The agonistic base of a scholarship of teaching in higher education

Jean McNiff

[Word version available]

A paper presented at the Conference ‘Discourse, Power, Resistance: New Directions, New Moves’, University of Plymouth, April 6–8, 2003


In this paper I would like to discuss the methodological, pedagogical and epistemological foundations for teaching-for-learning and teaching-as-learning in higher education. In particular I want to emphasise the agonistic base of these processes. I am hoping to explain how, by studying my practice as a professional educator, I have developed insights that help to support the learning and well being of myself and others. These insights are to do with how professional learning, as well as leading to personal and professional fulfilment, also involves pain and destabilisation, which are rendered all the more acute when the politically-constituted contexts of personal and professional learning are contested.

Agonistics, a term derived from the Greek agon, refers to the contradictory, problematic and often tragic nature of human social living. Social living is constituted of relationships that are, by and large, contested. Human interests and beliefs are frequently incommensurable and irreconcilable (Berlin, 2002). While the disputes and conflicts can be negotiated, often they cannot be resolved. The disputes and conflicts can manifest as intra-personal disputes, when an individual struggles with their personal issues, and as inter-personal, when individuals and groups are in conflict with one another. Disputes and conflicts happen also at epistemological and ontological levels, as these also are politically constituted, when people struggle with issues to do with what they know and how they come to know, how they are positioned as legitimate knowers, and how they and their knowledge are valued and legitimated in the public domain.

When the context is to do with teaching and learning, especially in relation to continuing professional development, the problematics become even more accentuated, as new issues emerge to do with identity, power and ownership, and how these are reflected in the nature of professional knowledge and its acquisition, and in the kinds of pedagogic relationships that encourage learning. These are complex issues, all of which need to be taken into consideration by those who support the continuing professional development of educators. The complexities are further exacerbated when personal pedagogies that deliberately engage with the agonistic base of professional learning and celebrate the creative and contradictory nature of knowledge generation and knowledge use come into conflict with dominant institutional pedagogies whose aim is to factor out epistemological and social constestation in the interests of establishing an institutional epistemology of official knowledge and practice. This matrix of personal, social, epistemological and pedagogical problematics becomes a major factor when trying to understand what a scholarship of teaching might look like and how it might be developed.

These days I am generating my own theory of educational practice by studying how I engage with these issues. I am making this theory public, together with an account of the process of its development, as part of my commitment to hold myself accountable for what I do, as I encourage others to do the same. This process of accountability involves offering descriptions of and explanations for my practice as I address the question, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ (Whitehead, 1989, 2000). In research terms, the process of demonstrating one’s personal accountability needs to be supported by an empirical evidence base to show that one’s actions in the world can be justified in terms of their contribution to human well-being. I believe that scholarships of teaching need consistently to strive towards the demonstration of personal accountability through the production of empirical evidence to show that educational practices can be so justified.

Learning about teaching by studying my teaching

Some of my most enduring and transformative learning develops from times when I make mistakes. The more problematic the mistake, and the more critical the circumstances, the more incisive the learning. I bring this insight into my current practice, especially in relation to how I have learnt not to interfere with people’s processes of learning by trying to fix things for them. I have learnt how encouraging people to engage with the pain and problematics of their own learning can have a lasting influence on their own capacity to learn, and to learn in particular ways. Practising in this way is inevitably painful, not only for them, but also for me, as I now explain.

I work with a group of eight doctoral researchers, who are studying part time in the Department of Education and Professional Studies, University of Limerick. The group formed two years ago. Having successfully completed their masters degrees with me, they came together to find ways of continuing their professional learning. We studied together for a year on an informal, unfunded basis. Anxious to secure an institutional home so that their work could be publicly validated, I explored various avenues, and eventually was invited by the University of Limerick formally to convene the group as a research group.

The programme we follow is rather innovative in content and form. All participants are following their own individual action research programmes. Their research questions take the form, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ (Whitehead, 1989, 2000). Each person systematically investigates their practice with a view to producing accounts of practice that are constituted of the descriptions and explanations of their work. Each person is aware of the need to show how they hold themselves accountable for their work by producing authenticated evidence in support of their claims to knowledge. Together with two other members of faculty, I support their studies and guide them on a regular basis. Group meetings are arranged periodically, usually in the form of intensive weekend seminars, where the focus is on discussion of themes which participants choose themselves, together with their current reading, presentation of research accounts, and critique of the work.

