Using Lego Serious Play to explore my PhD research journey

Today I was lucky enough to get a place on a Lego Serious Play workshop run by David Gauntlett, who uses lego to conduct all kinds of interesting research in Media, Art and Design at the University of Westminster.

The aim of the session was to explore the use of Lego as a tool for gathering qualitative data during the research process, as well as reflecting upon my own PhD experiences so far and learning from other people’s experiences.

Using Lego for metaphorical modelling

David explained that the idea behind Lego Serious Play is that by using a visual aid the participants are encouraged to think about their experiences and opinions and represent them in model form. The idea is that it gives people a new way to express and explore complex subjects and ideas through a creative method.

As my PhD research is focused on exploring experiences and understandings of research impact (undoubtedly a very complex and often contentious issue), I thought this could be a useful tool for me to use during my data gathering stage.

Getting used to building with Lego

stompocopter

We started out by building a free form creature, which could be any life form, as realistic or fantastical as you like. This stage allowed us to become familiar with the Lego pieces and to explore how everything could be used and fitted together. I really enjoyed this, and made the Stompocopter (obviously trademarked, don’t go nicking my ideas all you toy companies out there), with a working helicopter tail and huge stompy feet.

Moving from literal to metaphorical modelling

 

supervising

After this stage we talked a bit about metaphors and how they can be used to explore ideas which are hard to describe by borrowing meaning from other items and concepts. We then applied this knowledge to building some models representing positive and negative supervisory experiences of a PhD. In mine, the model at the top uses parts from my earlier Stompocopter to represent a supervisor pushing a student to plough on through their journey without any real consideration for the student’s opinions. This has led to the student having to develop a very thick skin (represented by the crash helmet). The collection of objects below represents a more positive experience, with the skills and guidance from the supervisor represented by the wheels, ladders and spade which can all be used by the student to navigate issues and barriers during their journey.

Exploring our own PhD journeys

Now that we were all getting used to how to use and discuss the modelling we were doing, we moved onto the main task of the afternoon – representing our own personal journey through modelling.

journey

I decided to use the concept of a river in my model, as I am interested in using the Kawa river model as a possible data gathering method during my case studies. The river here represents my PhD journey, with the tributaries indicating different paths of thought and possible directions I could go down with my work. The green bushes represent obstacles along the way, but by using the tools and skills I am developing (shown by ladders and bridges), I will hopefully be able to navigate my way through. I used the animals to represent different feelings throughout my journey; elephant – plodding away slowly at my research during difficult times, tiger – determination and passion for my subject, horse – a sense of urgency that comes in spits and spats, kitten – occasionally feeling overwhelmed and timid in my abilities. I found thinking about the theoretical side of my work very interesting, and represented the struggles I sometimes have with navigating complex theoretical work by using the web, as theory often seems to be something which needs untangling before I can move on.

Lego Serious Play as a research tool

Overall, I found the exercises really helpful in terms of looking at my PhD experience from different angles, and found that the modelling helped me to articulate my thoughts and feelings quite clearly. Doing this as a group was also beneficial in that people had the chance to learn from each others experiences too.

Having had an introduction to using Lego serious Play as a tool for exploring research ideas and potentially gathering data, I am going to consider using it as a visual method during my case study section next year.

As always, I’m very interested to hear from anyone who has comments about this subject or has carried out similar research themselves.

Pinning down my methodology – Part 3

Following a very useful, but somewhat intense supervision a few weeks ago, I have been focusing on stepping back from my very practical research design and workshop planning, and instead getting back to methodology basics. This has meant immersing myself in the maze of approaches and trying to pin down the philosophical theories which will be most appropriate to inform my research, following my previous posts on methodology part 1 and part 2.

Now, I’m going to be brave and admit that I have been struggling to get my head around the various concepts which will make up my methodology chapter – and I am sure I’m not the only one. If you, like me, do not have a background in educational research, then I am sure you might also feel a little baffled when confronted with a range of interlocking concepts and theories whose terms are continually developing and being debated.

