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My research in plain English


Another #phdchat inspired posting.

Last month the UK government published a consultation document, or green paper, outlining a number of changes they are planning on making to the special education system. There are various reasons for wanting to change the system, including saving money, but the ones that interest me are about the system being too complex and too adversarial. Both of these seem to be accepted as facts without any real explanations why. So what I am doing is drawing pictures to try to understand the system and using these to find out why the system gets described as a battlefield.

As well as drawing pictures, I am talking to people who have been involved with the Special Needs system. These include parents of children on the autistic spectrum, teachers, support workers in schools, doctors and therapists. I am asking them to tell me their stories of how they have learned about the autism and about the SEN system.

Some parents tell stories of how helpful a specific teacher or doctor has been and how well their child is doing. Others talk about problems getting help for their child and some talk about their child being excluded from school and sometimes being out of school for a long time. The education and health workers talk about children they have worked with and learned from. They also talk about needs that are not met and very often have very little idea what happens in other parts of the system.

I agree with the government that the SEN system needs to be changed, but I am concerned about changes designed to fix a system if we don’t really know why it is broken to start off. I hope my research will help explain why the system is broke and will help in understanding whether the proposed changes will fix it, or may actually lead to more problems.



  1. eLiz says:

    I didn’t realise you were researching the system, Liz, but thought you were specialising in researching a particular area of special needs, like autism.

  2. Katie Piatt says:

    Interesting to read (as I thought you were still doing Second Life stuff) to know what field you’re in now. I think talking about ‘drawing pictures’ is probably belittling what you do – not that I know what that is, but I think that you are probably over simplifying what you do rather than simplifying the language you use to describe it?

    I’m not sure what you mean by describing the system as adversarial – maybe an example in the intro para of the sorts of things in the green paper?

    You don’t define SEN. Having just come back from a parents evening this evening where the teacher casually mentioned SEN and IEP and all these acronyms I’m not familiar with I hope whatever the govt come up with is explained clearly to parents as well as to the schools.

  3. lizit says:

    Thanks for the comments. Definitely a case of could do better 🙂

    Just to clarify – no doubt what I should have done in the original – I’m looking at Aspergers and high functioning autism as a sub-set of the SEN (special educational needs) system, so I’m not looking at the conditions as such, but at the education, care and support systems.

    You’re probably right about over-simplifying Katie. I did think of including a map of the system, but you then end up having to explain the map… Unfortunately, the system is confusing for those who work in it and those who have to use it. Possibly the changes in the green paper will help, but it will be up to 4 years before they get implemented, and they may well cause as many problems as they solve – the old law of unintended consequences.

    It’s interesting how you end up seeing words as everyday because you encounter them so often that you forget they are perhaps not self-explanatory. The adversarial bit, is around the fight many parents describe themselves as engaging in to get the resources and support they believe their kids are entitled to – as a woman I saw last week was saying, why did her son have to be out of school for 18 months before the local authority could get its act together and sort out a place for him! OK that is an extreme, but the experience of fighting for children’s rights is not uncommon. Interesting that the word ‘adversarial’ gets used in the press and elsewhere, no doubt communicating no better than me!

    Second Life disappeared some time back, partly for reasons beyond my control (ie the options for 3rd year undergrads were changed). I had several quite unsettling months, before getting into this following some advice about focusing on a domain I know well, and unfortunately I know the SEN domain far too well 😦 but all the painful experience is coming in useful now.

  4. Liz, I think this is a good exercise, and I am glad that the #phdchat led you along this path. In a way, it reminds me of your doing what you are asking your participants to do, namely to tell their stories. Kudos for seeing how challenging this can be all around!!

    One question about how you described it; you mentioned you were drawing pictures about this. Do you literally mean you are “drawing pictures,” or do you mean you are metaphorically painting pictures with their stories to verbally illustrate what they as a group means?

    Keep up the great work, Liz. Nice to see your example here. Inspires me to keep up with my own blog (between the research itself!!).


  5. ailsa says:

    Im really enticed Liz. I like how you describe a need for enquiry.
    I dont have a problem with learning through drawing the maps of what happens, I wonder if you have considered looking at some actor networking on this, not that i have seen explicit drawing there, but because of the mapping out of changes and a tolerance if not high regard for demonstrating knowledge beyond straight prose.
    Would be interested to see if people who are limited in articulating how they feel about something might express it in other ways , so some visual ethnography could be considered.

  6. Bex Hewett says:

    As a non-expert Liz, I found your description easy to follow and understand. I like the points that you make about the application to practice/policy and how it links in with current affairs. Thinking with my PhD student hat on I wondered if you might want to add a sentence or two about your academic contribution – it might be obvious to someone who knows the topic I guess but I would be be interested to hear how this adds to the academic work in the area.

    Relaly interesting – you have inspired me!

  7. eLiz says:

    You could call it using diagrams, instead of drawing pictures.
    And would you in a future blog put up such a map, please because I can see things quicker with a good map than reading, especially when skim reading from a screen.

    I’m assuming you start your drawing by hand, and I find that seems to realise other ideas in me that I wouldn’t have the words for initially. You make that point when you say if you put up a map then you have to describe it, and that’s good, because then you’ve translated what you could see in a map into the words that others understand.

    BTW, I wouldn’t have had my PhD contribution breakthrough if I hadn’t drawn.

  8. lizit says:

    Thinking about those diagrams again, I guess I could have given a link to my wiki http://is.gd/iatvFE where I’ve the draft diagrams, with request for feedback.

    My first attempt to map this stuff was years ago when I was teaching T205 and trying to make sense of the journey we were on with my son.

  9. Ariana says:

    Great idea to write your reserach in plain English! I always thought that you were using Second Life for the research but it appears not. I notice that you say you are drawing diagrams. So am I correct in assuming you are taking a Systems Thinking approach?

  10. lizit says:

    Hi Ariana – SL slipped off the agenda some time back – this blog explains all http://lizit.me.uk/2011/04/04/progress-check/.

    I am doing some mapping, but not exactly using a systems approach – you can see the diagrams here http://is.gd/iatvFE – the main methodology is narrative enquiry, but the mapping contextualises the domain (moving out of plain English!)

    How is your work going?

  11. Jenna says:

    Hi Liz, great post, what a good idea to do this…I am going to recommend writing research in plain English to everyone now as I got loads out of this. I think your post above is really clear. Agree with the comment about ‘adversarial’. I’d really like to see some of your pictures to put them in context for me…I really like hearing about new, innovative and practical research methods being used.

    Jenna 🙂

  12. Zb says:


    First of all, I found your research quite challanging. The factor that seems to make it even more challanging is that you are going to present the system changes afterwards.

    Secondly, I enjoyed reading your explanation. In terms of English it seems to be clear and straightforward. The only thing I seemed to find missing was the explanation of your individual work towards this research. Perhaps it is because of a stage of this project. In future you might want to say more about yourself, your techniquest, approach, tools etc. It is just a though.

    PS> I have written twice as much portion of text as you can see now before but it’s been erased due to missing email address :/ so this is just a shorter version of my message ;p

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