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Educational choice: A grounded theory study

Angela McCarthy
College of Education
University of Notre Dame Australia
This ongoing grounded theory study is about making choices in education. It seeks to understand the basic social process in which people engage when they make decisions about significant life choices and it holds some surprises! Choices in the area of education are of increasing importance to families, those involved in the field of education, industry leaders and governments. This study focuses on those who have chosen non-government education. The deliberate nature of their choice, and the various costs involved have clearly framed the domain of inquiry. In-depth interviews with parents from country and city locations, and from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and schools, have begun to reveal a process in which parents engage in order to reach their decision. From the data a model of decision making is emerging that may well relate to other significant life choices. This paper will describe the basic social process upon which the grounded theory is being constructed and will be enlivened by revealing glimpses from the transcripts.

The writing of the above abstract occurred before yet another quantum leap in this grounded theory study. Grounded theory, as discovered by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss in the 1960s, requires the researcher to continually and laboriously study the data gathered from in-depth interviews and other sources and to categorise all of the available information. From there a theory emerges. This paper describes the beginning of theory. The important characteristic of grounded theory that is illustrated by the change between the above abstract and the current work is that grounded theory prevented the research from concentrating solely on the decision about schooling and enabled the research to integrate the question and the parents' area of concern.

Data has been collected for two years through in-depth, unstructured interviews with parents, some of whom have enrolled their children in Catholic secondary schools, and others who have made other choices either within the independent sector or in the government sector.

Grounded theory requires analysis to begin with the first interviews. Once the interview is transcribed, the data provided is fractured by open coding and then, by comparing the information from each interview, called constant comparison, ideas begin to emerge (called indicators) (Glaser, 1978,p.62). As they too are constantly compared to each other the researcher is able to put them into related groups and a concept emerges. These concepts are then abstracted further to form a category. The process continues until all the available information is categorised. As the information provided from the data is abstracted further, patterns begin to be formed to explain what is happening in the substantive area under study. There will be a core category around which all the information is centred.

When open coding of the transcripts began, the participants words were simply placed into some kind of content order. Some of the information, for example, was related to enrolment processes, some to the schools themselves, some to the characteristics of the teachers, some to the needs of the students, some to their own personal history. It was coded using NUD*IST 4 as a management tool. Once several interviews had been coded the resultant coding patterns were imaged using Inspiration and from there the first category was conceptualised. From looking at the patterns of information all the interacting pieces of data (called indicators) were able to be conceptualised and then abstracted to form categories.

As the categories were analysed further a picture emerged of a process describing how the parents made choices about schooling. This was a quantum leap and a very exciting moment. Encouraging after all the intense work in constant comparative analysis. The original abstract for this paper was written after this stage of analysis had been reached (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Stages of analysis

Grounded theory, however, insists that there has to be a problem or area of concern that is being addressed by the participants. To have the process without the problem described meant that only half of the theory was present. Back to the data again! With further examination of the data it became clear that there was more going on with the parents and it is currently named "Managing (or nurturing) Family Potential". As the analysis of the data continues this may well change again. Finding this particular category was the quantum leap that made the abstract above worthless (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Categories

Grounded theory requires that each category be described very thoroughly so that every possible variation can be included in the final theory. Interviewing will continue until saturation is reached and there are no more variations emerging that can be included in the theory. Such saturation has not yet been reached in any of the categories.

As previously stated, this particular study began by looking at the decision made by parents to send their children to Catholic secondary schools. It concentrated on the decision making process but it emerged from the examination of the data and the conceptualisation of the categories that this is only part of the process that stems from a much larger area of concern. At this point in time the focus, or the core category, seems to be centred on each family's desire to maximise their family potential, or as several parents have described it, "doing their best". In the management, and nurturing, of the family potential many areas have to be addressed. Each of these areas are then presented as a category that relates to the whole area of the family's concern and each category has differing properties that are described through the attendant dimensions. For example, if the core category is "managing family potential" then a contributive category will be about "committing family resources". This category will have properties, each of which will in turn be dimensionalised as seen in the following tables.

Table 1: Category: Committing family resources

PropertyDimensions of the property
Financial capacityHigh    <---->    Low
Personal resourcesWell developed    <---->    Not developed
Further supportNon existent    <---->    Many sources
DistributionOne child    <----&g t;    Many children

The commitment of family financial resources have unique properties for each family. Not only will their resources have great disparity in their dimension, ranging from people in the millionaire bracket to those who are really struggling, but they will differ in how they view these resources. One family from an isolated country area spoke of the budgeting of the whole farm resources and how that had to include the education of the children in a Catholic boarding school from Year 8 onwards. Such an education is viewed as essential for the continuation of the farming family in order to maintain and develop the farm resources. It is expected that the girls will not come back to the farm but will continue with their education to tertiary level and then find metropolitan employment. The boys will have to have tertiary education in some aspect of rural production and management but it is expected that they will return to the farming property that at present supports two families plus the retired parents.

