Paint the fence: How the Karate Kid compares to being a beginning researcher

I’ve almost completed my PGR1 proposal for my M.Ed dissertation next year, but it has been hard – good hard!

Reflecting on the experience, I liken it to Karate Kid, where, like Daniel-son, I thought I had some idea about research (karate), until my lecturers introduced me to ‘next level’ learning and I felt that I actually had no idea. Fortunately, I managed to surround myself with Mr Miyagi types, who have gotten me to ‘wax on, wax off’, ‘paint the fence’, and ‘sand the deck’, with their feedback. Slowly, my research has been refined over and over, and through the process I have gone deeper and deeper… The other day, I I was listening to Brene Brown share her research, and noticed she was using ‘grounded-theory’ as her methods analysis… I’ve learned A LOT and haven’t even touched the surface.

Through the Research in Context paper, I was developing a research design, but hadn’t come to terms with what exactly it was I wanted to research. I was having immense ‘thought battles’ in my head and it only started to become clear when I identified my sample group as Learning Educators Outside The Classroom (LEOTC). My supervisor, the ultimate Mr Miyagi, then went through a ‘write, critique, write, critique’ process to extract my thoughts enough to be comprehensive and then left me to complete my final assignment – a pilot trial.

Once that was completed the ‘write, critique’ process began again. The question was ‘sort-of’ finalised, enough to proceed with the design, and it’s only now that I’ve settled on an exploration into –

What does ‘place’ mean to LEOTC educators and how could their perspectives and insights inform school curriculum design?

I learned through the process that if I’m conducting research then I have to ‘know’ and trust myself. Any gut-like niggles are telling me something is not right. Last minute, due to ongoing gut-like niggles, I changed my theoretical position from interpretative phenomenology to ecofeminism and an ethic of care, and breathed relief. Through the trial, and discussion with Mr Miyagi, my methods shifted to photo-elicitation and semi-structured interviewing. In the final countdown, causing delay, I incorporated grounded-theory as a form of analysis, which I’m a little iffy on, but it is still better than any alternative I’ve come across.

I’m as yet to have the research design proposal submitted and accepted, but looking at The Design Wall process, enormous shifts have occurred throughout the year in my thinking, I’m a better person for it, and way more resilient.

So, where to next – well, knowing I have to practice patience when it comes to my processing and head battles, I thought it best to get a jump start on the lit review. Over summer, I’ll be collecting literature on place-theory and local curriculum design, as well as ecofeminism… The geek in me is excited by the prospect.

The MEd pilgrimage – Developing a line of inquiry and conceptual framework


As part of the #MEdpilgrimage (Master of Education), last semester I took the paper Concepts in Educational Research. This was the beginning of defining a research topic and exploring a conceptual framework. I am now transitioning to the course paper Educational Research in Context where I begin to explore research design.

As prep work for this new paper, I have been asked to present my previous learning, and because a few people have asked me what it is I am studying, I either give the short answer involving place based education or ramble a ‘non-answer’ answer. I thought by blogging my reflections I might be able to define and align my thoughts into more comprehensible ideas to talk about.

Developing a Research Question
As a beginner researcher, developing research questions is hard, and the continuous feedback I have received has been ‘narrow your question’ and ‘narrow your questions and sub-questions even more’. I imagine I will get asked to narrow this question even further, but, at this point, I want to find out:

How do educators incorporate place-based education ideas into their teaching practice to influence individuals’ ideas of identity, belonging, and sense of place?

This question is based on my topic of interest, which would involve following a school’s heuristic exploration into re-examining relationships with place. Engaging in place-based education, which is an interdisciplinary approach, focuses on understanding local history, cultures and the ecology of a geographical location. Learning about and unpacking ideas relating to place could be a way to instil a deeper sense of personal identity and belonging for learners, encouraging prevailing assumptions to be challenged and new perspectives to be explored.

Currently, a dominant metanarrative which drives society’s way of thinking and knowing in Aotearoa New Zealand is European colonisation, which marginalises the potential for other ways of thinking and knowing. By localising this issue and exploring/ re-examining different cultural and ecological narratives surrounding the school, this research could go towards informing ways to address social, cultural and environmental injustices.

