Using frameworks to study the social world is like looking at a still image through tinted glasses — making our perspective limited and color-blind — when the reality is complex and dynamic with colors and sights and sounds and smells and subtleties that cannot be captured in a frame. Frameworks attempt to make chaos legible, but by doing so, they can distort our perspective on the chaos, often reducing it into something unrecognizably neat and comprehensible.

The trouble with frameworks is they are someone else’s frameworks. I speak not out of arrogance that my ideas are better than someone else’s, but out of recognition that another person’s frameworks are built upon their context and assumptions and worldview — they may not transfer well to other contexts, they may not fit my worldview. From a postcolonial perspective, one can look at frameworks as the imposition of a dominant lens of looking at the world, distorting the perspectives of those re-applying them.

When I was working on my dissertation, a colleague from the sciences asked me what my framework was. I told her I had none (none that I was intentionally using, anyway). What is a framework anyway? Is it some “model” a scholar creates based on their research, which they believe has wider application than their specific context? Are frameworks reified by their authors or by people who later cite them? I don’t have a clear answer to this, but I suspect it’s a combination of authorial intention and audience response and reuse.

My PhD research was about critical thinking, and I found this particular widely-used term in higher education problematic to define: the supposedly agreed-upon “expert consensus” (Facione, 1990) is based on the views of a select few North American (mostly male) educators, and looks like a framework with a specific list of skills and dispositions in a detailed definition. This definition is contested by those who disagree on a generic (non-discipline-specific) understanding of critical thinking, those who believe in a different feminist approach to criticality, those who disagree that the holistic concept of criticality can be fragmented into skills and dispositions and retain its essence, and those who use “critical” with entirely different connotations, coming from the Frankfurt school of critical theory and Freirian critical pedagogy (see chapter 2). I created my own definition building on the North American skills-based view (which I now loathe, but now realize I used because it looked so organized and detailed) combined with Perry’s model of intellectual development (which I later realized is based on narrow, biased research), and Ron Barnett’s critical thought as well as some aspects of Freire’s critical pedagogy. I needed a working, detailed definition to get my fieldwork done. By the time I finished my thesis, I wrote about recognizing additional alternative understandings of critical thinking that are equally useful and contextually valid. Now that I am supposedly an “expert” on critical thinking, I couldn’t define it for you if my life depended on it. (I recently had to do it for a research study with others, but that’s another story).

It’s important to recognize that frameworks are influenced by worldviews. The North American version of critical thinking seems to take a positivist perspective on critical thinking as informal logic and a set of skills and rules you can teach directly. Alternatively, there are other approaches influenced by feminist thought, and so on. When we are unclear about our worldview or paradigm, we may pick frameworks and use them in ways that contradict our purpose. Which research paradigm did I use in my thesis? It turns out it was something between interpretive and critical, and I could not apply in my PhD research a lot of what my worldview compelled me to (e.g. participatory research). I also realized that I evolved as a researcher and educator throughout the years of working on my PhD: it would have been impossible to set a framework at the beginning and remain satisfied with it seven years later…at least for me. Is it part of the learning curve for most PhDs?

So the good news is that I did not set a framework a priori, for how I was going to analyze my data — I let things emerge from the data. And later, as I found myself asking particular critical questions, I realized that I was not taking a race, gender, class, postcolonial or any one particular critical perspective (because while focusing on any of these alone is a useful exercise, it is limiting) but a broad-based one. And then I discovered curriculum theory (thanks to my supervisor at the time), which fit well with my own thinking and analysis.

It’s not that curriculum theory fully informed how I conducted my research and analyzed my data — rather, my thinking emerged and curriculum theory fit well into what I was finding. I did not feel a need to structure my thesis around this framework (not that it’s really a framework, but rather different ways of looking at approaches to curriculum, and those ways are neither comprehensive nor exhaustive nor mutually-exclusive), but to highlight ways in which critical theory helped me organize or “frame” some of my writing around the topic. But a lot of what I described in my thesis fell outside the “frame” and that was OK.

Since then, I have tried to approach frameworks critically, if I use them at all. I am not suggesting that other people don’t approach frameworks critically, but I wanted to offer  different examples of ways of using frameworks critically in research. These suggestions can work as tips I would give students or early career researchers.

Allow the Framework to Emerge

None of us come into our research neutral: we have years of experience and some kind of world view about what constitutes good research and about the subject we are studying. We are not neutral. Neither are any frameworks we use. Instead of starting with someone else’s framework as the way to view the world (which may limit your perspective), start by looking at the social phenomenon and see what emerges. Of course, your own perspective is biased and limited, but you’ve done a literature review, so you’re not really using only your own perspective. You’re just not committing yourself to any particular external perspective before looking at the data. An example? If you’re studying something related to gender, and most of the references you’re looking at come from North America, but you’re doing research in the Arab world, there will be huge contextual differences beside the similarities. Using the different worldview may distort your view of what is right in front of you. When I was studying critical thinking, the Arab Spring happened, and I realized that youth in my region were able to apply some dimensions of critical thinking in some contexts but not others. What was happening before me did not fit into any of the theories I was exposed to, and my thinking was paralyzed until I realized it didn’t have to — something new was emerging and its theory could emerge with it.

Mess Up the Framework

Sometimes you find that a framework is really useful. It does help explain a phenomenon in a way that furthers knowledge. This does not mean that you need to use it religiously and faithfully. It helps to understand the limitations of another person’s framework. This can occur if the framework does not seem to work well with your data or the phenomenon you are studying, and it can occur if you understand the backstory behind the development of the framework.

