This chapter focuses on the qualitative approach and thus make use of Case Study Model, although inherent in the data analysis is the quantitative approach. I described the methods used to gather data and tried to be careful about the implications of a data analysis. I tried during the data collection to be aware of ethical considerations, power relationships between interviewer and interviewee as well as making sure that the information received is trustworthy. Throughout this study I intend to take an objective stand.
THE CHOSEN APPROACH
The research study purpose is:
To find out the impact of mixed ability classrooms in GCS and
To investigate the responsiveness of low achievers ability grouping on academic school achievement
When I first started the project, I thought Quantitative Approach would be the one to offer "precise measurement and analysis" (Jenkins, 2009), thus the 'numerical data' (Neill,2007), namely results records, could be used to highlight the probable relationship between low ability grouping and academic performance. However, this approach solely proved to be limited. Thus there was a need to involve qualitative research.
Strauss and Corbin (1990) defined Qualitative Research as "any kind of research that produces findings not arrived at by means of statistical procedure and other means of quantification" (p.1 7). To have a comprehensive view of the low achievers ability grouping strategy and mixed ability classrooms' impact, different stakeholders' opinions have been sought. "Interpretivism, or qualitative approach, is a way to gain insights through discovering meanings by improving our comprehension of the whole. Qualitative research explores the richness, depth and complexity of phenomena." (Neill, 2006, p.).
Thus both methods have proved to be complementary in the research study. Since the qualitative mode is predominant in the research work, the Case Study Model seems more appropriate form to be used.
THE APPROACH: THE CASE STUDY
Hitchcock and Hughes (1995) explained that the "preferred strategy" is a case study when "how" and "why" questions need to be answered (p. 322). As this method also investigates cases in real life context, it fits the research work as I am evaluating factors impacting as a result of a change in policy - Mixed Ability Policy. This tallies with Gummesson's (1991) argument that the "change agent works with cases" (p.73 cited in Hitchcock and Hugues, p.322), thus accepting that case study is most appropriate. Furthermore, strategies/options found for low achievers have created cases to be dealt with. The rationale behind my investigation also reflects Hitchcock and Hughes (1995) that "case studies can be of particular value where the research aims were to provide practitioners with better or alternative ways of doing things" (p.322).
As the researcher, there have been moments when information was flowing from all parts and I had to make the distinction of keeping information which relates to my study and discard those which were not responding to my research questions. It supports Hitchcock and Hughes (1995) observations that "Case study researchers will look for the common, widespread and general, but will also look for and attempt to identify the particular. They will collect a variety of data from a variety of sources. However the researcher will need to try and identify the boundaries, decide what is, in fact, inside the case and concentrate on the research questions appropriately." (p.319).
I opted for a case study correlating with Yin (1994) who stipulated that "case studies do not need to have a minimum number of cases or to randomly select cases". (cited in Tellis, July 1997) As a researcher, I am working as the situation presents itself. My study goes against the critical view that one single case does not provide a generalising conclusion (Tellis, July 1997). A single case in research work could be acceptable if established aims are clearly spelt out. Even though it is a first for GSC, in the research that I am undertaking, the conclusion could be of use for the future of the strategies opted for by the school.
As mentioned earlier, I aim to improve my practice with this research work. Dul and Hak (2008) summarises that case study research "enriches not only theory but also the researchers themselves".
Despite the research work being carried out on a small scale, I used both desk and field research methods. For the first aim of the research which is to evaluate Mixed Ability Classroom impact, I questioned educators who were working with the lower secondary classes as well as their Heads of Departments. Since educators and their heads work in teams, I thought that their discussions on the subject of mixed ability would prove useful for my study. (No of people interviewed and who they were - what sampling did I use)
For the second objective of the research which is to investigate the appropriateness of low achievers ability grouping on academic school achievement, I interviewed educators working with the Special Class and the students themselves. This type of sampling is referred to as "purposive sampling" (Merriam 1998 cited in Bloomberg) or "judgement sampling" (Gay, Mills, and Airasian, 2006 cited in Bloomberg). "The logic of purposeful sampling lies in selecting information-rich cases, with the objective of yielding insight and understanding of the phenomenon under investigation" (Bloomberg,2008, p.69).
For the purpose of the research and in keeping with ethical considerations, both the educators and students' names are coded throughout this essay, to ensure data's anonymity and confidentiality.
ACCESS TO SCHOOL DATA
To collect information for the study I used three types of evidence forming part of the qualitative mode: Documentary, Questionnaire and Interviews evidence.
