Of Personal Experience and Research Questions

Last December I posted an extract from my PhD thesis.
In this post I share my introduction to the thesis (written in 1989). I do so at a time when I am increasing the number of students I am supervising at Masters and PhD level.
The title of this Chapter is Of Personal Experience and Research Questions. My aim is to explore the process of framing of research questions and to provide an example for discussion.


In 1983, I registered for a higher degree in the Institute of Educational Development at the University of Surrey. My aim was to conduct research into the teaching of boys’ physical education in the secondary school.
Six years on, the thesis presented here is something of a quantum leap from my original intention.My plan was to research the teaching of physical education from a sociological perspective in order to improve the quality of courses and tutorial advice I was sharing with student teachers. It had been five years since I was a teacher in a physical education teacher in a comprehensive school and I was rapidly becoming the kind of Derby tipster that Roy Nash (1976) was critical of in his account of the practical training given to teachers.
I was, in fact, an innocent abroad on a number of counts. The Department of Education and Science’s Teaching Quality had not been published at that time. I had not thought through carefully exactly what kind of research I wanted to do and when asked about my intentions in this respect I used to mumble something about ‘qualitative research’.
My innocence did not extend to my language, however. At that time I used the most ridiculous jargon without turning a hair. An undergraduate social science course and a sociology Masters’ course had ill-prepared me for everyday life. What is even worse, I used the jargon to give myself bogus authority.
To carry on for a while in this confessional vein, I think I was hiding behind a missionary conception of qualitative research. Despite my emerging interest in constructivist approaches to education and glimpses of books like Peter Reason and John Rowan’s Human Inquiry (1981), I had not realised the significant difference between research with and research on teachers. I seemed to think that doing qualitative works was a virtue in its own right. I was bringing to the research process that matched Tony Hancock’s notion of being a blood donor!
Doing research was a perfect antidote. From 1986, when I started working with five teachers of physical education in two schools, my understanding of qualitative research was transformed. I found it comforting too that there were other researchers with similar qualitative interests in the sociology of physical education.
But I think I would have opted for a safe account of my own and others’ work, if I had not discovered some critical essays on the form of anthropological and ethnographic writing. The more I read, the more appealing it became to explore some of the issues raised by George Marcus and Dick Cushman (1982), Johannes Fabian (1983), Stephen Tyler (1987) and John Van Maanen (1988).
The upshot is that I am going to present an account of the teaching of physical education that celebrates the voices of the teachers with whom I researched. In doing so, I want to avoid the packaging that sometimes accompanies accounts of qualitative research. I take this to be quite a challenge for me as writer and you as reader. I have chosen not to use footnotes and have tried not to overburden the account with too many references to ‘the literature’.

Private Troubles and Public Issues: Firming Up Research Questions

Over the years I must have asked hundreds of undergraduate students to articulate a central research question in their write up of final year dissertations. In trying to sort out a central question for my thesis I initiated a process of introspection that took me back a long way. Perhaps why I have been moved to complete a doctoral submission has something to do with the rootedness of my present in my past.
I grew up in a small town in North Wales. From a very early age, I took an active part in games under the watchful eye of my grandfather. Although our family album has a number of photographs of me kicking footballs and holding cricket bats, my first real memory of sport is the day I got my first pair of football boots.
I can remember the boots being unwrapped and then being laced into them by my grandfather who had bought them. I have no idea how old I was but I do remember standing proudly on our scrubbed kitchen table and looking him eye to eye.
For many years, I was preoccupied by football and even into my early teens my sole reading matter was Football Monthly (the World’s first Football Magazine). I was a rabid supporter of one of the local football teams, Buckley Wanderers. They wore the same strip as Wolverhampton Wanderers and the goalkeeper, Fred, was well into his forties. He wore a rolled neck jersey and a flat cap. Whenever possible I snatched chances to kick into the nets before the game, at half-time and after the game. What luxury not to have to chase the ball after scoring!
Then, in 1962, the pinnacle of achievement … Buckley Wanderers got to the Welsh Amateur Cup Final. We beat Ferndale Athletic. I went to the game and it was my first experience of a ‘big’ match. By one of those coincidences of history the Wanderers’ left half that day was to be my physical education teacher at secondary school.
I ought to say that throughout my primary school years, my interest in sport was nourished and developed by teachers as well. In fact two teachers, Ivor Jones and Tommy Inglesfield, made sport particularly special. In lessons and school teams I learned a great deal about football and cricket. My memories of that time are important to me and have acted as a touchstone for my dealings with young children in my own teaching career.
Years later, experience of higher education and exposusure to social sciences initiated opportunities to reflect on such memories. The title for this section, for example, has been stimulated by my re-reading of C Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (1967) occasioned by John Evans’ introduction to Physical Education, Sport and Schooling (1986).
My experience of higher education and my specific interest in sociological accounts of physical education have enabled me to link my experiences of physical education and sport with those of other people. In retrospect I would have liked o have worked harder at making sense of the intricate relations between biography and history.
Now that I am a little older and hopefully a little wiser, I have tried to escape from my preoccupation with the language of sociological discourse. I am much more concerned now with empowering and facilitating the professional development of teachers.
Comparatively late in my research, the relationship between personal experience and public issues moved to the foreground. This is in part due to the emergence of a number of significant contributions to the literature in the sociology of physical education and to changes in my own career path. “Escape’ from the stress of full-time employment in a college of education, the experience of parenthood and long-term contact with teachers of physical education have provided a distancing perspective.
In 1987, when I had the opportunity to set out research questions in my upgrading PhD document, I was still trying to find a way of relating private troubles to public issues. I felt strongly that whatever questions I identified were to be part of a research process designed to challenge the politics of knowledge in educational research. I argued that by researching physical education using qualitative methods I hoped to contribute to the debate about what counts as research.
In the Research Questions and Design section of the upgrade document I observed that:

