Living with foxes: learning about self, home and the other


Jean McNiff

A paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting

Peace Education Special Interest Group Paper Discussion Session

The self, the school, the world: Peace making, peace building, peace keeping

Thursday April 14th 9.05am–9.45am Marriott Montreal Chateau Champlain/Salle de Bal Ballroom

Montreal April 2005

[Word version available]


One of the greatest challenges for literary criticism, says Peter Barry (2002), is to distinguish representations of experience of the ‘real’ (that is, direct first-hand experience of encounters with the world and its inhabitants), from the ‘pseudo-real’ (that is, experience by proxy through discursively constructed representations of reality). In this paper, I want to communicate my conviction that this is also one of the deepest challenges for educational theory, to say why I believe this to be the case, and explain what I am doing to tackle it through my work as a professional educator and educational researcher. Given my commitments to education, and especially to the education of social formations (Whitehead 2004), and given my certainty that forms of education can be influenced by the forms of theory they engage, I wish to contribute to the development of a form of living educational theory (Whitehead 1989) that is grounded in the real-life dialogical experience of practitioners, as they work collaboratively and compassionately for their own and one another’s benefit, rather than in a discursively created form of education theory (Whitehead 2005) that constitutes a rational conceptualisation drawn from the disciplines of education. A form of theory that is grounded in dialogical enquiry departs from the grounds of a normative logic of domination (Marcuse 1964) and chooses instead to ground itself in a logic of reciprocity (Salleh 1998) and inclusion (Whitehead 2004). In this paper I set out how I am doing this, and I aim throughout to explain how I hold myself accountable for what I am doing. In my concluding paragraphs I will make the point that I have learned, and continue to learn, how to exercise my educational influence in my own education, in the education of others, and in the education of social formations, and I will explicate the significance of this learning for the development of good social orders.

Reasons for my research

As an educational activist (Sachs 2003), I wish to find ways of helping myself and others to develop the kind of critical awareness that will help us to see the difference between our first-hand engagement with our authentic lived reality and our first-hand engagement with our lived experience of constructed reality, and how this constructed reality can then become what we perceive as our only reality, and comes to be the reality that we live by. This is a core task for me, because my work is committed to finding ways of encouraging people to live in ways that are mutually life affirming for themselves and others. It is crucial, because unless we can all see that many of the so-called realities we encounter on a daily basis are actually social fabrications, and become aware of how politically-constituted messages are deliberately communicated through normative discourses, and themselves become normative, there is a real danger that we will continue to be duped into thinking that those discourses represent everyone’s experience and are the correct ‘reality’, so we had better join in. This kind of thinking can have devastating effects, and I can cite many examples from my own experience. In Northern Ireland I have heard messages from community leaders about how Catholics and Protestants can never possibly get on together, and I have seen how people come to believe this and incorporate those messages into their common talk. I have also had the experience of being accused simultaneously of siding with Palestinians and Israelis by both parties from their opposing perspectives, which is absolutely not my own practice. I have learned how easy, and tempting, it is to speak someone else’s script rather than one’s own, to abdicate one’s capacity to distinguish between authentic reality and discursively constructed proxy realities. The temptation seems to lie in the fact that it requires less mental energy to go along with popular opinion, rather than think for oneself. It can also involve the anxiety of penalties incurred from challenging dominant orthodoxies. My concerns as an educator therefore are to encourage people to liberate their own thinking, and resist having their minds and their own potentials for compassionate living violated, and part of my responsibilities is to arrange for the kind of practical and emotional supports they need while doing so.

