reading research

#APaperADay – Conceptual frameworks to illuminate and magnify

Bordage, G. (2009). Conceptual frameworks to illuminate and magnify. Medical Education, 43(4), 312–319.

Conceptual frameworks represent ways of thinking about a problem or a study, or ways of representing how complex things work the way they do.

A nice position paper that emphasises the value of conceptual frameworks as a tool for thinking, not only more deeply about problems, but more broadly, through the use of multiple frameworks applied to different aspects of the problem. The author uses three examples to develop a set of 13 key points related to the use of conceptual frameworks in education and research. The article is useful for anyone interested in developing a deeper approach to project design and educational research.

Frameworks inform the way we think and the decisions we make. The same task – viewed through different frameworks – will likely have different ways of thinking associated with it.

Frameworks come from:

  • Theories that have been confirmed experimentally;
  • Models derived from theories or observations;
  • Evidence-based practices.

We can combine frameworks in order for our activities to be more holistic. Educational problems can be framed with multiple frameworks, each providing different points of view and leading to different conclusions/solutions.

Like a lighthouse that illuminates only certain sections of the complete field of view, conceptual frameworks also provide only partial views of reality. In other words, there is no “correct” or all-encompassing framework for any given problem. Using a framework only enables us to illuminate and magnify one aspect of a problem, necessarily leaving others in the dark. When we start working on a problem without identifying our frameworks and assumptions (can also be thought of as identifying our biases) we limit the range of possible solutions.

Authors of medical education studies tend not explicitly identify their biases and frameworks.

The author goes on to provide three examples of how conceptual frameworks can be used to frame various educational problems (2 in medical education projects, 1 in research). Each example is followed by key points (13 in total). In each of the examples, the author describes possible pathways through the problem in order to develop different solutions, each informed by different frameworks.

Key points (these points make more sense after working through the examples):

  1. Frameworks can help us to differentiate problems from symptoms by looking at the problem from broader, more comprehensive perspectives. They help us to understand the problem more deeply.
  2. Having an awareness of a variety of a conceptual frameworks makes it more likely that our possible solutions will be wide-ranging because the frameworks emphasise different aspects of the problem and potential solution.
  3. Because each framework is inherently limited, a variety of frameworks can provide more ways to identify the important variables and their interactions/relationships. It is likely that more than one framework is relevant to the situation.
  4. We can use different frameworks within the same problem to analyse different aspects of the problem e.g. one for the problem and one for the solution.
  5. Conceptual frameworks can come from theories, models or evidence-based practices.
  6. Scholars need to apply the principles outlined in the conceptual framework(s) selected.
  7. Conceptual frameworks help identify important variables and their potential relationships; this also means that some variables are disregarded.
  8. Conceptual frameworks are dynamic entities and benefit from being challenged and altered as needed.
  9. Conceptual frameworks allow scholars to build upon one another’s work and allow individuals to develop programmes of research. When researchers don’t use frameworks, there’s an increased chance that the “findings may be superficial and non-cumulative.”
  10. Programmatic, conceptually-based research helps accumulate deeper understanding over time and thus moves the field forward.
  11. Relevant conceptual frameworks can be found outside one’s specialty or field. Medical education scholars shouldn’t expect that all relevant frameworks can be found in the medical education literature.
  12. Considering competing conceptual frameworks can maximise your chances of selecting the most appropriate framework for your problem or situation while guarding against premature, inappropriate or sub-optimal choices.
  13. Scholars are responsible for making explicit in their publications the assumptions and principles contained in the conceptual framework(s) they use.

The third example seems (to me) to be an unnecessarily long diversion into the author’s own research. And while the first two examples are quite practical and relevant, the third is quite abstract, possibly because of the focus on educational research and study design. I wonder how many readers will find relevance in it.

In a research context, conceptual frameworks can help to both frame or formulate the initial questions, identify variables for analysis, and interpret results.

The conclusion of the paper is very nice summary of the main ideas. However, it also introduces some new ideas, which probably should have been included in the main text.

Conceptual frameworks provide different lenses for looking at, and thinking about, problems and conceptualising solutions. Using a variety of frameworks, we open ourselves up to different solutions and potentially avoid falling victim to our own assumptions and biases.

It’s important to remember that frameworks magnify and illuminate only certain aspects of each problem, leaving other aspects in the dark i.e. there is no single framework that does everything.

Novice educators and researchers may find it daunting to work with frameworks, especially when you consider that they may not be aware of the range of possible frameworks.

