Teachers as educational theorists: transforming epistemological hegemonies

[Word version available]

A paper presented at the British Educational Research Association 2005 Annual Conference at the University of Glamorgan on the 16th September 2005

Jean McNiff, University of Limerick.

Jack Whitehead, University of Bath.

In this paper we set out how we try to account for our practices as we promote the idea of teachers as educational theorists. By saying that we try to account for our practices we mean that we intend to show how we hold ourselves morally and epistemologically accountable for what we do, by identifying the standards of judgement we use to assess the quality of our work in terms of the values and understandings that act as its explanatory principles (Whitehead 2005). By saying that we promote the idea of teachers as educational theorists we intend to show how we hold ourselves methodologically and logically accountable by explaining the relationship between the idea of 'teacher as researcher' (Stenhouse 1975) and 'teacher as theorist'. We also suggest that by showing the relationship between our ontological and epistemological accountability and our methodological and logical accountability, we are realising in practice the values inherent in what Habermas (1987) suggested as criteria of social validity, namely, comprehensibility, sincerity, truthfulness, and appropriateness. Further, we explain how we are transforming those linguistic criteria into the critical living standards of judgement we speak of, and by which we assess the quality of our work and the authenticity of our claims to knowledge. By making these links explicit, we are also fulfilling our sense of the aesthetic, in that the experience of realising our values in the unity of their integration enables us to live our lives as persons of ontological and social integrity, as we create our lives as a form of artistry (Lytoard 1984).

First, we explain the relationship between the idea of 'teacher as researcher' and 'teacher as 'educational theorist', and how we try to honour those relationships in our living practice. Making this relationship explicit enables us to demonstrate the methodological and logical meanings in our pedagogical practices.

Second we explain how we judge our professional practices in terms of our identified critical living standards of judgement that are themselves a transformation of our ontological and epistemological values into the social criteria that act as the grounds of our living ontological and epistemological standards of judgement.

Third we explain how by integrating the analysis of our values into the synthesis of our living practices we can come to a deeper understanding and living realisation of our lives as a creative work of art. We link our ideas of the good with the fulfilment of the aesthetic, in the sense that the realisation of our embodied values is accompanied by a feeling of a resonating harmony,

Explaining the relationship between ‘teacher as researcher’ and ‘teacher as educational theorist’

Since Stenhouse first popularised the idea of ‘teacher as researcher’ in the 1970s, it has become a core concept in the literatures of the new scholarship (Boyer 1990; Schön 1995), reflective practice (Clift et al. 1990; MacBeath 1999), and professional development for school improvement (Halsall 1998; Stoll and Fink 1996). The idea of ‘teacher as researcher’ has been a central pillar of much of the action research literature since then. This however presents a special problematic for us.

In recent debates about the future of educational research, which have taken BERA as a key forum (Furlong and Oancea, 2005)), it has generally been acknowledged that practitioner action research has much to offer in terms of informing good practice. Indeed, many initiatives such as the Best Practice Research Scholarships have emphasised the valuable nature of those contributions. However, it is not widely accepted that practitioner action research has much to offer in terms of generating quality theory. This is an ironic state of affairs, since it is generally acknowledged methodologically that research is undertaken in order to generate theory. If teachers are recognised as researchers, why are they not also recognised as theorists? What prevents the transformation of research into theory in the case of teachers, when this transformation is unequivocally acknowledged in the case of those who are positioned as higher education researchers and therefore theorists?

There could be several sets of reasons for this. One set of reasons could be in relation to how practitioners have come to believe popular discourses that they are not capable of doing research and therefore frequently adopt a defensive attitude that regards research as above their heads and an esoteric and rather useless activity, something that other people do to them as objects of study. By developing their own discourses of derision (Ball 1990), about the importance and significance of research and theory, teachers often protect their own ontological identity as practitioners. A second set of reasons could be to do with the reluctance by the scholarly community to acknowledge teachers as educational theorists, which may be construed as both a manifestation of a continuing epistemological hegemony in which higher education institutions are seen as sites of knowledge generation and schools as sites of knowledge implementation, and also as a continuing hegemony of divisive forms of logic that systematically separate theory and practice, and that inform the underpinning epistemologies of ‘them and us’ social practices.

This situation concerns us as educators, since, in our view, sustainable social wellbeing is premised on the democratic participation of all citizens in public debates about what counts as the common good (Russell 1932; Sen 1999). Furthermore, if education enables all citizens to control their own discourses, it must be informed by a model of democracy that promotes participative and inclusive values. Professional education discourses themselves must reflect the values of democratic participation, in which asymmetric relations of epistemological power are transformed so that all are acknowledged as capable of generating knowledge and participating in debates about the validity and legitimacy of knowledge claims.