Nowhere is this need for critical awareness so great as in the context of the kind of theory that is used to describe and explain experience. Currently the dominant form of theory in the post-industrialised, ‘knowledge-creating’ world, remains of a propositional kind. ‘Know that’ and ‘know how’ (Ryle 1949) remain privileged forms of knowing, and ‘making statements about’ remains the privileged form of theorising. My problem here is that such forms deny the values base of human living, by using an abstract form to communicate experience as a technical rational activity. This denies my own experience of personal and social living as rooted in the desire of each person to live in ways that are right for them while accepting that they are in company with others who also want the same for themselves. I am especially concerned by the fact that these dominant forms, which are themselves fabrications, have come to stand as ‘the’ reality, rather than be seen for what they are. Like Michael Polanyi, whose book ‘Personal Knowledge’ (1958) has been a major influence in my thinking, I also wish to strip away the ‘crippling mutilations imposed by an objectivist framework’ and encourage myself and others to ‘turn to the task of reinterpreting the world as it is, and as it then once more will be seen to be’ (p. 381).

In brief, I want to encourage people to think for themselves and not think what other people (including me) tell them to think. This is especially important for my work as a professional educator, and poses a serious challenge: How do I encourage others to think for themselves without imposing my commitments on them? Berlin (2002) speaks of philosophers who sought to impose freedom on others, thus denying the very practice of freedom that they advocated. How do I avoid falling into the same trap of self-deception, when I say I am seeking to exercise my educational influence, yet actually impose my ideas so that educational encounters with others become non-educational? How do I check whether I am doing this, in a way that any critique I receive from others (and the feedback I offer myself) is itself rooted in others’ (and my) authentic lived experience and does not itself come to constitute a fabrication?

In this paper I set out why I believe this is a core issue. Among the reasons I offer are that I have come to realise how, even as I set out my rhetoric, I also constantly fall into the trap of believing what I am told to believe. However, these days I am constantly vigilant, and I put my own safeguards in place. Here I offer an account of how I have become increasingly aware of these issues over recent years, and how this awareness informs my work, especially in relation with the doctoral scholars whose studies I support, and I produce evidence later in this paper to support my claims that I am developing a form of pedagogic emancipation (see Bernstein 2000). This has however been a profoundly problematic learning experience for me, because it has meant challenging my own propensities for prejudice and irresponsible thinking. Nor has this learning been informed by a discursively influenced reality, but is grounded in my learning from first-hand experience, especially in relation to how inclusional forms of living themselves need to be grounded in the capacity to develop inclusional forms of logic (Whitehead 2004). I want to use this paper therefore as an opportunity to explain how my learning from experience (Winter 1989) has enabled me to influence my own education, and how I believe I am morally justified in aspiring to contribute to the education of social formations (Whitehead 2004).

This paper is the most recent in a series of papers that communicate the experience of what has come to be a problematic and exciting journey towards a deeper understanding of myself, as I try to live in a way that is commensurate with my own values of pluralistic and peaceful living.

Background to the research

The story of my accelerated learning begins about four years ago, and involves other stories about events that happened at about the same time. These events included moving house, working in geo-politically-contested territories, and developing doctoral programmes at the University of Limerick. A key element, which led to new thinking, was my experience of living with foxes.

The story begins.

Four years ago I moved house. A feature of my new home was a large, slightly wooded garden, where I believed I could realise a lifelong dream of creating a peaceful haven in which to potter, reflect and write. As soon as I moved in, I was joined by a pair of wild foxes, who proceeded to make themselves at home by tunnelling under my lawn. At first I was uneasy about the idea of sharing my garden with foxes, and took advice from national help lines about how to deter them. I found however that foxes are not easily deterred. I finally accepted the overwhelming message from the help lines that, once foxes decide to stay, they stay forever. Therefore we all settled in together, they in their home and I in mine, sharing the same territory. Today, three years on, the foxes and their succeeding generations have grown used to me, and I to them. There is no mad flight when I appear, and we all sun ourselves on summer afternoons in different spots in the garden. During our first year, four cubs appeared, and I watched them go about their daily business, albeit flattening the flowers with their romps.

The move to my new home was itself a confluence of a range of experiences, which could all be traced to a concern about colonisation and the freedom of the individual to exercise their critical capacities in order to create their own identity. The move was prompted initially by a decision to leave my family home of twenty years, where I had construed my identity as bound into deeply dysfunctional family relationships. My entire family had died – parents, sister, husband – yet I stayed, trying to preserve the identity I had forged with them, a commitment which I came to see itself as dysfunctional. The family, individually and collectively, had required me to create the identity they wished me to have, and I gave in, colluding in the colonisation of my very spirit. They dominated me, even from death. I was like the daughters of the late colonel (Mansfield 1922), who had become so used to living in the image of their father that they had become incapable of thinking or speaking for themselves. Freedom can indeed be threatening when it comes as a stranger.

