Pedagogy, theory of mind, and educative influence: how do I contribute to the education of sustainable social formations?

A paper to be presented at the

EARLI Conference SIG Invited symposium Teaching and Teacher Education: ‘Demonstrating accountability through our self-study practices as teacher educators’

Nicosia 2005

Jean McNiff

e-mail address:

In this paper I set out how I try to account for my practice as I aim to exercise my educational influence through the development of pedagogies that are grounded in the idea of a theory of mind. By saying that I try to account for my practice, I mean that I intend to show how I hold myself epistemologically and morally responsible for what I do, by identifying the standards of judgement I use to assess the quality of my work in terms of the values that act as its explanatory principles (Whitehead 2005), and produce evidence for my practice in relation to those standards of judgement. By saying that I try to exercise my educational influence I mean that I act towards others in a way that honours their originality of mind and capacity for critical engagement, so that I do not impose my ideas on them but help them to come to discern what is appropriate to ensure their own ontological and epistemological wellbeing.

I work, among other positions, as a part-time lecturer at the University of Limerick, where I support the doctoral studies of six women practitioner researchers through action enquiry. This means that each produces her self-study research account of how she has tried to realise her values in her workplace practice (Whitehead 1989). Each account displays academic rigour in terms of Winter’s (1989) criteria of reflexive critique, dialectical critique, risk, plural structure, multiple resources, and theory practice transformation, and in terms of Habermas’s (1987) criteria of social validity of comprehensibility, truth, rightness and authenticity. Each produces authenticated evidence to support her claims to knowledge, and each commits to testing her provisional theory by placing it in the public domain for stringent critique. I do the same as I produce my accounts, such as this paper, of the part I play in their educational experience. The reason I do this is because I believe in the Kantian principle that no person should ask another to do something they are not prepared first to do themselves. I also hold that it is a matter of epistemic responsibility (Code 1987) that all practitioners should show how and why they hold themselves accountable for their research and their claims to knowledge in the world. On the principle of the butterfly effect (Prigogine and Stengers, 1985), that whatever is done in the social world is bound to influence someone somewhere, I maintain that whatever is done in the epistemological world of ideas (Popper 1972) similarly is bound to influence someone somewhere. I believe that it is the moral social and epistemological duty of those who are positioned as knowledge workers, to account for ourselves as we go about our work, in order to ensure that the nature of our influence is educational. This is also a matter of our own ontological wellbeing, since, according to Raz (2001), we are defined in terms of our attachments to others, specifically in terms of the duties we have to them. My ontological wellbeing, as a committed educator, is inextricably bound to my duties to those for whom I care and for much of whose academic support within an organisational context I am responsible. Therefore in this paper I set out the procedures I adopt to show how I hold myself morally accountable to myself, to my research colleagues, and to the wider educational research community. I do this by outlining how I also attend to Winter’s criteria of academic rigour and to Habermas’s social criteria, and I show how I relate these criteria to my own ontological and epistemological values, and systematically transform those values into the critical living standards of judgement (Whitehead 2005) by which I assess the scholarly quality of my work and my own moral authority as a professional educator.

Theoretical frameworks

I locate my study within the broad theoretical framework of a theory of mind, a concept widely used in the cognitive sciences to denote that all people have independent minds, and can understand the other’s point of view. While this would seem an obvious point, without need for further explanation, it is however consistently denied by many practices in the social and scholarly world. In her Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sonntag (2003) for example tells of the seemingly blasé attitude of many citizens as they view media images of human suffering, almost immuring themselves against the now commonplace reality that they are watching images of real people, who, like them, have minds of their own, as they struggle with and are often overwhelmed by distress. The image becomes an image of an objectified human, a mediated human, not a real flesh and blood person. Foucault spent his entire project investigating how persons became constituted as objects of enquiry (see Foucault 1980). In my view, and in my context, this is no less the case when practised in the world of scholarship as in the world of everyday practice. Of particular concern is that many of the epistemological regimes of traditional scholarship, much of which adopts a spectator perspective towards people as objects of study, seem to manifest a similar ontological perceptual numbness to others as real flesh and blood people, preferring to position them as experimental data, which becomes a kind of assumed epistemological imperialism, grounded in a logic of domination (Marcuse 1964), so that scholarly experience often manifests as the experience of coloniser and colonised (Memmi 1974).

