Critical Debates in Action Research

University of Limerick

Department of Education and Professional Studies

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Available as Word Document here

Click here to see the list of speakers and their topics

Click here to see the Book of Abstracts


In June 2003 the Department of Education and Professional Studies organised the first seminar in a series of Critical Debates in Action Research. The event was well attended, and has received favourable notices from key stakeholders. The potential significance of the event is considerable for establishing a view of professional education as a form of educational action research, in Ireland and elsewhere.

The aim of the seminar was to bring together prominent theorists in the field to share and debate their ideas. The seminar also provided an opportunity for doctoral students at the University to present their work-in-progress to an audience who would provide sympathetic critique that would help all participants to move their thinking forward. The seminar demonstrated in action the complementarity of more traditional forms of theorising, as well as newer forms of knowledge creation within practice. A key feature of the significance of the seminar was to show how the practical theories of practitioners could have substantial influence for organisational development.

The event was organised by Jean McNiff, Adjunct Professor to the College of Education, University of Limerick, and Tom Geary, Head of Department of Education and Professional Studies, University of Limerick.

What follows is a brief account of the seminar, for your information and interest.


The event

What was the aim of the seminar?

The seminar aimed to present a forum for debating critical issues in the field of action research. Key speakers would present their views on the issues and test their ideas against the living theories of practitioner researchers who were pursuing their doctoral self-studies. Because of the interactive nature of the event, participants from the worlds of professional education, educational research and educational policy would be able to participate in the debates. The whole seminar would take the form of critical engagement about what were seen as emergent issues in action research, and how these might be developed in practical settings.

What was the form of the seminar?

The seminar took the form of a series of six debates. In each debate, a critical issue was identified, and papers about the issue were presented by key speakers and doctoral students. There were subsequent opportunities in workshops for all participants to discuss the issues and ideas raised, and discuss what implications the ideas have for real-world practices in education settings.

What was the significance of the seminar?

This was the first event of its kind in Ireland that aimed to bring both prominent theorists and doctoral students together, as part of a critical educational community. The event presented the most up-to-date thinking in the field, from which all participants could learn how to take steps to improve the quality of learning in their own organisations. Significant implications arise from the seminar for how the professional learning of educators might be supported through the development of partnerships between schools/workplaces and universities.

The programme

The programme was organised as six critical debates that involved the presentation of papers to show processes of abstract and practical theory generation.

Debate 1         Action research and ICT

How do we make judgements about the impact of ICT on the quality of learning in schools, colleges and workplaces? Can an action research approach help? What are the potential implications for the professional education of teachers and other professionals?

Debate 2         What is the location for action research?

Where should action research be located? Schools / workplaces, or universities, or both? What are the relationships between workplaces and higher education? What kind of pedagogical relationships need to be developed to support sustainable forms of learning?

Debate 3         Action research for organisational change

What are the potentials of action research to impact on organisational change? Are there any necessary conditions? What about the politics of practitioner research for organisational change?

Debate 4         Identity, voice and representation

In whose voice do we speak our research – our own, our participants, others who share our views, others with alternative perspectives? How do we facilitate the voices of others (if that is an aim of our research) and enable those less privileged than ourselves to speak? How do we represent our work in ways that startle us into new understandings?

Debate 5         Forms of theory in action research

What forms of theory are most appropriate for doing action research and for generating action research accounts? How do we show the value of different forms of theory? How do we legitimate them? Who makes decisions about these things?

Debate 6         Validity and legitimacy in action research

How do we validate action research accounts? How do we legitimate them in the public domain? What do we need to learn about processes of validating and legitimating?

The people

Who took part in the seminar?

Presenters at the seminar included prominent key speakers whose work is influential in the world of action research, and doctoral students who are pursuing their action enquiries.

Key speakers and their papers

Marion Dadds, St Martin’s College Lancaster
Validation practices and practitioner research in award-bearing contexts: a discussion paper

Rachel Deitcher, David Yellin College Jerusalem
The implicit learning of action research

Margaret Farren, Dublin City University
How do we exercise our pedagogy of the unique in educating for social formations?

Revital Heimann, David Yellin College Jerusalem
Action research for organisational change: power restructure, empowerment or tension

Diarmuid Leonard, University of Limerick
Some problematics in school–university collaborative action research

Oliver McGarr, University of Limerick
Action research and ICT: Providing the catalyst for real change

Tim McMahon, University College Dublin
Validity and legitimacy in action research

Gerry McNamara, Dublin City University
Evaluating the reflective practitioner – a contradiction in terms?

