Qualitative Research Paper – Narrative analysis of epistemological beliefs

A Narrative Analysis of the Epistemological Beliefs of a Mathematics and Language Teacher and How These Beliefs are Perceived to Influence Technology Integration in a Secondary School Setting.


Despite widespread integration of technology in education, effective uses of technology are not prevalent. Well-developed teacher epistemological beliefs are reported to underpin effective and sustainable integration of technology.  This qualitative phenomenology case study, explored the epistemological beliefs of a secondary Mathematics and Chinese teacher, selected via convenience sampling. Epistemological beliefs were explicated from narrative data, collected during an online semi-structured interview. Results from coding this data indicated a predominance of context specific, reductionist epistemologies. Analysis suggested that the case teacher was not aware of how their technological practices were influenced by these personal epistemologies. The implications are a need for growth pathways that allow for teachers’ implicit personal epistemologies to become explicit. This is important in new cultures of learning where information technology is a participatory medium and teachers are viewed as epistemic coaches.

Background Literature

There exists vibrant scholarly interest in understanding teacher beliefs, as they are viewed as being more significant than teacher knowledge (Ottenbreit-Leftwich, Glazewski, Newby & Ertmer, 2010; Prestridge, 2012) in influencing how teachers incorporate technology into the classroom setting. It is widely agreed that meaningful technology integration supports a student-centred and student-directed curriculum (Ertmer, Ottenbreit-Leftwich, Sadik, Sendurer & Sendurer, 2012; Ottenbreit-Leftwich et al., 2010; Liu, 2011; Prestridge, 2012) and yet student-centred technology uses are not prevalent in schools (Ottenbreich-Leftwich et al., 2010). This is despite observations that external barriers to integration, such as resources, training and support, have largely been overcome (Ertmer et al., 2012; Prestridge, 2012). Barriers intrinsic to the teacher practitioner, such as beliefs and values of technology (Ertmer et al., 2012) that are thought to influence teaching practice, have therefore gained attention for empirical exploration.

A brief review of literature highlights the observation that in many studies of belief, the term ‘belief’ is not explicitly defined (Osterholm, 2010) or else, there is little consensus in defining teacher beliefs, especially in relation to technology integration (Kim, Kim, Lee, Spector & De Meester, 2013). For instance, value beliefs related to technology have been explored (Ottenbreit-Leftwish, et al, 2010) in addition to ICT beliefs and practices (Prestridge, 2012), pedagogical beliefs in relation to classroom technology integration (Ertmer et al., 2012) as well as beliefs about knowledge (Chai, 2010; Chai, Wong & Teo, 2011; Jacobson, So, Teo, Lee, Pathak, & Lossman, 2010; Kim, et al., 2013).

This brief survey of literature also illuminates the adoption of a confusing array of research strategies used to explore beliefs, including mixed methods (Ertmer et al, 2012; Prestridge, 2012;) and narrative case studies (Chai, 2010; Chai, Wong & Teo, 2011; Jacobson et al., 2013). This variety of strategies hints at differing ontological views of beliefs and possible weak connections between the definition/theory of belief and methodology (Osterholm, 2010). The wide variety of research strategies adopted is also borne from the understanding that beliefs, as tacit, unconsciously held assumptions, are difficult to measure and typically are inferred from what teachers say, intend or do (Ottenbreit-Leftwich et al, 2010). Therefore, to explore all these three aspects, mixed methods approaches have been regularly adopted. An issue here is that quantitative methodologies, such as those that utilise Likert scales and factorisation, may trivialise the complexity of individual beliefs (Chai, 2010), or at least may not directly question the belief being studied (Österholm, 2010).

Interestingly, there is also a reported shortage of qualitative analysis of in-service teacher epistemic views (Chai, 2010). This observation along with the above critiques of quantitative methodologies suggests a need for qualitative analysis of beliefs via the collection of narrative data. This current report aims to fill this research gap, particularly in the context of Australian education where national curriculum documentation shows moves towards constructivist pedagogies (Donnelly & Wiltshire, 2014).

