Doctorate in Education (EdD) – Reflections

In this post, I share my ‘A’ graded reflective statement on the first year of my EdD at UCL, Institute of Education. It is a personal and informative account of my experience and would be a great read for anyone who is interested in furthering their studies at this level; particularly my fellow teachers and action-researchers. I am transparent and critically review my experience, including the challenges so that this can be used as a learning resource and reference point for all academics.

Before we get into the reflective statement, I wish to share two sentences from my feedback on this piece from my supervisor:

The lightness of touch with your writing aligns so well with how strongly you link it to the literature and that sense of connection.  Well done – this is such beautifully nuanced writing. 

What I very much enjoyed is the way you use your real ‘voice’ within the writing – there is a unique authenticity that shines through and this is so important for developing your academic style – getting that balance of your view and then situating that within the broader landscape of expertise.  

Dr Mary Richardson

Introduction

My EdD journey started in 2009 as a 16-year old, black, female, year 12 student in a South-London Sixth Form college, who determined that she would become an academic doctor. Since 2009 I have jovially and seriously responded to my Nigerian parent’s nickname for me; ‘Doctor Kanayo’.

Irrespective of this nickname, the odds of my environment (cultural capital), family dynamics, socioeconomic status, my cross-section of race and gender, and feelings of inadequacy, were set before me. As if these perceived barriers were not enough, a month prior to starting my doctorate, I was struck by a rare 1-in-3 mortality rate disease called Stevens-Johnson syndrome, which required that I be resuscitated and hospitalised with devastating effects to my body. Was the determination of 2009 enough to keep me going in 2019? Absolutely! I am here writing a reflective statement as a second-year doctoral candidate in 2020.

Calling this portfolio piece “‘Doctor’ Kanayo’s reflective statement” is both intentional and significant. It is a commitment to my initial determination, almost like renewing vows to my 16-year-old self. With unwavering optimism, I will reflect on my progress on the first year of this phenomenal EdD course, the challenges, and my next steps. My reflections will follow a chronological structure and will hallmark features of Brookfield’s Lenses reflective model (Brookfield, 1998). As a dual- professional; both teacher (head of psychology) and student (doctoral), it was apt to anchor my reflections using all four lenses: autobiographical, learner, peer, and literature. Each lens directs the types of questions that I ask myself concerning my experience and offers the flexibility to reflect holistically, in light of my autobiography (academic and professional), my learners, my peers (doctoral and work colleagues) and the literature. This reflective statement will take you on a brief journey of who I was prior to starting the EdD, how the EdD has shaped who I am, and who I am becoming.

Foundations of Professionalism

Foundations of professionalism (FoP) was the first taught module on the EdD, and this was where I was introduced to my academic cohort. I quickly realised that I was not only the youngest in the group, but perhaps the most inexperienced, relative to my peers who were headteachers, senior leaders and expert consultants in their fields. Admittedly, a sense of the imposter syndrome did overwhelm me, and this was the first affront to the way I conceptualised professionalism.

In my module evaluation for FoP I referred to it as a therapeutic module, because of the reassurance it offered me in response to my initial unease. Despite completing my PGCE and Masters in Educational Assessment at UCL (with a distinction graded thesis), or having received an array of awards for my work and service to teaching, there was still a part of me that felt inadequate and misplaced in this new academic community. FoP exposed me to broad terminology and literature on professionalism, which gave a legitimate voice to my feelings at the time. Most significantly, it was in FoP that we had two guest lecturers who looked like me! Dr Tracy Allen and Dr Christine Callender, two black women who shared on the complexities of professionalism, race, and leadership. I did not realise how much representation mattered to me, until this point in my academic career.

Through interrogating my professional identity using Brookfield’s (1998) theoretical lenses; the literature on distributed leadership (Harris, 2004) in FoP’s core reading list, affirmed my worthy position as an EdD student. I no longer felt like an imposter, because I found myself in the literature. I am what Harris, (2004) and Harris & Spillane (2008) would describe as leadership from an ‘uncommon place’.

