Teaching and research synergy: Windows, mirrors and doors in young adult fiction

By Maria Leedham, Sarah Jane Mukherjee, Sally Hunt and Ernesto Roque-Gutierrez

Finding time to develop a new research project amidst the demands of teaching, supervision and admin can be (how to put it) …. challenging. The first three of us named here –Maria, Sarah and Sally – are in the throes of module production for a new, interdisciplinary module titled Language, literature and childhood (L301) and found we had little time and headspace for developing new research. However, a chance conversation in the OU coffee shop led us to consider the possibilities of our combined teaching and research interests and take a linguistic approach to the study of children’s literature.

OU funding enabled us to bring in Ernesto as a research assistant and also buy books …. So what is the project and what do we hope to achieve in the world of children’s literature?

To answer this, we’d like to bring in a foundational quote on literature from Professor Rudine Sims Bishop:

‘A book can sometimes be a window. […] Usually the window is also a door, and a reader has only to walk through in imagination to become a part of whatever world has been created or recreated in the book. […] a window can also be a mirror, […] Reading then, becomes a means of self-affirmation of reaffirming our place in the world and our society.’ Bishop (1990).

Bishop’s message is that the windows, mirrors and doors onto the world presented through literature reveal powerful messages about who is valued in society and also who is marginalised. For teenage readers, the messages woven through popular young adult (YA) literature are particularly influential as they develop their identities and world views. Our overarching research question is thus:

What worldview is gained from reading popular young adult fiction?

Our project aims to make visible the patterns of meaning in the top 50 best-selling YA books in the UK over a 5-year period (April 2017- May 2022). We’re using a mixed methods approach of corpus linguistics to analyse the texts, and focus groups to gain the views of young readers. It’s early days yet, but we hope findings will be useful to secondary schools and in particular to librarians in understanding the importance of book choices to reveal the windows, mirrors and doors available to young adults through their reading repertoires.

While time is still in short supply, we’re finding that the reading and discussions we’re having around the research project are feeding in to module production and vice versa. We’re now writing a short work-in-progress report on the project which will feature in the module materials – and thus hope to enthuse a new generation of scholars.


Bishop, R. S. (1990). Windows and Mirrors: Children’s books and parallel cultures. In Margaret Atwell and Adria Klein (eds.)   California State University, San Bernardino Reading Conference 14th Annual Conference Proceedings. “Celebrating Literacy”.  pp. 3 – 20

Maria Leedham is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics and English Language in the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics at the Open University.




Sally Hunt is a Staff Tutor and Lecturer in Applied Linguistics and English Language in the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics at the Open University.



Sarah Jane Mukherjee is a Lecturer in Applied Linguistics and English Language in the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics at the Open University.



Dr Ernesto Roque-Gutierrez is an Affiliated Researcher at the Open University. He is interested in several aspects of language learning, cognition and education.



Research Fellowships: Top Speed-Dating at The Interface Between Research Disciplines

Written by Professor Natalia Kucirkova

Fellowships Provide Access to Radical interdisciplinarity That Is Increasingly Rewarded by International Funding Bodies

provided by CIFAR and Jacobs Foundation.

At the joint annual meeting of CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars and Jacobs Foundation Fellows in June 2022, I sat next to an evolutionary biologist discussing cybernetics, a social scientist advocating for equity in Global South and a professor in gravity and extreme universe. We laughed, we shared our passion for research, and we came up with a focused interdisciplinary project that we pitched to the Foundations’ seed funding the following day. This is the most rewarding part of a Research Fellowship –access to an interdisciplinary network of high-calibre, passionate scholars, whose joint expertise generates innovative research perspectives.

Interdisciplinarity, cross-disciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity or even trans-disciplinarity, are not a new trend in research. Indeed, the most prestigious research grants have always been about researchers’ ability to cross disciplinary boundaries and establish synergies across fields. ERC Synergy grants explicitly encourage proposals led by two to four principal investigators to tackle ambitious complex projects.

And yet, there are several structural and attitudinal barriers for interdisciplinary research. Researchers are trained in their neatly defined disciplines, placed in departments with established traditions and encouraged to publish in journals dedicated to their disciplinary focus. I am not suggesting that Fellowships, with their elite selection process, can dismantle the barriers between disciplinary languages or provide a solution for multi-connected problems. But given that traditional research training lacks opportunities for developing an interdisciplinary agenda, Fellowships can address an important gap.

