Creative Research In Practice

like cloudIt’s not often I get to share an output from the commissioned research I do. Sometimes clients don’t want to share publicly for reasons of confidentiality, and sometimes there are other reasons they don’t publish. As a commissioned researcher, I can’t publish the work someone else has paid for without their agreement. But I’m glad to say that Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has published the full report of the research I did for them last year with my colleague Roxanne Persaud.

The research question was: How can QMUL improve students’ experience with respect to the inclusivity of their teaching, learning, and curricula? The original brief focused on the protected characteristics covered by the UK Equality Act 2010: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, and sexual orientation. Roxanne and I advised QMUL to take a more holistic approach to inclusivity, as the protected characteristics don’t cover some factors that we know can lead to discrimination and disadvantage, such as socioeconomic status and caring responsibilities. We recommended Appreciative Inquiry as a methodological framework, because it doesn’t start from a deficit perspective emphasising problems and complaints, but focuses on what an organisation does well and what it could do better. (It doesn’t ignore or sideline problems and complaints, either; it simply starts from the standpoint that there are assets to build on.)  And of course we suggested creative techniques, particularly for data-gathering and sense-making, alongside more conventional methods.

Roxanne and I were both keen to do this piece of work because we share an interest in diversity and inclusion. Neither of us had worked with QMUL before and we weren’t sure whether they would appreciate our approach to their brief. Sometimes commissioners want to recruit people who will do exactly what they specify. Even so, I’d rather say how I think a piece of work needs to be done; if the commissioner doesn’t want it done that way, then I don’t want the job.

QMUL shortlisted six sets of applicants. The interview was rigorous. Roxanne and I came out feeling we’d done ourselves justice, but with no clue as to whether we might have got the work or not. But we did!

The research was overseen by a Task & Finish group, made up of staff from different departments, who approved the methods we had put forward. We conducted a targeted literature review to identify key issues and best practice for inclusivity in the UK and overseas, and set the research in an institutional, societal, and theoretical context. The theoretical perspectives we used began with the theory of intersectionality developed by the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which we then built on using the diffraction methodology of the physicist and social theorist Karen Barad. These two theories together provided a binocular lens for looking at a very complex phenomenon.

The timescale for the research was tight, and data gathering collided with Ramadan, exams, and the summer holidays. So, not surprisingly, we struggled with recruitment, despite strenuous efforts by us and by helpful colleagues at QMUL. We were able to involve 17 staff and 22 students from a wide range of departments. We conducted semi-structured telephone interviews with the staff, and gave students the option of participating in face-to-face interviews or group discussions using creative methods. These methods included:

  • The life-sized lecturer: an outline figure on a large sheet of paper, with a label indicating what kind of person they are e.g. ‘a typical QMUL lecturer’ and ‘an ideally inclusive lecturer’, which students could write and draw on.
  • Sticker maps: a map of organisational inclusivity, which we developed for QMUL, on which students could place small green stickers to indicate areas of good practice and small red stickers to indicate areas for further improvement.
  • Empathy maps: tools to help participants consider how other students or staff in different situations think and feel; what they might see, say, and do; and where they might experience ‘pain or gain’ with respect to inclusive learning.
  • Screenplay writing: a very short screenplay depicting an interaction between a student and a very inclusive lecturer, or between a student and a less inclusive lecturer. The screenplay will include dialogue and may also include information about characters’ attributes, the setting, and so on.

We generated over 50,000 words of data, which we imported into NVivo. Roxanne and I spent a day working together on emergent data coding, discussing excerpts from different interviews and group sessions, with the aim of extracting maximum richness. Then I finished the coding and carried out a thematic analysis while Roxanne finished the literature review.

We wrote a draft report, and then had two ‘review and refine’ meetings for sense-making, which were attended by 24 people. The first meeting was with members of the Task & Finish group, and the second was an open meeting, for participants and other interested people. We presented the draft findings, and put up sheets on the walls listing 37 key factors identified in the draft report. We gave participants three sticky stars to use to indicate their top priorities, and 10 sticky dots to use to indicate where they would allocate resources. People took the resource allocation incredibly seriously, and it was interesting to see how collaboratively they worked on this. I heard people saying things like, ‘That’s important, but it’s already got five dots on, so I’m going to put another one here.’ I wish I could have recorded all their conversations! We did collect some further data at these meetings, including touch-typed notes of group discussions and information about the relative frequency of occurrence, and importance, of the 37 key factors. All of this data was synthesised together with the previously collected data in the final report and its recommendations.

The comparatively small number of participants was a limitation, though we did include people from all faculties and most schools, and we certainly collected enough data for a solid qualitative study. We would have liked some quantitative data too, but the real limitation was that most of the people we reached were already concerned about inclusivity. We didn’t reach enough people to be able to say with certainty whether this was, or was not, the case more widely at QMUL. Also, while none of our participants disagreed unduly with our methodology or methods, others at QMUL may have done so. In a university including physicists, mathematicians, engineers, social scientists, artists, doctors, dentists and lawyers, among others, it seems highly unlikely that anyone could come up with an approach to research that would receive universal approval.

Yet I’m proud of this research. It’s not perfect – for example, I’ve realised, in the course of writing this blog post, that we didn’t explicitly include the research question in the research report! But its title is Inclusive Curricula, Teaching, and Learning: Adaptive Strategies for Inclusivity, which seems clear enough. I’m sure there are other ways it could be improved. But I’m really happy with the central features: the methodology, the methods, and the flexibility Roxanne and I offered to our client.

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