My rapid career and academic progress such as becoming deputy head of sixth form after only two years of teaching, (as illustrated in Figure 1 using Amott’s (2018) narrative practice task) embodies what Harris (2014) calls ‘leadership by expertise rather than leadership by years of experience’.

These light-bulb moments when reading academic journals were both encouraging and satisfying. In FoP, I developed the skill of reading key texts and locating my experience and my ontological (the way I view knowledge) and epistemological stance (the way I believe knowledge should be measured) in the literature. This was evident in the FoP assignment where I critically discussed the professional ethics of optimizing departmental performance in a neo-liberal context.

This assignment presented the opportunity to press further into my research interest in assessment, and how decisions concerning assessment affect how I, and key stakeholders reify the teaching profession. The literature illuminated the many ways in which I had exchanged democratic professionalism based on social justice, for managerial professionalism based on ‘performativity’ and accountability (Ball, 2003). I used evidence to assert that there has been a reform-induced identity shift from ‘teacher’ to ‘assessor’. How prophetic this was, ahead of a year where teachers indeed became the primary high-stakes assessors for GCSE and A-Level students’ official qualifications, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, despite what many called the momentary restoration of teacher autonomy, I had the necessary knowledge from FoP and the applied experience to offer a critical challenge to these bold claims. Teachers as ‘assessors’ provided the illusion of autonomy through what Ball (2003, p. 27) calls ‘self-regulating regulations’. For example, even when I, as Head of department was given the freedom (autonomy) to assign grades to students based on my overview of their progress, I became my own regulator, working within the performative parameters that were etched into my professional identity. My overview of students’ progress was reminiscent of the same accountability structures and measures, such as keeping calculated grades within the ‘reasonable’ limits of students’ prior attainment. I had soon realised that 6 months after FoP the literature still permeated every aspect of my professionalism.

My FoP assignment was my first ‘B’ grade in the taught modules. My tutor found my argument concerning assessment and managerial professionalism, clear and convincing. However, she noted that the breadth of considering both professional values and identity meant that I lacked the sufficient critical evaluation to push me into the ‘A’ grade. I interpreted this feedback as ‘less is more’, and believe that, if I had focused on one specific area concerning professionalism, perhaps I would have achieved the A. I realised that the term ‘critical evaluation’ as a key performance indicator is one that often fills me with dread, as there is no end to the amount or style of critique. This dread led me to seek advice from all EdD tutors during a face-to-face lecture discussion on academic writing. The discussion revealed some differences between each tutors’ critical writing preferences, right through to how we cite authors in text. This gave me the understanding that academic writing must be tailored for the desired audience. This leads me to reflect on my experiences with the Methods of Enquiry 1 module, where the final output was a research proposal: a piece of academic writing for a specific audience.

Methods of Enquiry 1 and 2 (MOE1 / MOE2)

MOE 1 was my most successful module regarding where my grade was positioned in the IOE assessment rubric. 5 out of the 8 grade criteria were marked as grade ‘A’, while the remaining 3 were grade ‘B’ (see Appendix A). I secured something greater than a top grade. I strengthened the skill of transforming conceptual ideas into methodological processes, and had written a proposal which my tutor considered worthy of dissemination. In addition, the formative feedback praised my extensive consideration of my epistemological stance, but said it was far too long! Perhaps I wrote at length because I was enthralled that I finally understood the almighty term ‘epistemology’, and felt confident positioning my proposed research within the literature on pragmatic realism and social constructivism.

Furthermore, presenting my proposal to my peers (Figure 2) allowed for critical discussion, which helped me to check, reframe and broaden my perspectives on the potential implications of my research for real practitioners. Their verbal and written feedback were invaluable, some of which I recorded and have retained for future reference (See Figures 3 and 4). Therein, I experienced the beauty of considering the lens of colleagues to challenge my assumptions and make me a better researcher (Brookfield, 1998); a reflective practice which I am certain to continue to use in my EdD journey.

My research proposal reflected the present zeitgeist and gave me the flare of a contemporary researcher. I proposed to build upon my master’s thesis by understanding how and why students respond to tweets on assessment. The proposal itself was certainly ambitious in connecting two conflicting stances (qualitative and quantitative), and it was not surprising that I could not conduct a scaled-back version of my proposal for MOE2’s small-scale study assignment.

