How can I promote an understanding of the generative transformational nature of lifelong education? - a paper describing an initiative that offers an example of how it might be done.

A paper presented at the Symposium ‘The Community Function of Higher Education’ at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, April, 1995

[Word version available]



A pleasantly appointed living room in a family home in Broadstone, Dorset, in the south of England. The floor is littered with papers. Biscuits and mugs of tea are much in evidence.

Eight adults, six women and two men, clearly comfortable in each other’s company, are chatting lightly, but often with great intense bursts of animated passion. No one person is the continual focus of attention. The spotlight shifts regularly from one to another. As one speaks, that person is listened to attentively by the others, the words are weighed carefully, and responses are offered. There is an atmosphere of caring, considerate but challenging dialogue.

This is a reconstruction of a conversation that took place in early 1994.

Ian I am speaking here from experience. I think the value of this support group is that we really can share with each other, and help each other to identify the focus of what we are researching.

Caroline I have a real problem here. I am not sure what I can research. I had my focus all worked out, but, now I’ve decided to work only part time because of Francesca (Caroline’s new baby), it’s going to be difficult to carry on in a systematic way.

Hilary That shouldn’t really present too much of a problem. If you can identify where you are going, and follow through along that line, keeping your records, and gathering and interpreting your data in support of your claim to knowledge, that is as legitimate a form of research as if you are working in a full-time capacity. Just as Betty is doing her research only on Sundays; it is still research, no matter where our research context is or how often we are in those contexts.

Betty Yes, but you are all doing proper research in proper workplaces. I’m not a proper teacher.

Alec Yes you are. You teach Sunday school. That’s being a teacher.

Betty No it’s not. I’m not a real teacher. No one can say I’m a real teacher.

Jean You mean you’re not qualified.

Betty No, I’m not.

Jean So how are we different? Here we are on Sunday afternoon in your living room. I am the teacher, if you like, in the sense that I have coordinated the group and, to a certain extent, guide the activities. You provide the context. You provide the coffee. You listen to others and help them make their contribution, help them learn. I also help them to learn. How are we different? You teach children on Sundays in a church context. I teach adults on Sundays in a living room context. Where are the differences between us as teachers?

This is the University of the Living Room, a jokey title which stuck, probably the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom, possibly unique in the world.

This group came together because of a conviction that they could continue their professional learning within their own workplace contexts; and that there was a chance that their professional learning might be accredited by the academy. The University of the Living Room exists against all odds. If its members do finally gain their first and higher degrees, that also will be against all odds. Yet, if they do, it will constitute not only a triumph of spirit, but also a fundamental challenge to the present authoritarian superstructure that underpins the academic and social practices of institutionalised continuing learning.


Content and form of this paper

This paper aims to offer a re-conceptualisation of a theory of lifelong education. In doing so, it raises questions about legitimacy and power. Innovations that challenge an established culture tend to be resisted by the established culture, which will use its power to maintain its own status and privilege. The ideas presented in this paper may therefore not be acceptable to, nor legitimised by those who subscribe to the dominant view of a theory of lifelong education.

The substantive issues treated in the paper challenge established structures. The form of the paper might also be unacceptable to those who write in a more traditional form. I am presenting this paper in a dialogical form, evaluating as I go, and inviting critique on the ideas as I develop them. The paper is part of an ongoing enquiry.

I am inviting discussion here on three separate but interrelated substantive issues: how the nature of lifelong education might be conceptualised; the kind of theory that would be most appropriate for explaining the nature of lifelong education; and how the adoption of such conceptualisations by policy makers could work towards securing lifelong education as a right for every citizen.

In my work as a teacher and educational researcher, I have learned to challenge established forms of theory that are not commensurate with the evidence of my practice. However, to have my ideas taken seriously, and legitimised as of worth, I need to have your validation that the form and content of my work has a use value. I need you to judge whether I am rigorous in my evaluation, whether I use standards of judgement that are based in rationality and social justice; and whether I use clear criteria to test out the theories which I draw from my own practice against established views.

In this paper, I am suggesting that established ideas about lifelong education - how it is conceptualised, how it is theorised, and how it is supported - proceed from a degenerate view both of the nature of reality and of the forms of enquiry that are used to describe and explain the nature of that reality. The paper offers some ideas towards such a reconceptualisation of lifelong education, in terms of the issues outlined above. These issues appear in an interrelated fashion. The evidence of this interrelationship is presented in excerpts from the real-life narrative of a group of people whose personal and social practices are constrained by the established culture. One aspect of the established culture is that of the academy as the locus of power-knowledge.

Issues of access and legitimacy

The legitimation of knowledge is a privilege of the academy. Access to legitimate knowledge is through routes to the academy. Many sectors of the academy regard propositional knowledge as a valid form of knowledge; many sectors of the academy would not accept practical theories generated through practical experience as a valid form of knowledge.

