Harvard Educational Review
  1. A Student’s Guide to Methodology

    By Peter Clough and Cathy Nutbrown

    London: SAGE, 2002. 212 pp. $24.95.

    With the passing of the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 and the establishment of the Institute of Education Sciences, educational researchers are under increasing pressure from governmental agencies to engage in rigorous evaluation of their work and to focus on improving various aspects of their research methodologies. While this pressure could have healthy consequences, the obstinate obsession of mainstream researchers and government officials with methodologies driven by statistics can hamper, rather than support, students’ ability to explore questions of methodology in depth. Most often, for example, courses in statistics ignore substantive questions about the nature of methodology and the logic that undergirds the relationship between research questions and choice of methods. In A Student’s Guide to Methodology, Peter Clough and Cathy Nutbrown offer an easy-to-use introduction to the kinds of substantive questions and ideas that students of educational research often do not have room to ponder. Ultimately, the kind of guidance the authors offer can determine the quality and rigor of any research endeavor, experimental or not.

    A Student’s Guide to Methodology is carefully crafted and accessible to beginner students; it is also useful for experienced researchers. The authors begin with an exploration of what it means to do research and what the concept of methodology implies. They offer clear definitions of the key concepts with which they define research and which they use as a framework for understanding the various aspects of methodology, such as the four “Ps” — persuasive, purposive, positional, and political. Clough and Nutbrown follow by outlining the research process along four “radical” practices — looking, listening, reading, and questioning. Through the notion of radical practices, the authors describe various stages of research, from literature reviews to drawing out implications for future research. The guide ends with reflections on the process of making research public, without which, the authors argue, an empirical project does not amount to research.

    The greatest strength of this volume is the clarity of the frameworks that guide students through the complexities of methodology. The book is not only easy to read and to follow, it also covers a lot of ground in a simple format. In some instances, however, the connection between specific aspects of research and the four radical practices that Clough and Nutbrown outline feels awkward. For example, the authors discuss both critical literature reviews and observations in the field as kinds of “radical reading.” While it is true that “many aspects of research involve ‘reading’ the research setting as well as reading the literature” (p. 96), these two ways of reading hardly fall under the same category. But while the latter may have fit better within the discussion on “radical looking,” the discussion of these two aspects of research, as with others, is clear, and the exercises and the examples are quite useful.

    Another clear strength of the book is its interactivity. Clough and Nutbrown offer many tools and exercises to engage readers in thinking through fundamental questions about methodology. As the authors argue, many of these exercises can provide the basis for research proposals and help researchers — even experienced ones — organize what can often be an overwhelmingly disorganized thinking process. Although the authors do not directly suggest this, these tools might be most useful in the context of a group, a course with an experienced researcher, or with a peer study group with which to work through the challenging exercises. Determining an appropriate course of action often requires more than just reflection and writing, and the exercises may be most fruitful when shared with others engaged in the same process.

    The plethora of resources and the many references for further reading that the authors offer throughout the book are also invaluable. Clough and Nutbrown draw on concrete examples of their own published research to illustrate the various facets of methodology articulated in the book. While it seems somewhat contrived that the examples come from the authors’ own work, the excerpts are carefully chosen and connect clearly to the rest of the text. As with most examples, there is always the danger that students might take them as models, and the authors do not offer enough cautionary language to make sure that readers do not do so. However, guidance from an experienced researcher would help students avoid such pitfalls and make the best of this otherwise useful guide.

    Clough and Nutbrown offer simple yet extremely useful tools for introducing students to the complexities of thinking about and implementing social research. Their book is flexible, and instructors can adjust it to the particulars of specific courses. Educators teaching research design and methodology might use the book to organize courses and to provide exercises for their students. If more educational researchers, including those hell-bent on narrow definitions of what constitutes “scientific” research, understood some of the basic principles outlined in A Student’s Guide to Methodology, the debate about what constitutes rigorous, usable research would be more intelligent and ultimately lead to more profound changes in the relationship between research and educational practice.

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