Creating a good social order through education

Notes for a series of meetings in Israel, February 7–19, 2003

Jean McNiff

Introduction to these papers

In 1992, my colleagues Jack Whitehead and Moira Laidlaw and I wrote a book called ‘Creating a Good Social Order through Action Research’ (McNiff, Whitehead and Laidlaw, 1992). Ten years on I would like to revisit the ideas explored in that book, and set out how I think we are fulfilling the ideas in the title. In doing this, I am aiming to hold myself accountable for my belief that it is not enough for people only to articulate their values (what they believe in), in abstract conceptual terms; they also have to show how they think they are living in the direction of their articulated aims, and produce concrete evidence to support their claims as verifiable knowledge claims and not wishful thinking or even double talk.I said that the 1992 book was written together with Jack Whitehead and Moira Laidlaw. You can read their influential work on In this series of papers I would like to offer a progress report on my own involvement, as an aspect of my own accountability, and check the extent to which I could be said to be contributing to a good social order through education.

Although I am setting the papers out formally, I do not intend to read them. I hope to speak about some of the ideas, as people wish. Therefore, although each presentation will have a specific focus, people can draw on issues raised in any or all of the papers for discussion at any or all of the seminars. The papers may also be downloaded and used for other purposes, as people wish. The ideas set out here as a series of papers will be reworked into a book for later publication. If you would like to be part of this publication, please contact me through my web site.

To set the scene for the papers, I need to contextualise my work and show how my understanding has grown out of studying my practice. Here is a brief account.

Contexts of my work

Although I work in a variety of places, my current main work settings are my home and Ireland. In Ireland I work, mainly in the south, with educators from a variety of disciplines. These days I am primarily occupied in supporting the doctoral studies of educators as they address questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ (Whitehead, 1989, 1999, 2000). At home I write, read and think. My writing takes the form of my own accounts of practice, such as this series of papers, in which I address the question, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’, produce my own theories of my practice, and show how I am systematically trying to improve it. These accounts are research reports, and contain the empirical evidence base that supports my claims that I am learning how to contribute to a good social order.

Work is, for me, extremely affirming and also extremely frustrating. This is true for my thinking contexts, when it can take years for ideas to develop and manifest as written texts. The frustration seldom disappears, because as soon as I get to the position where I think I know what I am doing, new questions emerge and the problematic starts all over again. It is also frustrating because, over time, I have come to see the importance of the question, ‘How will you know if you’re wrong?’ (Pring, 2000). I spend a lot of time worrying about this, but it does not deter me from going forward on my faith that something somewhere is right, because other people produce their explanations for their lives which contain evidence of the benefits of my educative influence (see Papers 1, 2 and 3). It is a constant dilemma, though.

The frustration is particularly true of practice contexts, where I work with educators on higher degree programmes. I began working in Ireland ten years ago, at the same time as Jack, Moira and I wrote the book. I was invited by a small private college in Dublin to support their efforts to develop a schools based action research programme. From the beginning, I encouraged the managers of the college to seek ways in which the teachers involved could get their work accredited, and we actively sought the support of some Irish universities, none of whom, however, was willing to be involved. Consequently I approached a British university, the University of the West of England, who were delighted to support the initiative. With them, I developed professional education programmes leading to masters degrees, and the situation today is that 65 practitioners have gained their masters degrees through studying their practice and asking, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ For many, the knowledge they have gained through their studies is now directly impacting on the organisations in which they work, as they and their colleagues ask, ‘How do we improve what we are doing?’ They are also contributing to what counts as educational knowledge across the island, through their publicly available accounts that show how they are working collaboratively to develop what they believe are sustainable organisations. For me, the situation is pleasing in that not only do I see how the ideas have spread in school settings, but also that I am invited to advise on professional education programmes with the same Irish universities that, ten years ago, were reluctant to talk or acknowledge the validity of the ideas. From these experiences I have learnt a great deal about the nature of working with others and about the nature of the development of knowledge for social change. I have also learnt a great deal about myself.

As well as working in the Republic of Ireland, I have also worked regularly in Northern Ireland. There I have been involved in several short-term projects in the area of Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU). Education for Mutual Understanding, a curriculum initiative introduced in the 1990s, aims to help both sides in the divided society of Northern Ireland to learn to live together in peace. In the wider literatures, EMU is located within peace education. Working in Northern Ireland meant that I was working in a social situation of conflict, a conflict that frequently manifested as violence and bloodshed.

