Offering explanations for our contributions as creative educational practices for a living networked world of educational quality

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

Jack Whitehead, University of Bath

A paper presented at the Practitioner Research SIG symposium

Educational Knowledge: Explanations and Knowing

British Educational Research Association annual meeting

Institute of Education, University of London

Friday, 7 September 2007


This paper is a brief account of what we do and why we do it as we work collaboratively in educational research, so it stands as an explanation for our lives of enquiry in education. We see our work as our contribution to a world in which all are held as equal in value, in terms of their being in the world, and in terms of what they are able to contribute to that world. While, like Popper (1957) and Gray (2004), we do not believe in historicism or grand rules by which human society is ordered, or that social affairs are in any way predetermined, we do believe in an ordered society, and the idea that people may exercise their agency in contributing to the betterment of their society, in the way that they live together for the benefit of all. So while we do not necessarily believe in social progress as an historical inevitability, we do believe in social improvement as a form of individuals’ intentional action for the purposes of realising their hope for social solidarity and growth (Rorty 1999). This improvement, we believe, stems largely from the idea of accountability, the idea that each and every person should hold themselves accountable for what they do and why they do it, that is, they should offer explanations for their lives. This is what we are doing here. In this paper we set out what we understand as the origin, nature and potentials of a good social order, and how educational research can serve as a key driver in contributing to public understandings of how a good social order can be achieved and sustained.

Yet to hold true to our articulated idea of personal and social accountability, we have to show how we hold ourselves accountable for our work in education and in educational research, in terms both of how that work contributes to new practices within our personal spheres of influence, and also how accounts of our practices, such as this paper and its multimedia representations of our practices, can contribute to new public understandings of the processes involved in improvements in the social order.

Furthermore, if we are claiming that our work is contributing to a world of educational quality, we need to clarify our understanding of the terms ‘educational’ and ‘quality’, on the assumption that ‘educational quality’ defines what it means to experience and contribute to social good. And, to avoid falling into the trap of engaging in persuasive rhetoric without showing the living justification for our claims, we need to produce a strong evidence base to show that we are justified in claiming that by showing our accountability, and encouraging those in whose learning we have some influence, primarily ourselves, to show their accountability, we are contributing to a good social order through educational research. Consequently, making claims to good practice, the kinds of practices that we feel have potential for improving the social order, requires the articulation of appropriate forms of standards of judgement. In this paper, therefore, following Whitehead (2004), we take a view that it is our responsibility to explain how the process of attempting to realise our educational values in itself may be seen as ‘good’. Our idea of ‘the good’ is in our striving towards educational goals, though not necessarily in our arriving at those goals, because, like Dewey (1938), we believe that growth itself is both means and end of education, and that one of the conditions of that growth is freedom, which also acts as its own means and end (Sen 1999), as well as its own justification. It is our responsibility to show how we judge our work in relation to whether we have contributed to improvements in new educational practices, and also in terms of whether we have contributed to new understandings of the kind of research that lends itself to explanations for those practices, that is, a form of research that is itself educational for practitioners, the quality of whose practices may be judged in terms of the realisation of its underpinning values.

Our paper therefore offers an explanation of how we do what we support other people in doing, in relation to how we believe a good social order may be realised, that is, by each individual offering public explanations, grounded in a lived evidence base, to show that they did their best to live in the direction of their educational values, in spite of the hazards involved, and in spite of the problematics of struggling to define their lives in terms of the living realisation of their values. Our explanation contains our living evidence base, in the form of multimedia representations of our practices, and the articulation of how we judge those practices in relation to our own educational values. We place this account in the public domain, to test our ideas against the critical responses of our peers in educational research, and we will take this feedback as the steer for new practices as we continue our collaborative working with others in educational research.

Why do we offer explanations?

We begin by explaining why we are writing this paper, and offering explanations for why we do what we do. This involves expressing our belief that all practitioners should be interested in the quality of their work, and this includes learning from work whose quality is not as good as it could be. Not to offer public accounts for their learning would be to raise doubts about their capacity and their appropriateness for the task. Making judgements about the quality of one’s practice may therefore be seen as a form of moral accountability, as well as explaining how those judgements are arrived at. It is insufficient simply to claim that one’s practice is good, without also demonstrating and explaining why it is good, or how ‘good’ should be understood in relation to ‘good practice’. This brings practice into the world of research, for if practice may be understood as what we do in relation with others, research may be understood as offering explanations for why we do what we do in practice, and both practice and research need self-consciously to articulate how and why they should be seen as good quality, each in relation to the other.

