DATA! Or doing research in schools




I’ve created simply the most exciting folder of my PhD so far. It’s called DATA! Complete with capitals and exclamation mark – I just couldn’t stop myself. I’ve actually gone out ‘in the field’ and gathered some real data! I never thought the day would come, but it did, and here’s what I learnt:

Research in schools. Who needs it? Well yes, a lot of us, but don’t forget that everything about fieldwork in schools is hard, from A for access to Z for… it’s just hard, ok? Don’t get me wrong. I love education, I love schools. I’ve spent most of my life so far involved in some sort of educational establishment or other, be it as ‘educatee’, educator, or both. But the three top things to remember are:




  1. School teachers are busy, busy people. I should know, I used to be one. Make it easy and keep wordy emails and long lists of things you want done to a minimum. If you’re lucky enough that someone responds and offers you a time slot, take it, even if it means getting up a silly o’clock, finishing at silly o’clock or rushing madly from one appointment to the next, which will be at, yes, silly o’clock.


  1. Waste Spend your own time and money to make sure all documents are copied, stapled and ready to go. Don’t expect the teacher to take the time to prepare this, or the money for it to come out of the departmental budget. Put it all into one big bag and be prepared to hand over the bag as well – if you’re lucky you’ll get it back at the end, full of completed questionnaires. If you’re lucky, that is.


  1. Never been to this particular school before? Allow A LOT of time. Last week I was waiting outside of firmly locked electronic metal gates for what seemed like ages, worrying I might miss my appointment. And the parking! Parking’s always, always an issue. What’s legal isn’t always acceptable to the local community – if you’re parked in a side street, you’re almost certain to put someone’s nose out of joint. On my return to the car I found a handwritten note – impersonating a traffic warden – on the back of an envelope, telling me that my car was parked illegally (it wasn’t). The message was clear: “Don’t do it again”.


parking note


This was only day one of my data collection schedule. I interviewed two teachers at two schools – the text books say to only do one interview a day, but hey, see point 1) above. I’ll be back for more interviews, questionnaire sessions, lesson observations and focus groups – I can’t wait. So then, what to do with all this lovely, fresh and juicy data? Well, before you can crunch it all up and then spit it out again in some sort of (hopefully) meaningful fashion, it needs to be transcribed. But that’s a blog post for another day!


Are you conducting research in a school? How’s that going? Please post your comments below!

¡Viva NVivo!




Whilst other qualitative data analysis software IS available, one big name in this field you just can’t ignore is NVivo. NVivo claims that it can help you ”organise, explore and share your work – easily and quickly”. I’m in! So where’s the catch?

It’s this: When you’re new to NVivo, it’s quite hard and time-consuming to find out more about it, let alone get training and support. It’s not even that easy get some basic pricing information! But fret not, and do read on: I’ve put together some links and other info right here. Hoorah! Re pricing, I found 12 month student licences for £49 for Mac and £78 for Windows; however, you might be lucky and find that you can get NVivo for free from your university. There’s also the usual 30-day trial which can sign up for via the QSR (the makers of NVivo) website .

What’s it all about then? Well. It sounds like magic! NVivo can deal with a huge amount of data in a variety of formats, be it text-based, audio, video, databases, images, web pages and social media – you name it, NVivo is happy to gobble up all your messy data, crunch it, and spit it out again in an orderly fashion so you can actually do something with it. You just need to tell it how! Yes I know, sorry about that, but no software in the world will do your thinking for you. Once you’ve accepted that, you can still be grateful for its help with managing your data and ideas, querying your data, visualising it, and reporting from it. Then all you need to do is make sense of it all. Simples!

I wish I could show you how it works. Ah! I can! Here’s a three-minute video from the QSR YouTube Channel!

It’s worth watching, if only for the weird way the Australian (?) voiceover says ‘dahr-tahr’ every five seconds or so. Also, as a linguist I’m pleased to see that the clip seamlessly blends into playing in six other languages, starting with French. Chapeau!

I’m currently using NVivo for a project involving interviews, an online survey and focus groups, and I love it! I have some quantitative data too, which I could import both via Excel and SPSS. I wish I’d known about it for earlier projects, but hey, better late than never. I love how you can slice through your data this way and that way – plus how sci-fi is it to be able to say you’re running a matrix query!

Next I’m planning to use NVivo for my PhD literature review. Yes, your literature is data too! Who’d have thought? You can code it, search it query it, visualise it in models – the mind boggles! You can also import references, abstracts, notes and pdfs directly from Endnote – it just gets better and better! (other bibliography software like RefWorks, Zotero and Mendeley and works too but I’m using Endnote, and loving this one too. By now you might be thinking I’m too easily pleased?!)

Here are a few links to things I wish I’d known earlier, to save you finding out the hard way:

  • The QSR website . This is a good starting point, albeit of course their motivation is to flog you the thing. But still. Download a free NVivo 10 guide (current version) here.
  • Going old school for a moment, here’s a top book (yes the type with actual paper pages) which is EXTREMELY useful:

Bazeley, P., & Jackson, K. (2013). Qualitative data analysis with Nvivo (2nd ed). London: Sage.