The collection of information gathered through the investigation could inform the school of ways that their teaching has affected individuals. This information could then support a possible transition to a more localised curriculum in the school. The information could have the potential to support wider academic conversations regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion. These academic conversations could inform education policy goals at a national and international level with potential to shift dominant paradigms in this space.

In a different space, exploring these same issues could improve educator practice. The experiential and heuristic aspects, as well as the flow of the inquiry could encourage educators to collaborate and strengthen relationships while extending their network of contributors. This could deepen their critical consciousness and improve their teaching and pedagogical practice for the betterment of all individuals in the school.

Scoping the field to establish the main lines of published opinion, debate and research
When scoping the field, I looked into place-based education with reference to cultural responsiveness, and through discussion with fellow academics, was referred to articles as well.

While reading, various themes and patterns emerged relating to theoretical and philosophical positions, methodologies and case studies that I would be interested in exploring further. These theories and explanations have been grouped into three main lines for ease of communication, but with the acknowledgement that there were many ideas, which interrelate and overlap.

Ecofeminism and an ethic of care
Two articles specifically refer to ecofeminism and an ethic of care regarding the perspective as a “place-based, relationship and care-focused, critically engaged lens” (Goralink, Dobson, & Nelson, 2014, p.18). Ecofeminism has a diverse body of knowledge that filters into various strands. Its overarching focus addresses the issues of culturally held beliefs that oppress women and nature through hierarchical relationships (Goralink et al., 2014). Essentialism impacts this area creating dualistic thinking. Reestablishing this thinking using an intersectional perspective supports the ability to see how various oppressions connect and strengthen each other. This intersectional perspective questions this thinking and its destructive relationship (Piersol & Timmerman, 2017). An ethic of care draws on many forms of philosophy rooted in emotional awareness and ethical relationships. Applying this lens to experiential learning in place supports the reflection of values and wisdom of that place and a potential shift in thinking (Goralink et al., 2014).

Interpretive phenomenology and hermeneutics
A section of literature I read argues the idea of humans rethinking their relationship with the non-human and natural world. The philosophical underpinning regarding this thinking is a connection between knowledge of the world and the world itself. They are not separate (Scotland, 2012). The literature addresses the current ecological crisis and how a modern way of thinking continues to perpetuate the problems, which involves a hyper-separation originating from rationalist philosophy (Irwin, 2015). Each article suggests a different way of rethinking this relationship offering constructive suggestions for experimentation in practice. The similarities between these suggestions relate to the idea of being creatively open (Irwin, 2015) and actively listening to alternative voices (Blenkinsop, Affifi, Piersol, & De Danann Sitka-Sage, 2017) and modes, which enhances a dependency with the natural world.

Critical theory
Most of the reviewed literature relates to the critical paradigm which “seeks not just to explain but also to change” (Newby, 2014, p.43) and shows the research is influenced by a concern with humans’ relationship with each other, the non-human and the natural world. The literature involves an array of studies which looks at how to use interdisciplinary and experiential learning approaches and critical theoretic methods to address issues around equity, equality, diversity and inclusion by localising these issues to place. Postmodernist and poststructuralist theory are prevalent throughout the literature addressing the metanarrative associated with decolonisation and hegemonic ways of thinking.

FASCINATING stuff, but only the beginning in relation to this reading!

Teasing out my current theoretical and philosophical position
I went on a journey of self discovery while reading, which helped me to become conscious of my views and values and what informs my beliefs and actions. This is the beginning to developing the ethical dimensions that underpin my decisions as a researcher and how I conduct my research. 

The ideas and beliefs that inform my ontology and epistemology come in the form of relationships. I have found the relationship with myself is important and it is okay to be continually curious, exploring and finding out what empowers me. I acknowledge my childhood playing in nature and how this foundation knowledge through experiential play continues to inform my actions today. Being consciously aware of my continual self evolution helps to support relationships with other human beings and being part of communities that nurture this thinking.

It is important for me to be with others who see the interrelatedness of humans with the non-human and natural world, and want to sustain these systems. When looking further into the aspects of these relationships, it is the diversity and reciprocal nature of them that I care about. We learn from each other and each being comes with its own perspectives, values and wisdom. It is important to have a sensitivity, kindness and awareness of this and show respect through inclusion.

