An assortment of updates: grown-up man finishes his PhD, registers for SPM (?), lectures at UM, etc.

Hello everyone, here is a quick (and unedited) series of updates. This post might come across as rather stream-of-consciousness-like, but my thinking is that it is better to put this up in an unpolished form than to be so fussy about my writing that the post never comes to be (because it gets snowed under by other priorities). This is a blog, after all.

One of my main to-dos this year is to sit for SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia), the general secondary school leaving certificate in Malaysia.

Although I sort of now have a PhD–hold up, oh yes I passed my PhD viva, and since there were no corrections required, that means I have fulfilled all requirements for the degree, hooray! Now all there for me to do to actually be awarded the PhD is to say some Latin words while holding a stranger’s finger in the presence of An Important Person (I am referring to Cambridge’s archaic graduation ceremony). No idea when that’ll happen, for obvious reasons. But anyway, suffice to say I am very grateful. My thesis has been deposited at the university library and will eventually be open access, after an initial embargo period of one year.

J.S. Wilson, a printing company based at Cambridge, did the printing and submission for me, since I couldn’t do it in person. A nice member of staff by the name of Eric took a photo for me, as a keepsake. As all true models do, my thesis somehow knew that it shouldn’t look directly at the camera. Nice!

Okay where was I? Ah yes — I do not have an SPM qualification because I did my secondary and pre-university education in Singapore (ages and ages ago now); this hadn’t been an issue for most of my career as I had been working in the private sector, but now that I am applying to be a member of Faculty at a public university, I need to get the qualification, especially in Bahasa Melayu (BM).

Unfortunately the equivalent BM qualification in Singapore (‘O’ Levels) isn’t recognised by the Public Service Commission, despite it also being benchmarked to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. This is a long-standing requirement set for Malaysian applicants (a fun joke: the fastest way for me to qualify to work for the university is to renounce my citizenship, hence categorising myself as an ‘international applicant’ who also happens to conveniently be fluent in Malay.) I have known about this requirement all this while by the way, so I am entirely to blame for putting it off until now.

Anyway I am enrolled for the 2021 SPM sitting, which due to COVID is taking place in Feb/March this year. As we aren’t allowed to register for individual subjects, I have had to apply for at least 5, some of which are compulsory. And so I thought to take it a step further and register for subjects that (a) interest me, (b) I think I can manage in the short preparation time that I have, and (c) will be taught by the students I am currently teaching/training at U.M. I will be sitting for BM, English, English Literature, Sejarah (History) and Moral.

My strategy to exam prep: bagai menatang minyak yang penuh, etc. Check out the flash cards!

It’s quite nice to be systematically learning a language again actually, even if it is a language I already use almost daily. There might be an autoethnography about language learning in there!

In the meantime however it has still been possible for me to work part-time at the Faculty of Education at Universiti Malaya, where I plan to apply for a full-time position as soon as I can. Starting July last year, I started out as a practicum supervisor for undergraduates (a role that involves supporting and evaluating undergraduates posted for a few months at local secondary schools), and from October I have been a research methods lecturer for undergraduates. It’s been a lot of hard work designing the course and its assessments, and being ready to give my best every week for the students, but I have really enjoyed it. It is thrilling to have skin in the game and to begin working on the very thing I am so passionate about: the democratisation of educational research for all teachers, to train and empower them to be equal partners in the research eco-system, within which they leverage their inherent epistemic advantage as practitioners.

A slide from my first lecture in October.

My spiel: educational research is a wide and variegated practice that requires participants who work on a specialised and more committed basis (academics like myself) but this does not mean that teachers cannot play an active and indispensable role in it, especially if we’re talking about educational research that is closely connected to practice and improves education (which to me is the eventual raison d’etre of the whole endeavour) — see, for example, Geert Biesta (2020). So to me at least, that’s why a research component is considered part and parcel of teacher training, at least the undergraduate level. And that’s where I want to work.

I really do find that I am happier and at my best when doing teachery things, building learning communities and passing on ideas and skills that I’ve had the benefit of learning over the years. As the saying goes, ‘Kemenyan sebesar lutut, jika tidak dibakar manakan berbau?

Faded signboard or not, at least ada free parking beb.

In addition to preparing for SPM and lecturing at Universiti Malaya, I’ve also had another part-time consulting + teaching job (will write about it next time if I can) and have been trying to keep my academic life going, like a do-it-yourself postdoc assembled out of scrap Lego. Writing and (sometimes) submitting abstracts, manuscripts, giving occasional talks, organising discussion groups, trying to keep up with the literature. All unpaid, such is the sad reality of doing this kind of work when you’re an academic orphan. But I am grateful for enough paid roles to keep the lights on until my SPM results are out and the castle lowers its drawbridge. Wish me luck!

