Introducing the paper and the research

This paper is a brief progress report on the conceptualisation and implementation of a long-term personal project to investigate the nature and purposes of writing for publication in educational action research, so it is located within the field of critical academic literacies (see Lankshear and Knobel 2011). The personal project is part of a wider collaborative inter-institutional project called the ‘Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research’ project, that began in 2011 at York St John University (see When I speak about writing for publication, I refer to multiple aspects of writing as, among others, ‘writing as expression’, ‘writing for explanation’, ‘writing to persuade’ and ‘writing as communication’. I also consider my own practices of helping others to write, also for publication, and to understand why they should write and what may be the significance of their writing.

Both the personal project and the institutional project are informed by the same democratic and socially-oriented values; these are about finding ways to enable individuals to reclaim and proclaim their identities as enquiring practitioners (Rowland 2000) and educational activists in virtuous workplaces, including universities (Nixon 2008). This also fulfils my own ideas about how critical reflection should be seen as a main criterion for what may be seen as acting in the direction of the social good.

It is hoped that the ideas in the paper may contribute to debates about the nature and purposes of the relatively new field of academic literacies (see the Winter 2010 Themed Issue of Research Intelligence), through emphasising that, although the field is inter-disciplinary, the development of capacity in critical literacy needs to be construed as a discipline that is generative and transformational in nature and educational in purpose.

With Faith in the Works of Words (Doxtader 2009)

Much of my interest stems from engagement with ideas similar to those expressed by Erik Doxtader’s (2009) title With Faith in the Works of Words. He explains how ideas regarding the nature and conduct of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa were developed through many people talking about the possibilities of reconciliation and what transformation might look like. Initially, no concrete plans were drawn up: everything needed to be explored. Consequently, says, Doxtader, instead of being seen as an event, ‘reconciliation may be better understood as a form of potential that may or may not come to be (actualised)’ (p. xi, parentheses in original). Something similar must be going on in the (2011) newly reconstituted Arab states, where the sudden vacuums created through the removal of former regimes provide opportunities for new ideas, systems and practices. Those ideas need to be discussed collaboratively and democratically, and moved around experimentally beforehand, otherwise what actually gets put in place may become a matter of guesswork and possible opportunism for a repetition of previous orthodoxies. It is important at any transition point in any kind of personal and social evolution to dare to imagine and then find ways to test the validity of the imaginary and transform it into reality.

Which questions? Which focus?

In relation to the development of truth and reconciliation commissions, Doxtader (2009: x) asks, ‘How do words of reconciliation transform human relationships?’

In relation to collaboratively researching one’s practices, I ask: ‘How do words of anything transform human relationships in relation to any aspect of their world?’ How do words of love or indifference transform relationships with the self and with others, between humans and animals, or the natural environment? As far as we know, only humans can speak and think in language, or use language to speak about language; only humans can discursively plan and create their futures, through speech and action (Arendt 1958), learning from the past to inform the future.

So I am interested in the works of words at different levels, and I ask:

1.     Which kinds of words transform relationships? What kinds of discourses do we use with one another, and for what purposes? Do we use dialogical or monological discourses, and why? How do words influence the construction of identity? In epistemological terms, this becomes the ‘what’ of what we know.

2.     How can becoming critically aware of the words we use create the conditions for transforming perceptions and relationships with self and others? Do we demonstrate awareness of normative contexts (Winter 1989); do we interrogate our own discourses? In epistemological terms, this becomes the ‘how’ of ‘how we come to know what we know’.

3.     How do we articulate the significance of these processes? Do these epistemological transformations contribute to the development of new understandings about the relationship between what we say we know and social transformation? In epistemological terms, this becomes the ‘why?’ and the ‘so what?’ of what we know.

This shift in emphasis, from the form of words, to their use, and then to the significance of the processes involved, signals a change from description to explanation to critical theorisation. The same epistemological shift also happened in linguistics during the 1950s, and possibly even earlier – a move away from study of knowledge of the structures of language (a kind of behaviourist perspective – see Bloomfield 1933, Skinner 1957), to an investigation into the origins, nature and uses of language (cognitive perspectives, generative transformational perspectives – see Chomsky 1957, 1986), which later gave rise to psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics; and later still to appreciation of the significance of these shifts for social evolution (Hall et al 2011).

