Jazzy glasses and seven-league boots

Reflecting on the question, What are the philosophical and methodological relationships between qualitative research and action research?

Jean McNiff with Jack Whitehead and Mary Roche

Word Version Available


This paper is about the philosophical and methodological foundations of qualitative research and action research, and their interrelationship. Addressing these issues involves what Whitehead (2003) calls ‘a philosophical imagination’, that is, the capacity to wonder and to ask what might happen if … . Because I believe it is important, when presenting one’s work, to use a form of presentation that is commensurate with the content of the work, I am hoping to use the form of this paper itself to communicate how I am using my philosophical imagination to reflect on the issues. This is one way in which I try to hold myself accountable for my work. The framework I adopt is the one developed originally by Jack Whitehead (1989, 1999a) and which I have used systematically throughout my own research programme (McNiff, 1993, 2000, 2002). The framework poses these kinds of questions:

What is my concern?

Why am I concerned?

How can I show the situation as it is?

What do I think I can do about my concern?

What will I do?

How will I gather evidence to show how I have influenced the situation?

How can I be sure that any conclusions I draw are reasonably fair and accurate?

How will I modify my practice in the light of my evaluation?

In making this opening statement I not only want to set out my methodology for the paper; I also want to acknowledge my debt of gratitude to my friend and colleague, Jack Whitehead, for his kindness, intellectual inspiration, and spiritual companionship over a more than twenty year friendship. During the whole of that time, Jack never told me, or anyone else in my recollection, what to think or what to do. He did however constantly ask the kind of questions and offer the kind of support that made me develop confidence in finding my own answers and acting on them. I learned this form of pedagogy from Jack, and I now practise it in relation to those whose studies I support. At the end of this series of three papers is a transcript of a conversation I had with a group of doctoral researchers in January 2003. There they agree that, like Jack, I refuse to give them answers, but I do show that I have the faith in their own capacity to find their own answers and act on them, and that commitment of faith gives the necessary inspiration for them to do so. For me, this is the amazing wonder of learning, a wonder that I hope will stay with me for ever.


You see that I use different glasses for different purposes. I have long-distance glasses for ordinary wear, short-distance glasses for reading and close work, middle-distance glasses for computer work, and sunglasses against the glare. These different pairs of glasses have different lenses whose function is to let me see clearly in different contexts. I would like to develop this idea of different ways of seeing to make two points in relation to educational research: (1) working within different paradigms involves different ways of seeing; and (2) appreciating the relationship between qualitative research and action research involves a way of seeing that is different from the way in which we see traditional forms of social scientific enquiry. It requires a new focus. This is the case both for action researchers, and for those who want to comment on what action researchers are doing.

In ‘Sophie’s World’ (Gaardner, 1995), the philosopher, Alberto Knox, invites Sophie to put on a pair of glasses with red lenses. When she does so, of course she sees everything in red. In a famous experiment, Stratton (1896) wore a special ‘telescope’ that made him see things as inverted. Although in the early stages of wearing the device he bumped into objects and lost his orientation, eventually he got so used to it that he had no trouble at all. When he took the device off after a period of time, he again experienced disorientation.

I want to stay with this point of how new perceptions of reality can become new realities, and relate it to how we work in different research contexts.

What is my concern?

My concern is that many educational researchers who write about the philosophical and methodological foundations of educational research do so while wearing inappropriate glasses. They use glasses whose focus is adjusted only to the visual field they are working in, and the focus is often inaccurate. Sometimes they get stuck in one way of seeing, and this way of seeing might not be appropriate for new fields, which require new ways of seeing. Because their work is often influential, others come to believe that these researchers have the correct perspective. This, for me, is deeply worrying, as I now explain.

In traditional social scientific research it is appropriate to wear glasses that let us see reality in a certain way. In my imagination, these glasses are plain and brown in colour. They sit firmly on the face, and lend an air of severity to the wearer. When we work in qualitative and action research, however, we put on glasses that let us see reality in another way. For me, these glasses are bright and jazzy. They have big frames, so our eyes appear large and full of wonder.

