Research in NAIP

1.b Relationship between reflective practice and research

Fundamentally research is about enquiry. It is about curiosity, sparking curiosity and following it. It is driven by asking questions, by being open to being puzzled, by wanting to develop and move beyond where we are right now and seeking ways to do this. Sometimes it may be about solving a puzzle.

Research can take place on many different levels, from a brief puzzle over a personal question to a systematic and elaborate investigation over time. In this sense, it may be helpful to think about a continuum from personal enquiry and reflection through to formal research publicly shared. There is a liquid movement between them. Within this continuum lies a huge spectrum of possibilities.

(a) Personal reflection and daily practice

At one end of the spectrum, we might for example ask some immediate questions about today:

  • How shall I go about learning this piece?
  • What approaches do I want to choose?
  • I wonder what will happen if I …?
  • Then after a practicing session we might ask:
  • What have I learned from this work today?
  • What shall I focus on tomorrow?

These kinds of questions are individual. They are about reflecting in and on our practice as we go. We will in fact be reflecting all the time, often in the moment to support the decisions we make within a practice session. We may then also step back and think further about our intentions and what we have been doing (as indicated by the questions identified above. Schon (1987) usefully described these distinctions in terms of “reflection-in-action” (happening in the moment whilst for example practicing) and “reflection-on-action” (stepping back to think things over).

Schon’s thinking in turn was based partly on Kolb’s learning cycle, which has four basic stages within an ongoing cycle, as shown in Fig. 1. In many ways this learning cycle can underpin the whole continuum of personal reflection to formal research in contexts where such work is engaged in stimulating change that becomes embedded into practice as a musician.

Fig. 1 – Kolb’s learning cycle

Fig. 1 – Kolb’s learning cycle

The stages are as follows:

1. Concrete Experience – “Do”

2. Reflect on Experience – “Review”
-What happened? – (description of content)
-How did it happen? (process)
-Why did it happen? (analysing contributing factors including underlying beliefs/premises)

3. Abstract Conceptualisation – “Learn”
-What patterns are evident?
-What other perspectives could there be?
-What can I learn from this?

4. Plan Active Experimentation – “Apply”
-What next?

A related approach to Kolb’s learning cycle would be to use Terry Borton’s (1970) 3 stem questions: ‘What? So What? Now What?’.
-What? = Description of an event
-So What? = Analysis of an event
-Now What? = Proposed actions following an event

Both of the above approaches exemplify learning that is not about simple problem solving, but involves a deep level of reflection and self-awareness. Importantly, the very way in which one goes about defining events/issues/problems has an effect on future outcomes. Reflective practice involves being deeply aware of this. Argyris (1974) coined the terms ‘single loop’ and ‘double loop’ learning to highlight this. He gives the analogy of a thermostat to illustrate the point:

A thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degrees is a good example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask, ‘‘Why am I set at 68 degrees?’’ and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaging in double-loop learning. (Argyris 1991:4)

The experiential approach to learning, captured in both Kolb’s cycle and Borton’s stem questions, can occur in many different timeframes, from moment-by-moment to consideration over many years. Nonetheless, Schon’s distinction between reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action is important and useful. This latter, we might otherwise term ‘Reflexive Practice’, and this is further explored in section I.c. It is particularly important that both the student artist/researcher, and also the coach/mentor, are aware of these processes and distinctions.

(b) Reflection over time or on broader issues

Somewhere in the middle of the continuum, we might ask some more extended questions:

  • What different ways can I find to programme the repertoire I am working on (or compositions I am making) within concerts/events in the next few months?
  • How may different contexts influence how I present and play them?
  • In what ways can I document my thinking and programming, and then the concerts/events themselves, that will help me to reflect on the work and generate insights about how I respond to different performing contexts, what approaches work well and what makes them effective?

Again we could think of this largely as an example of personal reflective practice. But it goes further than the first example in that it extends to a project over time, the possibility to experiment in different contexts, to learn from each in a way that informs the next. This iterative process of reflection results in both ‘feed-forward’ and feedback, as shown in Fig. 2. This draws on Hughes (2011) work into ipsative assessment and working towards a personal best. Feed-forward consists of reflection and formative feedback, resulting in next steps. Feedback will consist, in part, of reflecting on the extent to which that feed-forward was useful in the subsequent iteration of artistic practice.

Fig. 2 – Iterative development of artistic work

Fig. 2 – Iterative development of artistic work

It is also a context where it may well begin to be possible to draw out some more general insights and understanding that may then be applicable in other situations, relevant beyond the immediate project/set of questions. The example also suggests that it may well be worth documenting aspects of the process over time, to be able to step back and see patterns and insights emerging. This points in a new direction and highlights the idea that it may be possible to share these insights with other people, making them accessible and relevant to other practitioners for example. Here the work is starting to take on features of research, to be something of wider interest, potentially beneficial beyond the person reflecting.

If we want to undertake this project in a stronger research frame, then it needs more careful planning, and a more systematic approach at all stages of the reflective cycle. We will need "to plan, act, observe and reflect more carefully, more systematically, and more rigorously than one usually does in everyday life" (Kemmis and McTaggart, 1992:10).

(c) Research

At the other end of the spectrum we might ask a set of questions that clearly cannot be answered by one person immediately, and indeed may require collaboration from a team over time through several stages:

  • How may collaborative music-making with young refugees in a particular city be effectively structured and facilitated to support their artistic expression, identity and development within an unfamiliar community?
  • What kinds of impact may this work have?

This kind of work is more often described as “research”. Research has been defined in different ways, and is increasingly understood in broader terms. The Frascati Manual defines it as "creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications" (OECD, 2002). The Higher Education Funding Council for England defines research more simply as "a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared" (HEFCE, 2011). Significantly, this latter definition highlights the importance of thinking about how research findings are communicated, and to whom.

Some generally agreed principles underlying research include:

  • Enquiry is put into context of other relevant work in the field.
  • Research explicitly develops a critical and analytic perspective on personal reflections.
  • Research goes beyond one’s own practice in some way, for example looking actively for and critically evaluating external influences as a part of exploring their impact on one’s practice.
  • Research develops explicit outcomes/conclusions and seeks ways to make these communicable to others.

Going back to the example research questions at the beginning of this section, these sorts of questions will probably need to be broken down into more specific sub-questions, and there will need to be discussion about how actually you can go about addressing the questions. In this instance, for example, you might think that you could best answer the questions by asking the refugees themselves. On the other hand, you might want to try out some different approaches to collaborative music-making with them and explore which of these are most effective and why. This would involve practical projects and interventions which are then carefully evaluated. You might also decide that to understand the impact of collaborative-music making you have to go further than asking the participants for their perspectives, and start to measure things like changes in how well the participants are able to integrate socially, achievements at school and so on. In practice, high quality research might well seek to combine several of these approaches in order to generate rich and credible evidence that would be really compelling for future policy making. It’s very easy to see then how easily research can become complex and involve lots of resources. This makes it absolutely essential to think through different options, considering both what you want to achieve from the work and who it is for, and what will make the process manageable with the time and resources you have. 

To sum up - reflection and research are powerful elements in developing our identities as musicians: artistic, personal and professional. This can relate to renewing our practice on a daily basis. Equally it can extend to large scale projects/initiatives that go more deeply and systematically into questions and issues that are relevant beyond a single individual, aiming to yield profound insights and results that can transform practice.