How do I explain the significance of this symposium for exercising our educational influence for the development of global networks of communicative action?

Jean McNiff, University of Limerick

Please contact me at

A paper for the symposium

The transformative potentials of our self studies for a new epistemology of scholarship in our University

at the

Educational Studies Association of Ireland Conference

Celebrating Educational Research in Ireland: Retrospect and Prospect

March 2005


(This paper may be downloaded in Word format by clicking here)

In 1990, Ernest Boyer spoke about the need to develop a new scholarship of teaching, that is, a form of scholarship that would focus on teaching itself as the object of enquiry. The introduction of such a new form of scholarship, said Schön (1995), meant inevitably engaging with issues of epistemology, since the new form would challenge the epistemology built into the modern research university (p. 27). He explains the situation like this. Traditional research universities tend to use a form of epistemology that seeks to categorise and analyse, usually using a propositional form of logic. The aim is to generate ‘objective’ knowledge that can be tested using technical rational forms. New forms of scholarship however focus on practice, using an epistemology and methodology that aims for creative engagement with the subject matter, and this, according to Schön, involves using a form of action research ‘with norms of its own’ (p. 27). Interestingly, Schön says that introducing the new scholarship into institutions of Higher Education means becoming involved in an epistemological battle, which is a ‘battle of snails, proceeding so slowly that you have to look very carefully in order to see it going on’ (p. 32). Coming closer to home, to my own university, I have to say that this has not been my experience. My experience has been one of lively positive engagement, in many areas of institutional practices, which hold promise for the development of new forms of networking in the spirit of communicative action (Habermas 1987). In this paper therefore I want to outline the work that I am involved in at the University of Limerick, to explain why introducing new scholarship forms of practice has not been a battle at all, and to show the significance of this introduction in relation to other new scholarship work around the island and elsewhere. This symposium is timely, because progress in developing a new scholarship of teaching, underpinned by new forms of epistemology, is happening rapidly here in Ireland and around the world. Furthermore, the work is directly addressing the call by Snow (2001) and Hiebert, Gallimore and Stigler (2002) for the development of a knowledge base that would provide ways of systematically recording the ‘rich resource’ of the practical knowledge that teachers generate from studying their practice. I wish therefore to make a strong case for the sharing of accounts of learning by those working in Irish Higher Education Institutions, such as in University College Dublin, University College Cork, NUI Maynooth, and DCU Dublin (for an example of the groundbreaking work of Margaret Farren at DCU see Farren and Ryan 2004; see also Irish universities, working collaboratively, have the potential to move the field forward by developing powerful communities of practice that are committed to communicative action through networked communities of practice. For my part, I wish to show how I hold myself accountable for my own efforts as I seek to exercise my educational influence through my involvement in developing new epistemologies of scholarship, and specifically how I hold myself accountable for convening this symposium.

Background to the work

About four years ago, in Dublin, I convened a study group of eight women practitioner researchers, seven of whom were teachers in mainstream education and one of whom was an unemployment officer. Seven had already achieved their masters degrees with me, using an action research approach. The degrees were awarded by the University of the West of England in Bristol. Some participants’ dissertations can be found on my website, More will be available shortly. The group wanted to continue their studies, possibly with a view to doctoral accreditation, so we arranged to meet regularly on an unfunded, voluntary basis. It was agreed that I would try to find a university that would accredit the work. Eventually I did, and, with the support of Diarmuid Leonard, Tom Geary and others at the University of Limerick, a space was created in which I could meet regularly with the group as they pursued their doctoral enquiries.

The form of supervisory provision is somewhat innovative for doctoral programmes. For the past three years we have met as a group, together with other members of faculty, for a long weekend’s intensive study, twice a school term, with lively distance support between meetings. The standard of achievement in intellectual development and scholarly output is well attested to in the papers available at this symposium. One member of the group has dropped out, for personal reasons, so today we have a thriving group of seven, all of whom have the capacity to achieve their doctoral awards. While embedding the initiative at the University has definitely not been the battle that Schön spoke about, it has involved some engagement in institutional negotiation, which, as Schön explained, has also involved some diplomatic engagement in validating and legitimating the epistemological base. This deserves some explication.