In addition to a ready-made supportive network of global peers, there are many other benefits. Regardless of career stage, researchers who get a CIFAR, Radcliffe, Spencer, Jacobs or Fulbright Fellowship, can bolster their academic credentials. Fellows will get exposed to new research concepts or approaches that they would normally not have encountered.

And it is not just the CV part. The informal mentoring and peer coaching that happens through Fellows’ meetings are invaluable. At our last Fellows meeting, we discussed all kinds of challenges, from counteracting ageism at our institutions, to providing mental health support to our students impacted by Covid-19 or ways for protecting writing time.

A Fellowship can be as big as you make it, and you can be strategic about how you participate in meetings and joint activities. In the groups I am part of, we discuss conference plans while one member is cooking dinner and the other walking the dog. The personal/professional boundary crossing is much easier with online possibilities and like-minded, equally busy researchers.

Sure, getting a fellowship is not easy. The programs are highly selective because you compete globally and with top researchers in your field. I needed to fail several times and am still learning the tricks of the trade. In the process I have learnt that a Fellowship application is more personal than a standard research proposal, and that it is more impact-oriented with a strong emphasis on collaboration. So that the proposal stands out from the crowd, the researchers need to explain, in plain language, how their project advances the field and how it fits with the Foundation’s goals. The researchers thus need to have on their blue-sky-thinking-hat, and describe the innovative and creative impact the project will have now, and in the next ten years.

Fellowships are merit-based and strong recommendation letters are a must, so applying kept me in close contact with my previous collaborators, supervisors and project leaders. The most stressful part for me are one-to-one interviews at the shortlisting stage, but with preparation and advice provided from past Fellows or Fellowship-dedicated platforms (e.g., ProFellow), this too can become manageable.

I spent considerable time on developing my Fellowship applications, which, in pure economic terms, one might consider disproportionate to the amount of funding one receives (many Fellowships come with a stipend but in many cases, this is fairly low, and some Fellowships are unpaid). However, the application experience was invaluable when writing million-dollar grant proposals later on. The proposal writing process consolidated my thoughts on the key research prongs in my work, identified the red thread running through my studies, and opened up ideas for new areas. So, if you are hesitating whether you should spend time on developing a Fellowship application, my answer is an enthusiastic ‘yes’.

Natalia Kucirkova is Professor in Early Childhood and Development and Fellow of the Jacobs Foundation, Global Young Academy and Academy for Young Researchers in Norway.


Embracing ‘yes, and…’ as a researcher.

By Dr Alison Buckler, Senior Research Fellow, The Open University

Academics can be bad at saying ‘no’. Our discomfort with declining exacerbates broader structural workload challenges leaving us over-committed and exhausted. But in this industry that champions individual success there are also important parts of our work in which we’re not always great at saying ‘yes’.

There is a principle in improvisational theatre (bear with me…!) called “yes, and…”. The premise is simple. In improv (an un-rehearsed, un-scripted game, activity or play) the aim is to keep the scene going. If one actor says “Look, there’s a bus coming” and another follows with “I can’t see a bus, plus we’re in space so it’s impossible!” it shuts the scene down, ‘blocks’ the other actor and makes them look silly. If the second actor follows instead with “Oh! It’s the no.342 to the moon! Let’s hop on!” they acknowledge the existence of the bus [the ‘yes’] and still take the scene into space [the ‘and’] but do so by affirming and building on the first actor’s contribution and, therefore, bringing them along.

The value of the principle has been written about in relation to the business world but, since I heard about it, I have noticed echoes of it in how academics I admire interact with students and colleagues, and I have been practising it more deliberately in my work as a researcher.

It is important to note that “yes, and…” does not aim to eliminate or overlook disagreement. The ‘yes’ part is not a definitive indication that you agree with someone, rather it is an affirmation of their perspective. It is a recognition that two things can be true, it helps you to actively and actually engage with an idea (rather than just defaulting to “no, because…”) and demonstrates your commitment to including this perspective in your shared learning journey. In this sense it enables practical engagement with social-learning theories, especially Wenger-Trayner et al.’s Landscapes of Practice, which embraces the complexity of competence and expertise.

In two research groups I am in “yes, and…” forms one of our principles for working and, used readily and reliably, it can boost confidence and willingness to put forward ideas, and encourage collective responsibility for moving a project forward. It is intrinsically linked to another improv principle that if everyone in a team doesn’t look good, then no one in the team looks good, which is a great motivator in a research community.

