I know how to set the caged bird free

Jean McNiff

[Word version available]

This chapter is about how an action research approach can help you as a teacher find creative ways of dealing with HIV/AIDS and its effects in your classroom, school and community. You may already have done some action research, but if it is a new concept, here is a brief outline of what it is and what it involves.

Action research is a form of workplace-based professional learning that enables teachers and other practitioners to ask questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ as they seek to live their values more fully in their practice (Whitehead 1989). The values in question, within the context of the disaster that is HIV/AIDS, are the values of compassion and inclusion that come to the fore in a critical awareness of the vulnerability of the child. Teachers would therefore ask, ‘How do I deal with the epidemic?’ or ‘How do I manage my work, knowing that some of the children and their parents are HIV positive, or have AIDS?’ or, in some cases, ‘knowing that I have AIDS?’ Aware of the at-risk situation of many of the children in their care, they would ask, ‘How do I protect children from exploitation, from forms of transactional sex? How do I work for their interests in situations of poverty or domestic violence? How do I enable the children to live disease-free, violence-free lives?’ Asking these kinds of questions can be problematic because it involves checking that we are fulfilling our values of compassion and responsibility in protecting the child, as well as exercising political will as we set about finding creative solutions to the questions.

For many people, this is easier said than done. In principle, action research means developing attitude, looking at a problem and saying, ‘I can do something about this.’ In reality, it is often far from easy. There are challenges to overcome: political-logistical difficulties such as under-resourcing, large classes, and intense poverty; cultural attitudes, such as the undervaluing of teachers, the bad press they receive, and their resultant deepening demoralisation; and the self-perception on the part of many teachers that they are inadequate, helpless, and unable to do anything about the situation. Yet this is precisely where action research can help, because the first thing an action researcher says is, ‘It need not be like this. What’s going on? How did we get here in the first place? How do we get out of this situation, and learn to become capable, self-determining people?’ These are the issues this chapter addresses. It is about how action research can enable teachers to overcome possible negative self-perceptions, and learn how to become resourceful, committed people who have the answers to their dilemmas already within their own hands. This is key, because it makes the point that the way to deal with HIV/AIDS is as much about epistemology – what we know and how we come to know it – as about biology and culture. Stopping the pandemic begins in the mind first and in the laboratory second. What we need to do first is change the way we think; everything else will follow on from that.

I am not speaking in a hypothetical sense, but out of the real-world experience of working with teachers in a township in South Africa. I have seen in the community what damage the legacy of colonialism and apartheid can do, in terms of stripping people of their vision and self-belief, the loss of a sense of care. I have also seen how people can recreate themselves as highly motivated, capable people when they decide to stop believing the stories they have been led to believe, and begin telling themselves and others new stories about their capacity for personal and social renewal. I have seen how people learn to interrogate their own logics and values, and make conscious decisions about becoming activists in the face of crushing despair.

So I will now set out the main ideas in this chapter, where a first step is to explain further what doing action research involves.

Doing action research

I said above that action research is a form of on-the-job professional learning that enables you to improve what you are doing. I can explain most effectively what action research involves by turning this chapter into an account of the action research I am currently undertaking into my own practice, where I address these questions:

  • What is my concern?
  • Why am I concerned?
  • How do I show the situation as it is?
  • What can I do about it? What will I do about it?
  • What kind of data do I gather to show the situation as it changes?
  • How do I check that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and accurate?
  • How do I modify my ideas and practices in light of my evaluation?

(Whitehead 1989; McNiff and Whitehead 2006)

A current focus of my action research is about how I can persuade teachers in South Africa and elsewhere to believe that they are in control of what they do, and can change it if they wish, while recognising that they are part of a wider social context. Changing what they do begins with changing how they think. The key issue, as outlined above, becomes how we engage with the stories we encounter in our daily lives, and whether we should believe them. This involves becoming critical, to decide which stories are true and which are fairy-tales.

However, this chapter is itself a story, albeit an action research story, so I need to apply the same critique to what I am saying. Why should you believe my story? How do you know I am telling the truth? Explaining why you should listen to me becomes part of the story, where I introduce a discussion about the kinds of criteria used to judge its believability. It is my responsibility, as the storyteller, to address those criteria as I write, so that you, as reader, can see that this is a story to be taken seriously and not just another fairy-tale.