That said, I feel I have made a mini-breakthrough this week in this area, and wanted to share my steps for getting there in case they might be of help to any fellow PGRs wading through the mire of educational methodology. So here goes.

Start from the beginning

I made the initial mistake of trying to develop my understanding of methodology theories through reading journal articles, as this is my usual go-to platform for learning and exploring. Silly me! Without the basic grounding in terms and debates, the articles did more harm than good, leaving my reeling with confusion and frustrated with myself.

On the advice of my supervisor I attended some EdD classes within my School, and was also able to access all the supporting materials for these classes on our online portal, meaning I could sit at home in my spare time and go through the lecture slides and reading material, which was amazingly useful. If your School runs an EdD class I would highly recommend asking if you can have access to at least the online materials, are they give a great overview of the basics in methodology.

Explore all avenues

Depending on your own personal learning style, it might also be worth exploring other platforms for finding information and learning these core concepts. For me, when I am trying to get my head around something new and complex, focusing only on linear reading does not do the trick – I need to mix it up a little, listen to people speak on the subject from their point of view. Live lectures are great for this, but this can also be supported by online resources – YouTube is brilliant for this! Some useful examples:

Complex research terminology simplified – very basic in the level of understanding it goes into, but perfect for getting your head around the different terms used in educational research methodology.

Graham Gibbs’ series on research methods – based on the social sciences, but covers many areas and concepts which cross over in Education too.

Using a combination of EdD materials, video tutorials and textbooks, I finally feel I have enough information to understanding the basics of what my methodology will look like:

Tadaaaaaaa!

Methodology outline

 

Apologies for the horrendous hand writing 🙂

So my next step, over the Christmas holidays, is to start getting my reasons down for choosing this avenue and finding some good sources to back up my decisions. Fingers crossed I will have a draft outline of this chapter to share with my supervisory team by January, exciting!

As always, comments, questions and feedback very welcome 🙂

Planning your pilot study/initial workshop

I have my next supervisory meeting in a couple of days and am relived to say that I actually feel to have moved forwards over the last couple of months, having waded through a LOT of reading and a fair amount of writing too. By my meeting tomorrow, I was aiming to have decided on what kind of pilot study I wanted to do and how I was going to approach it.

Drumroll……..hurrah! I can now announce my pilot study!

I will be carrying out an initial scoping workshop early next year, hopefully by February, to test out my ideas so far and to gain the insight of a relevant group of researchers within my university.

Action research

Following my earlier post on the basics of action research, I have done some further reading and decided to base the design of my initial workshop on the action research approach. The key ideology behind this approach is that research should be carried out in conjunction with participants, focusing on their input, rather than be an activity carried out upon them as though they are passive components.

As my work is totally focused on the experiences and opinions of researchers, it makes perfect sense to ensure that researcher feedback helps to inform the research design for my later case studies. I will be using the workshop to present the potential questions I would be using in my case study interviews, and will be asking attendees at the workshop to share their ideas and responses to these questions to ensure they are fit for purpose and suit my aims and objectives.

Workshop structure

After looking at some proposed action research workshop structures, I decided to use a slightly pared down version to ensure that the focus would remain on the participant discussions rather than just being lots of me waffling away at the front of the room. At the moment the scheduled is looking like this:

Arrival and coffees (15)

Short introduction to my research and proposed interview questions (10)

Group discussion around question 1: what does social impact mean to you? (10)

Feedback and discussion (15)

Group discussion around question 2: which questions do you find useful/ not useful, are there any missing? (10)

Feedback and discussion (15)

Summary and thank you (10)

It is very exciting to be finally planning an actual activity that will result in data gathering – and I am weirdly excited at the prospect of then writing all the findings up too! It will be interesting to see what my supervisors make of the plan tomorrow – what this space. 🙂

Pinning down my methodology: Part 2

The Kawa River Model

Having covered the basics of my methodology in Part 1, I now want to talk a bit about research design. Bear with me though, I am still very much on a learning curve with this stuff, so all the ideas are under development.

