Quantitative survey analyses and learning as acquisition:
– Ongoing longitudinal panel dataset (the British Household Panel Survey [BHPS])
– To gain a deeper understanding of learning in the life course.
– Learning Lives Project
– Panel surveys share with life history research a focus on longitudinal data collected from individuals rather than a focus on locations where learning takes place.
– The main purpose of a social panel survey is to produce quantitative numeral descriptions (statistics) about some aspects of the population that have been surveyed through time in order to develop and test theory.
– Panel surveys have the capacity to follow the same individuals over time and thus have a major role to play in understanding social change.
– Panel and cross-sectional survey research use a methodology that is set firmly within the ambit and rules of science o which measurement is a fundamental part.
– In a project that sets out to gain a deeper understanding of learning in the life course using survey data, it is necessary to begin from a point where learning is theorized, conceptualized and precisely defined so that is can be operationalized and made quantifiable (i.e. made into a phenomenon that is measurable). -> positivism.
– Inevitably this quantification of learning involves a process of reification whereby statistics (in this case numerical descriptors of learning) become measures of a conceptualization of learning that purports to have an objective reality.
– That is, ‘an existence as real’ to the extent that science is about providing ‘true’ descriptions of a real world or, at the very least, descriptions that appear to work in practice.
– Quantification of learning is possible because learning, in common with other complex concepts, has potentially a whole range of directly observable characteristics, which are taken to be indicative of a single underlying hypothetical (or ‘latent’) variable.
– This means that although learning does not have a clear physical or reified identity in the world, it can be argued that at least some of its characteristics can be observed directly and quantified.
– E.g. the time spent in formal education or training, or the number of qualifications an individual has.
– However these directly observable characteristics are all indicative of seeing learning as acquisition, as Felstead et al. (2008) points out.
– That is, they focus on either what has been learned or on identifying the types of frequency of engagement with specific and explicit learning situations.
– It follows that when learning is conceptualized as acquisition, the limitations imposed by survey research are not serious.
– But when learning is conceptualized as participation or construction, it can neither be observed directly now quantified very easily as the emphasis is on subjective process rather than objective products.
– The social science solution to measuring hypothetical (or hidden) phenomena is to design items (questions) on a survey instrument (questionnaire) that purport to be valid measures of a phenomenon.
– This is a very difficult problem, because the more complex the phenomenon the more difficult it is to ind measures of demonstrable validity.
– One way to further test the nature and strength of affinity between survey techniques and the acquisition view of learning is to examine what happens when researchers use these techniques with alternative conceptualizations of learning in mine:
e.g. identifying measure for informal learning is difficult; but easier to conceptualise within participatory and some cnstructionist perspectives than in acquisitional views.
But since informal learning would be impossible to distinguish in any discrete way from other activities it could be neither identified by the person concerned nor measured by Livingstone’s survey instrument.
To study informal learning empirically, educators have to focus on those things people can identify for themselves as actual learning.
– Tuschling and Engemann (2006) have argued that the very act of trying to measure the informal and tacit is to change it from what it is to what it is not.
– Their argument goes as follows: making informal learning tangible (measurable) is to bring it under the auspices of the formal, where standardisation rather than diversity is valued as comparison, can only be done through standardizing what one is measuring.
– Felstead et al. (2008)’s attempt to survey learning as participation in the workplace.
– There are problems with this attempt to operationalize participatory learning.
– First, it excludes much learning at work that does not directly contribute to doing the job better, despite the fact that mini-ethnographies of learning frequently record the contested nature of learning.
– E.g. Colley, James et al. (2003) show how nursery nurses not only learn how to do their job, bt also wider issues of gender and class stereotyping and inequalities.
– A second reason is the casting of acquisition and participation as different and implicitly complementary types of learning:
– Thus, getting a qualificaton is seen as acquisitional, whereas learning through doing the job is seen as participatory.
– Yet from the perspective of participation as a metaphor, learning to get a qualification is itself a participatory process, whether in college or at work.
– They have had to change the meaning of participation in order to operationalize it.
– The meaning of participation was changed to from participating in a social activity system, to doing just a process of doing something (like a job).
– Neither Livingstone (2000) nor Felstead et al. (2008) made any attempt to research learning as construction.