Our first task, therefore, is to show how we believe we are contributing to a living networked world of educational quality, and why we are motivated to do so.

We are motivated to do so because we believe, as noted earlier, that the kind of world we wish to live in is a world in which all are held as equal in value, in terms of our being in the world, and in terms of what we are able to contribute to that world. To support this view, we draw on ideas from Chomsky (1986), who argues persuasively that the capacity for potentially infinite original creativity is part of human genetic endowment, and on the ideas of Said (1994), that each new moment is a beginning, grounded in its own past, that holds all its futures potentially within itself. Bohm (1983) further argues that all new beginnings are an unfolding of previous beginnings, while Arendt (1971) maintains that, given that ‘plurality is one of the basic existential conditions of human life on earth’ (p. 74), the beginnings of an individual have implications for other individuals living collectively. We agree with Husserl (1967), who argues that the nature of each new moment is largely influenced by the intention of the individual whose moment it is, so we understand the nature of collective human living as the sharing of the intention that informs the ever-present now. Like Raz (2001), we understand that values inform our lives, so the realisation of those values may be seen as the articulation of our intent of how we are with others.

These ideas, among others, give the steer for how we practise, and the kind of evidence base we produce to show what we do. Jack has pioneered the idea of visual narratives in educational research, and excerpts from such narratives appear below. Similar excerpts can be seen in another of Jack’s presentations at this conference on Generating Educational Theories That Can Explain Educational Influences In Learning: living logics, units of appraisal, standards of judgment. At:

In the first clip at Jack is responding to Yaakub Murray’s enquiry into Progressive Islam


In the second clip at Jack is advocating the extension of the influence of Ubuntu ways of being, enquiring and knowing in educational research as a workshop in South Africa, organised by Jean.

As practitioner researchers, as these examples demonstrate, we see ourselves as engaging in practices that we understand as educational, that is, valuing the other in terms of their being in the world, and in terms of what they are able to contribute to that world; and engaging in the kind of pedagogical practices that encourage the inclusion, acknowledgement and valuing of the other as a basis for sustainable human living (see also Habermas 2001), practices that are about the exercise of the capacity for self determination and self development (Young 1990, 2000). These pedagogical practices include finding ways of encouraging the freedom to explore such capacities, on the basis that the kind of individual development that leads to social sustainability needs to be grounded in the practice of freedom (Sen 1999).

So how do we understand our practice?

We see our practice as comprising three key areas, which may be analysed separately in papers such as this, but which are in reality connected through generative transformational relationships. The relationships, in our case, are dynamic relationships of influence, in a state of continual transformation, and are invisible, in the same way that a railway network is held together as a totality by the invisible dynamic relationships of all its parts. If a train in one area of the network is held up, the entire network is potentially influenced. Changes in one element of a network potentially influence the entire network, and these changes may compromise and also improve. So it is with the separate areas of our practice. Improvements (or errors) in one area inevitably have a potential influence in the other areas. Furthermore, the entire practice unfolds in its dynamic transformational relationship with the world of which it is a part, so that what happens in one part of the networked world influences the other parts, through the dynamic strands of relational influence. The nature of our practice can therefore be understood as holistic and ecological (following Gregory Bateson 1974), because, first, our practice responds in real time to what is going on both within and between ourselves, and what is happening in our local contexts, and how these local contexts are always already within a global setting and are therefore inevitably influenced by it; and, second, our practice responds to the same issues in real time as it contains and unfolds into the future. Our practices carry influence both for what is happening in this moment, and also for how we shape and influence the future of ourselves and others, and are reciprocally influenced by what they do in their ever-present nows.

