribution to knowledge, its usefulness for improving educational practice and my personal growth after completing the study.  I found holes of all sizes in my original proposed study, which left me with more questions than answers.

But it was a good thing… it was new learning, new reading, more consultations with a new group of critical friends. In this process, I found my place in education research, which according to my supervisors crosses boundaries between curriculum studies, sociology in education and ‘new educational psychology’ (whatever the latter means – I’ve never heard of it). They said the true focus is likely to emerge as I progress with the study.

One of my new critical friends asked me to write the problematic  in ‘plain’ English, which proved quite an arduous task but I pushed on. Several iterations later, I nervously presented the draft below, which he approved and later on so did my supervisors! I was happy… my motivation has been reinvigorated.

I guess this bit of framing shall remain in draft form until I’m done with the new literature review. As I read new materials, new angle emerges or I discover a new way of framing the questions. Such is the nature of conceptual framing I suppose… but here goes, inspired by the wisdom of Lee Shulman:

The educator in a profession is teaching someone to understand in order to act, to act in order to make a difference in the minds and lives of others– to act in order to serve others responsibly and with integrity.- Lee Shulman

Herein lies an extraordinarily complex but fascinating role of university teachers in educating competent graduates for their chosen professional careers and, equally important, for developing good citizens able to contribute to better societal good. But to what extent do university teachers appreciate such complexities?

My work as a curriculum designer has led me to believe that understanding the university teachers’ conceptions of ‘competence’, and their role in constructing curricula, is critical in understanding the productive preparation of students for professional practice. This was borne out of my interest in understanding how university teachers in different disciplinary fields make curriculum decisions. Using Basil Bernstein’s work on pedagogic practice, I hope to understand disciplinary ‘pedagogic discourse’ and its link to the teachers’ epistemological views.

It is my observation that the university teachers’ idea of competence may underpin their understanding of pedagogic discourse in their discipline, which then impacts on their role in the curriculum process. As such, the manner in which they conceive and enact the curriculum may have a link to the degree in which student abilities are cultivated and developed in higher education. By exploring how the teachers’ notions of competence are shaped, their identity, space and agency in the curriculum design and development process may provide insights into understanding what is being done and what needs to be done in improving professional education in the university setting.

Accordingly, the goal of my study is to understand the university teachers’ conceptions of competence and how this influences their thinking about the curriculum. Hence, the questions guiding this study are:

1) What do university teachers understand about the notion of competence?
2) What influences their understanding of competence in their discipline?
3) And how does it shape their curriculum decision-making?

The educational motivation of this research is to point the way to more effective educational practice by university teachers, to assist in developing the confidence and competence of students in preparation for professional practice and beyond. It is hoped that the exploration and analysis of the symbiotic relationship between university teachers’ conceptions of competence and curriculum thinking will increase understanding of factors that contribute to better educational outcomes in professional education.

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3 Responses to "Thesis: getting closer to the mark"

G’day Nona,

So, how does this fit with the conceptions of L&T stuff?

Sounds like it is related, at least from the perspective of how folk think about various aspects related to L&T influences how/what they do.

It sounds like that your thinking here sort of fits/reworks/extends Richardson’s “Discplinary characteristics” box in this model

But re-frames it more as “conceptions of disciplinary competence” or something similar.

Close? No where near it?


Hi David

I have so many hypotheses about their link/relationship generated by my ‘lived experience’ of working with folks on L&T stuff. This in itself is a problem and will be a bigger issue if I decide to play the role of researcher, as opposed to participant-researcher as what I have been used to in the DBR approach.

My supervisors have been quick to recognise my biases/perceptions and I’ve been advised to ‘bracket’ them out, and rightly so as I need to let the data speak for themselves. They suggested that I engage in autoethnography. I thought at first it was madness… why should I have to study my experiences! But I can now see the method in their madness… since doing autoethnography I am learning to bracket my own presuppositions, prior knowledge and espoused viewpoints. I am learning to simply observe and record everyday experiences, others’ utterances as they engage with me, and to set aside accepted understandings. Mind you, doing this alongside conceptual framing for the thesis I find time-consuming, but I see some great benefits.

I am exploring the phenomenon of ‘competence’, at this stage not necessarily confined to analysing academic teachers’ understanding of disciplinary competence.

Re Richardson’s model – do you think this model assumes that the practice of teaching is autonomous? As you know, curriculum planning and decision making in higher ed context is a contested terrain. Not all academic teachers are afforded such autonomy, in many instances the what and how of curriculum, instruction and assessment are ‘pre-fabricated’ and prescribed. More often than not, along with the other elements in this model, the conception of and approaches to teaching of the course coordinator dictate what happens in L&T.

My research is likely to consider this problem in the context of variations of how academic teachers understand the studied phenomenon and their impacts to L&T, taking into account their identity, space and agency in the L&T process.

Re: Richardson’s model. Like all model it leaves lots out. It’s value is if it gives a useful summary for some purpose. Which I think it does.

I don’t remember any specific assumption on autonomy in Richardson’s paper, however, I do think that you have to be careful in assuming that there is limited autonomy.

While I agree that increasingly academics are being straight-jacketed into what they can do, especially in an increasingly managerialist, top-down, techno-rational approach to management within universities and their assumptions that academics are cheap, inter-changeable cogs in a broader machine which they control.

However, those folk overlook the key factor of a social system where human beings are the primary agents. Especially when those human beings are academics/knowledge workers.

People have agency. No matter what straight-jackets you try to put in place, they will work around them.

For example, Delgaty (2009) found that even within a heavily prescribed medical program different teaches within that program have radically different conceptions of what the curriculum map should look like. I believe that those conceptions would also drive significantly different experiences/actions within the classroom.

Even within a heavily prescribed curriculum, I think human agency would play a role. A role that is under played by techno-rationalist views of systems and processes.

I have the same thoughts about constructive alignment. I suspect that if we were able to dig into the reality of the private, lived experience of students within a constructively aligned course, we would find them engaging in practices that break the assumptions built into the design. Especially, amongst students who are highly pragmatic in their viewpoint.

Delgaty, L. (2009). “Curriculum mapping: Are you thinking what I’m thinking? A visual comparison of standardized, prescriptive programs.” Annual Review of Education, Communication and Language Science 6: 35-58.

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