The significance of my work for influencing workplace learning

Mary Roche, University of Limerick

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


(This paper can be downloaded in Word Format by clicking here)

For the purposes of anonymity all names have been changed in this report and my school will assume the pseudonym ‘Leafy Hollow’


I am a fulltime primary teacher in a developing new school in Cork and I am also actively engaged in doctoral studies at the University of Limerick. This paper presents my emerging theory of how I am exercising my educational influence in my own learning and in the learning of others in my workplace. The ideas explored in the paper are drawn from my self-study into my practice. I hope to show how my educative influence has had an influence on the learning of people working at the local and social level of my workplace and how this in turn has ‘significant potentials for the education of social formations’ (Whitehead and McNiff, 2003).

I believe that within our everyday social formations, such as in a school, our encounters are educative when they leave us inspired to work in a improved way for the development of a better social order, and when, as a result, others are ‘enabled to understand their relationships and practices as contexts for professional learning [wherein] identities may be created through discourses in which freedom of mind is valued and where people are regarded as on equal footing’ (McNiff 2000: 3).

In this presentation I aim to demonstrate, through explanations and analyses of some episodes drawn from practice, how my work can be seen to have had a significant influence on colleagues’ and students’ practices in my workplace. I will also explain how I have been influenced and liberated to work in the way I do because of the supportive nature of the leadership and the collegiality of the staff in my school.


Over the 30 or so years that I have been working in schools, I have seen at first hand how influence can be both educative and destructive. As an idealistic young teacher I was fortunate to work in a school that had an ethos of collegiality and comradeship. In another school, later in my career, the opposite was true.

Voices are often silenced in educational settings whose cultures favour behaviourist methodologies, technical rational pedagogies and propositional knowledge to the exclusion of all other ways of knowing. These settings tend, I believe, to be cultures in which teachers are allowed to ask only the technical rational ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions, rather than encouraged to ponder on and engage with the critical ‘why’ questions.

I believe that my current school is a ‘democratic community of practice’ as characterised by Sachs (1999). Critical questioning is not only encouraged but is integrated into the school mission statement and motto and my study on critical thinking with children (Roche 2000) was an influential factor in my appointment (conversation with principal: research diary 21-11-01).

As I carry out my personal action enquiry into my practice of developing critical thinking in my workplace, I am encouraged by Boyer’s (1990) and Schon’s (1995) notions of rethinking theory as a ‘practical discipline oriented towards social renewal rather than as static conceptual “thing”’ (McNiff 2000: 1). Critical self-narratives have clear emancipatory objectives and I am influenced by McNiff’s ideas on the potential of personal enquiry for wider social renewal. Snow (2001) also provides a context for my claim when she states that personal knowledge ‘based in one’s own experience and practice is an irreplaceable source of wisdom’ along with her challenge to educational theorists not to ignore or downplay that knowledge but rather elevate it (pp 8- 9). Zeichner (1999) sees the action research movement as a most important innovation in research on teacher education. Schön (1995), Whitehead (2000) and others, claim that action research methodologies contribute significantly to new epistemologies.

Schön’s (1995) and Boyer’s (1990) theories demand a rethinking of what counts as knowledge and who counts as a knower. Traditionally, the voices of practising teachers have been ignored by the academy. Primary school students’ voices do not feature largely either. Without romanticising the utterances of the children and without falling into the trap as outlined by Snow (2001: 9): of ‘drawing far-reaching conclusions about instructional practices from experimental studies carried out in rarefied settings’ I can provide evidence for my claim that my practice has been strongly influenced both by the voices of young children and by the practices and voices of teacher colleagues. I also have evidence of my influence in their learning.

Workplace Context:

Much of the data drawn on for my study was gathered during the period November 2001 to June 2004. My research focus is built on a reconceptualisation of my practice arising from the question ‘How can I improve my practice (Whitehead 1989) in relation to teaching young children to be critical and creative thinkers?’

