The Significance of ‘I’ in Educational Research and the Responsibility of intellectuals

Jean McNiff

[Word version available]

A paper presented at the conference

New horizons for quality in higher education and training

Organised by

The South African Association for Research and Development in Higher Education

University of Pretoria, 1–4 July 2007

This paper makes a case for an unequivocal legitimisation of the ‘I’ in educational research, as the central element of practitioners’ living theories of practice. I position myself as a practitioner researcher, so the paper becomes a report of my ongoing action research into my own learning as I continue to make sense of my work, especially in South Africa, within the context of new policy frameworks for continuing professional teacher development (CPTD) (Department of Education 2007). I therefore use the report as a live example of the issues I address in the paper, which include the following.

I explain how I have extended my range, from a focus on ensuring the quality of practitioners’ research accounts, to an understanding of the potentials of those accounts for the development of the teaching profession, and its influence in debates about cultural and economic sustainability. This has involved coming to appreciate the transformational relationships between the logics and values that underpin specific epistemologies, and their living transformation into personal and social forms that can lead to sustainable economic and societal wellbeing. A key conceptual framework for these issues is the idea of methodological and epistemological accountability, an idea that incorporates but goes beyond Code’s (1987) conceptualisation of epistemic responsibility, and I explain how my active understanding of the concept has developed through the problematic processes of trying to achieve my own epistemic responsibility. I have come to see the development of the capacity for personal research accountability as a key responsibility of intellectuals like myself, whose work it is to do educational research, and who are concerned with the professional education of teachers and other practitioners, through supporting the production of their living I-theories of practice. I also explain the importance of such living theories of practice for economic sustainability, and I argue for the widespread communication of practitioners’ accounts of practice through the institutionalisation of a free academic press, where journal editors, inevitably drawn from the ranks of Academia, themselves develop a policy of epistemic responsibility. This is not always easy to do, given the advent of innovative forms of scholarship, as Donmoyer explained (1996), when he asked, ‘What’s a journal editor to do?’ in an era of paradigm proliferation. Yet a free academic press, as an extension of MacIntyre’s (1990) idea of the university as a place where constrained disagreement may take place without fear of recrimination or oppression, has to be one of the key factors in the development of a policy of academic freedom in which research of all forms may flourish, on the grounds that their validity will be tested through rational public debate. Such a policy of free investigation and free expression is nowhere more important than in a post-apartheid society, of which the academy is perhaps the main institution for demonstrating its capacity for overcoming the contradictions involved in the institutionalised control of knowledge, and by extension, minds.

In summary, the paper is about the need for academic practitioners to focus their attention on matters of pressing social concern, and offer their own living theories of practice that demonstrate their social accountability, as they support teachers’ enquiries, as the teachers do the same. These living theories need to demonstrate epistemological and methodological validity (and thereby practitioners’ scholarly accountability), if they are to stand as good quality, and to realise their potentials as influencing policy debates about continuing professional teacher development in South Africa. By clarifying the processes of establishing quality, it would also be possible to show the links between continuing teacher professional education and the active contributions of teachers to economic and social wellbeing.

First, I offer some frameworks for my writing of this paper. Because the paper is a research account, I organise it using the same kind of section headings that I use as a methodological framework for the research, as follows.

  • What is my concern?
  • Why am I concerned?
  • What kind of examples can I produce to show the situation as it is and as it develops?
  • What can I do about it? What will I do about it?
  • How will I ensure that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and accurate?
  • How do I explain the potential significance of what I am doing?
  • How do I modify my practice and ideas in light of my evaluation?

(see Whitehead 1989)

I also consider, implicitly and occasionally explicitly, ideas about the origin, nature and use of knowledge, a typology originally articulated by Chomsky (1986) in relation to questions about the origin, nature and use of knowledge of language. I ask questions about what kinds of knowledge can influence sustainable personal and social wellbeing, how it is acquired or created, and how it can be used. I conclude (1) that the creation of such knowledge requires an active knower, who makes a personal commitment to their own acts of knowing (Polanyi 1958), while interacting with other groups of critical knowers who are similarly involved; (2) that the nature of such knowledge is transformational and developmental, as it lives its social life (Brown and Duguid 2000), and invites critical responses to its claims; (3) that the use of such knowledge is to enable others to exercise their capacity for original and meaningful thinking and critical engagement in their own lives, and to offer their stories of how they have done so to a critical public, to show how they hold themselves accountable for what they know and how they have come to know. This becomes a key point for me, because, if we action researchers are to claim validity for our research accounts, in which we aim to make original claims to knowledge; and if we understand epistemology to contain both a theory of knowledge and a theory of knowledge creation; then we need to demonstrate the validity both of the knowledge and also of the processes of coming to know. Demonstrating validity of a claim to knowledge requires the generation of evidence against which to test the validity of the research claim, so, according to what I have just said, it is essential to produce evidence to ground the substantive claim and also to ground claims about the methodological processes involved in its generation. The aim therefore becomes to produce evidence to test the claim that the researcher has developed an improved practice (a knowledge claim about practice) and that the researcher can show the rigour of the processes involved (a knowledge claim about methodology). Both claims need to be tested against identified criteria and standards of judgement, and these, I suggest, following Whitehead (2004), are grounded in the researcher’s values as they seek to realise those values in their practice. Thus, practitioners who are studying their practices need to produce accounts that show both (1) the nature of the improved practice, including and beginning with their learning, and (2) their critical appreciation of their exercise of methodological rigour through conducting the research, that is, the origin of the improved practice and the origin of its knowledge. These separate but interlinked sets of standards tend to be referred to in the literatures as ‘standards of practice’ and ‘standards of judgement’, and I shall continue to use this form of words here for analytical purposes. I shall however make much of the need for both sets of standards to be incorporated into decisions about new directions for the teaching profession, and I shall also indicate the significance that such moves may have for sustainable social development. I shall also continue to link issues of epistemology with ethical issues, a tradition well established in the literature (Code 1987), to communicate my view that doing educational research is profoundly important for the creation of a world of educational quality and its transformation into a world of social equality and justice, and should in fact be seen as the first step towards developing a practical philosophy of how it may be possible to contribute to an improvement of the existing social order through educational research.