Through my experience I have come to acknowledge and respect indigenous cultures’ ways of knowing. I connect to aspects of this knowing involving a relationship with the natural world and wisdom about it, but have an awareness of growing up in a Western European way of thinking. This thinking has been a dominant hierarchical narrative for me. Even now I continue to uncover the impact and develop a consciousness of how this way has conditioned my thinking to the present day, regarding gender, race, sexuality and privilege.

The relationship with self, human and the natural world is continually evolving and it is important to acknowledge the holistic and organic process of this relationship. It is the process that brings opportunities that I can continue to uncover, challenge and evolve my thinking further through. At the same time, acknowledge the ways I communicate and the different forms of language that can be used to convey this understanding.

Through the combination of what I have read and my own thoughts and experiences two theoretical perspectives have emerged: critical ecofeminism and an ethic of care, and interpretive phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Critical ecofeminism and an ethic of care
The ontology of the critical paradigm shows its origins in historical realism. The epistemology is transactional and subjectivist, meaning such researchers are not neutral, acknowledging that they have a set of values which they bring and are intertwined in the research (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). The critical paradigm is considered an umbrella term and incorporates a range of ideologies. One of these ideologies is feminism (Guba & Lincoln, 1994), of which ecofeminism is a strand. Like feminism which acknowledges the historical subordination of women in social and cultural status, ecofeminism relates this same set of constructs to nature. It extends this understanding to other forms of marginalisation as well (Stephens, 2017).

The rationalist hyper-separation dualisms, which play out in society also impact research with regard to objectivist methods and participatory research methods (Stephens, 2017) emphasising continued destructive relationships. To create more emotional awareness and enhance ethical practice, a motivation is to embed an ethic of care as an approach. An ethic of care is a set of principles or feminist-systems thinking that originated from critical systems thinking and cultural ecofeminism (Stephens, 2017). These five principles are: “be gender sensitive; value voices from the margins; centre nature; select appropriate methods/methodologies; and undertake research towards social change” (Stephens, 2017, p.564).

Interpretative phenomenology and hermeneutics
According to Scotland (2012) the ontology of an interpretivist approach is that reality is subjective, which is based on actual existing phenomena, and differs between individuals. These individuals construct meaning of the world through their experiences and with their senses. When an individual is situated in this reality, language then shapes and moulds this reality. An individual may have an experience and hold this understanding and feeling internally, but once given access to a language which can articulate and communicate this understanding to express it openly, it creates different and multiple ways to access it (Brenner, 2012).

To study these interpretations uses a hermeneutical approach, which is considered a method for “taking into account the phenomenon of meaning-making and its resultant impact on individual and group identity formation” (Boerboom, 2018, p.649). The intention of interpretative phenomenology is dialogue and understanding (Brenner, 2012). The researcher has to have an ethic of respect and be true to communicating the phenomenon on its own grounds. This requires researchers to acknowledge and reflect on their own assumptions and deeply analyse their lines of inquiry, which can go towards broadening their understanding, as they move between the practical reality of their participants (Brenner, 2012). It is important that interpretation of research takes place in teams or with the participants to ensure the interpretations are consensual and authentic (Brenner, 2012).

The conceptual framework outlined above provides a good foundation for the topic of interest and research into place-based education as it is steeped in the idea of relationships. These relationships are interconnected with self, humans, non-human and the natural world. Surrounding these relationships is language/meaning construction, which is a continually evolving and organic process. Indigenous perspectives influence this thinking and I have a great respect for their knowledge and wisdom of the natural world and the consciousness they practice in being in balance with place. In order to shift my thinking so it is more in line with indigenous perspectives, I acknowledge that I have grown up in a Western European way of thinking, which I am continuing to develop a critical consciousness of and how this has conditioned my way of thinking to this day.

The theoretical frameworks which supports this thinking is a combination of critical ecofeminism and interpretative phenomenology. When looking at ways to implement this theoretical framework in research, I am interested in engaging with two approaches. These include an ethic of care and hermeneutics.

From this theoretical and philosophical foundation, I move forward into research design through the Educational Research in Context course paper and refine this learning further to eventually conduct research.

