Me Versus We

A Self-Study on the Power of Collaboration in Analyzing Data
CollaborationData AnalysisCritical Colleague
In this self-study, we are examining our shared analysis process with data we gathered from preschool classrooms where young children were participating in Big Paper activities. Our self-study focuses on our collaborative approach (Louie et al., 2016) to making meaning through data analysis. Our use of collaboration mirrored the critical friend aspect commonly found in self-study research (Schuck & Russell, 2005), but within this analysis collaboration, we framed the critical nature of the engagement more as a critical collaboration. Examining our process revealed a recursive nature ofour thinking and doing. Part of this process involved conflicts that arose - tensions (Berry, 2007; Martin, 2019) that reflected our different understandings and meaning making. This collaborative colleague stance we used guided us in our thinking about data, putting a brake on one another, enabling us to challenge each other’s premises. It evoked a shared understanding that deepened our appreciation of meaning that emerged from our data.


Writing as a social-interactive process in which writers learn from one another what is worth writing and what is needed to convey an intended message (Nystrand, 1989), improves the quality of text/drawings over time. In fact, children often use oral communication, drawing, and writing interconnectedly when writing together, creating more developed works than what students are able to write on their own (Staples & Edmister, 2012; Boyle, 2011; Jacobs, 2010; Larkin, 2009;). Wiseman (2003) describes the environment most conducive to the writing process for young children as “creative, messy, collaborative, and talkative; the room buzzes with voices and movement.” (p. 804). Nolen (2007) describes these classrooms as being a “literate community… in which literacy activities establish and maintain relatedness of individuals” (p. 242).

Our interest in young children’s composing behaviors during a shared writing activity led us to undertake a semester-long qualitative study of Big Paper, a specific approach for facilitating writing development and story construction in young learners of varied abilities (Staples & Edmister., 2014; Edmister et al, 2013; Staples & Edmister, 2012). During Big Paper, 5-8 children gather around a large piece of newsprint at a table or on the floor to compose, working independently or in concert with others for 20-40 minutes in this shared writing space to create drawings and text.

As researchers and teacher educators, much of our practice is engaging with classrooms in the field. In this self-study, we are examining our shared analysis process with data we had gathered from preschool classrooms where young children were participating in Big Paper activities. Our self-study focuses on our collaborative approach (Louie et al., 2016) to make meaning through data analysis. We argue that the practice of the analysis process within our research roles in teacher education is an important focus for our self-study as it explicates the meaning-making process emerging from our data analysis and provides a window into the power of collaboration (Hauge, 2021). The purpose of this self-study was driven by the question, “How has our analysis process framed our thinking and knowing?”


The initial analysis of the Big Paper data sources (video, transcripts, Big Paper compositions, session notes) involved three steps:

It was after this third step in our work that we engaged in a deep examination of the four dynamics/themes in Big Paper. This is where our self-study began. Data sources for this self-study included our journals recording our personal notes taken during and after data analysis events, as well as the original data sources for the Big Paper composition study. The self-study involved both:

Retrospective analysis in self-study is described by Shaw et al. (2021) as “observing the work from the outside” where they stepped “out and away, looking back on the action from beginning to end as informed and critical observers” (p. 3095). Our retrospective analysis process was similar in that we “examined our experiences… We noted points of interpretive tensions in the process and considered how they were resolved.” (Shaw et al., 2021, p. 3095). We retrospectively examined how we went about analyzing children’s composition, focusing on both the content we used and the way in which we examined that content. Dialogue has been used in self-study research as a method to analyze data (Cardetti & Orgnero 2013; East et al. 2009; Pithouse-Morgan & Samaras 2014). East et al. (2009) describe using dialogue as “a method through which we examine our practice in our self-study work” where “dialogue takes us to a point at which we recalibrate our understanding of a topic or of our practices.” In addition, they argue that dialogue “is the way we carry out collaborative self-study with attention to content and to process” (p.57).

Through our dialogue about the data analysis process, we used journals to document how we retrospectively examined the process of analysis, as well as key ideas and connections that emerged from our discussions. We took these notes independently, sometimes during our analysis sessions, and other times post-session. These notes both addressed our individual thoughts as well as were a compilation of discussion between the two of us. We used these notes as a collective source rather than as individual sources. To cite our journal notes in this paper, we used the collective term Discussion Notes along with the date the notes were taken.


Our attempt to explain how we engaged in the analysis process included both the idea of critical, meaning an ongoing give-and-take critique of ideas presented, and collaboration, working together within and across the process. To help define our collaboration, we asked ourselves, How is this different from one working solo and using constant comparative to confirm understanding of data? This overarching question was helpful in guiding our thinking about how we engaged. There were many nuances within the analysis process, but in this paper, we will discuss the following three themes that emerged from our self-study: the recursive nature of analysis, tensions, and respect.

