Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Ideal PhD Researcher has No Baggage

by Marie-Alix Thouaille, LSE Impact Blog:

The way institutions conceptualise doctoral candidates – as individuals without baggage, able to devote all their time to their research – has very real consequences for those who do not fit this profile. Marie-Alix Thouaille reports on recent research into the professional development behaviours and experiences of doctoral and early-career researchers. Findings reveal that many diverse factors, from funding status and caring responsibilities to the location of one’s institution, can contribute to PhD researchers experiencing highly unequal access to professional development opportunities.
In a workshop I ran last year, I asked a group of doctoral researchers to draw “the ideal PhD student”. Beyond being a fun ice-breaker, the point of the task is to spark conversations about the skills, competencies and behaviours which doctoral researchers need for, or develop through, their doctorates.
In this particular workshop, though, one of the participants drew something rather different. Subverting the task, they drew what they felt the institution expected doctoral researchers to be like. In their drawing, we see the institution’s presumed ideal: an independently wealthy, young, unattached, able-bodied, thick-skinned – probably white and male – individual who has no responsibilities other than their PhD and is therefore able to be focused and productive and devote all their time to doctoral research. In short, the ideal PhD student has no baggage.
The point the participant was making was that the way institutions conceptualise doctoral candidates – as individuals without baggage – has very real consequences for those who do not fit this profile. Which is to say, most people; because, of course, all doctoral researchers, and indeed all researchers, have some kind of baggage. As Emily Henderson of the In Two Places at Once project, a study exploring how academics’ caring responsibilities intersect with conference attendance, notes: “academics are not unencumbered individuals but nodes within a network of relationships” (you can listen to Henderson’s talk here).
This theme came up again and again in my research into the professional development behaviours and experiences of arts and humanities doctoral and early-career researchers. Many respondents felt frustrated, isolated, or abandoned because their “baggage” was not being accounted for, meaning they lost out on valuable opportunities to develop themselves and their careers.
As the data we collected through the survey continuously highlights, many diverse factors can limit doctoral researchers’ ability to access professional development opportunities. These include:
  • Funding status
  • Mode of study
  • Distance from institution
  • Access requirements
  • Caring responsibilities
  • Work commitments
  • Previous professional experience
In other words, doctoral researchers experience highly unequal access to professional development opportunities.
Other important factors creating inequalities operate at institutional level, for example:
  • Location of institution
  • Size of institution
  • Size of doctoral cohort
  • Support provision
  • Teaching
  • Supervisory practice

Unsurprisingly, in my sample, those studying part-time were significantly more likely to have had a previous career: 75% compared to 47% in full-time students. If we consider, in addition, that of part-time respondents, 72% identified as female, and that women are statistically more likely to be primary caregivers, then it starts to become clear how identities intersect with one another in ways which further constrain doctoral researchers’ ability to engage in professional development.
An important blind spot of this research is that it did not explore questions of race, religion, or disability. This is a shortcoming, as we can only surmise how these intersecting identities can further limit someone’s access to development opportunities. But what we can suggest by looking at this data is that inequalities of access to professional development intersect with existing inequalities, undermining, in turn, the diversity of researchers as a workforce.
When we make assumptions about the identities or unencumberedness of researchers we make academic life difficult – if not impossible – for certain already marginalised groups, meaning only those who most fit this expected profile, or who most perform unencumberedness are likely to succeed in academia.
Universities, funders, and researcher developers have a duty to provide equal access to opportunities to all doctoral researchers, which means developing thoughtful, and inclusive development provision and conducting further research to better understand the barriers researchers come up against every day.
You can download “One size does not fit all”, the full report into arts and humanities doctoral and early-career researchers’ professional development, from the Vitae website (free registration required).
This blog post originally appeared on the All the Single Writing Ladies blog and is republished with permission.
Featured image credit: baggage by Heidi De Vries (licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license).
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
About the author
Marie-Alix Thouaille is a CHASE-funded doctoral researcher at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Her doctoral research explores representations of authorial labour the contemporary single woman author film. As part of her CHASE studentship, Marie-Alix undertook a placement project with Vitae investigating the professional development of Arts and Humanities doctoral and early career researchers. She blogs about her research at

VIDEO: From Crawling to Flying - The Agony and Ecstasy of Trying to Learn Something New

An eloquent reminder that expertise is earned, this observational documentary from the US filmmakers Nick Paley and Dawn Kim explores the thrills and frustrations of taking on a new challenge – from swimming, to archery, to flying a plane – at any age.
Director: Nick Paley, Dawn Kim
Editor: Saela Davis
Sound Design & Mix: Chris Foster
Music: BenoƮt Pioulard

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Kindergartners Get Little Time to Play: Here’s Why That’s a Problem

by Play Time.jpgThe Conversation, Yes! magazine:

Being a kindergartner today is very different from being a kindergartner 20 years ago. In fact, it is more like first grade.

