Finding the story in data

Over the last few days I’ve been working on analyzing some data generated using a survey as part of a study looking at the work of teacher educators. When I first looked at the data and began reading through it, nothing was speaking to me. I was reading through the words and categories and the problem was that I couldn’t find THE story. There was nothing that was calling to me, nothing that I wanted to read, or write, or learn more about. The ‘so what?’ question was reverberating in my brain and I wondered ‘what is the story here?’

I thought back to my PhD and advice that I’d had written on a post-it on my pinboard –  ‘Let the data tell the story’. 

Working on this project with a colleague we’d created a survey in Google drive and had used the automatic summary function that calculates the quant data into percentages and pie charts and which collates all of the qualitative responses together as well.  When I printed this data off and read through it there didn’t seem to be much of a story to the data – sure we could generate some themes and get some understandings about concepts but there was nothing that was ‘sexy’, nothing that appeared at first glance to have an edge. It’s an odd concept to think about our data as being ‘sexy’, as being something that captures both our imagination and the rational, logical parts of our brains, but it’s something that I was looking for and I was thinking of Robyn’s question ‘What do we want to read about?’ When I first looked at the data using this automatic summary, it seemed flat, boring, all dull edges and no shine and I wondered why this was.

Spurred on by Robyn’s question about what the silences in our data might be, I began to look at the possibilities of ‘reading between the lines’, of finding these silences, the concepts that are hidden, of finding only what is expected in the answers and of not discovering the unusual or the interesting. I was torn by this notion though, as in reading the silences am I only reading the silences of what I think should be there? Am I only projecting my own assumptions about what is hidden? I also wondered about highlighting the silences, as maybe the silences would just convey errors in our survey design, becoming a projection of our dysfunction as survey creators.

I walked away, crunching numbers and data and thinking about the story and the angle- what was the data trying to tell me? Like an investigative journalist I was thinking of what more there was to discover, determined that there had to be more that I was missing, that there was a shortcoming to the way I was looking at things. Later that night I dragged out the survey and began manually coding the data, organizing it into questions, looking at each participant and finding the similarities and differences between them. Suddenly, a light of story began to flicker in the data darkness.

When I began to look at each survey response, I began to see each person as a whole, not as a fragment of data, a figure, a percentage, a wedge of pie in a chart or a statement in isolation. Looking at each response in its totality I began to see the story emerge. In each response people were telling me more about themselves, what matters to them in their work, what helps and what hinders progress and development. Looking at their responses as a whole I began to see who they were. Here were their stories, writ large. Looking at each person’s story I began to find the connections, synergies and disconnections between their experiences. It was here that things started to get interesting. Suddenly I was enthused and excited and couldn’t wait to unpack what these differences meant and what we could learn from them.

In going back to the whole picture, I began to get a better understanding of the parts. When I listened properly and didn’t take shortcuts, I began to hear the data and the story it is telling me.




2 responses to “Finding the story in data

  1. Your post awoke so many memories! Often when I read your work I feel a strong alignment of experience and feeling. I guess that is not surprising given we work together and we share some similar experiences. I went back to my doctoral work, when I was trying to make sense of data in all its different forms. I found the following and I wonder if this is a bit like your search of the last few days…

    And so to care-full research. Each step has led me here.

    To be care-ful
    To be full of care
    Two-way- the cared for and the one-caring:
    Interaction where both parties are growing

    To be attentive to the person
    To listen with in-hearing
    To look with insight
    To look again and again- to re-search

    I was looking for a way to work with all the ‘data’ I have collected over the last few years. I have experimented with various forms of showing my learning: from the conventional academic paper to narrative, poetry and script writing. Working on a recent paper on mentoring headed me into the world of ‘care’ in the academic sense. Caring has always been very much part of my own practice as a teacher but I needed a way to give it some depth. I wanted something richer and deeper than the commonly understood commercial, saccharine, slightly patronising notion of ‘care’.

    Initially I worked with the idea of ‘care-ful’ reading and writing about research. This idea developed from the work of Evans (1995) and his exploration of reading transcripts from conversations with principals. He wrote of ‘interrupted’ and ‘strong’ readings of the transcripts and these ideas engaged me. The idea of ‘strong’ reading was promising but not exactly what I was looking for. I preferred the idea of ‘care-full’ reading and the more I explored the idea the clearer it became that I was looking at a way of researching, not just of reading.

    The word careful can be understood in different ways. It can be something cautious, wary and suspicious. We think of politicians or defendants giving ‘careful’ answers to questions which might incriminate them in some way; or criminals covering their tracks carefully. A related type of careful is when researchers share results carefully, knowing that there may be some backlash from an opposing interest; or even knowing that the research is ethically or morally dubious. There is something restrained about this type of careful; there is a withholding of information or a part of the self. There is also something self-protective and un-giving.

    Another way of understanding ‘careful’ is in terms of being ‘full of care’ for something: when we care for children or when we hold precious objects or living things. We are cautious because we do not want to break them or hurt them. We are tentative because we want to support them in appropriate ways. This is the idea that resonates for me.

    The idea of care-full research is one that developed over time. It needs to be understood in the sense of ‘full of care’- hence my spelling. It developed from the feeling that some research seems to lack care for the participants and the data they provide is merely material for the researcher to use in any way he or she chooses. Care-full research clearly identifies the relationship between the researchers and participants as central to learning. It values the dialogue within the relationships (Ellis & Bochner, 2000) and supports the idea that research is something that should be ‘useful’ for both the researcher and the participant. Care-full research is respectful of what is shared and ‘given’ as data. It is attentive to the whole research process and it focuses closely on what is being said. It is tactful, thoughtful and reflective and as such has some larger purpose. Care-full research has pedagogical implications; it has the potential to transform the practice of the researcher and possibly the participants. It has its theoretical foundation in hermeneutic phenomenology and yet it springs from the heart and the mind. The idea of care-full research was developed with the image of the inquiring educator firmly in the front of my mind.

  2. Hi m,
    Thanks for your comment…maybe it’s time we start writing that parallel paper! I think there is much to be learnt from this notion of care-full research, and enables us to move beyond seeing participants as a ‘source’ of data and instead as active participants in the research process. Love that you find resonance in what I write!

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