How do we develop a twenty-first Century knowledge base for the teaching profession in South Africa? How do we communicate our passion for learning?

Jean McNiff
[Word version available]

A paper presented at an invitational seminar, The University of Stellenbosch, November 10th, 2003

In her Presidential Address to the American Educational Research Association, Catherine Snow (2001) called for the development of a knowledge base for the teaching profession. It was time, she said, for teachers to be able to communicate their learning to other colleagues, and for their learning to be recognised as the basis of their professionalism. Teaching, she suggests, should be a profession that is informed by the practical accounts and insights of teachers, and the profession should be informed by professional debates about teaching. What is currently missing, according to Snow, is the means for the systematic dissemination of teachers’ accounts of their professional learning so that they can learn with and from one another. Continuing the theme, Hiebert et al. (2002) asked, ‘What might a knowledge base for the teaching profession look like, and how do we get one?’ From the perspective of researchers such as Snow and Hiebert in the USA, it appears that gaps exist which need to be filled. From my perspective in the UK, I know that there is already a great deal of work going on, that a knowledge base already exists, and that it needs to be strengthened by contributions from practising teachers around the world. In this paper therefore I would like to set out how I understand what this knowledge base looks like, and how it could be developed, and to examine the part that South Africa might play in that development.

Until quite recently, the knowledge base for the teaching profession has been seen to reside not in the professional accounts of teachers but in the views of theorists who speak about teaching in conceptual terms. In this sense, the knowledge base has not been a professional knowledge base at all. It has been the accumulation of propositions about teaching, generated by theorists who are not professional teachers. Indeed, many theorists regard themselves as professional philosophers, or professional sociologists, not as professional teachers (see for example Straughan and Wilson, 1987). Further, the form of the knowledge base that these theorists, usually positioned as academics at the Academy, have generated has been distinctly abstract and conceptual (see for example O’Connor, 1956; Peters, 1965; A.N. Whitehead, 1967). Consequently, a literature has built up about the theory of teaching that deals with issues such as which disciplines should inform teaching and the outcomes of teaching; and this literature is also premised on issues such as who should be seen as entitled to comment on matters to do with the theory of teaching and its outcomes. Until quite recently, there was an overwhelming assumption on the part of policy makers, who take their cue from the academic literature, that abstract theories of teaching, generated by university-based academics, should inform real practices. Those assumptions remain today, as a legacy from the past, in that some policy makers see the future of the teaching profession to lie in the capacity of teachers to apply expert knowledge to their own practices. Indeed, until recently, policy in the UK and elsewhere has been to judge teachers’ professionalism in terms of how successfully they implement policies that are grounded in the conceptual theories of specialists.

In my view, it is hardly surprising that this state of affairs has led to the erosion of the creative energies of the teaching force, and the serious depletion of numbers and lack of retention. When people do not feel personal ownership of their work, their commitment flags; when one does not feel involved, it is best to distance oneself. We do not need Hawthorne experiments or Kurt Lewin (1946) to tell us that. It is common human experience. To feel that we have a stake in any development, we have to commit; and to commit, we have to feel that we belong, that we are valued, and that our contributions are valuable. Happily, this recognition is beginning to permeate discourses to do with teacher professionalisation in the UK. The fortunes of the teaching profession in the UK look as if they might be on the turn, because new discourses are to be heard, about how teachers’ professional knowledge might be valued, and how new policies might become based on the insights of teachers (Joan Whitehead, 2003). Out of this turn in fortunes, I believe, a new, Twenty-First Century knowledge base is rising.

At this point it is important for me to emphasise that I am not suggesting that the contributions of professional philosophers and sociologists are unimportant or do not inform teaching. What I am saying is that the profession of teaching should not be premised primarily on the insights of philosophers or sociologists, but on the insights of teachers from the ground of their educative relationships, as they draw on the insights of philosophers and sociologists to inform the development of their own theories of teaching. I believe that a Twenty-First Century knowledge base for the teaching profession would be one that is informed by professional debates among teachers about what they are doing in order to encourage learning and in order to achieve their educational and social goals, not one, as in much of the Twentieth Century literature, that is informed by conceptual debates among philosophers and sociologists about what might be the optimum way to encourage learning and what might be the educational and social goals of teaching.