Putting on different kinds of glasses can be difficult for some people. The difficulty can be compounded by the fact that wearing new kinds of glasses in order to see differently is usually accompanied by a certain level of eyestrain. Kuhn (1970) knew this. He explains how paradigm shifts are usually characterised by turbulence, conflict and confusion, because the shifts themselves constitute new realities. For some people, the process of finding and engaging with new ways of perceiving can be difficult. For many, it is impossible. The process involves first, an awareness of the need for new kinds of glasses; second, the acceptance of the discomfort of getting used to them; and third, a willingness to change one’s ways of seeing for ever, because learning to see differently means literally changing one’s mind. When we see something, we ‘see’ it not only with the eye but also with the brain (Gregory, 1970). And when we commit, deliberately and consistently, to new ways of seeing and knowing, we find somewhere that we have gone beyond a point of no return. We come to see differently.

Polanyi puts it like this:

Having made a discovery, I shall never see the world as before. My eyes have become different. I have made myself into a person seeing and thinking differently. I have crossed a gap, a heuristic gap that lies between problem and discovery.

(Polanyi, 1958: 143)

Qualitative research and action research involve ways of seeing that transcend and transform traditional ways, the exercise of what Whitehead (1999b) calls ‘the philosophical imagination’, that is, the capacity to see new things in new ways, to perceive the potentials of all living processes, and to imagine how things might be yet.

Why am I concerned?

The emphasis on philosophical imagining is central, not only in educational research, but also in life processes (and educational action research is about life processes). Gaardner explains (op. cit.) that philosophy is concerned with asking questions about the nature of life, its origins, and its potentials. It involves asking questions about who we are, why we are here, and how we should live. Philosophy is not about finding answers so much as about asking interesting and important questions. It is not about establishing certainty, but about retaining uncertainty. It is about clinging to our sense of wonder, retaining the capacity to be astonished at life, and refusing to be seduced into comfortable ways of thinking. Exercising this capacity for wonder, I think, is what educational research should be about. Educational research should be about people asking questions of the kind, ‘How do I …?’ (Whitehead, 1999a) and ‘What if …?’ (Roche, 2003). For me, educational research is grounded in a special kind of philosophical wonder that has the potential to transform into considered action. As an example of this idea, here is an excerpt from a conversation with Mary Roche, a primary school teacher in Ireland whose doctoral studies I support. Before I supported her doctoral studies, I also supported her masters studies. I believe this excerpt shows Mary’s capacity to inspire her children to retain their sense of philosophical wonder.

Mary says:

‘I am working with junior infants who are an average age of four and a half years old. We take ordinary topics, ordinary fairy stories, nursery rhymes, things that have relevance for them, for example, the Humpty Dumpty story. We don’t just ask, ‘How many buttons did Humpty have on his coat?’ or ‘What colour are his shoes?’ or ‘How many bricks are there in the wall?’ We ask interesting questions and we talk about situations such as ‘Why might Humpty Dumpty be up on that wall in the first place?’ This is moving them from an acceptance of that little nursery rhyme as a given into creative and abstract ideas, freeing their imagination and creating wonderful and new ideas around why he might be there. In our conversations we come to appreciate that there are many answers, but there is no one right answer.’

I am arguing that the kind of glasses needed to understand the significance of philosophical questions for the generation of educational theory are glasses that enable their wearers to develop X-ray vision and also supra-extended beyond-horizon vision. Let me explain.

How can I show the situation as it is?

Much educational research and theory are still rooted in the traditional social sciences. The application of social science methods has long been the foundation of traditional approaches to educational research.

Some philosophers of education critique this idea. For example, Pring (2000) says:

The term ‘research’ is used to refer to any ‘systematic, critical and self-critical enquiry which aims to contribute to the advancement of knowledge’ (see Stenhouse, 1975, p. 156). It is broad enough to encompass not only empirical research, but also historical, documentary and philosophical research. One might refer here to Bassey, 1995, for a useful mapping of the different kinds and dimensions of educational research arising from the Stenhouse definition. Clearly, therefore, such research in its critical enquiry draws upon the social sciences, but it is the argument of this book that it cannot be reduced to them. The distinctive features of any enquiry are determined by the nature of the subject matter to be enquired into. It is part of the philosophical task both to keep the social sciences at bay and to show how and when they can be appropriately drawn upon.