Because this paper is a research account, I ask throughout, do I show these processes in this paper? I begin by outlining the steps involved in my enquiry.

What is my concern?

I am concerned about the exclusion of the living ‘I’ (Whitehead 1989) in dominant forms of educational research and theory, as it still largely focuses on the disciplines of the philosophy, history, sociology, psychology and management of education, and also focuses on the production of objective knowledge, demonstrating the validity of which becomes a main criterion to judge the use-value of the research. The persistent exclusion of the living ‘I’ is especially worrying, given international trends over recent decades away from an externalist approach to human enquiry and the generation of abstract theories, which I have called, following Chomsky (2000), E-theories, towards an internalist approach that generates I-theories, that is, individual or internalist theories (see McNiff 2002). These theories are what Whitehead (1989) calls living theories, the narrative accounts of real people as they make sense of their living practices. It is also worrying that this insistence on excluding the ‘I’ continues as an aspect of the literary form in which E-theories tend to be communicated, and a resultant editorial policy among many journal editors to publish accounts that are written from within only one set of technical rational logics that underpin an exclusive form of propositional knowledge. For example, in relation to philosophical writing, Mathien and Wright (2006) have this to say:

Contemporary philosophical writing is largely impersonal and technical in style. It proposes definitions, makes arguments, criticizes other arguments, corrects previous infidelities and imprecisions in a position, and situates it all in a context of issues current in the discipline. The canons of style are less rigid that those used in the natural sciences, and they avoid the historian’s phobic avoidance of the first person singular, but they are, nevertheless, unmistakably academic and ‘professional’. … The writing of philosophy is now measured by professional standards. Those standards specify that, even where a text is not yet presented in a clear, impersonal and argumentative form, it should, in principle, be translatable into one.

(Mathien and Wright 2006: 1, 3)

This is not how I, or a considerable number of other researchers, understand or practise philosophical writing. My understanding, following Code (1987), is that knowledge is always generated by a knowing subject, from within a social context, and accounts that aim to communicate that knowledge need to be personal narrativised accounts. According to Collingwood (1967), the ‘autobiography of a man [sic] whose business is thinking should be the story of his thought’ (Collingwood 1967: ‘Preface’, cited in Mathien and Wright 2006: 5), in other words, the story of one’s learning. Mathien and Wright continue: ‘This view, if true, implies an important point about the value of philosophers’ autobiographies for the study of philosophy’ (p. 3). By the same token, I understand the production of practitioners’ autobiographical research accounts, as these contain their educational philosophies, to have profound implications for the study of education, and how this can link practically with commitments to sustainable forms of social living.

So I am dismayed both by the exclusion of the living ‘I’ from dominant discourses of educational research, and also by the willingness of so many of the educational research community to go along with this continued insistence on the priority of objective propositional knowledge, often to the elimination of subjective personal knowledge, in spite of comprehensive evidence that shows how practitioners are contributing to debates about the nature of, and actively influencing the processes of, cultural, social and political transformation through studying their practices and producing their scholarly accounts of practice (see the living theory sections of and I am also dismayed by the continuing insistence on adopting a formal, abstract authorial positioning in the production of research accounts, a ‘view from nowhere’, according to Nagel (1986), that assumes that the world exists regardless of the point of view of the observer, and that accounts appear out of nowhere without the active contribution of the writer. Given the vast amount of literary criticism that has critiqued the poverty of such abstract writing (for example Derrida 1986) and its tendency to contain subtle forms of colonisation (Said 1991; Todorov 1995), it is nothing short of amazing that so many should hold on to literary forms that are becoming outmoded shibboleths.

The main reason for my dismay, however, is in the demonstration by some traditional researchers of a lack of what Code (1987) calls epistemic responsibility, that is, a commitment to substantive knowledge without critical reflection on the origin, nature and use of the knowledge in question. Code illustrates this concept by telling the story of Philip Gosse (Gosse 1970), who experienced a crisis in struggling to ‘reconcile his Christian fundamentalism (hence his creationism) with the insights he stood to gain, as a marine zoologist, from work being done in evolutionary theory by Darwin, Lyell, and others. From this conflict, religion emerged victorious. Philip Gosse, F.R.S., chose to discount the findings of the new biology because of their incompatibility with his belief in the literal truth of the creation story as set forth in the book of Genesis’ (Code 1987: 17). Code commends Gosse’s devotion to what he saw as the truth, yet is critical of what she calls his lack of intellectual virtue:

Intellectual virtue is, above all, a matter of orientation toward the world, toward one’s knowledge-creating self, and toward other such selves as part of the world. Central to it is a sort of openness to how things are: a respect for the normative force of ‘realism.’ This attitude involves a willingness to let things speak for themselves, a kind of humility toward the experienced world that curbs any excessive desire to impose one’s cognitive structurings upon it. Intellectual honesty consists in a finely tuned balancing of these two factors, in cultivating an appropriate interplay between self and the world.

