How do I account for the good in what I claim as quality educational research?

Jean McNiff: St Mary’s University College and the University of Limerick

[Word Document Available]

A paper presented at the Philosophy of Education Special Interest Group

Philosophical Issues in Higher Education

British Educational Research Association Annual Meeting

Institute of Education, University of London

Friday, 7 September 2007


The coffee bottle from which I have just spooned my cup bears the slogan, ‘Good to the last drop.’ I imagine this means that I will enjoy every sip, to the last drop.

I think this is what Kant was implying (as explained by Arendt 1971), when he spoke about judgements being grounded in what we find pleasing, what pleasures us. Those things in which we find pleasure become the things we value. In other words, our values take the form of those things that give us pleasure, that we wish to pursue and realise in our daily lives; and judgements are made in relation to that which gives us pleasure, what we value.

Many things in life give me pleasure, most importantly the sheer awareness that I am alive. I revel in my living; I love my life. Like Berry (2000) I think life is a miracle; like Tillich (1952) I am affirmed by the power of being itself (p. 168). My work also gives me considerable pleasure, but only under certain circumstances. I am pleased when it is good, when things go well, when those things that I value are actively alive, such as the people I am with cherishing their lives, and making their contribution to their own and each other’s living. I am not so pleased when things go badly, when I do not manage to live my values as fully as I would like. Then, like Whitehead (1989), I experience myself as a living contradiction, because the values that give my life hope and meaning are denied in my practice, so my practice is in danger of losing hope and meaning, and is no good to me or anyone else, because that which is good and valuable is lost, and life becomes meaningless. Given, however, my Molly Brown capacity to be unsinkable in striving consistently to transform what seems hopeless into something nearer hope, I tend to seek out the good in everything, the bright spark, the good within the evil. This capacity to seek out and celebrate the good is what defines my life and my work, for I strive consistently to find ways in which I can improve my practice through the realisation of my values, even in the midst of bitter despair when those values lie in tatters around me.

My judgements about my work therefore are always grounded in my capacity to imagine what it would be like if my values were entirely realised, because then it would be perfect. So, in the same way as Habermas (1976) identifies an ideal speech situation as the imaginary ultimate of rational democratically-oriented communicative action, so I imagine a practice that is the living out of my values as an ideal practice situation. However, I do not share with Habermas and others – Kohlberg and Rawls, for example – a transcendental view of the imaginary good as the ultimate of human striving, for several reasons. First, the practical realisation of such an ideal situation seldom exists, and when it does it tends not to last, because moments move on and the actions of one moment immediately transform into new actions; second, people are such that we are always quarrelling, rightly so, in my opinion, because the cut and thrust of conflictual views affords us interesting contexts for new ideas, the grit in the oyster that yields the precious pearl (see also Mouffe 2000); third, because, in spite of all our striving, once we get to where we want to be, we often imagine that there may be somewhere even better, so off we go in pursuit of the greener grass over the hill, and this pursuit of greener grass is the face of hope, the capacity to transform the always already obsolescent present into a more desirable future. So I tend to disagree with Iris Murdoch (2001) when she suggested that, instead of saying, ‘Be ye therefore perfect,’ Jesus should have said, ‘Be ye therefore slightly improved,’ although I am in considerable sympathy, for my idea of the good is that slight improvement always already contains the possibility of perfection through the intent of the actor, through the dynamic generative transformational relationships that are the form of the natural order, including the generative transformational relationships between an actor, their intentions, their actions, and the social order of which they are a part. My idea of the good is in the striving, not necessarily in the arriving. The good for me is not a final imaginary place, nor an abstract concept, which is a view that tends to inform the thinking of propositional theorists such as Grayling (2003). It is rather a real-life current practice, informed by an intent to achieve the realisation of values. This view is reflected in my somewhat nomadic professional lifestyle, when I am constantly on the move, intellectually and physically, always in pursuit of an opportunity to exercise my educational influence, so that people can come to think for themselves and take control of their own life circumstances; and then I am off, because I do not believe that people need me to tell them what to do, or how to develop themselves. My idea of the perfect is that it is always already in the imperfect, that the fullest realisation of a good is always already latent within its less fulfilled version of itself, possibly already the best it can be, possibly already with the realisation that it can be better, and the intent to make it so.

