Research topics and methodology: sweet spots and soccer balls

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Choosing a research topic and appropriate research methodology seems so straightforward in the textbooks.  Identify an area in which you  have an interest and one you can “live with” through the lengthy dissertation process.  Read broadly in your area to detect gaps in the literature.  Formulate a question that will help fill the aforementioned gap.  Tailor the methodology to fit the research question(s).   It all seems so logical and, well, linear.  Recently, as an “in-process” dissertation writer, I was invited to speak to an online research methods class, on how I chose an area, identified research questions, and selected a methodology.  Immediately, I felt a sense of what Stephen Brookfield terms “impostership.”  What did I know about it? My process certainly hadn’t been straightforward or linear.  Pictures, not words, came to mind.  Multifaceted stones, hexagonal soccer balls,  lush jungles, interlocking gears, and Ferris wheels represented the process far better than paths or stairs.

To start with, the advice choose an area that interests you, wasn’t particularly useful.  When you’ve been in education for any length of time, everything is of potential interest.  As a former school leader, adult education and effective professional development were most pertinent at the time.  Having the relative leisure of grad school meant switching topics to an area that combined personal and professional interests.   As one of my former professors said, “Find the sweet spot; that topic that draws on your professional experience, your personal interests, and your passion.”  For me that meant a research question that seeks to investigate why Latino parents decide to get involved in their children’s schooling, drawing on my years living in Latin America, love affair with the Spanish language, and abiding respect and affection for Latino culture.  This topic was far-removed from my original, rather pragmatic choice.

Reading on my area of interest felt like venturing into an overgrown jungle.  Everything seemed connected: motivational theory, varying definitions of parental engagement, varying definitions of parent and family, achievement gaps, gap gazing, shifting demographics, students’ academic trajectories, culturally based role constructions,  the list went on.  Multifaceted for sure, but connected and interlocking too.   It took a while to see the view from the top of the Ferris wheel, to locate a gap, and to be able to come down to ground level detail again.

Stumbling across a validated, translated and back-translated survey instrument designed to test involvement solved part of the methodology question; however, survey limitations and my own curiosity drove me to a mixed methods design.   Having access to a particular school meant choosing a case study and having the opportunity to dig deeply into the meaning of the survey questions for Latino parents.  Again, a far cry from the action research design my original questions seemed to demand or the “simple” survey I’d first imagined.

The modern soccer ball, designed by architect Buckminster Fuller, is a series of hexagons, pentagons and triangles, which can be fitted together to make a round surface.  In piecing together a topic, research questions, and methodology one can aim for a smooth finished surface even in the midst of an iterative messy process.


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