Researchers have demonstrated that 5-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.

As a former kindergarten teacher, a father of three girls who’ve recently gone through kindergarten, and as researcher and teacher-educator in early childhood education, I have had kindergarten as a part of my adult life for almost 20 years.

As a parent, I have seen how student-led projects, sensory tables (that include sand or water) and dramatic play areas have been replaced with teacher-led instructional time, writing centers and sight words lists that children need to memorize. And as a researcher, I found, along with my colleague Yi Chin Lan, that early childhood teachers expect children to have academic knowledge, social skills and the ability to control themselves when they enter kindergarten.

So, why does this matter?

All work, and almost no play

First, let’s see what kindergarten looks like today.

As part of my research, I have been conducting interviews with a range of kindergarten stakeholders - children, teachers, parents - about what they think kindergarten is and what it should be. During the interviews, I share a 23-minute film that I made last spring about a typical day in a public school kindergarten classroom.

The classroom I filmed had 22 kindergartners and one teacher. They were together for almost the entire school day. During that time, they engaged in about 15 different academic activities, which included decoding word drills, practicing sight words, reading to themselves and then to a buddy, counting up to 100 by ones, fives and 10s, practicing simple addition, counting money, completing science activities about living things and writing in journals on multiple occasions. Recess did not occur until last hour of the day, and that lasted about 15 minutes.

For children between 5 and 6, this is a tremendous amount of work. Teachers too are under pressure to cover the material.

When I interviewed the teacher for the short film, I asked why she covered so much material in a few hours, she said, “There’s pressure on me and the kids to perform at a higher level academically.”

So even though the teacher admitted that the workload on kindergartners was an awful lot, she also said she was unable to do anything to change it.

She was required to assess her students continually, not only for her own instruction, but also for multiple assessments such as quarterly report cards, school-based reading assessments, district-based literacy and math assessments, as well as state-mandated literacy assessments.

In turn, when I asked the kindergartners what they were learning, their replies reflected two things: one, they were learning to follow rules; two, learning was for the sake of getting to the next grade and eventually to find a job. Almost all of them said to me that they wanted more time to play.

One boy said, “I wish we had more recess.”

These findings mirror the findings of researchers Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham and Anna Rorem that kindergarten now focuses on literacy and math instruction. They also echo the statements of other kindergarten teachers that kids are being prepared for high-stakes tests as early as kindergarten.

Here’s how play helps children

Research has consistently shown classrooms that offer children the opportunities to engage in play-based and child-centered learning activities help children grow academically, socially and emotionally. Furthermore, recess in particular helps children restore their attention for learning in the classroom.

Focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners - all of which can negatively affect their performance in school and in later life.

Giving children a chance to play and engage in hands-on learning activities helps them internalize new information as well as compare and contrast what they’re learning with what they already know. It also provides them with the chance to interact with their peers in a more natural setting and to solve problems on their own. Lastly, it allows kindergartners to make sense of their emotional experiences in and out of school.

So children asking for more time to play are not trying to get out of work. They know they have to work in school. Rather, they’re asking for a chance to recharge as well as be themselves.

As another kindergarten boy in my study told me, “We learn about stuff we need to learn, because if we don’t learn stuff, then we don’t know anything.”

Learning by exploring

So what can we do to help kindergartners?

I am not advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. All of the stakeholders I’ve talked with up to this point, even the children, know and recognize that kindergartners need to learn academic skills so that they can succeed in school.

However, free exploration is missing. As a kindergarten teacher I filmed noted, “Free and exploratory learning has been replaced with sit, focus, learn, get it done and maybe you can have time to play later.”

Policymakers, schools systems and schools need to recognize that the standards and tests they mandate have altered the kindergarten classroom significantly. Families need to be more proactive as well. They can help their children’s teachers by being their advocates for a more balanced approach to instruction.

Kindergartners deserve learning experiences in school that nurtures their development as well as their desire to learn and interact with others. Doing so will assist them see school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people. 

This article was originally published by The Conversation. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.