In developing dialogue skills in the classroom I initially used a strategy known in Ireland as ‘Thinking Time’ (Donnelly 1994). This is loosely based on the Philosophy for Children work of Matthew Lipman (1991), an analytic philosopher and a disciple of Dewey’s. It involves classroom discussion, usually in a circle format in which the teacher sheds the mantle of ‘expert’ and becomes a participant alongside the children. It is premised on CS Peirce’s (1955) idea of the classroom as a collaborative ‘community of enquiry’.

Action research as a form of educational enquiry matches Peirce’s notion of participation in the knowledge making process. Similarly, Dewey (1916) argued that schools should be participatory communities engaged in the application of co-operative intelligence. Vygotsky’s (1934) theories of the social nature of learning are also borne out when the classroom becomes a community of enquiry. Donaldson’s (1978) reconceptualisation of Piagetian theory could be seen as providing a strong theoretical framework for the utterances of 4 and 5 year old students as they display sophisticated levels of abstract and creative reasoning.


The values that I hold about democracy, justice and the democratic use of power; my desire to acknowledge the voices of the children and recognise them as valid knowers; my wish to work in a way that leads towards sustainable educational practices and social change, inform why I do what I do. I now see that philosophical enquiry goes beyond thinking skills, beyond critical thinking and becomes a way of being.


The core value of first person research and of democratic practice – the recognition of the other as a uniquely original and creative thinker with freedom of mind – is borne out within the pedagogic structure of engaging in philosophical enquiry with children. I employ an action research approach to enquire into my practice in order to come to understand the processes that lead to improving practice. I can see a relationship between the values that inform action research and the values that underpin my practice. By setting my values as living educational standards of judgement (Whitehead 2000) I can show how I am holding myself accountable for my own systematic professional development. And, because this is a ‘living educational theory’ (Whitehead 1993), my research aims are about producing descriptions and explanations of my own learning drawn from practice.

Data gathering:

My data gathering methods include research diary accounts, transcriptions of classroom dialogues, audio and videotapes, interviews, evaluations, personal letters and recorded accounts of conversations with colleagues, parents and critical friends.

Educative influence:

McNiff (2002: 7) refers to the Deweyan concept of educative relationships as those in which all participants may grow in life-affirming directions. They are, she says, characterised by care and the capacity to recognise the individuality and originality of mind and spirit of the other. Because of this, educative relationships can sometimes present a challenge for educational practice. This is because the kinds of pedagogies that support and nurture educative relationships are premised on the idea of each person thinking for themselves and not accepting predetermined answers in a blind or passive manner.

Living to my values

My principal requested me to set up a programme of Thinking Time in the school soon after I was appointed. Despite frequent urgings from him to ‘get the thing up and running’ (research diary Nov 2001) as fast as possible so as to have it established as school practice before our staff numbers grew, I took the view that a more participative approach was needed. It takes time to develop such a participative form and to build up the trust that is necessary for participative work. I felt that by modelling the practice in my own classroom, and informally chatting about what I was doing, my enthusiasm and conviction would enable me to exercise my influence in an invitational rather than coercive manner. The following extract from a colleague’s testimony appears to support that claim:

  • Through a casual conversation we had on my first day at Leafy Hollow Mary introduced me to the concept of Thinking Time. I was immediately interested: children thinking laterally and creatively, speaking in turn and listening to each other: I wanted to know more! … I listened to Mary talk about her class, ways in which she facilitated the setting up of the circle etc. Through these discussions I picked up many ideas that I later tried out in my own classroom (email extract from R 6-03-05).

In my research diary I noted my reluctance to be prescriptive:

  • I am resisting being dogmatic or forceful because it feels wrong. The desire to do philosophical enquiry ought to come from the teachers themselves (research diary 16-02-02).

In this, I believe I was instinctively living to my value of respecting others’ originality of thought and freedom of mind.

