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.

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The results of my PhD scoping workshop on social impact

Some of the data gathered from my workshop

Some of the data gathered from my workshop

As part of my wider Phd research into researcher perspectives on societal impact, I held an initial scoping workshop a couple of weeks ago to further develop my understanding and gather data to inform the writing of my interview questions to be used in later case studies. I found it really useful, so thought I would share with you how and why  I did it. As always, comments very welcome!

Participatory or action research

The idea was to draw upon a participant action research approach, as this approach allows for an emphasis on participant experience and understanding that is integral to my research questions and aims.

This workshop design allows the researcher and participants to work together with two broad aims: to understand the participant’s world, and to learn how to change aspects or carry them out more successfully. In this case, these broad aims were to understand more fully the impact debate and the issues surrounding it, and to learn how to change and improve the understanding, communication and assessment of social impact.

Aims of the workshop

The initial scoping workshop addresses two key sets of aims. Firstly, it directly addresses my research aims as detailed above in the introduction. By holding the workshop and analysing the data gathered I further my own understanding of the impact debate whilst also creating a space in which participants can discuss and explore their impact experiences and opinions.

In addition to this, the workshop addresses some specific aims relating to research design:

• To identify key issues and concerns surrounding social impact for researchers.
• To aid the informed development of a set of questions to be used during the data gathering stage of the case studies.

Structure of the workshop

Although participatory action research is always going to be approached in different ways depending on the context of the subject and participants, there have been attempts to suggest structure templates as a basis to design workshops around. I adapted an eight-step structure (Heron and Reason 2006) into a more compact five-step one to suit the amount of time I had available and to focus more on the participant input than my own research journey. I did however keep a short section in to explain my research aims and to illustrate how the workshop fits into my research journey, as this information is important when ensuring that participants are well informed about how the data gathered will be used.

• Welcome and introductions
• Short presentation on the context of my research and where the workshop fits in as part of my research journey
• Group discussions around what social impact means to the participants and feedback
• Group discussion around which areas of social impact the participants feel need further understanding and feedback
• Summary, next steps for the research and thank you

Data analysis

The majority of the data collected during the workshop was in the form of mind maps and notes written on flipchart paper during group exercises. For analysis of this I have taken direction from a qualitative analysis approach often used for coding different types of data (Bryman 2012). The stages of analysis include the following:

• Transcribe and code at an early stage
• Initial read through of documents, no note taking
• Second read through with marginal notes including key words
• Review the emerging codes

After typing up all the comments from the flipchart sheets, I followed the above stages, resulting in a list of key ideas and questions around each discussion point. I have then summarised these into the following themes:

Exercise 1 – What do we need to consider when
defining social impact?

• University strategy/management
• Impact as part of the research journey
• Metrics/measuring
• Public engagement
• Differences between subjects
• Influencing policy
• Working with industry
• Effects on practice/services
• Data/publication access

Exercise 2 – What are some of the issues and Qs which could
help us understand social impact better?

• University strategy/management
• Impact as part of the research journey
• Metrics/measuring
• Public engagement
• Differences between subjects
• Influencing policy
• Overlap with academic/economic impact
• Defining impact

Many of the issues arising from the two discussions overlapped, indicating that a lot of the key issues surrounding social impact are not seen by the participants as being sufficiently understood.

What next?

I am now using the data gathered from the workshop to write a draft set of semi-structured interview questions to use during my case studies. Overall, it was a really useful experience and has definitely given me more confidence in my research design.

The research impact journey and conference badge mishaps

Research and conference journeys

Monday this week saw me trekking down to Uxbridge for the Pragmatic Impact Tools Seminar that was being held at Brunel University. The delegate list was a mix of researchers from all areas with an interest in impact, plus some consultation service practitioners.

Challenging your research design and thesis structure

The day itself was extremely inspiring, and I was very happy to have the chance to meet some of the people whose work has inspired me to take the plunge into my own PhD. In particular, a big shout out to Simon Bastow who has helped to pen the pioneering The Impact of the Social Sciences which will be in print January 2014. We had a great discussion around structure and methodology, which really helped me to feel more confident in my unorthodox approach to a thesis structure. Thanks Simon!

Conference travel and badge mishaps

I knew the journey to and from the seminar was going to be long, so I planned ahead and felt it was well organised and structured. That said, you can’t plan for everything, and not being a football fan myself, I hadn’t realised there was a big match on at the Arsenal stadium. Being bodily picked up by a very large Arsenal fan and forcibly squished onto a tube in the midst of a VERY loud football chant was quite an experience. There’s a first time for everything I guess. It wasn’t the last surprise of the trip though – after collecting my badge and wearing it for a considerable amount of time, a fellow delegate responded to my ‘Hi, I’m Megan’, with ‘Are you Megan or mean?’. It took me a good minute to realise they weren’t being mean themselves, but had spotted a rather unfortunate spelling mistake on my badge!

The impact journey

The importance of structure and organisation as part of a journey ran as somewhat of a theme throughout the seminar, as we had discussions around how researchers view the journey of a piece of work and how frameworks can be used to make the most out of this journey. I found this an easy way to visualise impact, and started to think about what a researcher might need along this journey to ensure it is successful.

Customising the research impact journey

In my day job working with researchers across all subjects/disciplines, I have learnt quickly that the subject of a piece of research dictates the audience it is meant for, and therefore the channels/tools/methods that can be used to share it and encourage engagement. With this in mind, I have started to visualise an impact journey that can be applied to any subject, but with tailored suggestions around channels/tools/methods that can be slotted in as and when appropriate. Hopefully, this combination of a transferable framework and tailored elements would result in a toolkit that would enable successful impact outcomes.

What does a successful impact look like?

But what is a successful impact outcome? Again, this is something which is going to be different for not only every subject discipline, but also every research group/researcher, and possibly every individual project. I recognise that it is important that I don’t simply assume I know what successful impact looks like – I need to ask the researchers involved before looking at how to tailor the journey for them. I feel this could be a good starting point for my case study research – finding out what researchers fell a successful impact looks like.

Data collection

To collect this information I need a carefully chosen method, which is most likely to be either a set of interviews, a questionnaire, or a combination of both. Oh the joys of data collection….I think I’ll leave that for my next post!

References shmeferences….

I had another brilliant meeting with my mentor this morning, who has been coaching me through the application process for my PhD and helping me to get organised and (almost) ready to start my actual research journey.

We talked this morning a lot about reference managing tools, which is definitely useful, but also somewhat mind boggling. I played around with Mendeley a bit a few weeks ago and managed to, rather haphazardly, start a small library of articles, books and web pages that I think will be useful. However, there seem to be a million useful features in Mendeley, none of which I have managed to get working, plus I can’t seem to get the Chrome plug in widget thingamy working, which means I have been entering all the information manually, which kind of seems to negate the point, no?

Anyhoooo, so my mentor suggested EndNote as a simpler and more robust tool for doing this, so I have booked myself on a training course in November and am mentally preparing to get my head wrapped around it without too much bafflement. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has experience with both/either and to hear what your preferences or key tips are?

Any advice would be very helpful.