Data by Design: How Grounded Theory Methodology Reveals More About Learners Than Numbers Ever Will

I founded the WNY Young Writer’s Studio with two great intentions:

First, I longed to create a lasting community where children could choose to write about the things that mattered to them in ways that were deeply rewarding. I envisioned a place where young writers would continue to learn from one another month after month and year after year, far beyond the confines of a workshop or institute. I wanted to created a place where everyone could invest themselves in becoming writers as much as they committed to producing great writing. Public schools struggle to provide these sorts of opportunities for children, and they are desperately needed if we’re to create a future generation of imaginative, talented, and informed citizens who are able to advocate for social justice. Writing is empowerment, and I know few who are attending to it as well as they would like to inside of schools. That’s a sad fact.

I also longed to create a last community where teachers could choose to learn about things that mattered to them in ways that were deeply rewarding. Again, I hoped to create a place where professionals would continue to learn from one another month after month and year after year, far beyond event-based experiences. I wanted to create a place where everyone could invest themselves in becoming teachers as much as they committed to producing great units and plans. Public schools struggle to provide these opportunities for teachers, and they are desperately needed if we’re to create a future generation of imaginative, talented, and informed educators who are able to intervene skillfully on behalf of their students. Professional learning is empowerment, and I know few are attending to it as well as they would like to inside of schools. Another sad fact.

So, Studio (as I call it) was born, and I’ve been watching it evolve for almost a decade now. I’ve also learned a ton along the way by observing the teachers and the kids that I get to work with there. As many of you know, I’m no data-hater. I’m passionate about using evidence to guide the decisions that I make as a teacher, a professional learning facilitator, and as a business owner too. It’s no surprise that over time, I began embedding action research expectations into our teacher fellowship program. There was just one problem with this plan: traditional research approaches, data collection, and analysis were getting us nowhere.

We found ourselves spinning our wheels. For the first couple of years, we surfaced findings that we could have read about in any best practitioner’s text and tested interventions that didn’t seem to serve writers as well as we hoped they would.

And then, I discovered grounded theory. Grounded theory is a research approach wherein theories emerge inductively from evidence collected. Rather than beginning with a hunch or a theory and engaging in research in order to prove or disprove it, researchers begin with with a topic only, they study that topic at work within the population they hope to serve, and they document what they notice without imposing theories or making judgments. In education, these theories are truly “grounded” in the data that are captured in the classroom rather than the literature that has already emerged within the field.

This methodology has many benefits that more common approaches do not. Grounded theories emerge directly from real-world settings rather than literature. Quality is ensured when researchers produce hunches that are context-specific, carefully detailed, and tightly aligned to the data that were collected. Grounded theories often result in the development of innovative perspectives and discoveries because they are not dependent on popular theories. Grounded theories also use the simplest possible description to explain complex phenomena. They are helpful in that they provide those who are eager to help their students simple and promising approaches for doing so.

Grounded theory processes and outcomes also differ from other methods. The goal of grounded theory is to produce a theory that suggests a relationship between various emerging ideas. Other qualitative research approaches suggest themes only, and quantitative approaches aim to test existing theories rather than generating new ones. Grounded theory also relies on an abductive process, wherein data capture, analysis, and the creation of hypotheses happen simultaneously.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Because this work illuminated some very compelling things about the use of documentation and evidence in the classroom, the allure of efficiency, and our dangerous devotion to quantitative data. I’ll share these findings over the next few days, but in the mean time, I can say this much with confidence: we’ve learned more about ourselves and our students through documentation and the thoughtful analysis of qualitative data than numbers have ever revealed. And we learned how to document and create products that were nearly as efficient to analyze as spreadsheets have always been.

The big bonus: the data produced were far more meaningful.

Interested in learning more? Walden University provides a simple yet solid tutorial.

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