I am fascinated by the transmission of knowledge. My own educational experience has been permeated by the notion of social mobility through examination success. ‘Education’ was deemed to be important. Only gradually did it become possible to reflect on the process of knowing. In the last fifteen years I have been exposed to critiques of the normative structure of education which have challenged and disturbed my taken-for-granted assumptions.

Research Questions
My research is an outcome of my biography. After teaching in a comprehensive school in a college of higher education, I wanted to take the opportunity to explore teaching and learning. Central to my original research idea was the question ‘Do children learn in spite of or because of the teacher?’
After some five years of reading and empirical research my research questions have developed, changed and emerged. My central question has become ‘How do teachers construct the contexts within which teaching and learning become possible?’ My focus has become the teachers of physical education specifically, with the pupils taking a place on the ‘back burner’.
An overarching problem for me has been the relationship between methods and evidence. I want to know what methods can be used to describe what happens within physical education in the secondary school. I do not wish to research teachers in isolation and I will require methods sensitive to teachers, curriculum models, evaluation and social relations. In short, research methods should be alive to the complexity of teaching.
There are research questions about teachers of physical education and their practice:
1. What salient biographical factors influence the way physical education is taught?
2. How do teachers deliver and evaluate lesson content?
3. Are teachers active curriculum researchers?
I am particularly interested in the extent to which teachers see their task in active and creative ways. Implicit in all three questions listed above are the constraints upon the practice of teaching.
Another set of research questions relates to the institutional and cultural contexts of physical education teaching. In particular:
4. What significance is attached to physical education by the school hierarchy?
5. What cultural expectations impinge upon the construction of the physical education curriculum?
I am interested here in the overdetermination of the physical education curriculum. Since the turn of the century there have been a number of ‘moral panics’ about male physical education. A present variation of this ‘panic’ is the concern over the inability of physical education to provide elite sportsmen (sic) in the ‘traditional’, culturally dominant games (football, rugby, cricket). In my research I would like to say something about agenda setting in physical education that is beyond the control of the individual teacher.
I have chosen to focus on teachers in my research but I would like to pose some questions about pupils:
6. What factors influence a child’s involvement in physical education?
7. How significant is physical education in a child’s experience of formal and extra-curricular education.
In this part of the research I wish to explore the ‘problems’ facing boys in participating in physical education. The ritual of undressing, performing, showering and dressing is a distinct marker in the school week. Performance in lessons is public and very visible. There are important psycho-social aspects of pupil involvement in physical education to be considered. At the methodological level, finding appropriate access points to pupil talk is a problem and one which I intend to discuss in my research.
The research questions identified in my upgrading document reflected work done up to that time and mapped out some of the developing issues in my work. The seven questions identified sat within a process of research that I saw as emergent, fallible and reflexive. I was determined that the questions themselves should be open to revision and replacement in order that I might explore creatively the links between biography and history.


Department of Education and Science, 1983. Teaching Quality. London: HMSO. Cmnd 8836.
Evans, J. ed., 1986. Physical Education, Sport and Schooling. Lewes: Falmer Press.
Fabian, J., 1983. Time and the Other. New York: Columbia University Press.
Marcus, G. and Cushman, D., 1982. Ethnographies as texts. Annual review of Anthropology, 11, pp.25-69.
Mills, C.W., 1967The Sociological Imagination. London: Oxford University Press.
Nash, R., 1976. Pupils’ expectations of their teachers. In M, Stubbs and S, Delamont, eds. Explorations in Classroom Observation. Chichester: Wiley and Sons.
Reason, P. and Rowan, J., eds., 1981.  Human Inquiry. Chichester: Wiley and Sons.
Tyler, S., 1987. The Unspeakable. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Van Maanen, J., 1988. Tales of the Field. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    • James
      Thank you for finding my post. What a great resource you have created.
      I will be directing my students to your site.
      Best wishes


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