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Our Research Approach
Dimensions' teachers and consultants have been collecting data since the spring of 1998. Our research approach has been primarily qualitative action research. More specifically our work could be described as a longitudinal, single-site case study. A unique characteristic of our research approach is the use of teachers as collaborators and co-researchers. The following pages describe our research methodology and link to specific examples.
Qualitative Research and Case Study Approach: Our Foundation
Bogdan and Biklen (1992) describe qualitative research as an "umbrella term" that refers to multiple research strategies that share certain characteristics, with data that are "rich in description of people, places, and conversations, and not easily handled by statistical procedures. Research questions are not framed by operationalizing variables; rather they are formulated to investigate topics in all their complexity (and) in context" (p. 2). McMillan and Schumacher (1997) suggest that qualitative researchers collect data in the form of words rather than numbers and the result is an in-depth verbal description of the phenomenon of interest. Creswell (1998) describes this form of inquiry as a "process of understanding based on distinct methodological traditions of inquiry that explore a social or human problems"…where the researcher "builds a complex, holistic picture, analyzes words, reports detailed views of (participants), and conducts the study in natural settings" (p. 15).
Multiple authors have identified several key characteristics of qualitative inquiry.
Specifically, Creswell (1998) states that case study research is conducted "over time through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information in a rich context" (p. 61). Case studies typically explore bounded systems in order to gain understanding of people, situations, events or programs and to explore the meaning for those involved (Merriam, 1998).
Qualitative case study research fits particularly well with our work at Dimensions as we seek to understand what children are learning as they develop key visual-spatial skills, engage in purposeful movement, and connect more deeply with nature and natural materials. Qualitative methodology allows our teachers (the human instruments) to capture children in process, over time, and in the rich context of both indoor and outdoor settings. It captures their behaviors and their words and allows the flexibility to explore what is important to children as they are actively engaged in the learning process. In the end, qualitative research allows us to create a rich, descriptive picture of what children are learning, the materials they are using, and ways teachers are supporting that important learning.
The Teacher-as-Co-researcher Model
A unique feature of Dimensions' research model is our use of teachers as active co-researchers. Teachers have been involved in all phases of the research process, including developing research questions, developing data collection instruments, collecting data, analyzing data, and writing and disseminating our findings (i.e., in articles and through workshops and conference presentations).
Our teacher-as-co-researcher model fits well with the action research paradigm. Mills (2000) suggests that teachers conduct action research on children who are in their care. It occurs in classrooms, using qualitative research methods to describe what is happening and the impact of educational intervention. The ultimate goal is to take action and "effect positive educational change" in the environment that is studied (p. 5).
Action research is participatory in nature and engages teachers in a four-step process (Mills, 2000). Those steps include: 1) identifying an area of focus; 2) collecting data; 3) analyzing and interpreting data; and 4) developing an action plan. In qualitative inquiry, these steps occur simultaneously and one step influences the other. Similarly, Stringer (1996) describes an action research spiral that includes looking, thinking and acting as a "continually recycling set of activities" (p. 17).
Evidence of "action" in the early education classrooms at Dimensions includes significant changes in the types of materials teachers provide for children, changes in our indoor and outdoor classroom spaces, and in the curriculum/activities teachers provide for children. The evolution of our research since 1998 is also evidence of the extensive thinking teachers have done, from our early exploration of children's development of visual-spatial skills (with our focus mainly in the block areas of the classrooms) to the role of purposeful movement in children's learning and to the connection between the built and natural environments and ways the outdoors can extend the learning process.
Dimensions Foundation provides substantial support to sustain the teacher-as-co-researcher model, including designated paid time weekly for teachers to document their observations of children and participate in the analysis process. In addition, Dimensions provides teachers with multiple opportunities for training on qualitative research methodology. Dimensions' research director provides training in teacher staff meetings. Each year, the research director meets with new teachers and staff to provide initial training on the history of our research process and on qualitative methodology. In addition to ongoing training, Dimensions partnered with a local college to offer a graduate level qualitative research course for credit, taught by our research director. The course was first offered on-site in 2001 and again in 2007. To date, a total of 14 teachers and three Dimensions consultants have completed this graduate level course in qualitative research methods. In addition, Dimensions has provided a structured way for teachers to dialogue about our research, their learning, and action plans in weekly staff meetings and in reflective focus group interviews each semester.
Data Collection Procedures
Our data collection methods vary depending on the types of data we want to collect. However, a hallmark of our research at Dimensions is close observation of children. Over the years, teachers and our research director have collaborated to create protocols for collecting and recording data. We have developed, field-tested, and revised several iterations of forms to document teachers' observations of children, both in our traditional classrooms and in the outdoor Nature Explore™ classrooms.
Our teachers use specially designed child observation forms to record "Visual Notes" (indoors) and "Nature Notes" (in our Nature Explore classrooms and other outdoor settings). The backs of these forms include lists of skills we have identified from earlier analysis and teachers may use these in their observations. In recent years we have incorporated these forms into children's portfolios, so parents receive copies of teachers' observations. Both teachers and parents have said that the addition of the Visual and Nature Notes documentation to children's portfolios has significantly increased the professionalism of children's portfolios and the information Dimensions sends home to parents.
Depending on the entry, teachers record narrative descriptions of what children are doing, the spaces they are in, and the materials they are using. Teachers often supplement their Visual and/or Nature Notes with sketches, photographs, and samples of children's work. When possible, teachers capture children's direct quotes as well as the larger context of what is occurring, which gives us insight into what children are thinking.