I am interested in what happens when similar moves happen in educational enquiry, and their implications for social evolution. An example is given in the words of Ball and Tyson (2011: 1), President and Program Chair respectively for the 2012 American Educational Research Association, in their introduction to their mapping of the themes of the conference. The title is ‘Non Satis Scrire: To Know is Not Enough’ (Retrieved 4 September 2011 from They say:

The mission of AERA is “to advance knowledge about education, to encourage scholarly inquiry related to education, and to promote the use of research to improve education and serve the public good.” Our mission is sound.

We have been vigilant in executing the first half of our mission: We hold each other to high standards, we review critically each other’s scholarship, and we invest significant time and energy in an effort to publish only the best education research. We have been less vigilant and less effective, however, in promoting “the use of research to improve education and serve the public good” (emphases in original).

So far so good – here is outlined the need to move from the ‘What’ to the ‘How and Why?’ Pleasing to report is that what these researchers are calling for is already, to a certain extent, being realised in the work of practitioner researchers around the world, and in different domains as follows:

1.     An evidence base of collaborative research practices, aimed at serving the public good;

2.     An archive of theoretical resources, drawn from practice and informing new practices;

1.     An evidence base to show appreciation of how this work itself constitutes an epistemological shift in educational enquiry that potentially contributes to the social good (I elaborate on this third point later in the paper).

(1)             An evidence base of collaborative research practices aimed at serving the public good

A comprehensive evidence base already exists in print and multimedia form to show that practitioner-researchers everywhere, who have undertaken action enquiries to establish social justice and develop new forms of living, have done so with a view to improving education and serving the public good. Extracts from the database are: work in China with Moira Laidlaw (; Canada with Jacqueline Delong (; South Africa (work by Lesley Wood at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University at; work at Durban University of Technology – see; in Ireland by Jean McNiff (see for example doctoral theses and masters dissertations at; and also by Margaret Farren at Dublin City University – see; work of the US AERA Action Research Special Interest Group Coordinated by Margaret Riel (; the UK (see Jack Whitehead’s comprehensive website at; Joan Walton and her work at Liverpool Hope (for example; New Zealand with Pip and Bruce Ferguson (; work in Qatar and the Gulf States (McNiff 2011a and and elsewhere – these and many other examples may be found at www.jeanmcniff and

I outline below two research projects that count as part of my contribution to this evidence base.

(2)            An archive of theoretical resources, drawn from practice and informing new practices

An evidence base of theoretical resources also exists, especially in relation to recent and contemporary ideas such as Boyer’s research into new forms of scholarship (1990); Schön’s ideas about new epistemologies (1995); Gibbons et al’s ideas of Mode 2 forms of knowledge (1994); Whitehead’s ideas (1989, 1999) about developing living theories of practice and a scholarship of educational enquiry… and so on. I shall shortly give some examples of this in action. An original personal contribution has been the idea of generative transformational approaches in educational enquiry, which I outline here.

Generative transformational approaches

I have been developing this idea since the 1970s, both from studying my own practices (McNiff 1984, 1988, 1989, 2000), and from engaging with the work of key theorists. Others have used this framework to inform their own research (for example, Hymer 2007, whose D.Ed.Psych I had the pleasure of examining: see I use this same framework in this paper for understanding the works of words, and their transformational influence for human relationships. I also explore the idea that such a process-oriented form of framework better serves the public good than traditional static propositional frameworks, for process forms are located in the real world and contribute to social hope (Rorty 1999) (see below). In 1984 I developed the model below (see Figure 2), to try to communicate the unbounded nature of the potentials of human practices and possibly of other evolutionary systems.

The reasons for this interest in generative transformational forms stems from my own situatedness as a practitioner-researcher and writer who has moved from mainstream teaching into higher education. My former job in mainstream schools and private organisations was to teach German, French, English, and English as a Foreign Language: symptomatic perhaps of my abiding love of linguistics, my ‘faith in the works of words’. I came to understand that the idea of generative transformational processes is a hallmark of people I would call process researchers and theorists (see also Browning and Myers 1998), working across a range of inter-disciplinary and inter-related work: for example:

·      process linguistics: the work of Chomsky and his early work on generative transformational approaches (1957, 1986); the links with his political theories (e.g. 2000);

·      process theorists: ideas of immanence and emergence: von Humboldt’s (1999) and Spinoza’s (2004) ideas of immanence and emergence in real-world practices; Goethe (1957) whose thinking was influenced by Spinoza;  

·      process philosophers: such as Peirce, Dewey and Bateson (see Browning and Myers 1998);