In September this year I attended the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association (BERA). It was easily my best experience of BERA ever, and gives me great hope for the future of the teaching profession. I experienced a greater openness to ideas about teaching as a profession than ever before. There were more debates than heretofore about the practical nature of teaching, how teachers could come together to share their work and their visions for the future, how partnerships could be developed between schools and higher education and what might be the different contributions that all parties might make to support learning in classrooms. It was an exciting and uplifting experience. A few days after that I attended a practitioner research conference at St. Mary’s College, Twickenham. There I listened to the professional narratives of practising teachers, as they offered their accounts of practice. It was an inspiring time. I link these experiences to the excitement I feel from accessing the living educational accounts of practitioners whose work is now available on the web, some of which are grounded in their experiences of working in contexts such as South Africa – see for example Potts (2002). I shall speak more of this presently.

I want to draw on these and similar experiences here. I would like to explain how it appears that much progress has been made in establishing contexts in which the teaching profession seems to be progressing in new directions with new visions. I also want to spell out what I see as a core condition for these new directions. Consequently, my feelings are that, although much has been achieved, much still needs to be done in terms of establishing the conditions for the ongoing professionalisation of teaching, primarily in terms of generating new forms of theory, so that the knowledge base actually does show the development of professional knowledge, and is not trapped in the same commitment to propositional forms of knowledge as was evident in the Twentieth Century.

In terms of this discussion, the significance of the kind of knowledge that constituted the knowledge base of the Twentieth Century was both its form and also the form of theory it used. Those forms were propositional, conceptual and abstract, that is, theory and its products existed in linguistic form as words about words. The theory existed as abstract propositions about teaching. The theory could be demonstrated as valid (or so the thinking goes) provided it demonstrated a logical consistency between its component parts. In much of this body of words about words, however, what counts as theory, what are the legitimate concerns of theory generation, and who is considered competent to be a theory-generator are issues that receive interesting treatment. Consider, for example, the following statement about the nature of educational theory by P.H. Hirst, one of the most influential philosophers of education in the Twentieth Century:

In my contribution to Professor J.W. Tibble’s volume The Study of Education I sought to characterise educational theory as a domain of practical theory, concerned with formulating and justifying principles of action for a range of practical activities. Because of their concern for practical principles I sharply distinguished domains of practical theory from domains concerned simply with purely theoretical knowledge. The function of the former is primarily the determination of practice. The one is concerned with achieving rational understanding, the other with achieving rational action.

(Hirst, 1966, reproduced in Hammersley, 1993)

The Twenty-first Century continues to draw on the legacy that the main focus of theory generation is to do with achieving rational understanding, which can then be applied to rational action. The form in which the theory is couched goes unquestioned. This tacit acceptance of the hegemony of conceptual theory underpins the following definition of theory given by Richard Pring, one of the foremost philosophers of education in the UK:

‘Theory’ would seem to have the following features. It refers to a set of propositions which are stated with sufficient generality yet precision that they explain the ‘behaviour’ of a range of phenomena and predict what would happen in future. An understanding of those propositions includes an understanding of what would refute them – or at least what would count as evidence against their being true. The range of propositions would, in that way, be the result of a lot of argument, experiment and criticism.

(Pring, 2000: 124–125)

Even more significant for this discussion is the issue of who is to be counted as capable of generating educational theory. Consider these views of John Wilson, also widely regarded as an eminent philosopher, especially in the field of moral education (I question the morality of his position in the following, however). Speaking about why teachers are not widely regarded as autonomous agents (and in the language of today’s discourses, as knowledge-generators), and of the status of educational theory, he says:

… not many people of really high intellectual ability go into education … one would not expect, nor perhaps want, most teachers to be of the very highest intellectual quality – the job is largely a practical one, and the required qualities are somewhat different [from administration and leadership]. But such an allowance can only be safely made if these practical workers are supported and guided by people who (or some of whom) are of top quality. This is, very obviously, not the case. The most able academics tend not to go in for ‘educational theory’ or for the philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc. of education: it may even be true, though the point is somewhat less obvious, that the most able administrators tend not to go in for educational administration. The whole business has the air, not only of something lacking in glamour or smartness, but of something intellectually second-rate.