Why qualitative?

So, as I discussed in the previous post, I will be using a qualitative approach to do my data gathering, as I understand this will allow me to build up the most comprehensive picture of social impact definition, understanding and practices within the wider context of the participant subject areas and experiences.

Interviews and visual representation

I plan to carry out semi-structured depth interviews as well as asking participants to create visual representations of research journeys and social impact interpretations. I am choosing to use the depth interview rather than the structured interview to allow the participants to bring experiences, opinions and topics into the interview which they feel are key to the impact debate, rather than dictating the areas to be covered. This lets the participant be in charge of the conversation direction, hopefully leading to a much more relevant and contextualized set of data.

How to select the participants?

I did think about holding an initial workshop open to all researchers which would be used to identify appropriate researchers who would take part in the longer term case studies. However, I binned that idea after realising that it is too dependent on unpredictable nature of open invites: How many times have you been to/run a training session just to find that half the people don’t turn up? As my research is very dependent on covering a range of disciplines, it seems much more sensible to make a carefully planned selection than to leave it all to chance.

Which subject areas to cover

To make this selection, I will be using my existing contacts and project experiences to identify one researcher from the four broad discipline groupings across the University;

  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)
  • Arts
  • Humanities
  • Social Sciences

These 4 researchers will be invited to take part in a long term case study over 12 months to explore their understanding and experiences of impact. The case study research will consist of a combination of in depth interviews which will then be transcribed, and visual methods including cognitive mapping and journey representation, possibly in a form similar to the KAWA model.

Making space for the story

I have always been interested in how people tell a story through their research in order to translate it into real-world scenarious and communities. By using the diverse qualitative methods above I hope to build a detailed picture of researcher experiences and give them space to explore their experiences of how impact is generated in their field of work.

Pinning down my methodology: part 1

Following a couple of recent conferences in Nottingham and Blackpool, I needed to spend some time thinking about how the discussions I had at these events could improve and feed into my research.

In particular, they got me thinking about my least favorite subject recently….methodology. With my lack of any kind of experience in the social sciences prior to starting my PhD, my understanding of the philosophies surrounding different methodologies is pretty sketchy. I have been trying to remedy this with a stack of very intense, slightly dull looking books, but I’m not gonna lie; it is definitely still a work in progress.

I thought a couple of blog posts on where I am up to might help to straighten my thoughts out and maybe connect with some people who have been exploring their own methodology issues. In this first post I just want to explain the basics of my methodology in relation to my research aims and questions, then the following posts will deal with the underpinning philosophy and research design.

So, the basic outline of my PhD research is as follows:

Working title

How do researchers experience, view and bring about social impact through their work?

Aims

  • To carry out in-depth analysis of the impact debate, with a particular focus on exploring and defining social impact.
  • To record and discuss the lived experiences and views of researchers carrying out impacts upon society/communities.
  • To deepen the understanding of the actions carried out by researchers to bring about impact, in the context of the impact debate and impact assessment.
  • To produce recommendations for researchers and research support staff

Research questions

  • Drawing on literature in the field, how is social impact defined and why is it important?
  • How do researchers understand and attempt to bring about social impact
  • the understanding of social impact be theorised using an appropriate theoretical lens?

Qualitative or quantitative?

To gather the data needed in order to address the research questions above, it is important that the researchers involved are able to communicate their own definitions and experiences. I think the most suitable methodology to allow this is a qualitative approach consisting of detailed case studies.

As I want to contextualise impact within the individual research journeys, a quantitative approach would not be suitable.   I want to further the understanding of attitudes towards, and experiences of, social impact in relation to particular areas of work; to do this I need to gather deep data which is based on lived experience, hence the need for a qualitative approach.

Feedback – please feel free to comment on anything in the post or send a response to some suggested questions:

  • Did you find it hard to make a decision between quantitative and qualitative?
  • Would you have done anything differently in hindsight?
  • Did your chosen approach help/hinder answering your research questions?

Having the made the first decision for this section, next I will be looking at research design….