To set the scene, I begin with another story. This is nothing unusual, because action research stories are often stories of stories, some metaphorical, and each embedded within the other to form a pattern that shows the emergence of ideas through the storytelling. My contextualising story is about birds and cages.

A story of birds and cages

As I write this chapter, in England, I look out over my winter garden, and see the wild birds at the bird table that I was given as a Christmas present. I put out seed for them every morning, purchased from the local pet store, and am well rewarded by the delight of watching the antics of busybody sparrows and robins, and lovely birds such as jays and woodpeckers. I have the pleasure of continual birdsong throughout the year.

Going to the pet store, however, is a far from delightful experience, because, although I am again greeted with birdsong, it is the song of birds in cages, many different and elaborately crafted cages, suspended from the ceiling or in high ranks along a wall. The birds hop from one perch to another, singing their little hearts out, but not, I wager, for the same reason as the birds in my garden. Storekeepers will tell you that the birds are singing because they are happy. The storekeeper told me so, when I said that I did not like to see birds in cages. ‘They are singing because they are happy,’ she said.

Maya Angelou knows differently. She writes:

A free bird leaps on the back of the wind
And floats downstream till the current ends
And dips his wings in the orange sun’s rays and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

(retrieved 5 January 2008 from http://www.angelfire.com/on/lummus/Angelou.html)

I do not believe in caging birds, or animals, or people, on the spurious grounds of making money, or watching them for entertainment, or political expediency. I do not believe stories that say that birds and people deserve to be in cages. These are stories manufactured by storekeepers to make money, and by governments to jail dissenters without charge. They are disseminated through the culture, largely by the media, so that they become normative, that is, accepted as the way things are and how they should be.

This goes to the heart of my action enquiry, because it is a denial of my deep value of protecting the human1 when people are fooled into thinking in certain ways without realising it. A powerful story in circulation tells us to be obedient and not to question stories in the first place. Challenging this mindset becomes the focus of my enquiry, and I believe I do challenge it, to the extent that I influence people’s thinking (a key point which I discuss in a later section), and I have evidence to show it. The claim arising from my enquiry therefore is that I go beyond knowing why the caged bird sings, and can say, ‘I know how to set the caged bird free.’ I have come to this knowledge through my action research.

So, to let you see the process I have engaged in, in order to come to the point where I can make this claim, I go back to the beginning, and explain how I still frequently experience myself as a living contradiction when my values are denied in my practice (Whitehead 1989), and what I do about it. I hope that you can learn from my story, and see how you also can combat what may seem insuperable odds, given determination and self-belief.

What is my concern?

I am concerned that people tend to believe the stories communicated through the culture about how they should think and act, without bringing their powers of critical discernment to whether or not they should believe those stories. In the context of HIV/AIDS some common stories are as follows: it is the responsibility of women to take care in sexual matters; it is acceptable for men to have multiple liaisons but not women; the treatment of AIDS is bio-medical, and need not take culturally-mandated sexual practices into account; orphaned children will manage somehow; no one person is responsible for the disaster. Stories like these need serious critique.

Becoming critical, however, can be difficult, for the following reasons.

First, we are all born into a habitus. This is a term used by Bourdieu (1990) to communicate the idea that a culture works in terms of certain norms and standards, which have developed out of the individual behaviours and social practices of the people involved. A popular definition of culture is ‘the way we do things around here.’ However, ‘how we do things’ frequently and rapidly becomes ‘how we should do things,’ that is, the descriptive rapidly becomes prescriptive and normative. From a critical perspective, the focus therefore shifts from the realities that the culture aims to communicate to the reality of how the culture itself operates.

Furthermore, behaviour is premised on how we think, our forms of logic. Dominant forms of logic, especially in the western intellectual system, tend to be fragmented and causal. The world is seen as organised as separate compartments, and people are categorised to fit into those compartments: ‘You are black, so you go in here; you have one leg so you go in there; you are a woman, so in here, please; you have curly hair, so here is your box’ – and so it goes, until we are all sitting secure in our boxes. The dominant logic also works in terms of cause and effect: ‘If I do x, I will achieve y’; so it assumes that boxes may be moved around, as variables, so that if one box goes here, this will have a determining effect on the others. The rightness of the thinking is tested by showing how the boxes fit together, even though this may mean cutting a corner off here or lowering a lid there to make them fit – just like the different sized cages in the store, which are ranked in relation to their shape so that they form a solid wall of caged, uselessly singing birds.