All the time I am learning, about how I can improve my practice of enabling other people how to improve theirs. My learning is never perfect; there is always so much more to learn, so many people from whom to learn. What I know now will change into something better. Like Dewey (1938), I see the purpose of learning as more learning, and growth becomes its own means and end. So in this paper I want to share some of these learnings, and test their validity against your critical responses, and show how sometimes I define my practice as good, but only in the sense that this good is temporary, because the nature of things is temporary. The best of now is the best it can be for the moment, but the moment will move on within the ever-transforming contexts of human living, and the goodness of the moment will need to transform into something even better if it is still to be seen as good, a matter of running to stay still, a matter of constantly finding ways to transform an already improving moving practice into an even better version of itself.

So, how do I understand my practice?

My understanding of the good is in how I practise. I can think of ‘the good’ as an ultimate, a guiding principle that regulates my actions, but, because, like Dewey (1938) and Rorty (1999), I adopt a pragmatist approach that enables me to see my practice as a site for the realisation of the good, I understand that my good is in how I practise, and my practice is how I am. I define my practice in terms of the form of relationships I develop to communicate what I understand as good. This is also the position of Raz (2001), who also understands a person to be defined by their attachments, what they value; yet unlike Raz, I see my self as the living embodiment of those values, so my practice becomes the site for their realisation. My values become not only the guiding principles for my form of life, but also the defining characteristics of that form of life. I am not separate from my values; I am the living embodiment of my values. I do not adopt a propositional stance to explain how I understand my life as defined by my values, as do Dewey, Raz and Rorty. Rather, I offer my living explanation for how I live my life by producing live evidence to show its nature and form, and to show how I justify my claim to be living a good life. More of this anon.

So, in offering my explanation for how I consider myself to be acting in the direction of the good as the practice and realisation of my values, I first need to consider the point that not all would agree that my values would count as ‘good’ values. Indeed, over my lifetime, I can see, in my growing, how some values that I held precious when I was twenty-one are no longer the things I value. I also see others living by values with which I am in disagreement. A person may hold material wealth as a supreme value, and spend time and energy gathering it, at the expense of other people. This person places profit over people (Chomsky 1999). In Britain I see people living in cardboard boxes; and in South Africa I see the mother and her baby standing at the crossroads, begging for money for basic subsistence. Caught in their socio-cultural circumstances, and their political histories, they become the victims of the realisation of an other’s values. I also frequently turn away, but inwardly resolve to do something about it from within my own context. I take the view, expressed by Polanyi (1958), that we enter a world for whose formation we are not responsible, yet which determines our calling. I take the view, from my calling of education, that it is my responsibility to contribute to what I consider would be a better world when I leave it. I can do this, from my understanding of how my values and intentions are influenced by my interactions with others, within their sociohistorical and sociocultural formations, and how I also have the potential to influence the nature of those formations.

My contribution comes from my practice, within education and educational research, so I find ways of ensuring that my practice is good and justifying my judgements about its quality, and this, in the domain of education, means ensuring that my practice is educational. I take the view that what I do in my practice falls within the domain of education; and what I do when I offer an explanation for my practice falls within the domain of educational research. So, because I live a life of enquiry, where I consistently ask, like Whitehead (1989), ‘How do I improve my practice?’, my personal professional life becomes a constant endeavour to improve what I am doing, and to explain how what I am doing should be understood as an improvement. This involves explaining how I make judgements about what I do, and making explicit the standards I use to make those judgements. I cannot claim something to be good without explaining how and why it should be seen as good. The explanations themselves are communicated through the form of my research account, and that account also needs to be understood as good quality, in its own terms.

So my practice contains three elements: my actions (what I do), my explanations (how I account for what I do), and my reporting (how I make explicit for myself and others what I do and why I do it). All three elements count in what I consider good quality practice, and all need to be judged and justified in relation to my values, what I understand as good. So I now offer analyses to show how and why this can be the case.

How do I understand my actions (what I do)?

On many occasions in life, my actions are ad hoc. I laugh and I cry. Occasionally I trip over, or cough. I quickly withdraw my hand from a hot surface, and jump back if I carelessly step in front of a car. These actions are not necessarily premeditated or intentional, the outcomes of serious reflection. While they may be the outcomes of learning, the learning in question is more of an instrumental nature, the kind of internalised learning that informs habits of the body, not necessarily habits of the mind (Midgley 1981). These are not the kinds of actions that define my professional life.