I find it helpful when reviewing, marking and examining too, where it inspires more compassionate and constructive feedback. Rather than thinking ‘what are the shortcomings of this work?’ or ‘how would I have done this differently?’ I try to think ‘what can I add to the effort and ideas demonstrated here?’. Perhaps (maybe somewhat grandly) this way of thinking might help us to be more open to pluralities of thought and diverse ways of generating and presenting knowledge.

It has also helped me to more confidently position my work in the field. Rather than being thrown into despair when I come across a study similar to my own, I now try to think ‘Yes, this is similar which makes it interesting to me, and there are also these differences which make our take on the subject distinctive’. A “Yes, and…” mindset highlights synergy over competition.

Of course, academia is not an improv game, there are real-life consequences. Recognising when to say “no” is essential, especially if something is discriminatory or offensive. But insights on this principle from the business world suggest that the more thoughtful and generous you are with your “yeses”, the easier it is for you and others to understand the significance of when you say “no”.

It is also important to acknowledge that intersections of privilege may increase the number of spaces where it can be practised, but the great thing about it is that you can start practising it in any group or conversation: ultimately, “yes, and…” starts from a principle of respect for what someone has said, shared or submitted.

Do you recognise “yes, and…” in your own approach, or that of colleagues? What encourages it, and what limits its potential? Can you think of a new space you could give it a go in?

Dr Alison Buckler is a Senior Research Fellow in International Education, and Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Development (CSGD), at the Open University.  @AlisonBucklerEd

Feeling alone: doctoral research as a distance learner

Kathy Chandler  is an associate lecturer and  lecturer in online teaching

I recently returned to some notes I made during an online writers’ workshop that I took part in towards the end of my EdD studies. To get us started, we were asked to choose the image that we most identified with from a selection of pictures. I picked a lone person on a bridge and scribbled a paragraph to explain my choice; in summary, I felt alone.

Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

I wonder why I felt this way. Having completed master’s degrees and a doctorate at the Open University, I am no stranger to distance learning. I have also supported distance learners myself for many years. I know that becoming a so-called ‘independent’ learner does not, as many people expect, mean studying by myself.

As a doctoral researcher, I have been well supported. I have had regular online sessions with my excellent supervisors who have challenged and encouraged me. Many colleagues within the university have taken an enthusiastic interest in my work, some becoming participants in my study. And my EdD cohort have been an amazing source of support. Although our opportunities to meet in person have been few, our Whatsapp group conversation is full of shared wisdom and resources, as well as the everyday details of our research journeys. And yet, as my picture choice reveals, studying at a distance can still feel isolating. In recent years, with the restrictions resulting from Covid-19, more researchers have had similar experiences. So what can we do to minimise this sense of isolation?

Firstly, we can make the most of the connections that we already have. As the acknowledgements at the front of my thesis show, ideas to develop my research methodology were often sparked by conversations with friends and the youngest members of my family, even if they were not sure what I was talking about. Retired academic friends were also generous with their time and always encouraging me not to be scared of trying something new or different. In their day, they reassured me, there were no standard ways of doing qualitative research. They created their research methods as they went along.

Secondly, we can make new connections. This requires a certain amount of bravery, particularly for those of us who are not natural networkers. I have challenged myself to explore every opportunity to work with other people and other organisations, whether it is collaborating on a journal article, speaking at a conference, or being part of a pilot scholar scheme. The move to online working has created new possibilities. Through responding to an invitation on Twitter, I recently found myself participating in a staff workshop about online teaching at a Canadian college. I have discovered that emailing people working on similar areas of research and arranging a time to talk can be productive and inspirational, as well as developing my confidence.

Do you have experience of studying or researching at a distance? What strategies do you have for combatting isolation?

Kathy Chandler is in her 20th year as an Open University associate lecturer and about to begin a new role as a lecturer in online teaching within IET. Her doctoral research considered students’ experiences of online tutorials in health and social care.

Email: kathy.chandler@open.ac.uk

Twitter: @KathyMChandler

Website: kathychandler.org

One of the million: developing Welsh language skills amongst ITE students

by Dr Nia Cole Jones , Welsh Curriculum Tutor and Co-ordinator

It’s now over a year since we launched our fully bilingual PGCE in Wales. The challenges and rewards of offering a pan-Wales programme that offers future teachers the opportunity to study and work through the medium of Welsh, English or both have been numerous. The government requirement for all Initial Teacher Education Students across Wales to engage with Welsh language development and to map themselves on a linguistic skills framework,  similar to the Common European Framework for Reference, is an essential component of our ITE provision.  This is also a key component of the government’s Welsh 2050 strategy to develop a million Welsh-speakers by 2050 and its more recent action plan for 2021- 2016 where there is a clear focus on the lifelong learning of Welsh from Early Years, strengthening Welsh medium education, addressing the deficit of teachers who are able to teach through the medium of Welsh and Welsh as a subject, and improving the linguistic skills of the education workforce to meet the needs of their regions.