Second, the habitus is not only about what we do but also how we think. We are born into a culture with certain accepted ways of knowing (epistemologies), and we grow up using those epistemologies, so using normative epistemologies also becomes normative. And because it is normative, it goes unquestioned. People generally do not question how they think. ‘Are you aware of how you think?’ becomes a non-question, because it simply does not make sense. Yet this question is central to critique and has to be asked. It is, however, probably the most difficult thing to do, because it involves deconstructing our thinking, while using the form of thinking itself that we are trying to deconstruct. However, this is what it takes to become critical.

Third, the way we do things becomes normative to the extent that we internalise the rules and police ourselves about our levels of obedience. Foucault (1980) tells the story of prisoners, who learn the rules of imprisonment so well that the jailer becomes redundant. This happens everywhere in societies. People assume roles and learn their scripts, and come to believe that the scripts are their own creations. In ordinary conversations you can hear comments such as, ‘My husband is very good: he does the washing up,’ or ‘She can’t help being backward, poor thing.’ In the context of HIV/AIDS, these comments become, ‘It is not their fault,’ or ‘What else can you expect from the likes of them?’ Becoming critical means questioning whether the roles people are expected to take are their own choices or someone else’s fabrications. It also means questioning who writes the script, and for what purposes. It means understanding that it is easy, and often tempting, to imprison oneself, and that sometimes prison is a secure and welcome place to be.

My aim is to exercise my educational influence in people’s thinking so that they become critical by making their own choices freely while knowing what their options are. I work with teachers in a range of contexts around the world, including South Africa, many of whom do not see that they are living according to the stories of the culture that tell them they are disempowered, inadequate, not able to change their own situations, or think for themselves. My concern is that many wonderful lives, each of which is a miracle (Berry 2000), are being spoilt by a lack of perception of self as competent, capable persons, with considerable intellectual strengths that they can use for personal and social benefit. I am seriously concerned that the stories they sometimes believe are put about by others who position themselves as intellectual and social elites, whose interests it serves to maintain the mythologies, and who get away with it simply because they are positioned like this, both by themselves and those who believe their stories. My aim is to influence the development of cultures that are grounded in different stories that are life-affirming for all. I shortly elaborate on this, but first, let me give some examples of the influence of existing dominant stories.

Why am I concerned?

I said above that I work as a professional educator, mainly on professional development courses for teachers, mainly in the UK, Ireland and South Africa. I work with universities and education agencies. My work involves teaching on higher degree programmes, using an action research methodology. It involves saying to people, ‘You can do this. You can take action to improve your own life circumstances and your social situation.’ My job is to help them find ways to do so, and support them as they try out those ways. It is also to support them as they achieve higher degree accreditation for their workplace-based enquiries. In the case of the teachers I work with in South Africa, it involves working with them as they find ways of reducing truancy, helping children to develop self-esteem, inspiring children and colleagues to have faith in their own capacities, combating HIV/AIDS within their schools and communities, and preventing active violence in the community. My job is to enable them to turn these stories of the experience of living in difficult circumstances into assignments that will earn them a masters degree.

I also need to draw attention to the kind of working relationships the teachers and I have developed together. We have learned to understand ourselves and one another as individuals who think for themselves and mediate what the other has to say through their capacity for critical discernment (Said 1997). This means that when we say we try to influence one another’s thinking, as we continuously do in the to-and-fro of engaged discussion, we understand that it is not a matter of transmitting what is in one person’s head to another person’s head, but that we engage in a process of communicative action (Habermas 1987). Consequently, what is communicated is judged critically through the other’s capacity to assess whether or not the message has meaning and significance for them. Our relationships therefore are not power-constituted so much as respectful and alert to the other’s intellectual capacities.

This willingness to engage in communicative action within a context of caring relationship is, I believe, the basis for why the teachers I work with have come to appreciate and make public how their work has the potential to influence new forms of practices and new forms of theory. The word ‘theory’ is important, because theory contains descriptions and explanations for something. Therefore, when my colleagues offer their descriptions and explanations for what they are doing, they are offering their living theories of practice. Furthermore, when they submit their accounts of practice for university accreditation, those accounts receive academic validation and become legitimated in the public sphere as valid theory. This is important if teachers’ work is to be seen not only as implementing other people’s theories, and producing descriptive accounts of what they are doing, but also as speaking for themselves and offering their own living theories of practice to show that they know what they are doing in terms of their educational influences in learning. It is vital if teachers’ voices are to carry weight in the culture. This can however be problematic, for the following reasons.