(Pring, 2000: 7)

Pring is making the important point that educational research methodology (as in action research and qualitative approaches) draws on social science methodologies but cannot be reduced to them. From Pring I gather that while it is possible to appreciate how certain conditions can lead to certain outcomes in certain cases, these methodologies are insufficient to offer explanations for educational practices that are grounded in values and the imaginative engagement that, as I am arguing here, is the necessary starting point to realise values as live practices.

The kinds of methodologies that are appropriate for generating explanations of value-laden educational practices are those that allow real people to ask real questions about the mysteries of life – who we are, why we are here, and how we should live. Dadds and Hart (2001) have used the term ‘methodological inventiveness’ to describe the emergent nature of the methodologies used by practitioner researchers.

Social scientific methodologies assume that theories are created linguistically. They exist as ideas that are expressed in sentences held together in terms of their logical and empirical relationships. Hence theories exist as interconnected sets of propositions. In my opinion, these kinds of theories cannot explain our educational influence. This is because the embodied knowledge of what we are doing cannot be reduced to interconnected sets of propositions. Any attempt to do so eliminates significant elements that we experience in our lives as we live our contradictions (Hamilton, 2001).

Action research methodologies are grounded in the process of living our contradictions (Whitehead’s consistent theme of experiencing oneself as a living contradiction – see www.actionresearch.net/JW's writings Indeed, it could be argued, as Mellor (1998) and Atkinson (2000) claim, that struggle is the methodology. Action research methodologies enable people to engage with the struggle to make sense of what they are doing. The process of making sense emerges as living dynamic theories as people ask questions about themselves and their work, questions such as the ones I am using as my framework:

What is my concern?

Why am I concerned?

How can I show the situation as it is?

What do I think I can do about my concern?

What will I do?

How will I gather evidence to show how I have influenced the situation?

How can I be sure that any judgements I come to are reasonably fair and accurate?

How will I modify my practice in the light of the evaluation?

(this theme permeates the writings of Jack Whitehead – see www.actionresearch.net)

Asking these questions is itself a process of generating theories, that is, theories about ourselves and others, and how we can improve what we are doing (it is what I am doing now in presenting this paper). This theorising calls for imaginative engagement, because it rests on the assumption that we can improve ourselves and our life situations, and we also have the philosophical imagination, practical resolve, and competence to do so. The theories we generate are our theories of living, and these theories are themselves living. They are living theories about how we should live (Whitehead, 1989, 1999a and b, 2000).

This living form of theory generation is very different from the generation of theory in the social sciences. Social science theories are conceptual and linguistic, expressed as propositions. The validity of the theory is understood to reside in the logical and empirical relationships between the propositions. In this tradition, it is possible to make statements about people and the way they live as if those people are so many objects of study. Indeed, it is possible to generate theories about the process of theory generation itself, as the following statement shows:

‘Theory’ would seem to have the following features. It refers to a set of propositions which are stated with sufficient generality yet precision that they explain the ‘behaviour’ of a range of phenomena and predict what would happen in future. An understanding of these propositions includes an understanding of what would refute them – or at least what would count as evidence against their being true.

(Pring, 2000: 124–5)

Prescriptive definitions like this can be useful for helping us get a grasp on what it is all about. We wear brown glasses for this. A problem arises however when it is assumed that this is the whole story. Much educational theorising continues to assume that prescriptive definitions like this are sufficient to understand and explain complex living processes. It is considered sufficient to offer explanations only from within a linguistic practice of working with words, and not to offer explanations also from within an experiential practice of working with people. One wonders what kind of glasses are being worn when, on the one hand, we are told that educational research must not be reduced to the methods of the social sciences, and on the other, it is considered sufficient to use social science forms of theorising to explain living processes.

An implication of the use of social scientific theorising is that theory can then be applied to practice, on the assumption that successful practice depends on how well one knows the theory that informs it. This view has become so dominant in some quarters that it goes largely unquestioned, though it has been extensively critiqued in others. Ryle, for example, rightly saw through it as a mythology, what he called ‘the intellectualist legend’:

The crucial objection to the intellectualist legend is this. The consideration of propositions is itself an operation the execution of which can be more or less intelligent, less or more stupid. But if, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation needs first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle.