After establishing Thinking Time in my own classroom and receiving requests from colleagues for more information about it, I began a series of informal presentations to the staff about the how of doing philosophical enquiry. When colleagues had some experience of the practice in their own classrooms, I began with a second phase of workshops that gave more of the underlying theory about critical and creative thinking – the why of it. I now realise that by resisting the pressure to force people to act in a particular way – by not saying ‘you must do weekly discussion and here’s how you do it’ – I was inviting them to explore the potentials of investigating their own practice as a form of practical theorising.

These practical theories are evident in the way in which Thinking Time has become a core feature of our workplace policy and the willingness of colleagues to develop procedures for its evaluation. In my diary I noted that some colleagues were giving me copies of entire transcripts ‘for my collection’ (10-05-02). Then, during a staff meeting (research diary 11-06-02) my principal suggested we explore ways of keeping some record of the topics discussed for planning and evaluation purposes. I invited colleagues to suggest what form this record should take. We decided on a simple one-sheet evaluation on which we would note the topic, the date, the teacher’s name, some extracts of the children’s words and a teacher observation. These evaluations are included with our monthly progress reports. I now realise that this archive constitutes strong evidence for my claim to have influenced learning in the workplace. My principal also stated recently that

  • It is my belief that, because of Mary’s educative influence, the majority of the staff of 14 teachers have been imbued with the spirit and culture of Thinking Time (extract from M’s letter 24-02-05)

We also began to put some of the complete transcripts that had been given to me on our school website. In my diary I noted:

  • We agreed to create a space on the website and publish the transcripts – without the children’s names (research diary 1-12-03). ‘This proved to be very popular with the parents and children and also went a long way towards establishing Thinking Time as a core policy. Prospective parents enrolling their children frequently referred to it, according to my Ml. It is a source of pride for all concerned (research diary 10-01-04).

A third data gathering cycle began when I presented a summer in-service course for our own staff and the staffs of two neighbouring schools. Many colleagues have stated that the summer-course contributed significantly to their increasing confidence and interest in critical thinking in their classroom (letters from 12 teaching colleagues are in my data archive as evidence for this claim: below are some extracts).

  • I found the workshop fascinating. The concept was new to me and it seemed so exciting and innovative to develop critical thinking.
  • Mary offered some guidelines regarding strategies that worked well for her

(letters dated 22-28 Feb 2005

Another colleague with whom I have been working for three years states:

  • I found that each time I took part in a discussion or debate on the concept or actually did a Thinking Time with other adults as we did at the workshop, I learned something new. Mary’s knowledge of, belief in and enthusiasm for Thinking Time certainly infected the large group of us present that morning! Three years later I still regularly do Thinking Time with my class. I feel more confident in seeing opportunities that arise naturally through the telling of a story, a comment made in class etc. (Extract from R’s email 6-03-05)

A senior colleague stated:

  • In her workshops, Mary has always stressed the centrality of the guiding hand of the teacher in the facilitation of Thinking Time. It is not some unstructured directionless activity but demands instead a high degree of skilful guidance from the teacher. This subtlety of approach is vital in that it facilitates the pupil to improve the quality of their thinking while still allowing them the space to think for themselves (letter dated 28-02-05).

The educative influence of Junior and Senior Infants on me, on my workplace and the possibilities for influencing wider contexts

The weekly philosophical enquiry sessions with my students yielded considerable amounts of data. Presented with an opportunity to voice their thoughts, in the freedom of open classroom dialogue, the 4 and 5 year-old children readily displayed creative and critical thinking abilities and the transcripts exist as evidence of this claim. The dialogue transcripts show how the logical and the imaginative happily co-exist and because the questions are open-ended there is the liberation of being able to take risks. This recognition of the child as a knower rests squarely on my value of recognising the child as a person - as complete here and now, not an embryonic being on her way towards a more developed state of being. The children in my classroom are my co-researchers and are the people I work with most closely in my workplace. I respect them as knowers and as knowledge generators. For me, this was one of the major learning outcomes that emerged from my study.