Currently, universities are seen as the ultimate authorities for making judgements about what counts as valid knowledge. Therefore, any accounts by teachers need to be recognised by universities as of an appropriate standard if they are to enter public debates about, for example, curriculum, teaching pedagogies, and the future of the profession. This can often become a struggle for recognition, about who is seen as a knower and who makes decisions about who is a knower and what counts as knowledge. It can be especially difficult, because people in universities often position themselves as intellectual elites, whose job is to generate theory, while practitioners tend to be positioned as technicians whose job is to improve practice by implementing the theories that the elites produce. Furthermore, the still-dominant form of theory promoted by many universities is rooted in propositional thinking and causal relationships, the idea that if we do this, that will happen; and this kind of knowledge is communicated through a special form of writing, a traditional form that factors out the ‘I’ and the idea of the values base of human practices.

Throughout my work I see how people come to believe these stories, and the effects this can have on their lives and attitudes towards themselves. I see how people learn to be helpless in the face of difficulties, because they are told that they are helpless, and do not see the need to interrogate how and why the stories have become part the culture, or why they should believe them. The idea of history is a classic example of how this can happen, and is especially relevant to the current situation of combating AIDS.

‘One damn thing after another’

There is a popular view that says history is ‘one damn thing after another.’ An internet search reveals how this idea permeates many people’s thinking. On this view, the idea of history is understood as a linear process, one foot in front of the other, moving forward in time, one second by the second, towards a prescribed, pre-destined future. Breaking the rules and leaping into an imagined, alternative future is not permitted. Life is already a foregone conclusion. History is seen as moving towards a given end, where the existing status quo will be vindicated as the best of all desirable worlds.

This view of history – a view of historicism – will also be vindicated. It is premised on a certain kind of logic that sees everything in boxes that may be arranged to suit the purposes of reaching the desired end. However, many theorists challenge a view of history as historicism, including Popper (2002) and Gray (2004), who point out that it is impossible to predict the future; and the assumption that history will operate according to given ‘laws’ is both futile and destructive. Popper makes this argument:

  • The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge.
  • We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our present knowledge.
  • We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history.
  • This means that we cannot have a scientific theory of historical development, serving as the basis for historical prediction.
  • The fundamental aim of historicist methods is therefore misconceived, and historicism collapses.

(Popper 2002: xi–xii)

Popper also says that, if the future cannot be pre-determined because the growth of human knowledge cannot be pre-determined, we need to find another explanation for how the future can be created, and this suggests an idea of people making history in the present moment, actively engaging in their futures by making sure that the present is the best it can be. This is a most important idea.

In South Africa, there is abundant evidence to show how the idea of historicism has been promoted and consolidated, and some of its consequences. In previous times, black people and people of mixed heritage were deliberately offered an inferior education as part of the so-called ‘Bantu’ education system (see Sono 1999). This was a deliberate ploy, created by white people, to keep themselves superior by preventing non-white people from thinking for themselves, and many people, black, white and mixed heritage, came to believe the story that these were their assigned places. Some people even brought God in as an ally in the argument (Dubow 1992; Elphick and Davenport 1997). The contemporary legacy of the system is that many black and mixed-heritage people firmly believe that they are not capable of original thinking or influencing social transformation through personal development. Some believe that someone else will do it, a view that can lead to apathy and a sense of learned helplessness – Don’t ask me to take action because (a) I am not capable; (b) I don’t know what action to take; (c) whatever I do will not make any difference anyhow. This view can lead to whole-scale demoralisation. In the face of the tidal wave of HIV/AIDS, it is the means for signing a cultural death warrant.

So, because I do not readily stand by and watch others being bullied, I take action. In this chapter, I am taking action by encouraging you and other teachers to see yourselves as powerful people, who have the capacity to change your own circumstances, first by finding ways of deconstructing potentially disabling form of thinking, and then developing a self-regarding attitude that says you can make your own histories and influence your futures through your own agency as you respond and contribute to your social, cultural and environmental contexts. My work as a university-based person is to support practitioners as they produce their action research accounts to show how and why they are making history, and show how they hold themselves accountable for the exercise of their educational influence in their own learning and in the learning of those they work with. Some colleagues in my university workplaces, however, do not share this view, and I have written elsewhere (McNiff 2007a) that it is the responsibility of intellectuals to deconstruct their own thinking, especially about the nature of their work and how they are positioned, and about the stories they believe in and promote. This brings me to my next section, about the kinds of action I take in my workplaces.