(Ryle, 1949: 31)

My interpretation of the implications of Ryle’s words is that if we have first to understand the theory of how to do something, without doing that thing first, we could end up doing nothing.

It becomes evident that those who understand practice as the application of propositional theory are wearing one particular kind of glasses that let them perceive this as the kind of operation that can explain real lives. My own glasses begin to steam up with frustration at this point. Propositional theories do not explain my life, nor the lives of the people I work with. We understand our practice realities as always in relation to what we do within wider social systems. We generate our living theories out of our living practices. To do this however means moving into Gestalt planes that transcend and transform prescriptive definitions. We exchange our plain brown glasses for colourful jazzy ones, in order to see the potentials in new ways of live theorising and its implications for real lives.

What do I think I can do about my concern?

Twenty years ago I began working with others to establish the legitimacy of new forms of theory, in particular Jack Whitehead’s idea of living theories. This meant working with others to promote a new kind of educational research that would generate new kinds of theories. In our case this was action research. Action research calls for awarenesses that are qualitatively different from the awarenesses needed in social scientific research.

Appreciating the significance of action research needs an imaginative capacity that lets us see the generative transformational potentials within what Whitehead calls living educational theories (see above). To explain this concept, I will draw on three ideas to do with the infinitude of possibilities. The first idea comes from a modification of Husserl’s idea (1931), in that what people are doing there is an infinitude of knowledge that exists previous to all deduction. The second idea comes from Goethe (1988) who maintains that an original life form holds all its future forms within itself. The third idea comes from Chomsky (1986) who believes that a finite number of components can generate an infinite number of original forms. Ideas like these have been taken up and developed by thinkers such as Bohm (1987), Capra (1996) and Wheatley (1992), who use the metaphors of the new sciences to describe and explain social practices.

What will I do?

I have also used these metaphors (McNiff, 2000, 2002) to explain how I have supported the living educational enquiries of practitioners as they ask, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ (Whitehead, 1989). The kind of philosophical imagination that is needed for such practitioner-researchers as they create their own living educational theories (as distinct from social scientific theories) involves a recognition that, in enquiries of the kind, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’, an infinitude of knowledge exists in the question. To see the encapsulated potentials of an infinitude of new forms we need to put on glasses (jazzy glasses of course) that give us X-ray vision that penetrates below surface levels to deep levels. The encapsulated infinitude of knowledge we discern at the deep levels has the potential to transform into an infinite number of new forms at the surface levels of practice. To appreciate this transformative capacity, we need to look beyond the immediate visual field and over the horizon, that is, learn how to see the multiple universes of potential that as yet exist only in the imagination but which may be realised as lived experience. By wearing these kinds of imaginary glasses we can appreciate how thinking at a tacit level can transform into social action, how values can transform into practice, and how constraints can transform into new possibilities. We can appreciate how the personal enquiries of one individual can transform into social practices at a global level. We wear our jazzy glasses in the same way as we wear seven-league boots. Seven-league boots are boots worn by legendary heroes to enable them to cover seven leagues at one stride. These are the kinds of boots educational action researchers wear when, having seen through their jazzy glasses the way things might be beyond the horizon, they then take giant steps to changing their circumstances in line with what they believe they can do.

To come to this point, however, where we do appreciate the potentials that life itself has to offer, and imagine ways in which we can turn our social hopes into social reality (Rorty, 1999), we need to move on in our own capacity to wonder, to exercise our philosophical imagination. We need to understand that successful action begins with imagined possibilities, not with propositional statements. The willingness to wonder does not need any special glasses or boots. It is grounded in the ontological commitment to keep one’s mind fresh and receptive to new possibilities, including new ways of seeing and imagining. This is not an action of vision, but an act of faith.

Imagination is a contagious disease. It cannot be measured by the yard, or weighed by the pound, and then delivered to the students by members of the faculty. It can only be communicated by a faculty whose members wear their learning with imagination … The whole art in the organisation of a university is the provision of a faculty whose learning is lighted up with imagination. This is the problem of problems in university education.

(Whitehead, A.N., 1929: 146)

How will I gather evidence to show how I have influenced the situation?

