Action research, transformational influences:

pasts, presents and futures

Jean McNiff

Introduction

This series of lectures is about action research and its pasts, presents and futures. To use the typology outlined by Chomsky (1986) in his Knowledge of Language, and to shift the focus slightly, it is about the origins, nature and uses of action research. The lectures are taking place because, on March 12th 2008, the day of the Research Fair of the Faculty of Education and Health Sciences, when we spoke about the action research work in the University of Limerick, a number of colleagues expressed an interest in knowing more about action research, where it had come from, where it was, and what might be the chances of developing it further. So these are the points I will speak about today. I shall organise this presentation in terms of

  1. a brief overview of action research, its nature and history;
  2. methodologies of action research, and what is happening around the world;
  3. what might be the potentials and significance of developing action research in UL.

The lecture therefore stands as an introductory overview, because I hope, in later lectures, to invite colleagues from elsewhere in Ireland, and from other countries and contexts, to present their work in action research. Their presentations would give a flavour of the transformational potentials of action research for improving practice through co-creating knowledge, as well as the way in which its educational influences may be seen as creating global interconnecting branching networks of communities who are engaged in communicative action through educational enquiry. In brief, action research is about taking action for educational, social and cultural transformation.

Before we begin, let me outline my own position as an action researcher.

I have been working with action research since the late 1970s, and will tell part of the story shortly. I am committed to the idea that people can, and should, investigate and offer explanations for their practices to show how they hold themselves accountable for what they are doing. This involves asking, ‘How do I improve my practice?’ (Whitehead 1989), and acting on personal evaluations for organisational and social improvement. This form of research has come to be known as the new scholarship (Boyer 1990; Schön 1995) and is celebrated globally as a powerful form of research-based professionalism. It is active here in the University of Limerick, where we are contributing to a new scholarship of educational knowledge (Whitehead 1999).

Before I continue with my own story, I have to acknowledge that there is a lot of action research work going on in UL, and it has a history and a context. In a moment I will ask Roland Tormey to give an outline of what he is doing as he coordinates the Ubuntu network in Ireland. The context and history are that Jim McKernan, whose work is known and used internationally (McKernan 1991, 2007), pioneered action research in UL, if not in Ireland, and Diarmuid Leonard was a tremendous source of initiative and vision in continuing the tradition (see our 2000, with Gerry McNamara). It was directly due to the influence of Diarmuid that I came to be here, for without his support I would still be looking for an institutional home. So thank you, Diarmuid, a good friend and valued colleague. Because of Diarmuid’s support and kindness, people are where they are today, and one of them is Dr Mary Roche, seen here on the right, on the occasion of her graduation in January 2008.

Mary is one of five primary teachers who have received their PhDs in the last two years. You can download and read their accounts as follows (in order of graduation):

I hope these five practitioner-researchers will present their work as the main body of one of the lectures in this programme.

The existence of these PhD theses has institutional, national and global significance. The institutional significance lies in the fact that five PhD completions using a self-study action research methodology positions UL as occupying a distinctive place in Irish third level education, as a university recognised for legitimating the workplace action enquiries of practitioners at the highest level of scholarship, and showing what it means to develop egalitarian and transformational practices both in the workplace and in relation to the co-creation of educational knowledge. I may be mistaken but I think I am right in saying that UL is the first university in Ireland to accomplish this. I also know that other universities in Ireland are following suit. Margaret Farren at Dublin City University is exercising international influence through what she is doing in developing technology to support masters and, soon, doctoral level study. This podcast at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qg83f726Gw\, and her website at http://webpages.dcu.ie/~farrenm/, which communicate ideas about action research and the creation of living educational theories, show how Margaret and colleagues are developing exciting new ways to disseminate ideas about action research as a form of improving practice for knowledge creation. So while UL is possibly leader in the field at the moment, the work needs to develop apace if we are to maintain that position.

The significance of the work at UL at national level is that it constitutes a recognised knowledge base that carries profound meaning in terms of its content. Each of the validated doctoral theses engages with issues of social justice. This addresses Noffke’s (1997) concerns that, although action research may be a powerful means for individual development, it has not the transformational capacity for social and cultural change. I would say, in response, that the current work enables us to see how it is possible to transform personal development into social and cultural wellbeing through contributing to the education of social formations in relation to what it means to live a peaceful and productive life.

The significance at global level is that UL is positioned as a university committed to contributing to a new scholarship of educational knowledge (Whitehead 2008a; http://www.jackwhitehead.com/aerictr08/jwictr08key.htm ). While other people may talk about it, UL is doing it, and so fulfilling its mission statement of learning for action. The question, however, arises, ‘Action for what?’, and I consider this when I give a brief overview of the origins, nature and purposes of action research.

Before I do so, however, I would like to draw attention to, and celebrate some more of the work going on in UL. Here is Roland Tormey to speak about what he is doing as he coordinates the Ubuntu network.

ROLAND TORMEY

Now let’s return to the questions that inspired this presentation and give a brief overview of action research: what it is, where it came from, and how you do it. Most importantly, whether we can we all do it, and why we should.

