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Hill West Research Papers

Identify two or three of the key articles within your proposed topic area and analyse the epistemological and ontological assumptions that the articles are making about the nature of the research in question. By Dr. Beth Clarke June 2010

Identify two or three of the key articles within your proposed topic area and analyse the epistemological and ontological assumptions that the articles are making about the nature of the research in question.

This paper will explore the epistemological and ontological assumptions in two published articles both relating to my intended thesis. In order to place this work in context I will begin with a summarised account of my particular field of interest and how this field of enquiry emerged. I will then aim to define what is meant by ontology and epistemology before analysing the two research papers selected for their ontological and epistemological assumptions. One of these papers was published by the ‘National College for School Leadership’ in 2002 while the other was published in ‘Educational Management Administration and Leadership’ in 2007.

Setting the Context I believe that the most effective schools are those schools where staff are committed to ongoing reflection and a continuous cycle of learning. My interest in developing staff as learners derived from personal experience. I became a Deputy Head Teacher in September 2004 and within the first year of my Deputy Headship found myself as the Acting Head Teacher. Having been Acting Head for 12 months I was appointed as the substantative Head Teacher in April 2006. The school to which I was appointed had recently amalgamated and so one of my first tasks was to establish a senior leadership team made up of the identified school leaders from both key stages. Being comparatively small as separate schools, neither had previously operated with a senior leadership structure and so we started together on a journey of self – discovery, committed to be the best we could possibly be.

I soon came to realise that if we were to be successful then it was necessary for us not only to develop together as a team but also for us to develop individually as effective school leaders engaging in an on-going and reflective learning process. I acknowledge that I hold the belief that because I am the Head Teacher I am personally responsible for encouraging and developing the learner in all staff. I believe that it is my central responsibility to motivate, enthuse and inspire the team to succeed and this I think needs to be achieved through developing each as an individual learner. Successful schools argued Sergiovanni (2001), build communities that are inclusive and value, above all, individual development and achievement. The main tenet therefore being, that if we are to fully prepare and equip ourselves as leaders, we have to concentrate on our own individual growth. Organisational capacity therefore is about building a system that invests heavily in professional learning.

I suggest that the type of learner needed in a school today is a lead learner who is constantly reinterpreting the things that are already understood. To encourage such qualities in our staff we need, I feel, to root their development in growth. Teachers need to be able to continually reflect on their practice, moving towards the accomplishment of personal mastery, developing the skills to work with and support the development of others. My intended research aims to explore how senior leaders in schools can best develop the learner in all staff but before I begin it is essential that I develop a greater understanding of my role as the researcher and the impact this can have on my research design and research outcomes.

Ontology and Epistemology Ontology traditionally has been about what exists, what is the nature of the world, what is reality. Robson (2002) defines ontology as the ‘theory of being’. It requires researchers to ask what it is that they see as the very nature and essence of the social world, or in other words what their ontological position is. As identified by Cohen et al (2007), researchers should ask, whether or not social reality is external to individuals – imposing itself on their consciousness or is it instead the product of an individual’s consciousness. Is reality of an objective nature, or the result of individual cognition? Surely as human beings we view the world through our own individual interpretation. Hitchcock and Hughes (1995) suggested that ontological assumptions give rise to epistemological assumptions; these, in turn, give rise to methodological considerations; and these, in turn, give rise to issues of instrumentation and data collection. Epistemological and ontological questions are related since claims about what exists in the world imply claims about how what exists may be known.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge construction and epistemological questions should direct us as researchers to a consideration of philosophical issues involved in working out exactly what would count as evidence of knowledge of social things (Robson, 2002). Epistemology traditionally has been concerned with what distinguishes different kinds of knowledge claims – specifically with what the criteria are that allow distinctions between ‘knowledge’ and ‘non-knowledge’ to be made (Usher, 1996 p.11).

