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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Planning my first article from my PhD research on societal impact

I am currently trying to prepare for my first progression viva which is in June, by getting my methodology chapter into shape for submission in may. However, I’m also keen not to take my eye off the ball and lose focus on the rest of my PhD, so have given myself the task of preparing my first article for submission. (I have published an article from my UG research on colonial discourse and one on dissemination, but this will be the first article to come out of my PhD research).

After carrying out my initial scoping workshop to look at experiences and opinions around research impact, particularly societal impact, I wondered if the research design and findings of the workshop might make for an interesting article on using participatory research to inform the development of methods for a larger research project.

I have outlined my initial plan below, with a couple of links to journals I am considering as potential places to publish.

Title: Using an action research approach to explore researcher experiences and opinions of societal impact

  • Background to my research

Context of research into societal impact

Impact definitions

Overall PhD aims and research questions

How the scoping workshop fits in to overall research

  • Carrying out the workshop

Research design

Practical issues

  • What did I learn?

Data gathered

Analysis

  • Next steps

Using the data to inform interview questions

Possible journals

Educational Action Research – my work fits the Education subject area, and the journal has an emphasis on looking at different research methods and designs. Gold Open Access option (£1700), co-edited by Pat Thompson, a big name in my field.

Higher Learning Research Communications – International journal, completely open access, broad scope of articles related to higher education including teaching and learning but also best practice and faculty experiences. – I have a feeling this journal might be more realistic for my current stage.

I have sent this off to a couple of very helpful colleagues for some initial feedback, as I think it is always worth getting another opinion to help you think about angles for a new article, or consider outlets you wouldn’t have thought of.

 

As always, any comments very welcome!

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.

Planning my initial scoping workshop

Exciting times are afoot this week! In just under two weeks time I will be holding my first data gathering exercise in the form of a group workshop to look at opinions around and experiences of social impact from a researcher point of view.

Designing the workshop

There will be around 10-15 participants, including researchers from across the career spectrum including ECRs, Lecturers, Professors and Heads of Research. I chose to sample participants in this way to make sure there would be a diverse range of experience to draw upon.

When designing the workshop I have been drawing on principles of action research, keeping the focus very much on the co-creation of knowledge and exploring areas which the participants believe to be viable and useful. This will ensure that I am exploring areas of importance to researchers, and not just relying on my own assumptions of what the key issues are.

With this in mind, the workshop will focus around 2 key areas:

  • What does social impact mean to you?
  • Which areas need to be more thoroughly understood?

The participants will be discussing these questions in small groups, then feeding back their responses to the whole group. These feedback sessions will be recorded on dictaphones to allow for transcription and analysis later on.

Understanding the research context

One of the things I wanted to make sure of was that the participants would be able to understand why I want to use their opinions and experiences, and how it fits in with my research as a whole. To help with this, I will be using a couple of visual aids:

I developed this ‘impact tree’ as part of a poster presentation for the ARMA conference last year, to help visualise the scope of my research. Hopefully this will help participants to understand what is in and out of scope in terms of defining social impact.

Final impact tree

I will also be using a scanned in copy of my research schedule to show, in a very informal (and owl-covered!) way, how the information gathered from the workshop will feed into my wider research plan.

Research schedule

Hopefully the workshop will be a useful experience for the participants as well as for me – I will certainly do an update post after it is finished.

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. 🙂

Submitting your Proposal/Plan…or yeay!

So this week I submitted my formal Research Proposal and Plan to my university PGR and ethics committee. Those of you who are further down the road in their PhD traipse will know how satisfying this is! Yeay!

Being someone who can procrastinate until the cows come home, and then until they have tea, get tucked up in straw, dreams some cow dreams….it was a real relief to feel like I finally have something down on paper. After months of reading, faffing, stressing and some (ahem LOTS) of reorganising my writing space, I finally have around 5000 words of fairly succinct explanation around my PhD topic and approach. And yes, I have worked out how much of my final thesis that equates to. And then immediately wished I hadn’t.

Now that this first hurdle is over, I really need to try hard to keep the momentum going and not sit back for a few weeks waiting for the comments to come in. So, I have devised a little plan of action for the next few weeks:

  • Plough through the ever-growing pile of articles bordering my writing space – I aim to read 2 articles a week, make notations and try and add a summary into my research notes.
  • Sign up to the EdD classes which start at my uni in Sep – these discussion sessions focus on methodologies and theories, which are both areas I need to focus on more.
  • Do some more blog posts! I think blogging about my theory and methodology reading might help me to negotiate some barriers.

Anyone else at a similar stage to me and have any tips/questions around where to go next and how to re-focus?

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….