At the same time, I had become increasingly committed to educational activism in countries where violence is commonplace, such as India, Palestine and Israel, South Africa and China. Interest had been expressed about my work in Northern Ireland, where I had developed practitioner research initiatives through the curriculum strand ‘Education for Mutual Understanding’ (McNiff, McGeady and Elliott (2001). I had written about how establishing democratic forms of action research, often in authoritarian educational cultures, involved engaging with the politics of knowledge, which involved engaging with the politically constituted struggle for identity, territory and power (Owen 2000). Through this work, I came to see that there were deep connections in the nature of my own politically constituted struggle in the personal contexts of my family life and in the wider geopolitical contexts of my professional practice. More disturbingly, the struggle was taking place at the deeper level of challenging my own capacity to incapacitate myself, like the daughters of the late colonel, through my readiness to speak other people’s scripts rather than my own. These realisations, profoundly disturbing, led me to understand that if I really wanted to influence the education of social formations by encouraging people to challenge the discursively constructed realities which they encounter in their moment-to-moment lives, as I have explained above, I had to begin with myself.

It has taken time to come to understand that the over-arching commitment of my ongoing enquiry is to find ways of enabling myself and others to live in peace, by which I mean that each individual is able to live in ways that are right for them while accepting that they are in company with others who wish the same thing for themselves. Julia Kristeva says it well:

Each person has the right to become as singular as possible and to develop the maximum creativity for him or herself. And at the same time, without stopping this creativity, we should try to build bridges and interfaces – that is to say, foster sharing. The religious heritage is going to lead us to rethink the idea of sharing, but without repressing singularity. This is the great challenge of the modern world. It is not a question of creating a community in the image of the past; it is a question of creating a new community on the basis of sharing singularity. This is the great ‘challenge’ … So let's try to understand the challenge in terms of singularity and sharing for a good community.

(Julia Kristeva, from an interview conducted with John Lechte in 2002, and reproduced in Lechte and Margaroni, 2004: 162)

Coming to these understandings has however involved the transformative processes of coming to understand more localised elements of my experience, analysing them as separate issues, and then synthesising them in such a way that I can see them as an integrated whole, while also discerning the invisible networks of conceptual threads that hold them in balanced unity. Here I want to set out three of those localised experiences: learning about self; learning about home; and learning about the other. I hope to show how each of these experiences has influenced the others, and how I am able to synthesise them as an ongoing transformative process in my own education, recognising always that any point in my learning which can be understood as my present best thinking is the next step in an ongoing life of enquiry into an unknowable future, with the intent of establishing the future as a life-affirming experience for all by focusing on and transforming what is going on in the present with kind intent.

Learning about self

I have come to understand how in the past I have created my identity in terms of the discourses of my lived experience with others. (To some extent I still do, although I am now alert to the dangers and continuously critique my own thinking, as I have said.) While these discourses often did not reflect my own commitments, I went along with them, and even reinforced them wilfully by internalising them and living in the direction of their underpinning values. Therefore, although they were not initially part of my mental reality, they became a new reality that itself became my mental reality. In many instances, this discursively constructed reality systematically replaced the reality of my own ontological commitments. For example, my parents, who both lived and worked in the context of a colonial British Army (my father and maternal grandfather were in Scottish Highlander regiments) brought home with them from their early experiences in India prejudicial attitudes towards the ‘natives’, which they passed on to us children. I was brought up to be prejudiced. However, even in childhood, I remember silently questioning why I should regard black people as lesser than me, but never dared say it out loud, from the problematic insecurity in my own positioning as a loyal loving daughter. In the same way, in my professional practice as a deputy head teacher in school I was expected by the staff to punish children physically. To my shame I went along with the expectation, again out of a mix of insecurity about my own positioning and my wish to remain loyal to, and reinforce, institutional regimes. I recognise now that the dissonance created by these experiences of myself as a living contradiction (Whitehead 1989), in that I held values that I systematically denied in my practice, contributed to the frequent tensions around my practices of living in loving relation with people who held values that were different from mine, and also working in institutional contexts that were organised in terms of values which were oppositional to my own. However, when I did experience freedom, through the events of the deaths of my loved ones, and through taking early retirement from work, I continued, like the daughters of the late colonel, to construe my identity in terms of the norms of previous experience, rather than engage with the overwhelmingly difficult practice of creating a new self that could now live in the direction of the values to which I had always been committed at a deep level of my personal ontology.

