21 September 2022
Holistic Think Tank Methodological Manifesto
1. A methodology to match the approach to the world and to education
At Holistic Think Tank we are primarily interested in education, it is the starting point for us. We wonder what should be taught in schools. We look at how schools and education can assist students in self-development, planning their life paths and in managing the inevitable changes that constantly put these plans to the test. We are trying once again, now from an adult perspective, to experience what it is like to be a student, but at the same time we also want to understand what teaching is like through the eyes of a teacher. In all this, it seems obvious to us that answering these questions is only possible if we reach beyond traditional education. When we abandon the artificial division into what is in and what is out of school, which is not reflected in reality, when we look at life and at people holistically.
Although we share strong ideas that are reflected in our materials, we do not believe that we are such smart alecks. We have our goal, but we are aware that we are only at the beginning of the road to a change in education. There are many twists and turns ahead of us, and in our search for the right path we are driven largely by our own curiosity, a scientific bent and a dream of a better world.
It is scientific research and analysis that are our working tools. Not without a reason. Research and education are somewhat two sides of the same coin. Both help us to better understand the world around us. At the Holistic Think Tank we share a common vision of both education and how we want to analyse it. Our approach is qualitative, individual and – again – holistic. We believe that this is the only way we can achieve the goals we have set ourselves.
2. Qualitative approach to research
As researchers, we understand that there are no obvious winners in the inconclusive argument between proponents of the quantitative and qualitative paradigms, and that both ways of conducting research have their advantages and disadvantages. We are aware that there is no single ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ research approach – just as the world is diverse and the challenges it presents us with are diverse, so must be the ways in which we address these challenges, including through science. At the same time, there is no denying that the qualitative approach is much more in tune with our thinking about education and the world. This is so for at least several reasons, which I attempt to lay out in this manifesto.
Above all, this is influenced by the nature of the objectives we set ourselves. For we seek to understand what schools are, what they should be, what they teach, and what they should teach. It is understanding, as a goal, that determines our methodological choices. We are not interested in broad but superficial analyses. We appreciate the value of international educational research based on tests, but we do not believe that their results can adequately describe the school experience or identify what is missing in the educational process. We take the existing quantitative research as a guide to suggest that we need to look deeper into particular aspects of the school environment and education system. This reflection is qualitative in nature.
What’s more, while the analyses, reports, interviews, podcasts, and all other material branded under the Holistic Think Tank name are our work, we don’t want our voice to be the only one that is heard. As already mentioned – we are a group of experts, with many years of experience in social and educational research, but we are not omniscient. Therefore, in conducting our research, we want to give a voice to our respondents – school principals, teachers, parents and, above all, students.
The methodological choice we made at the design stage of our research is in line with this assumption. In fact, from a wide range of qualitative research approaches, we selected a grounded theory as the best one to achieve our research objectives. This manifesto is not the place to dwell on its assumptions. Out of my duty as a researcher, I will only say that the main demand of this theory is to conduct the research process based on the iterative acquisition of research material, which is periodically structured for the needs of later detailed analysis, on the basis of which the target research theory is built. Simplifying but also capturing its essence, the whole thing can be reduced to saying that in our attempts to understand reality we rely on data and true stories rather than theoretical constructs imposed from above. In undertaking research, we assume that it is our respondents (children, their parents, teachers and others) who decide which topics they consider important and how they share them with us.
The above-mentioned features of our thinking about education and our research approach, can be reduced to a single declaration. Our project is a profoundly humanistic project which, at every stage of its existence, puts people at its centre. For us, school is not just a building, the educational system is not a set of laws and institutions, and we do not consider school grades to be the final outcome of the learning process. We seek to understand the relationships that make up the school environment, the interrelationships that make that environment look the way it does, and the processes by which when we leave school we are to some extent different people than we were when we started it.
Also looking at our list of competences that we believe schools should teach, it is easy to see that it revolves around people and their existence in the world – both in the social world and in the natural world; both as an individual and as a member of a community.
3. Case study as a course of action
In addition to the qualitative approach, the focus on individual case studies is also characteristic of our research projects. And just as with the conscious choice of the qualitative paradigm as the basis for our inquiry, this decision was not accidental. It is also where our understanding of the world and education manifests itself.
This is because case study analysis is based both on a recognition of the diversity that exists in the world and on a search for common ground in that diversity. When conducting research in different schools, in different countries and on different continents, we are aware that we will find different local conditions, different experiences and different protagonists in our stories – students, parents, teachers. The world, also in terms of education, is incredibly diverse and in this diversity lies its strength. This does not change the fact that we are all human, and global networks of interconnectedness mean that we have more and more in common with one another. Therefore, when conducting our research at the Holistic Think Tank and analysing the diversity of the world, we do not so much focus on what divides us, but rather on what unites us.
This also expresses our global aspiration that the change we propose should be holistic. The diversity I mentioned is something we look for both in our own backyard and by going far beyond it and studying school environments around the world.