As professional educators, we are committed to encouraging democratic participation in discourses regarding the epistemological base of professional education. In our professional practices we support the academic studies of practitioners in schools and higher education institutions (HEIs), often working collaboratively, and encourage them to ask questions of the kind, 'How do I/we improve my/our work?' (Whitehead 1989), as they produce their living educational theories to show how they are doing so. Each account contains a strong evidential base that is grounded in the capacity of practitioners to articulate the standards by which they make professional judgements about their work. We have developed international networks for the sharing of practice, and we systematically promote the idea of teachers as educational theorists by seeking to exercise our educational influence within the public sphere (McNiff and Whitehead 2005a and b). We can produce evidence to show that we are having some influence in this regard in the accounts of others, which freely acknowledge the value of some of our ideas.

For example, from http://www.jeanmcniff.com/reports.html you can access the following accounts that contain these acknowlegements in relation to Jean's supervision of higher degrees:

'How can I improve my practice as a learning support teacher?'. (1998)

Thérèse Burke’s M.A. Thesis (University of the West of England, Bristol)

How can I facilitate learning amongst my Leaving Certificate Applied students? (1997)

Moira Cluskey’s M.A. Thesis (University of the West of England, Bristol)

'How can I improve my practice as co-ordinator of Schools Integration Project 062?' (2000)

(Máirin Glenn’s Progress Report)

An Inquiry into the Effectiveness of my Practice as a Learning Practitioner-Researcher in Rural Community Development (2001)

Séamus Lillis’s Ph. D. Thesis (National University of Ireland, Dublin)

How can I improve my teaching of pupils with specific learning difficulties in the area of language? (2000)

Caitríona McDonagh’s M.A. Thesis (University of the West of England, Bristol)

How can I help the primary school children I teach to develop their self-esteem? (2000)

Sally McGinley’s M.A. Thesis (University of the West of England, Bristol)

How can I improve my practice as a teacher in the area of assessment through the use of portfolios? (2000)

Siobhán Ní Mhurchú’s M.A. Thesis (University of the West of England, Bristol)

How can I raise the level of self-esteem of second year Junior Certificate School Programme students and create a better learning environment? (2000)

Marian Nugent’s M.A Thesis, Dublin (University of the West of England, Bristol.)

How can I improve my practice so as to help my pupils to philosophise? (2000)

Mary Roche’s M.A. Thesis (University of the West of England, Bristol)

And from Jack's web-site on a Living Educational Theory Approach To Action Research at http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/living.shtml you can access further evidence of the theory generating capacities of practitioner-researchers.

Explaining the relationship between our ontological values and our professional practices

We analyse and justify our professional practices in the sense that they are the realisation of our core ontological values:

The consideration of ontology, of one's being in and toward the world, should be a central feature of any discussion of the value of self-study research (Bullough and Pinnegar, 2004 p. 319)

Like Berlin (1998), we believe that freedom is an inviolable condition for the realisation of the natality of the individual (Arendt 1958), the realisation of the precious uniqueness of a human life as a unique singularity (Kristeva 2000). The realisation of that freedom as a human practice however has to be grounded in a social commitment to justice, whereby each singularity is perceived as equal to all other singularities, so that human collective living comes to be the realisation of an impulse to share our singularities (Kristeva 2000). We ground our professional practices within these analyses of our ontological values, and we live our professional practices in terms of how we realise these ontological values as lived practices. Like Raz (2001) we believe that values remain as abstract linguistic items until they are transformed into values-informed forms of living. We systematically transform our values into values-informed forms of living by attending to the degree to which we realise those values of freedom, justice and democracy in our intellectual and social practices. We judge the quality of the degree to which we do this in terms of the same values that we now come to regard as our living critical standards of judgement. By doing so, we demonstrate the inclusional nature of the form of logic we use as we understand the real as rational (Marcuse 1964). Our expression of our understanding of the real as rational is that we make judgements on our practices in terms of our values of the inclusion of the other (Habermas 2002) from the grounds of our recognition of the other as a unique singularity with whom we, also as unique singularities, share our lives as persons of ontological and practical integrity in the realisation of our sense of the aesthetic as a form of good.

As these impulses transform into our professional practices, we explain the nature of those practices in terms of the form of lived relationship with enjoy with those whose studies we support. As professional educators we support the higher degree work of professional practitioners in institutional settings. Like Schön, we recognise that dominant institutional epistemologies are those of the traditional sciences that emphasise the manipulation of variables in order to generate anticipated results. This is particularly true in the United States where government funding for educational research is focused on controlled experimental designs. We resist such hegemonic practices, which are grounded in a logic of domination (Marcuse 1964), because of their incommensurability with our own values of freedom and our commitments to the capacity of others to exercise their originality of mind and critical judgement.  In contrast to such hegemonic practices, supported by the logic of domination, the epistemologies that inform our practices are grounded in our love of embodied learning, and an openness to the generative transformational capacity of living evolutionary forms (McNiff and Whitehead 2000), whereby all living phenomena, including humans, can engage systematically towards the transformation of themselves as engaged in the ever-transforming process of the creation of their own lives.