The people whose story frames my paper are people who wish to show how they are improving the quality of their work through carrying out research into that work within their own workplaces, how they are holding their evaluations up to public scrutiny, and how they are seeking legitimation from the academy for the value of that knowledge. They are offering their own practical theories of education, which they wish to have accredited and so legitimated by the academy. Here they encounter the exercise of academic power. Some of them are denied access to the academy, because of the criteria that the academy has laid down in terms of access; and also in terms of what is considered as valid knowledge. The group of people demonstrate how they are engaging in a creative resistance to this power, by seeking to develop and use their knowledge in order to exercise their right to be acknowledged as legitimate knowers, and to have that knowledge, and their right to be acknowledged as legitimate knowers, validated by the academy.

This paper tells of a power struggle between a group of ‘ordinary’ people and the academy. The power struggle is currently being mediated by me. I am using my power as an ‘acknowledged’ knower, in forums such as this, to challenge issues of access, which are symptomatic of the kinds of epistemological and methodological assumptions that underpin dominant forms of theory of lifelong education. I am hoping to offer a reconceptualisation of a theory of lifelong education precisely to challenge the kinds of social structures that arise; and to suggest that an alternative perception of the nature of lifelong education might influence issues of access, privilege, who is regarded as legitimate knowers, and who decides.

Issues of methodology

The story of the group of practitioners appears as a sub-text to the paper. I have used this technique elsewhere (McNiff, 1993,1995; McNiff et al., 1992), as have others (for example, Lomax, 1994) to show how professional insights may arise from personal life experiences; and how the kind of practical theory that arises from experience, which is the form that this paper takes, is the same kind of theory that is demonstrated by the practitioners whose stories constitute the framework to this paper. This linking of personal biography and professional knowledge is a theme in the ‘living educational theory’ approach of Jack Whitehead (Whitehead, 1993). This takes the form of asking a generic question of ‘How can I improve my work?’ and then translating this question into a practical action-plan through asking questions of the kind:

What is my concern?

Why am I concerned?

What can I do about it?

How can I gather evidence to offer some kind of judgement about what is happening here?

How can I evaluate my own effectiveness?

How can I ensure that my evaluations are reasonably fair and accurate?

How will I modify my practice in the light of the evaluation?

This developmental methodology for describing and explaining the interrelationship of theory and practice is also used as the procedure for my paper.

Part One What are my concerns?

Concern 1 What conceptualisation of lifelong education?

My story begins with theories about the nature of lifelong education.

I work in the Dorset Adult Education Service, teaching Advanced Level Psychology to mature students. I have done this for a number of years, in addition to other classroom teaching in Further Education, the UK post-compulsory education sector. (I have also, until recently, worked in mainstream education contexts, teaching children and adolescents.) Many adults join the Psychology course as part of access courses to continuing professional learning, such as university-based award-bearing courses. Some attend for social contact. Others come just for the fun of learning. I feel I am providing a service in helping people benefit from a mentally-stimulating environment that will support their continuing enjoyment of discovering their own potential.

Because I work in a number of different contexts, and with a number of different age-groups, I am uneasy with popular conceptualisations about the nature of lifelong education; and also with how these theories are manifested in policies concerning the administration of the different sectors of education. I think there is a good deal of slippage between what I perceive as the practice of education in my role as a teacher, and how education and the concept of lifelong education is conceptualised and consequently realised in terms of its administration and provision.

For a start, education tends to be seen as a series of institutionalised experiences. I think this is a major fundamental error in much thinking about education. Education should not be, but often is, confused with schooling and institutionalised practices. The general view of education is that it is a linear, sequential process whose context is institutions and whose form of acquisition is by delivery. Consequently, theories of lifelong education tend to regard adult and continuing education as an ‘add-on’, an extra piece that may be undertaken when formal compulsory education is finished.

I question these views. It seems to me that the underpinning assumptions in this view of linear sequential experience stem from a Newtonian physics in which the world is ordered sequentially and events have a causal relationship. This view of sequential chunks of experience is not compatible with the view that I hold of transformational development. A conception of sequential chunks of experience operates in terms of discrete singularities where things exist within a closed format: they do not exist, they come into being, and then they stop. It is a deep concern for me that education is viewed as a process of closed formats, a process of being rather than a process of becoming. For me, education is about becoming more than I am (and teaching is about helping people to see that they can become more than they are, and helping them to move forward). I feel more comfortable with the idea of education as a process of becoming, where all things are in constant transformation, and one experience grows out of the previous one, while holding an infinity of new experiences constantly within itself.

For me, educational experience is a continuum. In my pedagogic practice I make no distinction between adults and pre-adults; I try to establish the same educative relationships with those I teach no matter what their age, no matter what their life experience. I currently teach in the Adult Education and Continuing Education sectors, but I regard adult and continuing education as part of the ongoing transformational process of becoming. For me, the differences between adult education and pre-adult education is one of the politics of provision and administration, rather than one of epistemology and methodology. This is where I experience slippage between my own view of lifelong education and other views that inform policy implementations to support aspects of lifelong education. In policy terms, pre-adult education (formal schooling) is deemed necessary in order to produce rational and productive citizens; adult education (voluntary schooling) is seen as optional, whether presented in the guise of giving a second chance to those who missed out, for whatever reason, on parts of their formal schooling, or in the guise of continuing professional learning, when practitioners may avail of the opportunity to advance their educational experience and perhaps have it accredited by existing validating bodies. I think this idea of aggregated educational experiences is inherent flawed, resting as it does on an instrumental model of accumulating efficiently packaged blocks of instruction.