Therefore, there are increased expectations on ITE students to improve and teach Welsh language skills but there is limited research into students’ readiness to meet these requirements e.g., their knowledge, understanding, perceptions and attitudes.  An interesting challenge is how to encourage all student teachers, regardless of their skills, to have a positive attitude towards improving their Welsh skills and that they foster a love for the language in their pupils. How can we ensure that students approach this aspect of their training with a positive attitude and as a way of deepening their connection with the language and land, to be able to offer their pupils a richer experience of education?

As the Welsh Language Curriculum Tutor and Co-ordinator, I will be assessing the impact of the requirement to develop and map their Welsh language skills on our student teachers. Do they feel positively about the language when they graduate? What impact has using Welsh in the classroom had on their pupils? Anecdotal evidence from our students so far has raised a number of interesting questions, e.g. how can we ensure that those entering the programme as non-Welsh speakers don’t feel that this will impact on their ability to be effective developers of their pupils’ skills? Which tools do they need to have to be able to do this effectively? How can we ensure that non-Welsh speakers feel that they will not be judged more harshly when they map their lower-level skills on the framework? The OU is in a unique position in Wales as it is the only provider who offers the PGCE qualification pan-Wales and is also the only provider to offer both a salaried and part-time route. The OU can therefore explore the attitudes of students across Wales and from numerous different backgrounds, considering geographical differences, differences across Welsh-medium and English-medium sectors and secondary and primary sectors. The slightly older age profile of our students also allows us to see whether there are any differences in attitudes between age ranges e.g., with those students who attended schools before Welsh second language GCSE became compulsory.

Language awareness is not always a part of the school curriculum; therefore students might not have an understanding of why the Welsh language would be important to them or their pupils. A key element of the ITE programme is language awareness sessions at the beginning of each module.  These sessions are an opportunity to explore how the Welsh language has developed over time, specific events and legislation that have impacted upon it and Welsh in contemporary Wales and so go beyond linguistic skills and towards cultural competence. One focus of our research is to assess attitudes towards the Welsh language both before and after these sessions to investigate any changes in our student teachers’ perceptions. Do students identify with the culture of the Welsh language, and value the language and its culture on micro, meso and macro levels? This could be a key factor in identifying the provision we need to shape for our students in order to ensure that they can be agents of change who foster a love for the Welsh language in all schools in Wales.   ‘Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon’: ‘A nation without language is nation without a heart’. How can we ensure that the Welsh language is at the heart of our ITE provision, and in the hearts of all our learners?

 Dr Nia Cole Jones  is Welsh Curriculum Tutor and Co-ordinator for PGCE Wales




Un o’r filiwn: datblygu sgiliau Cymraeg ymhlith myfyrwyr AGA

Mae dros flwyddyn bellach ers i ni lansio ein TAR gwbl ddwyieithog yng Nghymru. Mae’r heriau a’r gwobrau o gynnig rhaglen ar draws Cymru gyfan, sy’n cynnig cyfle i athrawon y dyfodol astudio a gweithio drwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg, y Saesneg neu’r ddwy iaith wedi bod yn niferus. Gofyniad y llywodraeth yw bod holl fyfyrwyr Addysg Gychwynnol Athrawon ledled Cymru yn datblygu eu Cymraeg ac yn eu mapio eu hunain ar fframwaith sgiliau ieithyddol, fframwaith-cymwyseddau-iaith-gymraeg-ymarferwyr-addysg.pdf (llyw.cymru), tebyg i Fframwaith Cyfeirio Cyffredin Ewrop ar gyfer Ieithoedd (CEFR). Ymgorfforir hyn yn elfen hanfodol o’n darpariaeth AGA ac mae hefyd yn rhan allweddol o strategaeth Cymraeg 2050 y llywodraeth Cymraeg 2050: Miliwn o siaradwyr (llyw.cymru) i greu miliwn o siaradwyr erbyn 2050, a’i chynllun gweithredu mwy diweddar ar gyfer 2021-2016. Rhoddir ffocws clir ar ddysgu’r Gymraeg drwy gydol oes, o’r Blynyddoedd Cynnar, cryfhau addysg cyfrwng Cymraeg, mynd i’r afael â’r diffyg athrawon a all addysgu drwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg a’r Gymraeg fel pwnc, a gwella sgiliau ieithyddol y gweithlu addysg i ddiwallu anghenion eu rhanbarthau. Cymraeg 2050: ein cynllun ar gyfer 2021 i 2026 [HTML] | LLYW.CYMRU