Another country family had very limited resources and so found a family member to provide board for their eldest daughter so that she would have a Catholic upper school education. The living circumstances worked out very well but not the Year 11 schooling and so the daughter left school to go to TAFE and is now very successful. One family had educated six boys in various boarding schools and hostel accommodation attached to country schools but have now considered moving to the metropolitan area to educate the seventh child, a girl. Their commitment to faith and education has been complete but at times the Catholic system has been unavailable or inappropriate for their needs. Their financial resources have been seriously challenged by the need to provide education away from the family home but the commitment has made that part of the decision secondary.

Another category that relates to the area of concern, "managing family potential", is the parents' response to their own history. Some of the properties and their dimensions are expressed in Table 2.

Table 2: Category: Response to personal history

PropertyDimensions of the property
ExtentDominant    <---->    Unobtrusive
Attitudinal resultMutable    <---->    Immutable
Positive    <---->    Negative
DefinitionMemory    <---->    Experiential

The extent to which a parent's response to their own personal history is influential ranges from dominant to unobtrusive. One father spoke of how as a boy at school, university student and young man he had been completely biased against Catholic schools and what he termed "private education". He saw it as entirely elitist and warped in its perspective. However, much later on when he had a son who needed very specialist care in terms of his education, he came into contact personally with a local Catholic secondary school and is now one hundred per cent supportive of its ethos and character. His response to his own history of being educated in the government system has become completely unobtrusive. The attitudinal result however, was mutable but also very positive in terms of accepting what Catholic education has to offer. His capacity to define his own personal history was based on memory but was modifiable to accept change and make a mature decision based on his son's needs and the new experience of first hand contact with Catholic education.

At the other end of the spectrum are families who have been completely educated within the Catholic system and cannot perceive of themselves having their children educated in any other way. They have spoken of "fear" of the government system and know that only a major crisis within the Catholic system could cause them to withdraw. They feel that they have experienced the fullness of a Catholic education and want their children to have the same. The resultant attitude is not readily mutable but is very positive. Their definition of their own personal history in Catholic education is not only reliant on memory but also continues the experience of the system through their continued contact and continues to define who they are within this very specific context.

In one family the mother had had a very happy relationship with Catholic education herself and a full and active experience within the Church. However, in her early association with a Catholic primary school with her own children, she encountered a very serious problem when one of her children was injured at the school and damaged for life. The school failed to assist her in any reasonable way and this experience has damaged her faith expression and connection to Church, as well as her dream of a Catholic education for her own children. She felt that she had to withdraw all her children from the school and there was no other Catholic school that she could access. Without being in a feeder school she could also not get access to a Catholic high school in the area and their financial circumstances prevented them from moving to another place. Her personal history was defined in a positive manner by her own memories but her recent experiences negated everything. Her attitude many years down the track still speaks loudly of pain and dismemberment but yet finds a sense of hope in that she is now studying to be a teacher within the Catholic system. She still feels that she can make a difference.

In one family the father had been educated by religious sisters at a small country school and even though he hated the experience he still wanted his children to have the same education. His own experience, while not a happy one, told him that this would be good for his children too and expected his wife, who had no religious connections and had been educated at government schools, to respect that decision and support the children in their experience of a primary Catholic school education. His response is quite dominant and also immutable whereas his wife was quite unable or unwilling to interfere with his decision. His own definition of his personal history seemed to be based entirely on his memory and even though his wife described those memories as being "bad", their lasting legacy was positive.

These are only two of the categories that relate to the description of the area of concern of how to manage and maximise the family potential. On the other side of the theory a process is beginning to emerge that explains how parents go about dealing with the problem.

The first category in the process has been named "applying their imperative". Each family has some aspect of their value system and life experience that defines where they will centre their choices. For example, some families will not look outside the Catholic school system because their Catholicity and cultural immersion automatically excludes any other options unless a crisis occurs. Other families will have their imperative named by their geographical location. Country families interviewed found that their location and lack of access to upper schooling in particular forced them to engage in residential schooling either in the metro area or in another country town. Sometimes these imperatives were recognisable well and truly prior to the enrolment process and then for others they only became imperatives at the critical time of the decision. Table 3 shows some of the properties and their dimensions.