Recursive Nature of Analysis

Bang bang bang on the door, baby
Knock a little louder, baby
Bang bang bang on the door, baby
I can't hear you
Bang bang bang on the door, baby!
Bang bang bang on the door, baby!
I CAN'T HEAR YOU! (Pierson et al., 1989)

Scholars referring to writing as a recursive process describe the writer’s actions as being back and forth with an eye to meaning-making rather than proceeding through a composition in a linear fashion (Flower & Hayes, 1981). For example, one does not simply plan a piece of writing and then put pen to paper, beginning with an introduction, proceeding to a body, then ending with a conclusion. Instead, it is more likely a person might realize an introduction needs to be written differently as a result of working on another section of the body, so the writer leaves the body and goes to the introduction then back to the body, and so on. This same process was true in both our work with the data and the sense-making process of working collaboratively. It was not linear, but rather recursive.

The professional relationship in which we engaged was collaborative with a focus on sense-making; it was our own recursive form of constant comparative, with each one looking for alternatives. As colleagues and friends, we use the term 'professional relationship' intentionally to distinguish our engagement with data as part of our research, and with a different intent and context than our engagement outside this realm. During our collaborative engagement, if one of us said something that resonated there was agreement, but when it did not resonate there was an active discussion of possible alternatives to meaning, where tensions within the data emerged. Even when we agreed, it led to constant comparative work where we closely examined our own thinking, asking the following kinds of questions: Is there a different way that gets more at what we are doing? Is there any value in talking about it in that way?

We took copious notes in our journals during our discussions regarding the data, which included post-discussion notes. The following excerpts from our discussion notes demonstrate the recursive nature of our data analysis process, and how we returned to the data often to confirm, clarify, or dismiss our sense-making.

Nothing on this day - we made the table for Oscar first, so I wonder if we short-changed this category for him. We went back to transcripts to check on things quite a bit and saw there was rich conversation and that our notes might not represent what’s there. Might need to rescan his transcripts for prosocial/engagement. (Discussion Notes, 2/12/22)
I spent too much time looking through Big Paper files. We’ve looked at this data and thought about this data so many different ways. (Discussion Notes, 2/25/22).

In these next two excerpts, our discussion notes illustrate recursive efforts related to defining what constituted collaboration among students. The first excerpt summarizes initial thoughts based on our discussion and examination of the data while the second reveals refinement after more discussion and a return to data.

Collaboration does not equal complete acquiescence. It’s an agreement between two people. Could be discussion about what’s happening or the actual drawing or both. (Discussion Notes, 10/14/2021)
General thoughts now about collaboration now that we’ve looked through all the students. Collaboration is WITH someone. Content-connected. Often is sharing expertise. Can be momentary or ongoing consultation. One person dropping in on someone’s drawing or ongoing construction. (Discussion Notes, 10/28/2021)

The following excerpt from our discussion notes shows a further development in our understanding of the concept of collaboration by children within the Big Paper data. This excerpt reveals the results of our recursive process in trying to explicate meaning from the data to support our understanding of children’s actions. It reveals more specifics about how children collaborate and also clarifies what we mean by collaboration by describing what is not collaboration.

We’re inclined to say children are collaborating because they’re sharing space. Sometimes it happens when they work together but borrowing ideas from others isn’t collaboration. It’s something else because there’s no partnership. It’s an indication that someone’s work or idea is valued, though. That on its own is important as children develop their interests, identity as authors, personhood, value. (Discussion Notes, 11/17/21)

We connected this section on the recursive nature of our data analyses to the lyrics from the B-52's "Love Shack," where to be able to hear what is really there requires a repeated effort again and again.


Nothing from nothing leaves nothing
You gotta have something… (Fisher & Preston, 1974)

As experienced academicians and researchers, both Amy and Deb came to this study with lived experiences and orientations to writing, data analysis, tasks, and being in the world that at times created tensions. Our self-study revealed several tensions that impacted our data work. In this paper, we highlight two: the lenses of our interests and theoretical orientations; and, the intrapersonal and interpersonal macro-micro fluctuations.


Part of what influenced our discussions during data analysis were the lenses through which we each viewed the children’s efforts during Big Paper. Amy’s thinking about writing was heavily influenced by cognitive process research (Flower and Hayes, 1981; Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1987). Through this lens, the researcher would consider the composer’s thoughts and intentions while writing. She also had an appreciation of the contributions of social-interactive research (Nystand, 1989), which noted the importance of interactions between text, author, and audience. Initially, Amy was interested in whether or how this collaborative environment in Big Paper contributed to each child’s understanding of writing, as well as their authorship. Her focus on the writing encouraged an examination of both the form and function of the children’s compositions. For Amy, it was about composition, so the artifacts were representing composition.