The form of pedagogy is particularly significant, and this is a central issue of this paper. What is significant is that I have learned to teach in a way that, I believe, is most appropriate to support the kind of learning that is going to encourage each participant to exercise their originality and creativity of mind and capacity for critical engagement and judgement, two of the main criteria by which doctoral work is assessed. The focus on criteria emphasises the need for me also to set criteria by which I will be able to make judgements about my own practice. A central criterion, therefore, is whether I have developed pedagogies that enable people to exercise their originality and creativity of mind and critical judgement. Here I draw on the insights of Said (1997, commenting on the ideas of Paul Valery), who explains how one person’s influence always has to be mediated by the originality and creativity of the other’s mind. Judging my work in relation to this criterion therefore has to be premised on the idea that I cannot directly influence anyone in a crude, coercive manner. While I might be able to force them coercively (which I do not aim to do), I cannot influence them coercively (unless I resort to other means such as manipulation and subterfuge). My influence is always mediated by the originality and creativity of the mind of the person with whom I am in relation. They have to decide for themselves whether or not to accept my influence. So, in coming to make judgements about the quality and extent of my influence, I always have to understand the quality of influence in relation to the free will of the person with whom I am in relation. The form of my practice therefore has to encourage the freedom of the other, in the two ways – negative and positive – identified by Berlin (1969): (1) I have to work for the other to be free from my influence; (2) I have to work for the other to be free to come to their own decisions about whether they want to be. These commitments make me focally aware of my relationships with others, and their underpinning assumptions, and whether these relationships are to do with manipulation or emancipation. Because I believe myself to be an emancipatory educator in the traditions of Chomsky, Dewey, Freire, Greene and others, my underpinning assumptions must take freedom as the main goal of my practice. However, because I also believe that the exercise of freedom has to be accompanied by the practice of personal and social accountability, I encourage people to hold themselves accountable for what they do in terms of living in the direction of their educational values in a way that demonstrates responsibility to the other.

Learning to teach in this way is an active research programme for me. I consistently monitor my own practice as a teacher. I gather data and generate evidence in relation to my own identified criteria; and I make my progress reports public in arenas such as this conference.

Learning how to teach in order to achieve my educational goals has been risky. Sustaining this form of teaching is also risky. Trying to embed it in institutional structures is the riskiest yet. I am sustained by the evidence I have generated that reassures me that I am having an educative influence in the lives of those whom I am teaching. One such piece of evidence is the conversation that appears as an appendix to this paper.

The power of learning from mistakes

I would like to tell a short story to explain how the experience of making mistakes can generate significant new learning. I am doing this in order to ground and justify an aspect of my practice, which I describe below, of how I do not try to protect people from making their own mistakes, although I do try to soften the more painful aspects for them.

The story is of an event that took place during my doctoral studies, about 1983. At the time I was teaching in a secondary school in Dorset, and had the responsibility for introducing and implementing the then new curriculum initiative Personal and Social Education. To find support for how I might do this, I decided to enrol for my doctoral studies with Jack Whitehead at the University of Bath.

Teaching Personal and Social Education was a new experience. Together with a group of teachers who would also have the responsibility for introducing PSE into their schools, I studied for nine days with Leslie Button, who had been influential in developing the field of PSE and Pastoral Care. This intensive course taught me the value of experiential methodologies when teaching experiential subject matters.

Before this time I had been taught to do research using the traditional methodologies of social science. I knew all about control and experimental groups, and about manipulating variables (in my case those variables would be people). Leslie Button introduced us to action research, which, I learned, was not premised on methodologies that include control groups or the manipulation of variables. I heard the same from Jack Whitehead at the university, also working in action research. This was in 1981. Initially I did not have a clear idea what action research was. I quickly learned that action research was an experiential methodology that encouraged me to explore and test my own practice to see whether I was having the kind of influence I wished to have in terms of the quality of my students’ learning.

Soon into my research programme I decided to try an experiment. To test the effectiveness of experiential methodologies, as against didactic methodologies (as I thought at the time), I decided to run a scientific experiment. I would teach one group of 13 year old students in a didactic way and another group in an experiential way. (A similar experiment, I later learned, was conducted by Ana Marie Morais et al. (1995), reported in Bernstein, 2000). This meant that I would organise the geography of the classroom differently. I would arrange desks in ranked formation for didactic methods, and I would arrange small groups for experiential ones. I explained my plan to Jack who listened attentively, nodded, and said, ‘See how it goes.’ I remember how seriously he took the suggestion, made no judgmental comments, but let me get on and do what was clearly gripping my imagination.

I ran the experiment. Of course it was a failure. It was also rather amusing. Within two minutes of doing the didactic stuff I changed to my normal experiential style. I just am no good at teaching in a strictly didactic way. I always relate to people with whom I am in company at a personal level. My students were the same students I had met that morning coming through the gate. They could no more be objects in my space than I could fly to the moon. I could not perceive them as variables to be manipulated, in the same way that I could not perceive my own practice as a set of discrete skills to be manipulated. When I told the story to Jack he smiled and asked me what I had learned.