Gwelir, felly, fod disgwyliadau uwch ar fyfyrwyr AGA i wella eu sgiliau Cymraeg a’u sgiliau addysgu iaith ond prin yw’r ymchwil i barodrwydd myfyrwyr i fodloni’r gofynion hyn e.e. eu gwybodaeth, eu dealltwriaeth, eu canfyddiadau a’u hagweddau. Her ddiddorol yw sut i annog pob athro dan hyfforddiant, beth bynnag fo’i sgiliau, i fod ag agwedd gadarnhaol at wella ei sgiliau Cymraeg a meithrin cariad at yr iaith yn ei ddisgyblion. Sut y gallwn sicrhau bod myfyrwyr yn ymdrin â’r elfen hon o’u hyfforddiant ag agwedd gadarnhaol ac yn ei hystyried yn ffordd o ddyfnhau eu cysylltiad â’r iaith a’r tir, er mwyn gallu cynnig profiad addysg gyfoethocach i’w disgyblion?

Yn fy rôl fel Tiwtor Cwricwlwm a Chydlynydd y Gymraeg, byddaf yn asesu effaith y gofyniad i ddatblygu a mapio eu sgiliau Cymraeg ar ein hathrawon dan hyfforddiant. Ydyn nhw’n teimlo’n gadarnhaol at yr iaith ar ôl graddio? Pa effaith mae defnyddio’r Gymraeg yn y dosbarth wedi’i chael ar eu disgyblion? Mae tystiolaeth anecdotaidd gan ein myfyrwyr hyd yma wedi codi nifer o gwestiynau diddorol, e.e. sut y gallwn sicrhau nad yw’r rhai sy’n ymuno â’r rhaglen yn ddi-Gymraeg yn teimlo y bydd hyn yn effeithio ar eu gallu i ddatblygu sgiliau ieithyddol eu disgyblion yn effeithiol? Pa arfau sydd eu hangen arnynt i allu gwneud hyn yn effeithiol? Sut y gallwn sicrhau bod y di-Gymraeg yn teimlo na fyddant yn cael eu barnu’n llymach pan fyddant yn mapio eu sgiliau lefel is ar y fframwaith? Mae’r Brifysgol Agored mewn sefyllfa unigryw yng Nghymru gan mai dyma’r unig ddarparwr sy’n cynnig y cymhwyster TAR ledled Cymru a’r unig ddarparwr hefyd i gynnig llwybr cyflogedig a rhan-amser. Gall y Brifysgol Agored felly archwilio agweddau myfyrwyr ledled Cymru ac o gefndiroedd amrywiol, gan ystyried: gwahaniaethau daearyddol, gwahaniaethau ar draws sectorau cyfrwng Cymraeg a chyfrwng Saesneg a’r sectorau uwchradd a chynradd. Mae proffil oedran ychydig yn hŷn ein myfyrwyr hefyd yn ein galluogi i weld a oes unrhyw wahaniaethau mewn agweddau rhwng ystodau oedran e.e. y myfyrwyr hynny a fynychodd ysgolion cyn i TGAU Cymraeg ail iaith ddod yn orfodol.

Nid yw ymwybyddiaeth iaith bob amser yn rhan o gwricwlwm yr ysgol, felly efallai na fydd myfyrwyr yn deall pam y byddai’r Gymraeg yn bwysig iddynt hwy neu i’w disgyblion. Elfen allweddol o’r rhaglen AGA yw darparu sesiynau ymwybyddiaeth iaith ar ddechrau pob modiwl. Mae’r sesiynau hyn yn gyfle i archwilio sut mae’r Gymraeg wedi datblygu dros amser, digwyddiadau penodol a deddfwriaeth sydd wedi effeithio arni a’r Gymraeg yn y Gymru gyfoes, felly ânt y tu hwnt i ddatblygu sgiliau ieithyddol a thuag at ddatblygu cymhwysedd diwylliannol. Un ffocws sydd gan ein hymchwil yw asesu agweddau tuag at y Gymraeg cyn ac ar ôl y sesiynau hyn er mwyn ymchwilio i unrhyw newidiadau yng nghanfyddiadau ein hathrawon dan hyfforddiant. Ydynt yn uniaethu â diwylliant y Gymraeg, ac yn gweld gwerth i’r Gymraeg a’i diwylliant ar lefelau micro, meso a macro? Gallai hyn fod yn ffactor allweddol wrth adnabod y ddarpariaeth sydd angen i ni ei llunio ar gyfer ein myfyrwyr er mwyn sicrhau y gall pob un fod yn gyfrwng newid sy’n meithrin cariad at y Gymraeg yn holl ysgolion Cymru. ‘Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon’. Sut y gallwn ni sicrhau bod y Gymraeg wrth wraidd ein darpariaeth AGA, ac yng nghalonnau ein holl ddysgwyr?