This situation is incommensurate with my own ontological and epistemological values. My perception of myself as a person in the world is that I fully commit to life. I am grasped by the experience of life itself (Tillich 1952), and I live my life with a sense of gratitude. I extend my sense of engagement with life to others. Like Arendt (1958), I understand each and every person precious simply by the fact that they have been born. I extend this understanding to them in the hopes that they will extend similar understandings to me, that they will develop an ontological duty to me as well as I to them. I engage with the idea of a theory of mind, which lets me incorporate into my thinking and practice Husserl’s (1962) idea of the individual’s potential infinitude of knowledge, and Merleau-Ponty’s (1945) concept of the ‘lived body’ as the embodied context for the generation of knowledge. I incorporate Bohm’s (1983) cosmological perspectives of unfolding relationship, connectedness and inclusionality, and Goethe’s (1988) conception of evolution as a transformational process of emergent creative order. Like Berlin (1998) I understand freedom to be at the core of an appreciation of existential being. I therefore theorise my commitment to the educational philosophies of Russell (1932), A. N. Whitehead (1929), and Chomsky (2000), in terms of encouraging others to make decisions about their own life plans in democratic negotiation with others who are making the same decisions. I interrogate and justify my commitment to encouraging communities of educational practice (Wenger 1998) as a context for the exercise of individuals’ creativity and critical engagement as they negotiate their individual and collective meanings with educational universal intent (Polanyi 1958). In showing how I practise in terms of these theoretical frameworks, I focus my research lens on the extent to which I can show how I am realising my commitments to a theory of mind in practice or simply remaining at the level of rhetoric. However, to offer an adequate explanation of my practice to show that I will be able to justify any claim to knowledge I may make in this regard, I first have to articulate how I make judgements about the practice and submit those judgements to public critique.

Modes of enquiry

My aim throughout is to contribute to the education of sustainable social formations (Whitehead 2004). In the current phase of my research and through the presentation of this paper, I am aiming to contribute to the education of the social formation of the educational research community. Following Bourdieu (1990) and others, Whitehead understands a social formation as a group of people who abide by agreed regulatory principles that often take the form of normative rules. Hence the rules often go unnoticed and unquestioned, even when the rules are demonstrated to be out of date or inappropriate. At that juncture, the social formation should take stock of its underpinning assumptions, informed as they are by underpinning values, and re-assess whether or not something should change. Often the rules become so normative that they become part of the cultural fabric, and often they are held in place by those whose interests it serves not to question the rules. Frequent power struggles take place between those who wish to disrupt the normative practices of the social formation, and those who wish to maintain and reproduce the hegemony of the status quo. Education can often be seen as one such site of the struggle for power (Apple 1999).

My own interests are to do with how educational research can be used as a site in the struggle for epistemological power. This is nowhere more evident than in the practices of the social formation of educational researchers themselves. The matter has in fact been lent particular urgency because of current debates about assessing quality in applied and practice-based research, and whether practitioner research can contribute to the future of educational research in Britain or whether it should continue its present commitment to the social sciences (Furlong and Oancea 2005). The debate focuses on what kind of standards of judgement are appropriate for assessing quality. While practitioner research is held in regard in professional educational circles as having significant potential for new educational practices, it does not command the same level of esteem in terms of its potential to inform new educational theory. Two factors seem to contribute to this situation. The first could be the continuing hegemonising discourses of the established social science community, and the second could be the assenting voices of the practitioner research community who collude in the mythology that practitioner research cannot demonstrate its own internal epistemological rigour and stand as quality scholarship.

My aim is to disrupt both discourses, and to encourage the development of new discourses that celebrate the contributions of practitioner researchers to their own learning, to the learning of others in their own social formation, and to the learning of the participants of other social formations. To develop such new discourses however means encouraging the community of practitioner researchers to see the need to engage with issues of assessing quality. The new criteria for the UK 2008 Research Assessment Exercise are helpful in this regard, when they stipulate that the best research should demonstrate quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour ( For practitioners to achieve this criterion and show that their research should be taken seriously by the wider educational research community, they have themselves to engage with what it means to produce research that demonstrates originality, significance and rigour, and how their own accounts of practice should demonstrate the exercise of those qualities.

I aim consistently to contribute to Whitehead’s (1999) idea of a scholarship of educational enquiry, in which he argues that practitioners should produce their own living educational theories to account for their work. I encourage practitioners systematically to address the question, ‘How do I improve my practice?’ (Whitehead 1989) and ‘How do we work together?’, to produce evidence within their narratives of practice to justify their claims to knowledge, and to submit their evidence to the critical scrutiny of others in testing their claims to knowledge. Since the recent emergence of the debates that I speak about I have become focally aware of the need for practitioners actually to engage with issues of how their work should be judged, by articulating the standards of judgement by which it can be seen to demonstrate the kind of quality of scholarship that will enable it to be seen as world-leading in terms of its originality, significance and rigour. The internal discourses of the personal formation of myself as a learner who interrogates and learns from her own improved learning have been disrupted. I believe I already encouraged those whose studies I support to achieve appropriate quality in their work, but I, and they, do this on an implicit basis. I have not until now focused on standards of judgement as a unit of appraisal, either for myself or for those whose studies I support. That has now changed. If I am to count myself as an educational activist (Sachs 2003), as I do, in what Schön (1995) defines as an epistemological battle, then I also need to engage with the core issues in terms of refining my own understanding. And, because of the kind of life commitments and moral views I have articulated above, I do not wait for others to act without first acting myself. My current writing therefore (see McNiff and Naidoo 2005; McNiff and Whitehead 2006) focuses on this issue as a core concern.