1 An overview of action research: what is it, where did it come from, how do you do it?

I get invited to different countries around the world to talk about action research, and I usually do interactive presentations. When I negotiate the content of the workshop with participants, I find that most people want to know, ‘What is action research? Where did it come from? How do you do it? Can I do it?’ These are the same questions asked by colleagues at the Research Fair, so this is where I will begin.

What is action research?

The first question is, ‘What is action research?’ A brief response is that action research is a way of investigating your practice in order to improve it. It is a rigorous methodology that begins with a question of the form, ‘How do I improve my practice?’ (Whitehead 1989), in response to the experience of oneself as a living contradiction when values are denied in practice. It continues through a process of data gathering and generating evidence in relation to identified criteria and standards of judgement, as a means of testing the validity of emerging claims to knowledge. Provisional findings are presented for the critical scrutiny of others, through testing the validity of the claim to check the extent to which values have been realised in practice, as well as drawing on the criteria of social validity identified by Habermas (1987). These are to ensure that, in making their knowledge claims, the researcher demonstrates the following:

  • What they are saying is comprehensible, in relation to their capacity to offer a coherent narrative account that shows the transformational processes involved from the initial identification of a research issue to its transformation as an original knowledge claim;
  • They are speaking truthfully, in that they produce an evidence base to test the validity of their claims;
  • They demonstrate authenticity because they show how values are or are not realised over time;
  • They speak appropriately in that they demonstrate awareness of the sociocultural and sociopolitical forces acting on their normative context.

The descriptions and explanations offered therefore stand as the researcher’s own living theory of practice. You can find an easy guide to these ideas at http://www.jeanmcniff.com/booklet1.html.

What I have outlined presents one view of action research. Other views exist, some of which I believe are limited in their scope and degree of theoretical analysis, as I now explain. I will explain this by doing some historical work, and speaking about how different views have emerged.

The first point I will make is about the public agreements and disagreements that have emerged over time about action research.

Public agreements about action research

Twenty years ago, if you had asked, ‘What is action research?’ you would have received a reasonably direct answer. Up to about 1990, action research was seen as a fairly unified body of knowledge. Although people may have disagreed about its nature and uses (I will come to this), there would have been a reasonably unified stance about what action research was.

A working definition was published in 1988 by Kemmis and McTaggart, as follows:

Action research is a form of collective self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own social or educational practices, as well as their understanding of these practices and the situations in which these practices are carried out … The approach is only action research when it is collaborative, though it is important to realise that the action research of the group is achieved through the critically examined action of individual group members.

(Kemmis and McTaggart 1988: 5–6, emphasis in original)

A year later, in 1989, in response to global interest in the increasingly influential action research phenomenon, and the desire to distinguish it from other forms of educational research at the time, a group of prominent action researchers at the International Symposium on Action Research in Brisbane, 1989, offered the following definition:

If yours is a situation in which

  • people reflect and improve (or develop) their own work and their own situations
  • by tightly interlinking their reflection and action
  • and also making their experience public not only to other participants but also to other persons interested in and concerned about the situation (i.e. their (public) theories and practices of the work and the situation)

and if yours is a situation in which there is increasingly

  • data-gathering by participants themselves (or with the help of others) in relation to their own questions
  • participation (in problem-posing and in answering questions) in decision making
  • power-sharing and the relative suspension of hierarchical ways of working towards industrial democracy
  • collaboration among members of the group as a ‘critical community’
  • self-reflection, self-evaluation and self-management by autonomous and responsible persons and groups
  • learning progressively (and publicly) by doing and by making mistakes in a self-reflective spiral of planning, acting, observing, reflection, replanning, etc.
  • reflection which supports the idea of the ‘(self-) reflective practitioner’

then

  • yours is a situation in which ACTION RESEARCH is occurring.

(cited in Zuber-Skerritt 1996: 14)

Inevitably, however, the situation around public consensus did not last long, if indeed it had ever been the case.

Public disagreements about action research

As noted, if you were to go into an action research shop today, you would find many different brands, from which you would have to choose if you wanted to do action research. The main differences are in relation to their underpinning epistemologies and logics (see below). I am not sure that you could mix the different versions, unless you wished to come up with an experimental concoction. This kind of proliferation of interpretations of a concept is inevitable, given the rapid spread of action research, and given the transformational nature of any communication of ideas. When an idea takes hold, it rapidly develops a family, and the family often becomes a diaspora. I have heard some amazing statistics about the number of Irish Americans who claim Ireland as their roots, yet whose family members, sometimes generations back, have never set foot in Ireland.

What also happens is that the siblings begin to lose touch with one another and with their common family heritages, and this is what is happening in action research. It is especially noticeable in action research, because action research is about people and their discourses, and discourses are about human interests, which also take a range of forms, as Habermas (1972) noted. So people come to use ideas that appeal to their interests, and this is what has happened in action research. My concerns are mainly to do with how action research continues to be seen in many quarters simply as a method to get things done, not as a methodology that involves theoretical analysis. It is seen as a means of professional development, not as a means of knowledge creation. Appreciating this distinction is crucial if we are to explain how we understand quality in action research and demonstrate the validity of our knowledge claims to have improved our practices as the grounds for producing our explanations of how and why we have done so.