Current educational contexts are beginning to view educators as epistemic facilitators of knowledge construction (Chai, 2010). It is also argued that teacher fundamental beliefs, regardless of the technology used should be studied (Kim, et al., 2013.) Therefore, this current research project aims to make a small contribution to research that explores teacher epistemologies via narrative analysis (Chai, 2010; Chai, Wong, & Teo, 2011; Kim, et al., 2013). This approach empowers the teacher as a change agent, whilst moving away from a view that positions technology as the mechanism for change (Blundell, Lee & Nykvist, 2016) that perhaps leaves education systems faced with the paradox of innovation without change (Priestly, Miller, Barrett, & Wallace, 2011).

In direct response to the above literature and contexts, the following research questions have been designed to direct this research and provide a foundation for collecting narrative data.

What are a secondary Math and Language Teacher’s personal epistemological beliefs? How do they believe these epistemological beliefs reportedly influence their technology integration practices?


A hermeneutical phenomenology case study was adopted to seek the experiences of one case teacher. Therefore, narrative data was collected, whilst acknowledging this researcher’s bias towards research as a human construction and the view that reality can be accessed through collected narratives (Bryman, 2012). The proposed method was also informed through the interpretive lens of this researcher as both practitioner and researcher. Informed deeply by teaching practice, it was deemed pertinent to explore the perspective of the teacher participant in detail, where knowledge is gained by understanding the direct experiences of others (McMillan & Wergin, 2010); therefore a quantitative approach did not inform this study.

The research design followed an empirical approach as suggested by McMillan & Schumacher (2014) and modified for the purposes of this research. This approach is depicted in Fig.1 below.

Figure 1: The Research Process. Adapted from McMillan and Schumacher (2014)

The single participant case was a secondary teacher with over six years teaching experience in the secondary school setting, responsible for teaching senior Mathematics and Chinese, in addition to the International Baccalaureate. The case teacher’s native language is Chinese. Case selection was via convenience sampling (Bryman, 2012) from a pool of education professionals enrolled in the Charles Sturt University Subject, Qualitative Research EER501. This single case study approach was adopted to allow the exploration of the case teacher’s beliefs about knowledge in detail. This idiographic approach is at the cost of external validity (Bryman, 2012) but this limitation was thought to be balanced by honouring the agency of the one teacher participant (O’Toole & Beckett, 2016).

As ethical issues may arise at many stages of the process of conducting a narrative study, the identity of the case teacher was protected by the use of a pseudonym (Taylor). Table C1 in Appendix C, details ethical concerns and recommendations that guided this research. A guiding need was for the participant to gain from the research, not the researcher (Cresswell, 2014). Appendices C, D, E and F, contain all relevant ethical documents including a permission form supplied to the case teacher to participate in this research.a permission form supplied to the case teacher to participate in this research.

To collect narrative data the researcher and case teacher participated in a single, 85 minute, online interview. This meeting was guided by a semi-structured interview; an approach that is known to be important when exploring and explicating belief systems (Ottenbreit-Leftwich, etal., 2010). The interview guide used for this study is documented in Appendix A. To allow for transcription into a digital text document, the interview was recorded digitally using Adobe Connect. Following transcription of this recording, the verbatim transcript was sent back to the participant for member validation (Bryman, 2012).

Analysis began with the researcher reading and rereading this discourse without taking notes, coding or considering interpretations (Bryman, 2012; Saldana, 2009). Coding (Saldana, 2009) of data then began. To allow the researcher’s interpretations of the data to shape the emergent codes (Bryman, 2012), pre-specified codes were not used but sought for in the data (Punch & Oancea, 2014). This coding activity was assisted by the use of computer-assisted qualitative data analysis (CAQDAS), specifically NVivo software (Bryman, 2012) via a cyclical process of coding and recoding with final codes then grouped into categories (Saldana, 2009). Table B1 in Appendix B tabulates core categories (Bryman, 2012) and the coding framework that emerged from this interaction with the narrative data.