To be able to have access to the records of the students past and present, I asked written permission to the Head of School. The consent was promptly granted when I explained the aim of my study. I had access to information from report books to past statistics on academic results. The Head of School made information concerning recruitment criteria accessible.
To collect data from Educators, I first asked verbal permission to the Head of School to distribute the questionnaire which I later confirmed with a written letter. Since the Rector seems very much interested with the study, she accepted immediately. I explained clearly to the interviewees the aim of the study to avoid any bias or any pressure I may exercise.
With the special class I proceeded with a written structured interview. I used the written way because otherwise the students felt inhibited and could not voice out their honest opinions. To avoid any power relationships that may arise between the educator/researcher and the students, I explained thoroughly what I intended to do with the information I will collect from them. I further reassured them that it can be anonymous and that they have a choice of dropping out of the study whenever they like. To keep up with ethical considerations and reduce the power relationship, I wrote a letter to each parent with a confirmation slip (Appendix) to seek approval of whether they agree that their ward participate in the study. Fortunately, all parents agreed. I specified to the students that I am asking questions in the capacity of a researcher not that of a teacher.
DURATION OF FIELD RESEARCH
I started my study at the beginning of 2008 when I did my Statement of Intent by interviewing the Head of School about the recruitment process. During that year, I observed my colleagues and through informal talks was inquiring already about their feelings on Mixed Ability Policy at GSC. I did get an insight of the general feelings which allowed me to draft the questionnaire.
I could only start distributing the questionnaire during the 3rd term in October 2008. I originally planned to do so in August, just when the last term started but Swine Flu paralysed the school during a week. When the educators came back, they were busy with completing their syllabus and very reluctant to answer the questionnaire. I had to wait in October when GSC was during internal examinations time when the educators were more receptive.
However the structured interview I did with the students took place in September 2008 just before they left for revision week. I chose that time because I believe that since they have completed their two years in a special class, they will make a better assessment of the situation.
When I started the interview, I realised that the power relationship was intimidating the students in replying truthfully. To reduce this I allowed the students to write their own answers and consult their friends if they feel like it to be more at ease. It worked because when I collected the paper afterwards, it was not returned blank as I originally feared.
Since I needed results records of these students to complete collection of data, the field research continued till end January 2010. The Cambridge School Certificate results were released then.
I did not have to make use of tape recorder because both educators and students agree to use the written form of communication which saved me a lot of time.
DATA COLLECTION TECHNIQUES
Zonabend (1992) stated that case study is done by giving "special attention to completeness in observation, reconstruction, and analysis of the cases under study" (cited in Tellis July 1997). Tellis (1997) completed the argument that case study "incorporates the views of the actors in the case under study" (p.2). For the purpose of the study "actors' views" such as educators, rectors and students have been collected through questionnaires and interviews both using oral and written forms. (Tellis, 1997,p.2).
Stake (1995) and Yin (1994) identified six primary sources of evidence for case study research which are: documentation, direct observation, archival records, participant observation, interviews and physical artefacts (Cited in Tellis, July 1997). It should be noted that no single source has a complete advantage over the others, rather they may be complementary and could be used in tandem.
For my research, I used documentation for background information on Mixed Ability Policy. Archival records have been used to collect information on past statistics such as list of names, grades and students' social background etc. This data is collected to make comparison or to find correlation between the different data collected. Questionnaires and Interviews have been very important sources of information. I have used formal face to face conversation on the one hand and structured questionnaire on the other hand. Some interviewees found it easier to communicate verbally rather than in written forms.
To find out answers to the research questions concerning the impact of mixed ability and low achievers ability grouping versus academic achievement, I used two sets of questionnaires. The target groups for the questionnaires are educators teaching in mixed ability classrooms and also those teaching in ability grouping classrooms. The two sets of questionnaires were fundamentally similar with only a few differentiated questions. The Mixed ability classroom questionnaires were distributed to Form 1 to 3 educators as well as some Heads of Department. The second questionnaire was given to the low achievers ability grouping educators and their Heads of department.
The general purpose of the questionnaire is to find out the impact of teaching, learning and assessment in a mixed ability classroom as well as a low achievers ability grouping environment. The comparative opinions of the different educators did shed light on my research questions.