Victoria Perselli, Kingston University
The use(s) of the Empty Space and the creation of a Social Stage in action research

Terry Phillips, University of East Anglia
Beyond tinkering: action research for organisational change

Ron Ritchie, University of the West of England
Encouraging and supporting action research for school improvement through multi-levelled approaches

Jack Whitehead, University of Bath (Click here to read Jack's paper at
Educational enquiries: How do I judge my educational influence in the education of myself, others and social formations? Do my judgements on my educational relationships have any significance for the generation and testing of educational theory?

Richard Winter, Anglia Polytechnic University
Marxism, Buddhism and action research

Doctoral researchers and their papers

Máirín Glenn, primary teacher, Co. Mayo
Multimedia, the celebration of creativity and multiple forms of learning

Breda Long, Adult Careers Advisor, Cork
Action research in organisational change

Patricia Mannix McNamara, lecturer, University of Limerick
Exploring the nature of pedagogical relationships at third level: from reflection to action

Pauline McDermott, community education facilitator, Co. Mayo
Developing a theory of community education for social change

Caitríona McDonagh, primary school teacher, Co. Dublin
Presenting voice in research practice

Mary Roche, primary school teacher, Cork
Setting the ‘what if …?’ free: talking and thinking in an infant classroom: an investigation into one teacher’s practice

Bernie Sullivan, primary school teacher, Dublin
Democratising practice as a means towards achieving social justice

What’s special about the work?

Here are summaries of the presentations of the doctoral researchers.

What is special about the work is that the researchers are demonstrating their own capacity for generating educational theory by studying their practice and asking questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve my work?’ (Whitehead, 1989). They incorporate the insights from propositional theories into the generation of their own living theories of education as they seek to influence the nature of organisational and social change by asking questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve my work for our mutual benefit as we try to improve our individual and collective situations?’


Máirín Glenn
Multimedia, the celebration of creativity and multiple forms of learning

Máirín explains how she has brought a critical perspective to her practice as a primary school teacher on the west coast of Ireland. She has learnt how to critique her own thinking, as well as dominant conceptualisations of curriculum, in a way that enables her to help her young students to see themselves as independent knowledge creators. The use of ICT presents opportunities for them to celebrate their multiple ways of learning and sharing their knowledge.

Breda Long
Action research in organisational change

Breda shows how she has influenced the processes of organisational change by adopting a critical perspective on her work as a career path advisor in the Local Employment Service, Cork. She explains how she has introduced dialogical forms of communication throughout the organisation that enable all to become active participants in decision making, and creative authors of their own life stories.

Patricia Mannix McNamara
Exploring the nature of pedagogical relationships at third level: from reflection to action

Patricia undertakes an investigation into her own practice as a professional educator in the Academy, in order to find ways of establishing pedagogical relationships with her students that enable them to come to perceive themselves, with Patricia, as communities of independent knowledge generators. She locates her studies within the literatures of reflective practice, critical pedagogy and educational liberation, as she generates her living theories from the experience of being both educator and student.

Pauline McDermott
Developing a theory of community education for social change

The aim of Pauline’s research is to generate her own theory of community education. She explains how she is aiming to live out more fully her values of social justice, inclusion and the establishment of pluralistic rights as she creates a supportive learning environment in which adults who have been marginalized can gain the confidence to take control of their own development and enrichment through lifelong learning.

Caitríona McDonagh
Presenting voice in research practice

By investigating her work in improving the quality of learning experience for pupils with specific learning disabilities, Caitríona shows how she has generated a form of educational theory that values children’s learning abilities rather than their difficulties. She explains how she and the children she teaches have come to exercise their voice in the development of their own capacity for knowledge generation with a view to influencing what counts as legitimate forms of theory and practice.

Mary Roche
Setting the ‘what if …?’ free: talking and thinking in an infant classrooms: an investigation into one teacher’s practice

Mary explains how she has generated her own living theory of teaching philosophical enquiry to very young children, in order to help them learn to critique taken-for-granted assumptions about the world and make their own choices in company with others about how they should live. Mary’s investigation is itself a philosophical enquiry as she deals with ontological, epistemological and ethical issues in her efforts to exercise her educative influence for organisational and social change.

Bernie Sullivan
Democratising practice as a means towards achieving social justice

From her belief in the right of all pupils to equality in regard to educational services, Bernie explains how she enables Traveller children to use their voice in making choices relating to their education. She explains that the significance of her work lies not only in how she has empowered children to transcend the oppressive and dehumanising effects of structural prejudice but also how she is generating a theory of justice in education that has profound implications for a reconceptualisation of learning entitlement in schools.

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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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