Benner, P. (2012). Interpretive phenomenology. In L. Given (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods (pp. 462-464). Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE Publications. doi:10.4135/9781412963909.n234

Blenkinsop, S., Affifi, R., Piersol, L., & De Danann Sitka-Sage, M. (2017). Shut-up and listen: Implications and possibilities of Albert Memmi’s characteristics of colonisation upon the “natural world”. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 36(3), 349-369. doi:10.1007/s11217-016-9557-9

Boerboom, S. (2018). Hermeneutics. In M. Allen (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of communication research methods (pp. 649-652). Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE Publications. doi:10.4135/9781483381411.n228

Goralink, L., Dobson, T., & Nelson, M, P. (2014). Place-based care ethics: A field philosophy pedagogy. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 19, 180-196. 

Irwin, R. (2015). Environmental education, Heidegger and the significance of poetics. Policy Futures in Education, 13(1), 57-69. doi:10.1177/1478210315580221

Newby, P. (2014). Research methods for education, second edition. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from

Piersol, L., & Timmerman, N. (2017). Reimagining environmental education within academia: Storytelling and dialogue as lived ecofeminist politics. Journal of Environmental Education, 48(1), 10-17. doi:10.1080/00958964.2016.1249329 

Scotland, J. (2012). Exploring the philosophical underpinnings of research: Relating ontology and epistemology to the methodology and methods of the scientific, interpretive, and critical research paradigms. English Language Teaching, 5(9), 9-16. doi:10.5539/elt.v5n9p9

Stephens, A. (2017). Ecofeminism and systems thinking: shared ethics of care for action research. In H. Bradbury (Ed.), The SAGE handbook of action research (pp. 564-572). 55 City Road: SAGE Publications. doi:10.4135/9781473921290.n58

Holding tensions between Place Based Education and Digital Technologies

There is an internal battle I have in my head between Place Based Education and Digital Technologies. I liken it to that of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars movies, and his inner conflict with The Force, questioning the lure of ‘the Dark Side’.

Place Based Education can allow learners to explore the stories, histories, and experiences of different cultures that have influenced the shaping of their geographical location. Such learning might instil a deeper sense of personal identity and belonging for the learner and allow for assumptions to be challenged and new perspectives to be explored (Ministry of Education, 2018).
It is this learning that excites me as a teacher. I see it as developing critical consciousness within a school and surrounding community. However, I also have a passion for Digital Technologies and the enhanced opportunities these provide regarding Learning Design Skills like innovation/problem-solving, collaboration and learner agency.

The two areas can appear to be in opposition to one another. There is a general acceptance that environmental education is best supported through direct sensory experience with the outside environment. Whereas, Digital Technologies are the perceived enemy with screen-based media exerting power and control over body and mind, and causing environmental destruction through their means of production.

Recently, I read a paper that got me wondering about my ‘internal head battle’ in a different way. Rather than viewing these two tensions in opposition, I am thinking about holding the tensions together in the development of a critical and pragmatic stance towards digital technology in place conscious environmental education. Part of Greenwood & Hougham’s (2015) paper takes an ‘adaptation and mitigation’ approach to technology in environmental learning and offers critical conceptual guidelines for policy and practice.

When analysing the concepts of adaptation and mitigation, both are intertwined with one another, as adaptation looks to develop strategies to deal with present moment changes, while mitigation looks to prevent or delay catastrophic effects in the future.

Adaptation strategies
Greenwood & Hougham (2015) state that it is common sense for educators to take an adaptation stance towards the use of new devices, especially when making the most of the inevitable relationship with digital technologies. They acknowledge learner-centred pedagogy and digital trails as part of this process and the potential of using digital technologies to enhance this process further.

Learner Agency
Putting Place Based Education and Digital Technologies aside, there is the acknowledgement that contemporary education has to overcome the separation between students’ personal experiences, subjectivities and interests, and that of school environments rooted in traditional learning methods. As Dewey informed us, ‘learners need to be met where they are’ (Greenwood & Hougham, 2015). It means as educators we embrace an online and digitally mediated world, our learners’ world. We need to assess what students already understand about digital technologies and adapt by integrating this knowledge into curriculum and pedagogy to empower students further in their learning.

Digital Trails
Greenwood and Hougham (2015) go on to discuss how digital technologies can influence the stories, movements, and legacies of plants, animals and our shared environment. They acknowledge the decades of scientific inquiry and data collection through the use of digital tools like monitoring equipment, mapping technologies and electronic surveys that have created digital trails of information about our changing environment. They do not discredit the importance of the sensory experience of the environment or the place-conscious environmental education that comes from these explorations, but instead they look at the various other forms of digital technologies and media tools which can influence pedagogical potential to support today’s digitally literate learners.