Panel Survey analysis and learning as acquisition.
– How far existing BHPS survey items can acts as proxies for informal learning?
– Thus, finding good easure of learning through social networking for populations and sub-groups, a more nuanced and subtle approach involving the validation of subjective questions and testing their applicability to sub-groups is necessary before their power as measures can be demonstrated. [new measures for informal learning should be proven valid before using them]
– The research focus of all surveys (panel and cross-sections) is on teasing out large-scale patterns and trends.
– Life history work centres individuals lives, the strengths of suvey data lie in seeing people as member of groups or clusters.
– Whilst an important strength panels have over cross-sections is their ability to analyse individual change over time, the research focus of all survey is on teasing out large-scale patterns and trends.
– Though it is possible to use panel data to tease out the stories of individual lives over time, such large scale highly complex datasets deal better with the sort of information about people that enables them to be described as members of population (sub)groups or be compared with other groups.
– For group descriptions and comparisons to be authoritative (credible) it is necessary to have consistency and precision o the measures across respondents.
– Differences between survey respondents must be based on differences in their views and experiences rather than anything else.
– Thus, in direct contrast to the life history interview, the survey interview is deliberately made generic and not tailored or customized to the individual interviewee and, as such, is not conducive to eliciting the nuances and subtleties found in participatory and construction accounts of learning.
– From a participatory or construction perspective learning does not come about as a reault of simple causal relations among variables in the traditional sense.
– Instead, learning reflects a process that is largely responsive to broader social and cultural conditions and/or norms.
– It also means that an examination of lifelong learning using participatory and formation conceptualizations is not well accommodated with statistical models, which require the researcher to clearly delineate independent and dependent variables, exogenous and endogenous variables, causes and effects.
– It would thus seem that traditional statistical techniques have few tools at their disposal to examine learning that involves a view of relationalism found within participatory and formation accounts.
– Put differently, both panel survey and cross-sectional survey approaches are most comfortable when adopting a broadly acquisitional approach to learning.
Consequences and Implications:
– The core argument of this paper is that different research methodologies have faily strong affinities with particular conceptualization of learning.
– That is, the strengths and weaknesses of mini-ethnogrpahies, as defined here, are closely related to participatory views of learning
– The strengths and weaknesses of life history are closely related views of learning as construction;
– And those of large scale survey research are closely related to views of learning as acquisition.
– This means that choice of a particular research methodology is likely to skew the research into understanding learning in particular ways.
– No methodology can act as a conceptually neutral lens, transparently revealing what learning is.
– That is, in relation to decision about how learning should conceptualized, research methods are all biased.
– If a researcher has aalready decided, for whatever reasons, to adopt a particular view of learning, and therefore asks research questions deriving from that conceptual position, it is natural and sensible to adopt a methodology that can answer those questions and is sympathetic to the understanding of learning being adopted.
– E.g. in Learning Lives, their explicit focus on agency and identity influenced their research questions and was arguably already pushing them towards various conceptions of learning as construction, of narrative learning and learning as becoming and it was these ame interests that also pushed them into choosing a life history approach.
– The affinities of different research methodologies with different conceptualisations of learning influence research but are not determinisitic.
– It is quite possible to hold a view of learning that is t odds with the selected methodology, but to do so requires considerable effort and a clear awareness of the limitations of the methods being used.
– E.g. in Learning Lives, the panel survey work strove to go beyond an acquisitional understanding of learning, as did Felstead et al. (2008) using a cross-sectional seurvey.
– This means that researchers into learning need to engage not only with the implicatons of the strengths and weaknesses of the methodologies they adopt, but with the ongoing debates about how learning can and should be conceptualized.
– The use of mixed methods, including mixing different qualitative methods, cannot, of itself, solve the difficult issues around the blending of different conceptions of learning.
– At root, the problem is theoretical and conceptual, not an empirical matter that can be settled through methodological triangulation.
– All researchers need to remain fully aware of the orientations towards learning that are impliciti in any chosen methodology.
– Furthermore, these differing conceptual orientations, means that mixing methods in relation to learning is not just a technical problem, but also a conceptual and theoretical struggle, which can be much more difficult than most methodology texts recognize.