In addition to collecting data on children, Dimensions also regularly collects data from teachers on ways they are supporting children's learning, how being involved in our collaborative work as co-researchers has changed them personally and professionally, and how our research is changing the spaces, materials and activities/curriculum we provide for children. All of our teachers participate in focus group interviews twice a year, conducted by our research director. The interviews have a specific focus and are guided by semi-structured, open-ended interview protocols that teachers receive in advance so they can prepare for the interviews. The data from these rich dialogues are analyzed and used to inform practice and relevant data are incorporated into Dimensions workshops and publications.
Data Analysis Procedures
The qualitative data analysis process involves continually asking the question: What is this about? It is a process of sense-making, and involves looking at all of the parts of data as well as looking at the whole. To illustrate this, Tesch (1990) describes the qualitative data analysis process as a process of "de-contextualization and re-contextualization" (p. 115). Simply stated, the de-contextualization process means that researchers take the volumes of data they have collected and segment them into smaller "units of ideas, episodes, or pieces of information" (p. 166). Initially, researchers "separate relevant portions of data from their context" (p. 118) in order to examine the specific pieces. The process of putting those data back together, to form larger categories, is what Tesch describes as the re-contextualization process. Similar data are assembled into categories to represent a "pool of meanings" (p. 122) and enable researchers to see the larger picture or storyline of their data.
Typically, qualitative researchers collect significant amounts of data. To make the data analysis process manageable, Marshall and Rossman (1999) describe it as a process of data reduction and interpretation. Data reduction means that "the reams of collected data are brought into manageable chunks" and interpretation "brings meaning and insight to the words and acts of the participants in the study" (p. 152-153). Much of the data reduction process occurs through segmenting and coding the data in a systematic way.
Dimensions has three analysis teams that meet weekly to analyze data. Each team consists of two teachers and the research director. In addition, each semester, a staff meeting is dedicated to analysis to provide an opportunity for all teachers to participate in the analysis process and learn how the documentation they submit is analyzed.
Over the years, teachers and the research director have developed protocols for analyzing teachers' visual and nature notes, by identifying categories that have emerged as important. Our analysis protocols differ slightly, based on the type of data we are analyzing. For example, when we are analyzing teachers' visual notes of children building with blocks and three-dimensional materials, we focus heavily on the visual-spatial, construction and engineering skills children are developing/using as they build, what they are saying about their building, how they are interacting with others if the project is collaborative, what knowledge they are communicating when they are building, and what emotions they may be communicating or processing.
When we are analyzing teachers' nature notes of children in the Nature Explore™ Classroom or other outdoor settings (e.g., park, prairie, creek) we examine key learning and skill development in several relevant areas (e.g., social development, math, science, literacy, body competence, and visual-spatial development). We also examine the knowledge and emotions children are communicating through their work and play. In all data entries where applicable, we examine the teacher-child interaction and ways teachers are supporting and scaffolding children's learning.
As we systematically analyze each piece of data, we record our findings on forms we have designed for that purpose. In the end, we record what is most significant about each data entry. This systematic examination of each piece of data represents Tesch's process of de-contextualization and provides a mechanism for reducing our data into meaningful units of information. Using a multi-staged analytic process we periodically return to all of our analyzed entries to develop key insights and conclusions based on the weight of evidence across multiple pieces of data. This is analogous to the re-contextualization process and focuses on meaning and interpretation. In the end we have a holistic picture of our data that continues to build as we analyze additional entries.
Similarly, the research director analyzes the focus group data collected from teachers, using an in vivo coding procedure to examine the text segments. The in vivo coding process includes assigning short codes to text segments, using participants' words for the codes to remain as true to the text as possible. Then the codes (in a single transcript then multiple transcripts) are examined for similarities in order to identify themes across all interviews.
Each year, in the parent handbook, parents are informed that First-Plymouth Early Education Programs serve as the "research labs" for Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and that ongoing research is a part of the school setting. Parents have the option to submit a signed form that excludes their child(ren) from appearing in any form of publications or media.
When data are used in publications, workshops, and/or other presentations, we protect children's anonymity by using pseudonyms rather than real names, so there is no way to identify the child(ren).
Consultants' Roles in our Research - A Multi-disciplinary Approach
Since 1998 Dimensions has collaborated with consultants from a variety of disciplines. Early in our work, consultants (i.e., an architect, kinesthetic specialist, aesthetic educator and qualitative researcher) spent time on-site observing children and teachers, recording visual notes and analyzing data. Those consultants also provided specific training for teachers, to help them more closely observe the visual-spatial skills children were developing, how children were engaging in purposeful movement, and to help teachers understand our research methodology.
As our work evolved, and the initial analysis team had analyzed a body of data, we invited additional consultants to react to our findings, which we provided to them in advance. Those consultants included a mathematician, neuro-psychologist, special educator, science educator, and licensed parent educator. During those dialogues, we discussed our findings from a variety of perspectives, based on the disciplines our consultants represented. They helped us think about the implications of our data and helped us formulate additional research questions. These important dialogues with consultants from multiple disciplines are ongoing.
In addition, Dimensions has formally trained a small group of consultants in qualitative research methods. Those consultants are observing children and conducting individual and focus group interviews with teachers and administrators at our Nature Explore™ Classroom pilot and demonstration sites across the region. The data our consultants are collecting will inform the creation of Nature Explore Classrooms for years to come.