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#APaperADay – Conceptual frameworks to illuminate and magnify

Bordage, G. (2009). Conceptual frameworks to illuminate and magnify. Medical Education, 43(4), 312–319. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2923.2009.03295.x

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.

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.