I locked myself into my study for a week and did nothing but work through it, making notes along the way and practising using my own project and the training ones provided. Comes with an equally helpful website with additional resources and guides – you can download these for free even if you haven’t bought the book. I bought mine for about £20 and I’ve not regretted it.  Also check out Dr Pat Bazeley’s website – the woman’s a legend!

  • NVivo glossary: Columbia University Libraries/Information Services has compiled a very useful table of NVivo terminology, from ‘aggregate’ right through to ‘value’. Definitely worth saving in your Favourites.
  • For what it’s worth, I’ve put together my very own top tips for NVivo. This is by no means a perfect document, more like notes I made while working through the book and applying it to my project. Supplied in Word format on purpose; feel free to download and edit as you see fit.
  • The above-mentioned QSR YouTube channel has loads of other videos explaining different aspects of NVivo. But don’t just stick to that! Searching YouTube for ‘how-to-do-such-and such-with-NVivo’ yields a plethora of other results too.
  • Once you’ve got NVivo installed, don’t overlook the HELP button (looks like a question mark, funnily enough). A wealth of useful information covering everything you’ll ever need, and more.
  • There’s an active NVivo Forum on the QRS website, plus NVivo has a presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Ha! Instagram! Just kidding, but the other ones are for real.

Will you be giving NVivo a go?


PS: Despite of what you may think, this post is NOT sponsored by anyone or anything ;-)!



Sociocultural Theory goes to a party

image1 (13)

So, looks like I can’t just go out in the field, conduct my research and write it up – PhD done. Damn!  There’s just the small issue of the theoretical framework. What’s your view of the world – i.e. what is reality?  The answer to this question defines your ontology. And how can you find things out about this reality? The answer to that question is your epistemology. Both of these should run through your theoretical framework.  And for that you pick key concepts from the literature and show how you plan to operationalise these through your methods. Easy!

Enter Sociocultural Theory as a possible candidate. Why?

1) At a, er, theory party (bear with me!), SCT would happily chat away all night with Discourse Analysis, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism and Social Constructivism. Constructing giggles all night long – they have so much in common!  If I was invited, that’s the group I would join too over nibbles and a glass of wine or five.

2) SCT would be the life and soul of said party – after all, everything starts with the social, and this one is an active producer of her own social and cultural environment, including choosing the music.

3) When Motivation turns up alone, not quite sure of himself and a bit up-and-down mood-wise, it finds SCT very friendly, showing him around and introducing him to her friends . SCT treats motivation kindly because she thinks he’s emerging through the interactions of participants, context and sociocultural activity in a socio-historically situated process.  Aw, bless!

In case you’re wondering why SCT’s female and Motivation’s male, well, gender is a social construction, and  I constructed it that way through my discourse. And why not!

Have you come across SCT before? Yes you have, and if you’re a (language) teacher you DEFINITELY have!  Scaffolding, dynamic assessment, internalisation? These are all concepts derived from SCT. Here’s a few others (for brevity’s sake can’t mention them all!)

Mediation: All human behaviour is organised and controlled by concrete or symbolic artefacts. Mediation is the process which connects the social and the individual. Language is an artefact?! Of course it is, if you think about it!


Zone of Proximal Development. Various definitions are available for this one! Through mediated support (scaffolding!!) a learner achieves more than they would have on their own. Learning leads to development. Here’s hoping!


Yes, really, this is a word. It refers to meaning-making and shaping knowledge and experience through language. Ever talked to yourself? That’s called private speech. Talking with others ideally takes place as collaborative dialogue. Yeah, well, that’s ideally!

Scientific and everyday concepts:

These are symbolic tools used to solve problems. Scientific concepts are conscious, systematic, and generalisable. Everyday concepts are experience-based, partially transferrable, unconscious, and unsystematic. The dialectic between the two creates the ZPD. Neat!


Thinking and feeling are closely connected. A brave person to disagree with this one!

Activity theory:

Complicated-looking diagrams of triangles – developed by Leont’ev based on Vygotsky’s (he dreamed up the whole SCT malarkey in the first place) conceptualisation of the individual and his or her goal-oriented context. Personally, I’m giving this one a miss.

Dynamic Assessment:

Assessment as social and cultural activity. Can be joint construction of performance, not just learner as sole performer. An expert will guide learner to a performance they’ll later be able to carry out on their own, as opposed to measuring past learning. Liking this one a lot!  Complete opposite of psychometric testing.

So, is SCT going to feature in my theoretical framework? Not really, not as much as its friends mentioned above anyway. I might give it a nod, but I just couldn’t really make it fit. I enjoyed reading about it though! My approach turns out altogether differently grounded – but that’s a whole new theory for another day!

What framework are you using in your research?