Let me examine the reasons for the differences. This can be best communicated through the historical story of action research. Here is a brief history, which addresses the second question, ‘Where did action research come from?’

A brief history of action research

Action research is reputed to have begun in the 1930s, in the US, in the work of Kurt Lewin and John Collier, commissioner for Indian affairs. Lewin is the better known, and widely held as the father of action research. His (1946) paper on ‘Action research and minority issues’ became a classic. This was the time of post-Taylorism, obsessed as it was with a cult of efficiency (Callahan 1962). However, interesting ideas were emerging about how to develop human potential for economic benefit, similar to what is happening in today’s market-oriented societies. Lewin felt that industrial output would increase if workers were involved in decision making about the work they were doing.

Action research was quickly taken up as a methodology for social change, especially in education, and the appearance of Corey’s (1953) Action Research to Improve School Practices signalled its establishment within the social sciences. Yet this success was to be short lived, for, with the launch of Sputnik in the 1950s, a new focus emerged on technical excellence, and action research fell into a state of disrepair.

It jumped the ocean, to the UK, where interest was growing. Two centres were developing, but with differences in their underpinning logics and epistemologies, and their corresponding values bases. In the East, in East Anglia, was the Centre for Action Research in Education (CARE), directed by John Elliott. Elliott followed in the footsteps of Lawrence Stenhouse who had enthusiastically recommended that teachers should research their practices (Stenhouse 1975). At the same time, in the West, at the University of Bath, Jack Whitehead was developing a different form of action research that placed the individual practitioner at the centre of their own enquiry. His view was that practitioners should investigate their own practices, asking questions of the form, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ They should produce their living educational theories for their practices in the form of their descriptions and explanations for practice. The validity of the theories would be tested against the critical feedback of others, using criteria such as those put forward by Habermas (1979) for the testing of truth claims (see above).

At that time, I was a deputy headteacher, in Dorset, newly seconded to support the development of the new curriculum area Personal and Social Education (PSE), and I had already worked with Leslie Button, an original pioneer in action research and PSE. His view was that young people should research their practices and offer their accounts of what they were doing, so when I decided that I wanted to study for my PhD, it was a natural route to the University of Bath.

This brief history begins to explain where the differences in approaches to action research lie.

Reasons for the differences in approaches

First I will say what the differences are not.

What the differences are not

The differences are not in relation to the paradigmatic positioning of action research as a form of human enquiry. This is revealed in a brief excursion through the paradigms of human enquiry since the onset of the Enlightenment.

At the onset of the Enlightenment, the aim was to understand the physical world. The picture that emerged was as follows:

The object of enquiry was the natural world. The question the researcher asked took the form, ‘What is happening out there? Why is it happening?’ The aim of the enquiry was to offer descriptions for what was happening in the natural world, analyses for how it was happening, and explanations for why it was happening.

We know that descriptions, analyses and explanations together spell ‘theory’; and, given that the aim of all research is to generate new knowledge and theory, the descriptions and explanations that the researcher offered about the world became the researcher’s theory of the world they experienced. This stance continues today, and is the basis of most scientific enquiry.

This idea that the world could be investigated as an objective phenomenon became problematic during the nineteenth century when the object of enquiry changed from the natural world to people, with the growing interest in disciplines such as anthropology. Note that the person generating the theory was still the researcher, adopting an external stance, now asking, ‘What are they doing? Why are they doing it?’ and offering theories about other people’s behaviour.

The problematic lay in the fact that the methods of the natural sciences were applied unproblematically to the social sciences, and not appreciating that, while rocks and trees do not answer back, people do. So when the researcher continued to offer theories for what people were doing, the people became annoyed. It would be the same as me saying that I could offer explanations for your lives. If I were you, I would feel rather annoyed. No propositional theory can offer an explanation for my life. Yet this is what happened then, and continues to happen today.

The situation became deeply problematic post World War I, when new ideas emerged about the need to engage critically with how particular social situations come into being, and how they are shaped by particular political, economic, cultural and historical forces. This led to a powerful new movement known as critical theory. People started thinking about how they should take action to improve their lives. A distinctive feature of critical theory is, however, that people never actually moved into action; they talked about it, but they did not do it. From the perspective of generating theory, the research stance remained the same: the external researcher continued to observe people as they talked about taking action, and produced propositional theories about the need to take action and why to do it.

The situation changed again when new ideas emerged about the need to take action. This is when new action theories appeared, including social activity theorists and rational actor theories. The theoretical position however stayed the same: an external observer continued to generate propositional theories about what people were doing and why they were doing it.