What can I do? What will I do?

In a free society, we all have options. What we choose to do depends on a range of circumstances, including our personal and professional contexts. We need to decide whether or not we wish to take social action, because taking action for social improvement is always political and carries possibilities of conflict. People who take institutional action, for example, are often marginalised, or otherwise silenced (Alford 2001; Chomsky 2003). Speaking one’s mind can be risky. Yet the penalty of not taking action is even greater, in that the existing unsatisfactory situation rumbles on, like the tank in Tiananmen Square, flattening everything in its path. I take the view, expressed by Polanyi (1958), that I came into a world for whose condition I am not responsible, yet which determines my calling. If I am to be an active citizen in this world, and show how I hold myself accountable for what I do, then I must take action in relation to influencing the learning of myself and others about how we can improve our circumstances so that those circumstances become more life affirming for all, not only some. I take the view, also expressed by Polanyi (1958: 299), that I accept the responsibility of understanding the world from my own point of view, in spite of the hazards involved, and I make my claim that I have contributed to its wellbeing.

I believe I am contributing to social wellbeing by encouraging practitioners to undertake their action enquiries into their practice, and produce their scholarly accounts for university accreditation and cultural legitimation. These accounts take the form of stories of personal and professional learning, and contain the descriptions and explanations for how practitioners improved their own circumstances, so the accounts themselves can be seen as practitioners’ living educational theories (see McNiff 2007b). Their storied accounts contain the following elements, which are necessary to demonstrate the methodological rigour of the work: they show how they identified their concerns about existing practices; considered how they themselves could be perceived as existing as living contradictions when their values were denied within these existing practices (Whitehead 1989); produced data and generated evidence to show the situation as it existed at the beginning of the enquiry, and how it possibly improved over time; showed how they tested the validity of the evidence against the critical feedback of others, including their peers, and also against the ideas of theorists in the literature; how they then tested the validity of their claims to have improved their practices against the strong evidence base, and in relation to identified standards of judgement; and finally used this knowledge as the basis for modifying existing ideas and practices and developing new ones. There is now a strong knowledge base that shows the significance of these accounts for cultural transformation and social wellbeing, which I refer to in the next section.

A key feature in these storied accounts is their underpinning epistemological base, which informs the form of the accounts themselves. The underpinning view is that knowledge is created by an individual, as an outcome of their genetically-endowed capacity for knowledge creation, and can be further enhanced and developed through dialogue with others. This process includes critiquing existing ideas and forms of thinking, to strip away false ideologies and assumptions, so that the thinker may confront their own thinking for themselves. This view is far removed from the traditional view, outlined above, that human enquiry is about working towards closure and final answers. It is a view of human enquiry as rooted in an ongoing process of infinite new beginnings. Traditional stories tend to have a beginning, middle and end, where one episode leads to the next, in an unproblematic linear sequence. Action research stories do not necessarily have a middle or an end; it is all about new beginnings (Said 1997), where one episode contains within itself the seeds for the next, a generative transformational process where each potential solution always already contains its own destabilisation and capacity for new possibilities. Any answer generates a new question, already latent within the answer, waiting to emerge. This view sees culture as grounded in a form of sustainable renewable energy, fuelled by the capacity of people to think for themselves and to see new possibilities in everything.


What kind of data do I gather to show the situation as it changes?

The question now becomes, if I am claiming that what I am saying is true, why should you believe me? What will it take to convince you that I am genuine, and not handing you a false story, when I have already made a case that some stories deliberately set out to fool people? In a court of law, a claim has to be supported by corroborating evidence. No less so in action research. So I now produce my evidence.

First I will explain the difference between data and evidence, and then I will show how I gathered data, and generated evidence from my data, to test the validity of my claim.