These understandings form the grounds for our pedagogical relationships, whereby we demonstrate that we expect the highest quality from those whose studies we support. We do this on the understanding that they also are involved in processes of intellectual and social transformation that enable them to understand themselves as capable of being more than they are. We mean this in the sense that individuals are exercising their own will in their efforts to engage in a transformational life process that is always on the brink and always pursuing a fusion of their own horizons (Gadamer 1975) through their lived realisation of the aesthetic in the integration of their own ontological values and social practices.

Explaining the integration of the analysis of our values into the synthesis of our living practices

Third we explain how by integrating the analysis of our values into the synthesis of our living practices we can come to a deeper understanding and living realisation of our lives as a creative work of art. For us, the fulfilment of the aesthetic is a form of good, a form of living in which there is little dissonance between what we believe in and what we do. We believe the values of freedom, justice and democracy are the kind of values that contribute towards sustainable human practices, a form of harmonious living which is grounded in an acceptance of the agonistic base of living (Mouffe 2000), through which rival social and epistemological traditions can be held together through a recognition of oneself as always implicitly involved in relationships of domination (Memmi 1974) which need to be transformed wilfully and with conscious intent into a shared commitment to the inclusion of the other (Habermas 2002).

The dispute between the two received paradigms – whether the autonomy of legal persons is better secured through individual liberties for private competition or through publicly guaranteed entitlements for clients of welfare bureaucracies – is superseded by a proceduralist concept of law. According to this conception, the democratic process must secure private and public autonomy at the same time: the individual rights that are meant to guarantee to women the autonomy to pursue their lives in the private sphere cannot even be adequately formulated unless the affected persons themselves first articulate and justify in public debate those aspects that are relevant to equal or unequal treatment in typical cases. The private autonomy of equally entitled citizens can only be secured only insofar as citizens actively exercise their civic autonomy. (Habermas, 2002, p. 264)

We draw on the values-based social criteria of Habermas (1987) that enable us to explain our lives as fully comprehensible, truthful, sincere and appropriate articulations of their contributing values.

While we have focused on teacher-researchers as educational theorists in this paper, we believe that there is evidence to support the claim that the living theories of practitioner-researchers from different professional contexts have been legitimated in the Academy with living standards of judgement and logics that have the potential to transform existing epistemological hegemonies in the ways we have suggested above. The abstracts from two of these doctorates should suffice to support our belief. More detailed evidence can be accessed in the doctorates themselves as they flow through web-space: 

Church, M. (2004) Creating an uncompromised place to belong. Why do I find myself in networks. Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 1st August 2005 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/church.shtml

My inquiry sits within the reflective paradigm. I start from an understanding that knowing myself better will enhance my capacity for good action in the world. Through questioning myself and writing myself on to the page, I trace how I resist community formations, while simultaneously wanting to be in community with others. This paradox has its roots in my multiple experiences of being bullied, and finds transformation in my stubborn refusal to retreat into disconnection.

I notice the way bullying is part of my fabric. I trace my resistance to these experiences in my embodied experience of connecting to others, through a form of shape-changing. I see how question-forming is both an expression of my own bullying tendencies, and an intention to overcome them. Through my connection to others and my curiosity, I form a networked community in which I can work in the world as a network coordinator, action-researcher, activist and evaluator.

I show how my approach to this work is rooted in the values of compassion, love, and fairness, and inspired by art. I hold myself to account in relation to these values, as living standards by which I judge myself and my action in the world. This finds expression in research that helps us to design more appropriate criteria for the evaluation of international social change networks. Through this process I inquire with others into the nature of networks, and their potential for supporting us in lightly-held communities which liberate us to be dynamic, diverse and creative individuals working together for common purpose. I tentatively conclude that networks have the potential to increase my and our capacity for love.

Naidoo, M. (2005) I am because we are (A never ending story). The emergence of a living theory of inclusional and responsive practice. Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 1st August 2005 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/naidoo.shtml

I believe that this original account of my emerging practice demonstrates how I have been able to turn my ontological commitment to a passion for compassion into a living epistemological standard of judgement by which my inclusional and responsive practice may be held accountable.

I am a story teller and the focus of this narrative is on my learning and the development of my living educational theory as I have engaged with others in a creative and critical practice over a sustained period of time. This narrative self-study demonstrates how I have encouraged people to work creatively and critically in order to improve the way we relate and communicate in a multi-professional and multi-agency healthcare setting in order to improve both the quality of care provided and the well being of the system.

In telling the story of the unique development of my inclusional and responsive practice I will show how I have been influenced by the work of theatre practitioners such as Augusto Boal, educational theorists such as Paulo Freire and drawn on, incorporated and developed ideas from complexity theory and living theory action research. I will also describe how my engagement with the thinking of others has enabled my own practice to develop and from that to develop a living, inclusional and responsive theory of my practice. Through this research and the writing of this thesis, I now also understand that my ontological commitment to a passion for compassion has its roots in significant events in my past. "

We invite critical responses to our claim that the significance of our work is the practical realisation of our commitments to transform current epistemological hegemonies by encouraging the development and legitimation of inclusive epistemologies and relational practices that can hold the logics of binary divides (Spivak 1987) in propositional and dialectical theorising within the educational theorising of teacher researchers.


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