Blog Series #2 Undergraduate Dissertation Research in SoE: Showcasing Education Studies Undergraduate Dissertations

By Dr. Amanda Williams  School of Education

Building on the last post (Blog #1) singing the praises of our Undergraduate’s Dissertation projects and offering broad advice for getting started on a dissertation, this article will showcase two dissertations conducted by our BSc Education Studies students Estelle Wu (supervised by Dr Rafael Mitchell) and Leila Meredith (Dr Julia Paulson). These projects apply a critical education lens to better understand educative processes within and beyond schools. Both refuse to bend to the status quo and instead demonstrate how education can be used to improve lived experiences.

I am delighted to be sharing the innovative projects conducted by Estelle and Leila. More detail can be found below, along with advice for third year students beginning their own dissertation journeys.

Balancing National and International Expectations at an International School in China – Linjun (Estelle) Wu

Estelle Wu, School of Education

In this case study, Estelle examined how an elite International School in China with a large proportion of local students balanced the delivery of the national curriculum while striving to create global citizens. She reviewed school-level information available on the website (i.e., mission statement, curriculum offered, timetable, etc) and used this to inform her interviews with Chinese and expatriate teachers, and Headteacher in the school. She found that the case study school was predominantly Chinese in language and culture. She argues that greater government support – for example greater school autonomy in deciding how to deliver the national curriculum- is needed in order to result in a truly international educational experience for students.

This project was inspired by Estelle’s own experiences as a teaching assistant at an international school which was in the process of reform to develop a global citizen curriculum. Through this experience she came to recognise some of the practical challenges which schools can face in providing an international-oriented education within national curriculum requirements. She decided to explore this topic in more depth for her dissertation research.

Dr Mitchell nominated this dissertation for inclusion in our Undergraduate Research Showcase, and had this to say about Estelle’s project

“There’s a long tradition (going back 60 years or more in this country) of researchers studying educational phenomena through the lens of a single school case study. Doing this well requires a diverse skill set, balancing the technical skills required for rich data collection with the social skills required for gaining participants’ trust during fieldwork. Estelle did impressive work with both aspects of this, and her study offers an insightful account of teachers’ perspectives on what it means for a school to be Chinese and international, as well as school-level strategies for navigating these tensions.”

The Role of Critical Pedagogy within the Extinction Rebellion Movement- Leila Meredith

Extinction Rebellion protest

For her dissertation Leila examined the role of critical pedagogy within activism for challenging neoliberalism, and applied this to the Extinction Rebellion Movement. She adopted an Observer-as-Participant role when attending Extinction Rebellion meetings and then built on this by interviewing members of the movement. Leila found that critical pedagogy was implicated in both the movement’s outreach activities and internal organization. Extinction Rebellion was successful in engaging people in the movement and empowering them, using dialogue and art-based projects as a way of connecting people without conflict. Internally, there was a non-hierarchical structure that emphasized personal reflection and commitment to change at the individual and societal level. Leila argues through these activities Extinction Rebellion was applying critical pedagogy to activism; this is a model that could be transferred to other social movements.

This wasn’t the first dissertation topic that Leila came up with. But she attended a rebellion march around the time she was formulating her ideas and was excited about the impact the movement was having. In conversation with Dr Paulson she was able to devise a research project that was centred in her passion for climate change activism, by drawing on connections that already existed. This research topic expands on content delivered on the programme related to critical pedagogy; Leila was interested in examining whether this approach could be applied outside formal educational settings (spoiler: it can).

Dr Paulson nominated this dissertation for inclusion in our Undergraduate Research Showcase, and had this to say about Leila’s project

“Leila’s dissertation is impressive because it blends existing literature, especially theory around critical pedagogy and social movements, with the data she collected to make an original contribution to thinking about learning through activism. Leila also adopted a thoughtful and reflexive approach to research ethics and wrote about this passionately in her ethics proposal and in her dissertation. Leila found space for her own creativity in the writing of her dissertation, using poetry alongside academic writing. This worked really well and helped make the dissertation her own.”

How to get started on your Dissertation: Advice from the Other Side

Everyone can agree that the thought of completing a dissertation seems almost impossible at the start. Where does one begin? What should one do? We asked the four undergraduate students featured in this blog series what advice they would give to students starting in on their own dissertation journeys. Here is what they said:

  1. Chose a topic you are interested in. This is so important that it is worth repeating. Read in the area you are interested in to help inform your ideas. Leila recommends that you pick something you are passionate about because that will make it more interesting and fun. Leila also notes that it was through conversations with her supervisor that she was able to refine ideas to create a manageable research project that was feasible within the timeframe allocated. If you do find yourself modifying your ideas in conversation with your supervisor, make sure that what you end up with is something that you are genuinely interested.
  2. Organize your reading. Estelle recommended that students take notes on readings and organize them into folders by topic to more easily access information when it comes to writing up your project.
  3. Manage your time. Set a plan with your supervisor for when you will complete different sections of your project and then stick to your plan. Set soft deadlines for drafts of chapters throughout the year. For example, the literature review in January, methods in March, results and discussion in April. Working backwards from these deadlines, allocate time each week to work on the project. Leila Meredith said that this strategy kept her on-track and prevented her from leaving all the writing until the last two weeks of term.

Concluding Thoughts

Doing a dissertation is stressful. There is a lot of unknowns when conducting an independent piece of research – especially for the first time. It is typical for things to go right, as well as wrong, and sometimes students find they need to be flexible in order to complete their projects on time. In the School of Education dissertation students have two main points of contact for support: the unit tutors and more importantly your supervisor. In the next instalment in this series will provide some tips on working with your supervisor, in addition to showcasing some research projects by our Psychology in Education students.