So what of the foxes? When they arrived I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I found them absolutely beautiful creatures, just delightful to watch. On the other, they were alien to my experience. I had lived with pet dogs, but never wild foxes. I remembered stories of how they carried disease and wantonly killed poultry, and I was considerably put out by the havoc they were creating in my garden through their rough and tumbles and their excavations under the lawn. My initial approaches to the national help lines were for advice on how to get rid of them. However, over time I began to reconsider. I enjoyed watching them, even though their antics were destructive to the garden. The earth they dug out I simply moved to another part of the garden as valuable topsoil. Besides which, they refused to go, and entirely disregarded the various preparations I put around the garden to deter them. So over time I began cautiously to think of them as visitors rather than nuisances. This change of attitude had nothing to do with what they did, so much as with my own considered reflection on what I was thinking in other life contexts as an outcome of my willingly learned practice of speaking someone else’s script. Therefore when I had a retaining wall built that cut across the entrance to their den, I asked the builders to leave an opening in the wall for access. That open space has come to represent for me the opening of another door in a mind that has, until recently, engaged in a form of lifelong learning that aims for closure.

Learning about home

Home for me is no longer represented by boundaries such as walls, as it was in the family home that I left. I understand now how I saw walls as non-negotiable boundaries that kept me in and others out. Home has come to be the place where I belong, the place where I create my identity in terms of my loving relationships and productive work (Fromm 1956). My horizons have expanded beyond my immediate boundaries, and I now understand boundaries as permeable interfaces (Rayner 2003) that allow me to exit and enter spaces that themselves constantly transform through my presence. Home has come to be a poetic space (Bachelard 1964) where one learning experience transforms into another as I move though the house, and where I as a living practice move through my fabricated bricks-and-mortar space and into the garden beyond, where the foxes live. I understand how the foxes also occupy living spaces in what I used to consider my garden, my space, but now accept also as their space; and I understand how we share our selves and our practices within a wider unbounded planetary space. I understand how my conceptualisation of individual entities as living practices within living spaces within wider planetary living spaces is part of my ongoing commitments to the generative transformational nature of dynamic evolutionary processes (McNiff 2000). I am no longer bounded by my physical body within my physical space, but am free to perceive the connections between my self and the rest of the universe; and I am no longer bounded by the constraints of learned epistemologies that are grounded in the logics of binary divides (Spivak 1987), but have come to deconstruct my very understanding of the logics I use in order to engage in inclusive forms that see my self as a living creation within a wider unstoppable creation.

Learning about the other

When the foxes first appeared I reacted to them according to what I had learned from dominant discourses about the ‘other’ (Beauvoir 1988). I perceived them as ‘other to me’, in my space. As alien beings, my first response was to get rid of them. However, as I began systematically to continue with the process (initiated through the impetus of understanding the need to move house in the first place) of interrogating my own logics, which had themselves rendered me amenable to internalising the manufactured realities of dominant discourses, I began to see that I was not required by anyone to perceive the foxes as alien others. ‘What is the point of weeping forever at the forbidden gates of a Law that no longer exists?’ asks Kristeva (1994: 175, in Lechte and Margaroli 2004: 34). I was allowed see them my way, as the beautiful living creatures that they were, part of the beautiful living creation of the new physical and mental environment that I was growing to feel at home in.