My professional life is defined by actions based on thoughtful learning, and the outcomes of an understanding of my values. This in turn is grounded in an understanding of how what is experienced at the surface level of daily living can be understood as a manifestation of a deeper order, and the dynamic generative transformational relationships between that deep order and its living realisation in personal and social practices.

The deep order of social practices can be understood as in the ontological and epistemological values and methodological approaches that inform those practices. This pattern of dynamic transformational relation, between the deep order of values and the surface order of the manifestation of those values, is drawn from my observations and understanding of what I see in nature, where the deep order of emergence, in tension with ever-present death, informs and holds together the inevitable and unstoppable processes of growth. Like Feynman (1999), I understand scientific enquiry as ‘the pursuit of understanding of some thing based on the principle that what happens in nature is true and is the judge of the validity of any theory about it’ (p. 240). So what I see, in my garden for example, is true and is the judge of the validity of the theories I hold about it.

Furthermore, following Bateson (1972), I can see a homologous relationship between my understanding of what happens in, say, my garden, and what happens in my practice. The deep order of ontological and epistemological values, and the deep order of ongoing learning about the origin, nature and use of those values, transforms into a living practice as the manifestations of those values and learning. What I do is grounded in and informed by what I think. This understanding was prompted initially by my study of linguistics, especially in the work of Chomsky (1968, 1986), whose early ideas about the deep and surface structures of language informed my thinking about the deep and surface structures of human living, and whose later work (2000) about the underpinning logical form of utterances informs my thinking about how logical semantic forms underpin syntactic actions in the world.

Following this argument, what I do in my practice is underpinned by a broad range of ontological and epistemological values, and, because my practice is in education, and should therefore be seen as an educational practice, I need to articulate what I understand as educational. This brings me back to those theoretical frameworks that have enabled me to articulate what I understand as educational.

I draw on certain key authors as my intellectual and spiritual guides. I draw on the work of Arendt (1971) who says that all humans come into the world as full persons: ‘The very capacity for beginning is rooted in natality, and by no means in creativity, not in a gift but in the fact that human beings, new men [sic], again and again appear in the world by virtue of birth’ (Arendt 1971: Book Two: 217; emphasis in original). I draw on the work of Chomsky (1986), who argues persuasively that the capacity for potentially infinite creativity is part of human genetic endowment, and on Habermas’s (1975) insight that for social evolution in general humans cannot not learn. I relate to the ideas of Said (1994) that each new moment is a new beginning; to the work of Bohm (1983) that each beginning holds its own future potentially already formed within itself, poised and ready to unfold; and to the work of Husserl (1967), who maintains that each moment comes into its full realisation through the intentional action of the person whose moment it is. As noted, I define my life in terms of my attachments (Raz 2001), so I understand my professional life as nurturing the kind of attachments that give my life meaning; and I turn to Buber’s (1937) insights about the nature of human relationships. I understand that the relationships of my practice need to nurture these capacities and ensure that they come to fruition with minimal obstruction, if that practice is to realise the ideas of the emergence of potentially infinite creativity, primarily through the other’s capacity for infinite learning and original knowledge creation, within the context of an understanding that the other is a unique singularity in their own right.

I do this by recourse to Buber’s understanding of an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, where, also relating to Arendt’s ideas, I try to encounter the other as a person in themselves, in our shared world, not necessarily as the person I wish them to be. This requires a suspension of my own judgement, because as soon as I begin to think about the encounter itself, rather than the person I am with, I lose them and myself. Polanyi (1958) speaks about how an awareness of the consciousness of an action can result in a distortion of the action itself; if I think about my actions while I type, the typing is full of errors, whereas if I relax into my faith of the intent to carry out the action itself, the outcome is a fuller realisation of its latent potential. On the same premise, if I begin to analyse what I am doing in relation with an other, the encounter is in danger of becoming artificial, a fabrication of my conscious desire, in which I may deliberately manipulate my actions to secure the kind of responses I wish from the other. However, if I commit myself to the encounter, suspending my judgements and engaging fully as myself, if I give myself to the other, the encounter becomes such that our full natures have a better chance of manifestation. This of course can be a risky business, because I deliberately make myself vulnerable, and can end up looking rather silly, but I will accept the risk of looking silly any day rather than try to look correct.

