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Reply to Danielle Pée’s BERA blog post, ‘The Power of Relationships’, as applied to research ethics

Alison Fox

This article is part of the BERA Blog special issue ‘Researching the Curriculum in schools and colleges: Practice, Professionalism and Innovation’ (read more).

Danielle Pée’s BERA blog post (5 April 2018) resonated with a key theme developed during the British Curriculum Foundation (BCF) event held at the University of Birmingham School on 24 February 2018, and which was manifest in the practical workshop I ran at this event, which offered a way of putting thinking about research ethics into practice.

Just as Pée advocated a move towards looking at socio-emotional programme development through a relational lens, we talked at the event about how curriculum development should be about finding better ways to live together on our own terms. Jean McNiff, in her presentation ‘Research for an ethical action-oriented curriculum’, referred to Hannah Arendt’s assertions – as part of her ‘theory for action’ – that we should not be told what to do but should be taking collective political action. Jean also proposed that Sowell’s concept of a utopian ‘unconstrained vision’ could be applied to curriculum development, and would see teachers deciding for themselves what was worth studying, which challenges were worth examining, and the moral purposes worth pursuing. Many of the sessions also referred back to Gerry Czerniawski’s opening comments about the view of Lawrence Stenhouse, founder of the BCF, that teacher emancipation was possible through generating knowledge that was close to practice and therefore of value to them (Dimmock, 2013). Research as political action, as empowerment and as a moral purpose are interesting ways of thinking about practitioner enquiry as a mechanism for curriculum development – as it is for practitioner research for any other personal, professional or school development purpose.

‘Research as political action, as empowerment and as a moral purpose are interesting ways of thinking about practitioner enquiry as a mechanism for curriculum development.’

In my session, ‘Planning a worthwhile, ethical practitioner research study for educational leadership’, participants started by focussing on why they were interested in embarking on an enquiry. This might be in response to what was troubling them in the classroom, what they were talking about in the staffroom, challenges that were keeping them awake or puzzles that came out of data analysis. This started participants on a planning journey through four stages, working outwards through concentric rings, as shown below.

These rings are based on four traditions of ethical thinking, reflected upon by both David Flinders in education (1992) and David Seedhouse in healthcare (1998), and pulled together into an ethical appraisal framework by myself and a colleague (Stutchbury and Fox, 2009). The inner ring as applied in this workshop was guided by consequential thinking – identifying the positive consequences a researcher aspires to – and starting to identify possible negative consequences which will need to be mitigated against.

Pée’s reference to the need to focus on ‘the development of interpersonal capabilities and the quality of interactions taking place within the school community’ (Noddings, 2012, referenced in Pée, 2018) through compassionate relationship-building also relates to ethical practitioner research enquiry. Having clarified ‘Why research?’, participants on their ethical appraisal journey considered in the second ring the question, ‘Who is involved or affected by the research?’. This is guided by ecological thinking about all those affected, directly or indirectly: stakeholders, participants, gatekeepers, parents, and so on. As researchers reflect on how the benefits of a study might be maximised and risks mitigated against, this often leads to thinking about broadening views about who might be involved.

Such identification of with whom research relationships need to be built leads to the third ring, which poses the question, ‘How will the research study be carried out respectfully with all those involved?’, connecting with respect as a central tenet of BERA ethical guidance (BERA, 2011). Here, a researcher’s ‘interpersonal capabilities’ (Noddings, 2012) and compassionate relationship-building come into focus, underpinned by relational ethical thinking.

The final part of the ethical appraisal journey considers the ‘So what?’ question for a researcher planning a study. Guided by deontological ethical thinking – which relates to the duties and responsibilities a researcher sees themselves as obliged to undertake – a researcher should now have clarified a study on which they can embark confidently. Whether they see this as political activism, professional empowerment or fulfilling a moral purpose, this should now be justifiable as locally valuable and contextually sensitive, rather than something imposed or contrived.

As with Pée, I and others at the BCF event advocate a relational approach to curriculum development – and consequently we advocate that the relationship-building bound up with respectful and compassionate enquiry is likely to have longer lasting and wider-reaching benefits beyond any individual research study.


British Educational Research Association [BERA] (2011) Ethical guidelines for educational research, 2011 revision, London.

Dimmock C (2013) ‘Knowledge is the route to emancipation: Lawrence Stenhouse on teacher work’,
Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change blog, 20 November 2013.

Flinders D (1992) ‘In search of ethical guidance: Constructing a basis for dialogue’, Qualitiative Studies in Education 5(2): 101–115

Noddings N (2012) ‘The caring relation in teaching’, Oxford Review of Education 38(6): 771–781

Pée D (2018) ‘The Power of Relationships: Reflections on SEL Programmes’, BERA Blog, 5 April 2018.

Seedhouse D (1998) Ethics: The heart of healthcare, Chichester: Wiley

Stutchbury K and Fox A (2009) ‘Ethics in educational research: Introducing a methodological tool for effective ethical analysis’, Cambridge Journal of Education 39(4): 489–504

Further reading

For further information and resources linked to this ethical appraisal framework, consult the: Doing Ethical Research website or join the ‘People Studying People: Research Ethics in Society’ FutureLearn course, which runs annually in February and September.