a centenary
of Learning

  • 70
  • by Kai Ren
  • graduated 2010
  • studied Doctor of Philosophy in Education (PhD)
  • from China

All these achievements can be attributed to the academic integrity, the research abilities and all the educational and cultural experiences that I acquired in my four and half years at Bristol, some of the best years of my life.

Decision time: Spring 2006

Initially I had planned to only do a Master of Education at the University of Bristol. Yet half way through my MEd, I was confronted with the choice between returning to China in another six months or pursuing a PhD for at least three and half more years. It was a tough decision. Interestingly, the first person who encouraged me to continue on to a PhD was Mr. Li, Departmental Director of Administration at the Chinese university I had worked with before coming to Bristol. Li emphasized the importance for me to get a doctorate to further boost my academic career in China, as there were already a large number of Chinese UK Master’s degree-holders returning to work in China’s higher education. Meanwhile, having lived and studied at Bristol for half a year, I was beginning to genuinely enjoy my life and learning there. In particular, the rigorous yet vigorous academic atmosphere, an open forum to discuss those educational issues that mattered and the encouragement and support from my tutors all motivated me to consider furthering my journey in UK higher education.

However, having failed in my Overseas Research Scholarship (ORS) grant application, I had to overcome several big hurdles, mostly financial, before even embarking on that journey. After numerous thoughts, and with strong support from families, friends and colleagues, I finally decided to do a PhD even if I might have to self-fund it. There were still hopes though. I was encouraged to give ORS another try in my first-year doctoral study. Meanwhile, my research potential was noticed by Dr Ruth Deakin Crick, one of my course tutors then, who approached me as a potential candidate for Data Analyst of the Bedfordshire Project led by her, yet she was adamant that she did not really promise anything. So the only thing I was really certain of was that I was going all out to get my doctorate and wear that hat some day.

The first year: doctoral training, being a waiter, and finally, gaining a scholarship and RA post

There was still no news about my studentship when I started my PhD in October 2006. Yet despite all the frustrations and anxieties, I was soon intrigued by the MPhil training programmes offered by Graduate School of Education (GSoE); the lectures and workshops on both conventional and innovative research methodologies and methods provided me with a smooth transition from a taught Master’s into a PhD researcher and laid a solid foundation for me to conduct doctoral research in education.

During the initial period of my PhD, I was in close contact with both my then supervisor Prof. Tim Bond and Dr Ruth Deakin Crick. It was during this time that there was a significant shift in my research interest from academic ethics, a topic related to my MEd dissertation, to something that was rather new to me. In my communication with Ruth, I was fascinated by a concept that she repeatedly mentioned yet I knew little about—underachievement; though, strange to say, I don’t even know how to translate ‘underachievement’ for my fellow Chinese because there is no equivalent for it in Chinese. Curious about this concept, I started to explore the literature and rather like looking at the tip of an iceberg the more I investigated the more I was intrigued to find out about it. So it is interesting that someone like me, who comes from a culture which does not even have the word ‘underachievement’, should choose it as his PhD topic. I believe it had something to do with my personality as I am stimulated by interesting challenges. In fact, I was so fascinated by it that I ended up changing my topic to ‘underachievement and learning’, and Ruth became my new supervisor. Yet this could never have happened if I had not had the understanding and support of Prof. Tim Bond, who later became Internal Examiner of my PhD thesis and one of the referees for my postdoc back in China.

Now you may want to know what this ‘mysterious’ Bedfordshire Project that changed my fate was about. It all goes back to a research project initiated by the head teacher of a boys’ independent school in a southern English town. He was curious about how factors apart from cognitive abilities and prior attainment predict student academic attainment. The project officially started in January 2007 and I was subsequently offered the job of data analyst.

After evaluating a pilot study which justifies the missing link between underachievement and learning power, I completed a thorough research design under the supervision of Ruth. As an acknowledgement of the quality of my work, I was soon appointed as Research Assistant of the Bedfordshire Project. I then started my dual role in the research processes: as a key researcher responsible for the project directed by Ruth and a PhD student under her supervision conducting an in-depth and more theoretical doctoral study within the project. It resulted in a mutually beneficial link between the research project and my PhD.

More good news was the success of my second-time ORS application in April 2007, which was a great relief for me both financially and mentally. As a self-funded overseas doctoral student I had lived a modest lifestyle and worked as a buffet breakfast waiter for six months at a hotel. It was extremely difficult to juggle between heavy academic workload and 20 hours of waiting per week for which I had to get up at 5 am. Quite often I would go directly to university right after the early morning shift; wearing the uniform underneath my jacket. I knew were it in China, a PhD student serving at a restaurant would make news headlines and their supervisor would be furious they could not find an ‘intellectual’ job to make ends meet. Despite the hardships, I felt my potential had never been explored better and both my marks and waiting tips went up significantly.

After winning an ORS award, I ended my waiting contract and concentrated fully on my research. Looking back, I have no regrets of the time spent as a waiter because by working there I had a first-hand experience of what British society was like and a deeper understanding of the English culture. This contributed much to my working with English participants in my research afterward.

The Second Year: road trips, new research experiences and finally getting to teach English people Mandarin

For a Chinese researcher doing a project in the UK, the research provides both great opportunities and numerous challenges. Yet I endeavoured to fully use my strengths, knowledge and expertise while working with colleagues, practitioners and students.