The target groups have some experience in completing questionnaires and once I have explained the purpose, they were not reluctant in filling them for the research study. The use of written questionnaire has the advantage of being easily analysed with the use of computer software packages. As the questionnaires were filled without the input of the investigator/researcher, then my own opinion as researcher did not influence the respondent to answer questions in a certain manner. As the educators filled the questionnaire at their own time and pace, there were no verbal or visual cues from the researcher to influence the respondent. The questionnaires were returned anonymously which decreases inhibition and could therefore be truthful in responding to the questions. The questionnaire constituted proven data where views and opinions were clear.
I used face to face interview for the low achievers ability grouping students because I thought they would feel more at ease voicing out their opinions. Some could do so but for others the power I exerted as a teacher was too strong so that they were inhibited in answering, I then decided to ask them to use written form of communication and they can hand out the paper by being anonymous. This type of interview worked better and allowed the students more flexibility and thus the student were quite adventurous in their description. They were asked to answer about their feelings of being in a special class with continuous teacher support. I also asked some personal questions concerning their background which I hope will shed light on the correlation that may exist between social background and academic achievement.
The interview I had with the Rector was more of a discussion on recruitment criteria and her general feeling of mixed ability and ability grouping classrooms. I had several encounters with her as she was quite busy and difficult to have a specific time set up. So whenever we are both free, we have an informal chat but she was aware that I will use our discussion in my study.
I summarised the information collected from the questionnaires and interviews. The multiple choice questions were easily and quickly summarised while the views or opinions took longer. A summary of the questionnaire in found in the Appendix section. Some opinions were quite similar and they were therefore grouped together. As there were not too many questionnaires, there was no need for computer packages, it was all done manually. Sometimes I included word for word quotations of the participants' responses in the summary to show the intensity of the respondents' opinion.
In this study, I made use of a variety of methods such as questionnaire, interviews and documentary evidence to tone down any bias. The educators' opinions from different departments helped me better understand the mixed and ability grouping concepts. These in turn gave more credibility to my analysis and better responded to my research questions. The students' and the Rector's views as well as the documentary evidence enhance the data verification. The concept of triangulation was based "on the assumption that any bias inherent in particular data sources, investigator, and method would be neutralised when used in conjunction with other data sources, investigators and methods" (Cresswell. J.W. 1994, P.174).
To have trustworthiness in a research work, validity and reliability should be continuously addressed in the work. To ensure internal validity data was triangulated by using multiple sources of data collection that include questionnaires, interviews and documentary analysis (Cresswell,1994, p.167). "Triangulation or multiple methods of data collection and analysis will be used, which strengthens reliability as well as internal validity" (Merriam,1998 cited in Cresswell 1994 p.168)). Throughout the written report of this research work, a critical friend from CSG is reading and assessing the work (Appendix: comments of critical friend). Two Critical Study Group members are also evaluating the work from conception to conclusion.(Appendix: Comments from CSG). Finally, to ensure internal validity the educators and students voice will be heard in the detailed data collection and analysis feature.
S. Merriam (2002) defined reliability as the "extent to which research findings can be replicated to reach the same results" (p.27). As the study is a unique one, it was not possible to replicate similar conditions in different contexts. However, "reliability lies in others' concurring that given the data collected, the results make sense - they are consistent and dependable. (Merriam 2002, p.27). The 'audit trail" according to Guba and Lincoln (1981) described "how data were collected, categories derived and how decisions were made throughout the inquiry" (cited in Merriam,2002, p.27). These descriptions are reflected in the Research Diary.
As an educator I am conscious of the power influence that I may exert on the students. I was also conscious that my colleagues could respond to the questionnaire subjectively. I used the guidelines to informed consent to counteract those pressures. I explained the purpose of the study relating the benefits and drawbacks of such work. I asked about their acceptance to answer the questions and inform them about being free to withdraw from the study whenever they feel like it. I insisted that their participation or non participation will not be in any way prejudiced to them. I also ensure anonymity by having circular questionnaires. No mention of students or educators names or personalised results in the study or if they are included it is in a coded formula. Present or past records existing in documentary evidence have been consulted with the written permission of the Head of School. (Relevant documents concerning informed consent are in Appendixes )
DATA ANALYSIS METHOD
The procedure used to analyse data was to summarise the data collected and grouping similarities of opinions and differences separately. The qualitative nature of data collected sometimes makes it difficult for analysis because of the large amount of information gathered. However extracting the information relevant to my study helped me to analyse and to interprete the data collected in relation to the literature review chapter. To assure reliability and validity, quotations from participants are used throughout the data analysis chapter.
With quantitative data, to inform practice and make the numerical statistics clearer, graphical representations were used.