Thinking about methods and methodology

I’ve been reading about the methodology of case studies. Yin (2003) warns against being ‘biased by pre-conceived notions, including those derived from theory’ p 56. This is a risk for the study to be undertaken, as the nature of DWR is to suggest a method (the Change laboratory) to be used in order to replicate a particular way of facilitating change and innovation. The method is thus implicit in the theory in a way which is intended to ensure that results are amenable to analysis against the major categorised concerns of DWR – the consideration of history, culture, current division of labour, community, multi-voicedness etc..

This could be said to be a case of the methods determining the analysis, but not the results, as far from suggesting that any outcomes can be predicted, DWR explicitly defends itself against this by pointing out that the end-points are never predicted. Unlike action research, where a desirable outcome is anticipated and deliberately stimulated, the researcher in a Change Laboratory is encouraged to be a participant observer, using evidence generated by the actors in the workplace as a mirror to their practice and a stimulus to consideration of the contradictions inherent in that practice. Theory determines the nature of the analytical lens through which practice is observed as it evolves.

CHAT as an analytical framework

Although I am not conducting a Change Laboratory myself, the evidence I hope to collect will be used against these same categories in the analysis. I am looking for post-hoc, reported reflection on the contribution that students make to innovations, and how these might be looked at as examples of steps in the expansive learning cycle. Some elements of this have been done before – by Engeström, for instance, in critiquing a study of the discourse around an incident in which machinists in a factory discussed an issue with a faulty machine (Engestrom 1999), and by others who use CHAT and/or DWR as one of a number of reflective tools in the practical analysis of their findings (e.g. Ellis 2011) whilst stopping short of engaging with the full philosophy of expansive learning theory, or combining their analysis with other theoretical approaches.

Matrix for analysis of expansive learning

My study, in contrast, aims to determine how far AME could be considered as an example of expansive learning theory in practice. It does so without the stimulation tool of a researcher encouraging micro-consideration of current practice. It does so in the context of analysis of the pressures of constant external competition to be first to market with innovative products. And it recognises the need for this particular experimental set-up to justify how the presence of students on the shop-floor, in a live commercial environment in which those competitive pressures determine day-to-work, adds value and helps to create the conditions for learning what isn’t yet known.

Practical considerations

So much for justifying the approach, what about the logistics and mechanics of discussing activity theory with people starting out in their first experience of formal workplaces, or those with a lifetime of engineering experience behind them, but no background in thinking about types of applied pedagogy, or those whose concern is primarily with business outcomes and the bottom line of profitability? With this in mind, I’m working on preliminary research questions, and early drafts of an interview-topic structure. Watch this space for more on this soon.

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