Deb, on the other hand, was heavily influenced by the social construction of meaning (Cook Gumperz, 2012; Halliday, 1975). Like Amy, she was interested in the process by which children created/constructed a piece (drawing/writing). However, her primary focus was on the social engagement within the Big Paper experience. She was also interested in the focus of each child’s writing, and how these children collaboratively borrowed or shared from one another as they composed. For Deb, the artifacts were a tool for the students to socially construct. These differences in our primary, secondary, and tertiary interests helped inform the discussion of data, at times leading to tensions regarding meaning of the data. This first excerpt in this section comes from the discussion notes of Deb, and reveals a stronger focus on social aspects of writing.

Amy states the BP becomes a way to see the outcome - allows you to see what a child has internalized. What are we learning about their knowledge, interests, personhood through BP? My comments are more summarized: Though children are embedded in a culture and classroom that are both literacy focused, the BP experience does not have a convention template nor an assigned task related to improving use of writing conventions. It’s an opportunity for self expression that may reflect their embedded stance in a literature environment - but BP reflects social engagement that reflects how they reflect what they know in their choices. Is BP a way to glean lots of info about students? a way to evidence pro social skills? to pursue own expertise? to build confidence in their own interests? (Discussion Notes, 6/16/21)

This second excerpt from our discussion notes reveals a tension in how we used our lenses to discuss what the data meant.

How do we balance these approaches in studying early composing? Both contribute to our understanding but an overemphasis on appearance or conventionality risks deemphasizing the reason we write to begin with. (Discussion Notes, 3/31/22)

The following excerpt addressed dynamics later in the analysis process as Amy determined her theoretical focus was too narrow a fit in discussing the children’s compositions.

Outcomes - very structured cog process model was too narrow a scope (Discussion Notes, 5/4/22)

Working together over time, our discussions about the data influenced both of our thinking about the meaning within the data. We found the theoretical debates that emerged (as we teased out what we saw in the data) were powerful in supporting our understanding of young children’s composition.


The idea of a macro or a micro focus on the data came from our discussions of what we were seeing in the composition data. We termed micro as being specific about aspects of the composition (such as letter formation or word development), and of the children’s engagement (such as sharing a crayon or asking for help to write a letter or word). We termed macro as being broad in focus and pertaining to the larger picture of what was happening as children composed. Across the analyses, we were both macro and micro in our discussions, just not at the same time and not within the same contexts being addressed. And we saw this micro-macro tension connecting with the lenses through which we viewed the work. Early in our data analyses, Amy was interested in honing in on the product to determine aspects of literacy emerging in the children’s writing. Deb was less interested in the product and more focused on the processes children used to make meaning and communicate. In this context of product and process, Amy was more micro in her approach to the data while Deb represented a macro view. The following excerpt from the retrospective discussion of our analyses focus shows this micro/macro tension.

Process and product – Deb wasn’t interested in product and initially I [Amy] couldn’t see the value of disregarding that. I was interested in it primarily from a cog process or social interactive view and Deb was more broad in social construction and role of teacher (Discussion Notes, 5/4/22)

Another way we saw the micro/macro tension was in how we focused on the data, what we saw as the tension within the data processing. When patterns were noted in the data, for example, Amy wanted to go deeper into the data (micro) to confirm (or disconfirm) the patterns across the data while Deb felt sufficiently confident in the patterns to move ahead to making broader statements (macro).

Amy comments that we need to be cautious in making statements about what the students’ work means - not to impose representation, it’s to find out what the child is doing. (Discussion Notes, June 16, 2021)

None of these tensions were absolute nor created professional conflicts, but this examination of tensions within the analysis process was interesting and informative. Our personality differences may have played a part as well in these larger tensions of lenses and micro/macro views of the data. Our understanding of the data through this analysis process evolved over time for both of us. We appreciate more clearly the role tensions played in making meaning about what young writers’ big paper compositions reveal.

The lyrics of Billy Preston’s song, "Nothing From Nothing," reflect the importance and power that tensions (something) play in making sense of it all. “You’ve got to have something.”


I ain’t gon’ do you wrong ‘cause I don’t wanna
All I’m askin’ is for a little respect (Redding, 1965)

Working collaboratively with others can be exhilarating and exhausting. The idea of collaboration is based on a core belief that better understanding and work are accomplished by a team than by oneself. Research, or any long-term, complex project, requires extensive decision-making and grinding through the day-to-day of it. This work is tedious yet involves deep thinking. Ideally, each team member brings a valued set of skills and attributes to the work. Sometimes, though, despite valued team membership, things go awry. During our self-study, we came to recognize the importance of our mutual respect for one another to the success of the overall work. According to Cambridge Online Dictionary, respect is "admiration felt or shown for someone or something that you believe has good ideas or qualities.” That premise served as an anchor for understanding how our professional relationship worked. Our working relationship developed slowly, over an extended period. We worked in the same college and had offices at the same end of the building. We were in different departments but shared a common love of literacy. It was only after seven or eight years that we created opportunities to work together, first on committees, then with Deb assisting Amy on grants, and developing curriculum together. Working together, writing together, and presenting at conferences solidified a foundation of mutual appreciation and respect. It was at the tail end of the curriculum development work that the Big Paper study was undertaken. We knew enough about one another to pursue a new project together. At the core of this was a love of literacy and respect for one another.