Findings and Discussion

Based on the investigators interpretations, the themes of, Simple Views of Knowledge and Technology as a Tool, emerged from the data. This results section presents how these themes were manifested through collected data and how they relate to the research questions.

Simple views of knowledge.

Epistemological beliefs, which are not necessarily explicit, refer to the ‘beliefs about knowledge and knowledge acquisition” (Schraw & Olafson, 2008, p.27). They are described as beliefs because as they may have limited adherence to logic, are resistant to change and they have a powerful influence on thinking (Schommer-Aikins, 2004). Within the context of teaching mathematics, the participant teacher Taylor, clearly articulated her personal beliefs about knowledge by describing “declarative”, “procedural” and “problem solving knowledge”. Taylor regularly described knowledge in these terms, as was illustrated by word frequency analysis, using NVivo software. Figure 1 below, summarises the 25 most common words used by Taylor when discussing knowledge. The larger the font in this word cloud, the more frequent was the occurrence of these terms in Taylor’s discussions of knowledge.

Figure 1: Top 25 words in Knowledge Node

Taylor viewed declarative knowledge in terms of knowing definitions and understanding concepts in a subject area. Procedural knowledge was described as an “important, enhanced skill”. As explained by Taylor, “when you see a problem and how you select the concept, the relevant formulae and what method you will apply to solve that”. Taylor described problem solving knowledge as the application of declarative and procedural knowledge to solve problems.

These personal epistemologies were found to be context specific. In contrast to discussions about knowledge within the context of Mathematics classes, when probed about knowledge in her Chinese classes, Taylor’s responses were not as confident. Taylor stated that her beliefs about knowledge in Chinese were “different” and knowledge in this context was about “the application of knowledge” such as reading signs, conversational tools (dialogue) and cultural understanding. In this context, no definitive description of knowledge was given. This is demonstrated by the following short discourse.

Interviewer: Do you think your attitudes towards knowledge are the same in Chinese as in Maths?
Taylor: Hmmmm [Pause].
Interviewer: The way that you view knowledge.
Taylor: So, ummm. Can you give me a more specific, what kind of attitudes do you mean?
Interviewer: OK, I will rephrase… beliefs about what knowledge is and what learning is.
Taylor: Hmmm, I don’t get that.

These responses suggest an immature belief system within the context of teaching language, or at least Taylor’s beliefs remained tacit in this context. This complex interplay between teachers’ beliefs and their teaching context is well reported in literature (Chai, 2010).

Taylor also expressed her personal epistemologies in terms of the delivery, gain and building of knowledge. For instance, Taylor spoke about his/her students gaining knowledge, as typified by the statement “Student’s will gain knowledge, really have that in their memory banks”. The comment “To gain knowledge actually is a long term process” indicates that Taylor viewed this as a long term process. With regard to the building of knowledge, Taylor stated that “students can gradually build that (knowledge) into their long-term memory”. In Taylor’s words, students could also build knowledge “from reading, from listening, speaking and writing” and they build knowledge when “they share, they interact with teachers, with the students, when they share their findings”. According to Taylor, knowledge could also be delivered by the teacher to students as shown by the statement “The knowledge you want to deliver to the students” or “What you want to deliver to them”. These views about the source and location of knowledge and the speed of learning are commonly accepted epistemological beliefs (Schommer- Aikins, 2010).

A dominant theme that appeared in this narrative data was students gaining or being delivered knowledge and, as described by Taylor, this knowledge residing in their “long term memory”. However, at times more sophisticated epistemologies did begin to emerge. At times, Taylor described her students as knowledge builders and commented “knowledge I would say when we gain knowledge which mean you build on is new knowledge, build on your existing bank of your understanding; so it’s extended. So, knowledge is evolving all the time.” Curiously, Taylor was unable to explain what was meant by constructivist pedagogies although she could give examples when prompted. These somewhat tacit views warrant further exploration and the need for Taylor to be given growth pathways that allow implicit beliefs to become explicit (Lebak, 2015).

In summary, Taylor expressed some clear views about knowledge and yet these views were context-specific and at times implicit. This brings into focus the aim to determine how Taylor believed these epistemological beliefs influence her technology integration practices.