Scoping Review, Systematic Review or Review of the Literature what is the difference?

Clare Tope is a lecturer in Education Studies (primary) at the Open University.

When, preparing to write a literature review I came across three articles:

I wondered how I should appraise evidence presented in these three different kinds of reviews.  For clarity I refer to the third article as a ‘traditional review of literature’.

The first, possibly somewhat obvious, point is that all three kinds of review can either be a stand-alone published piece of work or part of a research project.  The second is that all three reviews cite evidence which indicates what is already known about a theme or concept. A further similarity is that none of the three reviews aimed to present new knowledge; it could however be argued that all include secondary analysis of knowledge.

When looking at the scoping and systematic reviews it seemed that both included an articulation and justification of the approach taken to the search for literature, such as inclusion and exclusion criteria, databases searched and key words. In each case this was then followed by a review of literature that was systematic.  Both reviews provided the reader with a transparent and objective process to researching literature.  One key difference between these two particular kinds of review and a ‘traditional’ literature reviews became immediately apparent; the ‘traditional review’ did not include an articulation or justification of a methodology.

Further reading was needed to identify the difference between a scoping review and a systematic review (Joanna Briggs InstituteCritical Appraisal Skills Programme). One difference seemed to lay in the purpose of the two kinds of review.  It appears that it is generally accepted that the aim of a systematic review is to identify and retrieve evidence that is relevant to a particular question or questions. A scoping review is more likely to provide an overview or map of the available evidence; it might even act as a precursor to a systematic review.  There also seems to be a difference in the range of sources that are explored. A systematic review will typically focus on providing a critically appraised and synthesised account and so may draw on a relatively narrow range of quality assessed studies. A scoping study is likely to draw on a broader range of studies but less likely to assess quality of the studies. This has the advantage of giving equal value to different traditions rather than privileging particular design, but the disadvantage is that scoping studies may provide a narrative or descriptive account of available research. Finally, the inclusion of implications for practice is recommended in reporting guidelines for systematics reviews. Typically, an assessment of the methodological limitations or risk of bias is not included within a scoping review, this means that the potential to provide concrete guidance for policy or practice is limited.

What advice would you give me about how I should appraise literature from these three different kinds of review?

Clare Tope  joined the Open University in July 2019. Clare specialises in primary mathematics.  She has just finished a project exploring what students notice in primary mathematics textbooks ( ‘Noticing’ examples presented in primary mathematics textbooks).

She is currently in her second year of the Professional Doctorate Programme where she is focusing on teacher responses to research about the teaching and learning of mathematical reasoning in the primary phase.


Designing design research in education: dilemmas of involvement

by Rachel Wallis Curriculum Tutor PGCE (Primary)

 As a former primary teacher, now teacher educator, I still see myself as a teacher and when I began my PhD I was determined my research should be practical, purposeful, involving both pupil and practitioners.

My design research focuses on measures as a context for learning the multiplicative relationship.  Though the concept of number has evolved from measurement contexts, which necessitate quantification, curricula typically introduce number concepts and measurement skills separately.  My research involves the development of tasks for 6–7-year-olds involving weighing, capacity and length to establish the concepts of multiplication and division. For example, when presented with a huge jug of water and a tiny cup, learners can be asked to find out how many cups fill the jug.  Realising tiny cups are inefficient, with a larger cup visible, they can be challenged to suggest a better way.  Through establishing a relationship between the tiny cup and a larger cup, a multiplicative relationship can be established between the cups and the jug.

Teachers design and evaluate tasks for learners every day but the efficacy of tasks in mathematics education is frequently criticised. Wittman (2021, p.87) suggests that mathematics education is a ‘design science’ reliant on meaningful, coherent tasks for learner engagement; he even controversially suggests that the design of substantial teaching units should not be ‘left to the teachers’, but rather to ‘experts’. However, to what extent am I expert in designing and evaluating tasks? I have certainly gained understanding of how measures can be used to support the learning of the multiplicative relationship, but teachers are also experts, in what they teach and in understanding the learners and their prior experiences.  Furthermore, learners are also experts in their own experiences.