Concern 2 What kind of educational theory?

My second concern has to do with the dominant form of educational theory which is used for the process of education; and because I do not hold with the idea that adults learn in a way that is different from the way in which non-adults learn - their life experiences are different but that does not mean that their cognitive capacities are - I will say that I am concerned about the main kind of educational theory which is used to account for the process of people learning, and the form of teaching that is considered appropriate to support that learning. This kind of theory is propositional in nature, also rooted in the world-view that events are based in cause and effect and operate sequentially, and that human practices may be characterised also in these ways. Educational theory is premised on a relationship of teaching and learning, input-output, delivery and outcome. I question this, agreeing with Chomsky that ‘the study of how a system is learned cannot be identified with the study of how it is taught; nor can we assume that what is learned has been taught’ (Chomsky, 1986).

In the world of educational research, there is increasing resistance to propositional theories of teaching and learning. There is currently an emphasis on the value of practitioner research as a major aspect of learning. This idea of client-centred education is nothing new, but it is enjoying high profile as more and more policy recommendations appear about the need for people to be in control of their own processes of learning. There is, however, a major contradiction here, in that there is currently no general acceptance of the need for a form of theory that matches the practice. The practice of education may be changing, but the way of thinking about practice is not: whereas the need for practitioner-based forms of learning is accepted, there has until recently been little attention paid to the need for a practitioner-based form of theorising about that practice. If a view of practice has now outgrown the Newtonian view of linear structured systems, and kept pace with scientific enquiry to move into an age of complexity, then a view of theory needs to do the same. In terms of human enquiry, propositional forms need to be overtaken by person-centred forms of enquiry. Propositional forms may legitimately be embedded within person-centred forms, but a person-centred approach needs to be seen as a more appropriate overarching paradigm for an educational science that aims to offer descriptions and explanations of how one strives for improvement.

Propositional forms of enquiry - empirical forms in which research is conducted on other people - offer observations and descriptions about events in an objectivised world. In my view, there is no way in which I as an empirical researcher can offer an explanation about the intentions of other people that inform their action. I can only make intelligent inferences. These may be quite wrong. If, however, one makes a Gestalt shift, and turns the focus of enquiry on the self, then the self may enquire into the self, and offer clear explanations for the actions that the self undertakes. (Of course, the accounts offered may be flawed, and sometimes embroidered, and the person might aim to deceive; and it could be that the practitioner cannot make explicit even to herself what her intentions are, operating mainly on intuitive knowledge rather than clearly formulated aims; but these problems are inherent in any form of scientific enquiry in which a claim to knowledge is being made that is supported by evidence and an invitation to a critical public to examine and evaluate that evidence.) In person-centred forms of enquiry, descriptions and explanations of practice are offered in terms of the values base of one’s own behaviour, rather than in terms of exploring the reasons for others people’s actions. Personal descriptions and explanations attempt to show how it is that we try to live out our values in our practice (Whitehead, 1993; McNiff, 1993).

Concern 3 How can continuing practitioner education be supported?

My third concern is to do with issues of access to continuing learning. If we are to take the idea of lifelong education seriously, then we need to look at routes that support continuing learning, whether that learning is to do with personal or professional improvement. If our aim as educators is to work towards a good social order, in which each one of us is concerned to improve the quality of life and strive for human betterment, then we need, as an educational community, to facilitate whatever forms of learning and experience are available that will help us to realise those values.

There is currently a substantial focus on continuing professional learning. There is not such a substantial focus on continuing informal learning. This is not surprising, being part of the general thrust in the western world for a model of the efficient instrumental delivery of packaged instruction, accompanied by equally efficiently packaged behavioural outcomes. Continuing professional learning is encouraged, as part of the national endeavour, in order to produce a highly skilled, adaptive and productive workforce. Some structures are now in place to facilitate access to continuing and higher education, even for those second-chance adults who failed to collect the necessary accreditation to enable a clear route. However, the system of access courses is not yet widely accepted. I would suggest that this culture of education for the professional masses is not supported by the general values base of continuing and higher education, which, in my view, perpetuates a culture of elitism. It is very difficult for ‘ordinary’ people to negotiate access to Higher Education when the access routes are specified and controlled by the Higher Education system itself.

When the Living Room Group first came together, I contacted a number of universities to see whether they would support our work together and consider it for accreditation. A number of aspects of how our group was constituted and operated were unconventional. Consider:

(1) We were workplace-based (actually we were home-based, in Betty’s living room, but our research was workplace-based).

(2) Our form of methodology was practitioner-centred (action research).

(3) The tutor (me) was institution unbound. I work as an independent person, sometime consultant, sometime businesswoman, sometime teacher. I had a PhD from the University of Bath, but that did not authorise me to support colleagues on any one university award-bearing course.