I also extend my understanding of my educational practices, in Buber’s terms, to ‘I-Thee.’ In parts of Ireland, the plural form of ‘you’ becomes ‘ye’. I believe the same phenomenon occurs in Xhosa, the first language of most participants in the group I support in South Africa. So, given my acceptance of Arendt’s idea that ‘plurality is one of the basic existential conditions of human life on earth’ (1971, Book One: 74), it becomes my responsibility to ensure that my encounters with others take the form of a commitment of myself to those others, a not holding back, a refusal to be only a spectator, and to be a fully committed intentional actor (Arendt 1971) in our encounter: ‘the mental agent cannot be active except by acting, implicitly or explicitly, back on [themselves]’ (p. 74; see also Coulter and Wiens 2002). This commitment has considerable implications for how I conduct my practice with individuals and with collectives, and the kind of pedagogical strategies I use to ensure the inclusion of the other (Habermas 2001) and the realisation of their always already existing human potential.

What I am saying here is not said only at the level of conceptual analysis. I will produce evidence to show how these ideas are actively manifested in my work, and therefore how I ground my claims to know my practice and to see my practice as good quality. I can understand how Arendt is justified in saying the following, from her intellectual positioning in propositional logics:

Thinking, willing, and judging are the three basic mental activities; they cannot be derived from each other and though they have certain characteristics they cannot be reduced to a common denominator.

(Arendt 1971, Book One: 69)

I agree that this may be the case, when the form of logic used to articulate these understandings remains propositional, as Arendt’s does. However, if we use a living form of logic (Whitehead 2007), that sees all aspects in a dynamic generative transformational relationship (McNiff 1984), then it is plain that the separate elements of thinking, willing and judging are transformational aspects of a holistic practice that aims for inclusional forms, including the intent to improve practice and to make practical judgements about how the practice can be understood as improved.

This now brings me to my second aspect of practice, which is about how I judge the quality of the research into my actions.

How do I judge the quality of the research into my actions (offer explanations and account for what I do)?

Understanding my actions and judging my actions are different things, different aspects of my practice. They are not separate from each other, but they are different. Understanding my practice means understanding and developing insights into what I do. Judging my practice includes offering values-based explanations for what I do and why I do it. To claim that my practice is good means demonstrating quality in both aspects, that is, to show how the values I hold around those aspects are realised in the processes of action and in the processes of judgement, thus linking action and research in dynamic transformational relation. Purposeful actions may be understood as the realisation of the intent to achieve something; research may be understood as finding out about, and offering explanations for the actions. As a professional educator, my aim is to say that my practice is good quality, so I need to demonstrate quality in the two domains of taking action and making judgements.

To establish the quality of something, it is necessary to identify criteria and standards of judgement. I recently had some work done in my house, and I judged the quality of the work in terms of whether it was properly finished and looked pleasing, that is, I drew on my aesthetic values. I also judged the quality of the experience in terms of the work-team’s practices – were they efficient, did they clear up, was paint spilled on the floor? These judgements will determine whether I go back to them for further work, or find someone else. My decision is grounded in the evidence base of the practice. If I were one of the work-team, I would have been efficient, cleared up, not spilled paint on the floor. These practices would have been congruent with my values of care and respect for the other, a wish to be considerate and to achieve excellence in my professional work. I would have aimed to live up to my own standards, as the living embodiment of my values. As the householder, I would go back to the team if I felt that our values were congruent, if we shared the same standards of judgement.

I judge my professional practice in similar terms, and my evidence base is in my own accounts and the accounts produced by those whose studies I support. If, as an educator, my work is to contribute to other people’s education, I need to act in an educational way. I do not believe I can educate others; given their potentially infinite capacity for original thinking and critical engagement, they can educate themselves. I do try, however, to exercise my educational influence in their learning. By ‘educational influence’ I am expressing the idea that, because people can think for themselves, they can mediate my influence through their capacity for critical engagement and creative choice (see Said 1994: 14–15). I therefore judge the quality of my educational influence in terms of whether those whose studies I support come to make their own choices about whether or not they will accept my influence. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Here are excerpts from the written assignments of three people who do accept it. These colleagues are studying with me for their masters degrees in Khayelitsha, a township in South Africa.