Establishing validity

So at this point I need to articulate how I make judgements about the quality of my work, in terms of my own scholarship, and in terms of the potential influence of that scholarship in the intellectual and social world, and especially in the world of educational research, if I am to say that I am exercising my pedagogical influence in the learning of the social formation of educational researchers.

Engaging with the groundbreaking work of Whitehead (2003, 2004a and b, 2005), I assess the quality of my work by identifying specific standards of judgement that are linked with my educational values, showing the validity of those standards of judgement, and also showing how the enactment of these standards of judgement can lend ethical validity to my research (McNiff and Whitehead 2006). In exercising my awareness of the need to engage with such issues I engage also with the need for the achievement of the kind of criteria for academic rigour that Winter (1989) identified (see above).

The idea of values as critical living standards of judgement is an important idea that bears further explication. It rests in the idea that humans hold certain ontological values that give their lives meaning and future direction. The concept of a value is however an abstract entity, a linguistic item that denotes the quality that, when lent to a thing or a process, denotes that that thing or process is worthwhile (Raz 2001). Abstract concepts in themselves have no influence in human action, unless the concept itself is enacted as a living practice. ‘Democracy’ remains a word until it is given living meaning by people who regard others with sufficient respect that they accept that all have an equal say in negotiating and implementing their life projects, and so come to practise in ways that can be seen as democratic. These ontological values can therefore be transformed into living practices through the exercise of the will of participants, often in terms of the communicative action they engage in (Habermas 1987) to decide the formation of their personal and social lives. This often involves a reassessment of the rules of their own social formation, and whether the rules need to be changed. In terms of practitioners’ research, the processes of cultural and social change can often begin by asking questions of the form, ‘How do I evaluate what I am doing? How do I improve what I am doing?’ (Whitehead 1989). These ontological values, with their potential of being realised as social practices, in turn have the capacity to transform into critical living epistemological standards of judgement, when the people concerned assess the extent to which they have transformed the normative practices of their own social formations in terms of what gives meaning to their lives and the extent to which they can show how they know they have done that. By articulating the standards they use to assess the degree of their personal and social transformation, by asking questions of the kind, ‘How do we show that we are living in the direction of our values?’, they set themselves the morally epistemologically responsible task of producing evidence to support the claims they are prepared to submit to public scrutiny.

In my work as a professional educator, I do the same. I ask questions of the form, ‘How do I evaluate my work? How do I improve it? How do I assess the quality of my work by identifying my own ontological and epistemological standards of judgement, to show that I know what I am doing?’ In terms of the ontological and epistemological values I have articulated above, I aim to show how I exercise my educational influence in a way that encourages others to think for themselves, to learn to critique, to question, and to find new ways that can lead to their own personal and cultural transformation. I accept that in questioning the normative assumptions of the social formations of which they are a part, my research colleagues also learn to question my contribution in their learning. I celebrate this capacity, from the position of my own self perception as an educator who has much to learn about herself from those whose company she keeps (Buber 1937), and who finds her life energy from her own inherent incapacity to not-learn (Habermas 1975).

Generating data and evidence in relation to my critical living standards of judgement

To support and test my claim to knowledge I produce evidence to show that I am having some influence in my own learning and in the learning of research participants. I hope, by producing this evidence and showing its relationship to my identified critical living standards of judgement, that I will contribute to the education of the social formation of the community of educational researchers, by offering an explanation for the production of the evidence and its potential significance, and drawing their attention to the need for educational researchers to produce such evidence in relation to their own identified epistemological standards of judgement.

I draw on documentary and ostensive forms of evidence. The documentary evidence takes the form of the written testimonies of those whose studies I support, and also their scholarly accounts. For example, a member of the University of Limerick research group wrote to me:

I have learned to exercise my critical faculty. Any capacity for critique is down to your influence.

At the same time, this colleague is producing her own self study of how she is encouraging the children she teaches to develop their own critical capacities in their learning (see Roche 2005).

I can also produce colleagues’ evaluations about how they have developed their own learning, encouraged by me. Here is an excerpt from the evaluations of colleagues about a professional development initiative in which we were all involved.

I have really appreciated the time that we have had to share ideas about our work and experiences. I have appreciated the fact that we are not being rushed into research, that time is needed for reflection and focus. I have learned to reflect on aspects of my own practice and, reassuringly, it has made me feel quite proud of some of my work.