So, while the object of enquiry changed (on the right hand side of the images), within real-world shifts in the historical and social environment, the form of theory (on the left) stayed the same. Although different paradigms emerged within human enquiry itself, the form of theorising went unquestioned. The form of theory was premised on certain principles: the Aristotelian Law of the Excluded Middle, which said that no contradiction in theorising was possible (Popper, 1963, called any theory that contained a contradiction ‘a loose and woolly way of thinking’); a commitment to ‘the scientific method’, the idea of causal relationships, and objective statistical analysis as a means of interpreting findings. Validity could be demonstrated through the realisation of criteria such as generalisability and replicability. The assumption was that the world could be known on the basis of these principles, and the knowledge would be true and for all time.

This model remains for much traditional research today, including action research. Propositional theories are offered by official researchers about how people take action in order to improve their circumstances. This situation is known generally as the ‘theory–practice gap’: the theory remains with the external researcher, while the practice is done by the practitioners who are being studied. Theory and practice become not only separate realms of discourse, but also act as separate locations of different kinds of power and their conceptualisation. The contradictions are evident to anyone who wishes to ask critical questions: the injustice of one researcher investigating the practices of another while maintaining that they are committed to social justice; the unquestioned assumptions that this is the way it should be by all parties who say they believe in critical engagement: and so on.

A significant break happened in the 1970s, through the work of Jack Whitehead, who began to question the rationality and justice of traditional forms of theory, and the need to move from method to methodology. He extended the focus of enquiry to include not only what was happening in the social field, but also what was happening in processes of theory generation. The focus of enquiry shifted from externalist forms (E-theories) to internalist forms (I-theories). The aim of the enquiry was to find ways of improving practice through what later became known as self-study action research. The purpose of the research was to generate living theories of practice that explained processes of improvement. Hence the aim became to find ways of transforming the social and cultural order while at the same time transforming the form of theory used to conceptualise those processes.

This was a real paradigm shift, commensurate with similar concurrent shifts in a range of disciplines such as linguistics (Chomsky 1986) and literary studies (Norris 1983). New research questions emerged. Instead of ‘What are they doing? How can it be understood?’, questions took the form, ‘What am I doing? How do I understand it?’

New commitments emerged, to understand the world from one’s own point of view, as a person claiming originality and exercising their responsibility with universal intent (Polanyi 1958: 327). The individual researcher, the ‘living I’, realised that they were never alone; they were an ‘I’ is in company with other ‘I’s, also finding ways of improving what they are doing. The theoretical form shifted from the production of propositional theories about other people’s thinking and actions, to the creation of personal living theories about the individual’s own thinking and actions. This led to a two-pronged focus in action research, on (1) what was happening in the social world, and (2) the form of theory most appropriate to explaining it. In recent work, the research focus of Whitehead and myself has shifted again, to show the integration of the two strands in the production of living theories of practice, through developing an understanding of how the transformations in the underpinning logical form transform into transformations in the form of practice (McNiff and Whitehead 2006; Whitehead and McNiff 2006). Logics, values, epistemologies, methodologies and practices are dynamically related and integrated aspects of the life of a living individual, when they ask, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ We take an ecological view to action enquiry as not just about an appropriate method for doing projects, but also as a manifestation of a life of enquiry.

This historical analysis points to the main differences between traditional forms of scholarship and new forms of scholarship. Now let’s consider what the differences are.


What the differences are

The main differences lie in the underpinning logics and values of the different theoretical approaches.

If we adopt a minimalist approach (see Chomsky 2000) to understanding the field, we can say that practice is informed by values and logics working together, as follows:

Values, what we believe in, permeate everything we do. They inform our theories about the world, and give meaning to our lives. Here again is problematic territory, because people interpret the idea of values according to which values they hold. Some people, such as Rawls (1971) and Raz (2003), speak about values as abstract phenomena, such as this thing called ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’, from a perspective of propositional logic. The influential book A Theory of Justice contains a propositional theory of justice, but does not contain one example of how justice can be accomplished in contexts of injustice. Rawls does not say how he practises justice. The book exists as a hypothetical treatise. Hypothetical treatises do not actually achieve justice for anyone. On the other hand, practitioners such as Sullivan (2006), from a perspective of generating theory within and from practice, produce their living theory accounts to show how they embody justice in the way they live; the Abstract becomes Concrete in real-life lived practice. The living theories of people like Sullivan (2006) and Cahill (2007) show how the researchers incorporate the propositional theories of Rawls and Raz in their accounts, to strengthen the validity of their accounts and to contribute scholarly knowledge to their field.

Logics refers to the way we think. Contrary to popular belief, there are different kinds of logic: propositional logic, dialectical logic and inclusional logic.

Traditional propositional logic is premised on Aristotelian ideas about causal relationships between phenomena. Propositional logic gives rise to propositional theory. The validity of the theory is understood in terms of the conceptual and formal relationships between statements. Pring (2000) says:

‘Theory’ would seem to have the following features. It refers to a set of propositions which are stated with sufficient generality yet precision that they explain the ‘behaviour’ of a range of phenomena and predict what would happen in future. An understanding of those propositions includes an understanding of what would refute them – or at least what would count as evidence against their being true.

(Pring 2000: 124–5)

Dialectical logic, which has a long history, holds that contradiction is the nucleus of theory. Drawing on the work of Ilyenkov (1977), Whitehead (1989) posed the idea that an action enquiry begins when the researcher experiences themselves as a living contradiction when their values are denied in their practices. The enquiry then focuses on how to resolve the contradiction by finding ways to live in the direction of those values more effectively.