(4) Members of the group varied in level of qualification. Some had first degrees, some had minimal qualifications - one person has no paper qualifications at all. All wanted to aim for higher degrees, on the basis that their current practical and professional knowledge was at such a level of development that is could be regarded as equivalent to anyone working in a professional context. The irony arose that the members of the group regarded each other as equals in cognitive capacity and experience of life, yet some qualified for entry to the academy while some did not. In our own eyes, as a close-knit supportive group of self-reflective practitioners, we saw ourselves and each other as equals. In the eyes of the academy we constituted an in-group and an out-group - those who were acknowledged as potential knowers, and those who did not qualify. Those who had previous qualifications could gain access to higher education courses. Those who had no qualifications would have to begin at the very bottom of the ladder, by undertaking access courses. Ian, who has a first degree, could go straight on for a Master of Education course. Pam, who has few paper qualifications, would have to take GCSE courses to begin her laborious journey towards accreditation. The standard of work of Ian and Pam is of the same excellent quality. Ian, in his 30s, would gain his Masters Degree before Pam, in her 40s, would reach the first rung on the academic ladder.

Here is part of a cover note Pam attached to her latest progress report.

Dear Jean,

Thought I would let you have sight of my further (pathetic?) attempts here, before our next meeting. Enclosed is a sort of progress report. I don’t know if it’s anywhere good enough to meet the standards.

I had deep thoughts on all the aspects of the course - could I, would they let me in, who was I to think, etc. I came to the conclusion that if I abandoned ship I would lose all, i.e. colleagues, support, enlightenment, etc. and if I had a go I lost nothing! ... I’ll keep on trying to get in and get the badge!

See you on the 12th. I’ve tried to address the issues, but maybe failed miserably! I keep thinking of bits I’ve left out, but at least I’m thinking!!!



Pam’s self-perception, well supported by higher education policy that only the already qualified deserve to gain further qualifications, is that she has already failed. I encourage her to feel that she is a person of value, that her contribution is of value. Where is the support for that message to ordinary citizens?

I know of a small number of universities who have introduced a new entry criterion: ‘Ability to benefit’. This to me is a small but clear sign that the academy is beginning to accept that ‘ordinary people’ might have a right to accreditation for their continuing learning. Will this ever become common policy?

Conclusion to this part

These, briefly, are my major concerns as an educator who is active in the sectors of compulsory education, post-compulsory education, adult education, and professional education. My practice as an educator is consistent across the different contexts. I hold conversations with different people that take account of their contexts and levels of experience, and I also take account of the different quality of life experiences that they would have (see Brookfield, 1987). However, I hold the same educational values no matter which sector I am working in and no matter who the person is.

I would regard education as a continuum, a basic right for all citizens. This clearly is not possible within current policies that support a technical-instrumental model of education, where vocational aspects are given high priority, where learning is evaluated in terms of acceptable behavioural outcomes, and where professional learning is seen as a necessary input to secure an efficient and therefore competitive workforce. Education, and the processes whereby education is secured and judged, proceed from a marketplace philosophy that regards economic efficiency as a prerequisite to a good social order. Further, this orientation is held in place by an orchestrated superstructure of powerful elites who set standards and criteria whereby human practices are judged; and who not only invite no critique, but set in motion procedures that will quash critique before it is voiced.

Reflection on this part

Am I being unnecessarily adversarial here? I do not wish to invite confrontation, especially because, in this paper, I am hoping to promote an understanding, as my title says, of a new form of practice and a new form of theory. However, I perceive that there is a real issue of social justice at stake here. People are being denied their rights, as citizens and persons of value, to continuing education. The reasons for this denial are not justified in terms of rationality or social justice.

I need to ask, in terms of my own position statement in the introduction, whether I am using those values of rationality to inform social justice within my paper, or, indeed, whether I am critiquing systems unfairly and therefore not living up to my own stated values (see McNiff, 1995).

Part Two As an educational researcher, what can I do?

Introduction to this part

My aim is to help people, no matter who, to be aware of the subtle forces that control them and their thinking, to challenge and rise above systems of control, and, as Freire suggests (Freire, 1972), to educate those who aim to control them by offering an account of their own educational process to show the contribution towards a good social order that individuals working together may effect when they become active and intervene in their own educational process.

I have identified three separate areas of concern in this paper. I have suggested that these three concerns - the nature of continuing education, the form of theory appropriate to account for the nature of continuing education, and the right of access to continuing education - are all symptomatic of an underlying world view that is well expressed in Newtonian physics, that reality is fragmented, and ordered sequentially, and that human practices are premised on an inherent cause and effect relationship. This world view is being replaced in the areas of the natural sciences by a view of complexity and open, generative systems. The social sciences, however, have not yet caught up, still finding a rationale in Newtonian forms. Further, educational science should not be aggregated with social sciences, for its aims and intentions are quite different and rightly qualify as a separate area of enquiry.