How do you choose one framework over another? It’s important to discuss your problem and potential solutions with more experienced colleagues and experts in the field. Remember however, that some experts may be experts partly because they’ve spent a long time committed to a framework/way of seeing the world, which may make it difficult for them to give you an unbiased perspective.

Reviewing the relevant literature also helps to identify what frameworks other educators have used in addressing similar problems. The specific question you’re asking is also an important means of identifying a relevant framework.

Note: I’m the Editor at OpenPhysio, an open-access, peer-reviewed online journal with a focus on physiotherapy education. If you’re doing interesting work in the classroom, even if you have no experience in publishing educational research, we’d like to help you share your stories.

learning PhD research teaching

CHAT workshop for Emerging ICT in HE research

Last week I attended a short workshop on Cultural Historical Activity Theory (given by Joanne Hardman) as part of an NRF-funded research project on the use of emerging ICTs in Higher Education. Here are my notes from the session (this was all very new to me and I probably got a few things wrong. Feel free to point out any problems with what I’ve written):
CHAT has no theoretical framework, and is partly a method and partly theoretical
There are 3 different approaches to AT, going through Vygotsky, Leont’ev, Engstrom
Rote learning is appropriate in some instances for e.g. learning terminology. “Good” or “bad” is dependent on the objective of the teaching and learning activity. Rote learning is not appropriate to develop conceptual understanding.
Will the introduction of innovative technology in the classroom lead to changes in T&L practice?
How do people learn? Learning = cognitive change
Learning new technical skills doesn’t lead to cognitive change
Piaget = learning happens when we add to what we already know
Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934)
“Authentic learning situation” = real life examples that students are familiar with using their own lived experiences
“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” – Marx (1859). At the time, learning was about the individual.
Learning and conceptual knowledge comes from interaction with others
If students are performing poorly, we may need to look at our social interactions with them.
Lower cognitive functions are things you’re born with i.e. we share these with animals e.g. perception, memory
Higher cognitive functions are unique to humans i.e. they need to be taught, you can’t learn them on your own e.g. selective attention, logical memory
Vogystky’s theory is an instructional theory.
“Structured process of mediation by a culturally more advanced peer” → you have to be taught, you can’t learn it on your own i.e. it must be mediated
What do people do with technology to effect change? This must happen through mediation. Instruction in and of itself doesn’t automatically lead to learning. So even if technological change is leading to innovative practice, without mediation, learning doesn’t actually happen.
Mediation requires an other.
Imitation is the first action towards developing mediation
General genetic law = every function in a child’s development appears twice. First on the social level, and later on the individual level. First between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, logical memory, and the formulation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals.
If students are not learning in your class, it’s a function of their social self, not their cognitive self.
Mind in society, not mind and society (“Mind in society” – Vygotsky)
The general genetic law → ZPD (the extent of what someone is currently able to do or think), the potential to learn with assistance (“the space that opens up in social interaction that leads to cognitive change”). ZPD = potential to learn with guided assistance.
In the classroom, consider staggering activities / tasks that open up different ZPD’s i.e. expect different things from / provide different inputs to students who are at different levels (requires sensitivity to where they’re at)
ZPD = the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers…the actual developmental level characterises mental development retrospectively, while the ZPD characterises mental development prospectively (Vygotsky, 1978)
ZPD = responsive pedagogy
“Instruction is only useful when it moves ahead of development”
Conceptualising working in the ZPD (Langer & Applebee, 1986):
  • Ownership – of the activity
  • Appropriateness – to the students current knowledge
  • Structure – embodying a “natural” sequence of thought and action
  • Collaboration – between teacher and student
  • Internalisation – via gradual withdrawal of the scaffolding and transfer of control
Mediation in the classroom, through:
  • modeling
  • guiding
  • questioning
  • helping
  • structuring
  • recruiting attention
  • prompting
Mediation is about providing tools to help someone get to the answer. It’s not about giving the answers.
Alexei Leont’ev
Vygotsky focused on how signs and symbols (i.e. semiotics → language and writing) led to cognitive change. This has problems in an illiterate society. This had issues in Stalin’s Russia, as many of the population were illiterate. So Leont’ev focused on activity to mediate cognitive development.
“Without a theoretical conception of the social world one cannot analyse activity”
Leont’ev differentiated between collective activity and individual action e.g. hunting is a collective activity made up of individual actions. You need to study the activity, and not the actions, as the actions provide only a very narrow view of the whole.
Individual students are part of many activity systems.
Leont’ev’s activity theory (second generation):
  • Operations – fossilised and automatic e.g. typing
  • Actions – individual
  • Activity – communal, motivator, need-state i.e. requires a motive (“what is the need-state that drives the activity?”)