Inclusional logics, a term coined by Rayner (see his 2008) and developed by Whitehead (2008a), draw on ideas from ecology, spirituality, interconnectivity, and dynamic relational awareness. It is an idea that understands the world as a whole, as not capable of being divided or fragmented, and people within the world as part of their universe. The universe is always already embodied within themselves, themes resonant of the work of Bohm (1993), Capra (2003) and Bateson (1979). A special element of inclusional logics is the kind of relationships that Buber (1947) speaks about, which transform from ‘I-It’ to ‘I-Thou’, when the person sees themselves as separate from creation or a living part of it. These views are not themselves exclusive: an inclusional, living perspective requires the inclusion of propositional forms within itself. Nothing is excluded.

This is a view I also hold. In 1984, in my first published work, I produced the following diagram to communicate the dynamic evolutionary processes of my own life and thinking. This has stayed with me (McNiff 2002), although I have refined my understandings of its significance, and some of the implications.

So these are the matters I wish to address now, and I ask my next questions: How do you do action research? What is happening in the world of action research?


2 How do you do action research? What is happening in the world of action research?

Interest in action research is growing. You can see this from the number of books, papers and articles and presentations in the public domain. A glance through the programme of the American Educational Research Association or the British Educational Research Association reveals that, in 1995, presentations on action research and related topics were few and far between, whereas in 2008 they are everywhere.

One of the reasons for its popularity is in its common-sense approach to real-life dilemmas. However, although common-sense, the methodology is highly rigorous. A popular set of questions is the following (see Whitehead 1989; McNiff and Whitehead 2006; Whitehead and McNiff 2006):

  • What is my concern? Here is where you identify a research issue and a research question. The question usually takes the form, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’
  • Why am I concerned? You articulate the values base of your research, and explain how you may or may not be living your values in your practices. You may even experience yourself as a living contradiction when your values are denied in your practice.
  • How do I show the situation as it is and as it unfolds? You monitor practice and gather data in a systematic way to generate evidence in which to ground and test your knowledge claims.
  • What can I do about it? What will I do about it? You imagine new ways forward, and try them out in a systematic way. If something works, keep it. If it does not work, try something else.
  • How do I check that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and accurate? Any knowledge claim needs to be tested for validity. You test the validity of your claims against the realisation of your values, as well as against the critical feedback of others. Your values come to act as your living standards of judgement.
  • How do I modify my ideas and practices in the light of my evaluation? You use the learning from one action enquiry to inform the next. You move forward through transforming your learning and thinking.
  • How do I explain the significance of my learning from my action enquiry? In any research programme, it is important to make the work public, and to articulate its significance for new learning: this includes for one’s own education; for the education of others; and for the education of social formations.

You can view or download the booklet on Action Research for Professional Development that addresses these issues in an accessible way. You can also see many examples of this action reflection cycle at http://www.actionresearch.net, as I shortly explain.

The set of questions enables action researchers to offer their explanations for their practice, in the form of their living educational theories, and to articulate the originality, significance and rigour of their action research. Specifically, they are able to do the following:

  • Show how they have engaged in a systematic process of action enquiry for improving learning, in order to improve practice;
  • Explain how the enquiry is grounded in a coherent values base, and how these values provide explanatory principles and conceptual frameworks for the enquiry;
  • Include other people in the enquiry through collaborative working;
  • Monitor practice and gather data, using a range of data gathering techniques, including multimedia, to show the situation as it is and as it emerges;
  • Generate evidence from the data in relation to identified criteria and standards of judgement; explain how values transform into living standards of judgement;
  • Test the validity of knowledge claims against the values base and against the critical feedback of others, in the form of critical friends and validation groups;
  • Modify practice in light of validated findings;
  • Explain the significance of the research in terms of the researcher’s capacity to undertake a rigorous action enquiry.

What is happening in action research around the world?

I now want to look at how the idea of practitioners generating their living theories of practice is being developed around the world, and how a global knowledge base is developing to show the spread of their influence. This is in line with Snow’s (2001) call for a global knowledge base to show the systematisation of teachers’ enquiries (I extend ‘teachers’ to ‘practitioners’ because I believe that education is not confined to the teaching profession but extends across all aspects of human interaction, in bus queues as well as in formal classrooms.)