Focusing on what unites rather than on what divides does not mean that we are trying to strip the world of diversity – it is in fact quite the opposite. The case study approach is a affirming approach to individuality, with each case providing value in its own right. Understanding each school environment in which our researchers will appear brings us closer to understanding the school as such, knowing each education system in which these schools operate increases our chances of finding good solutions that we would like to share with the world.
Just as we are convinced that a school should not produce hosts of identical, formatted graduates, in our research we do not limit ourselves to the typical. In many studies, especially those of a quantitative nature, the so-called ‘outliers’ are removed from the analysis process, treated as a disturbance. We do the opposite, and outlier cases will often be the focus of our attention. We believe that an idea that will help revolutionise education around the world can start with an individual – one school, or even one student, one teacher. And it is our job to find it there.
The case study approach is a direct reflection of our aspirations for an interdisciplinary subject, where, starting from diverse experiences of students, parents and teachers all over the world, we try to find what actually connects us as people and individuals and which should be the basis of the school curriculum.
4. Holistic approach
Another feature of our thinking about research and education is the holistic approach. In both cases we treat life as a unity and the phenomena and environments as a whole – we do not reduce, we do not introduce unnecessary divisions that are not reflected in social reality. This makes us understand terms such as school, school environment or learning process very broadly.
For example, ‘school environment’ – a key concept in our research – is understood broadly in many respects. Firstly, the actors it is made up of, among whom students and teachers are of course the most important, but we also see how important janitors, school psychologists, school shop owners, security guards or parents can be in this environment. Secondly, the space in which particular environment is physically located. We take into account, of course, the school building and its classrooms and corridors, the canteen, cloakroom or gym, and the surrounding area of the building with its game fields, trees, playgrounds and nearby businesses. At the same time, we see that the school is also present in places that are physically distant from the building itself – in the homes of the students, in the courtyards and on the school buses – or even those that do not have physical properties. The latter case of virtual spaces, found primarily on the internet, seems particularly relevant in the current times. Finally, we understand the school environment broadly also in terms of the phenomena that constitute it. There would not be enough time to list them all, let alone have space for them in this text, so I would just like to stress once again that we are giving the floor to our respondents: they are the ones who decide what is part of the school environment.
Hence the decision to use a phenomenographic approach in our research – we are interested in human experience, which is always holistic. Phenomenography is a research approach that involves describing observed elements of reality as they appear to humans. It aims to discover the qualitatively different ways in which people experience, conceptualise, become aware of and understand different aspects of phenomena in the world around them. In other words, it is an empirical study of different ways of human thinking about the world. When conducting a phenomenographic study, we arrive at them through a qualitative description of the individual experiences of those participating in the study.
The specific approach of the Holistic Think Tank is also manifested in our practical experience of conducting research. I mentioned earlier that, in line with the idea of qualitative research and the tenets of grounded theory, we try to be sensitive to what our respondents bring with them. This is why we test our survey and tools before sending them out into the world. Each HTT research project includes a pilot phase. Importantly, it serves us not to confirm the validity of our theses, but to actually verify what we have created. Following a pilot study we conducted as part of the project ‘What Schools Teach Vs What Schools Ought to Teach: A phenomenography of the school environment” we modified all the observation sheets, interview scenarios and other tools we designed. Not because we got it so wrong the first time, but so that they actually correspond to the school reality they are supposed to analyse.
The scale of our research is also due to the approach we have taken. We understand that in order to understand the school environment, the educational system or learning processes, we cannot limit ourselves to our own backyard. Therefore, in order to be able to capture these phenomena in all their diversity, we conduct research in 12 countries scattered around the world – Poland, South Korea, India, USA, UAE, Philippines, Kenya, Lebanon, Republic of South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
Despite this extensive effort, we do not want to conduct this research in a ‘mass production’ style; we do not want to drop into a school, quickly collect data and disappear. We are committed to ensuring that, as far as possible, our study itself is part of a change in education. In each of the countries where we conduct our research, we interact with local coordinators and local researchers. We treat the schools that let us in as partners, not just the object of study, and we provide them with feedback and access to our analysis. We strive for change in education together, shoulder to shoulder
6. Recommended literature
This is our methodological manifesto at Holistic Think Tank. This is how we operate, both as researchers and as advocates for change in education. The qualitative approach we use, the grounded theory and phenomenography ideas are complementary and correspond to our view of education. You will see the effects of these activities in our publications and in the materials we have drawn. Meanwhile, if you are interested in our methodological approach, we recommend the following literature:
- Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2017). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage.
- Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2011). The Sage handbook of qualitative research. Sage.
- Denzin, N. K. (2008). Strategies of qualitative inquiry. Sage.
- Silverman, D. (2013). Doing qualitative research: A practical handbook. Sage.
- Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. M. (1997). Grounded theory in practice. Sage.
- Yin, R. K. (2009). Case study research: Design and methods. Sage.