This was a major learning experience, both about the nature of my practice, and also about how I learned and how I taught, and how I was being taught in order for me to learn. These insights rapidly developed into my own theories of teaching and learning. I learned that I learn best when I learn for myself. I also learned how fortunate I was to have the kind of teacher who knew these things. Jack could have advised me about the futility of conducting a controlled experiment on groups of students with whom I had a personal relationship. All his telling however would not have brought me to my own understanding of why I was mistaken to think I could do it in the first place. I learned that Jack’s teaching was a special kind of teaching, in that he understood how important it was for me to find things out for myself.

That relationship has never changed. Jack has never once told me what to do or think. While he has been consistently available to offer advice, insight and guidance, he has always left me to make up my own mind about what I will do. Jack tells me I act in the same way towards him. I do try to practise in the same way in relation to those whom I support.

From the experience of Jack’s and my learning relationship, grounded in a respect for the other’s freedom to come to decide for themselves, and in a specific commitment to nurturing the freedom of the other, I have developed significant insights about how my practice is grounded in the idea and practice of freedom. I have learnt about the awesome nature of freedom, both for those who are learning to be free and for those who are nurturing that learning; about the risk of accepting freedom because of its enormous consequences of responsibility, accountability and obligation; about people’s resistances to freedom, because this means actively engaging with the deep problematics of one’s own learning. It is far easier to be told what to do. I have also learnt about the nature of the pedagogic relationships that are necessary for the establishment of freedom as the basis for educational enquiry, and the kinds of problematics that are wakened when forms of pedagogy that aim to encourage learning are juxtaposed against traditional institutional pedagogies that aim to close down critical learning (see below).

Working with the doctoral group at the University

Here are some of the factors involved in working in the direction of the insights articulated above.

My work with the doctoral group is characterised by certain practices whose underpinning assumptions have been clarified and negotiated by all, and whose implications are recognised as deeply problematic. It has to be said that any one of these factors would probably be sufficient to reduce levels of commitment. The assumptions and implications include the following.

For participants

  • Participants have to accept the responsibility of studying their own practice. For some, this experience is new, because it is contrary to the expectations of traditional forms of professional education cultures, where generally teachers have come to expect to be told what to do and what to think.
  • They need to identify an issue that is causing them tension, which they have now decided to address. The tension often emerges as the creative tension of recognising themselves as living contradictions who hold certain values that are being denied in their practice (Whitehead, 1989), and who now wish to take action in order to address the issue. Doing so inevitably involves them in engaging with and explicating the values base of their own practice, and then going on to justify the values they hold as well as the changes they make in their work. Often they discover that the tensions are irresolvable. All this can be demanding and demoralising, and some people are tempted to take action to avoid the pain. In one notable case, a participant thought about undertaking action research into why they wished to avoid undertaking action research.
  • While they are given guidance and support, they have to work these things out for themselves. This can be time-consuming and demanding, and can lead to frustration, which threatens to reduce the commitment of some to sustain the enquiry.
  • They have to gather data and produce authenticated evidence to support their eventual claims that they have learnt something of educational value. The discipline of generating authenticated evidence of the kind that supports a claim to educative influence can be restrictive.
  • They have to articulate their understanding of their own process of learning, that is, offer explanations as well as descriptions for what they are doing. While it is easy enough to produce descriptions of practice, generating explanations of practice is a higher order capacity that requires time and intellectual struggle.
  • They have to recognise the politically constituted nature of their work. Often this realisation emerges rapidly because the new insights they generate tend to appear as contrary to the established canons of the institutions where they are working. The anxieties that this realisation generates can be threatening to a sense of well-being.
  • This all has to be achieved in a short time. The University of Limerick allows four years for part-time doctoral study. While this amount of time is probably adequate for the kinds of social science studies normally pursued at the University, it is probably inadequate for action research studies. Why I believe our group can succeed is because they had a head start by doing a two-year masters programme with me, and a year’s voluntary study, which gave them a solid base in methodological and epistemological issues. Also, they are deeply courageous and committed people who have a clear vision about how they can use their personal learning to influence processes of organisational and social change, and are prepared to endure personal discomfort in the interests of longer-term social benefit. I consider myself privileged to work with them, and draw sustenance from their unswerving commitment.

For me as their teacher

As a teacher I hold the following principles as sacred, and these constitute the underpinning pillars of my theories of teaching and learning. They also sustain my commitment to the work.