The most valuable source of information about the global spread of the ideas is to be found at www.actionresarch.net, where Jack Whitehead has provided a comprehensive database. You can access accounts of work from Canada at http://www.actionresearch.ca/, from China at http://people.bath.ac.uk/edsajw/moira.shtml, from Ireland at http://webpages.dcu.ie/~farrenm/, and from many places in the UK and elsewhere. Especially significant is the database of validated higher degree accounts, to show how action enquiries are being legitimated internationally by the Academy – see PhD theses and masters modules at http://people.bath.ac.uk/edsajw/living.shtml. Because of his interest in multimedia forms of representation, Jack has developed a multimedia approach to his website: you can see for example the complete video of a keynote presentation at the ICTR conference in 2008. You can download the script of the presentation at http://www.jackwhitehead.com/aerictr08/jwictr08key.htm, and can also view the entire presentation using the streamed server from the University of Bath – see mms://wms.bath.ac.uk/live/education/JackWhitehead_030408/jackkeynoteictr280308large.wmv. You can also access other leading websites from around the world. In a later lecture, Ray O’Neill, of FETAC, will show how he wrote his PhD thesis in multimedia website form, engaging with Eisner’s (1993; 1997) ideas about new forms of representation in educational research, and reconceptualising ICT as political action (O’Neill 2008).

My own website, www.jeanmcniff.com, which is nowhere near so well developed, contains details of some of the work at UL and in Ireland in general. The work in Ireland, including the work of Gerry McNamara and Margaret Farren at DCU, has involved many small and large-scale projects, including the Marino Schools-Based Action Research Project, and national projects such as the one undertaken by the National Council for Technology in Education (see Galvin 2002). Of special note is the work of the National Centre for Guidance in Counselling, in which hundreds of teachers have studied their practices and offered explanatory accounts for their work in guidance. Evidence can be found in the documentation from the NCGE, at http://www.ncge.ie/. Books and papers are in preparation.

I have also been working in South Africa for the past four years, with two groups: a group of twelve teachers in the township of Khayelitsha, and with fifteen staff from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). You can access papers from myself (McNiff 2008 at http://www.jeanmcniff.com/aera08/JM_AERA08_Paper_final.htm), and of two of my masters group participants, Gerrie Adams (2008) and Tsepo Majake (2008), at http://www.jeanmcniff.com/khayelitsha/index.html. You can also access papers from members of NMMU staff, who are now publishing their accounts as books and papers in refereed journals: see Olivier (2008), and Wood et al. (2007), and Wood (2008, in production). This is part of my shifting work commitments to the continuing professional education of academic staffs, and communicates the idea of acting locally and publishing globally. It also brings me to my final point, which is to do with where action research is going and its potential significance, how we can do it, and why we should do it.


3 Where is action research going? Can we do it? Why should we do it?

The key issue for action research in recent years has been to demonstrate how quality may be judged through testing the validity of accounts. In 2005, Furlong and Oancea pointed out that, while practitioner research was widely accepted as a powerful form of professional development, it could not be taken seriously as a form of knowledge creation, given that the criteria and standards for judging its validity had not yet been well worked out by the action research community. For years, this has been a sticking point, addressed by many, including Bassey (1999) and Feldman (2003), but as yet unsatisfactorily, since there was no agreement among the community of practitioner researchers about what kind of criteria and standards should be used for judging the quality of action research. A new approach has been developed in recent years that is grounded in the idea of values, in that the values that inspire an inquiry come to act as the living standards of judgement for the enquiry (Whitehead 2004; Whitehead and McNiff 2006). This approach is gaining currency.

A second and increasingly significant problem, as I see it, lies in practices of demonstrating the legitimacy of the accounts. This brings me to my own current main interests, working in third level education, and engaging with Habermas’s (1975) ideas about the legitimation crisis in what counts as knowledge and who decides. My concerns are about how academic staffs need to engage with their own action enquiries in order to make sound judgements about the quality of the work they are supervising and examining. I have several linked reasons for my focus, to do with social justice, the credibility of the Academy as an arbiter of what counts as knowledge, the need to keep up with new thinking in a new century, and how perspectives about the capacity of practitioners for theorising practice can contribute to the development of Sen’s (1999) theory of human capability as a means of economic sustainability. I shall go more deeply into these issues in a later lecture, but here I focus on three:

  • The need for academic staffs to demonstrate the validity of their work as educators; therein lies their credentials as legitimators;
  • The need for academic staffs to engage critically with their own thinking;
  • How this can lead to institutional, social and economic sustainability.
The need for academic staffs to demonstrate the validity of their work as educators; therein lie their credentials as legitimators

The idea of reflective practice has become enormously popular since 1983, when Schön wrote The Reflective Practitioner. It is widely agreed that practitioners should be reflective. What is not widely agreed is what they should reflect on, or why. Winter (1989) is still possibly one of the best texts in addressing this issue, when he calls for reflexive critique and dialectical critique in action research. Reflexive critique, for Winter, is the capacity to reflect critically on one’s work, and one’s thinking, and to make the familiar strange by problematising taken for granted assumptions. In terms of this paper, this means engaging with issues of theory and practice, especially what has become normative, and especially with what has become the normative epistemology. Normative practices tend to be grounded in normative forms of theory, which tend to be grounded in normative epistemologies; until recently, traditional propositional theory was held as the only valid form of theory, especially within third level contexts. As I have indicated in this paper, this is changing in the practitioner researcher community. In that context, the monopoly of traditional theory has changed considerably in recent years, so the validity of practitioner research, which involves the generation of new transformational forms of theory, is now widely recognised at all levels of continuing professional education. It is now well established that practitioners are capable of generating their own living theories of practice that can contribute to new forms of scholarship and new institutional epistemologies (Schön 1995).

