The research I will describe in this chapter was carried out by Derek Edwards, Janet Maybin and myself in 1984-6 as a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Edwards, Mercer and Maybin, 1987). As part of a line of research begun in 1979 and still continuing, it has generated one book (Edwards and Mercer, 1987) and the other publications listed at the end of this chapter. My intention here is to describe what kind of research we did, why we did it, how we did it, and some of the problems we had in doing it.
My first real job was teaching psychology in the sociology department of Leicester University. At the regular departmental research seminars, one of the professors of sociology would often stop those presenting the research—postgraduates, lecturers, visiting academics—in their tracks by posing a single question. As they described in detail their rich data, their theoretical framework, their methodological complexities, he would interrupt and ask, irritably, ‘Yes, yes, but what is your problem?’. By this he meant (I think): what was your research really meant to achieve? What questions were you trying to answer? What, in a nutshell, did you want to know, and why did you want to know it?
My best attempt at an answer to his question here is this. We wanted to understand how people did teaching and learning together. As participants (teachers and learners) in that process, as well as researchers we felt that we knew very little about how it worked, how it went right or wrong. In particular, we were