Validating claims to knowledge in the new scholarship involves testing the claims against the critical evaluative responses of researchers, both those who are undertaking the research, and also others in the wider community of scholars. It has to be said that the criteria and standards of judgement used to test the validity of knowledge claims of action enquiries are not necessarily those of traditional forms of scholarship, as Schön explained. They do however involve the need for stringent methodological rigour and for a close analysis of the evidence base of the claims (Bullough and Pinneger 2004; Feldman 2003). In the work that I support, each participant takes as a guiding principle to her enquiry the question, ‘How do I improve my work?’ (Whitehead 1989), that is, each systematically studies what she is doing, and offers descriptions of and explanations for her practice. Each produces her own theories of practice and, in order to establish their validity and legitimacy, tests them on a systematic basis against the critical and evaluative responses of three constituencies, namely (1) her own standards of judgement; (2) the public standards of the institution; and (3) the wider community of scholars. In terms of her own standards of judgement, each participant can show how she transforms the values that inspire her work into living and communicable standards of judgement (Whitehead 2004a). In terms of institutional standards, each participant can show both how she is engaging critically with theories in the literature, and with her own learning from those theories as she makes decisions about whether or not to incorporate them into her own thinking, as well as from the experience of her own practice; and also how she is making her original contributions to practice and scholarship as she produces her own living educational theories of practice. In terms of publicly testing her claims against the critical responses of the wider community of scholars, each participant has presented her accounts of practice in national scholarly fora (see for example, Roche 2003; see also for the accounts presented at the Critical Debates in Action Research seminar at the University of Limerick, 2003), and some participants have presented their work in the prestigious international fora of, for example, the American Educational Research Association annual meeting (e.g. McDonagh 2004a; Sullivan 2004a) and the British Educational Research Association (e.g. Glenn 2004; McDonagh 2004b; Sullivan 2004b). A significant feature of this work is that each participant explains how she can produce authenticated evidence for her claims that she has learned how to exercise her own educational influence in her own learning and in the learning of others; and she can also claim that she is already influencing what Whitehead (2004b) calls ‘the education of social formations’. This is a major claim, and bears closer examination here.

How are we influencing the education of social formations?

The form of words ‘influencing the education of social formations’, as developed by Whitehead (2004a and b), contains the idea that, when groups of people willingly come together as social formations (Bourdieu 1990), they organise their interactions according to a set of regulatory values that can take the form of rules. These rules usually work at a tacit level, unspoken and uncritically accepted, so that they become the normative regulatory principles of the social formation. Often these ‘rules’ are grounded in epistemologies, logics and values that do not contribute to what Whitehead (2004a) calls the flow of life-affirming energy for all. For example, from my work in South Africa, I have discovered that the until recently accepted system of apartheid is solidly grounded in a normative acceptance of ‘the Other’ as alien, and the underlying divisive epistemology has often rapidly transformed into practices that have led to a ‘them and us’ society (Biko 1978). In my everyday life as a woman I find that I am systematically marginalised by dominant discourses that position me as a ‘non-man’ and therefore potentially a non-person as part of the sexual politics of dominant discourses (Moi 1985). My research interests are how I can influence the education of social formations so that other people will begin to interrogate the underlying values, logics and epistemologies that inform their work, and come to more enlightened critical understandings about how they can contribute to the flow of life-affirming energy that can influence the sustainability of their own social formations. When I say this, I do not automatically position myself as having reached a point in my own education where I do not systematically have to question my own assumptions and prejudices and take corrective action. Visits to South Africa, China, Palestine and Israel have all left me questioning who I am and what I stand for. I have had to question for example my potentials for my own white racism, when during my first visit to South Africa two years ago I felt entirely legitimated in focusing my white ‘gaze’ (Mulvey 1989) on people whose skin colour was different from mine, whereas during a visit to China I became the object of the gaze, which was a discomfiting experience and one that generated much learning. I have had to interrogate my own ethnicity and my own racially-informed cultural norms, as for example when, during my early work in Ireland I brought with me the learning of my English history schooling (I am of Scottish heritage), so I expected to meet the ‘troublesome Irish rebels’, only to find quickly that the English had been the troublesome instigators of power-constituted cultures in Ireland. Because I worked in Palestine and published papers acknowledging Palestine, I became the target of Israeli hate mail, yet when I later wrote and published papers about my work in Israel I received accusations from some Palestinians that I had sold out to the enemy. Because of these experiences, and many others like them, as well as my own intellectual engagement with the theoretical underpinnings of such experiences, I have come to a point in my own ontological commitments of finding ways of transforming the kind of normative epistemologies that encourage social formations to think in terms of ‘them and us’, and to find ways instead of engaging in communicative action, and encouraging others to do so, so that each can celebrate their individual identity while understanding themselves in inclusive relation with others. In this I share the commitments of Julia Kristeva, who maintains:

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

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

So how to do this?

I work with groups, on an international basis, and in a range of education settings, as part of professional education programmes and also as formal doctoral programmes. The people presenting here today in this symposium constitute one such group. I encourage all participants to develop a critical awareness of what they are doing and why they are doing it, as I do. I encourage them to produce authenticated evidence to support their claims that they have exercised their educational influence in the education of themselves, of one another, and of wider social formations, as I do. I encourage them to find ways of linking with other groups who share the same values and commitments to studying their own practices and showing how they hold themselves accountable for their influence in the learning of others, and to ensure that that influence is educational, as I do.

One of the ways I do this is to use the enormous resources of the internet. My major strategy is to link any group I work with to others via the website, which is the website of Jack Whitehead, my colleague at the University of Bath, with whom I have worked for over 20 years. By accessing this site, it is possible to link with the homepages of other groups around the world. It is possible, for example, to access the work of Jackie Delong, a superintendent in Canada, who has put in place a solid organisational infrastructure for the professional learning of all teachers. You can read her PhD thesis (Delong 2002) about how she holds herself accountable for her work, and also access the collected volumes of practitioners’ accounts from Jackie, together with colleagues Heather Knill-Griesser and Cheryl Black has just edited Volume 4 of Passion in Professional Practices. Volumes 1, 2 and 3, can be accessed from the other homepages section at Moira Laidlaw, working in China, has made public the accounts of many Chinese educators. You can read their accounts at You can link with other homepages around the world by going to, which will also link you to e-journals like Action Research International. You can see how practitioners have made their work public as their masters and doctoral dissertations and theses by going to The work of Beatriz Grandi, in Argentina, deserves special mention and can be accessed at These accounts act not only as an invaluable resource, but also as a vibrant validation and legitimation of the idea of living educational theories and of practitioners as powerful theorists. One of the most valuable resources available is Whitehead (2004), which can be found at, a paper which brings you to the major websites around the world and explicates the significance of the work.

Many more resources are needed. My website,, is my own attempt, and contains valuable contributions. It needs urgent development. Other websites need to be developed to act as resources for bringing people together and sharing the work. This kind of networking is still in its infancy, and the potentials are limited only by the limitations of our imaginations. There is a massive opportunity here for Irish educators to develop websites that link different groupings together, to share the learning, and raise the stakes about what counts as educational knowledge, how educational knowledge can be created, and who is to be regarded as a legitimate knowledge creator.

Raising the stakes

I want therefore to return to the issue of how some groups are marginalised by dominant discourses, and how those discourses can themselves be seen as the articulations of dominant epistemologies. I have already described how I have come to understand how racialised discourses can lead to the systematic oppression of some by others, on the basis of their skin colour. I have learned from the work of Steve Biko (1978: 48) that racial discrimination on the basis of skin colour has little to do with pigmentation, and everything to do with the will to domination. Similarly, engaging with and seeking to transform discourses that marginalise women has less to do with establishing gender equality than with deconstructing artificial boundaries that position one person against the other. I have become even more convinced of the need to develop new forms of inclusive epistemologies, ones that look towards new expanding horizons rather than stay in the territory of binary divides.