Our belief in one another allowed us to approach our work with unfettered critique. We saw ourselves as peers working on the same study rather than being invited into someone else’s meaning-making of their work. Respect for one another in concert with tensions allowed for forward movement in our analysis and discussion of the data. The following is an example.

Amy’s synthesis of our ideas really helped me connect skills development with children's engagement. “BP provides students with self-initiated practice of letters/letter formation and words. Allows children to take the role as expert rather than the teacher.” (Discussion Notes, 8/13/2021)

We were able to negotiate tensions because neither of us was overly ego involved; we were personally invested in the study, not ourselves. Respect for the data, for the students, as well as for ourselves mediated every second of our work. Though we both experienced impatience at different times, this dynamic of respect encouraged patience for the process and one another, allowing us to wait for the revelation of meaning to emerge.

Watching Indigo Girls livestream while I grade. Amy (of Indigo Girls) is talking about a song she wrote called "Moment of Forgiveness." She originally wrote it in a dressing room in New England. It was just sitting there until one time she was back in Atlanta and a keyboardist offered a front end to it. Amy said the song was just waiting for Claire to be finished but they didn’t know it. I think our understanding of what we’re seeing is waiting for the revelation of the other. As with musicians, the song comes by trying out different ideas and hearing ideas from others. For us, it’s that constant trying out of sense making, trusting the other one to either affirm, disconfirm, or fine tune to just the right result that truly reflects the data we have. It’s not a simple process. It’s one that requires patience. It’s not about either of us. It’s about the data in the end and our desire to be true to it. We support each other through times of impatience, though. (Discussion Notes, 5/4/22)

As stated in the lyrics from Aretha Franklin’s classic song, "Respect," "I ain’t gon’ do you wrong ‘cause I don’t wanna." Our work together was grounded in respect – ego on the shelf and open to hearing, we were able to push for meaning. This gave us real time to analyze and allow the path to go forward.


Our attempt to explain how we engaged in the analysis process included both the idea of critical, meaning an ongoing give-and-take critique of ideas presented, and collaboration, working together within and across the process. In self-study research, the term "critical friend" (Costa & Kallick, 1993; Edge & Olan, 2021; Schuck & Russell, 2005) is often used to represent the relationship between the researcher and another who provides feedback to, insights into, and trustworthiness of the analysis of data. The term critical friend did not match our dynamic - as a critical friend refers to someone more on the outside looking in, providing feedback as a critic. Instead, we referred to ourselves initially as "critical colleagues," as we examined the process of analysis and provided critique to one another regarding the dynamics of our engagement. This idea of critical colleague reflects to some degree the work of Sherin and Han (2004) in examining a “university discourse of competitive argumentation or ‘critical colleagueship.’” (as cited in Males et al., 2010, p. 460). The use of the term critical colleague is often found in studies examining educators’ discourse through professional development contexts (e.g., Lord, 1994; Sherin & Han, 2004; Wilson & Berne, 1999). Our notion of referring to ourselves as critical colleagues referred to a context of colleagues within a university setting, examining our process for the analysis of data. Yet, the competitive argumentation described by Sherin and Han (2004) did not reflect adequately the ways we discussed our analyses. We were not doing something for one or the other, but rather we were doing something with one another. Our dynamic more closely represented the use of collaboration embedded with critical discussions of understandings and meanings revealed through the data. We termed our role in the analysis as "critical collaborators," working together through dialogue and retrospective analysis in service of the Big Paper study data.

Examining our process revealed a recursive nature of our thinking and doing. The recursivity of our discussions during the analysis of the data sources resulted in a deepened understanding of what makes sense. Part of this process involved conflicts that arose - tensions (Berry, 2007; Martin, 2019) that reflected our different understandings and meaning-making. Through our self-study examining the collaborative process we used in analysis, we found that we provided a check for one another to ensure we engaged in due diligence of the data analysis. This collaborative colleague stance enabled us, through in-depth discussion, to challenge each other’s premises. It evoked a shared understanding that deepened our appreciation of the meaning that emerged from our data. This was all possible because of our ethical commitment to the data and our respect for one another, both of which mediated the lenses and tensions.


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Amy Staples

University of Northern Iowa

Deborah Tidwell

University of Northern Iowa

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