All research makes claims and for that reason alone is implicated in epistemological questions. It could be argued that all research is based on an epistemology even

though this is not always made explicit – in fact most of the time the epistemology that underlies a particular piece of research is taken for granted. Conventionally, epistemology argues that any claim to know must be justified on the basis of how the claim was arrived at (Usher, 2006). Research must be grounded and have validity. The argument is that since not all knowledge claims have the same status, the determination of their status is the job of epistemology. Thus, if a knowledge claim is based on observations and measurement, systematically and methodically carried out, and if logical rules of inference and confirmation have been used, then epistemologically this is taken as ‘good grounds’ for considering the knowledge claim to be valid or true. One of the most important aspects of these epistemological ‘good grounds’ are that the researcher was ‘objective’ i.e. took care to ensure that personal considerations did not intrude into the research process. In other words, that the researcher’s subjectivity has been eliminated as a factor in the knowledge claim. The researcher then becomes the ‘ideal universal knower’, interchangeable with all other researchers (Usher, 1996). When analysing the two research articles it will be necessary to consider the objectivity of the researcher in each case.

Usher (1996) distinguishes between a positivist/empiricist epistemology, a hermeneutic/interpretive epistemology and critical theory as an epistemology. A positivist/empiricist epistemology he explains holds up methods and procedures of the natural sciences (scientific methods) as a model for all research. The hermeneutic/interpretive dimension to science, however, he explains acknowledges that research is a social practice culturally bound and culturally specific. Research therefore is never simply a technical process involving the invariant application of universal rules of ‘scientific method’. Critical Theory alternatively has a knowledge

interest involved in emancipating – unmasking beliefs and practices that limit human freedom, justice and democracy.

Hermeneutic/interpretive epistemology in social and educational research focuses on social practices. It assumes that all human action is meaningful and hence has to be interpreted and understood within the context of social practices. To explain the social world we need to understand it, to make sense of it, and hence we need to understand the meanings that construct and are constructed by interactive human behaviour. Human behaviour is given meaning by interpretive schemes or frameworks.

Gadamer (1975) argues that it is impossible to separate oneself as a researcher from the historical and cultural context that defines one’s interpretive framework. The ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ of research, commonly located in pre-understood worlds cannot be separated. There is no object-in-itself independent of a context of knowing and of the knowing activities of subjects. Therefore everything is subject to interpretation. Research is a human action and therefore researchers’ ontological assumptions will inevitably impact on research outcomes. Gadamer (1975) argues that within the social sciences knowledge cannot be objective in a positivist/empiricist sense. Understanding an object is always ‘prejudiced’ as researchers cannot detach from their former understandings. I will be mindful of this in my critique of the published articles.

In Critical Theory, as in hermeneutic/interpretive epistemology, there is a rejection of the assumption that there can be ‘objective’ knowledge. Habermas (1972) argued that

different knowledge/research traditions could be linked with a particular social interest. There is no neutral or disinterested perspective because everyone is socially located and thus the knowledge that is produced will be influenced always by a social interest. Usher (1996) supports this view and argues that knowledge is always related to either a technical ‘making’ interest, a communicative ‘practical’ interest or a critical ‘emancipatory’ interest.

To explain the social world we need to understand it, to make sense of it, and hence we need to understand the meanings that construct and are constructed by interactive human behaviour. Human action is given meaning by interpretation. It follows from this that as researchers (engaged in the human action and social practice of research) we too seek to make sense of what we are researching and we do so through interpretation. This process of double sense-making is referred to as the ‘double hermeneutic’. In other words, unlike the situation in the natural sciences, in social research both the subject (the researcher) and object (other people) of research have the same characteristics of being interpreters or sense-seekers. It follows also that since all sense-seeking is from an interpretive framework then all knowledge is perspective-bound and partial, i.e. relative to that framework. The collection of data therefore in the research of the social sciences is typically qualitative in nature.