The teachers’ voices:

When I present colleagues with narratives from my practice, share my wonder at the deep insights displayed by students or show transcripts that present the child as a philosopher, I believe that I influence colleagues’ learning also. One teacher of many years’ experience states:

  • I was born into a world and educated in a system where adults had a monopoly on wisdom. Children were literally expected to be seen and not heard. It isn’t an exaggeration to claim that children’s thinking wasn’t so much undervalued as accorded no value….it wasn’t until I came to work in Leafy Hollow where Thinking Time is a core value that I was exposed to an educational setting where children’s thinking was accorded importance and value (extract from letter 28-02-05)

I can also produce evidence for my claim that I have influenced workplace policy: My principal states:

  • I was so impressed by the philosophy and structure of Thinking Time that I have made it one of the cornerstones of our school plan (letter 24-02-05)

Another experienced colleague stated:

  • I now realise that philosophical debate is achievable even with very young children…learning about thinking time has made me more aware of the importance of developing critical thinking as a life skill for the children we teach. I am now very aware that the teacher is not the only ‘font of knowledge’ in the classroom (letter dated 28-02-05)

A young colleague in his first year of teaching states

  • Thinking Time allows the child’s mind to go where no other lesson could take them. An example of this in my class that really struck me was when a child (who had been a cardiac patient as a baby) was asked who she thought invented time and she said ‘I think Doctors invented time. They gave me more time to live when I was a baby’ (letter extract 25-02-05)

When colleagues share their narratives of practice with me I am afforded a space in which to encourage them to develop their own theories of practice. I also believe that by doing philosophical enquiry in their classrooms some colleagues have begun to think more critically about their practice. Evidence for this occurred during a recent conversation when a teacher said

  • Well I’ve stopped taking mundane things for granted and I’m questioning more…why things are this way or that way (authenticated extract from transcript of conversation with S. 01-03-05)

A colleague wrote

  • I now find that I am able to add ideas of my own, and I now look at planned curricular topics with a critical eye, (extract from S. letter 27-02-05)

Another colleague shows how she is enquiring into and seeking improvement in her own practice:

  • I find that even as I’m learning more about doing these discussions I’m now noticing more: like, for example who contributes and who doesn’t and I’m wondering for example what I can do to try and make it better… (excerpt from discussion with L authenticated 28-02-04).

I believe that I can show that opportunities for influencing staff learning can occur informally in corridor and staff room chats. Consider this excerpt from one such conversation with two younger colleagues.

- R: I realised I ended up having a discussion on feminism - with Junior Infants!

- S: That’s the bit I can’t get a handle on. How did you know that that would make a good topic?

- R: I suppose from listening to Mary really. We’ve been chatting on and off now for about two years and I’ve got a lot of ideas that way. I’ve begun to recognise what makes a ‘good’ topic…(authenticated transcript of conversation with R and S June 2004, signed 28-02-05)

Others have used excerpts from my narratives of practice to illustrate their own learning and to influence a wider educational field. For example, my principal stated in a letter of testimony recently:

-         I also lecture part-time to teachers on Educational Practices and Theory in a third-level setting. Because I consider this subject [critical thinking] to be so important and again, directly because of Mary’s educative influence on me, I now devote 2 lectures of a 10 lecture series to Critical Questioning and Thinking (letter from M. 24-02-05)

In the course of a conversation with a new colleague in September 2004, she told me

-         I was up in Dublin for my ‘going away night’ with the staff from my old school and I was telling them all about Thinking Time (Sept 2004, research diary)

The students’ voices:

I had never considered the very young child in the primary school system to be a theorist, knower, critical thinker or philosopher prior to undertaking these studies. Yet I believe that the extracts selected below - drawn from the children’s own perceptions of the world, their meaning making and the putting together of connections - form hypotheses and knowledge about the reality of their experience.