(Code 1987: 20)

I have experienced the outcomes of this lack of intellectual virtue on many occasions, as, for example, when judgements have been made about the quality of action researchers’ reports, which contain their I-theories, by people who maintain their own social science perspectives and commitments to the production of E-theories while doing so. I have also observed how this non-problematised judgemental stance frequently transforms into power-constituted relationships that allow externalist researchers to make judgements about the capacity of ‘ordinary’ practitioners to realise their potentials for knowledge creation and the production of their I-theories. From my perspective as a professional educator, I have especially noted this in relation to the kinds of programmes and practices considered appropriate for professional education, where the rhetoric appears to endorse the development of I-theories and I-epistemologies, yet the management and pedagogical practice denies the rhetoric in its continued commitment to the production of E-theories and E-epistemologies. Such epistemological contradictions are also problematic for Code, for whom the development of intellectual virtue lies in the capacity to ‘look at one’s (putative) knowledge from the outside, to suspend belief in order to reflect on what one has been doing’ (p. 21). This process is of course central to action enquiry. There is an expectation, when judging the quality of an action research account, that the action researcher would have demonstrated such epistemic responsibility, both by showing the validity of the claim to knowledge and also of the processes involved in arriving at the claim. This practice, I will later suggest, should become normative among the entire range of educational communities as they work together.

I have thought much about why the exclusion of the living ‘I’ should continue to be the case in so much of what passes as educational research, especially in light of President of the British Educational Research Association Geoff Whitty’s explanation that perhaps research in education, from a social science perspective, should now be called ‘education research’, while the term ‘educational research’ should be reserved for research that is manifestly educational for the researcher and the participants involved in the research (Whitty 2005). I have also thought much about why this exclusion is especially visible in higher education contexts. The tendency is worrying, given that the Academy still counts as the highest legitimating body of knowledge, yet, by not keeping up with emergent trends, there seems to be a real possibility that some sections of the Academy could shortly become interesting relics that are themselves worthy of empirical study. It is nothing short of crucial that the Academy should move into the twenty-first century, if it is to have any relevance to people’s lives (and continue to contribute to economic sustainability by attracting a clientele that expects value for money), and this means engaging with new forms of scholarship whose focus is the generation of living theories and their accompanying I-epistemologies. Donald Schön made exactly this point in 1995, when he wrote about the need to rethink the kind of epistemologies that are espoused in the modern research university:

If we intend to pursue the ‘new forms of scholarship’ that Ernest Boyer presents in his Scholarship Reconsidered, we cannot avoid questions of epistemology, since the new forms of scholarship he describes challenge the epistemology built into the modern research university.

(Schön 1995: 27)

I do not offer these comments lightly. I fully appreciate the pressures of the political contexts that many higher education personnel work in. I understand the pressures of stipulated norms, especially the norms of writing for publication, and that ‘there are canons, instruction in their use, and the constant pressure of professional publication as an enforcement mechanism’ (Mathien and Wright 2006: 3). Bourdieu (1988) also has much to say about the pressures on academics to produce appropriate forms of writing, to a strict publication schedule. I understand these issues from my own experience of them, which is why I choose to stay out of salaried employment and work from the freedom of the margins, as a private practitioner, who steps in and out of the physical Academy and its politically- and culturally-laden discourses.

Yet while I have considerable sympathy for people working within these politically-constituted contexts, I have less sympathy for those who deliberately choose to stay snug within a narrow conceptualisation of academic life, who see their job only as contributing to, recycling and strengthening the existing knowledge base, and producing publications that ‘are meant for academic advancement and not for social change’ (Said 1993: 53), especially when these publications have little relevance to people who are less fortunate than themselves. On my travels around affluent Dorset, where I live, I see people whose home is a cardboard box. On my travels around South Africa, where I intermittently work, I see people who have no hope, epitomised for me by the woman with the baby at the robot, who comes in different skin colours and different clothes yet whose face is always the same. I could have been that woman, given different circumstances. It is people such as this woman and her baby who should be the proper concerns of educational research, how it is possible to help them to help themselves. Education research, about, for example, the sociology of education, may offer analyses about how such conditions were allowed to develop in the first place, but, on Whitty’s reading, educational research should be research that is educational for the researcher and the participants in the research, that is, it should enable the researcher to appreciate how they can exercise their educational influence for social good, and transform established social and political norms that wilfully tolerate such circumstances. But this would mean a shift in identity for many higher education practitioners, from what Foucault (1977) calls the specific intellectual to a universal intellectual, from the application of existing knowledge for their own interests, to the generation of new knowledge, drawn from personal life experience, in the public interest and with the social intent of engaging with issues of moral, theoretical and political choices. The struggles around ‘the truth’ are not ‘on behalf’ of the truth but about the status of truth and the economic and political role that it plays (Whitehead 1993: 18). Said (1993) also makes this point, when, drawing on Gramsci’s (1973) distinction between the traditional intellectual and the organic intellectual, he maintains that ‘the purpose of the intellectual’s activity is to advance human freedom and knowledge’ (p. 13), and chides those who ‘sheepishly go along with the herd,’ what Benda (1980) referred to as “la trahison des clercs” – the betrayal of the intellectuals’ (p. 4). Yet I recognise that positioning oneself as a universal intellectual can be far from comfortable. Bourdieu (1988) speaks about how institutional elites mobilise their power to ensure compliance with established traditions, and Alford (2001) explains how institutions can deliberately set out to damage the lives of those who challenge normative behaviours. I have experienced this at first hand. Yet we all make choices, and perhaps we are defined by our choices, about which values we espouse and the degree to which we are prepared to live these in our practices, and show how we hold ourselves accountable for doing so.