Technology as a tool

Taylor described technology as a “learning tool”, “facilitating tool” a “tool for getting the knowledge” or “to deliver the content”. Taylor declared that technology was to “help students gain knowledge”. This tendency to view technology as a tool to deliver knowledge was also exposed by word frequency analysis, using NVivo software. Figure 2 below, summarises the 25 most common words used by Taylor when discussing technology. The larger the font in this word cloud, the more frequent was the occurrence of this word in Taylor’s discussions of technology. A dominance of transmissionist pedagogies, as discussed below, adds credibility to this observation.

Figure 2 Top 25 words in Technology Node.

This report suggests that, in the context of discussing technology, what is being exposed is a tacit reductionist epistemology where concepts are viewed to be passed along one at a time to students (Prestridge, 2012). This observation is also supported by Taylor’s view of knowledge being stored in long term memory. Such views of knowledge, where knowledge is comprised of discrete facts (Schraw & Olafson, 2008), are often accompanied by transmissionist pedagogies (Chai, 2010), where teaching is viewed as knowledge transmission. This thinking is supported by NVivo analysis of the data, which showed a predominance of tranmissionist pedagogies over constructivist pedagogies, as summarised in Table B1, Appendix B. The theme that is appearing here is a view of technology as a tool to transmit knowledge.

Taylor was asked directly to describe how she believed her personal epistemologies influenced her technology integration practices. Taylor hesitated to answer this question and ensuing comments failed to mention views of knowledge. What was mentioned were “the connections between the teacher and the student that can be facilitated by the integration of technology in the classroom.” Taylor was also able to verbalise how “organisational requirements” and the school “pushing” for the use of technology influenced her classroom use of technology, along with feeling excited about the technology. Taylor expressed her ICT beliefs by stating technology “had great benefit” in helping students “gain knowledge”. Taylor’s personal epistemologies were silent in this discussion, while she defaulted to discussing the influence of external factors and beliefs about technology. This is not unexpected, as teacher beliefs can be tacit, unconsciously held assumptions (Ottenbreit, etal., 2010) and there are not many teachers with highly developed epistemic beliefs (Chai, 2010). The narrative data therefore suggests that Taylor remained unaware of how her personal epistemologies influenced her technology integration practices.


In this research, the interviewer and interviewee aimed to “grasp for meaning together” (Punch & Oancea, 2014, p.181). Ensuing discussions began to expose tacit epistemologies whilst more explicit reductionist views of knowledge dominated the narrative. Considering that teacher personal epistemologies may affect their teaching practice (Chai, 2010), it is likely that Taylor’s views of knowledge has resulted in the dominance of transmissionist pedagogies.
Significantly, Taylor did not connect her personal epistemologies with her technology practices. The significance of this finding is for Taylor to be exposed to growth pathways (Lebak, 2015) so as to allow for implicit beliefs to become explicit. This is vitally important as it is known that well developed epistemologies underpin meaningful integration of technology into teaching practice. This finding has implications for all teachers, as we now work in new cultures of learning where information technology is a participatory medium and no longer just a fast way of transporting information from one place to another (Thomas & Brown, 2011).


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Appendix A

Interview Guide

  1. Within the context of your teaching, what is knowledge?
  2. How do student’s gain knowledge, firstly in your language classes?
  3. Do you think it is the same in Maths?
  4. Can you give me an example in the classroom where you think your beliefs or thinking about knowledge, influences how you integrate technology?
  5. How does your thinking about what knowledge is in maths influence your integration of technology?
  6. How do you think students become their own knowledge builders?
  7. What is your understanding of constructivist pedagogies?
  8. What does it mean in current contexts of education that knowledge is digitised?
  9. What does this say about knowledge?
  10. How do student’s gain knowledge in your classroom using technology?
  11. How do student’s gain knowledge in your maths classroom using technology?
  12. How do you bring knowledge into your classrooms using technology?
  13. Do you think your attitudes towards knowledge are the same in Chinese as in Maths?
  14. How do you believe that your views about knowledge and learning, influence how you integrate technology in the classroom?