  • The child as theorist:
    • I know how to catch a robber; you have to dig a hole and cover it with a blanket and when he walls on the blanket he won’t know he’s walking on a hole and he’ll fall down and then you can get your teddy back (Jack aged 4)
  • The child as knower:
    • I know what the most beautiful sound in the world is (Con aged 4)
  • The child as critical thinker:
    • Why do we have to be in straight lines anyway? What’s so good about straight lines? (Evan aged 5).
    • I’m going home today with so, so many questions in my head! (Owen aged 5)
    • Me: Good! That’s what school is all about - asking questions and looking for possible answers.
    • And, if you get an answer to your question, you can always question the answer (Eva aged 5)
  • The child as philosopher:
    • If Evan’s head was on Susie’s body, she would still be Susie. You are not just your head, the you that thinks is not just in your body. (Holly aged 6)

Colleagues who observed the discussion from which that excerpt was taken were impressed at the level of sophistication shown by the thinking of the 5 and 6 year olds:

These children were doing philosophy so easily. They stayed in the discussion so long. I forgot they were children – we were arguing together. I have told my mother who is a teacher in Spain that she must do this with her students. It is very, very important (from observation report of Spanish Teacher 17-02-04)

  • The child as curriculum creator:

By the end of the second term in Junior Infants the children began to suggest the topics for discussion. They also displayed sophistication about what would constitute a ‘good’ topic

  • I would like us to have a thinking time about what lives and what don’t live
  • That’s a good question! (Video extract March 03)

The parents’ voices:

I now have evidence to show that the classroom discussions are influencing the children’s homes.

-         I am so impressed with the way they’re learning to agree and disagree in a non-aggressive way. And she’s so calm about making her point… I found myself questioning what I was doing and agreeing with her! (authenticated transcript of excerpt from conversation with T, father of a junior infant, June 2002)

Workplace values

I began my enquiry because I wanted to improve my practice and live in the direction of my values. My research findings about the significance of my work appear to demonstrate that my practice has influenced others. One of the most significant findings of my study is the way in which it has influenced workplace discourses as well as practices.

- At my suggestion, wording on a document relating to our policy on ‘differentiation’ was changed from language that involved the use of the phrase ‘the children on the edges of the Bell Curve’ to ‘honouring the individual learning styles of all our students’. In my argument in favour of this wording I said ‘through my study I’ve learned that our discourses inform our thinking and our thinking informs our actions’ (research diary March 2003).

Recently during the course of a staff meeting, my principal remarked ‘and as Mary says ‘our discourses inform our thinking and our actions’ (notes from staff meeting 19-01-05, research diary)

Ordinary staff interaction led to my gradual realisation that I influenced my workplace just as much as working in such a liberating atmosphere was influencing me. Without the co-operation of colleagues in my workplace this presentation would not have been possible. The clearest piece of evidence of this supportive ethos lies in the fact that thirteen out of fourteen colleagues took time to respond when I requested testimonies – the excerpts from which are included in this document. I now realise that had I not been involved in data gathering for this study I might never have known that my work was influencing others so profoundly. I know that I have been influential, now, because others have said so.

Significance of my research:

I am now able to articulate the significance of my own learning as I research my practice. The testimonies of my colleagues demonstrate clearly that my work has been significant for the learning of the school community. By generating my own theory of practice through studying my practice I have shown that I am now beginning to encourage others to do the same. In this, I believe I am encouraging a new form of school-based professional education that is premised on the idea that all are capable of generating their own educational theories as they study their practice. I believe that Wenger’s (1998) theory of ‘community of practice’ is being borne out in the way that all members of our school community – the children, teachers and parents - have become participants in educational discourses, as they engage in communicative action (Habermas 1987).