Table 3: Category: Applying their imperative

PropertyDimensions of the property
Intensity of applicationMutable    <---->    Immutable
TimingPre-birth    <---->    Recent
ArticulationMinimal    <---->    Highly developed

Several families interviewed belonged to the "immutable" end of the spectrum when it came to applying their imperative. There was no choice other than Catholic. This had been decided before the children were born and no other alternative was considered up to the time of the interview.

The country experience for families always provided some geographically imposed differences that would not affect metropolitan dwellers. If their imperative was that it "had to be Catholic" then the lack of easy access to such educational possibilities would be tempered and constrained by this fact. Some country families who had not had any previous experience with Catholic education chose a city Catholic boarding school because the most important thing for them, their imperative, was to have a "good education" for their children that also had a caring and supportive environment. That ruled out what they knew of government hostels connected to senior high schools as well as metropolitan possibilities. One parent interviewed had a highly articulated view of education and had sought firstly to provide the best fit for each child and so a wide range of possibilities were considered. Their family imperative was more about being committed to a world view of life long learning to the extent where their older children's education had begun in a third world country. Home schooling while overseas had been a good experience but as they returned to Australia the number of children demanded the introduction of schooling outside the home and Catholic education was chosen as the best alternative. The participant still viewed this as being a second alternative because a classroom of children would all be tinged with a greyness when all treated the same.

Once the imperative is in place the next part of the process requires the options now available to be framed. For example, a country family might find that once the imperative is in place, higher education cannot take place in the home town, then the particular options that are left then need to be examined through that particular lens. Table 4 shows some of the properties and their dimensions.

Table 4: Category: Framing their options

PropertyDimensions of the property
ImmediacyInstant    <---->    Continual variation
ResultMutable    <---->    Immutable
RationaleWide input    <---->    No input allowed

For some participants, the frame of options was instant and they did not vary. They lived in neighbourhoods serviced by "good Catholic schools" and attended the feeder primary schools. There were no other options considered and their plan seemed immutable. Their rationale was based entirely on their Catholic imperative. For others the frame provided a continually varying list of possible schools and even the result was mutable within a short time of enrolment. For these people there was often a wide input of information about the available possibilities from a range of sources so their rationale for placing a particular school in the frame had varying justifications.

Once the options are in focus the process now becomes one of balancing each of them by minimising the negatives and maximising the positive aspects of each possible solution. This aspect has not yet been analysed in any depth.

Table 5: Category: Balancing options

PropertyDimensions of the property
FlexibilityTotally flexible    <---->    Totally rigid
Investigation of optionsChoices analysed    <---->    No analysis undertaken

As the balancing act of refining and redefining the options continues, eventually there is a need to singularise and name a result. The final decision can be based on something as simple as what the principal wore when doing the enrolment interview, or how welcoming the boarding facilities seemed to be. Alternatively, the result might be singularised by a further imperative that relates to very powerful philosophical convictions. The singularising may take many years as the parents prepare for this passage of life, or it may simply be made at the last possible moment before enrolments close.

Table 6: Singularising the result

PropertyDimensions of the property
Immediacy of decisionInstant    <---->    long procrastination
Portent of final criterionLife imperative    <---->    insignificant detail

The decision may have been made, the framed options singularised by the simple fact that the father of the child had been to this school. The imperative of family history is in action. Alternatively, there may be a long procrastination that is only singularised at the deadline of enrolment, and then may have to be changed if acceptance is not forthcoming. The demand for some metropolitan Catholic secondary schools is so high that there is no access by country families who wish to move to the city or board their children with family or by families who have had to move from another state.

This study, as explained earlier, has not reached a state of saturation and therefore the analysis is not yet at its peak. My emphasis today has been to show the rigour with which the grounded theory method has directed the analysis of the data collected and how the theory is beginning to emerge from its grounding in the data. Like the Bunyip from Berkley Creek who emerged muttering "What am I? What am I?" , the theory emerges from the pool of data and only becomes visible once every level of detail has been exposed.


Glaser, B. (1978). Theoretical Sensitivity. Sociology Press, Mill Valley, CA.

Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Aldine Publishing, Chicago.

Glaser, B. (1992). Basics of Grounded Theory Analysis. Sociology Press, Mill Valley, CA.

Strauss, A. & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of Qualitative Research. Sage Publications, Newbury Park, CA.

Strauss, A. & Corbin, J. (ed) (1997). Grounded Theory in Practice. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks.

Author: Angela McCarthy, School Experience Coordinator
School of Teaching, College of Education
University of Notre Dame Australia
19 Mouat Street Fremantle WA 6160
PO Box 1225 Fremantle WA 6160
Email: amccarthy@nd.edu.au

Please cite as: McCarthy, A. (2001). Educational choice: A grounded theory study. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2000. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2001/mccarthy.html

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