Yet Pring (2000) argues that the opposition between quantitative and qualitative research is mistaken. Pring (2000) stated that the interpretive and hermeneutic tradition in which researchers seek to understand the world from the perspective of the participants, or to understand a set of ideas from within the evolving tradition of which they are part, is essential. There are features of what it is to be a person that

enable generalisations to be made and ‘qualities’ to be added or taken away. Most beings have predictable emotions and capabilities which make it possible for certain purposes to consider them in the same form from person to person – and thus open to quantification. The qualitative investigation can therefore legitimately clear the ground for the quantitative and the quantitative can often suggest differences to be explored in a more interpretive mode.

Having considered the meaning of ontology and epistemology and explored the implications of both for researchers I will now attempt to identify the ontological and epistemological assumptions underlying two research articles in my chosen field.

Article One – The Intelligent Gaze: Leadership, Lead Learners and Individual Growth – a reflective enquiry by Steve Kenning for NCSL (2002)

In the critique of this article I will begin with a description of the author’s ontological perspective and how this perspective was formulated. I will then aim to identify his epistemological assumptions. I will describe his chosen methods for data - collection and evaluate the validity of these methods. I will then establish his former understandings and locate his work against the arguments of Gadamer (1975) and Habermas (1972). To conclude I will identify how the process of critiquing this article will influence me as a researcher in the future.

This article was written by a long - serving secondary Head Teacher and National College of School Leadership Associate. He begins, in the very first paragraph, by identifying his ontological assumptions and states that ‘it is the contention of his report that schools need to change significantly if they are to fully develop people to

help them succeed in the 21st Century’. He also states that he believes that ‘leadership is vital to bring about the changes needed’. To give his views credence he locates them in theory by quoting from authors who support his provisional argument, both stating that schools need to move into the 21st Century and become ‘centres of learning’. Yet in his attempt to create new knowledge he takes the argument one step further and suggests that school leaders will need to take risks and focus on the individual growth of their staff in order to be truly successful in an ever - changing climate. He continues to persuade the reader of his claims by stating that he has visited many school and met with many school managers. Yet he fails to quantify this at this stage.

Kenning (2002) goes some way to identify his epistemological assumptions by identifying for the reader key influences in his professional life including those with whom he came into contact with as a result of his day to day work as well as published authors such as Senge (1995).

The research that he carried out consisted of: 

Reading around the subject of leadership

Internet searches

Attendance at seminars

Meeting, discussing with and interviewing Head Teachers

International visits (United States)

Epistemology argues that any claim to know must be justified on the basis of how the claim was arrived at (Usher, 2006). It appears that this research relied heavily on interviews and was mainly qualitative in nature. There is no suggestion of

triangulation. Unfortunately Kenning (2002) does not go into sufficient detail in this paper in order for me to draw any conclusions about the validity of his research. It is impossible to tell whether or not the knowledge claim was based on observations and measurement and whether it was systematically and methodically carried out. It is, however, possible to question Kenning’s ‘objectivity’. Firstly, because of the former understandings and ontological assumptions he has made about the nature of education and secondly because of the research sample he selected. The Head Teachers he claimed to have interviewed were part of the Research Associates Group… suggesting perhaps that they were already committed life-long learners themselves. This would lead me to question whether or not the sample was truly representative. These participants would have come to the research with already well - established views on the value of life-long learning and so we find an example of ‘double hermeneutics’ in action.

Kenning’s educational research can clearly be located in a hermeneutic/interpretive epistemology. It focuses specifically on social practices, and particularly the personal growth and development of individuals. Kenning’s use of interviews assumes that all human action is meaningful and hence has to be interpreted and understood within the context of social practices and although no detail is provided about the interview schedule it will inevitably have used an interpretive scheme or framework.

Interestingly on p.6 of his article he acknowledges that he has ‘undoubtedly taken into his subconscious a great deal from a wide range of leadership training he has experienced’. This therefore supports the arguments of Gadamer (1975) and Habermas (1972) who both argued that it is impossible to separate oneself as a

researcher from the historical and cultural context that defines one’s interpretive framework and this therefore ultimately impacts on the research process and outcomes.