To support these ideas I wish to draw again on the work of Mary Roche, who has exercised her philosophical imagination in helping her young students to do the same, that is, to ask questions that enable them to retain their sense of wonder and delight in living. I am presenting her work as evidence of my educative influence in her life.

Mary has built philosophy into her curriculum. In her research programme which takes as the unit of enquiry Mary’s own critical pedagogy, philosophy does not appear as the study of other philosophers’ thinking, but as a study of her own thinking in relation to that of the children. As well as offering the children imaginary pairs of philosophical glasses, Mary also offers the children a ‘talking object’ in the form of a cushion, or some other object, that entitles them to speak without interruption as they ask questions of the kind, ‘What if …?’ and ‘I wonder …?’ As they gain confidence about speaking and being listened to, the children gradually lose their reliance on the talking object and graduate to ‘passing the tip’ – simply tapping the next person in the circle lightly on the shoulder. Mary also teaches the children the language of critical debate, so that they can test their sense of wonder against the critical evaluation of their peers in a context of respect and admiration for one another and all creation. Mary is claiming credit for her own educative influence in helping the children come to engage in critical thinking.

‘A parent told me the story of where her seven-year-old son – my student – and his nine-year-old brother were in the bath together. The nine-year-old was dominating the conversation, and the seven-year-old suddenly handed him the bar of soap and said, “Here, use this as a talking object, and while you have this in your hand you’re allowed to speak, and that’s what our teacher did until we got grown up enough to talk without having a talking object.” His mother found that fascinating. She felt it was transference from what they were doing in school into the home situation, and she was astute enough to recognise it as educationally significant.’

Mary also tells the story:

‘One of the most striking things happened while a class of seven-year-old children were talking … and one child said, “Actually, I kind of disagree with myself now.” I thought that was really wonderful, that through the creation of knowledge that takes place in their little talking circle, through listening to what other children were saying, he actually changed his own standpoint. He not only changed it but also recognised that he had changed it. I thought that was super.’

How can I be sure that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and accurate?

I believe it is essential, in the process of holding ourselves accountable for our work, to produce evidence that our influence has had educative impact in other people’s lives. In this paper I am claiming that educational theories are grounded in a capacity to theorise practice in terms of the realisation of what could be. In education terms, this could be expressed as the practical realisation of educational values. I am claiming that I have exercised my philosophical imagination, the grounding of my educative influence, in this way. I have a dream that people can come to have confidence in their own capacity to transform their dreams and educational values into reality. Through my own action research, I have taken what at times seemed like giant steps to realise my dream, a daunting but achievable venture when armed with my jazzy glasses and seven-league boots. I have achieved my dreams. The conversation at the end of this set of papers is, I believe, testimony to that. At this point I again offer Mary Roche’s testimony.

Mary says:

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

How will I modify my practice in the light of my evaluation?

When I say that I have achieved my dreams, I must qualify my statement. I have achieved my dreams insofar as the people whose studies I support are now exercising their educative influence within their own contexts. In other papers and books I have explained how people have made the ideas their own and are now bringing the ideas into their own contexts to change their own situations. I have also achieved my dreams insofar as I can draw on them now as pedagogical illustrations. I can explain what other people and I do, and I can produce the evidence to support the idea that what we do has significant potential for the development of internally sustainable societies. I can also use stories such as the story recounted in this paper to persuade people to change their attitudes towards their own capacity to dream, and to find ways of transforming their dreams into social reality.

I have not yet achieved my dream of embedding action research within university structures to the extent that it becomes a legitimate part of institutional epistemologies and methodologies. I am working on that. The current doctoral-level work is setting new precedents for new forms of teaching and learning within the academy.

One thing is clear for me. All my professional life I have been working primarily at the level of practical engagement with other people. In many ways, the practical work has outstripped the theoretical work. For a whole range of reasons, the time has now come for me to devote more time to writing, for I believe we exercise our influence in many ways, and one of my ways is writing. As my life circumstances change, so the form of my practice changes. I enjoy working with ideas, because ideas are what underpin ideologies and values, the animating impulses that inform our social practices and activism. Without the time and space to dream we become so many functionaries.

How will I modify my practice? I will dream a little more.

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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 www.yorksj.ac.uk/value&virtue 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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