I began to draw on the idea of ‘theory of mind’, well known in the literatures of psychology (I had taught psychology earlier in life). ‘Theory of mind’ may more aptly be called ‘theory of other people’s minds’. It is the idea that other people perceive us from their perspective, and it therefore involves a capacity to see oneself as not the centre (Derrida 1988). When I had been looking for a house to move to, I had caught myself, as in previous experiences of house-hunting, rejecting some properties because they had been too far away, only to ask myself in more critical moments, Far away from what? The ideas that I had become a decentred subject, and perceiving that other people (in this case, foxes) may see me as Other, were a jolt to the system.

Yet this, I began to see, is the nub of theories of peaceful living, the capacity to see oneself as other to the other. Dominant theories of peace however do not entertain this perspective; in fact, it seems seldom to be mentioned. Instead, theories of peace education (for example Salomon and Nevo 2002) tend to be presented via traditional linguistic forms of theorising, whose validity is demonstrated through logical coherence at the level of text. This form of theorising itself is of course an artificial reality, manufactured within the context of institutional apparatuses, often in the form of higher education institutions, to sustain the positioning as experts of people working within the tradition. This form of theorising uses a monistic form of logic (Berlin 1998) that assumes the achievement of concrete answers to human dilemmas through rational discourse. Both these assumptions are informed by appeal to transcendental forms that assume that all will be well given the conditions of an imagined Utopia. My experience of working in real-world contexts however is that human dilemmas are often intractable and deny rational resolution, and attempts to achieve resolution through rational discourse often achieve instead deepened hostility when one side aims to dominate another regarding the conditions of peace. And to return to a theme I have already visited here, on this view, dominant forms of peace education, which involve the reproduction of abstract theory, can themselves act as conduits for the importation of colonising practices, which systematically close down opportunities for critical informed debate. I ground my own theorising in my own practice; and my observations of myself in relation with the foxes has led me to understand how, although other to the other, we have learned to share the living spaces of the practices of our selves, and to transform the otherness of those spaces into the wider living spaces of our garden, under an endless sky.

So what are the educational implications of my research for my work?

In this paper I am claiming that educational practices can be influenced by educational theories, and forms of practice that claim to be democratic need to show how they move away from the discursively constructed forms of normative propositional theory, which are grounded in logics of domination (Marcuse 1964), and develop new forms of living theory that are grounded in the dialogical living logics of inclusion and reciprocity (Whitehead 2003). These living theories can be explicated through practitioners’ accounts, which contain their descriptions and explanations for their live practices as they address and research the question, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ (Whitehead 1989). Because I hold it as a basic moral principle that I do not ask others to do what I am not prepared to do myself, I am offering my own account of practice in this paper. I am offering an account of my critical self study (Loughran et al. 2004) as I have charted the growth of my understanding to do with representations of the other, and the implications of my research for my own practice as a professional educator and how I might influence the education of social formations (Whitehead 2003) in the interests of peaceful living. I am explaining how the key aspect of reflecting on the experience of living with the foxes, while at the same time working at a global level with educators in contested settings, has led me to develop my own theories about how the idea of perpetual peace (Kant 1970) can be realised in terms of how societies can develop the kind of relationships that will enable all citizens to live in harmony together. This involves several commitments. It involves interrogating substantive issues about how peaceful relationships may be understood, as well as methodological and epistemological issues, and their underpinning logics, to do with which forms of enquiry and representation are appropriate for the task. Further, it involves interrogating the nature of the reality we choose to live in. I have begun to dip into theories of ecocriticism, where I understand Nature as the directly experienced reality of shared living practices in shared living spaces, while recognising that the living space of my mental life is under the attack of dominant discourses that seek to persuade me that those discourses are ‘natural’ (see also Barry 2002).

I now need to explain how these understandings manifest as living practices in relation with others. I need to show how I produce evidence to explain how my understandings have use value in the public sphere, and that they are not just private musings that may do much for my personal understanding, but have also achieved performative validity through their public testing against other people’s practices. I need to show how the transformation of my ontological commitments have the capacity to transform into my living epistemological standards of practice (Whitehead 2004), and transform again into my capacity for social action as encouraging non-hegemonic relationships in which all may exercise their creative capacity for critical engagement, and specifically may transform into emancipatory pedagogies, whereby others come to think what they wish to think, and not what I wish them to think.