The three areas of practice that we identify are (1) our actions with ourselves and others, (2) our research into those actions, and (3) our communication of what we are doing. As our paper unfolds, we therefore explain how we make judgements about the quality of the three separate areas, and we go on also to explain how the judgements of the three areas are grounded in the same ontological and epistemological values that emerge in practice as our living standards of judgement, and therefore how the separate processes of making judgements about the individual parts becomes a process of making judgements about the whole. The constellation of the different areas of our work orbits around the key values that inspire and fortify the work. Using a form of generative transformational action enquiry that is grounded in the question ‘How do I improve my learning?’ (Whitehead 1989; McNiff and Whitehead 2006), we explain how we seek to encourage the production of personal and collective accounts that self-consciously address issues of methodological rigour (Winter 1989) and explanatory adequacy (Chomsky 1986), including our own (see Whitehead and McNiff 2006). We endeavour to make explicit the processes of transforming our values into our living standards of judgement, and we claim that the standards themselves and the practices that they account for can be understood as good quality in terms of explaining the processes whereby the conceptual expressions of embodied values can transform into free-flowing processes of communication as people publicly account for their lives.

We now explore this idea further, as we speak about the theoretical frameworks we use to analyse and make judgements about our practices.

What kind of analytical and theoretical frames do we use?

In offering explanations for our contributions as creative educational practices for a living networked world of educational quality we draw insights from a number of propositional and dialectical theories in the generation of our own living theories. We understand that explanations of educational practice and influence are influenced by the logics that structure them. Most explanatory frameworks in theories that are legitimated as valid knowledge in the Western Academies have been influenced by the propositional logic of Aristotle, with the Law of Contradiction eliminating contradictions between statements on the grounds that two mutually exclusive statements such as ‘I am free/I am not free,’ cannot both be true simultaneously. Dialecticians claim that such propositional theories mask the dialectic nature of reality with its nucleus of contradiction. In dialectical theories, living contradictions (Ilyenkov, 1977, p. 320) such as ‘I am free/I am not free,’ are held to be the nucleus of theory. The 2,500-year-old arguments between dialecticians and formal logicians can be appreciated in Popper’s (1963, p. 316) claim that dialectical theories, because they contain contradictions, are entirely useless as theories and based on nothing more than a loose and woolly way of speaking. In Marcuse’s (1964, p. 105) view, logic is a mode of thought that is appropriate for comprehending the real as rational; and propositional theories, by eliminating contradictions, are masking the dialectical nature of reality. Over the 2,500 years of this debate the dialecticians and formal logicians have tended to deny the rationality of the other.

In the development of our living educational theories we draw insights from both propositional and dialectical theories. We recognise the rationality in each position, while using our own living logics and living standards of judgment in our explanations.

In explaining our contributions as creative educational practices for a living networked world of educational quality we draw on ideas from Biesta (2006) and Mary Catherine Bateson (1989).

For example, we like the way Biesta analyses the need to go beyond a language of learning in a language of education. We agree that ‘we come into the world as unique individuals through the ways in which we respond responsibly to what and who is other’ (Biesta, 2006, p. ix).

We also agree with Biesta’s response to the question ‘What is Learning?’, where he makes a distinction between the process accounts of individualistic and sociocultural theories and his own response theory. He says that in many ‘process’ accounts, learning is assumed to be about ‘the acquisition of something “external,” something that existed before the act of learning and that, as a result of learning, becomes the possession of the learner’ (p. 26).

In his view of learning as response he focuses on what challenges, irritates, or even disturbs us, rather than as the acquisition of something we want to possess. He says that both ways of looking at learning ­– learning as acquisition and learning as responding – might be equally valid, depending, that is, on the situation in which we raise questions about the definition of learning. He argues that the second conception of learning is educationally the more significant, ‘if it is conceded that education is not just about the transmission of knowledge, skills and values, but is concerned with the individuality, subjectivity, or personhood of the student, with their “coming into the world” as unique, singular beings’ (p. 27).

We see ourselves working with ideas of learning as acquisition as well as learning as a creative response in our explanations for our contributions as creative educational practices.