I shall therefore offer some tentative solutions to my identified concerns. My solutions will not respond like-for-like to my concerns, but will address some of the assumptions from which my identified concerns stem.

Proposed solution 1 - The need for a new knowledge base to continuing education

I question why there is a perceived need to hive off adults continuing their education from the rest of the community of learners, as if what they were doing was an add on. This has been described as the ‘front-end’ model (Jarvis, 1987) and suggests that the world of adults learning is qualitatively different from the world of non-adults learning. I think this is an example of the control of knowledge. I think what is basically a political decision to marginalise the practice of adults learning is presented in terms of reference to a theory of lifelong education. If lifelong education may be seen as a sequence of chunks of educational experience, rather than an inevitable continuum, then provision for those chunks may be justified in terms of their economic return. Clearly it is necessary, the argument goes, to provide for the education of non-adults because they are the ‘highly skilled, adaptive and competitive workforce’ of the future. The investment in young people is economically justified, whereas the investment in adults is not. This commitment to a technical-instrumental philosophy may be transferred to curricular provision as well, both within formal and voluntary schooling - pre-adult and adult - where vocational courses are funded substantially but so-called non-vocational courses have had their subsidies reduced or withdrawn.

I challenge the idea of the organisation of education into formal sectors, other than on administrative grounds, since it implies that, epistemologically and methodologically, the education of adults is different from the education of pre-adults, both in terms of how they learn and how they are taught. Here I fundamentally disagree. In terms of my own practice, I am consistent in the way that I teach throughout my professional life. All my teaching is conducted in a dialogical way, where I aim continually to find the right kind of questions that will keep the conversation open (Collingwood, 1939). There is no difference in the kind of conversations that I enjoy with adults and pre-adults, though there is certainly a difference in the content, which is always related to the context of my clients’ own experience and factual knowledge. There is also no difference in the educative form of relationship which I aim to establish with my colleagues, adults and pre-adults. I aim to establish an empathic form of understanding whereby we may engage in the methodology of question and answer without fear of destructive criticism. I aim to establish a supportive atmosphere in which people may critique another’s opinion without damaging that person’s integrity or sense of worth. We value the opinion, even though we might not agree with the sentiment. My own attitude throughout, as a living demonstration of my own educational belief, is that I am constantly open to my own process of development, and I acknowledge myself as a learner.

I would suggest that post-compulsory provision should be conceptualised not as continuing education, but that we should re-conceptualise the process of education altogether as a continuum, in which people transform their educational practice within a continuum of provision. I said earlier that I consider education the process whereby we may become aware of how we may become more than we are. There would of course be significant implications. (One of them would involve the need for funding and on-going provision; but I do not want to go into that here.) What I do want to explore is this: if it were the case that the process of education were regarded as a continuum, there needs to be a new knowledge base to the conceptualisation of education, namely a view of knowledge as transformational rather than propositional. And this view of the knowledge base of education is in line with a view of science and scientific enquiry, that systems (including educational knowledge) form and reform in the light of new experience, constantly coming into being, constantly unfolding into new forms of themselves, part of the seamless whole of reality (Bohm, 1992). I shall follow through these ideas presently.

Proposed solution 2 - the need for a new form of educational theory

I am always wary of any form of theory that breaks processes down into sequences of parts, on the grounds that the theory is not representative of my own integrated practice, nor does it reflect my view of reality. The tendency to regard processes in terms of accumulating singularities, such as in currently dominant forms of the organisation of formal and post-formal education, reflects a view of reality as fragmented and existing as part of a linear order; as are currently dominant forms of educational theory. I am captivated by a view of life processes, of which educational processes and human consciousness are a part, as being in a constant state of unfolding, such an unfolding being a continual realisation of potential (Bohm, 1992); and this metaphor is, in my opinion, more appropriate in communicating the complex and problematic nature of human actions and relationships than dominant linear forms of educational theory.

I want now to explore the idea of what educational theory would look like if seen as part of a generative transformational order (see McNiff, Whitehead, Laidlaw et al. (1992) for a fuller discussion. Please note also - some of the following draws on and refines parts of the text that appears in that monograph.

A general tendency throughout the history of educational theory has been to regard it as existing as a subject mainly within the linear order. The task of educational research has been to accommodate new observations about the nature of educational practice within the general framework. Within the framework of the unchanging order, the notion of educational theory takes the form of discrete and often competing bodies of reified knowledge. Changes in theory often become sharply defined transition points, in which the significant features of one set of givens are radically different from those of another. The task of educational research is to account for the changes, and offer reasons for the emergence of the new bodies of knowledge.

I want to suggest, following the work of Bohm (1992) and Gleik (1987) that this general reliance on the idea of linear order is in fact a manifestation of a world view that constructs reality in terms of fragmentation. This view has profound implications for aspects of continuing learning, and for the study of such aspects. An outcome of a view of reality as fragmented is that the development of practice, and the promotion of individuals’ learning, is a question of studying the established theory and adapting one’s way of life to it. Changes might take place in our views about educational theory but they are all still presented within the basic order or logic which itself does not appear to change. This is the point that I think Popper was making when he spoke against the reifying tendencies of historicism: ‘[Plato] seems to have comforted himself ... by clinging to the view that change is ruled by an unchanging law. This tendency to shrink back from the last consequences of historicism is characteristic of many histocrats’ (Popper, 1992). I would suggest that the same is true of many educational researchers: that while they acknowledge that the times are changing in regard to educational practices, they themselves do not adjust their own models of thinking to understand the nature of those changing practices. The very way of thinking of many educational researchers seems to be locked into propositional forms.