Also, and heeding the call by Snow (2001) for the development of a knowledge base that can show the systematisation of practitioners’ knowledge of their practices by developing procedures for accumulating such knowledge and making it public, I am currently systematically building this evidence base, which in turn can feed into the wider knowledge base as exemplified at, for example, I therefore need to support the claims expressed in this paper to have exercised my influence in the education of social formations.

For some time I have been able to produce evidence of my influence in different aspects of others’ work, in terms of how I am influencing (a) their practices, and (b) the production of their accounts of practice. For example, in relation to my claim that I have influenced people to make changes to their practice, I can cite the work of Moira Laidlaw, a volunteer educator in China, who has used my work in her professional development programmes. The accounts produced by the educators she supports are frequently constructed around my publications (see; see also McNiff and Whitehead 2005a). Similarly, Jackie Delong, a superintendent in Canada, has used my work as a model to guide the production of accounts of teachers in Ontario (see for example; see also McNiff and Whitehead 2005b). I am hoping in the near future to cite evidence from communities with whom I work in geo-politically contested settings, such as South Africa, to show I have influenced their ways of working.

The task in hand is therefore to produce evidence of how I am influencing the development of the capacity of others to think for themselves.

I can already produce evidence to show how I have influenced people to engage with their own creative capacities in producing their accounts of practice (see for example the dissertations and symposium accounts at Each of these dissertations was written, using ideas and advice from me as a starting point, yet each author made the ideas their own by creating their own authentic account of practice. I can also produce documentary evidence from practitioners with whom I have worked. For example, I recently requested colleagues to write a brief testimonial for me, in relation to a possible application for a position (which I later decided not to apply for). Here are some of the comments they wrote.

Caitríona McDonagh wrote:

Jean’s influence has contributed to major, personal changes in my life, for which I am truly appreciative. I have been aroused from regarding myself as an ageing teacher, in a village school, who may only be remembered by the occasional local past pupil. Through working with Jean, I have come to articulate my educational values and appreciate my embodied knowledge. Accordingly, my educational influence has extended beyond my pupils, to the thinking and practices of colleagues and to a wider academic community. Jean’s understanding of education and generosity of spirit changed me, this voiceless teacher. She has included references to my work in her books, research papers and website. She has urged me beyond my classroom, and given me the confidence to travel to other countries to publicise my theories of practice. I believe that Jean enjoys the challenge of interactions with others as she encourages them to develop and so allow their hopes to become the reality of improved educational experiences.

Bernie Sullivan wrote:

Perhaps the greatest influence Jean has had on me has been in introducing me to an action research paradigm as a methodology for educational research. Since adopting this approach, my practice has become a more emancipatory, democratic and humanitarian workplace, both for my pupils and for me. Action research has become a way of life for me, as I constantly reflect on my actions, to ascertain whether what I do and how I do it, is in the best interests of my pupils.

Mary Roche wrote:

Jean’s community of enquiry is one that tempers a tremendous sense of excitement and joy in learning with prudence, justice, respect for the views of others, and an unceasing quest for validity and rigour. She has opened up an epistemological world for me, and my life and the lives of those I teach are the richer for it.

Yet until recently I had little live evidence of how I had influenced someone’s learning, grounded in their own experience of that learning. This is a crucial point, for how else would it be possible to establish that the words spoken were not influenced by the internalisation of (my) normative discourses? The following is I believe one such piece of evidence.

In her draft doctoral thesis, Máirín Glenn (2005) writes about my influence in her emergent critical engagement with her own capacity to know. She writes about her struggle to understand and articulate her capacity for creating knowledge, which involved her breaking loose of the constraints of her commitments to propositional theory, which she had learned from a lifetime of interacting with public discourses of ‘know that’ and ‘know how’. In her research, she struggled with the problematic question, ‘Why are you working in the way you are working?’, especially in relation to her extensive use of information technology.

