By: C.J. Rauch, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

In the spirit of the University’s Festival of Wellbeing, C.J. Rauch writes about how hitting the gym has given him new insights into the field of educational research.

I was told that the most important thing a PhD student can do whilst finishing their thesis (aside from writing, of course) is to do some form of regular physical activity. Hours of writing can be incredibly sedentary; tea breaks can easily turn into tea and cake breaks. And how many of us work with a bowl of chocolates within an arm’s reach?

Conversely, the multifaceted benefits of working out for our physical and mental wellbeing are well documented. Aside from keeping weight, blood pressure, and waistline in check, exercise provides a jolt of endorphins. Even a brisk 10 minute walk has significant benefits.

image1Because of researchers’ unique situation, the benefits can be extra pronounced for them and those working in similar conditions. Working out is a great time to catch up on that backlog of podcasts, audiobooks, and Radio 4 programmes saved for another day. Fitness classes and gym buddies can provide social interaction for what can otherwise be an isolating experience. Having a gym routine can also create structure for a potentially structureless schedule. Tracking progress to heavier weights and faster times provides a sense of accomplishment when research and writing can feel stagnant. For some, counting reps and sets can clear a researcher’s head of theoretical frameworks, methodology, or fights with SPSS. For others, an afternoon walk can be an opportunity for others to think through and make sense of these very things. (Indeed, the idea for this article came to me during a 2×1000 erg.)

A few months ago, with my waistline expanding and my 30th birthday and PhD deadline looming, I joined a local gym—conveniently located midway between my college and the Faculty of Education. I started attending classes, picked a “couch to 5k” programme, and started lifting heavy things up. (Well, they seemed heavy to me!) The gym quickly became something I looked forward to and part of my daily routine.

As with so many people who are drawn to higher education and doctoral degrees, I have always been one to push myself. I knew there had to be good evidence out there about how to maximise my fitness. How much should I be eating? What should be my ratio of carbs to proteins? How many sets should I do? How many reps per set? How much cardio should I do? Should I work out before eating? How many donuts can I get away with eating at a FERSA blog editors’ meeting? To quote the hip kids these days, how can I make sick gainz?

A 0.41 second Google search yields about 5.28 million results for such questions. As a researcher, I dutifully started reading. One article would quickly link to three others; my browser became an exponentially expanding bar of open tabs. I was unsurprised by the often contradictory nature of the material. I was surprised by how much contradiction there was and how much advice was based on a single small-scale study—and drew conclusions that may have caused the original researchers to cringe. And of course, they all had something to sell me: their protein supplement, their workout plan, their macronutrient formula spreadsheet, their analysis of my body type, or their remote personal trainer.

Surely some expert has waded through all this advice and found some happy medium? Surely there’s an approach that won’t necessarily work the fastest, but will work overall? Surely it’s available for free? Surely we know something?!

This curiosity in how we know fitness knowledge stems from my academic experiences. One of my research interests is personal epistemology: how do we know what we know? I am curious how teachers construct their knowledge and understandings about teaching and learning. As is the case with my fitness hunt, I often similarly become curious how different fields have constructed their core understandings.

I was thinking about these core understandings of fitness while doing my core workout this morning. While struggling through V-sits, I suddenly thought about educational research. Are we as guilty as the 5.28 million fitness sites on the internet? Do we proffer our unique findings to practitioners, politicians, and parents without sufficient contextualisation and explanation? It’s great that there has been a movement to widen access to our research through open-access publications, blogs, and Twitter; many strive to free knowledge from behind a paywall. But might this information saturation complicate others’ construction of a coherent understanding?

Study A finds that n% of students learn a concept best through practice X, while Study B finds that p% learn best through practice Y. Both of these studies could be quality research and highly valid—indeed, this is an inherent beauty and challenge for research in social science. And yet, this leaves the teacher scratching their head, trying to decide what to implement in their classroom. More of practice X? More of Y? Some happy medium? This holds for more than just research in classroom learning, but can be applied equally to many other fields of educational research.

It is a good practice of quality studies to relate the findings to other research in the field. But simply stating similarities and differences may not be enough. We, as educational researchers, have a duty to play an active role in building these pragmatic core understandings about our field. Extensive literature reviews have long been consigned to academic journals and dense theses. Conversely, more “popular” avenues of communication seem to focus on single (although exciting) studies. We ought to do more to switch this paradigm.

Hitting the gym has been hugely beneficial for me—not just for my fitness, but also my ability to tackle my thesis. Not only has it been an exercise for my muscles, it has been an exercise in building my own knowledge. As I draw conclusions in my own doctoral research, I intend on sharing how the findings shape our core understandings in the field. In so doing, I hope I can help education make some sick gainz in the same way I hope to!

C.J. Rauch is a final year PhD student in the Psychology, Education, and Learning Sciences research group at the Faculty of Education. His work examines teacher education and teachers’ epistemologies, philosophies, and beliefs about teaching. He is on Twitter @CJRauchEduc, where he tweets about education research and “musings of a gym novice.”

Posted by:fersacambridge

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