Patrick Barnes:

I desire social justice for all my learners, and as an educator, with a firm belief in the value of education, I want to make a contribution to improve opportunities for some, and if possible, all my learners. I want to live out my belief for social justice for the poor by promoting equal opportunities through providing my learners with the best quality education I can in my classroom. … In many ways, the descriptions and explanations for my practice that I have provided thus far in my account indicate how I have improved my practice and, in consequence, give me grounds for believing that I may have influenced the learning of my learners. … As I looked back [on the process of my enquiry], I was able to understand the transformation that had taken place with my learners and me. In my enquiry, I demonstrated to myself that my philosophy of education made a difference for learners that was empowering. I was able to produce evidence to show that, through engaging in my own professional learning, I may have been helping learners to improve the quality of their learning.

(Barnes 2007: 7, 11)

Tsepo Majake:

[The process of developing a dialogical classroom] influenced and enabled our [learners’ and my] thought processes to become critical and reflective (Schön 1987). These new learnings had direct implications for my teaching strategies, assessment methods and communication skills. As a leader I needed to encourage the committed involvement of everyone into all activities we engaged in. I had to work on delegating effectively much more and allowing everybody to work at their own pace and initiative. Before trying to tell others what to do, I had to try to establish an understanding relationship, one that was influenced by my appreciation of each one’s uniqueness and ability to do things by themselves and for themselves and others around them. The most important learning we experienced was to create knowledge. The process of knowledge creation was from the inside-out, from what we know from our history to what we want to know and create for the future. Our sense of worth and self-esteem was also derived from the inside-out, from our values and principles to those things that are seen and appreciated from the outside. It was fertile ground to take our personal experiences and explore them systematically to transform them into factual knowledge. We realised the transformation of our tacit values into visible practices by making our tacit knowledge explicit.

(Majake 2007: 8)

Zola Malgas:

Nobody taught me to be a leader. I think my upbringing taught me much, and the values I learned from my elders, including my teachers, have made me who I am today. I believe that I will therefore be a failure if I fail to teach my learners the same things my teachers taught me and I cannot afford to fail as I am committed to education as a source of social wellbeing, an idea that I still learn from my past and present teachers even today. I take as a role model my own mentor, lecturer and friend, JM, and haves learnt to celebrate my own capacity, like her, for helping other people develop their full potential through inspiration, motivation and encouragement. As she does towards me and other members of our study group, I try to see the best in my students, and believe in each and every one of them by nurturing my own strength, wisdom and patience.

(Malgas, 2007: 4)

So, in relation to my actions, I judge the quality of my practice in terms of whether people come to see the values of my action as valuable for improving their own lives, and express them in a way within their own constellation of values that in turn resonate with my own. In relation to my research, I judge the quality of my practice in terms of whether people are able to offer their own explanations for their lives in the form of their living theories of practice, in a way that shows their awareness of the need to hold themselves accountable for what they do.

An example of this can be seen in the video clip below, where Gerrie Adams explains that he is generating his own living theory, which cannot be replicated by another, since the living theory he is offering is a theory of his own life and practice. Others can make meaning and learn from his story, but they cannot replicate his story, or generalise it to other situations, since his story is unique to him.

[videolink to be supplied]

Gerrie’s explanations for his own practice, and his articulation of his understanding of the nature of his explanation, brings me to the heart of the matter, that is, the form of what counts as educational theory, and the form of logic that underpins it.

Traditionally, and in most philosophy, including philosophy of education, theory is held to be an abstraction, communicated in a form of words that reflects the conceptual form of the logic through which it is created, as expressed in the following:

‘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. The range of propositions would, in that way, be the result of a lot of argument, experiment and criticism.