The difference between data and evidence is this. Data refers to the traces of activities, a kind of fingerprint (Robson 1993). When we gather data, we gather information about the activities that have taken place. We gather, store, and analyse the data in relation to the research question, and ultimately, in relation to the claim to knowledge. If a person says that they have improved the quality of their communication skills, they have to search the data to find specific episodes where they can show the improvement of their communication skills. Where the data shows that their beliefs are mistaken, they must acknowledge this to show that they are aware of possible bias and maintain their integrity. To show the emergence of evidence from the data, they could produce a letter from a colleague saying, ‘My goodness, Susan, you are communicating much better, now that you have begun your correspondence classes.’ This would have been said among other things, such as asking about Susan’s health or talking about her classes. The comments about her health and classes could be data, but would not count as evidence, because they would not be directly relevant to the research question or claim. So those data that can be seen clearly in relation to the question and the claim can step out of the ranks of data and become evidence.

Much of my evidence takes the form of the assignments, dissertations and theses of teachers whose action enquiries I have supported. Here is a selection from my work with the group of teachers in Khayelitsha. You can access other work from the UK and Ireland from my website www.jeanmcniff.com and from Jack Whitehead’s website: www.actionresearch.net) – see especially the five PhD theses from the University of Limerick (Appendix 1).

Nqabisa Gungqisa writes:

I appreciate that some parents [of my learners] have not received a quality education, which makes it difficult for them to support their children academically. I also believe that it is still their responsibility to ensure that their children are at school on time every day. Thus, parents themselves need to be educated and supported about how to take full responsibility for their children’s education and also be encouraged to improve the level of their own education in general (Gungqisa 2007a). … From this enquiry I have learned that I have a responsibility to involve parents more in their children’s learning. I need to develop good interpersonal relationships with my learners, teachers and parents. I have also learned that reflecting on what I do in the classroom every day and engaging with the existing literature have enabled me to develop a capacity to criticize my existing knowledge. …

I ground my claims in my evidence base to show how my practice has improved, in terms of how my value of self-discipline is being realised. My aim is to answer the question, ‘How do I improve my practice (Whitehead 1989)? How do I enable learners to develop their own self-discipline?’ My aim is not to point at other people. I believe that this project has empowered me and as a result now I have managed to make my own judgements. I have developed my capacity to think about my practice to a greater extent and to be critical about my practice.

(Gungqisa 2007b)

Zola Malgas writes:

My relationship with my learners has improved [evidence is produced earlier in the assignment]. They have also helped me to change my attitude towards them by being brave enough to tell me how strict I was in class and how being more polite could turn things around. It has been quite a journey for me but eventually it has borne much fruit for the learners and myself. By studying my own practice I have come to understand that in order to make any change in a social situation, one has to begin with oneself. I had to understand that myself and improve what I am doing in order to help others improve. I have a greater sense of understanding and knowing myself as well as my learners. I have gained new knowledge and awareness about my practice, which has resulted in improvement in my practice, and I think this can work with other practitioners in and outside the education system. My learners are taking full responsibility for their education, and are spending more time at school doing their work rather than rushing home for nothing.

(Malgas 2007)

Tsepo Majake writes:

During the Apartheid era we were exposed as learners to Bantu education whose aim was to create servants out of non-whites and maintain the status quo of imbalance among citizens of South Africa. The way we were taught, what we were taught, and those who taught us ensured that we never questioned or even had access to other material that would expose us to education that would liberate us mentally. We were taught that our culture was barbaric, that our history did not add value to world history and knowledge. We grew up being taught that we had to be thankful to western civilization because we were cannibals and uncivilised until the westerners came to our rescue. …

Today, I am taking upon myself the responsibility to be an agent of change (Bourdieu 1990), to find out what I can do to encourage my learners to be critical and to work collaboratively in trying to find solutions by charting a new path in how they should learn. To be effective, I had to conduct an enquiry into my practice as a teacher. I looked at how I taught in the past, how I am teaching now, and how I want to teach in the future. I set about creating a dialogical classroom …

Setting up a dialogical classroom changed my class from education as a mode of competition to that of cooperation. This can be seen in the project that the learners presented as a team for a team mark [photographs and explanations supplied earlier in the assignment]. They all went out to collect information, sat as a team to write up their project, and finally presented it to the class allowing each individual to be acknowledged for their contribution. As a class we shifted our focus from being disturbed by the absence of certainty. T, a student, commented in the feedback to my lesson, ‘I can now accept that my solution is wrong without fear of failing.’ I think I enabled my learners to realise that they are capable managers and that they are responsible for their own learning. Personally I moved from treating learners as objects and containers to be filled with information to creators of their own personal theories of practice.