In phase 1 of my design research, I interviewed teachers to gain insight into learners’ typical experiences with the multiplicative relationship and with measures. I undertook pre-assessment tasks with learners.  These supported the design of tasks, implemented, by me, with a group of eight learners. In implementation and analysis, I reacted both as teacher and researcher. My supervisors commented on my tendency to be too self-critical in my analysis.  Originally, I had planned to seek teacher perspectives on the tasks, but the location of the research sessions, and school closures due to Covid-19 a week after the research took place, meant this was not possible. However, learners’ post-task interview comments proved invaluable in helping me to understand efficacy of tasks; their comments suggested that some tasks allowed numerical relationships to be visualised more easily.  Analysis of such learner comments supported me to separate my feelings as a teacher from my findings as a researcher; I feel sure that teacher views of tasks would have been equally beneficial.

As I redevelop the tasks, and plan future phases, I wonder how I can harness opportunities to involve others, and I wonder how I can separate my own teacher reflections, including the tendency to be very self-critical, from my researcher analysis – or should I?

Rachel Wallis is a primary Curriculum Tutor on the PGCE Programme at the Open University in Wales.  She joined the Open University in September 2020.  She is currently undertaking her PhD: A design-based research project to develop and evaluate materials for teaching multiplicative reasoning through measures. 




‘Dumbing down and watering down?’: Translating research for different audiences

Jo Josephidou is Programme lead for Early Childhood at the Open University

One criticism of educational research is that it can be  ‘inaccessible in esoteric journals and in opaque language’ (Pring, 2010: 158); if it excludes then the potential impact on practice is hindered.  If we want to access as wide an audience as possible for our work, how can we translate it for a variety of readers without dumbing down or watering down?

Accessible E-reports

One practice is to produce an accessible E-report, yet this solution can be problematic. In a recent report, Where are the babies?, my co-author and I struggled to get the language completely right for the diverse range of people possibly interested in the findings. This range included early years practitioners varying in qualifications from level 2 (GCSE) through to postgraduate study, Ofsted or professional networks. The danger of excluding, dumbing down or patronising was very real, and the drafting process took many attempts to get the language ‘just right’. Co-writing added another layer of challenge as my co-author and I found we were making very different assumptions about our imagined reader.

The beauty of the blog

Blogs are also an approved way to disseminate research work. However translating  research into a blog post, is a mere first step; you then have to secure a readership.  You may spend hours drafting the perfect post only to watch your stats increase by a miserable one or two every day. It’s hard to work out why some posts are more popular than others. Even if you manage to attract a large audience for a particular post, you’re never satisfied. Where are the comments? Where is the passionate debate you were looking to provoke? The beauty of the blog, once you accept you will not change the world with a single post, is that it can be a political act of self-care. You are writing because you have something to say,  not because you want to engage in the ego bolstering behaviours that academics  may feel under pressure to adopt.

Pleased to meet you!

We need to consider the diverse conversations we could join as academics. These conversations will allow us to share our research in a way that is useful to our audience and useful to us by offering feedback on whether key recommendations do indeed translate into practice. Being introduced to these conversations is dependent on the relationships we can build with interested parties; we benefit from being supported and mentored by those who can facilitate this engagement, remembering to support and mentor others in turn. In our case, introductions to  Early Childhood Outdoors and the BERA Nature, Outdoor and Learning SIG gave us the opportunity to present the work at  free practitioner seminars  like this.

So how do you take an inclusive approach to disseminating your research without feeling you are ‘watering down’ or ‘dumbing down’?

Jo Josephidou is a lecturer in Early Childhood who joined the Open University in September 2019. Her PhD focused on appropriate pedagogies with young children and how practitioner gender may impact on these.  Currently, Jo is working collaboratively on a piece of research which focuses on babies’ and toddlers’ opportunities to engage with the outdoor environment and nature. If you would like to read the peer reviewed articles that inform this post, please see:


The Thorny Issue of the Research Interview: What did they actually mean?


For any researcher grappling with the complexities of a qualitative study, the process of generating and analysing interview data is a thorny one. Most of us are not discourse or language specialists, yet we are completely dependent on the vehicle of language to receive, process and communicate our work. My recently completed EdD thesis addressed a number of important considerations that are imperative for us to address. Here is just one.

Given that the purpose of an interview is to generate data focused on the respondent, the biggest question must surely be; “What did they actually say?”

Let’s pause and unpack that for a moment. What do we mean by ‘the respondent said’?