In light of these concerns, I ask, ‘How do I encourage the development of inclusional epistemologies for a new scholarship of educational enquiry (Whitehead 1999)?’ as I continue to support the action enquiries of academic practitioners who in turn support the action enquiries of teachers, and the production of their living theories of practice. So, having set out my concerns, I now give reasons for why they are concerns.

Why am I concerned?

My first set of reasons is grounded in my ontological, epistemological and pedagogical values, which I consistently try to live in my practice. My ontological values are about the preciousness and uniqueness of the individual. Like Kristeva (2002), I see individuals as unique, each distinctive yet sharing their singularities. Like Arendt (1958), I regard each person as precious in relation to their own natality, their potential to realise their humanity in their own way. My epistemological values are that I regard each person as potentially capable of generating an infinitude of knowledge, given the right lifeworld circumstances, and, like Polanyi (1958), I believe that as humans we know more than we can say. I ground this belief in the empirical work of Chomsky (1986), who, drawing on the hypothesis of what he calls ‘the poverty of stimulus’, explains compellingly that humans are able to generate an infinite number of innovative utterances, in spite of never heard any of those utterances before, so the capacity for language can be understood as genetically inherited. By extension, I believe the capacity for language to be an aspect of the wider capacity for creative thinking and the infinite creation of knowledge. My pedagogical values are that people are capable of making wise choices and do not need to be told what to do. To support this view, I draw on Habermas’s (1975) understanding that people cannot not learn:

It is my conjecture that the fundamental mechanism for social evolution is to be found in an automatic inability not to learn. Not learning, but not-learning is the phenomenon that calls for explanation at the socio-cultural stage of development.

(Habermas 1975: 15, emphasis in original)

Given that people have this capacity for learning, I do not believe they need to be taught, in a formal didactic sense, so much as enabled to make sense of their own learning. This has distinct implications for how I understand teaching, and the kind of pedagogical relationships and strategies involved. As a teacher, I see myself involved in a community of equals, all of whom are sharing and co-creating our knowledge, within the context of a dialogue of equals. These values form the bedrock of my identity and my work. Like Fromm (1956), I define my life in terms of my capacity for loving relationships and productive work, and like Said (1993), I define my professional worth in relation to my willingness to speak my truth with integrity, albeit that this may sometimes mean speaking truth to power (Foucault 1980).

My second set of reasons is grounded the empirical work of Sen (1999), and, I believe, offers strong support for why a reconceptualisation of the purposes of academic work as directly contributing to social wellbeing should become the focus of academic practitioners. Writing about economic and social development, Sen explains the need for development to be grounded in human freedom and in the critical capacity of citizens to make decisions about their own ways of developing themselves. Economic sustainability, he says, needs to be grounded in human freedom: ‘The contribution of the market mechanism to economic growth is, of course, important, but this comes only after the direct significance of the freedom to interchange – words, goods, gifts – has been acknowledged’ (p. 6), and he foregrounds ‘a view of development as an integrated process of expansion of substantive freedoms that connect with one another’ (p. 8). Most importantly, the freedom in question is largely to do with the exercise of human capacity, as this is linked inextricably with economic sustainability:

In contemporary economic analysis the emphasis has, to a considerable extent, shifted from seeing capital accumulation in primarily physical terms to viewing it as a process in which the productive quality of human beings is integrally involved. For example, through education, learning and skill formation, people can become much more productive over time, and this contributes greatly to the process of economic expansion. In recent studies of economic growth (often influenced by empirical readings of the experiences of Japan and the rest of East Asia as well as Europe and North America), there is a much greater emphasis on ‘human capital’ than used to be the case not long ago’ (pp 292–3).

This view has strong implications for views expressed by, for example, Calderisi (2007), who calls for new political and economic attitudes and practices in Africa, if Africa is to pull itself out of its current doldrums and exercise a credible voice in world affairs (see also Perry 2007). He makes the case that, while aid is essential to address the dire problematics of deep poverty and lack of resources, and should be given in the short term without necessarily expecting that it should be repaid, it should in the longer term come with expectations that governments will stamp out corruption and put in place infrastructures for people to learn to help themselves. This view links directly with Sen’s theory of human capacity and with my own values around identity formation as grounded in loving relationships and productive work. I do not wish anyone to do things for me as long as I am able to do them for myself. I maintain my personal and intellectual dignity as a thinking, independent person. Nor do I give to people without expecting them to do for themselves. Throughout my work with practitioners, in Ireland, South Africa and elsewhere, I have always insisted that people should do their own learning; I cannot do it for them. I can arrange the optimum conditions for learning, and I can offer them unqualified support, yet I will not do their work for them. They must do it for themselves, and this has to be the basis of our relationships. I do not foster a culture of dependency. I aim to foster a culture of independent enquiry, where each person exercises their capacity for original and creative thinking, and contributes to the other’s learning.

