Posts Tagged ‘research’

Sitting now in a session being run by Dr Caroline Gatrell here in Lancaster, on “Managing PhD study & other work”.

It’s a very useful exercise every now and then to get back in touch with the process of what you are doing when you return to a longer piece of

The big thing – always be reflecting on “what am I doing?” This changes as you go, but you need to know what claim you are making and where you will contribute to the debate (and what debate that is). Need to remember, also, that the examiners will be looking for ‘evidence of the ability to construct and present a coherent, logical argument’. This is not the thesis, but the context of the thesis.

Other lessons to bear in mind include need to be researching something that has a strong interest for you personally, and keep checking in on these.

I recently used, not for the first time, the Ben Zander talk recorded for TED in 2008, where he brilliantly engages his audience in the idea that classical music is for everyone. For the first time I saw a parallel with my PhD subject of reflection. In his talk, Zander analyses a short piece of music by Chopin to illustrate something much bigger. His phrase “now let’s see what’s really going on here” changes the tone, and moves from our unreflective attitude to music to a much more reflective place. He gives the sense that by unlocking the skill of the composer and the way that they wanted to make us feel in order to create the same thought in your mind that they had in theirs (surely this is a good definition of communication) we are then able to understand how to appreciate other pieces of music in the same way.

My data is like the one Chopin piece. It’s enough to examine one group’s interaction over a fairly short period of time in order then to go and see “what’s going on here”.


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In terms of PhD, my reading habits seem to swing to and fro between books and journals. For the second half of 2009, where before I had been amassing (mostly by raiding reference lists) very many peer-reviewed journal articles, the pendulum moved back to books, many of them seminal. Bateson’s own works of course – including a copy of Naven – and books about Bateson, but also a more diverse collection embracing cultural anthropology and evolutionary theory.  Now in the last couple of weeks, I again am collecting journal articles from a variety of sources I would not have predicted a year ago and with titles that should perhaps make me (or my supervisor) concerned.

All this flurry of activity is leading to is a presentation in March at Lancaster of my thinking to date, followed by an up-grade meeting in front of a panel.

Apart from communicating the kernel of my idea (below), I will need to show what I’ve done in terms of pilots. To that end, next week I shall be engaging some kindly volunteers from our full-time MBA cohort in Narrative Inquiry, built around interviews of career, learning points in life, and family-of-origin. There’s still a big piece of what I want to do missing, but this is progress.

As for the crux of the research, which revolves nicely around the question “what is learning?”, I now feel that the two productive (i.e. unexplored, relatively, in the context of Management Education) are:

a. the necessary connection between evolution and learning

b. how learning is a stochastic process

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There’s been an aspect of Bateson’s thinking that has been puzzling me. More exactly, and not for the first time, some time after reading a passage (or series of passages) by Bateson a small light-bulb switched on and revealed a door in my thinking to walk through. The fact that the fact of the door also reveals the hitherto unobserved fact that one is standing in a dead-end street .

In much of his writing, and in particular in Mind and Nature, he describes evolution and learning as the “two great stochastic processes”. Stochastic means “random”, but that also needs some explanation. Is evolution random? If stripped clean of the human notion of purpose or design, biological evolution might well be seen as being random. But in what sense is “learning” random?

Our default definition of learning, often cited in management education, seems to return always to the idea of an accumulation of acquisition of knowledge, with the individual (the learner) as a repository, a water-butt filling up. That’s probably an over-simplification, of course, because education now lives with nearly thirty years of developments in complexity theory and most people acknowledge that thinks are inter-linked. However, despite that experience how much do we really question underlying assumptions, and won’t we always prefer a nice, mechanistic explanation which looks like it could reasonably be classed among a set of “contributions to knowledge” (and another drip in the bucket)? As managers and as academics, we spend our time trying to filter out “noise” in order to define and refine our learning, but end up managing or researching in ever decreasing circles and cycles.

Nevertheless, I didn’t understand exactly how learning was stochastic, random, because I had been framing learning only in terms of myself.  I learn something when I meet a new or novel situation, and learning is simply a process of trial and error. The stimuli met by me, as a learner, I might then be tempted to imbue with the quality of randomness. But this results in an epistemological error since randomness is not a property of the stimulus, but rather of the relationship between myself and the stimulus.

What this means, therefore, is that “learning” is not a property within me.  It’s not just that learning cannot occur without a context, it is that learning forms the context, and the context is always of a higher logical level than the elements or parts that go to make it up.

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Clive James does a weekly talk on Radio Four at the moment, in a series called “A point of view”. He can usually be counted on not just for eloquence and wit, but also for hitting certain targets square in the eye with a well chosen (or chewed, if one thinks in terms of sound-bites) point.

This week he spoke about democracy and the link to university funding and the link to research, and in particular the rules in the UK that are about to change on that matter, making it incumbent on the researcher to show the “impact” of their research in the “real world” in order to qualify for a certain portion of the funding available. James quite rightly points out the pointlessness of this as a position. You can listen to his broadcast for the coming few days on iPlayer, or you can read the transcript here.

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I had what turned out to be a pre-upgrade PhD panel meeting in Lancaster this week. I had prepared a document for it and that was used as the basis for discussion with two Lancaster faculty. Not knowing quite what to expect was excuse enough not to be too nervous, although the previous evening’s read-through of my submission left me feeling dissatisfied. I had been working on that document for some time, and it was intended to “state my case” so far, and it appeared to follow convention in its structure and form. However, it also felt in part incomplete and, aside from a few passages at the beginning and when speaking of Bateson’s work, flat. By chance, whilst in the library on campus, I found listed the PhD thesis of someone called Noel Charlton, who had written his PhD on Bateson, and who has since published a book, Understanding Gregory Bateson, which I now must get hold of.

After an hour and a quarter of discussion, questioning, observation and critique, I came away feeling both daunted and excited. Daunted because I was being asked to “rewrite and resubmit”, and still excited because I was also being given the go-ahead to present my thinking in a manner congruent with my subject of investigation. In other words, in my own words. Because I wish to investigate pattern, form and relationship in a more narrative and nested format, I am now offered the chance to do so freed from slavishly following structured convention, and of the confines of the language of scientific reification.

I immediately knew where I wanted to start again, though it will not be an easy task. Bateson.

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