(Wilson, 1981: 72)

The ideas that theory is to do with achieving rational understanding as a precursor to rational action, that valid theory exists only in propositional form, and that teachers are not capable of thinking for themselves (and only when supported by academics for whom the generation of educational theory is intellectually second-rate), have gone unquestioned for many years. It might even appear that assumptions about these issues go unquestioned because they are not even perceived. When something is not perceived, at an individual or cultural level, it cannot then be part of individual or collective experience because it does not exist in the individual or collective imagination. Take for example a recent case in England, where a black woman amputee applied for a new prosthetic leg. She was told that she would have to be fitted with a white prosthetic leg, because black prosthetic limbs appeared to be in short supply. In the public mind, the norm is white prosthetics, because artefacts such as prosthetics are the products of dominant discourses, in this case, white discourses. Black prosthetics are not the norm because black discourses are not recognised as of equal weight as white discourses. In a television interview the woman hotly protested that if a white person had been told that only black prosthetic limbs were available, they also would feel devalued and marginalized; yet that is not part of normal cultural experience in the UK. It is not part of most people’s experience that black and white discourses exist side by side on an equal basis, or that they should become integrated as a seamless communicative whole. In similar vein, two teachers I work with in Ireland teach Traveller children. The needs of Travellers are not recognised in Irish schools curricula (Sullivan, 2003), and Traveller children are expected to accept what is appropriate for children from the settled community. Edward Said (1995) taught us that we position others in terms of our own experience, and the experiences of the dominant voices in a community are taken as normal and normative. Other people are expected to conform to the dominant mores, and be happy with their lot.

Radical intellectuals (such as Chomsky, 2002) have enabled us to appreciate that what is hidden is hidden usually for reasons of power, and therefore is not spoken about. The work of radicals, so-called because they speak about things that the dominant elites would prefer to be left unsaid, raise awareness about the conditions that foster injustice (Young, 1990). Indeed, the use of the term ‘radical’ is often used as a weapon of control, a term of derision that is aimed to demoralise those who wish to raise questions about the status quo.

Fortunately for practitioners, new insights have been developed by prominent theorists who are active in the realm of educational theorising. Significantly, many of these theorists are in the Academy, and seek to reform the Academy from within. Interestingly, in former times these people tended to be positioned as radicals, but, because their work is now accepted as influential in policy debates, they are today positioned as valuable contributors and leading theorists (see, for example, Elliott and Sarland’s 1995 view of the status of Jack Whitehead – see below –, who was subjected to intimidation and the threat of sacking for challenging the status quo – Whitehead, 1993; and my own story of being harassed and intimidated because of my challenge to institutional norms – McNiff, 2000). Radical intellectuals have seriously challenged the hegemony of dominant propositional forms of theory, and have reconceptualised theory in favour of the practical wisdom of teachers. Prominent among these theorists is Jack Whitehead, working at the University of Bath, who suggests that the personal practical theories of practitioners should carry as much weight as conventional social science approaches. In his view, practitioners should be encouraged to offer accounts of their work, in terms of descriptions and explanations of their practice, and these accounts should be seen as the living educational theories of practitioners as they endeavour to live more fully in the direction of their educational values (Whitehead, 2000). This view has gained much credibility over recent years, and has influenced the development of new forms of professional education in the UK and elsewhere. Whitehead’s award-winning website – – contains the accounts of teachers’ professional narratives world wide, and also contains accounts of how higher education institutions and policy-making bodies are able to support the practical classroom-based enquiries of professionals, often for higher degree accreditation, with the intent of offering choices about professional learning pathways to all. My own experience of working in Ireland for over ten years has been that Irish teachers now have opportunities for the recognition and accreditation of their practical knowledge (McNiff 2000, 2002), opportunities that were previously denied them. The influence of the initiatives with which I have been associated has gone far to inform the development of new partnerships between schools and higher education, and is influencing discourses about what counts as knowledge and who counts as a knower (see for example McNamara, 2003).

So we have hope for the future of the teaching profession. In the UK and elsewhere, new initiatives are afoot that are underpinned by the view that teachers are increasingly able to speak on their own behalf, and that their voices should be valued. Initiatives such as the Best Practice Research Scholarships and the Training School Project, and the establishment of local and national institutions to support the initiatives, such as the National College of School Leadership, are manifestations of this faith in practice. In her keynote presentation to the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers Annual Conference, Joan Whitehead, former Dean of the Faculty of Education for the University of the West of England, Bristol, spoke about her optimism for new directions in the profession:

I believe we are at the onset of a different and much more exciting era. I believe we have reached a period in which the framing of our activity is becoming looser and offers considerably more scope for the profession actively to engage in shaping its own future and hence the future of teaching. … Alongside the continuation of central control over specific strategies, what we are also witnessing is the active encouragement of grass roots developments, of greater trust in the skills and professional knowledge of teachers and teacher educators and support for knowledge-sharing and the dissemination of good practice by the profession for the profession. These I see as indications that the profession is becoming increasingly recognised and valued as able to propose and enact its own solutions to the fulfilment of external agenda, be those to do with the better preparation of entrants to the profession, or to further developing those within it.

