I have been questioning lately what methods I can use to understand my students better – not just their work, but their experience of mathematics in my classroom and of the subject in general. I’m taking a uniquely structured (I mean this as a good thing!) research methodology class with Dr. Susan Gerofsky and Dr. Cynthia Nicol here at the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC (In fact, it can only be characterized as “standard” insofar as it is a course requirement for my program). Our exploration of research methods has been helpful both in learning methods that one can use for academic research and in reflecting on ways I will be able to investigate my practice when I return to the classroom.
I’ve been used to some pretty standard ways of “getting to know” students. We give them assessments to perform – a variety of types of tasks from tests to open-ended, long-term projects – to give us a sense of their understanding of the concepts of the course they’re taking. Throughout the year we might give them written surveys telling us a bit about how they’re feeling about our teaching or about the course’s progress or our teaching subject in general. We likely give formative checks for understanding through observation, a quick chat, an “exit card“, or visible thinking routines. Regardless of how much information that can be gained from some of these standard and non-standard ways of collecting data, might there be something missing? Might there be something to be gained from collecting information through a different medium – and from involving them in the information gathering process?
In Donal O. Donoghue‘s (2007) article on boys’ masculinity in places outside the classroom, Donoghue uses photography and a/r/tography methodology to create meaning with boys aged 10 and 11 rather than to use them to discover and make truth claims (as most research does in treating research “subjects” as if they are being used to gain knowledge about something). According to Donoghue (2007), “doing research in and through art offers opportunities to capture and represent that which is not always linguistic – that which can be more profitably represented and understood through nonverbal forms of communication” (p. 63). My conflict with this type of research is that I see both sides. I see that it offers a different way to view a sensitive topic – using non-verbal “data” (i.e.: photographs) through the view of 10 and 11 year olds – a view that has the potential to reveal something never before explored. However, I can see also the risk of photographs to be open to a much wider scope of interpretation than written data might be. So, based on what this method offers us – and does not offer us – Donoghue’s (2007) words make me both optimistic and nervous: “how we do and represent research is inseparable from what gets communicated” (p. 64).
Comparing our work with interviewing methods for research purposes, and reflecting on similarities and differences with the use of photography as detailed by Donoghue (2007), I notice more similarities between them. As with interviewing, photography has the potential for inviting the participant into the research process, and offers non-verbal representation (interviewing does this through gesture and tone of voice). Both need to be examined within the social and cultural contexts in which the product (speech, photograph, art, etc.) is produced. However, which is liable to produce more accurate interpretation? For example, are we more likely to get an accurate view of what a child thinks of our subject if we ask them to tell us, or if we ask them to take a picture that represents how they feel and discuss the photo choice with us? The old cliché about pictures and words comes to mind, but beyond that, one could argue that reading and re-reading a script made from an interview can continue to create just as many new meanings as can having a look and a second/third/fourth look at a photo. The difference between interviewing and photography that I can see is that interviewing offers the potential for a much more fixed, rigourous process, whereas the use of photography, to a large extent, is itself a commitment to embrace a research method that involves the participant much more in the process.
Regardless of these structural aspects, there might be something to the use of photographs to find out more about students’ thinking. Consider school culture. When you ask a student to write down feedback, like in a survey, this structured written form is similar to what students experience in other parts of school and there may be strong psychological aspects at play governing their answers. However, exit cards are casual and quick, often on 3×5 cards which is not specifically how class tasks are done – which may cause them to open up a bit further. So, if you ask students to send you a digital photo with a description as a way of answering a question (of course, if this is logistically possible in your context), this could provide you with different information that you would have otherwise received using a different format.
Donoghue, D. O. (2007). “James always hangs out here”: making space for place in studying masculinities at school. Visual Studies, 22(1), 62–73. doi:10.1080/14725860601167218