However, while the challenge for practitioners has been to demonstrate the validity of their claims to know their own practices (Furlong and Oancea 2005), and to articulate what they claim as quality in terms of the originality, significance and rigour of their research, a different challenge faces the Academy, which is to find agreement about the legitimisation of new forms of scholarship; and this involves Winter’s second criterion of dialectical critique, which refers to understanding the historically-constituted social, cultural, political and economic forces that have contributed to the formation of a current social order. This has considerable consequences, because, if we are serious about our moral obligations to truth and justice, as Newman (1854/1996) and A.N. Whitehead (1929) say is the proper business of universities; and given that the credibility of academics as legitimisers is grounded in processes of demonstrating the validity of their own knowledge claims to competent practice, it requires academic practitioners themselves to understand and engage with new ways of theorising. This is essential, given that the Academy is still the highest body for legitimising what counts as knowledge and who counts as a knower, which acts as the basis for cultural and social transformation.

This is where my own main interests and concerns lie. I am concerned, because instances have been recorded in the literature, and are part of my own experience, about how proposals, dissertations and theses, located within what has become known as the new scholarship, have been rejected by traditionalist academics, on the grounds that they did not meet the criteria and standards of traditional scholarship. The problem lies, in my view, not so much with the quality of the works, some of which has been accredited at a later date or elsewhere, and some of which, ironically, have been used as the basis of programmes of the same institutions that denied their legitimation. The quality also lies in the limited range of experience of some examiners, some of who come to the assessment task with normative expectations, from within their own normative experiences, grounded within traditional forms of scholarship. It is rather like the scenario in many schools and colleges, in relation to ICT, where students operate in a digital world while their teachers remain in analogue (Brown and Duguid 2002: cited in O’Neill 2008). In the case of granting academic validity and legitimacy, workplace-based practitioners, many of who are well versed in the epistemologies and methodologies of new scholarship work, find when they come to the university that their work will be supervised and assessed by traditionalist professors. I worry that practitioners may find, when they enter third level education, that they will be caught in a game where those who are positioned as making judgements about their work will themselves be caught in a process of intellectual and methodological catch-up.

The need for academic staffs to engage critically with their own work

This of course has serious implications for academic staffs. Committing to ideas about investigating one’s practice as a supervisor means reconceptualising oneself as an educator, and as an intellectual (Said 1993). Reconceptualising oneself as an educator means disengaging from the security of subject knowledge only, and from traditionalist pedagogies for the transmission of ideas. Too many academic practices rely on a normative understanding of the communication of ideas as the straightforward transmission of what is in one person’s head directly into another. This practice is premised on a theory of learning that assumes that people cannot think and learn for themselves. My view is that we are all born with the capacity to generate unlimited knowledge, as features of our genetic inheritance (Chomsky 1986). I agree with Habermas (1975) when he claims that humans cannot not learn in processes of social evolution; and I would extend it to say that it is impossible for humans not to learn in any situation, given that humans are pre-programmed to learn, in the same way that we are pre-programmed to speak. Yet the realisation of those natural endowments of learning and speech are often distorted by traditionalist views that say people should learn and speak only those things that are appropriate to their situations in the world; and what is appropriate is decided by others with the position power to make such decisions. The situation also ignores the idea that we are born as choice-makers, and one of our choices is to decide whether or not to accept the influence of another in our learning. Said (1997) speaks of the idea of influence; that what is said is mediated by the originality of mind of the other, as they listen and weigh up their options; yet they can continue to do this only if they are nurtured within a social order where critical thinking is valued, and practices are directed at encouraging people to think for themselves. Too often, traditional education, across the sectors, focuses on encouraging people not to think for themselves, to accept the status quo, and to focus on the transfer of existing knowledge rather than the creation of original knowledge.

These views have serious implications for us academic practitioners, for, by taking processes of reflexive and dialectical critique seriously, we have to engage in an interrogation of our own practices, and reveal any slippages between our espoused values and our lived practices, and find ways of improving. Furthermore, and again if we are to have credibility in the public eye, we need to make public our accounts of what we are doing as academic practitioners. Because the work of a university is about knowledge creation, we need to show how we have engaged with deep epistemological issues, with the underpinning logics and values of practice, and show how we live our values in our practices. This means we have to reconceptualise ourselves as critical intellectuals (Foucault 1977; Said 1993) whose responsibility is to contribute to practical knowledge of the world for personal, social, environmental, political, and economic stability.

How this can lead to institutional, social and economic sustainability

In management and leadership contexts, normative epistemologies often lead to a situation of ‘them and us’, the managers and the managed, leaders and followers. I reflected on this as I watched a television report last week of how a local council has initiated a programme of enabling convicted offenders to work their sentences by doing community work. In the report, four men were painting and generally sprucing up a local community centre. These four offenders, dressed in working clothes and wielding paintbrushes, and obviously having a good time chatting with passers-by, were being supervised by a man, dressed in a suit, walking up and down, and looking rather self-conscious. My thought at the time was how much more sense it would make if the supervisor himself were to don working clothes and get in there with the men he was supervising. Yet this is often the case in organisations that work from a control and command model, and is to do with position power and status. My worry is that I see this happening in some institutions where colleagues and I work. The supervision of people travels to the supervision of academic work; and different standards of conduct, underpinned by different epistemological commitments, act as the means by which work is supported and eventually judged.