An alternative view is to think of a generative order, in which reality is represented as a seamless whole, in a constant process of unfolding. A view of the wholeness of the generative order does not accept a view of educational theory as existing as a fixed structure, nor does it require that models of thinking themselves are fixed. A state of constant coming into being cannot conceive of any form of finite structure or stasis, for the field is in universal flux and all experience is transformational. The idea of theory as an immutable body of knowledge becomes redundant, for theory, as are the thought structures of the person who creates the theory, is in a constant state of evolving into a different version of itself; and this requires unbounded systems thinking (Mitroff and Linstone, 1993) that holds a model of reality as an interconnected whole.

What would be a view of educational theory, if we did think in an unbounded way, if we did loosen our dependency on the idea of theory-as-structure, and sought rather to develop our insight and understanding without an end product in sight? What form would it take? My belief is that, in terms of educational theory, the wholeness of the generative order would offer a view of meaning as being embodied in the patterns of the lives of people as they strive to improve their understanding of their own practice.

I am suggesting here that, instead of the fragmented ‘front-end’ view of theory guiding practice (which is then paralleled in the social structures which arise from that view, such as educational experiences as fragmented chunks), we are asked to embrace a notion of the seamlessness of transforming insight as a continuous movement that itself may be characterised as theory. The educational nature of theory may be seen in the direction within the movement towards improvement - each notional transformation is a better version of the thing than it was before, and holds within itself the power to sustain an infinite number of improved and improving transformations.

The dominant form of educational theory is, in my view, symptomatic of faith in a linear order. It exists as a body of reified knowledge that may be applied to the lives of people in order to help them improve the quality of their understanding. For me, the premise on which this view stands is highly questionable. Educational theory within a generative order exists in the transforming understanding of real people as they try to give meaning to their lives. It is essentially a living process. In my view, the idea of a generative order, of which a living educational theory is a part (Whitehead, 1993), is a more accurate representation of the reality that underlies our lives as educators. I feel that it is the commitment to the linear order that makes us see reality, and education as part of the process of that reality, in terms of sequences of parts. The notion of continuing education, or pre-adult and adult education, as specialised forms of practice or areas of enquiry is essentially part of a linear view. This dependency on linearity is damaging, for we not only fail to see the possibility of other orders, other ways of life; we also fail to see that the idea of order, which human kind created as a functional tool in the first place, has overtaken us and exists in an abstracted reified form external to our own consciousness. We have established the idea of linear order somehow as a force over and above the ways of human beings, and we accommodate our rationality within its narrow mechanistic structures.

Here I want to suggest that we need to establish a form of educational theory that will dislodge the dominance of the linear order, in terms of offering a view of unification as a better way of living. In this I can imagine a scenario where, in the world of education - as much as it can be abstracted from its historical cultural context - the linear order is dissolved. An immediate implication would be that the ‘front-end’ model of educational processes would disappear, and we would conceptualise education as a constantly evolving lifelong process that knew no barriers other than our own mortality; politically motivated departmentalisations would disappear, for people would recognise themselves and each other as people, rather than schoolchildren, or students, or returners, or adult learners; line-management models for continuing professionalisation would disappear, for we would all be enquirers united in a common educational endeavour to improve the world; improvement would be effected through the open dialogue of compassionate individuals who are aiming to reach intersubjective understanding.

Such a view of wholeness is grounded in the idea of a generative order - a form that is capable of reproducing itself infinitely through a limitless number of original creative transformations. In terms of educational theory, we need to acknowledge that the currently dominant propositional form is inadequate for helping us to understand the reality of a world view of the wholeness and indivisibility of consciousness. While we need to acknowledge the value of the propositional form and the incremental series of accumulating singularities which characterise most scientific and technical developments, we need to acknowledge it as embedded within a more powerful generative order. The whole notion of generative transformational order is one of coming into being, where the future and the past are contained within the ever-present now.

Proposed solution 3 - the need for a reconceputalisation of the university as existing in the lives of people rather than in institutional contexts

Richard Bernstein (1991) speaks of the power of dialogue in working towards the establishment of a good social order, in which people suspend judgement one of the other in order to reach a common basis from which understanding might grow. In a dialogical encounter, he says, ‘ ... one begins with the assumption that the other has something to say to us and to contribute to our understanding. The initial task is to grasp the other’s position in the strongest possible light. One must always attempt to be responsive to what the other is saying and showing’ (Bernstein, 1991). Jurgen Habermas (1978) speaks of the ideal speech situation, in which people come together in a situation of mutual respect, anticipating that they will be able to find a common values base for dialogue to commence and be sustained. Gemma Corradi Fiumara (1990) offers a philosophy of listening as ‘the other side of language’, pointing out that ‘warring monologues’ are often mistaken for real dialogue, and that the power to listen is constantly subjugated to the power of expressive language. Thus the power game of who speaks and who is heard comes into play.