Aaron's Animals - Facebook Hacker - YouTube
Accurate representation of me these days except I don’t use a Mac and I am not nearly as well-groomed.

I had the good fortune to present at UNMC School of Education’s Alternative Research Lounge lately. A really stimulating and diverse community they have there, led by a really sharp team of academics.

The “Intimate Outsider”? Reflections on Researching Teacher Communities, by an Ex-Teacher

I’ve just written a guest post for the FERSA Cambridge blog. Do check it out, as well as the other pieces on that platform! Most helpful for research students especially in the field of education.

I really enjoyed writing this reflective piece on identity and fieldwork relationships. Although my participants and I are not “friends” in the ordinary sense of the word, I am very fond of them and hope to be a useful person in their lives.


Photos of rambutan and other things included

Paradigms: Knowing the ‘Why’ in Research Methods (Lent Term 2018)

My main PhD task last term was to write what is loosely termed ‘a methods chapter’. This I accomplished notwithstanding my tardiness, lack of training for the Cambridge Half Marathon, the Beast from the East, a basketball injury (middle and ring fingers, right hand) and of course the UCU strikes which paralysed my Faculty for the better part of 4 weeks.

In the end, I spent about 75% of my (painfully limited) cognitive bandwidth reading up on paradigms, or that which some people call theoretical/philosophical foundations, before I even got to the nitty-gritty of my actual methods, or the things I will do to gather data and work with my research participants. This blog-post is me making sense of this whole stage of research, and in the process I hope to offer two things: 1) a layperson’s defense of the importance of philosophical thinking in education research and 2) a basic description of my current philosophical position: critical realism.

Apparently Mark Wahlberg research memes are a thing.

Continue reading “Paradigms: Knowing the ‘Why’ in Research Methods (Lent Term 2018)”

Year 1 Term 1

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and after a good game of basketball and a hearty lunch of leftover chicken risotto, I feel very much like taking a nap, watching the next episode of Sherlock, or reading Terry Pratchett. Nonetheless, I thought it would be good to write a bit about what I’ve been reading over the past few days.

In my first term at Cambridge, I had to review the research literature on my topic of study (broadly, in-service teacher professional learning in Malaysia). With regards to my research context, I found out a lot about the Malaysian education system, especially how the different pieces of a teacher’s life fits together, from candidate selection for initial teacher training, to the different policy instruments in place to support and incentivise teacher development.

I also got to review a lot of the conceptual arguments and empirical evidence for professional learning communities (PLCs), one of the policies being implemented in Malaysia. This was an extreme frustrating journey, because the term was really quite slippery and loose, such that it really does seem like ‘all things to all people’. A lot of the things people say PLCs are seem to just be a restatement of the fairly obvious things that we already know about schools. Yes, of course schools do better if teachers are collaborative; and of course they do better if they have high aspirations. So what? With that said, perhaps the PLC policy would help in Malaysia by virtue of how it packages and re-brands various good practices in a semi-coherent package.

Conceptual ambiguity causes havoc if you’re trying to build an empirical evidence-base. You see people reviewing evidence by citing studies that didn’t even use the term PLC, instead being on something like ‘collaborative learning’ or ‘teacher learning teams’, etc. To me at least, it’s hard to justify that these studies are really accumulating evidence on comparably similar things; it seems rather that it’s a mistake to aggregate in such a way. Moreover (and quite crucially), there isn’t enough research done on the PLC implementation process itself. There’s really a lot of work to do.

I’m currently waiting for feedback on my paper, during which time I agreed with my supervisor to read more deeply into the philosophical foundations for my study. This has been hard going, but very exciting. I have been reading up on critical realism (CR), a metatheory promulgated by Roy Bhaskar and developed further by Andrew Sayer, Margaret Archer and others.

CR makes a lot of sense to me, and though not widely used in education research (yet), I think it has a whole lot of potential for addressing the weaknesses of both positivism and interpretivism. Critical realists believe that there is a real world ‘out there’ which we can study, but is not reducible to what we can know about it. In Fletcher’s (2017) words, ‘human knowledge captures only a small part of a deeper and vaster reality’ (p. 182). This offers a vital difference to the postmodern idea that there’s no such thing as truth, only perspective, or the positivist idea that everything there is to know in Science exists on the level of the empirical.

Some concepts in CR, such as that of open systems, middle-range theories or a ‘theory-laden world’ come quite readily to me. Some, like the three levels of depth reality (Empirical-Actual-Real), abduction/retroduction and two domains (transitive and intransitive) took me some time, but are really very beneficial. More on these later.