  • I believe that all people are capable of learning for themselves. I agree with Habermas’s (1975) idea that humans are not capable of not-learning. Learning is part of our nature. I also like the idea, adapted from Husserl (1931), that we have an infinitude of knowledge within ourselves. This unlimited latent knowledge, I believe, emerges over time in selective and developed forms. I theorise this process by drawing on ideas such as Chomsky’s (1965) of how competence can transform into performance. My work as a teacher is to encourage people to learn how to transform their latent knowledge into explicit knowledge, and to explore the potentials of their own capacity for knowledge generation.
  • I like the metaphors of the generative transformational nature of the evolutionary processes of living organisms. Drawing on the ideas of a range of writers such as Bateson, Bergson, Bohm, Capra, Chomsky, Geothe, Gould, and Popper, I have developed my own ideas about the generative transformative power of educational theory. I link this view to Jack Whitehead’s ideas of living educational theories (1989, 2000). Living theories are by nature generative and transformative (McNiff 2000, 2002). My work as an educator is to encourage people to become focally aware of their own power as knowledge generators and to develop their own living educational theories as their living accounts of practice.
  • I believe that education is a context for the free development of the originality and creativity of mind and spirit, and of critical engagement and judgement. I believe education is a process in which all parties exercise their educative influence for mutual benefit. This means that all are concerned that all should grow through the encounter, in ways that enable the development of their own freedom of mind and spirit and capacity for critical engagement and judgement. My work as an educator is to help people to explore their potentials for educative influence through the exercise of my own educative influence (Said, 1997).
  • I believe it is the responsibility of all to demonstrate their accountability in exercising originality and creativity of mind and spirit and capacity for critical engagement and judgement by showing how they hold themselves accountable for their own educative influence in the lives of others for mutual benefit. My work as an educator is to encourage other people to hold themselves accountable for their work by showing how I am already doing the same.

Developing a theory of practice

Bringing these ideas to my practice with the doctoral group has further implications, especially in the moral terms of how I judge the significance of my work, and in the political terms of how I attempt to establish its public legitimacy. Here I wish to focus on two of those implications.

The implications can be expressed as two sets of questions.

  • How do I make professional judgements about my work, as it constitutes my theory of practice in higher education? How do I show how I cope with the agonistic nature of educative relationships? How do I justify the idea that agonistics has to be recognised as at the heart of scholarships of teaching in higher education?
  • How do I manage the agonistic contexts when my individual pedagogy comes into conflict with institutional pedagogies (Bernstein, 2000)? How do I show the transformative power of developing theories of teaching in higher education for sustainable institutional practices ? How do I make decisions about whether to engage with the struggle?
  • 1 How do I make professional judgements about my work, as it constitutes my theory of practice in higher education? How do I show how I cope with the agonistic nature of educative relationships? How do I justify the idea that agonistics has to be recognised as at the heart of scholarships of teaching in higher education?
  • Drawing on Whitehead’s (2000) insight that the criteria used in living educational enquiries to make judgements about the quality of the enquirer’s influence always need to be related to the enquirer’s values as those values emerge in practice, I set myself the following criteria by which I make judgements about my work.
  • Do I demonstrate my faith in people to learn for themselves? Do I practise in the direction of my belief that the people I work with already have an infinitude of knowledge within themselves? What do I do to help this knowledge to emerge as knowledge that is valuable for them?
  • Do I show my commitment to the generative transformational nature of evolutionary processes? Do I show how I work patiently with people, out of a faith that their emerging knowledge will grow into forms that are ultimately validated and legitimated by the Academy?
  • Do I exercise my educative influence in a way that encourages them to do the same? Do I maintain the kinds of attitudes and behaviours that keep the conversations open, that encourage people always to move beyond the present horizon into new possibilities?
  • Do I hold myself accountable for my influence on others? Do I demonstrate that my own learning is also in process, that I do not know the answers to their practice, that I am always encouraging them to think for themselves, and that I will respect their answers, even though I might disagree with them?

I aim to work in the direction of these criteria by adopting the following practices, among others:

  • A commitment to ask questions, and not give answers;
  • A commitment to critique;
  • A commitment to patient support;
  • A commitment to the welfare of the other.

A commitment to ask questions, and not give answers

I have learnt about the educative power of asking questions, rather than offering answers. This can be extremely frustrating for people who are struggling with their own learning. I have to draw a balance between offering guidance and direction, and giving concrete advice. These questions also have to be framed using a particular kind of language: ‘How about …?’ rather than ‘Why don’t you …?’