The digital technologies and media tools currently influencing Place Based Education which can be considered when looking to adapt place-conscious pedagogy are:

  • Geographic Information Systems creating citizen science opportunities
  • Environmental Monitoring Projects providing uploading of information e.g. plants, and access to a network of information creating problem-based learning and student-driven inquiry
  • Digital Storytelling – film-making and blogging to communicate
  • Virtual Worlds/ Game-Based Learning to recreate place-based learning and support knowledge acquisition
  • Internet/Virtual and Augmented Reality – bridging distant places and forming relationships between them
  • Mobile Technology/Social Media to influence direct action and movements like climate change rallies or community beach clean-ups.

Greenwood and Hougham (2015) do not shy away from a critical analysis of how digital technologies impact people, place and planet negatively and discuss the importance for educators to approach contexts with humility and critical efforts to discover who does and does not get to speak: “An environmental education that seeks multiple perspectives and purposefully looks for competing stories of places could also be a powerful way to nurture understanding of the inherent contestation in all places, near and far” (p.111). While digital technologies can enhance place-conscious environmental learning, these same innovations can have severe consequences depending on the human condition and which direction a person’s moral compass points in. It is vital as educators that we incorporate this consciousness into our pedagogy and practice, and explicitly teach it.

Mitigation strategies
In Greenwood and Hougham (2015) work on mitigation strategies they discuss two approaches which can be used to reduce the reliance on tools and technologies to open opportunities for unmediated (undigitized) experience, which can create new relationships with technology: technofasting and slow pedagogy.

Any addiction develops a patterned way of experiencing the world. Unlike trying to beat an addiction, technofasting isn’t ridding oneself of the addiction, but instead developing periods of abstinence in order to achieve a benefit. By abstaining from technology we can limit its negative effects and become open to other ways of sensing, being, knowing and communicating. “Like fasting from food, the point of fasting from technology is not never to eat (or use technology) again, but to develop a new relationship to food (technology) and to one’s body” (p.104). By cultivating this relationship we create an opportunity to step back and assess the ways we interact with technology, and what these impacts are and could be on people, place and the planet.

Slow pedagogy
Greenwood and Hougham (2015) acknowledge Gruenewald’s (2005) work on strengthening a professionalized culture of accountability. There is a current pattern that educators are in regarding a fast paced process to meet predetermined outcomes prescribed by this professional culture. Gruenewald (2005) discusses a shift from individual achievement as a sole focus of assessment to a broader view of the institution of school and wider community. Instead of focusing and judging student and teacher performance, teachers take into account and focus on the larger contexts of where learning takes place, creating a shift in responsibility where relevant and meaningful learning encompasses the community.

Greenwood and Hougham conclude their discussion on mitigation strategies with a powerful quote from Chet Bowers: “We cannot totally eliminate our reliance upon technology once it has become part of the society’s infrastructure, just as we cannot totally eliminate our reliance on the industrial approach to production and consumption. The challenge is in reducing our reliance in those areas where the technology undermine the self-sufficiency of individuals and communities, and where it has a destructive impact on the environment” (2015, p.105). By being critically conscious of how we are engaging with technology we are able to open ourselves to other ways of being, knowing and communicating in the world.

Unlike Anakin Skywalker who ultimately succumbs to the Dark Side in the Star Wars movies, allowing his two forces to stay in competition with one another, because of what I’ve discovered from my reading, I’ve learned to accept the tensions between Place Based Education and Digital Technologies. I remain critically aware of these tensions as I utilise this reading and continue to find ways to unify them further to complement and enhance student learning though my teaching practice.


Greenwood, D., & Hougham, J. (2015). Mitigation and adaptation: Critical perspectives toward digital technologies in place-conscious environmental education. Policy Futures in Education, 13(1), 97-116.

Gruenewald, D. (2005). Accountability and Collaboration: Institutional Barriers and Strategic Pathways for Place-based Education. Ethics, Place and Environment, 8(3), 261-283.

Ministry of Education. (2018). Māori History. Retrieved from