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Demystifying Ontology and Epistemology in Research Methods

Theoretical Framework

The lack of knowledge and confusion about the philosophical concepts involved in research such as epistemology and ontology can make the life of early career researchers difficult. Realising how important it was for me to clarify my understanding of these, I have attempted, at an early stage of my PhD journey, to do a thorough reflection on the epistemological and ontological perspectives that I should adopt for my research. This was fundamental because it dictates the choice of the theoretical framework which in turn will underlie the whole process of research and help give a smooth flow to the story of the thesis.

The research undertaken in this study aims to voice teachers’ perceptions of their CPD in Algeria and England. The theoretical framework has been selected with a priority directed to meet this aim. This section will start by discussing the philosophical underpinnings of the research and explains how identifying these helped me to make a selection of the most suited theory for the study.

Ontological and Epistemological Perspectives

What is knowledge? How do we come to acquire this knowledge? And how do we view reality? These are important questions that I had to ask myself when I was developing my theoretical framework for the research. Amongst the crucial elements that I had to start with, was to clarify my understanding of the philosophical terms involved in research such as ontology and epistemology. Defining these terms and getting to grips into how they impact the research has greatly contributed in helping me identify my stance in the research. The ontological and epistemological perspectives are the lenses through which knowledge is viewed and how researchers employ different strategies to discover this knowledge. The choice of the methodology and methods of the research is governed by the ontology and epistemology of the researchers and which they adopt to reach this knowledge.

Two of the most common dichotomies in research paradigms are positivism and constructivism. The two are considered as two ends of the same spectrum with distinct views to reality and how to acquire knowledge (Ataro, 2019).

The ontology of positivist paradigm in research is that there is one single reality or truth and its epistemology is grounded in the belief that reality can be measured by using quantifiable tools (Al-Saadi, 2014). Positivist researchers lean more into scientific research and therefore, use quantitative methods such as questionnaires, surveys and statistical analysis. This stance has been criticised by proponents of constructivism paradigm which is often adopted by researchers conducting qualitative researches. The ontology of constructivism differs considerably from that of positivism and is premised on the belief that there is no single reality, but multiple realities where knowledge is constructed by individuals and not discovered from the world (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2009). The epistemology of constructivism maintains that these realities need to be interpreted in order to uncover the underlying meaning of events.

My ontology in this research does not maintain a positivist’ view that there is one single reality to discover about the CPD provision in the two research contexts of the study, but leans more towards a constructivist’s view of reality that there are multiple realities to this CPD provision which my research aims to explore through the eyes of 20 foreign language teachers who are subject to this CPD provision in England and Algeria. My epistemology in this research is that these multiple realities (the perceptions that FL teachers have about their CPD) need to be interpreted in order to get a deep understanding of the factors that shape these perceptions. Advocators of constructivism contend that there is an underlying meaning to events and activities happening in the world (McLeod,2019). My research endorses this view of constructivism on the grounds that interpretations of teachers’ perceptions of their CPD have been carried out in an endeavour to unveil the factors that mould their perceptions. The selection of the theory that guides the research has been chosen with a thorough consideration to my ontology and epistemology which are deeply rooted in social constructivist theory. Therefore, the theoretical foundation of this thesis is based on an approach that falls under constructivism, which is social constructivism. The next section aims to give a general overview about the theory selected to guide the research and discuss the reasons why it has been found mostly fitted to explore FL teachers’ perceptions of their CPD in England and Algeria.

Social Constructivism

Social constructivism is a theory that was first developed by Vygotsky in 1978. In order to apply research that is inspired by the principles of social constructivists, it is important to know the premises that underlie this theory. To start with, the theory is premised on specific assumptions about reality, knowledge, and learning. First, for the social constructivist view, reality cannot be discovered because one single reality does not exist. Second, knowledge and truth as created by individuals through their interactions with each other and the world they live in (Andrews, 2012). This leads to the third point about how learning takes place; for this concern, the theory upholds the view that learning is a social process. Proponents of social constructivism argue that in order to understand the complex world of people’s lived experiences, research needs to be conducted from the point of view of those people who live it (Schwandt, 1998).

The decision-making of the theory to be the foundation of this research dwells on the nature and purpose of the study (Buchanan, & O'Connell, 2006). To begin with, it is a theoretical lens that prioritizes the voices and interpretations of the teachers that took part in the study and this has provided a good opportunity to voice their opinions about their CPD experiences and understand their professional needs. Applying the social constructivism framework was the most useful approach in gaining access to the views and nuances that influenced the individual worlds of my research participants. Moreover, the theory also recognizes teacher agency and that teachers are crucial agents in their own professional learning, and who should be actively engaged in the processes associated with their professional development. Additionally, the theory acknowledges the role of the context in shaping the perceptions of teachers which correlates with my already established beliefs about the influence of the environment in which teachers work and live on their views about the phenomenon under scrutiny. Cruickshank and Potter (2012) asserted that the individual perspective is associated to the power which holds the organisational context. Since the provision of CPD is monitored by external forces such as governmental policies which would eventually settle within the workplace of teachers, I believe that social constructivism is appropriate for this study because it will provide a framework for understanding how these external forces can positively or negatively influence FL teachers’ perceptions of CPD. Furthermore, such perceptions are prone to change as teachers move throughout their careers. This is in line with constructivism’s view of reality that it is always under construction, which opens the prospect for change. In other words, meanings are not fixed but can change over time depending on the ideas and beliefs that actors hold (Theys, 2018). The study serves a valuable purpose in attempting to examine the impact of the context on FL teachers’ perceptions and the extent to which such external factors can possibly lead their perceptions of CPD to change. While these perspectives are contextual and specific to individuals, teachers can share some similar experiences and differ in some due to many variables such as their working place, social interactions, governmental policies, institutional guidelines…etc. The study aims to highlight the similarities amongst teachers’ perceptions while at the same time acknowledging individual views. The use of the theory can also foster a discussion about concepts in the field such as Structure and agency and this can in turn nurture the discourse about the relationship between the Macro-to-Meso-to-Micro levels: the extent to which policies (governmental) at a macro level, policies (institutional) at the meso level, and the agency (of the individual teacher) at the micro level can interact and be used to reflect on the quality of CPD and why it may or may not lead to meaningful professional learning (Borg, 2018).