 Do we mean the literal words used? To what extent are we assuming alignment between the researcher and respondent in the definitions and meaning attributed to each word? Would they, or we, use the same word to convey the same meaning with all audiences and in all contexts? Possibly not – so how do we know which meaning is being attributed in the interview with us?

Do we mean just the words that were spoken? What about the role of silence; short gaps, reflective pauses, pained pauses (the role of silence is fascinating!). What assumptions do we make about longer pauses – is the respondent buying thinking time or stuck for an answer? How does that affect how we respond – e.g. we smile patiently or move the conversation on – how is our response to the silence shaping the data which comes after it?

Do we mean just verbal transactions? In which case what about the arm gestures, winks, smiles, pointed fingers, folded arms? Do those non-verbal cues align or contradict with the words that are being spoken?

What about utterances? We all use features such as ‘um’ and ‘you know’ to subconsciously buy thinking time or to infer audience agreement for example. How do those utterances shape our perception of the respondent during data generation, affect our follow up questions and fix our lens for when we later analyse the interview data?

Furthermore, we can bound our data and analysis by date, time, location, audience and context. But to what extent should we also bound by mood, weather, temperature, and the myriad of other influencing factors that we know affect human behaviours and thus what is said?

Which version of ‘what they said’ are we using as the basis for our analysis?

As researchers focused on a particular subject or topic, we are at risk of treating the transcript as a vehicle of single truth when conveying insight into our given area of study. We must be mindful of this – drawing on the ways that discourse analysis can shine a light on otherwise unseen elements of the data. We must, as Cruickshank (2012), argues, not allow the transcript to become the focus rather than the subject matter itself.

Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith, Director, One Life Learning Strategic Education Consultancy and Associate Lecturer (E313 and EE831), The Open University

EdD Thesis “An exploration of the relationship between teachers’ pedagogical stance and the use of ICT in their classroom practice.” Publications and Presentations at www.onelifelearning.co.uk


Twitter: @FionaAS

Listening deeply, engaging practically

In this blog I consider the importance of listening deeply and engaging practically with the concerns of participants in school communities. This involves ethical work both to understand differing values and priorities for schooling, and to develop positive ways of working with those needs and priorities.

During my last stint as a primary school teacher, I had a discussion with a parent about their child and the forthcoming assessments. We were both concerned that we were pushing the child too hard to do well.  I had misgivings about the tests and the model of literacy that they implied. However, the parent was concerned about the risks of their child ‘falling behind,’ on the path to the qualifications needed for the family to live in better circumstances. Discussions such as these can reveal spaces between ideals for literacy education and the lived experiences of children and families.

In recent years, many families in England have found themselves with ever more precarious incomes and housing. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation show how many UK households entered the coronavirus pandemic already at risk of poverty. Policymakers have insisted that work is the best route out of poverty, making social mobility increasingly dependent on school success. All of this means that, for many families, living well in one of the most developed economies in the world is dependent, not on long term ideals of creating a more equal society, but on being able to move upwards through an unequal one.

Literacy attainment in school has become central to this upward trajectory. This means that socioeconomic pressures are as much a part of children’s experiences of literacy as books and digital technologies. My research into literacy practices in a London primary classroom found that the children helped each other out with schooled tasks and often practised literacy collectively. However, the same children became competitive in activities that they knew would be formally assessed. They compared spelling test scores and reading levels; and their decisions about whether to share expertise with peers often depended on their (usually accurate) judgements about whether that expertise might help them get ahead in school assessments.  Those five-year-olds understood that ‘getting on’ does not just mean doing well, it means doing better than others.

Experiences like these demonstrate that everyday terms such as ‘literacy’ and ‘school’ can have many and complicated meanings that affect people’s engagement with education. Researchers such as Rosie Flewitt, Eve Gregory and Mahera Ruby emphasise the importance of dialogic research practices that allow researchers to explore such complexities with school communities. So, when planning research projects an initial question might be: ‘How can we enter into dialogue with our research participants, whoever they are?’  The challenge of such dialogues is not ‘hearing’ the voices of our participants but engaging practically with what we have heard, so further questions are needed, for example: ‘What work might researchers do in the spaces between educational ideals and the lived experiences of school communities?’  and ‘How can such dialogues build positive action?’

  • Lucy Henning is a lecturer in English language and Applied linguistics at the Open University. Over a long career in West London primary education, she has been a class teacher, ‘literacy consultant’ and teacher trainer. Her research interests are young children’s in-school literacy practices and the social interactions that these involve.