Dear Swat Ed, Love Ben

by brachbach

Dear Swarthmore Ed Studies,

I didn’t intend for my first blog post to be a love letter to you, but here it is: you gave me the intellectual tools and the practice using them that I needed to be prepared for my Fulbright research, and I have smiled more than once in the past month when I think back to what I learned from you.

I hope this doesn’t give you the impression that my Fulbright research has already been successful: in fact, I haven’t started real fieldwork yet. I’m at the stage of drawing up research plans and making preliminary field visits. But I have to thank you for everything you gave me that set me up for this new stage in my life.

Like a healthy respect for qualitative, ethnographic methods. At least in my experience, Swat Ed leans heavily in this direction. My thesis, under Professor Lisa Smulyan’s guidance, was mostly qualitative/ethnographic, and then I took Professor Diane Anderson’s education ethnography seminar. Both of those were wonderful experiences where I learned about ethics, epistemology, and methods while cutting my teeth as a researcher. Lots of good times, too: shout out to Diane’s seminar, especially my research team!

The research group that I’m affiliated with here in Xi’an, the Northwest Socioeconomic Development Research Center (NSDRC), is made up of a bunch of economists. They do some incredible econometric work to measure the effectiveness of interventions designed to improve education, and let’s be honest, Swat Ed, econometrics is just not something that you had to offer me. But as one of the researchers working with the NSDRC, an American and a past Fulbrighter, put it, “We’re economists. We don’t do qualitative.” That’s an exaggeration: in fact, they do great qualitative work. For example, they interviewed students on why they drop out of school to identify potential factors causing dropout. They will measure the importance of these factors quantitatively in future work. Still, I think that there’s room for more qualitative methods in later stages of the research.

Take our study on computer tutoring, which is currently my main project. Right now, practically all of the research instruments are quantitative: Asking a student to rate how well they worked with a partner or how much they liked the educational software they played with on a scale from 1-7. Observing students using the software, and getting a handle on what is going on by numerically rating how focused the kids are and how messy the classroom is. What I will bring to the research project is the kind of close observation of students interacting with technology that I used while working on my thesis to see how kids creatively invented new ways of playing our educational games. I also bring the kind of open-ended interviewing with many follow-up questions that my research group used in Diane’s seminar to understand how students helped each other learn.

Another thing I got from you, Swat Ed: some wonderful theoretical frames for research, and moreover a sense of why you need frames and how you can put them to work. Back in first semester senior year, I was cooking along nicely on my thesis: I had done my field work, I had a bunch of data relevant to my research questions about appropriate technology for migrant students in Beijing, and I was starting to analyze it and put it all together. But wait, Lisa said, you don’t have a theoretical frame for your data and analysis! It was then that I realized that I couldn’t just pile up mountains of data in the spots marked by research questions. I was actually supposed to take stock of what materials I had, make some blueprints using theory, and put all of those pieces of data and analysis together to build something. I ended up framing my data with the theory that the Western model of education is spreading around the world, but that as the model moves down the chain of command from nation to province to city to school, it gets reinterpreted at each step. Thinking about the implications of this for culturally appropriate educational technology was one of the most intellectually interesting parts of my thesis.

I love my frames and my theory, and they love me.  They kicked in when I was writing research questions for my research on the NSDRC computer-tutoring program. Instead of just saying that I was going to observe the kids using the software, I could draw on theories about how social context (for example, the culture of school and prior home experiences with technology) influences students as they use technology in school.

My frames, or lenses, shape what I see when I lay eyes on kids using the computers, and they shape the kinds of questions I will ask my interviewees. When I wear the lens that shows how the existing culture of instruction in schools shapes the implementation of new programs, I’ll be looking for instances where the pedagogies of the regular classroom (for example, all of the students answering a teacher’s question in unison) get transferred to the computer class even when they are not explicitly called for in the curriculum. For another example, because I’m aware of the utopian/dystopian lenses through which teachers sometimes view educational technology, I will ask general questions to understand teachers’ lenses and then specific questions to get past potentially polarized lenses into concrete impressions of the computer-tutoring program.

Swat Ed, I hope it doesn’t offend you to let you know that back when we were together, I sometimes thought that what we had was just an intellectual fling. Fun while it lasts, but not something that I would think back on down the line. Boy, was I wrong. I know that as a Fulbright researcher I’m hardly out in the real world yet, but for now, it’s enough that you helped point me towards ways of looking at education more closely, ways of understanding the present situation and thinking up ideas for improvements.

Maybe more important than any of these tools you gave me is the confidence that I can strike out into new territory and carry out a research project. When I started my thesis research in Beijing last summer, I was really anxious. Would I be able to get any data that I could make any sense of? Would I even be able to get into any schools? Two months, later, I realized that I was really doing it: I had succeeded in gaining access to the schools, and I was getting some good data. Since then, I have trusted that I have what it takes to go out there and do research, with collaborators or on my own, as a team leader or as a research assistant. This has been a very important attitude given the nebulous goals of the Fulbright and the real possibility of just hanging out without doing any real research. I feel that my self-confidence in my research abilities will carry me through into creating good research opportunities for myself. Thanks for that, Swat Ed.


P.S. I suspect that you might get a little frustrated about how vague I was in describing my current research above. Don’t worry, I’ll be back with details in future posts, and in the meantime, let me know if you have any questions.


4 Comments to “Dear Swat Ed, Love Ben”

  1. Ahhh, this takes me back. Hearing of these ideas and lenses all in one place makes me smile. Makes me want to sit down in the EMC and read old education theses.

    I would like to hear more, sometime, of those utopian/dystopian lenses on technology. I have not heard the issue described in that way before. Maybe you’ve coined it. Anyway, from my perspective in my meager travels, I’ve seen a bit of both, and gosh am I tired of the utopians.

  2. Wow, Ben. You know as a teacher you usually don’t know if you’ve had any impact on your students. At the risk of being too academic – Dan Lortie, in Schoolteacher, writes about the “endemic uncertainties” of teaching, one of which is the difficulty in figuring out short let alone long term effects of teaching. I’ve always felt that, continuing to teach without necessarily knowing for sure if any of it sinks in/makes a difference (a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea). So it’s amazing to hear how you translate your learning into a new situation, making it yours as you go. Thanks. Lisa

  3. I had the same thought about wanting to hear more about utopian/dystopian lenses on technology. Give us utopias and dystopias!

    • Ok, I hear you! Though recently I’m thinking that the utopia/dystopia binary opposition is a little stale, and I’m going to need to complicate things a bit…

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