A commitment to critique

I have learnt how important it is to critique in a way that does not damage the fragile ego of people already struggling with making sense of what they are doing. I have to find a balance between communicating to them my faith that they can do it, against my commitment to helping them see where they might be mistaken or need to develop an idea. This also has significant implications for the kinds of personal and professional relationships that we develop.

A commitment to patient support

I have developed my own capacity for patience. I am prepared to work with people for as long as it takes for them to develop their own learning to the point where they feel they can be independent of me. This commitment has to be balanced against the frequently expressed need of people for me always to be available. I am learning when to be available and when to withdraw, on the understanding that people must come to stand on their own feet. This can be a difficult experience for many, including myself.

A commitment to the welfare of the other

My commitment is to the welfare of the person I am with, while maintaining a commitment to my own welfare. This has implications for the kind of relationships we develop. I have to learn to ‘dwell in’ the other’s space, to the degree that they wish, while maintaining a sense of my own personal and professional space and negotiating the extent to which they are invited to dwell with me. I am not sure if this stance is morally right, or if I am very good at it.

2 How do I manage the agonistic contexts when my individual pedagogy comes into conflict with institutional pedagogies (Bernstein, 2000)? How do I show the transformative power of developing theories of teaching in higher education for sustainable institutional practices ? How do I make decisions about whether to engage with the struggle?

This is my greatest challenge yet. At the moment I am facing several crises. These are to do with the degree of institutional commitment to supporting the kind of work I am outlining here, and also my own capacity to sustain the work in the face of institutional ambivalence. I have seldom been so aware that valuable learning can come out of moments of crisis, yet I must confess to considerable uncertainty here. My anxieties are not to do with the validity or legitimacy of the work. My anxieties are to do with institutional cultures and contexts, which are characterised by a commitment to cash rather than to education, to career status and position power rather than human welfare (Prickett and Erskine-Hill, 2002). Therefore, while I believe I am justified in claiming validity for my theories of practice, I am not confident around my own capacity to embed those theories within institutional practices. However, I am developing specific strategies, and I would value your feedback on the wisdom of those strategies.

The strategies adopt three broad trajectories. They are to do with

  • establishing the legitimacy of the work by giving it high profile in the public domain;
  • establishing a knowledge base to communicate the value of the work in hand;
  • extending pedagogical, methodological and epistemological insights into other contexts.

Establishing the legitimacy of the work by giving it high profile in the public domain

  • I am involved with others in developing a high profile research seminar (possibly a series of seminars) at the University, where well-known educational researchers will present their papers around what they believe are critical issues in action research. These theoretical papers will be complemented by presentations by the group of doctoral researchers as they offer accounts of their research. The event will be an opportunity for educational researchers to test their ideas against the practical accounts of doctoral researchers who are also demonstrating the generation of their theories of education from within their practice.
  • I have encouraged university administrators to appoint well-respected scholars to act as internal examiners of the work. Their involvement will lend added legitimacy both to the work of the doctoral researchers and also to the value of the initiative.

Establishing a knowledge base to communicate the value of the work in hand

  • In accordance with the advice of researchers such as Snow (2001) and Hiebart et al. (2002) I am building up a knowledge base at the university to show the value of the work. This knowledge base comprises the work of the doctoral researchers, as well as the masters dissertations of those educators whom I have supported in Ireland, some sixty-five in all. The masters awards were accredited by the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, and UWE have now given their permission for the dissertations also to be available from the University of Limerick. I aim to continue building this knowledge base which will also act as a national resource. You can access some of these dissertations at:
  • I encourage my group to write and publish their accounts. Where possible, I include their work in my own writing (see McNiff 2000, 2002, McNiff and Whitehead in preparation).

Extending pedagogical, methodological and epistemological insights into other contexts

  • I am invited to work in other contexts where I can test my theories against the practice of real life situations. Given that the contexts in question – Israel/Palestine – are themselves deeply contested, they should provide a context for examining whether my own ideas can stand the test of stringent critique. What I hope to do is to work with practitioners in enabling them to undertake their educational enquiries into how they can transform their educational and social contexts in ways that the practitioners can claim are nearer to their educational values. I also hope to work with faculty who support masters and doctoral work, and encourage them to produce their accounts of practice as they hold themselves accountable for their educative influence. I intend to write about these initiatives, and make explicit the links between education and social change in the interests of creating sustainable social orders.
  • Further, it is my hope to put research groups from Ireland and the Middle East in touch with one another, with a view to supporting one another’s enquiries. I am not sure how to do this as yet, but I believe that electronic communication will be a powerful medium of communication.

You can see that I am trying to find ways of exercising my educative influence, not out of an hegemonising ambition, but out of a sense that people are able to think and act for themselves, and it is my responsibility as a professional educator to find ways of encouraging them to do so in the interests of what I consider is the social good.