Our explanations are also focused on a living networked world (Church, 2004) of educational quality. Our explanations include transformational patterns of influence as these are manifested in the production of emancipatory educational practices and their articulation as scholarly research accounts. We are thinking of accounts such as Delong (2002), with the creation of a culture of inquiry for supporting a living theory approach to professional development in a District School Board. We are thinking of Sullivan’s (2006) living theory of a practice of social justice in which she realises the right of Traveller Children to educational equality. Our explanations are distinguished by their living logics and living standards of judgement as well as our inclusional ways of being, enquiring and knowing. By inclusionality we mean a relationally dynamic awareness of space and boundaries (Rayner, 2005) that is distinguished by a sustained attention to diversity and interdependence in explaining our educational practices, and this view has implications for our understanding of good practice, as outlined here by Mary Catherine Bateson:

But what if we were to recognize the capacity for distraction, the divided will, as representing a higher wisdom…? Perhaps Kierkegaard was wrong when he said that ‘purity is to will one thing.’ Perhaps the issue is not a fixed knowledge of the good, the single focus that millenia of monotheism have made us idealize, but a kind of attention that is open, not focused on a single point. Instead of concentration on a transcendent ideal, sustained attention to diversity and interdependence may offer a different clarity of vision, one that is sensitive to ecological complexity, to the multiple rather than the singular. Perhaps we can discern in women [sic] honoring multiple commitments a new level of productivity and new possibilities of learning.

(Bateson, 1989, p. 166)

How do we make research-based judgements about our understanding of our practices?

We both consistently offer explanations for our living practices, using our preferred forms of media. Jack enjoys working with multimedia, since multimedia can show the lived reality of the evidential base of knowledge claims. Jean enjoys working with traditional print-based accounts. Both forms of communication are complementary, and aim to demonstrate the validity of the claims that we make, that we are creating our own living educational theories as well as providing resources that will enable people to access their own meanings as they offer their living theories of practice for public critique.

Jack began his explanation for his contribution as creative educational practices for a living networked world of educational quality in his 1976 account of working with six teachers over a twelve-month local curriculum project to improve learning with 11–14 year-olds in mixed ability science groups (Whitehead, 1976). The creative educational practice was to:

(1) create a network of in-service support

(2) organize resources for enquiry learning

(3) establish a process of self evaluation.

He continues to include these three practices in his explanations as can been seen in his multi media presentation on Generating Educational Theories That Can Explain Educational Influences In Learning: living logics, units of appraisal, standards of judgment (Whitehead, 2007).

The network of in-service support is now web-based at and includes the organisation of resources for enquiry learning. These resources include the living theories of practitioner-researchers who have explained their educational influences in their own learning and in the learning of others in educational enquiries of the kind, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’

Jack communicates the process of self-evaluation through multi-media and digital technologies to stress the importance of visual narratives in explaining one’s educational influence in terms of living the values one uses to give meaning and purpose to one’s life. Action reflection cycles are used in clarifying the meanings of the values as these emerge in practice. These action reflection cycles take the form of expressing concerns when values are not lived fully, creating action plans to improve practice, acting and gathering data on which to make a judgement about the effectiveness of the actions, modifying the concerns, ideas and actions in the light of the evaluations. The process of self-evaluation also includes the production of an explanation of educational influences in learning that is subjected to the evaluations of a validation group to strengthen the validity of the explanation.

Jean communicates the same processes of self-evaluation through print-based texts (for example McNiff and Whitehead, 2005, 2006). These texts are deliberately written in an accessible form to enable practitioners to offer their own accounts of practice in ways that demonstrate the validity of their claims to knowledge, so that the accounts may be readily validated by the Academy.

We both advocate the use of Habermas’ (1976) four criteria of social validity in strengthening the validity of the explanations. These are concerned with (1) the comprehensibility of the account, (2) the appropriateness of the evidence that justifies the assertions, (3) the explication of the values-based assumptions as to what constitutes ‘educational influence’, and (4) the authenticity of the account in the sense of showing over time that the researcher is committed to living the values they espouse, as fully as possibly. The importance of explicating our value-based assumptions is that they communicate what we mean by good quality.

This brings us to the third element we have identified as constituting our practices, along with, first, our understanding of our actions and second, how we make research-based judgements about the educational quality of those actions. This third element deals with the need for quality in the communication of research-based accounts.

How do we make judgements about the communicability of our accounts?