(Joan Whitehead, 2003)

Yet the importance of the development of new forms of theory must not be underestimated. If the teaching profession is to advance in these optimistic new directions, if teachers are to have a say in what counts as good practice and how it should be disseminated, then teachers’ practical theories need to be valued as contributing to those debates; and the recognition of teachers’ practical theories means, first, raising awareness of, and second, raising questions about, the positioning of dominant forms of propositional theory and the reasons for its present hegemony. Questions need to be raised about whose interests are being served in maintaining a faith in dominant forms, and what purposes might be served by introducing more democratic forms of theorising.

My own work in education is premised on the idea that education is a context in which all participants may come together, on an equal footing, in order to achieve commonly negotiated personal and social goals (see also Chomsky, 1996). I believe, like others, that practitioners need to be encouraged to make their accounts public, and show how they hold themselves accountable for their educative influence in the lives of others (the development of ‘I–theories’ rather than ‘E­–theories’: McNiff 2002). My own research consistently takes this focus. I believe that moral professional commitments need to be grounded in moral epistemologies of practice, where professional educators, alongside the practitioners whom they support, need to demonstrate how they hold themselves accountable for their work as they ask, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ (Jack Whitehead, 1989), and show how they are exercising their educative influence as they practise with social intent.

If the new directions for the teaching profession are to have any bite, they must be grounded in a form of educational theorising that enables practitioners to hold themselves accountable for their work. It is no use introducing initiatives and expecting them to take hold immediately, without the firm bedrock of underpinning theory. A form of theory that makes formal propositions about practices but that does not engage the practical imagination and commitment of practitioners is no good at all in terms of contributing to sustainable forms of social development, where practitioners come to make decisions about their own futures and how those decisions might be realised as everyday practices. A form of theory in which practitioners willingly demonstrate their accountability in seeking to achieve their collaboratively negotiated goals has greater chance of success in driving social evolution than static forms of propositional theory.

The claims I am making here about the power of practitioners’ theorising are grounded in a firm evidence base, which in itself constitutes an emergent knowledge base for the profession of teaching. You can see this in the publications of others and myself, on our websites (see for example, If you go to you will be able to access live links with others who are similarly concerned with showing the evolution of knowledge through the production of their own educational case studies. I am thinking for example of these links:

To show a direct link with the ideas of Jack Whitehead and my own writings for the creation of a Training School at Brislington School, go to:

For a direct link to the practitioner-researcher masters' module accounts submitted to the University of Bath, go to:

To access living theory theses accounts go to:

Of particular significance for the next section of my paper, I would like to draw your attention to Mark Potts' account of September 2002, on ‘How can I use my own values and my experience of schools in South Africa to influence my own education and the education of others?’, available from

At this point I would like to set out my understanding of the contribution that South Africa has to make to educational theorising and the creation of a Twenty-First knowledge base for the teaching profession.

In my opinion, South Africa has the potential to make massive contributions, in terms of showing how educational researchers may contribute to the establishment of more peaceful and productive world orders through education. I am much taken with the concept of ubuntu. Timothy Murithi, Programme Officer with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (Murithi, n.d.), drawing on the work of Mbigi and Maree (1995), Desmond Tutu (1999), and others, says that ubuntu is to do with ‘the essential unity of humanity and emphasizes the importance of constantly referring to the principles of empathy, sharing and cooperation in our efforts to resolve our common problems’ (Murithi, n.d.: 2). I believe that the new directions in educational research and teacher professional education that I have described go far to encouraging and enabling the teaching profession to be at the forefront of initiatives that strive to achieve the goals of establishing the essential unity of humanity and realising in practice the principles of empathy, sharing and cooperation. Yet the realisation of these principles will not happen if we stick with traditional propositional forms of theory, if we do not regard all participants as knowledge-generators of equal status, or if we choose to understand professional education as a matter of speaking the rhetoric of principles but not engaging in the practice – rather on the same assumption that one can learn how to drive by listening to a lecture about how a steering wheel works. What is needed is an entire immersion in the practice by the whole community, and a commitment to generating practical theory from within the practice. The principles of ubuntu can be realised in practice only by a focused commitment to working to those principles in deed as well as in word.