However, my work in the North was not focused on developing strategies for non-violent living. I was always concerned with helping educators to understand what they were doing in their classrooms and workplaces, and to appreciate how their work could contribute to social change within their organisations and within their wider contexts. There was certainly always a focus on personal and social justice. The work in the South was located in professional and education conflicts. So was the work in the North, which was also located in highly contested political and geographical contexts. The same principles were evident everywhere, regardless of context. Practitioner knowledge was seen as second-class, not to be legitimated, in the same way as Catholics and Protestants each positioned the other side as second-class, not to be legitimated. Practitioners were seen as people who should be taught to think in a particular way, rather than be encouraged to think for themselves, in the same way that Unionists and Nationalists believed that each held the monopoly on truth and was duty bound to impose their version of the truth on others. Anyone, either in education or social contexts, who chose to think differently, or believed that they had the right to create their own knowledge and their own identity, was swiftly brought to book through the exercise of power in the form of strategies of control. In many cases it was the exercise of control by the strong (those who were in power by virtue of their legitimation) over the weak (those who were non-powerful by virtue of their non-legitimation).

It was through working in these education and political contexts that I came to understand how education itself was kept under the control of elites who were positioned as powerful by virtue of their legitimation, and I began to understand the nature of the power struggle between, on the one hand, those who positioned themselves as practitioners who claimed the right to be acknowledge as legitimate knowers of their own practice as learners, and, on the other hand, those who positioned themselves as experts who also claimed the right to be acknowledged as legitimate knowers of their own practice as experts. The question was profoundly about legitimacy, and who was legitimated in granting legitimacy. The same struggles for legitimacy in terms of personal identities as knowers and educators were the same struggles for legitimacy in terms of personal identities as citizens and possessors of land and social privilege. The situation that power seems to be its own legitimation in authoritarian social and intellectual groupings led me to challenge its manifestation in the control of lives and the imposition of particular forms of knowledge, and also to develop my own ideas about the nature of legitimation and its foundations. These ideas, naturally enough, have frequently brought me into conflict with authoritarian people, including managers of established institutions. The ideas have also led me to challenge the orthodoxy of the underpinning values and assumptions of traditional forms of curriculum and, in the context of preparing the papers for the visit to Israel, peace education, as practised in schools, and as served by feeder curriculum areas that deal with personal and social education. In the UK, these areas are known by different names such as Personal, Social and Health Education, and Citizenship and Civics Education. In Ireland they go by names such as Social, Personal and Health Education, and Relationships and Sexuality Education. These areas together constitute an affective education curriculum. The areas are familiar to me. I began working in the area of Personal and Social Education in the 1980s (McNiff, 1986). Today they have taken on renewed significance.

It will be clear by now that the nature of my work is problematic and political, but this is nothing unusual for educators. Education is political. As soon as we begin talking about education we are into the contested territories of power and identity, of who is entitled to make judgements about others, and who says so. What is rather special about some of my settings is that these are politicised geographical areas that are also contested and conflictual. For me, each individual context of conflict is unique. Yet issues of power, control and freedom always seem to be present whether the discussion is about education and knowledge or about land and the equitable distribution of social goods. The principles of power and control and the struggle for freedom manifest in different ways. The scale of suffering is different, but the principles are the same.

In recent times I have come to understand how the struggle for freedom in the intellectual territories of knowledge underpin and inform the struggle for freedom in geographical territories. I see how faith in a certain kind of knowledge and a certain way of knowing reinforces and compounds certain social practices. Faith in one right way of knowing travels to faith in one right way of living. Fundamentalist convictions that one has The Truth travel to fundamentalist practices that one has the authority to impose that truth on others. This denies my values of freedom, respect for all life forms, and my commitment to live in harmony with my environment. Clearly I do not live in harmony in work contexts, and my own struggle is constantly to find ways in which I can live within the dissonance in a way that leaves me at peace. I think this is what is so very special about my life now. I have learnt, through long and bitter struggles, how to live in peace with myself.

Here, then, is the series of papers that I hope will provide a stimulus for our conversations.

Notes for meetings at Jordan Valley Academic College, 8 February 2003, and The Israeli Center for Qualitative Methodologies, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 17 February 2003 Here I set out how I position myself and my work, and how I see it as contributing to a special form of social order. This involves an explanation of why, although my work could be seen as contributing to peaceful ways of living, I do not formally position it within mainstream forms of peace education and its associated disciplines. It also explains how and why I think peace education needs to be reconceptualised if it is to be held worthy of the name.
Notes for the seminar "The Philosophical and Methodological Inter-relations between Action Research and the Paradigm of Qualitative Research in Education", at the Ohallo Manor, 8 February 2003 Here I explain how I understand the philosophical and methodological base of action research, and its relationship with qualitative research in general, which is the theme of the seminar. The paper involves ideas to do with knowledge and philosophical imagining, and how I believe these ideas can contribute to a good social order.
A paper presented at the MOFET Institute, Tel Aviv, 16 February 2003 This paper sets out how I believe action research has been taken over by elitist interest groups to be used to their own advantage, and how many current manifestations of action research are in fact a betrayal of the foundation principles of action research, as these are set out in Papers 1 and 2. It also explains what I think needs to be done to reclaim and retain action research as a form of enquiry that has significant implications for the future of education and education research.

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Professor Julian Stern, York St John University

Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




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