We understand how the criteria of social validity in turn transform into criteria for judging the communicability of the text that comprises the research account and thereby establish its quality. Our print-based and multimedia-based texts aim to communicate to the reader/listener the standards of judgement we use to test the validity of the evidence base in which our knowledge claims are grounded. We therefore try to show how the social criteria for judging the validity of a knowledge claim about practice, and about the processes of making judgements about the practice, also act as the same criteria for judging the quality of the communicability of the research account. All three aspects are commensurable, and grounded in our values. When we present our printed and multimedia accounts, we ask, ‘Is our text comprehensible, authentic, sincere and appropriate?’ We ask the same questions of this text here. Especially, in relation to Chomsky’s (2000) insights that the logical form of an enquiry contributes to the form of its living practice, we ask whether the logical form of our enquiry has informed both the explication of the values base of the enquiry and its communication, using those same values throughout as living standards of judgement. We focus specifically on the nature of the logical form, in offering explanations for our contributions as creative educational practices for a living networked world of educational quality. We also hope that it is clear that we are using three distinct logics in our propositional, dialectical and inclusional explanations, and that the inclusional form of our explanations incorporates and embeds propositional and dialectical logical forms within itself through the dynamic transformational nature of their formal and lived relationships.

We emphasise the inclusional nature of these relationships by referring to and using Biesta’s (2006) distinction between a process approach to learning in which learning has to do with the acquisition of something external that existed before the act of learning and a response approach that is ‘concerned with the individuality, subjectivity, or personhood of the student, with their “coming into the world” as unique singular beings’ (p. 27).

We explain our contributions as creative educational practices in terms of both our learning from our creative responses and our assimilation and learning from the pedagogic influences from the existing knowledge in our culture. We are using dialectics in the sense of recognising and working with contradictions in our living networked world of educational quality. We both experience ourselves as living contradictions in our recognition that we hold together, in what we do, the values that give meaning and purpose to our lives with values that negate these meanings and purpose. We seek to show our value of integrity in working towards the full expression of the values that give meaning and purpose. We explain what we are doing in our educational practices in terms of responding to others and in terms of living our values and understandings as fully as we can.

With our inclusional explanations we start with what we are doing in our practice. The digital technologies that Jack uses extensively enable us to show ourselves in our practice and to use ostensive expressions to communicate the meanings of our embodied values. Marian Naidoo’s (2005) doctorate shows this process in the emergence of her living theory of inclusional and responsible practice as she clarifies her meanings of living with a passion for compassion. Mairin Glenn (2006) has also used a visual narrative in the communication of her embodied values in developing her living theory of a holistic educational practice.

Using our action reflection cycles we explain our intentions for our productive lives to ourselves and others, and generate our own living theories of our practice (McNiff, 2007). In the clip below, you can see Jean outlining what she intends to be doing in a range of global contexts from the video clip taken in 2007 in a seminar at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham. This expression of values-based intention can be understood as the grounds for why Jean generates her own living theory for herself and others.

Our research findings / our contribution to knowledge

What we are claiming is that the accounts we encourage and disseminate, including our own, can be understood as good quality and potentially world-leading in terms of their significance, originality and rigour (Hefce, Research Assessment Exercise 2006). In saying this we are recognising the financially driven pressures to perform well in the RAE. To do this we see that we would need to establish our ideas as world leading. We recognise the financial significance to our institutions of the RAE and want to play our part with our colleagues in sustaining this economic wellbeing while at the same time acknowledging the frequently damaging influences of the RAE (Dadds and Kynch, 2003)

We also want to feel and know that others have found useful some of the ideas that have emerged from our research. While we can both feel pleasurably affirmed if others recognise our ideas as world leading, this is not what motivates us. What motivates us is the generative energy we feel as others acknowledge that they have found our ideas of use in the creation of their own forms of life.

In offering explanations for our contributions as creative educational practices for a living networked world of educational quality, we hope that you will feel the significance of contributing your own living theory to those already flowing through the world wide web. We hope that you can see a useful distinction between propositional, dialectical and inclusional/living logics that can support your confidence in the rigour, validity and academic legitimacy of your explanations of your educational influences in your own learning, in the learning of others and in the learning of social formations.


By making our own processes of knowledge-creation public we are seeking to contribute to educationally significant discourses about how rigorously conducted educational research can enable us to justify our conception of a social good that draws on processes of the communicative actions (Habermas, 1976, 1987) of infinitely creative people as they seek to transform their ever-emergent world.


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