This vision carries implications that are being systematically realised, I believe, within what I have set out here as new directions both for the teaching profession, grounded as they are in the living kinds of theory that teachers can generate from within their practice, and also in the kinds of relationships that are being forged to support the creation of those living theories. New forms of relationships, those that emphasize the importance of constantly referring to the principles of empathy, sharing and cooperation in our efforts to resolve our common problems, continue to be developed in the form of interconnecting branching networks of learning communities. These networks are constituted of a variety of forms of other networks and partnerships, such as learning partnerships between schools and higher education. The quality of these schools-university partnerships enables the dissemination of the practical work of teachers and professional educators as they work together for the benefit of learning, both their own and the children they support. All have expert knowledge about their own areas. Teachers have expert knowledge about teaching in classrooms, and are able to communicate this knowledge in terms of the generation of their own practical theories of education. Professional educators have expert knowledge about mentoring and supporting schools-based teachers and managers, and also about providing insights into the presentation of reports that demonstrate methodological and epistemological rigour; while at the same time producing their own accounts of practice to show how their professional learning is grounded in their own practice of supporting the professional learning of others. Children have expert knowledge on what it means to be at the beginning of creating a life, and the incredible excitement of learning how to live to the hilt in a world of unlimited potential. Together, teachers and professional educators, and those whose learning they support, can generate a powerful body of knowledge that shows how they have worked collaboratively in the interests of the future of their profession and the future of others. These schools-university partnerships are part of wider networks of communicative action, as the living theories of practitioners feed into the national and world fora of policy debates, and the influence spreads exponentially.

Such developments take time and commitment. They take the commitment of individuals’ energy and the commitment of financial and material resources. More significantly, they take a commitment to relinquish a faith in dominant forms of theorising, and a readiness to accept the risk of going public about holding oneself accountable for work in the present. Moira Laidlaw is achieving this to a remarkable degree with her colleagues at Guyuan Teachers' College in China ( It is my firm belief that the practice of holding oneself accountable for one’s influence in the present is the best foundation for creating the kinds of futures that one considers the right way forward. Nothing less will do. It is pointless producing mission statements about one’s values and intentions unless one is willing to hold oneself to account for the practical implementation and realisation of those values and intentions. This takes courage and commitment. Yet courage and commitment are the cornerstones of new directions in social evolution. Such values can be seen in the post-colonial theorising and practices of Paulus Murray at the Royal Agricultural College in the UK (

In 1990, Ernest Boyer, then President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, called for new directions for the Professoriate, in terms of the development of a new form of scholarship. In 1995, Donald Schön called for a new epistemology for the new scholarship. He explained that practitioners at all levels of education systems needed to be prepared to produce their accounts of practice as they sought to improve their work. Such a vision, he said, carried serious implications for roles, positions and status; yet it was professionally incumbent on all to work to this end if they were to stay consistent with their own espoused values of education for social good. Over the last two decades much work has been done to promote this view on the ground, and to disseminate the outcomes of its realisation in terms of the practical theories of teachers. More work needs to be done, not only by committed individuals, but also by managers and policy makers at systemic levels.

I perceive this to be happening in South Africa. I believe that South Africa is especially strongly positioned, given recent history and efforts to work collaboratively for more peaceful and productive futures, to make a significant contribution to the democratisation of educational discourses with particular reference to the democratisation of educational theory. South Africa has shown the world the potentials of transforming experiences of social conflict into experiences of social well-being. The possibility of juxtaposing the potentials of the transformation of educational theory onto already existing transformations in social experience would send out highly significant messages to the wider world, and offer potentials for educative influence on a global level. The contribution of South Africa to the worldwide knowledge base of professional learning would go far in offering opportunities for others to learn how to inform the education of their own social formations.

Margaret Mead (1973, cited in Henderson, 1996: 123) had this to say: ‘Never underestimate the power of groups of committed citizens to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.’ The world can learn from you, about how you are changing your world, in order to change our world. Your influence is immense. We need to access your accounts of practice, set out clearly and systematically, so that we can share our expertise and learn from one another how to do it for ourselves.


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