From the experience of recent writing (McNiff and Whitehead 2005a and b) I have come to realise that practitioners currently constitute one of those marginalised groups. I have undertaken my own systematic enquiry as to why this should be the case. I can produce evidence to show the reasons for my concern. I find a large body of evidence in statements in the literature that, until recently, I would have accepted without question. For example, in the latest edition of the British Educational Research Journal, Linda Haggarty (2004: 597), reviewing the work of Ivor Goodson (2003), writes: ‘Goodson’s argument is that we need collaborative research between teachers and tutors in higher education institutions (HEIs), with a need for “theories of context” (available in HEIs) and “stories of action” (available in schools) to be brought together in developing teachers’ professional knowledge, with neither taking precedence over the other.’ Even a cursory critical analysis of the discourse here would reveal that Goodson’s view (which I believe may be shared by others working with traditional epistemologies) is that people working in HEIs produce theories while those working in schools produce stories. This kind of logic can be traced through the history of ideas and social evolution. Many other examples are available (see McNiff and Whitehead in preparation). What it tells me is that dominant discourses tend to perceive those working in Higher Education as capable of producing theory while those working in classrooms are capable of telling stories. It also tells me that higher education personnel are popularly perceived as not having to tell their stories, and that classroom teachers do not have to generate theory.

This situation seriously denies my values in my practice. I believe passionately in the idea, promoted vigorously by writers such as Berlin, Bourdieu, Chomsky, Habermas, Russell, Sen, and many others, that sustainable forms of human living become sustainable when all citizens participate in public debates about what is worth living for, and all are acknowledged as having something useful to say. Citizens are people who live in caravans and shacks, as well as in mansions. The idea of citizenship needs to be grounded in a commitment to an inclusive society, which values currently marginalised communities such as Travellers and disabled people as much as the more privileged communities of the settled and able bodied, but this means a transformation in the very logics and epistemologies that dominant discourses employ, from exclusion to inclusion, from boundaries as blocks to boundaries as permeable interfaces (Capra 2003; Rayner 2003). This is why I work with action research, a form of methodology that requires practitioners, both the privileged and the marginalised, to rethink their own position in relation to dominant discourses and dominant others, and take action to develop more inclusive forms of thinking and living. This is why I work both in the Academy and also in classrooms. It remains my conviction that the Academy is still regarded as the highest legitimating body for what counts as educational knowledge. It is also my conviction, as it was Schön’s, that work in classrooms and other workplaces is the location for some of the most powerful theory generation that has practical significance for how people learn to live with one another, on an equal footing, and come to celebrate their capacity to honour diversity and disagreement. My aim in encouraging the development of inclusive epistemologies, as part of a new scholarship of educational enquiry (Whitehead 1999), is to establish the strongest theoretical foundation for inclusive and relational forms of living, the kind of living that goes on in townships and city streets as much as in the Academy.

In articulating this aim, I believe I am articulating the significance of this symposium. We are showing how practitioners can position themselves as theorists, and how higher education personnel can position themselves as practitioners. Ours is not an elitist group, but a group of participants, all of whom have something to learn from one another and all of whom acknowledge that they are influencing their own learning and the learning of the others. For me, it represents the achievement of my own values of democratic participation in the knowledge stakes, the idea expressed by Chomksy (1996) and Russell (1932) that people can come together, on an equal footing, to negotiate their own life plans in a non-coercive fashion, as they find ways of improving their own education and making their work public in their attempts to influence the education of others. We have much to learn from one another. By making our stories public, as our living educational theories, like Branko Bognar, a primary educator working in Croatia (see, we position ourselves as improving the chances of learning, but this takes energy, commitment and some courage. It is up to us what we decide to do with our capacities and our opportunities, none of which we can afford to waste if we really do commit to sustainable educational development.


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