I explain shortly that I make judgements about the quality of my practices in relation to the values I am expressing here, so these values transform, through their emergence in practice, into the living standards by which I judge the quality of my practice. My values therefore transform into my living standards of practice.

So, given these reasons for my concerns, how do I show the situation as it is, so that I can imagine possible improvements and how I might contribute to those improvements?

What kind of examples can I produce to show the situation as it is and as it develops?

In the film ‘What Women Want’, Mel Gibson acquires the gift of knowing what women are thinking. I would not claim to possess such a gift, yet I do claim to have developed the capacity to interrogate the silent underpinning epistemologies of specific discourses in which I participate. This capacity has probably developed through my becoming critical of my own previously uncritical stance, where I used to take as axiomatic the idea of idealised stereotypes of, for example, race and gender. It took some hard learning from the work of researchers such as Butler (1999) and Derrida (1998) to bring home to me the counter-productive nature of such stereotyping for social sustainability, as well as for my own personal and scholarly integrity. It also took some hard learning from the personal experience of working in countries where I was positioned as a stranger, to bring home to me the importance of decentring myself and learning to be other to the other (Buber 1947; see also McNiff 2006). So I do not speak of the capacity to discern underpinning epistemologies in an abstract way or from the same externalist stance that I am critiquing in this paper, but from the personal experience of learning how hard it is to become aware of the colonising power of one’s own underpinning epistemologies, while being unaware of the existence or the nature of those epistemologies.

I have observed the way in which colleagues in higher education, internationally and locally in South Africa, are persuaded to conform to dominant E-epistemologies (for example Waghid 2005). I see the gate-keeping practices of many established journals, in which the ‘I’ is systematically excluded from scholarly writing, and I see the hegemonising power of established canons to minimalise those who do not conform. I see how such colonising practices share the same epistemological legacy of the colonising practices of yesteryear’s segregationist regimes, when people who did not conform to idealised types were brutalised and systematically rendered invisible. And my concerns are that, by continuing such exclusionary practices, the Academy itself will become increasingly defined by its exclusionary practices, underpinned by exclusionary logics and values, that legitimise some forms of scholarship and some forms of writing as acceptable, while others are outlawed, a case not only of denying MacIntyre’s (1990) view of the university as a place of constrained disagreement, as noted earlier, but also defining the university as a product of what Gunter (1995) calls Jurassic management. Perhaps the situation could have been tolerated while there were no alternatives to traditional forms of scholarship. New forms are however increasingly recognised, and practitioners’ voices are increasingly heard in academic discourses, both the voices of practitioners located in what are seen as traditional workplace settings as well as the voices of academics who position themselves as practitioners in higher education settings.

Yet, at the same time as making a case for the legitimation of practitioner research and the generation of living theories, I acknowledge that such academic legitimacy has to be earned. It is crucial to maintain high academic standards in published work, and to show the validity of any claim to knowledge in accounts of practice. In this, I also see how many action researchers themselves do not serve their emancipatory interests well, and collude in their own subjugation, by not seriously addressing issues of establishing the quality of their work by ensuring methodological rigour in the production of their accounts, or by producing only descriptive accounts of practice instead of offering explanatory accounts of research-based practice. This understanding gives the lie to my own mentoring practices, as grounded in my values of sustained scholarship and methodological rigour, as I now explain.

What can I do? What will I do?

So, here is what I do, and what I intend to continue doing, in the context of this confluence of traditional and new forms of scholarship.

I work mainly in higher education settings, where I support the higher degree enquiries of practitioner researchers, as they research their practice, with a view to generating and making public their living theories of practice. I also take care to make my own processes of enquiry public, as I am doing in this paper. I see this work as contributing to the expansion of, and the intensified quality of, a growing knowledge base that aims to sytematise and make public the work of teacher researchers (Snow 2001). My overall goal, like Whitehead (1999; see also Whitehead and McNiff 2006), is to contribute to a reconceptualisation of educational theory from its current focus on propositional forms that exclude the living ‘I’ and also exclude the publication of real-world accounts of practice, to an inclusional form that embraces propositional accounts within its ambit, while emphasising that these propositional accounts were produced by a researcher who was situated within a material socio-historical context. Thus I develop a view of educational research as a living generative transformational process that embraces all aspects of the research process, where each part contains the whole within itself, and the whole becomes a manifestation of all its parts (see Bohm 1987). To help my conceptualisation processes, I draw on the metaphors of chaos and complexity theory, and the idea of emerging fractals as aspects of exponential self-generating systems. I also understand my work as always in emergence, itself a generative transformational process, as thought influences new action, and new action influences the thought in which it is grounded. This is why I encourage practitioners, and myself, to attend as much to our processes of thinking as to the actions we take. I see this practice as morally committed, in that the practice focuses consistently on enabling people to offer justifications for their practices, as I do in this paper, within a broad context of working towards the development of a good social order.