(Pring 2000: 124–5)

I return to my earlier comment that how we think (our form of logic) influences how we act (our personal and social practices in the world). The form of logic which underpins the view of theory communicated here is abstract and propositional, stemming from an Aristotelian logic that maintains that there is one right way of thinking, and this way excludes contradiction. Theory is seen as ‘out there’, a commodity to be created by educational researchers. This view dominates the field of educational research, and results in traditional educational researchers controlling what counts as educational research and theory. Other forms of theory are evident, however, throughout the history of ideas, and in recent times the idea of living educational theories has been developed by Jack Whitehead (see his seminal 1989), a view that is now well established in the educational research literatures. The idea of a living educational theory is that it is the creation of a practitioner who offers descriptions and explanations for their own lives, as they engage with processes of self-evaluation through action reflection cycles that comprise an identification of a research issue, an imagined solution to the issue, the gathering of data and generation of evidence to show the situation as it is and as it unfolds, a critical reflection on the validity of the evidence by the researcher and others acting as critical friends and validation groups, and a modification of ideas and practice based on the process of evaluation. The nature of the practice is generative and transformational, and the nature of the logic used to offer explanations for the practice is also dynamic and transformational. Because the aim of the research is always some form of personal and social transformation, especially in relation to exercising educational influence in learning for the purposes of human solidarity, the logic that underpins the practice itself needs to be inclusional, in order to be commensurate with the research aims. It is a conceptual impossibility to use an Aristotelian form of logic to account for the living actions of a real life, when that life is defined by continual transformation, contradiction, and a search for greener grass – in Rorty’s (1999) terms, social hope.

This is not to say, however, that inclusional logics exclude the insights of propositional theories. Indeed, the ‘inclusional’ of an inclusional form of logic means that it embraces propositional and dialectical forms within itself. However, the main point is that an inclusional form is of its nature dynamic and transformational, seeing the possibilities in all things, seeing the always already potentials for perfection within the imperfect and the realisation of the natality of each and every person by virtue of the fact that they are in the world, in company with others who are intentionally doing the same.

Still thinking about how I judge my actions in terms of offering explanations for what I do in order to demonstrate my accountability, I aim to establish the validity of my knowledge claims – in this paper that I am offering explanations for what I believe is good quality practice – by testing them against the critical responses of others. I have set out how I make judgements about my practice in terms of how my values emerge through my practice as my living standards of judgement. My forum for testing these knowledge claims is relatively local, in that I have produced evidence from a so-far private archive, comprising my personal records, stored safely in my computer. I can, however, point to the existence of a public archive, comprising the accounts of practitioners who have completed their workplace accounts, in many cases, for higher degree accreditation. These accounts can be found in my written texts, many written collaboratively with Jack Whitehead (McNiff and Whitehead 2005, 2006) and others (McNiff and Collins 1994, McNiff, McNamara and Leonard 2000), and can also be found on my website, The written texts and the electronic texts are complementary, showing how practitioners offered their living accounts of practice, which they tested against the critical feedback of others. These accounts also act as valuable resources to inform the learning of others. For example, Bernie Sullivan (2006) explains how she has generated her living theory of a practice of justice in having the rights of Traveller children accepted and systemically established. Máirín Glenn (2006) offers her living epistemology of practice, to show how she has deliberately transformed her own logics for the benefit of her own and her primary children’s learning. Caitríona McDonagh (2007) explains how she learned how to teach in such a way that her children could learn, and how she enabled children with dyslexia to find their own original strategies for learning how to spell. These validated PhD studies, all from the University of Limerick, will be joined shortly by the completed theses of Mary Roche and Margaret Cahill, also from the University of Limerick, and by the PhD theses of Ray O’Neill and Chris Glavey from the University of Glamorgan. They will also be joined by the MA dissertations of members of staff of St Mary’s University College, and by the MA dissertations of teachers from Khayelitsha in South Africa. This database links with other powerful databases, such as the successfully validated theses of the University of Bath and other universities, available at the award-winning site, which contains a wealth of higher degree accounts. The making public of these works is evidence that the works have been examined and validated by peers in the higher education and educational research communities, and are now legitimated as worthy of being counted as significant contributions to new knowledge of the field. Such validation and legitimation processes are not to be taken lightly. Yet the fact that such impressive and influential databases exist is testimony to the tenacity of practitioners who wish to show how they hold themselves accountable for their realisation of the personal and social good, and how they are prepared to make their accounts public for the use of others in their pursuit of how to live a good life in education.

This now brings me to the final aspect of my practice, which is about showing how the quality of a research account may be judged, if the overall practice is to be judged as good quality.

How do I judge the quality of my account of practice (as I make explicit for myself and others what I do and why I do it)?