These are risky practices and risky times. I am well familiar with the literatures and experiences of the strategies that corporations use to control those whom they perceive as going against established organisational norms (Alford, 2001). Clearly I am doing that. I am encouraging people to think for themselves, and to critique the kinds of institutional practices and epistemologies that are evident within the very institutions that will legitimate their work.

How to proceed? I have choices here. I can confine my activities to supporting the present group, with some confidence that the quality of their intellectual and spiritual lives will continue to improve. Such confinement however will not achieve my broader aim of influencing institutional pedagogies or of extending empancipatory practices into other education contexts with the intent of influencing social practices. In order to do that I have to choose whether, and how, to continue to try to raise institutional awareness by developing other initiatives; or how to develop the work in what seem to be new, receptive contexts; or both; or other. I have learnt to work at all levels of education systems, and to try to link systems where possible by bringing together people from different contexts. But I am also aware of how difficult it is to work alone and without committed and influential allies.

Here I have to recognise my own agonistic dilemmas. I have a vision of what I want to achieve. My dilemmas are how to achieve it, and whether I wish still to engage in the front line of institutional change through a reconceptualisation of the pedagogical, methodological and epistemological base of professional education, or whether I wish to withdraw to safer contexts. Like my doctoral group, I have to struggle with my desire for a healthy, pain-free life, while recognising my deep commitment to working with others to establish a more just society, and accept the costs of doing so.

I look at the videos I brought home from Israel. I see the TV pictures of daily life in Ramallah. I share e-mails with friends across the region and across the divides, friends whose lives are broken by fighting with one another.

I look out at my beautiful back garden, and I give thanks that I am so privileged.

No choices here. Today sees a new effort, not only to extend the educative influence, but also to transform the mindset from wavering to resolve. Many good people are there to help me, and I am here to help them. Today we will find new ways through.


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Conversation with doctoral researchers

This is the transcript of a conversation with the doctoral research group, University of Limerick, 26.1.03

I asked our group to comment on how they had experienced my educative influence. I asked them especially to talk about their experience of learning through conflict.

Jean We are talking about my question, ‘How can I show that I have exercised my educative influence in relation to you, my colleagues, such that you can exercise your educative influence in relation to your colleagues?

Breda When you said ‘educative influence’, the thing that struck me is this: I think the biggest influence on me was the way I came here and I was exposed to action research, or self-directed enquiry. I hadn’t been aware of it before I met you. This idea of people constantly questioning and examining their practice is very significant, even if you are not on a higher education programme. You have influenced me greatly, and I’d like to think that a few of my colleagues are now influenced by me, in different ways, even in the fact that they are helping me to look at my own practice for my research. They are also adopting the same kind of methodology in their work. So for me, this is a very important point, the questioning of my practice.

Jean In the interests of your accountability, something like that.

Breda Even in the interests of personal responsibility for what we do. ‘Accountability’ brings a kind of fear with it, that I am accountable for what I do. ‘Responsibility’ is a nicer word. It is still frightening, because it comes with the other things that we’ve been talking about. If you are free to have your own opinion, you also have the responsibility to make sure that other people aren’t trampled on as you exercise your freedoms. This has implications for me. I realised that I wasn’t living to my values in my need to show people the right way of doing things. Actually it is one thing you have never done. I’m not saying this in a patronising way. I have never felt trampled on by you no matter how much I challenged what you were saying. So, if you are asking me, did you have an educative influence on me, yes, you gave me the ability to think for myself. Now, I had this before, but I like to think you helped me hone it, you showed me a medium in which to use it. And I like to think that I do use it.

Caitríona When I met Jean I was a teacher who was quite frustrated with what was happening in my classroom. I felt I wasn’t meeting the needs of the children. I didn’t have any way of rectifying that. Various courses weren’t of any use, the available institutional resources weren’t helping me, so the practice I came to learn, through doing my own action research, working with Jean and working with colleagues, and a special critical friend, brought a new awareness about how I transmit knowledge in the classroom. What is an educative influence? I think of how children learn, and how I wasn’t helping them to learn, and that’s what I’ve spent the last few years trying to tease out – knowledge, learning, and where it comes from – who are valuable learners? There was huge learning for me in this process, because I had always thought that the powers-that-be had all the wisdom, and that the practitioners had not. I have come, through studying and using this approach, to understand that there are other ways of knowing and other people who have valuable knowledge. This came, I suppose, through our own critique of the system we are working in now, and the critique of friends who are also working in that system. I wouldn’t have come across any conflict in my learning in this process, because I see conflict as a way of building and learning, so any time I came across something that was diminishing me, working against what I was hoping for, I would see it as an opportunity for learning. Therefore I wasn’t looking at conflict in this process but only critique, which brought about positive change. I can’t always say it was for the better, but there were changes. So I learned to be responsible for what was happening in my work, I learned ways of taking that responsibility on board, and I’m very grateful for that.