Appendix B

Emergent coding

Emergent coding from narrative analysis using NVivo software.
Code Description and key words Number of


A simple view of knowledge Core category. 60
Epistemic Viewpoints Incidents where the teacher participant offered personal insights into their personal viewpoints about knowledge, 29
Knowledge interactions Type of interactions with knowledge such as gaining knowledge, building knowledge and delivering knowledge. 31
Technology as a tool Core category 89
Technology beliefs Narrative data that illuminated teacher beliefs about knowledge such as a tool to deliver knowledge. 8
Influencers Other influences on technology integration such as school requirements. 9
Constructivist Pedagogy Examples of constructivist teaching and learning. 6
Transmissionist Pedagogy Examples of transmissionist pedagogies. 20

Appendix C

Ethical Concerns and Recommendations: Narrative Research

Table C1

Ethical concerns and recommendations

Ethical concern Recommendations
Harm to participants:

Physical harm, harm to participants’ development, loss of self-esteem, stress and inducing participants to perform reprehensible acts.


Harm should be avoided.

Non-maleficence must be a guiding principle.

Minimise disturbances both to subjects themselves and to the subject’s relationships with their environment.

Develop strategies to keep records anonymous and report findings. Use pseudonyms to participants cannot be identified.

Work to ensure field notes do not disclose participants’ identities.

Ensure participants have a voice when dialoguing with researcher.

The safety and confidentiality of the researcher should also be considered.

Put in place data protection procedures.

Seek informed consent.

Carry out worthwhile and potentially beneficial work (beneficence).

Stage the interview so that the participant, not the researcher, gains as a result of the research.

Lack of informed consent:

Participants not fully aware of study and cannot make an informed decision about inclusion in the study or not.

Supply student participants and their guardians as much information as possible (See Bryman 2014, p. 153) so that they can make an informed decision regarding participation in the study.

Make use of a study information sheet and consent form. For example as offered by Bryman (2014 p. 141) so as to obtain explicit consent to collect narrative information.

Participant to actively sign and return a consent form.


Researchers represent their work as something other than what it is.  This is ethically questionable and can also bring social studies into social disrepute.

Avoid deception or covert approaches as these violate principals of informed consent.

Do not permit researchers or collaborators to pursue methods of inquiry that are likely to infringe human values and sensibilities. (Bryman, 2014 p. 143).

Participation must be voluntary and fully informed.


Invasion of privacy:

Information that is public enters the public domain


All participants have a right to privacy.

Negotiate permission to return to the field, if necessary, to seek additional data and validate emerging patterns from the narrative data.

Structure the research to ensure confidentiality and anonymity.

Use pseudonyms in place of actual participant names.

Take steps to ensure that location of research site is not identified.

All records to be kept confidential by storing and archiving raw data on a local computer with password protection.

This ethics information is taken from Keily (2015), adapted from Bryman, 2014; Creswell, 2014; McMillan and Schumacher, 2014; Punch and Oancea, 2014; Tangen, 2014.


The following section presents a personal reflection on performing the research reported above:
Part B – Reflection
Establishing a qualitative study:
During the pre-empirical stage, I learnt to regularly refer to the research question so as not to stray from the boundaries of the set question. I learnt that the model of developing a research question up front did provide significant defence against the “confusion and overload that is possible in the early stages of research” (Punch & Oancea, 2014, p.77). The research question guided formulation of the methodology and provided direction when exploring literature.
I learnt to accept the uncertainty involved in researching and designing an appropriate framework to answer the research question but also the power of CAQDAS to curate and analyse a significant amount of data including the literature.
The initial challenge was formulation of a research question well informed by research and yet was designed to make a new contribution. Punch and Oancea (2014) advise to hasten slowly and yet in this simulation the need was to hasten quickly. In an expanded study, I would not hesitate to keep modifying the research question in response to explored literature.
I would move away from convenience sampling as used in this study. As we do not know what population this sample represents, issues of generalizability of findings arise (Bryman, 2012). In an expanded study, I would explore purposeful strategies such as “reputational case” strategy –for instance studying teachers described as adept in using technology to support constructivist pedagogies. Are there constructivist teachers out there who are aware of their personal epistemologies? In summary, sampling needs to be purposeful.