The idea of the good occupies much of my attention, and I investigate my understanding of what counts as good in relation to good quality accounts and their potential contribution to a good social order. I have come to a provisional understanding, as set out in my introduction, that good quality accounts need to offer explanations both for the knowledge arrived at through the research process that has generated it, as well as offer explanations for the knowledge generation processes themselves. As also noted, I see the articulation of standards of practice and standards of judgement as key aspects of establishing quality in living processes of enquiry. Furthermore, for the research to count as educational research, in Whitty’s (2005) terms, these practices need to be directed towards social wellbeing. I therefore link the methodological practices of educational research together with the social practices of influencing the underpinning epistemological base of social practices, in relation to encouraging personal and social wellbeing. However, making judgements about quality of practice and quality of research involves the setting of appropriate criteria and standards of practice and judgement, so I now draw on the work of Furlong and Oancea (2005) to help me explain this.

In 2005, Furlong and Oancea explained that action research is now legitimated as a powerful form of professional education; it is now included in practices such as the UK 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, with its remit for the allocation of research funding; and it has the potential to contribute to debates about innovative forms of practice. However, they say, this recognition still does not qualify action research as a significant form of knowledge creation because the means of making judgements about its quality are not yet fully worked out, articulated, or agreed by the action research community, and its legitimacy is therefore still in question. There needs to be agreement by the academic research community, which makes decisions about the validity and legitimacy of research processes, about the kinds of criteria and standards of judgement that will enable rigorous judgements to be made about its quality. Until the practitioner researcher community achieves such agreement, they say, practitioner researchers must accept the situation that the quality of their research accounts will continue to be judged by default mainly in terms of the established criteria and standards of judgement of traditional forms of research.

A good deal of work has been undertaken over recent years in response to such challenges to identify and articulate appropriate criteria and standards of judgement for judging the quality of practice-based research. Of particular significance and increasing influence is the idea that values can transform into living standards of judgement through their emergence in practice (Whitehead 2004, Whitehead and McNiff 2006). Therefore, the validity of a claim that practice has improved may be judged in relation to the extent to which the personal and social values that underpin the practice have been realised, as demonstrated in an authenticated evidence base; and the validity of the claim that the research has been conducted rigorously can be judged in relation to the extent that the values informing the systematic nature of the enquiry are realised as the creation of new knowledge, as communicated through the research account. In terms of the issues I am discussing here, I see this focus as essential, on the grounds that, if what counts as quality in educational research and how this quality is achieved can be demonstrated in practice, it may also be possible to bring those understandings into investigations of what counts as quality in social living. In terms of this paper, it means that teachers can claim validity for their contributions to social wellbeing, as is one of their responsibilities as set out by the South African Department of Education (2000). My research question therefore becomes, ‘How do I explain how processes of making judgements about the quality of educational research can inform processes of making judgements about the quality of personal and social interactions?’

To address this issue, I invite practitioners, including teachers in South Africa, whose higher degree studies I support, to identify their standards of practice and standards of judgement as a central aspect of testing their evidence-based research claims that they have improved their practices. Consequently, they make judgements about the quality of the work, and the extent to which they have realised their ontological, epistemological and pedagogical values in their real-world practices as they seek to influence processes of cultural and political change; and they also make judgements about the quality of the research, and the extent to which they have realised their methodological values in their research practices as they seek to influence the judgements of critical others about the methodological rigour of their research. These two processes are intertwined, and are both integral to processes of making judgements about the overall quality of the research account. The account needs to offer descriptions and explanations for workplace practices that seek to exercise educational influence in the development of improved social situations, paralleled by and combined with descriptions and explanations for research practices that seek to exercise educational influence in the development of rigorous research reports. Quality in one area influences quality in the other.

To show the influence of these ideas, and to provide an evidential base against which I can test my own claims to be having some influence, I draw on work from an Irish context (see Cahill 2007, Glenn 2006, McDonagh 2007, Roche 2007, Sullivan 2006). These accounts are significant because each shows the contribution that teachers are making in relation to social and cultural transformation, while articulating their standards of practice and standards of judgement, to ensure the methodological quality of their reports, each of which is an articulation also of how they hold themselves methodologically and epistemologically accountable.

Of special relevance for this paper, however, is my work with a group of thirteen teachers in Khayelitsha, a township in the Western Cape, whose masters studies I support. This masters programme is a distance learning programme, using a blended approach, and offered by St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London. The degrees will be validated by the University of Surrey. Each of the teachers involved offers their living theory of research-based practice as they seek to improve their own practices in order to encourage increased student performance through engagement in their learning (Barnes 2007, Nokwanele Gungquisa 2007, Mpondwana 2007), addressing issues of absenteeism (Njikelana 2007), the involvement of parents in their children’s learning (Nongwane 2007), focused attention on cooperative learning (Adams 2007, Nqabisa Gungqisa 2007), raising achievement (Malgas 2007, Majake 2007, Mgqweto 2007), improved discipline (Blayi 2007, Ngumbe 2007) and improved language performance (Pantschwa 2007). The group has achieved three modules of study, and, as soon as the marks for their third module have been approved by the next Examination s Board at St Mary’s, I hope to make their work public by posting it on my website, to stand alongside and be included with work that I consider to be, in relation to the current UK RAE criteria (Hefce 2006) for judging the quality of research, world-leading in terms of its originality, significance and rigour. At the same time, I support the masters studies of seven academic staff at St Mary’s, all of whom are similarly engaged in producing their living theories of educational practice, on the same programme and one module ahead of the South African teachers. Members of both groups communicate with each other and share their stories of learning. Once published, this body of work will contribute to the existing global knowledge base, as manifested also in the impressive quantity of masters and doctoral theses validated by the prestigious University of Bath (see and in the doctoral theses that already exist on the library shelves of the University of Johannesburg (see Krige 2007, Steenekamp 2006).