Mary The first time I met you, Jean, was at the information day at the setting up of the master’s group. I found myself in a roomful of people who had lots of academic qualifications - degrees, diplomas and certificates of various kinds, which I didn’t have. I just had a National Teaching Diploma, and, when participants were invited to tell a little bit about themselves, I began to shrink inside, and I thought, ‘When she comes to me, what am I going to say? These people are such high achievers’. In fact, I remember that I said, ‘All I’ve ever done really is go into my classroom and teach.’ What you taught me that day - and why I subsequently joined the group - was that that was not a minor achievement. So you helped me to realise that teaching is, in itself, a major thing to do. You taught me to value my practice, my profession, and myself. The second thing, I realised through the actual attending of your seminars, was that the relationship between the teacher and the students can be an equal one. You create, through the good person that you are, a safe talking environment. Plus - we have great fun. We laugh with each other, but not at each other. So there is a social aspect. Beginning with our Master’s group, your educative influence has extended out into our own social lives, which was a big surprise to me as well. Members of the group have become friends and meet socially outside of the weekend seminars. I think the freedom that we experienced, a freedom in which we felt completely relaxed when volunteering our opinions, came out of that safe environment. Your teaching style is so wonderful. We never feel coerced into thinking in a certain way and we are never spoken down to or lectured to. My experience has been that we are encouraged to question and challenge, and out of that way of working there has been huge learning for me, personally, around the questioning of my own value bases and assumptions. More importantly, I think, we have all come to appreciate the importance of holding ourselves accountable for the positions we take on issues. This is, I feel, directly due to your modelling. That’s how you operate. Our weekend seminars are open, transparent with no ‘hidden curriculum’. You have frequently invited outsiders to attend, some of whom may even harbour a suspicion of ‘new scholarship’. Your style is one of respect, of genuine regard and respect, and we all feel valued. I love how our group sessions are discussions in which everyone is valued both as a learner and as a teacher and we interchange freely in and out of these roles. Ideas whiz about and there is a real excitement and buzz in the room. This is active learning at its best – we sense and share your joy and wonder at the huge creation of real knowledge that takes place. It can be exhausting but also exhilarating and energising. If one is ‘just a National Teacher’ as I was, and one is in the company of people who have masters and doctorates, one could quite easily come to devalue one’s own opinion. Instead, you showed us that everyone’s opinion is valued and valuable, because it adds to the knowledge and the theory and the experience of the group. The way in which we deal with conflict and critique stems from the social and nurturing aspect too, because in both this doctoral group and in the MA group, whenever there was conflict, it was always engaged with in a respectful way – with a regard for the other person as an equal. We might say ‘I don’t agree with you’, but tacitly there is an understanding that ‘that doesn’t mean that you are in any way diminished’. If somebody doesn’t agree with me I look again at what it is I’ve said or what it is I’ve done. I take on board the critique and it adds to my knowledge. That has helped me in my own practice and I have really benefited from it. Thank you, Jean.

Jean Thank you, Mary. This morning, in our interactions, I noticed a great deal of lively disagreement amongst us. I think there has been more disagreement this morning than there has been before.

Pauline I am interested in the whole idea of conflict and critique. This morning, you mentioned that you had refused to give us a layout or a prescription of how we should write our thesis. This led us to a feeling of discomfort, that you wouldn’t prescribe, you wouldn’t give us the answer. That you were forcing us to have the freedom to have our own opinion, to take personal responsibility. This can be quite threatening and frightening. I feel that your educative influence has been in this area for me, that you have given legitimacy to my knowledge by doing that, that you have made me aware that my knowledge is valuable, and that in my workplace, I should respect my own knowledge, which is something maybe that I hadn’t done before, because I had a lot of disjointed information rather than knowledge. One of the things I found through the interaction with the group – I wouldn’t call it a course, because our programme of study is not intended to be a context in which information is passed on – but in the interaction I found that I was discovering things about myself that I didn’t know. Putting this into a framework, I found that I had learnt through years of experience things that I didn’t know I had learnt, and I was influencing other people.

Jean You are influencing other people. Can you tell us about that?

