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Analyzing Qualitative Data
June 23, 2016
It’s a key part of the curriculum for British secondary school and American high school education to teach critical thought and analysis. It’s a vital life skill: the ability to look at who is saying what, and pick apart what is being said. I’ve been thinking about the possible role for qualitative analysis in education, and how qualitative data analysis software in particular could help develop critical analysis skills in students of all ages.
While using qualitative analysis software is fairly common at university level, it’s a little unusual (possibly unprecedented at a quick glance) to use it at higher/secondary level with pre-college students. But why is this the case? It may well be that previously the software was too complex or expensive to use in mainstream schools, especially when you consider the amount of training the teachers and educators would have to have.
However, Quirkos was designed to make qualitative analysis more accessible by being easier to learn and teach, while also reducing the cost of licences. Thus it may make a better fit than previous options for the higher education sector. But how would such an approach work, and how would it fit into an already tight curriculum?
First of all, the notion of critical reading and analysis is prominent as a ‘core skill’ in UK secondary and USA K-12 education. For example the UK English curriculum states that:
“Critical reading, discussing, appreciating and exploring texts is essential for learning across the curriculum”
In History, teachers should:
“equip pupils to ask perceptive questions, think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgement… [and] understand the methods of historical enquiry, including how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed”
Even in the USA the Common Core State Standards “stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life”
I would argue that trying to include qualitative analysis in a curriculum can tick many of these boxes, and provide a flexible way to integrate these skills in other lesion plans. For example, in History, students could be given a number of newspaper articles covering an important historical event. These may come from different countries or papers with different viewpoints, and using qualitative software students could perform comparative analysis, identifying sections of the text that show bias or contradict.
In an English class, students could be provided with a digital copy of a book on the reading list, and given a framework with topics to explore, encouraging them to identify metaphor, similes, or more specific issues like ‘representations of women’ or other recurring themes. If qualitative analysis software became a standard tool in schools, it could easily fit into a variety of activities, with teachers easily able to look at student’s outputs for marking and group discussion.
Finally, students of any age could be encouraged to do their own qualitative research project, surveying their peers or community on topics both topical and relevant to the curriculum. That way, children can also learn about setting research questions, bias, and presenting results, helping them better understand and critique the barrage of studies they are exposed to in the media.
The visual, colourful and interactive interface of Quirkos is very intuitive to the digital touch-screen generation: it not only looks like a game, but provides visual stimulation and feedback in the same way. Watching their bubble codes grow, and organising topics like petals in a flower should be intuitive for children of all ages, but is also fundamentally teaching them the basics of qualitative analysis, sorting and categorising categories, and thinking about what different sources are saying.
We are talking to educators in the UK already about developing example lesson plans and curriculums around Quirkos and qualitative analysis. There are a lot of practical hurdles to overcome, including the plurality of different IT systems schools use, and the limited amount of time teachers get to learn and enact new methods.
But the benefits are considerable: a background in qualitative research and analysis techniques is a great transferable skill for students to take into their working life. Although there doesn’t seem to be a lot of jobs outside research that make qualitative analysis experience an essential criteria, many jobs include a lot of dealing with written text in just such a way. Few workers in office environments can get by without engaging with company or government policy documents, and in areas like HR staff have to critically appraise (in a replicable, and guided way) written documents like CVs and covering letters on a regular basis.
And it’s a frequent complaint from employers that these are exactly the kind of skills applicants are lacking:
“In survey after survey, they rate young applicants as deficient in such key workplace skills as written and oral communication, critical thinking and analytical reasoning.”
The Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus measure used in the US university system measures analytical reasoning, critical thinking, document literacy, writing and communication skills – all considered essential areas by employers from all backgrounds. A recent study found that 40% of students, even at University level, lacked proficiency in these areas.
Qualitative analysis requires students to develop all of these skills, and getting started at a young age will not only help high school students start their academic studies where critical reasoning will become a daily task, but get them on the right step to employment, and to becoming an engaged and informed member of society.