Collecting data:
Other than learning about logistics including the recording and transcribing of narrative data, I learnt that the mainstay of a phenomenologist is the personal in-depth, unstructured interview (McMillan & Schumacher, 2014). I learnt that this approach takes skill and that a well-structured one-hour interview generates a significant amount of data that takes a long time to transcribe.
If I were to expand this study, I would again make use of NVivo as this tool helped significantly with exploration of the explored literature, in addition to the narrative data, for example via simple text searches and the construction of word trees. However, in an expanded study, during the pre-empirical stage, I would field test the interview script to ensure the clarity and wording of questions (McMillan & Schumacher, 2014). A protocol where nonverbal as well as verbal behaviour is noted, is also needed.

Analysing data:
Experiencing the coding process where data is broken down to component parts (Bryman, 2010) was a significant learning experience, as was the development and strengthening of the research attitude and confidence required to allow my interpretations to shape the emergent codes (Bryman, 2012). This required me to accept the “constant state of revision and fluidity” (Bryman, 2012, p.568). The process required what might be called a Design Thinking attitude that accepts that the research process is not linear but constantly iterative and cyclical in nature.
As this case analysis involved coding of data in a cyclical nature (Saldana, 2009) decisions were made continuously. Actual code, often a word or short phrase (Saldana, 2009) had to be decided upon. I navigated this problem by relying on words used by the case teacher when completing initial coding. During focussed coding (Bryman, 2012) additional decisions also had to be made including the construction of categories that represent real life phenomena (Bryman, 2012).
To extend the credibility of an extended naturalistic study I would:
• Incorporate cross checking of coding strategies and interpretation of data by independent research colleagues. Collaborative approaches may promote discussions that provide insights into how to refine the coding frame (Barbour, 2001).
• As per Chai (2010), I would consider providing the participant teacher with assertions and supporting quotes to allow the researcher to be corrected by the participant. This would build on the collaborative nature of this project.

Analysing the strengths and weaknesses of a qualitative method:
The trialled method allowed for direct interaction between interviewee and interviewer bringing the voice of the interviewee to the fore. This was viewed as a key strength of this method. This is a powerful pedagogical approach to research where the interviewer and interviewee “grasp for meaning together” (Punch & Oancea, 2014, p.181) and knowledge is gained by understanding the direct experiences of others (McMillan & Wergin, 2010).
The semi-structured interview also proved to be a key strength while explicating teacher beliefs. Unconscious beliefs can be something difficult, or virtually impossible to communicate. However, such beliefs may be made conscious and communicated, if focus is put on the content of this belief, for example by a direct questions (Osterholm, 2010). The adopted interview protocol allowed for this direct probing.
A potential weakness of the interview process lies with the idea of whether something is actually created in the investigation and not just observed, “which certainly seems possible if persons are asked questions that they have not directly thought about before. What are you then measuring with your question if the mental object, the belief, was not there before your investigation” (Osterholm, 2010). This problem highlights a need for further exploration of different types of interviewing techniques such as realist, contextual and constructivist interviews (Punch & Oancea, 2014).
Finally, a case such as this is a bounded system which raises concerns about generalizability (Punch & Oancea, 2014). However, Punch & Oancea also argue that such an approach can provide understanding of a persistently problematic research area, in this instance, how teacher beliefs influence technology integration, and allow these problem areas to be conceptualised for further study. “Perhaps formal generalisation is overvalued as a source of scientific development” (Punch & Oancea, 2014, p.154). Despite perceived weaknesses, the adopted approach to understanding beliefs in teaching, has huge potential by accessing teachers’ reality through collection and reflection on these narratives.


This work was submitted by Simon Keily, for the CSU subject “Qualitative Research Methods” (EER501)

This is the work of Simon Keily. The work or ideas of other authors contained within this assignment have been acknowledged in full.
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