Pauline In terms of finding my own way in my own work, I was working to my values system, even though I hadn’t named it, and I couldn’t step outside this values system. It was me. So I was influencing people through offering my values system as a way forward. This at times led me into places of conflict, because other people didn’t accept it, which made me in turn reflect on my values system, and try not to force it but to influence. So I have seen situations where, particularly working with adults who haven’t got confidence in education, they would be fearful to go forward, in reading and writing, for instance, in taking exams. After some time of building confidence through allowing them to experience their values system, they actually came to a point where they could take personal responsibility for their education.

Bernie I think the most important aspect of Jean’s educative influence on me is that I’ve learnt to question things. Before this, I took for granted, I think, that bureaucratic institutions had the knowledge, they were the knowers, and I didn’t have a choice but to accept their knowledge. I have now learnt to question that, and to see that they were possibly using that knowledge as a means of controlling people. Now that I’ve learnt to critique their system, I’ve learnt that their knowledge, besides controlling people, had the effect of causing oppression and this led to social injustice. I feel now that I don’t have to accept the knowledge and control that comes from these institutions. I have a responsibility and a right to question them for the social good.

Jean How do you bring that to the children?

Bernie The children are the victims in this, in that they are at the receiving end of the oppressive measures. I suppose I see myself as the mediator, the buffer in between the oppression and the children. I believe I have changed my own thinking and my own self-perception, and hopefully I can be a champion of the children I teach.

Máirín I am thinking about when I joined this group, I think I came in with blindfolds on. I didn’t really see what my work was about much, and I believe through Jean’s educative influence that the blindfolds have been lifted, somewhat anyway. I have been given the freedom, this is a really funny thing to say, to educate myself. I am awakening, gradually, slowly getting there. I’ve been allowed to think about my work, and through the dialogue that we have here, when we meet, it’s given me such food for thought. Sometimes we disagree, we have those conflict situations, and it’s even more exciting, because we are challenging one another and challenging ourselves. And I think it’s a good place to be. I feel as if this is impacting on my work as well. I am beginning to realise how I taught and how I do teach. I am more aware of why I work the way I work. I think it may be an intuitive way I work, but I can see that I am using the same kind of strategies now with my children, allowing them to create their own knowledge, which is very exciting. I am enjoying every minute of it.

Jean It sounds exciting!

Patricia When I joined the group I think I underestimated the potential changes that would occur within my practice and also within myself. I had no idea that when you begin to critique your own opinions, you begin to look at why I gag myself within my workplace, why I don’t say the things that I say and make the decisions that I make. That was actually having a negative impact on my practice, because I was working with my students from the same perspective. So when you are encouraged, as Jean has done, to value your own opinion, and to weigh up what other people have done around similar issues, and to inform yourself of what is out there in the literature around the way that you think, that has great potential to change your own practice. It has deeply changed mine. One of the examples that I would give for that is I have even changed the structure of how I work with my students. I am no longer bound by issues such as the module has to look like this, or be delivered in this way. Now I am looking at all the different ways in which I can do that. But I am starting with the students telling me how to do it first, what they want from me, and I think that is very important. We have talked about conflict within the group, but I think that when you change your practice within your work organisation, and I work at third level, that brings conflict outside as well. That is one of the things that can be difficult about this process. It makes you question whether you want to stay in it sometimes. But I also feel, in a strange way, that even when conflict is happening, that I’m doing something right, because people are beginning to question. They are questioning me, but also, I think, I am making them question themselves. I think that is where the conflict might be coming from. So that’s why I think this has been a great experience.

Jean Thank you, thanks indeed, everyone.

Pauline I have found that the influence doesn’t just spread into my workplace but into my home. My husband is a teacher. In our conversations, his practice has been changed through your work, and connections have been made with other people who have taken part in your courses, like the other people who have taken part in the MA courses who have come together outside these programmes and they are influencing the education system.

Jean Can we just develop that, because, as we were saying earlier, I believe that society is people, and the idea of social change and social influence comes from that idea of generative transformational processes. One person’s work, one person, has the capacity for infinite social change through that process. You, Pauline, in your workplace, have the capacity, have the potential for infinite social change, because you are influencing people who in turn will influence others.

Pauline I suppose what I am saying is that this is more than just a workplace practice. This is a philosophy that we live with outside the workplace and is also interesting other people and is generating social change.

Jean It’s quite magical to hear that.

Breda Or even that example that I was talking about earlier, about my workplace, the whole organisation is being influenced through my action.

Mary says something about Foucault, and we end, as we frequently do, in laughter.

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September Books



Read about the Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research conference at York St John University, Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th June 2015. Go to for further information.
Keynote speakers: Dr Tina Cook, Northumbria University

Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Anglia Ruskin University

Professor Julian Stern, York St John University

Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




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