The ostensive evidence of the nature of that initiative is in the fact that four colleagues are presenting their work here today, which focuses of how they are improving their own learning in the interests of themselves and others by producing their scholarly accounts of practice that shows the creation of their personal theories of educational practice.

Many other accounts from practitioner researchers are to be found on my own website ( and the website of my friends and colleague Jack Whitehead ( Those accounts also focus on the identification and clarification of values as the living standards of judgement by which the researchers made judgements on the quality of their work. Furthermore, the validity of these accounts has been established through their acceptance in the academy. Here are some of those accounts. You can download them all from

Thérèse Burke's (1998) M.A. dissertation asks, ‘How can I improve my practice as a learning support teacher?’

Moira Cluskey’s (1997) M.A. Dissertation asks, ‘How can I facilitate learning amongst my Leaving Certificate Applied students?’

Máirín Glenn’s (2000) progress report asks, ‘How can I improve my practice as co-ordinator of Schools Integration Project 062?’

Séamus Lillis’s (2001) PhD thesis takes as its title: ‘An Inquiry into the Effectiveness of my Practice as a Learning Practitioner-Researcher in Rural Community Development’

Caitriona McDonagh’s (2000) M.A. dissertation asks, ‘How can I improve my teaching of pupils with specific learning difficulties in the area of language?

Sally McGinley’s (2000) M.A. dissertation asks, ‘How can I help the primary school children I teach to develop their self-esteem?’

Siobhán Ní Mhurchú’s (2000) M.A. Dissertation asks, ‘How can I improve my practice as a teacher in the area of assessment through the use of portfolios?

Marian Nugent’s (2000) M.A. dissertation asks, ‘How can I raise the level of self-esteem of second year Junior Certificate School Programme students and create a better learning environment?

Mary Roche’s (2000) M.A. dissertation asks, ‘How can I improve my practice so as to help my pupils to philosophise?

Many more similar dissertations and theses are available from, and together such accounts form part of a wider knowledge base that can contribute to the learning of others in developing their own accounts of practice.

My claims to knowledge, in relation to my critical living standards of judgement

I believe I am justified in claims that I am exercising non-coercive influence in the learning of others. The accounts I have mentioned above each constitutes its author’s original theory of practice. Each demonstrates the capacity for original thinking and critical engagement. Each generates evidence in relation to identified critical living standards of judgement, in terms of how the values that inspired the research transformed into epistemological standards of judgement that enabled each author to claim with authority, ‘I know what I am doing, and how and why I am doing it, and I know its potential implications for social and scholarly practices.’ These accounts are already in the public domain, soon to be joined by those of the six women practitioner researchers with whom I am currently working. Through these published accounts, I believe I am justified in claiming that I am contributing to the education of sustainable social formations, in the sense that sustainability contains the idea of people working independently and creatively without need of an external supporter. I am contributing to the sustainable education of the social formation of educational researchers through the production of my own and others’ scholarly accounts that demonstrate their own contributions to scholarship, and I am contributing to the sustainable education of the social formations of education and schooling through the production of those same scholarly accounts that demonstrate their contributions to good educational practices. Further, all participants in my doctoral research group are now conducting in-service education for teachers through their own local networks, with the aim of accessing participation in global networks. In relation to practice, this represents a transformation of organisational cultures of professional learning. In relation to theory, it represents a transformation of the underpinning ontological commitments of practice into the educational intent of contributing to the further sustainable education of social formations through networked learning. In relation to the themes of this conference, it explains how I am integrating multiple perspectives into my work and encouraging others to do the same.

Educational significance

The importance of the work lies both in the methodological and epistemological realisation of the underpinning values commitment to the other’s capacity for creativity and critical engagement, though the demonstration of a rigorous testing of knowledge claims in relation to the explication of critical living standards of judgement, and in relation to the emergent transformation of institutional cultures. In his 1995, Schön called for a new epistemology for the new scholarship. I maintain that the work I am conducting in company with my research colleagues demonstrates this new epistemology in action. Furthermore, I claim that we are contributing to a new epistemology for a new scholarship of educational enquiry (Whitehead 1999). The fact that we all work in higher education, both in terms of our identities as practitioner-researchers, and also in terms of our part-time identities as professional educators, indicates that the epistemologies we are developing in the social formation of our study group, as part of the institutional fabric and structures, is already contributing to the further development of such epistemologies, with the potential for further influence. The small-group culture of enquiry that my colleagues and I have created collaboratively now transforms into a collective commitment to transforming professional education through the realisation of its underpinning epistemological base (Snow 2001; Hiebart et al. 2002; Coulter and Wiens 2002). This has significant implications for the development of a new scholarship of educational enquiry (Whitehead 1999: see above), as the grounding for new institutional pedagogies that may contribute to the continuing education of sustainable social formations.



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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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