Notably, an appropriate selection of the theoretical framework was crucial for the study because it informs the research design, the methodology of the research, the research methods and ultimately the data analysis framework. Moreover, it needs to be in line with the research paradigm of the thesis. Regarding constructivism’s conformity with these core elements of my research, Corrine Glesne (2006) attested that most qualitative researchers adhere to social constructivism’s principles. The consensus view of researchers holds that the interpretivist/constructivist paradigm predominantly uses qualitative methods because they believe that reality needs to be interpreted, and therefore they are more likely to use qualitative methods to get those multiple realities (Silverman, 2000; Willis, 2007; Thanh and Thanh, 2020). Such methods can include interviews, focus groups and observations. Juhila and Po¨so¨ (1999) also suggested that the thematic analysis is founded on the framework of Social Constructionism. Relying on the principles of the theory throughout data collection procedure allowed the research participants to fully and freely describe their own experiences of professional development. As the researcher, my role was to collect teachers’ views and interpret the findings based on their background and experiences (Creswell, 2013; Ortiz, 2013). In the final analysis, the theory enabled to link the findings to the existing body of knowledge on teachers’ perceptions of their professional development.

This view and understanding of the theory have been the foundation on which the current study stands on. Understanding how teachers’ perceptions about their professional development can be explored through social constructivist principles can give insights of how teachers perceive their CPD provision and construct their own understanding of the value that their CPD has on their skills and practice (Putra, 2012).At the same time, it can provide a new angle for CPD coordinators and teacher educators to understand on a wider sense the CPD needs of FL teachers.

It can be concluded that the theory of social constructivism has been selected because it can help us shape an understanding about FL teachers’ perceptions of their professional development.

References for Impact of Professional Development

Al-Saadi, H. (2014). Demystifying ontology and epistemology in research methods. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260244813

Andrews, T. (2012). What is social constructionism? Grounded Theory Review, 11(1), 39-46.

Ataro G. (2019). Methods, methodological challenges and lesson learned from phenomenological study about OSCE experience: Overview of paradigm-driven qualitative approach in medical education. Annals of medicine and surgery49, 19–23. Available at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amsu.2019.11.013

Borg, S. (2018). Evaluating the impact of professional development. RELC Journal, 49(2), 195-216. Available at doi:10.1177/0033688218784371

Buchanan, L & O'Connell, A. (2006). A brief history of decision making. Harvard business review. 84,32-41, 132.

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA SAGE.

Cruickshank, J. (2012). Positioning positivism, critical realism and social constructionism in the health sciences: A philosophical orientation. Nursing Inquiry, 19, 71-82. Available at doi. 10.1111/j.1440-1800.2011.00558.x.

Glesne, C. (2006). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

Juhila, T & Po¨so¨, T (1999). Introduction: Constructivist perspective on social work practices. In A. Jokinen, K. Juhila, T. Poso (Eds.).Construction of Social Work Practices, 3, 24. Hants, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Matthews, M. (1998). Constructivism in science education: A philosophical examination. Dordrecht: Springer Science & Business Media.

McLeod, S. A. (2019). Constructivism as a theory for teaching and learning.Simply Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/constructivism.html

Ortiz-Marcos, I., Benita, J. R. C., Aldeanueva, C. M., & Colsa, Á. U. (2013). Competency training for managing international cooperation engineering projects. Project Management Journal44(2), 88–97. https://doi.org/10.1002/pmj.21328

Putra,. (2012). Towards constructivist teacher professional development. Journal of Social Sciences, 8, 318-324. 10.3844/jssp.2012.318.324.

Saunders, M., Lewis, P. & Thornhill, A. (2009). Understanding research philosophies and approaches. Research Methods for Business Students. 4, 106-135.

Schwandt T. A. (1998). The interpretive review of educational matters: Is there any other kind. Review of Educational Research, 68(4), 09-412. doi:10.3102/00346543068004409

Silverman, D. (2005). Doing qualitative research: A Practical. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Theys, S (2018). Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory. Retrieved from https://www.e-ir.info/2018/02/23/introducing-constructivism-in-international-relations-theory/

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Willis, J. (2007). Foundations of qualitative research: Interpretive and critical approaches. https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452230108

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