She writes:

The turmoil in my thinking around the question, ‘Why am I working in the way I am working?’ continued to confuse me. I wrestled with various descriptions of my work and struggled to articulate an explanation for my work. Jean, my tutor, encouraged me with questions like, ‘What is the benefit of locating communities in cyberspace? Why do you want to encourage people to share their ideas? This is very important, and central to what you are trying to do. Let’s try and work out why you want to encourage people to share their knowledge and how technology can do that’ (e-mail 29.8.2001).

Máirín began to appreciate her own capacity for coming to know and generating her own theories of practice through studying that practice and engaging with the critical responses of her colleagues to her own emergent knowledge:

Slowly, slowly, through my engagement with my tutor, my research colleagues, the writings of Apple, Freire, Foucault and Polanyi, among others, my understanding of my inarticulateness began to emerge. Jean, my tutor, tried to guide me with questions like, ‘You also asked me at the end of your letter if you are going in the right direction. What are the assumptions that underpin that question? Probably that there is a right direction and possibly that I know what it is if there is one’ (e-mail 30.10.02).

Later Máirín begins to articulate her understandings in terms of her own conceptual analyses as the grounds for the generation of her own theory of practice:

In reflecting on that tempestuous time, I find the writing of Derrida (1976, p. 162) enlightening. He argues the importance of ‘departure’ from the familiar, the attempt to get out of the traditional orbit, and suggests that only by such departures can one begin to question the traditional assumptions that underpin a particular field or discipline. In my case, the attempt towards departure was marked by a battle between inner and external knowledges.

I am claiming this as a powerful piece of evidence to show the nature of my emancipatory pedagogy, grounded both in my faith that people can think for themselves, and also in my refusal to tell them what to think and my commitment to ask the kind of questions that will lead them to their own critical understandings. Furthermore, I am claiming that the validity of the claims can be demonstrated in terms of how I have come to live my values in my practice, and how these values have transformed from deep level ontological commitments to emerge as articulated utterances that constitute the living standards by which I make judgements about my work (Whitehead 2003).

Further writings by Máirín (Glenn 2003, 2004) appear on my website, and are accompanied by the writings of others, including Margaret Cahill, Breda Long, Patricia Mannix McNamara, Caitríona McDonagh, Mary Roche, and Bernie Sullivan, who comprise the doctoral action research group at the University of Limerick (see and What is special about these writings is that they not only show departure from the familiar, which Derrida rightly claims is a first step in the process of becoming critical, but they also show how practitioner researchers have generated and made public their own living theories of practice (Whitehead 1989), a practice which is itself a departure from normative forms of theorising. The writings show how practitioner researchers have come to reflect critically on their reality of generating their own theories of practice; to recognise how the socially constructed realities of orthodox forms of theorising have themselves been a potentially damaging influence in their thinking, and consequently their practices; and how they have transformed the imposition into a liberating practice by having faith in their own capacity to speak for themselves.


I want to conclude this paper by explaining what I consider to be the educational importance of this study. I am claiming that the educational importance of my self-study lies in its capacity to explain how I have challenged my own capacity to incapacitate myself by internalising normative discourses in an unthinking manner, for a range of reasons. I made a conscious decision to liberate myself, and to undergo a period of intense reflection within a setting where I was able to immerse myself in consideration of my own sense of being. My individualistic sense of being was however disrupted by the arrival of the foxes; and my study of myself in relation with them led me rapidly to begin to theorise my self as a living practice within a living space, in relation with the foxes, who I began to appreciate also as living practices within their living spaces. I brought the understandings generated through the practice of my own self-study to my understanding of the nature of my pedagogical practices, through which I was committed to encouraging people to come to think for themselves, and to hold themselves accountable for their own self-determined practices. This commitment to personal accountability, I believe, is the grounds for the development of good social orders. The practice of holding oneself accountable for what one does is, I believe, the grounds for theories of peace education that have the potential for influencing the development of what could count as sustainable peaceful practices.


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Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




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