Gadamer (1975) argued that separating oneself as a researcher from the historical and cultural context that defines one’s understanding is impossible. The ‘subject’, in this case Kenning and the ‘object’ of research – school staff, were commonly located in pre-understood worlds and therefore they were not independent of one another. Both were open to interpretation. Kenning therefore set about understanding his objects with already formed fore-understandings that he fails to acknowledge in this article. True objectivity therefore would have been almost impossible for him to achieve.

Kenning (2002) uses this article to convince the reader of his ontological and epistemological assumptions, yet he does it without paying a great deal of attention to the research design and methodology. It is difficult to distinguish whether or not he held his assumptions about the importance of continual learning prior to his research or whether they are as a direct result of the work that he carried out. He continues to argue his cause with reference to acclaimed authors and concludes his article with a conceptual framework in which to locate the development of lead learners in all schools.

To summarise therefore I have found the critique of Kenning’s paper to be useful to me, in anticipation of my personal research. One of the first considerations it has raised for me is that when you are truly passionate and committed to a topic of interest you will inevitably arrive at your research with former understandings and bias that

can impact on the outcome of the research undertaken. Also, in order to be able to make generalisations it will be essential to design the research carefully, considering the epistemological context in which the research is being carried out.

Article Two – Leading a Community of Learners: Learning to be Moral by Engaging the Morality of Learning - An article written by Robert J. Starratt for Educational Management Administration Leadership 2007; 35; 165

As in the previous article I will begin critiquing this article by identifying the authors ontological and epistemological assumptions. I will draw comparison between the arguments he makes and those made by Gadamer (1975). Because this paper is written essentially in an academic genre I will spend time summarising for the reader the assertions made.

This article was written by Robert Starratt, a Professor of Educational Administration in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. Many of the references throughout are to American schools and institutions and therefore it should not be assumed that his views can necessarily be easily transferred into a different context. The article attempts to convince the reader that learning is a moral as well as an intellectual activity and that a central role of educational leaders should be the promotion of learning communities where everyone is explicitly committed to learning. ‘The article takes up the distortion of the learning process in schools due to a misguided epistemology of knowledge inherited from the Enlightenment and suggest an epistemology more in tune with the sociology of knowledge and contemporary physics’. (Starratt, 2007, p.165).

Immediately Starratt is describing for the reader his ontological and epistemological assumptions. He considers the learning that is taking place in schools to be located in the past and suggests that instead learning should be authentic and ‘real’. His argument is that the pedagogy of the school needs to redefine the academic curriculum as something that reveals the intelligibility of the natural, the social and the cultural worlds.

Starratt acknowledges in the initial stages of his article that his research or exploration of learning ‘cannot abstract from the moral context of the individual learners as well as the community of learners as though the moral character of learning could be considered in a vacuum separated from its human and social home’ (p.166). There is a clear understanding therefore on his part that his work is located within a hermeneutic/interpretive epistemology.

Starratt demonstrates an awareness that in social and educational research such as this the focus is essentially on social practices. He seems to have understood the work of Gadamer (1975) agreeing that it is impossible to separate himself as a researcher from the context of his study. This epistemological perspective Starratt (2007) suggests should be applied to classroom situations so that teachers remember that the pupils they teach have a rich, and sometimes complicated life of their own.

His article continues to discuss in detail a learner’s journey in terms of socialisation, of learning how to be a social being in the family, community and in life at large. Starratt talks about the need to develop a sense of ‘being true to oneself’- embarking on a journey for real authenticity. He frames his arguments by setting them in context

against published research (Sergiovanni, 1992; Sharpiro and Stefkovich, 2001; Leonard, 2004; Taylor, 1998: 28; Block, 2002, etc etc).

Again on p. 170 Starratt acknowledges that knowledge is personal – with learners approaching subject matter using past learnings and life experiences, relating the new material to what is already known. This is true for the generation of all new knowledge – all research. Starratt continues to explain that the new sociology of knowledge places the knower inside culture, inside an historical tapestry of already constructed knowledge and language maps, frameworks, theories, logics and methodologies. The construction therefore of new knowledge, he argues, has to struggle against the accepted frameworks and methodologies, for they defined the status quo and therefore occupied a privileged position in society as well as in the academic world. Knowledge in any society is always in the process of being constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed because of changing circumstances. “knowledge is a dialogue between the intelligences found in the natural cultural and social worlds and the intelligences of individual knowers” (p.175).