One of my favorite examples of messing up frameworks is Baxter Magolda’s work building on Perry’s work (though she is by no means the only one who has done so). She recognized that Perry’s work was limited (mostly emerging from research on white, male, privileged students at Harvard) and positivist in nature, whereas her own research moved towards a more interpretive, gendered approach (inspired by Belenkey et al’s Women’s Ways of Knowing). Her data and her interpretive worldview suggested that knowledge-building was socially constructed and she recognized that individuals took different approaches to knowledge and epistemological development, and that some of those ways can be gendered. The framework she came up with recognized the different pathways to intellectual development, merging a feminist perspective with Perry’s original model.

Reading about her journey (and I do love reading about how the researcher reached their conclusions, sometimes more than the actual conclusions themselves) made me realize that we probably contribute more to knowledge when we mess up frameworks rather than reapply them to new contexts. We would be remiss to continue citing canonical texts and frameworks in new contexts without recognizing how the change in context influences what is possible to understand about social phenomena, and how an inappropriate framework can distort our vision.

Justify and Challenge the Framework

If you’re going to use frameworks, you need to do a good job of justifying why you are using a particular framework, and to show you are looking at it critically, not as if it is perfect. This may seem obvious, but I see early career researchers adopting frameworks uncritically, simply because they are widely used. I made those mistakes myself.

One of my biggest regrets as a writer is an article I published about MOOC Pedagogy when I was still first learning about them. Aside from the fact that by the time the article was published I had already changed my mind about most of what was in it… I used two frameworks in the article. I justified my use of them but I did not sufficiently challenge them. I used Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Teaching because there was a paper co-authored by George Siemens (you know, that Siemens who ran the first thing ever to be called a MOOC, and yes, I was appealing to authority) that suggested that it was appropriate for evaluating quality in online learning. I don’t disagree with that view, exactly. Only Chickering and Gamson’s framework is talking about undergraduate teaching, and while it was very familiar to me in my own context of working with faculty who teach undergraduates, I should not have gotten so comfortable with it in this case. Whoever said MOOCs were meant to replicate undergraduate teaching? OK, many people did, back then, but it became clear after a while that many of the people who joined MOOCs were adult learners who already had Bachelor’s degrees or more. Therefore, using that approach, while useful in some ways because it helped me break down what was happening in MOOC pedagogy, did not work as well as if I had used a framework that recognized informal, lifelong, and adult learning.

The other framework I used is Bloom’s taxonomy (cringing here). Again, I used this framework because it was so widely used in higher education, that I thought MOOC designers and facilitators could and should consider how well their work fits with Bloom’s taxonomy. My use of the framework helped illustrate that much of MOOC learning (at least in the four xMOOCs I had participated in and was analyzing in my article) often did not target higher order learning, and that this was something that needed to be addressed. This was useful to recognize, but I did not challenge the ways in which Bloom’s taxonomy limited our view of what could be considered valuable learning, or that there might be other valuable learning happening that we cannot capture by using that particular framework.

Distance Yourself from the Framework — Let Your Realities and Contexts Talk

Even when you do use a framework, remember it’s alright if the framework does not fit your reality. I’ve even distanced myself from my own frameworks on occasion. For example, I once blogged about looking at technologies on two axes: as mainly text-based/still images or mainly audio/video; and as mainly synchronous or mainly asynchronous made me realize that many technologies fall in between and can be used across those axes depending on how you use them. Even more, whoever decided to arbitrarily put text and still images on one side of that axis, rather than put still images on the same side as video? It’s arbitrary even when there is a justification for it (in my case it was accessibility — medium-quality still images are more accessible on slower Internet than audio/video). What I am saying is,  in a different context, a different framing might make more sense. This framing might distort the way we look at things by making us focus on particular dimensions while ignoring others. And you can tell I am not married to my frameworks because just two days earlier I was reflecting on the virtual resident/visitor metaphor/framework. Each of these was useful in a particular context. They are not necessarily useful or applicable to every context.

Frameworks are Like Best Practices: Use with Caution

I am reminded of Janine De Baise’s article critiquing the use of best practices in education. She reminds us that we should not assume that any set of practices have universal application, that each context is different and that we should not let the language of best practices make us forget the nuances of our own contexts.

I say the same for frameworks — as researchers, let’s challenge, mess up, allow emergence and ignore when appropriate; as educators, let’s make sure our students do not treat them as something to “follow” but something to look at occasionally and maybe get inspired by, but never get bogged down by. As a PhD student, I wish someone had explicitly told me to ignore or challenge or mess up the framework — any framework. As a teacher of undergraduate students, I try to avoid giving them a sense that frameworks are something to be followed and applied blindly. I often give them suggestions for what not to do, rather than what to do. In my educational game design class, I play with my students board games and non-board games; I play with them games that test memorization and games that don’t. They learn that memorization board games are the most boring of all. So my main instruction to them is this: create an educational game that does not test memorization. I don’t generally ask them to follow particular frameworks for creating engaging educational games. I ask them to reflect and create games that are engaging for them, and to continuously get feedback from others (especially their target audience, but also experts in the field) and keep improving based on the specific context they are tackling. So my advice to them often is this:

Ignore the Framework Altogether

This should not be as scary as it sounds.