I spent most of the following year doing field work and collecting data. The project sampled a cohort of 823 14-year-olds in four Bedford schools and followed them for about 18 months. The road to data collection was not without many hurdles and some of them were quite tough. Initially, three of the four project schools were not keen to provide us with student data. Hence I was sent there to collect them in person. I assume that it was probably my Chinese humbleness that moved them rather than my negotiation skills; the quantitative data was soon gathered. Then the qualitative data collection started, followed by an intervention for 18 underachievers once every fortnight for three months. During this period I worked closely with Mr Tim Small, an educational consultant for the project and former secondary school head teacher. I was amazed I could work with a senior colleague who would listen to my ideas and sometimes tolerate my criticism which might be seen as unacceptable in my own culture. Eventually we became close colleagues and friends and he also became godfather of my son later. We still talk about our trips between Bristol and Bedford from winter to summer and the changes of stunning English countryside landscapes. On one of those trips we heard the news of the disastrous earthquakes in China and he was the very first person to comfort me.

Besides academic work, I was also busy organizing the annual doctoral student conference as coordinator of the organizing committee. Not to mention my Mandarin teaching at the Language Centre and obligations as Deputy Senior Resident at the Hawthorns. My mother, despite being thousands of miles away, was concerned I was having too much on my plate. Maybe I was, but I knew I just wanted to make the most out of my doctoral experience in England, so one day when I looked back at those years like I am doing now, I can have some good memories not just of my doctorate, but other things such as the success of the doctoral conference.

The third year and beyond: from posh conference halls to the ‘cave’ and from a PhD student to an early-career researcher

My third year PhD started with two conferences. In September 2007, Ruth and I presented a paper based on the Bedfordshire Project at the Annual BERA Conference, which was indeed a vision-broadening experience for me. Two months later in Bedford a dissemination conference about the research saw the project winning positive feedback from practitioners, fellow researchers and in particular, student representatives. After the conference Jessie, one of the participants in the project, came to me and said: ‘Thanks for everything you did for me, Kai.’ I was deeply moved and felt my PhD research was special because it might actually make a difference to the youngsters’ lives.

One essential ability for completing a doctorate has not been highlighted yet—writing. While I was happily immersed in my data collection, Ruth had started to chase after me for my writings. Thanks to the pressure from her I became a competent writer using English as a second language to write my research. The writing-up of my PhD thesis commenced in winter 2008 when I became a ‘caveman’ at the Graduate Centre of Arts and Humanities, also nicknamed by doctoral students who worked there as the ‘cave’.

Ruth and I usually met once every month to discuss the writing I had sent her beforehand. In general she was happy with my work, yet sometimes I had writer’s block but she would be patient with me. Yet Ruth did push me hard in my construction of theory and conceptual framework. She emphasized that she wanted to see me become a researcher, not an academic technician. It was really hard work to isolate myself from the outside world and reflect upon works by such great thinkers as Bourdieu and Vygotsky. Under the strong influence of Confucius’ learning tradition, I knew to get my PhD, to earn that doctoral hat, these were the pains I had to bear. But just hard work was not enough; Ruth wanted me to go beyond the work of others (hers included), and find my own voice. Encouraged and inspired by her, I developed the perspective that ‘underachievement’ is a relative, contextual and temporal concept and needs to be redefined by taking into account the complexities of the concept. In addition, I proposed the shift of focus in underachievement studies from psychology and educational sociology to ‘learning’ both in explaining achievement and addressing underachievement issues. These are the two key factors contributing to the originality of my study. ‘Narratives’ and ‘life stories’ were also used as important original methods in investigating underachievement and learning.

September 2009 saw me entering the critical stage of writing up my thesis. My time was mostly spent in the cave and at my flat. Fortunately Ni, my newly wedded wife, had come all the way from my hometown and stayed with me for four months to look after me. A warm home certainly made those chilly British autumn days less cold. I could already see the end of the tunnel when Ni returned to China. In January 2010 my thesis was completed and submitted, at the cost of my Christmas though. Ruth and I agreed that I was ready to put a stop to this long and winding journey. On the day of my viva, despite all the nerves, I felt the strength within that kept me calm and did my best. The viva was successful. As expected, there were some tough questions, but I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to discuss my thesis with two of the few academics who had read though my work.

Back to China

Fortunately, one of Ruth’s research assistants had to leave and I was offered a two-month job. After that I rushed back to Xi’an to keep Ni company as our baby was due in about two months. Originally I had decided to be absent from the graduation ceremony as the baby might be born then. Yet Ni wanted me to attend the graduation ceremony, ‘a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’. She had promised she and the baby would wait for me, yet my flight back was delayed and Yi’an (aka William, named by Ruth), our baby boy was born while I was still on the plane. A PhD and a healthy baby, what more could I ask? However, I certainly needed to have a more solid career now that I was a father.

Eventually I decided to come back to do postdoctoral work at the School of Education in Shaanxi Normal University in my hometown, so that I could produce quality publications and take my PhD research on underachievement and learning power to a Chinese context while being near to my families. Later I won a grant from China Postdoctoral Research Foundation to carry out the research. Now I have been offered a permanent academic post with the university and I am about to start a not-for-profit educational company in June 2013. All these achievements can be attributed to the academic integrity, the research abilities and all the educational and cultural experiences that I acquired in my four and half years at Bristol, some of the best years of my life.