At the same time as supporting higher degree studies, I work as a research associate with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, where a group of some ten academic staff are studying their practices as professional educators. The work they are doing as they produce their living theories of practice is already having significant influence (see Olivier 2007, Wood 2007). In recent times, members of staff from NMMU have begun to visit the group in Khayelitsha, as contributors to and validators of the teaching and learning processes involved, and so contribute to a collective practice of lively scholarly debate. This is, I believe, an embryonic stage in what could be seen as a Higher Education–schools partnership, whose aim is to contribute to the continuing professional education of all participants within a culture of educational enquiry.

The body of work I am referring to shows the processes involved when practitioners make evidence-based judgements about the quality of their practice and the quality of their research that has provided the explanatory framework for the practice. It shows them testing the validity of their claims that workplace practices and research practices have improved through the exercise of critical engagement in learning, thus demonstrating methodological and epistemological accountability, as articulated above. In this way, practitioners show how they transform the experiences of making value judgements about the quality of their research-based practice into a form of moral accountability, and so the link is established between realising the capacity for the generation of validated research claims and the capacity for contributing to the social good.


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

The question now arises as to whether I am demonstrating the same kind of methodological and epistemological accountability in this paper. I need to test the validity of the account of my workplace practices, and also the validity of the account of my research practices. This is what I now do. I adopt the normative strategy of presenting knowledge claims for the critical scrutiny of others, on the understanding that the validation of the claims can best be demonstrated by the incorporation of the same processes that generated the claims into the practices of those critical others.

In relation to my substantive knowledge claims, that I have improved my workplace practice, I produce evidence from my collaborative work with others, especially from my twenty-five year research partnership with Jack Whitehead of the University of Bath. I have systematically made my knowledge claims available for public scrutiny through a range of texts. Jack and I have refined our own practices and understandings by offering each other critical support and feedback, and the influence of our work is now well documented (for example Geelan 2006, Moustakim 2007). Its influence is also demonstrated in relation to the development of living theory forms in higher degree studies in a range of universities (for example Hymer 2007, University of Newcastle; Charles 2007, University of Bath). Of especial importance is its uptake in national contexts, in relation to the need for evidence-based accounts in teacher professional education. In the Grand Erie District, Ontario, teachers are encouraged to produce and disseminate their stories of practice as part of systemic district-wide professional education provision (Delong 2002; Delong and Knill-Griesser 2006). In the UK, the new Training and Development Agency for Schools 2007 standards for the teaching profession include specific reference to the idea that teachers will engage with research and will produce evidence-based explanations for their practices (TDA 2007).

In relation to my research-based knowledge claims, I have explained how my practice is grounded in my ontological, epistemological and pedagogical values, which I endeavour to realise in my practice. These values have emerged through the research processes I am recounting here as living standards of practice. I can also explain how I demonstrate accountability in relation to showing the quality of my research practice, by showing the transformation of criteria such as methodological rigour and systematic enquiry into living standards of judgement. In this way, I can show that I have developed research practices that, through their dissemination via accounts such as this paper, may encourage others to focus on contributing to new understandings about how their research can influence processes of social betterment, and how they can position themselves as competent to make judgements about the exercise of such influence.

Furthermore, I test the validity of my claim to have produced a good quality research account by drawing on Habermas’s (1976) criteria of communicative validity. These criteria state that the account itself should be comprehensible, authentic, truthful and appropriate.

I shall develop the thesis that anyone acting communicatively must, in performing any speech action, raise universal validity claims and suppose that they can be vindicated (or redeemed). Insofar as he [sic] wants to participate in a process of reaching understanding, he cannot avoid raising the following – and indeed precisely the following – validity claims. He claims to be:

  1. Uttering something understandably;
  2. Giving (the hearer) something to understand;
  3. Making himself thereby understandable, and
  4. Coming to an understanding with another person.

The speaker must choose a comprehensible expression so that speaker and hearer can understand one another. The speaker must have the intention of communicating a true proposition (or a propositional content, the existential presuppositions of which are satisfied) so that the hearer can share the knowledge of the speaker. The speaker must want to express his intentions truthfully so that the hearer can believe the utterance of the speaker (can trust him). Finally, the speaker must choose an utterance that is right so that the hearer can accept the utterance and speaker and hearer can agree with one another in the utterance with respect to a recognized normative background. Moreover, communicative action can continue undisturbed only as long as participants suppose that the validity claims they reciprocally raise are justified.

(Habermas 1976: 2–3)

So, by drawing together the separate strands of establishing standards to judge the quality of practice, standards to judge the quality of the research, and standards to judge the quality of the account, I can make a case that my research account may be judged for its validity and legitimacy within a context of rational and enlightened debate. I am demonstrating my capacity to stand outside my practitioner researcher self and to make judgements about the quality of what I am proposing in this paper, and in this way I claim that I am developing a practice that demonstrates methodological and epistemological accountability. Time will tell whether or not these ideas are taken up in my readers’ work, and this brings me to the potential significance of the ideas within contexts that offer creative spaces for the development of new forms of scholarship, such as South Africa.

