Doubts, Growth and Fog – Mid-Point PhD Reflections
I am 18 months into my PhD and halfway through the 3 years I have been given to complete it by the University. My PhD is researching the teaching, learning and assessment of composing at examination level in UK secondary music classrooms. So far I have conducted a UK survey, interviews with 5 music teachers, focus groups interviews with GCSE and A Level students, and lesson observations. A lot of data!
Reflections on my Methodology:
Before starting my PhD I was working as a freelance music practitioner in schools and teachers regularly told me their stories of teaching composing at examination level. When I started my research wanted to collect these stories from the teachers so decided to interview music teachers. The interviews were semi-structured and they felt relatively informal and comfortable. Teachers talked about a variety of topics and issues related to composing. However upon doing my observations I noticed some aspects were not quite as they said in their interviews when in the classroom. This highlighted the importance of triangulation but also made me consider in more detail why they gave the answers they did to the interview questions. Did they want to appear a certain way, were they under pressure to say certain aspects, did they know that what they were saying was not reflected in the classroom in practice?
I also wanted to capture the ‘student voice’ to get a different perspective and for triangulation of my data. I conducted a number of focus group interviews, however the interviews felt artificial and although students answered the questions I wasn’t always sure I was getting the ‘full picture’ of the complex issues involved.
In both instances I felt the style of data collection felt a little ‘false’.
Was I placing my own perceptions or opinions onto the participants just through the questions I was asking?
Were the teachers and students trying to answer the questions in a way they thought they should answer? Before I started my PhD I would commonly have conversations with the students and teachers I was working with about the topics. These conversations had no other agenda, and had fewer issues around power and confidentiality. As a result of asking questions it may have also felt that both teachers and students felt they had to give a ‘correct’ answer to the questions. During the interviews I felt we touched the surface of the issues but didn’t go any deeper.
When I first my PhD started I selected quite a traditional methodology (interviews) because I felt it was more ‘formally’, more like a ‘PhD’ and in some way it had to look like ‘research’. It had to be more ‘serious’. Reflecting on my first round of data collection I have found that this has got in the way of my true passions, and the reason I got into the PhD in the first place – through creating music and working with young people. I am now considering more alternative methods of collecting data for the future, possibly more practice-based enquiry, and through musical activities. I want to be able to combine my composing and teaching passions with my research.
Reflections on the research process:
One aspect I have found from my PhD so far is that nothing is simple or straightforward. I wonder if organising questions in a more formal interview tried to simplify some issues into separate categories, where in fact they interlink and a complex way that I can’t quite yet see.
I continue to work as a professional composer and have written about how composing and writing are interlinked, but I also think that there are links between conducting research and composing. I often describe how at the start of composing there is the ‘blank page’, but after some discoveries ideas and music becomes clearer but it is still very blurry – the overall structure of the music is there but there is not detail. Over time working with the musical material everything comes into focus and the whole piece is clear. Some aspect may change along the way but there is clarity and it makes sense. The composer Benjamin Britten is reported to feel a similar way about composing. I feel I am at the stage in my research where I can make out the issues and themes but they are blurry. I know they all link but I can’t see how, I can’t see the full picture but I know it will become clear the more I explore and play with the material I have.
I will leave you with these pictures I took at the top on Snowdonia which reflect my feeling.
Whilst at the top there was so much cloud you could barely see a few feet in front of you
The clouds started to clearer and you could see the top of the mountain but the clouds still covered the ground below. It covered all the complexity underneath the main issues.
Then during the last few minutes at the top the clouds cleared for a few seconds and you could see the base of the mountain in complete detail.
I am still working towards this last clarity – will it ever come?
With thanks to Geof Hill, Alex Kendall and Mandy French for our conversations and to my 2 supervisors for your guidance so far.