Ian is a member of the University of the Living Room. Here he speaks of what he feels the group has to offer.

‘Here are some of the points I feel the group has to offer each other. Motivation: this is self evident in all members to a greater or lesser extent but coupled to the encouragement each of us receive from the group it produces an abundance of confidence: this is a major facet of the group. The participating members have grown together into a group that now feels comfortable enough to question each other forcibly yet politely (not something many educationalists are skilled at). They question the reasons for embarking upon their own personal research, not in the manner of inquisitors but as caring individuals listening with sensitivity, offering reinforcement and in many instances providing ideas and views which may never have surfaced if it were not for the diversity of this group.

I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to each member how the support group focus on the issues raised and is aided by them being divorced from any one common working background. A main feature of our discussions is that the issues are not clouded by petty squabbles, hierarchical structures and jealousies which are too often encountered when people work within a closeted educational environment which is devoid of practical contact.

There is a tremendous amount of support for each other within this group. It manifests itself in many forms such as: experiences openly shared from a variety of disciplines, technical support in the form of an experienced tutor, and the differing inherent technical exposure we each can bring to group meetings based on our working environments and methodologies. ... it is evidently clear that group members, me included, are ready to share our work in more detail with others, to be held up and scrutinised knowing that we will get an honest response and not just a patronising one. For I am sure we all feel we are our own worst critics and that by seeking feedback from others that is constructive and not decorative it will reinforce our commitment and resolve.

... As stated before, one major evolvement has occurred over the series of support meetings held and that is everyone’s overall confidence in themselves has increased dramatically. To give an example of this, at an early meeting a comment was made by one group member that went something like: ‘I do not know what I can contribute to this forum; after all, I am only a housewife.’ This person has now evolved so that she no longer openly feels guilty, but is actively involved and contributing immensely with her knowledge and experience which the rest of the group is thankful for.

I perceive the value of a support group as one that is critical yet supportive, sensitive, caring, highly motivated with the wish to develop and give something back to the community.’

(Spencer, 1995)

I believe that Ian’s truths are examples of the ideas that my text is promoting. These ideas are drawn from the work of a number of philosophers, including that of Alisdair MacIntyre (1990), who tells us that the university should act as a civilising force for a future society, that will inspire dialogue to lead to mutual care and trust; a force to encourage people to engage in vigorous and critical debate yet able to listen to the other with compassion. He laments the fact that critical debate is often prevented from taking place precisely because of authoritarian structures that resist the idea of relinquishing power to those who genuinely wish to engage in such debate. Because of their intellectual poverty, suggests MacIntyre, and their fear of loss of control, they prevent genuine dialogue from taking place - and why? Because, I would suggest, in the terms of Corradi Fiumara cited above, they are not prepared to listen, but only to speak.

I submit that the members of the University of the Living Room are actually living out the values that philosophers such as Bernstein and MacIntyre endorse as being fundamental to the evolution of a good social order.

Betty P. does not qualify to go to University. She has few formal qualifications to meet entry requirements. Ian S. qualifies. He has a formal teaching certification as well as a degree. Remember what Betty said to me at the beginning of this paper? ‘You are a real teacher.’ What is this system that denies people access to on-going education? What is this system that denies people the right to feel good about themselves, that prevents them from making their contribution? What is our university system if it exists only in institutional contexts, and not in the lives of real people? Paulo Freire, a champion of ‘ordinary people’, spoke about the need to bring education to the people (Freire, 1972), and in a way in which they could experience, within their own context, the power of educative relationships and the discovery of personal potential. Noam Chomsky (1989) comments that people in general are perfectly able to comprehend and handle information of the highest complexity, contrary to the message put about by the intelligentsia, who are working in their own interests, ‘serving power’, to subvert the general idea that ordinary people may go to university.

Would you agree that the existence of the University of the Living Room is a demonstration of the living out of the values that inform the views of Bernstein, Chomsky, Freire and MacIntyre?

I agree with Chomsky (Chomsky, 1966) that the responsibility of intellectuals is ‘to speak the truth and to expose lies.’ Unfortunately, many of our intellectuals in universities today wield their power not to speak the truth and to expose lies but to control the propaganda machine that communicates the message that ordinary people do not qualify for access. Knowledge, and the right to knowledge, is only for the experts. ‘There is much that could be said about this topic, but without continuing, I would simply like to emphasize that, as is no doubt obvious, the cult of the expert is both self-serving, for those who propound it, and fraudulent.’ Antonio Gramsci was also just as sceptical about the self-assumed authority of intellectuals: ‘ ... they put themselves forward as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political field, consequences of wide-ranging import. The whole of idealist philosophy can easily be connected with this position assumed by the social complex of intellectuals and can be defined as the expression of that social utopia by which the intellectuals think of themselves as ‘independent’, autonomous, endowed with a character of their own ...’ (Gramsci, 1971).