How do I explain the potential significance of my research?

Gaylard (2005) explains that post-apartheid South Africa is in a postmodern moment, uncertain about which direction to go in order to establish social sustainability. In my view, while such moments can be destabilising, they can also offer creative spaces in which innovative ideas can be tested for possible longer-term development.

I have endeavoured to explain in this paper how a focus by practitioners on researching their own practice can enable them to find ways of improving their work by imagining creative solutions to pressing dilemmas. I have also made the point that the accounts they produce should be explanatory accounts that offer reasons and purposes for the practices they are developing, and also reasons and purposes for adopting a practice-based methodology, underpinned as it is by inclusional epistemologies (Rayner 2007; Whitehead 2006), and in turn, inclusional logics and values. In this way, practitioners can describe the transformational relationships between their values, logics, epistemologies, and research-based practices. They can also show the potential significance of their work for innovative forms of practice, and for showing the methodological rigour of the research processes they used to investigate how they could improve their practice. By extension, they can explain how they are defining themselves as morally committed practitioner researchers, who are realising their capacity to contribute to debates about quality in practice and quality in educational research, and so equip themselves to contribute to policy debates about how the teaching profession itself should become a research-based profession in the interests of promoting a good social order.

Establishing such links explicitly has not yet happened in international research contexts, although it is perhaps only a matter of time before it does. It seems to me that South Africa is especially well positioned to demonstrate such links, especially in light of current policy recommendations that teachers should become lifelong researchers and contribute to the wellbeing of society (Department of Education 2000), and the current policy framework for continuing professional teacher development (CPTD) (Department of Education 2007). The recommendations are that the South African Council for Educators (SACE) should have ‘overall responsibility for the implementation, management and quality assurance of the CPTD system’ and that ‘SACE will be provided with the necessary resources and support to undertake that role’ (page 18). It seems to me that SACE and other quality assurance agencies and those with responsibility for policy formation might consider the development of research-based approaches to the professional education of teachers, which take as central the practices of identifying values as living standards by which to judge the quality of the practice and the quality of the research, within a framework of identifying living standards by which to judge the quality of the research account. Demonstrating this kind of rigour as a normative characteristic of the professional education of teachers would indeed contribute to enhanced esteem among the international educational research community. It would also go far in establishing teaching as a research-based profession, whose members demonstrate their fitness for contributing to policy debates about the continuing transformation of their profession and their society.

Yet speaking about the continuing professional education of teachers has to be located within debates about the continuing professional education of those who are positioned to support their studies, including practitioners in higher education. If academic practitioners are to become providers, they also need to engage in the same processes that they are expecting the teachers to engage in. Not to do so, and to remain within the kind of asymmetrical power relationships that tend to be the outcomes of traditional epistemologies would involve regressing into divisive forms of social living where power replaces rational debate as the arbitrator for making judgements about forms of living. Higher education practitioners therefore also need to demonstrate their methodological and epistemological accountability, by producing their own living theories of practice that show how they are encouraging the same kind of accountability within the teaching profession.

This is not a pipe dream. It is already a feature of my own work, as I produce my accounts of practice, while working with teachers in Khayelitsha (McNiff 2006). This extraordinary group of teachers is setting new precedents for what counts as professionalism in teaching, through the production of their accounts of research-based practice. If I can show the processes of demonstrating improved quality in practice and research through working with a small group of teachers in a township, who are already influencing the quality of educational experience for the children in their care, the parents of those children, and their colleagues, then how much more would be the degree of influence if such initiatives were developed at a national level, with adequate resources, and agencies standing by to provide appropriate support and institutional infrastructures. The possibilities are considerable.

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

I now say how I will continue to develop my work, in light of what I have written here.

I intend to continue to engage with the politics of educational knowledge, as I continue to support practitioners from all education sectors to offer their accounts of their living theories of practice for public legitimation. I intend to focus on finding ways of disseminating those accounts, and my own, by supporting others’ writing, and getting it published. This will involve working with editors of established publishing houses, and also of journals, and it may also involve the development of my own publishing house as a vehicle for dissemination. I will continue to make the case for a free academic press, which, in my view, is vital for democratic forms of research within a democratic political order.

I believe that, like Biko (1978), people should write what they like, but subject it to the critical scrutiny of educated peers, so that its quality may be judged in terms such as those identified by Habermas (1976, see above), that judge its appropriateness for the development of human understanding, within a context of enlightened scholarly debate. The development of knowledge that is to contribute actively to human wellbeing has to be nurtured within a context of material ‘I’s’, each willing to listen to the other with humility and respect, and test the validity of their own ideas, also with humility and respect. To do other is to ensconce oneself firmly within the confines of disciplinary knowledge, and let the theories do one’s talking. I prefer to speak for myself, in the company of others who are also prepared to speak on their own behalf, as a person who has decided to understand the world from her own point of view, as a person claiming originality and exercising her personal judgement responsibly with social intent (Polanyi 1958: 327). We all have choices, and, as intellectuals, the freedom to exercise them. I know what mine are, and what the implications are for my practice.


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Jean McNiff is Professor of Educational Research at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham; Adjunct Professor at the University of Limerick; and Research Associate at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. She is also a Visiting Professor at Ningxia Teachers University, People’s Republic of China.Contact details: See action research resources at and www.jeanmcniffcom.

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