Contrary to what some of the literatures say, the days of empire are not gone. They are everywhere, though now dressed in the trappings of democracy and presented in terms such as ‘remodelling’ and ‘liberalisation’. This is especially the case in workplaces where traditionalist practices still dominate. This is ironic, given that it is well understood that workplaces work best when run on egalitarian principles that involve all participants in decision-making (Senge 1990). It has special relevance in these days of economic insecurity, when universities and other education institutions are positioned as self-financing businesses that are reliant on their workforces for their economic sustainability. Questions then arise about how sustainability may be achieved.

In his Development as Freedom (1999), Sen makes the point that a theory of human capability is a more adequate basis for achieving economic sustainability than a theory of capital accumulation, acknowledging the transformational relationship between the two. Capital accumulation works at the surface level of material goods as means of social welfare (which in reality excludes large sections of society from its benefits, given many existing structures for access to and the distribution of material goods); while human capability refers to the deep-level genetic endowment of all persons to realise their potentials in their own way. A view of human capability therefore has to underpin a view of capital accumulation if all are to share in the benefits of their own labour and have a say in their own futures, as the basis of social wellbeing. These themes are reiterated in work by Iris Marion Young (1990, 2000) who speaks of the need for self-determination for self-development, and in the work of Chomsky (2001), Habermas (1998) and Said (2001) who speak of the need for all to engage in processes of public debate in order to achieve them, as well as the kind of infrastructures that support such public debate. I see the development of such forms as grounded in the underpinning epistemologies of those involved in discussions about how development as freedom is to be realised. Here I draw on the work of Schön (1995: see http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-17839288.html and other webpages for information about the new scholarship).

Schön argues for the development of new institutional epistemologies that enable critical reflection and informed debate to flourish within the modern research university. He speaks of the need to move from a view of excellence as grounded in technical rationality to a view of personal professional wisdom. This development, he says, stems from a commitment to action research. Whitehead (2008b and c) speaks of the need for dynamic relational epistemologies. In my view, these forms provide the epistemological infrastructure necessary for promoting a view of freedom as development, and for the accumulation of financial capital through the development of human capital, and for the enjoyment of their own social goods by those who have had a hand in creating them.

This then becomes the challenge for academic staffs. It is not a question of, ‘Go out and do consultancy work in order to generate income,’ which is what I heard at a recent meeting elsewhere. It is a case of ‘First evaluate your own practice to see whether you are realising your identity in order to support others in doing the same, before you go out and do consultancy work.’ It is not simply a matter of skills development. It is a matter of finding generative ways to exercise educational influence to enable all to realise their capacities to think for themselves and to develop their practices as a form of life that is a manifestation of their underpinning values and logics. In terms of the purposes of the university, it is about nurturing the capability to create knowledge. The knowledge in question is, first, knowledge of practice, which embeds, second, knowledge of subject matter.

I shall explore these issues further on another occasion. For now, let me say that one of my aims is to support practitioners in workplaces to produce high quality reports that contain their validated knowledge claims to show how they account for themselves as they try to improve their practices for educational and social sustainability. I also support higher education personnel around the world to learn about action research so that they can walk with practitioners within a new Twenty-first Century landscape that values practical knowledge creation for economic sustainability. My way of supporting academic practitioners is to encourage them to research their own practices as lecturers and supervisors, given that learning from experience can often be a better form of internalising ideas than learning from a printed page. I extend this invitation to yourselves.

Conclusion

In this paper I have told a story of action research, and shown how it is integrated with my own story. My story itself comes to act as my living educational theory (McNiff 2007). I have explained how my work is to enable others to realize their capacity for knowledge creation, and to make those stories public. The theme is reiterated by Watts (2007) who says:

The enhancement of narrative capability requires us to pay attention to the bigger story of which education may be only a small part. But we must also pay attention to the participant’s ability to tell a story. It may not be enough to let them struggle through the story unaided. We may be able to develop an understanding of their lives from stumbling speech and from silences but this is not necessarily enough. Giving voice to our research participants, particularly those with low volumes of narrative capital, must therefore mean more than simply letting them speak (although this legitimation may be all they require). It must be about understanding; and they may need support to articulate and understand their own lives. Moreover, this support must acknowledge their own values if we are avoid the hegemonic imposition of other lives, other stories and other values upon them. We come back to life histories as a means of talking truth and confronting power because they enable us to contextualise the stories we are told and to understand them from the perspective of the story teller.

(Watts 2008: 110)

A tradition of enabling others and ourselves to speak and account for ourselves is now well established in UL, through the existing knowledge base. I hope that, working together, we can strengthen the knowledge base and use it to influence the spread of ideas about how human wellbeing can be achieved, and what may be its potentials for social sustainability.


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