The structure of human activity (1987), triangle = a heuristic diagram for representing a method, → reason that this is a method, rather than a theory (the theory is Vygotsky)
  • Division of labor – different roles e.g. we operationalise behaviour by assigning roles. This is also about power
  • Community – shares an object e.g. the object of this workshop is “understanding of AT”
  • Rules – are horizontal and vertical (like power). Instructional: “put up your hand if you want to ask a question”. Disciplinary: “no talking when I’m talking”
  • Object – the thing we have in common e.g. our understanding of AT. Activity systems are defined by the object
  • Subject – the thing / group that is being studied / analysed in an activity system (we are the subjects in this workshop)
  • Tools
If you want to study change in an activity system, you have to first identify the contradictions / tensions / conflicts / breakdowns:
  • Primary – within each node of a system
  • Secondary – between nodes in one system
  • Tertiary – between activity systems, when role-players outside the system impacts on those within the system e.g. how will students be affected by external activity systems during our study?
  • Quaternary – exists between nodes in activity systems
No activity system operates in isolation.
There is no defined analytical framework for studying an activity.
Change laboratory is the method for expansive learning (Engestrom). The following process could be used in our case studies. Very similar to Action Research, but with a strong underlying theory, which AR sometimes lacks.
  • What is the primary contradiction need-state for our question? Questioning.
  • Secondary contradictions double bind (historical analysis, actual empirical analysis). Why is the need there?
  • Model the new solution
  • Examine the new model
  • Implement the new model (tertiary contradiction resistance e.g. pushback from others)
  • Reflect on the process (quaternary contradictions re-alignment with neighbours)
  • Consolidate the new practice
Providing anonymity is one way to empower students to participate, especially shy, marginalised and disempowered learners.
Change laboratory: an intervention method that involves sustained efforts to analyse and transform social practice. It comprises a series of workgroup meetings to reflect on current practices and envision future activities. Essential aspects of change laboratories are:
  • Using videotaped practices as a “mirror” for assessing current activity
  • Generating ideas and tools e.g. charts, that help to assess past, present and future activity
  • Modeling present practices by using activity-system analysis

UWC writing for publication retreat: day 2

Today has focused on the practical aspect of publication i.e. actually writing, so we didn’t have as many presentations. We began by reviewing some of what was discussed yesterday and adding a few reflections and comments from participants.

Yesterday, one of the presenters suggested the CARS (link downloads PDF) model for structuring an Introduction. Today, someone suggested that that particular model is based mainly on English language publications from the UK,USA and Australia. Some have suggested the OARO model as an alternative, based on a synthesis of publications from other countries:

Open A Research Option (OARO) model

  • Attract a readership
  • Establish credibility
    • Share background knowledge (own research / anecdotal experiences)
    • Justify the need for the research (answering the “why” question)
    • Present interesting thoughts (who decides what’s “interesting”?)
    • Introduce the general goal
  • Offer a line of enquiry (open questions and explore)
  • Introduce the topic

Remember that it’s difficult to build a model that is based on cross-disciplinary publications.

A review of the writing process

“An increasing number of references in publications may point to a form of academic insecurity”

How well are you telling your own story?

Instead of using pre-defined headings e.g. Discussion, try to highlight the major finding / point and use that for the heading instead

Each phrase should be used to advance your argument. Make sure that the pieces fit together to create a coherent whole.

Writing about the topic begins broadly (macro view) and then narrows to get to the crux of the article (micro view), then expands again to place the results into a broader context e.g. hourglass shape

Review of the literature (because it’s a process, not a thing)

Entering occupied territory” → can be intimidating

Be wary of absolute statements about the review i.e. what it should or shouldn’t do or be

Working with literatures:

  • Locate the work in a field
  • Create a mandate for the research
  • Informs the methods and theorisation
  • Specify the contribution

Learning to speak with authority, adopting a critical yet generous stance to the scholarship of the field, and establishing authority to speak, is an enormous challenge (Kamler & Thomson, 2006)

Find patterns in the literature


  • Chronological
  • Geographical
  • Definitions
  • Genre
  • Concepts
  • Methods
  • General → specific
  • Policy / practice

Try to avoid “Smith et al (2000) have suggested that…”, “They emphasise the following…” Rather, try to put your take on their research first, and then credit the other researchers

Trying to convince the reader that there’s an organising mind at work (Swales, 2004)

Literature review isn’t about constructing a thing, it’s a process that’s embedded throughout the article