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Round table
Proceedings of ECER 2003 Round table on methodological approaches in European projects
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DISCUSSION > Contributions

Moderator

I would be interested in your comments, especially from those of you who are involved in related research projects: How do you assess these approaches? Would you be able or inclined to take any of these up? Connected with this question is the more general  issue of whether we can learn across individual partnerships, and inspire other partnerships.

Leif Ch. Lahn

I think this was a very interesting approach you described here. I have been doing some interventional research in vocational health education, also related to some of the issues you brought up: inclusion and integration. Sometimes, what is left out I think in interventional research and also in action research is the thematisation of the researcher. You come in as a researcher and have created mutual expectancies in this field. Therefore, very often these native definitions may not be as native as described afterwards; they may have been somehow the product of the meeting between researchers. For example, from my experience, these natives would ask: Are these researchers coming to help us; how are they describing our situation; and how do we want them to describe our situation? So these issues I think should be thematised in some kind of reflexive design.

Anja Heikkinen

I very much agree with you. At least in our Finnish case, this was the main question we tried to take into account. For example, to talk about deconstruction: whether it is the principal of the vocational school or some administrator, or a teacher, or the student or learner, or the researcher - they all have construction frameworks which are more or less explicit. But this process would also be a deconstructive process concerning these given frameworks. It's up to them how far they want to take part in this deconstruction. The only thing the researchers can do is to challenge or question the framework, in particular the background were the typical approach to this kind of activity came from: from special education, social pedagogy, youth work and so on. So that's the kind of deconstruction we can do as researchers, and to be aware of this mutual kind of feeding. 
    Often these actors are coming from special education or youth work or social pedagogy, and they have a vested interest in broadening their professional field, compared to vocational teachers who have a stronger relation to industry and to occupational areas. We don't want to go to anybody's side, so it's up to them to develop their activity. But we have been thinking about this political aspect, we have been intervening a bit in local policy making, in education.

Petr Vicenik

My point is about comparative research. In international comparison you have got the institutional level, usually connected with the national framework. If we try to develop some programme at international level we have the problem with different frameworks in which institutions work. For example, it is difficult to find institutions which are the same at each level of study. The starting point at the level of curricula is the qualification which is needed in practice; this is the main factor influencing curricula. We know from the international point of view what is involved in curricula. So this is important: factors determining the main framework of methodology. 
If we look at comparative education I think it is mainly dealing with the structures. It is able to describe structures and functions into detail, but in fact the general result is that the structures are different, and responsibilities are different. So it is very difficult to find something common. But there are a lot of common things: common competences, common programmes.
    It is therefore important not to concentrate on real structures in vocational education and training, or on different sectors and institutions. Instead, there are the main factors. We must de-construct structures to a level of main factors which influence the problems which are to be solved. I tried to do this when I developed a programme connected with assessment in our country. I haven't finished it, but I think I will be able to develop some methodology, market structure analysis, and find at least semi-quantitative tools for comparison of different educational schemes. 

Jan Shepherd

The problem solving approach and action research are very much associated with the countries that are involved; they are very contextualised. It would be interesting to learn how you move from your method to actually getting something at European level. Otherwise, you might get too caught up with the methodology. We should come out at the end with something which can be shared between different partners. So how do you take your ideas forward from methods into policy?

Anja Heikkinen

If you talk about comparative research or comparative education I agree with you. I think that has a special history and a special purpose, and that's a certain identity. But I think the point is whether we should draw something to the European level. I don't believe that there is something like the European level. I think what is very crucial is to have a kind of cross-cultural infrastructure for developing research. If that doesn't exist, I think this project base where you just try to pick up something for the so-called European level you will never develop the research, because the research depends upon researchers.
    In my view, the challenge is, when thinking about the Bologna process and European higher education, to have a more aggressive researcher based development of research activities themselves. There would be a different dimension within cross-cultural research, which would not come from top-down, but which would come from the researchers. I acknowledge it's very abstract, but it may be an answer to your question.

Jan Shepherd

The problem, particularly in project led research, is whether we have got continuity: continuity of funding, continuity of ideas - how to deal with that.

Michael Søgaard Larsen

With or without funding, this question you raised could be regarded as a question within the sphere of methodology. I can imagine, in research described as deconstruction or action research, when you do it in other countries as well, then - telling story one, story two, story three or four, also involves some kind of methodology. This is a question I find very basic in comparative education: Are you looking for differences or are you looking for sameness? I am afraid if we only apply the deconstruction or action research approach we would find the differences; we would need to think extra to be able to find the sameness. So I would like to hear your opinion on this from a methodological point of view.

David Raffe

I think I can make a comment that addresses all three last questions, which is to state the obvious: there are clear indications from all kinds of research that you can't take policies from another country and expect them to work. On the other hand, I'd like to agree with you that there are levels at which one can identify sameness, and I give you two examples. 
    The first one: Even when you have very different institutional arrangements, for instance apprenticeships, you can often use things like network theory to explain why it is that they may or may not help young people to find jobs. Second example: There is a trend, in policy thinking among some researchers, towards identifying commonalities that are different sometimes at functional level. For instance, the OECD report on the thematic review of the transition from education to work came up with five generic requirements which all systems should meet: what kind of requisites a system needs to satisfy in order for transition to be effective, including various social criteria.
    This has to do with the policy reference and the notion of similarities. Yes, one can identify at a cross-national level common themes, common elements; the important point is to recognise that these shape up differently within the different institutional contexts.

Jean-Paul Reeff

I'd like to add one thing: If you look for commonalities I think you have, from the beginning, to be quite sure which countries you are speaking about, especially if you go beyond Europe. When we started the problem solving work, this was intended to cover OECD countries, but then we also included South American countries, and that makes a difference. For instance, the rather rational approach we used in our project (make a plan, analyse it etc) may not be applicable in other countries. Also, we experienced that a particular task chosen for the problem-solving approach didn't work in South America. It was about moving your partner from A to B, by renting a car, and following a plan of action. However, when you rent a truck in Argentina the driver is with the truck, so the constraints we had built in just didn't work. So if you are not aware of that from the very beginning you may have serious trouble later on in other parts of the world.

Anja Heikkinen

I think the discussion has been about different levels of research; it can be more basic, it can be applied, it can be development oriented. This is also the case in educational research, even though some say it's only applied, because it is using theories from other disciplines. I am very much at the basic level. Perhaps comparative research is ok when you are at this developmental level, when you take commonalities as something on what you agree. But when you get more to the basics of education, as a disciplinary field, and to the basic categories and concepts, as in action research, and when you think about the challenges of cross-cultural, transnational action research - then I don't think that finding similarities is the point. 
    The constructive thinking should mean or could mean, in fact, that we are understanding education itself in different ways. There is transformation in our views about what education is about; perhaps we are going deeper or to a higher conceptual level, but somehow we have a richer or a new kind of understanding. I think this is the point of action research: the activity, what we mean by it, what we understand by education, what these researchers are sharing; whether they are developing perhaps new alternatives for the understanding of what education, what pedagogy is about. It's not about finding commonalities (perhaps there are commonalities, perhaps there are differences), but about qualitatively creating, developing something new. I think that's what research is about: creating something new - perhaps!
 

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