In judging the quality of research accounts, practitioners and their examiners take into account the normative requirements of higher education institutions, usually that the work will make an original contribution to knowledge of the field, demonstrate critical engagement with ideas stemming from their own thinking and also from key figures in the literature, produce a work that shows that progress has been made at the level of practice, and show that the normal conventions of academic reporting are respected. In making their judgements, practitioners and their examiners base those judgements also on assessment typologies, drawn from the insights of key theorists. The practitioners whose studies I support draw on the insights of educational researchers, working in the same methodological field, such as Winter (1989) and Whitehead and McNiff (2006), who offer conceptual explanations for the need for practitioners themselves to identify the criteria and living standards of judgement by which they wish their work to be judged (see for example Hartog 2004; Hymer 2007 for a clear demonstration of their engagement with this idea). Practitioners and their examiners also take into account recommendations such as those from Habermas (1976, 1987), who explains that an account should be comprehensible, appropriate in relation to the evidence base, sincere about the potential validity of the claims being made, and authentic in their hopes that the account shows how the practitioner attempted to live their values in their practice over time.

During the course of their studies, practitioners subject their accounts to the critical feedback of a range of critical friends and validation groups, seeking responses to their work in relation to these kinds of criteria and standards of judgement. They check systematically whether their work is methodologically rigorous (Winter 1989), by demonstrating their understanding of the key aspects that can be found in the work itself, and in the account that acts both as an account of the work as it progresses and an account of the explanations offered for the work over time. Consequently, the kind of assessment procedures and standards of judgement identified above for judging the validity of the research-based practice come to transform into living standards of judgement for judging the quality of an account. Is the account itself comprehensible, authentic, sincere and appropriate to its normative background? Can the work be judged of good quality in relation to how the practitioner offered their living explanations for why their work should be considered good quality, and therefore deserves the legitimation of peers in the Academy?

For this present context, do I do the same here, in this paper? Do I show how the logical form of the thinking that informs this work transforms into the living realisation of an educational practice that is communicated through a living educational text? Is my text educational, in the sense that I have taken into account the capacity of my reader to mediate what I am saying through their infinite capacity for original thinking and creative engagement? Have I written in a way that nurtures the capacity of the reader to come to their own conclusions, by not stating the rightness of my case so much as the justifiability of my case? Have I written in a way that shows that I am testing my ideas against the critical feedback of the other, and am ready to receive that feedback in a spirit of learning how to improve the quality of my practice and my account? Is my text of a form that is comprehensible, sincere, authentic and appropriate?

If your response is ‘yes’ to my questions, I will take this as my steer for continuing my practice, satisfied that it is of a sufficient quality that I am justified in doing so. If not, then I will need to rethink, and in my rethinking, develop my insights about what needs to be done in order to achieve a form of educational research that qualifies as good quality.

My living contribution to knowledge

It may be also that I have influenced some of you here today to rethink how you understand the ‘good’ in ‘good quality practice’ and ‘good quality research’. It may be that, through the process of critique of my paper, we will form a critical community that will offer insights to help us all move our thinking forward.

What I have attempted to do is to show the need for an explicit articulation of the relationship between intention, action, research, and communication, if the quality of the practice is to be publicly agreed as good. The form of this relationship is dynamic, generative and transformational.

I also want to encourage you to produce your living explanations for your practice, as you think deeply about how we can contribute to the education of the sociocultural and sociohistorical formations, underpinned by traditional divisive logics and values, that perpetuate the need for women and their babies to stand begging at crossroads, or result in practitioners’ lives being damaged by the rejection of their work by examiners who do not appreciate how the work should be judged, or on whose terms. In the current debate in BERA, about what counts as educational research (see Research Intelligence August 2007), and where BERA’s future commitments lie, I hope that you will consider whether your research demonstrates it own accountability in relation to its capacity to contribute to social hope, and that the debate can grow in strength as we consider how we, as actors in the global arena of accountability through research, can contribute our explanations for how we live our lives in the way we choose to do so.


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Jean McNiff is Professor of Educational Research at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Limerick.

E-mail address for correspondence



And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands. (Psalm 90: 17)


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Read about the Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research conference at York St John University, Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th June 2015. Go to for further information.
Keynote speakers: Dr Tina Cook, Northumbria University

Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Anglia Ruskin University

Professor Julian Stern, York St John University

Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




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