Through respecting and valuing the potential of each individual our community has been allowed to grow and to flourish. In coming to know my own work through this self-study I have become a more knowledgeable practitioner. This has allowed me to be confident in sharing that knowledge with others. I resist providing answers or being dogmatic - I try to be invitational rather than coercive. I believe this has been significant in why the ideas I have shared with colleagues about philosophical enquiry have been successfully incorporated into our school. Combined with the leadership of an enlightened principal and the qualities that Dewey (1916) spoke of as being essential to the reflective practitioner - the whole heartedness, open-mindedness and intellectual responsibility of my colleagues, - this way of working has led, I believe, to our workplace ‘becoming critical’ (Carr and Kemmis 1986).

Doing this self-study has been educative and rewarding for me. The mutual benefits of sharing knowledge with other practitioners are immeasurable. I leave the last word on my efforts to show how I have exercised my educative influence to a young colleague with whom I co-operated, during the school year 2003/2004, when we both had a senior infant class:

- I worked closely with Mary for my first year out of college. During that year I learned more and gained more valuable insights into what education is all about than I did in my whole four and a half years of college…The things I learned could not be written down in a textbook (extract from D’s letter 22-02-05)


References and Bibliography:

Boyer, E. (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate. New Jersey: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Carr W. and Kemmis S. (1986) Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge and Action Research. London: Falmer

Dewey, J. (1910) How We Think, Boston: DC Heath and Co., Publishers

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education, New York: Free Press

Donaldson, M. (1978) Children’s Minds, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins

Donnelly, P (1994) Thinking Time, Philosophy With Children: the educational, psychological and philosophical rationale for doing philosophy with primary school children. Open University M.Ed. Milton Keynes: unpublished thesis

Habermas, J (1987) The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 2: The Critique Of Functionalist Reason. Oxford: Polity

Hargreaves, A. (1992) Changing teachers, Changing Times, Cassell, New York

Heidegger, M. (1966) Discourse on Thinking, New York: Harper and Row

Heidegger M. and Krell D.F. (eds) (1993) Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. London: Routledge.

Lipman, M. (1988) Philosophy Goes To School. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University press

McNiff, J. (1993) teaching as learning. London and New York: Routledge.

McNiff, J. (2000) Action Research in Organisations. London and New York: Routledge.

McNiff, J. and Whitehead, J (2002) 2nd Ed Action Research: Principles and Practice: Second Edition. London and New York: Routledge

Peirce, C.S. (1955) Philosophical Writings. Selected and edited with introduction by Justus Buschler. New York: Dover Publications.

Roche, M. (2002) How can I improve my practice so as to help my pupils to philosophise? Unpublished Thesis, MA in Education: University of Western England

Sachs, J: (1999) Teacher Professional identity: Competing discourses, competing outcomes: paper presented at AARE Conference, Melbourne, November 1999 available at

Schon, D. (1995) The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology. Change, Nov-Dec 1995

Snow, C (2001) Knowing What We Know: Children, Teachers, Researchers. Educational Researcher (Vol 30, No 7)

Vygotsky, L. (1934) Thought And Language trans. Alex Kozulin. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press 1986

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Whitehead, J. (1989) ‘Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, “ How do I improve my practice”’, Cambridge, Journal of Education 19(1): 137-53

Whitehead, J. (1993) The Growth of Educational Knowledge: creating your own living educational ideas. Dorset: Hyde Publications

Whitehead, J. (2000) ‘How do I improve my practice? Creating and legitimating an epistemology of practice’. Reflective Practice 1(1): 91-104

Whitehead, J. and McNiff, J. (2003) Ontological, Epistemological and Methodological Commitments in Practitioner-Research available at

Zeichner, K. (1999) ‘The new scholarship in teacher education’ Educational Researcher 28(9): 4-15

What's New






Go to to order and to see further information about the book and its contents. 

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




© 2023 Jean McNiff |
web design Inverness: plexus © 2009-10