Starratt relates all of his arguments to learning in the classroom and learning in the school at large. Without such an in-depth debate as to what constitutes real, authentic learning, school leaders, argues Starratt, will not be able to improve teaching and learning for pupils. Starratt asks the question, Leadership of and for what? He argues that without a clear answer to this question, namely that schools should be learning communities, engaged in an intellectual and moral understanding of who they are and what their relationships and responsibilities to the natural, social and cultural worlds are, then the research, theory and discourse about distributed and sustainable

leadership, capacity building and professional development come into play as describing an authentic, indeed, a noble agenda for educational leaders.

In summary, I think that it is evident that this second article has been written by someone in the academic field as opposed to a serving Head Teacher or school based practitioner. Starratt writes confidently about his understanding of epistemological assumptions and derives similarities between the world of the researcher and life-long learner in school settings. Although he does not refer to his practiced or intended research in this article he has clearly formed ontological and epistemological assumptions from his life – experiences and his world of work.

Conclusion Having analysed the two articles, both quite different in their approach to reporting on new knowledge, I have come to realise that a broad understanding of one’s own ontological and epistemological assumptions can only improve the research process. I felt that Kenning’s work could have been further improved if he had acknowledged the limitations of his epistemology. I also felt that his work would have had greater reliability if he had elaborated on his research design and methodology.

Starratt alternatively discussed at length pre-conceived epistemologies and argued convincingly about the need for the development of new and emerging ideas to challenge pre - existing knowledge. However, his work was academic in essence and lacked rigorous research in the field. Both articles however provoked thought and led me to question my own approach to research.

I have come to realise that I must place myself within the context of that which I am researching. As a Head Teacher and a committed life-long learner myself, I need to be mindful of my former understandings and already formed prejudices. My ontological position is that effective schools are those in which staff actively participate in reflection and a continuous cycle of learning. It is likely that my research will take on a hermeneutic/interpretive epistemology as it will take place in a social and educational setting focusing largely on social practices. These social practices will have to be interpreted largely with qualitative measures, yet if I concur with the suggestions of Pring (2000) the qualitative nature of my study may lead me to certain generalisations and qualitative data also.

My primary aim however will be

to attempt to be as objective as possible so as to uncover real ‘truths’.

Appendix One Article One – The Intelligent Gaze: Leadership, Lead Learners and Individual Growth – a reflective enquiry by Steve Kenning for NCSL (2002)

Appendix Two Article Two – Leading a Community of Learners: Learning to be Moral by Engaging the Morality of Learning - An article written by Robert J. Starratt for Educational Management Administration Leadership 2007; 35; 165


Cohen, L. and Manion, L and Morrison, K (2007) Research Methods in Educaiton. Sixth Edition. London: Routledge

Gadamer, H. G. (1975) Truth and Method. London: Sheed and Ward

Habermas, J. (1972) Knowledge and Human Interests. London: Heinemann

Hitchcock, G. and Hughes, D. (1995) Research and the Teacher (second Edition). London: Routledge

Kenning, S. 2002 The Intelligent Gaze: Leadership, lead learners and individual growth – a reflective enquiry. NCSL Autumn 2002

Pring, R. (2000) Philosophy of Educational Research. London: Continuuum

Robson, C. (2002) Real World Researcher. Oxford: Blackwell Science

Scot, D. and Usher, R. 1996 Understanding Education Research. London: Routledge Sergiovanni, T.J. (2001) Leadership; what’s in it for schools? London: Routledge

Starratt, R. J. (2007) Leading a Community of Learners: Learning to be Moral by Engaging the Morality of Learning. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 35; 165

Identity and epistemology