The feedback on the formative draft of my proposal was transformative. I had to completely overhaul my assignment because there was a disjoint between my research questions and what actually took place in my study. My initial research question claimed to investigate how A-Level student’s respond to assessment- related tweets. Yet, before I could methodologically investigate ‘how’ students respond, I intuitively decided that I had to devise a scale to measure ‘how’ students responded to tweets on assessment under three literature-driven concepts: test anxiety, community of practice and learning behaviour. The caveat was, I did not reflect this intuitive research process in my research questions or in the first draft of my research report.

One thing that I have learnt in the first year of this doctoral course is, ‘if you do not ask, you will not get’. Before submitting each assignment in the taught modules, I fully engaged with the submission cover sheet where it asks which areas I desired specific feedback on. This was key for me in MOE2, because I asked for feedback on the congruency of my research questions with the rest of my report, and indeed, that feedback helped me to drastically improve an assignment which could have been a fail, as I almost missed the core objectives of MOE2. This was humbling as I came to understand that research questions are not exempt from critique at any stage in the research process. I developed the courage to deconstruct an assignment, and the faith in my abilities to put it back together.

In MOE2 I decided to actively include my students on this part of my EdD journey. My students were my participants and my co-researchers in this pilot study of creating a bespoke measure for assessing students’ responses to tweets on assessment. It was wonderful to have their suggestions and input shape my research. My reflections through the learner lens supports my desire to see my research include and improve the pedagogical experiences of students as key stakeholders in education (Badia, 2017; Brookfield, 1998). I took the understanding that social media is a way that students explore and respond to the world. Therefore, including students in my research added a richness to my data, my methods, and my identity as a researcher.

My research proposal and research report used a range of established methods in contemporary ways; because I recognised the limitations of simply using researcher-centred interviews and questionnaires when investigating something that is so nuanced, dynamic, and embodied like social media and assessment. As a result, I was able to adapt traditional self-report methods for the unique aims of my research.

My success in MOE2 is an exciting starting point for what research will look like for the rest of my EdD journey, starting with the IFS. My original IFS proposal was to run a content analysis of assessment-pandemic related tweets and conduct focus group interviews concerning these tweets with students. However, the successful methodology used in MOE2 has forced me to reconsider the aims of my IFS. I am now drawn to still using the IFS to run a content analysis on assessment- pandemic-related tweets, but with the core aim of further developing the scale I created in MOE2, so that it carries the potential for dissemination and for future use in my thesis. These ideas will be refined through critical discourse with my critical friends, my supervisors and my students!

Conclusion

This year, the very thing that I feared the most, ‘criticism’, was the very thing that made me and my work better. I have matured academically in so many ways, from improving my academic writing, reading critically and locating myself in the literature, inviting and responding to feedback, articulating my research ideas through presentations and even representing my cohort as the elected academic representative. As part of my faith, it is important to ‘call the things that be not, as though they are’. So, I will continue to call myself ‘Doctor’ Kanayo before the official letters follow my name, because this is who I am, and who I am becoming. I am a researcher, and I am becoming a critical contemporary researcher.

References

Amott, P. (2018). Identification – a process of self-knowing realised within narrative practices for teacher educators during times of transition. Professional Development in Education, 44(4), 476–491. https://doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2017.1381638

Badia, G. (2017). Combining Critical Reflection and Action Research to Improve Pedagogy. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 17(4), 695–720. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2017.0042

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228. https://doi.org/10.1080/0268093022000043065

Brookfield, S. (1998). Critically reflective practice. Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 18(4), 197–205. https://doi.org/10.1002/chp.1340180402

Harris, A. (2004). Distributed Leadership and School Improvement: Leading or Misleading? Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 32(1), 11–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143204039297

Harris, A., & Spillane, J. (2008). Distributed leadership through the looking glass.

Management in Education, 22(1), 31–34. https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020607085623

Harris, D. A. (2014). Distributed leadership. https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/distributed-leadership?lang=en

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