I believe that the responsibility of intellectuals and academics is certainly to speak the truth and to expose lies, and in the context of this paper, to show the barrenness of degenerate forms that are still lodged within the linear order and are a result of bounded thinking: forms such as practices of denying access to lifelong education as a right of each and every individual; of regarding education as a series of exercises that are undertaken during pre-adulthood; of conceptualising the routes through a continuum of educational experience as a series of stops and starts (re-start being a privilege for those who have appropriate resources of finance, time and personal life context); of regarding educational theory as a form of policy that governs the lives of ordinary people and discourages them from thinking for themselves and questioning the status quo. I believe, like Stephen Brookfield (1987) that the responsibility of academics is to develop critical thinkers, give people the capacity to question the systems of which they are a part, to come to see that, although their very consciousness is a result of their history and culture, at least they are aware of this and have a choice whether or not to do something about it.

How can I evaluate my practice?

I am offering a conceptualisation of education as a continuum, an open system that is institutionally and intellectually unbound. Open systems are systems engaged in living, in becoming more than they are. Closed systems are self-perpetuating and therefore in process of entropy. ‘If a group is functioning as an open system, individual organisms within that group become aware of communication within themselves, and of communication with others within the group, both of which are essential to the coming together of that group as a community. The process has translated into human action what Prirogine defined as essential to the continuing life of an organism’ (Sanford, 1994), and, as we know, an organism can be a person, a group, a university. Universities are opening their doors, in fractional ways, to ‘ordinary people’; but systems are still in place to make access difficult. The doors need to be opened wide, and access needs to be maximally facilitated.For universities properly to fulfil their function of the civilising force that MacIntyre envisaged, for intellectuals really to exercise their power to facilitate intellectual and educational experience, for politicians in democratic societies to fulfil their mandate of representing the people who elected them to power, openness and transparency need to be embraced knowingly and courageously.

I believe that the University of the Living Room is one such open system that has evolved because of my commitment to my own practice as an open system. I have exercised my power as an intellectual to provide an educational experience for a group of people to strive towards a realisation of their potential. I have exercised my power as an academic at a university to work within the university to try to manipulate the system so that members of the group who do not normally qualify will stand a chance for access. I have exercised my power as an educator to help them to see that they have a choice of feeling good about their own ability, and not to submit to pervasive messages that they are lesser people because, in Pam’s words, they ‘do not have a badge’. I will continue to exercise my power, in forums such as this, to make the case for people to be aware of themselves as open systems, to mobilise themselves into open societies. Popper observes that ‘There are no permanent entities in the social realm, where everything is under the sway of historical flux’ (Popper, 1972). It is the responsibility of educators to appreciate that they cannot aim for permanent entities. Systems change; ways of thinking about those systems change; we as organisms change, every moment of every day. Education, and the contexts in which education happens, and the theories that are created to account for those processes, are dynamic, changing systems. Let that understanding be heard.

Do you agree? If you do, please let me know, so that we may together work towards promoting a new understanding of the nature of lifelong education and its theory. If not, please offer good reason why yours is the better argument, and I will listen to you.

Hilary I learned a lot by meeting you. My life as a police trainer was changed, simply because you taught me to think for myself.

Jean That’s nice to hear. Just be aware of this, though. You might think I have the answers. To tell you the truth, I used to think I did. But then I learned to question, and, really to be able to question, you’ve got to be able first to question yourself. I challenge systems. I challenge the way that people think about things. But, over the years, I have learned that I have to apply that to myself as well. What right have I to believe that I am right? If I am trying to dislodge one world view, could I not be seen to be replacing that with a world view of my own? Could I not be manipulating your thinking in very subtle ways, so that you will be convinced that I am right? While I am impressing on you the need to challenge systems, I also have to impress on you the need to challenge me. I like Stephen Brookfield’s technique (Brookfield, 1983) that he requires his students to critique what they read, and that includes his own work. There’s a dilemma. I’m thinking that I will ask you to do the same. But don’t believe that I have all the answers. I like to think that I have worked out some for myself, but I really can’t be sure. And neither can you. So as long as we are all clear about that, there is hope that we will get somewhere.


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Lomax, P. (1994), The Narrative of an Educational Journey or Crossing the Tracks; Unpublished monograph, Kingston University, UK.

MacIntyre, A. ‘Re-conceiving the University as an institution and the lecture as a genre’ in A. MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry; Guildford and Kings Lynn: Duckworth.

McNiff, J. (1988/92), Action Research: Principles and Practice; London, Routledge.

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McNiff, J. (1995), ‘Competing freedoms and warring monologues: issues of legitimation and power in self-reflective practice’: a paper presented to the Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices Special Interest Group, AERA Annual Meeting, San Francisco, April, 1995.

McNiff, J. , Whitehead, J. and Laidlaw, M. et al. (1992), Creating a Good Social Order Through Action Research; Hyde Publications (available only from J. McNiff).

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