(Majake 2007: 10–11)

The excerpts from the assignments presented here act as my evidence base to show how I am exercising my educational influence in other people’s learning. I am not saying that I caused them to think like this. Such a claim would be incorrect and extravagant. What I am saying, however, is that my voice is in there somewhere, encouraging, suggesting that colleagues can make their own decisions, and have the courage to intervene in their own thinking and learning; and perhaps come to see through eyes that they deliberately make different (Polanyi 1958: 143).

So my attention now returns to the question of how I persuade you to believe that my story is a true story and not a work of fiction.

How do I show that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and accurate?

I need to show the validity of what I am saying. Validity means that a thing does what it says it is going to do. In research, it refers to whether a researcher can show that they have done what they claim to have done. In my case, it means asking whether I can show that I have fulfilled my values of encouraging other people to think for themselves, and have faith in their own capacities, which is what I explained at the beginning. My thinking is that, if you can believe my story, and trust what I am saying, perhaps you will try out some of the ideas for yourself. If you did this, I would definitely be able to claim validity for my story.

So I will carry out two validity checks. The first is to test the personal, internal validity of what I am saying. The second is to test its social, external validity against your critical feedback.

When I speak about personal internal validity, I mean that I hope I can communicate how I have realised my values of influencing others for good. In the case of this chapter, I hope I am encouraging you to have faith in yourself, because having faith in oneself is, I believe, a better form of living than feeling inadequate. I believe I can show this in the evidence I have produced above. For example, when Zola says, ‘I had to understand myself and improve what I am doing in order to help others improve,’ she is saying that she has learned, from working things out for herself, to appreciate her capacity for influencing other people’s lives for good. So I can claim personal internal validity for my story, as the communication of my practice, when it shows how I have realised my values of encouraging independent thinking and personal renewal. Showing that we have influenced other people’s lives and thinking is what Patti Lather (1991) calls ‘catalytic validity’.

It is not sufficient, however, to stay only with personal validity. I need to strengthen my case by checking it against the critical feedback of others, and asking them to comment, for example, on the adequacy and robustness of my evidence. I also need to guard against assumptions in my own thinking, and check whether I am right in thinking that I am working in the other’s best interest, and not indulging in an ego-trip. If I can do this, I will be able to claim external social validity for my story of practice.

So I ask you, my reader, to give me critical feedback on my evidence, and on my story of practice. I would like you to make judgements in relation to some specific criteria. To help me strengthen this process even further, I will draw on the work of Habermas (2001).

He says that in reaching an understanding with one another, we can draw on four criteria:

  • Comprehensibility: what is said is understandable
  • Authenticity: the person making the claim demonstrates that they are genuine;
  • Truthful: the person making the claim is assumed to be telling the truth;
  • Appropriate: the person demonstrates that they are aware of the historical and cultural factors that inform the context within which the claim is made.

Therefore, in terms of this chapter, I ask whether you believe my claim that I am influencing others in an educational way, that is, to make their choices within a context where they know what their choices are. Have I told my story in a way that you can see what I am getting at? Do you think I am genuine? Are you prepared to believe my story? Do I tell my story in a way that shows awareness of the context that this chapter is about? If your answer is ‘yes’ to my questions, I will claim that I have communicated my ideas to you in a way that you can see their significance for your own practice. If you can see the significance of my story for your own life story, I can claim catalytic validity for what I am saying; and you can be reassured that you can believe it, and act on my suggestions in good faith.

Here are some of the ways in which the ideas may have significance and possible implications.

First, you may consider how you can develop new attitudes towards yourself and your situation. This will involve your consciously developing a critical awareness of the stories you are told through the culture. You may consider the following, as examples of new practices:

  • If you are a woman whose partner has another liaison, perhaps you will reconsider those stories that say you must not object. You are a person of worth; stand on your dignity and go ahead and object. Unless you take a stand, such practices will continue, and will become normative for future generations. HIV/AIDS will continue to spread.
  • If you are a man, and are influenced by cultural practices that say you can have unprotected sex, you could think about whether you agree with what the culture says and change your ways.
  • As a teacher, believe in yourself that you are a person of worth. You need to reclaim education for yourself, your students and your colleagues.
  • Believe in yourself. See yourself as an active wage earner who has a voice in the economy.
  • Do not blame other people, or the culture. Lift yourself out of the blame culture, and accept the responsibility of who you are and what you do. Aim to recognise why social justice and poverty happens, and consider whether cultural practices actually do promote people’s wellbeing. If things seem wrong to you on rational grounds, change your ways. You do not have to listen to false stories or superstition. There is no law that says you do.
  • Forget about stereotyping parents. They are as concerned about their children as you are. Aim to build partnerships with parents, rather than keeping them outside the school gates.
  • Listen to the children. Learn from them what they need from you to enable their learning. If you are teaching in a way that they do not learn, find new ways that are more learner-centred, and check with them whether your new ways encourage learning.
  • Above all, see yourself as a worthwhile person, who can think for yourself, and make your own decisions about what is right for your life and the lives of the children in your care. No one can die for you, so no one should try to live for you. Your life is yours. You have it, as your right. You are entitled to your place on this earth, no more and no less than anyone else. Claim it as your own, and use it productively for your own sake and for the sake of others.

Next, think about undertaking your own action research project. It is not too difficult, and higher education personnel are available to support you. Be aware that by undertaking your action enquiry, you will be generating your own living theory of practice, and thereby contributing to new forms of theory. This means that you will be able to offer your explanations for what you are doing, and show others that you are practising in a committed, responsible way. You will inspire them to have confidence in you and your professional judgement. If you produce your account of practice, it can contribute to the knowledge base, and help other people to learn from what you are doing. In the writings of action researchers, much learning goes into the process of writing itself. The writing is part of the action research process. If you go on to gain higher education recognition, it will give that extra mark of legitimacy to your work. Whatever you do, hold your head up high, and believe in yourself as a good person.

How do I modify my ideas and practices in light of my evaluation?

I continue my practices of encouraging other people to believe in themselves, and not believe in false gods. People who set themselves up as gods will tell you stories to make you believe in them. You need to learn how to see to the heart of the matter, and decide whether what they are telling you is right or false. I have used the metaphor of birds that sing in cages because they wish to be free. You are entitled to be free. You were born free and there is no law anywhere (except those manufactured by false gods) that says you need to imprison yourself. This is my contribution to your life, and to my own.

I love this Gospel hymn:

I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
For his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.

When I see other people learning to live according to their own values, and bringing their learning to enabling others also to live free, unfettered lives, I find renewed energy and commitment. This strengthens my resolve to continue fighting for justice and freedom, through education, for others and myself. This means I claim education for others and for myself. I do this best through my writing, and through my life as a university-based person, who has a legitimated base from which I can make my voice heard. My faith in myself stems from my faith in the simple understanding that the universe is conspiring for our good. My job is to work with others, so that the work of the universe can continue unobstructed, and people may flourish and birds may sing, as they are meant to do.


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Note 1

The words ‘protect the human’ form the motto for Amnesty International, and communicate the values of resisting all kinds of oppression that will strip people of their rights to live their lives as free and fully responsible persons.

Appendix 1 Completed PhD theses from the University of Limerick

  • Cahill, M. (2007) My Living Educational Theory of Inclusional Practice. PhD thesis, University of Limerick. Retrieved 9th January 2008 from http://www.jeanmcniff.com/margaretcahill/index.html
  • Glenn, M. (2006) Working with collaborative projects: my living theory of a holistic educational practice. PhD thesis, University of Limerick. Retrieved 9th January 2008 from http://www.jeanmcniff.com/glennabstract.html
  • McDonagh, C. (2007) My living theory of learning to teach for social justice: How do I enable primary school children with specific learning disability (dyslexia) and myself as their teacher to realise our learning potentials? PhD thesis, University of Limerick. Retrieved 9th January 2008 from http://www.jeanmcniff.com/mcdonaghabstract.html
  • Roche, M. (2007) Towards a living theory of caring pedagogy: interrogating my practice to nurture a critical, emancipatory and just community of enquiry. PhD thesis, University of Limerick. Retrieved 9th January 2008 from http://www.jeanmcniff.com/MaryRoche/index.html
  • Sullivan, B. (2006) A living theory of a practice of social justice: realising the right of Traveller children to educational equality. PhD thesis, University of Limerick. Retrieved 9th January 2008 from http://www.jeanmcniff.com/bernieabstract.html

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