·      process pedagogies: e.g. Freire, Rogers and Buber (see Friedman 2002);

·      process forms of theory: Chomsky (1986) (I-theories), Whitehead (1989) (living theories)

·      process epistemologies: Schön (1995); Thayer-Bacon (2003);

·      process logics: Dewey (1910/1991); Rorty (1999);

·      process discourses: Wittgenstein (2004); Gee (1990) – how words shape our identities and our lives;

·      process methodologies: action research (McNiff 1989, McNiff and Whitehead 2009);

I used to see these different aspects as linear and hierarchically embedded; however, an interest in historiography and its primarily narrative methods (White 1973) (both process forms) reveals all the domains as inter-related across time and space. This also has implications for a recent shift in my own ontological and methodological perspectives (see below). 

Two research projects

Now let me return to the evidence base of practices oriented towards the social good, and speak about two recent collaborative action research projects that also show in reality the processes of generative transformation outlined above. I deliberately choose action research as a preferred methodology because it has generative transformational potential, in that practice acts as the grounds for theorisation, which in turn informs new practices which embody past, present and future forms of theorisation. This is a departure from normative perspectives of the relationship between theory and practice (e.g. Pring 2000) (see also Ryle’s 2000: 31 idea that ‘efficient practice precedes the theory of it’).

Describing the projects

These two projects happened simultaneously, from 2007 to 2010, in two places: (1) in Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, and (2) in St Mary’s University College, Twickenham (see McNiff 2011b). In Khayelitsha I worked with ten teachers who wished to get their masters degrees. The work was problematic for a range of reasons, including the historical situatedness of the teachers and their work, and the tensions and expectations involved from both the teachers and myself about how we would relate to one another. For this paper I focus specifically on the tensions arising out of the teachers’ self-perceptions as formerly colonised peoples and therefore helpless, dependent and entitled. Added to this, most had not had the kind of academic background or as refined skills or knowledge base as one would normally associate with higher degree study. They appreciated that they needed to develop capacity in all aspects of academic literacies. Yet those teachers did get their masters degrees, some with distinction.

Photo of Khayelitsha graduations

At the same time I also delivered the same masters programme in St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, working with eight academic staff, two of who already had their masters degrees and wished to engage in further study, and six of who wished to get masters accreditation. Like the teachers, their self-perceptions tended to be as teachers and teacher educators, not as academics or intellectuals. All achieved their masters degrees, all with distinction. Four of the original eight are now registered on their doctoral programmes, and are extending their work to developing initial and higher degree programmes grounded in the same relational epistemologies that we used (see for example James 2011; Pearson 2011).

(Photograph pending)

Photo of St Mary’s group at graduation

Explaining the projects

I undertook this work for several reasons, related to my ontological, epistemological, methodological and socio-political values. These included the ideas that all people, pathology aside, are able, and have a responsibility to occupy the place specially designated for them on earth (see also Arendt 1958), and to exercise their capacity for Plato’s idea of parrhesia (Foucault 2001), the right and responsibility to speak their truth as they see it, and to subject their views to critical debate (Habermas’s 1976 ideas of developing a public sphere for the consideration of truth claims).

I chose action research as my preferred methodology, since this was the only methodology with sufficient generative transformational capacity that could enable participants to offer accounts of how they changed a focus on the individual ‘I’ to one of the ‘I’ in a dialogically discursive relationship with others as they recreate their identities and their visions of new possible futures. At the same time, considerable changes were taking place in my own conceptualisations of action research, about the need to engage with the kinds of power-constituted nature of discourses, the need for deconstructing a view of self as Centre, and for deconstructing the very idea of ‘Centre’ (Ngugi wa Thiong’o 1993).

I encouraged all to make their action enquiries public, using a range of forms of textual representation, whether in print or multimedia form. My theoretical understandings also became refined as I came to see how these processes were working towards more open and unbounded forms, both of societies and of epistemologies, through the development of what I would term, following Rorty (1999), personal and social hope. This has implications for conceptualisations of the nature and purposes of academic literacies.  

Possible significance of the projects

The work in both contexts involved a range of transformations, for individuals and collectives, including the following:

·      a shift from a substantive disciplines base (e.g. Science, Maths, Design) to a practice base (‘How do I evaluate my practice?’), and from a relationship of ‘teacher and taught’ (‘What do you want me to learn?’) to a confidence in personal enquiry (‘I wish to do my own learning for myself’).

·      a shift in self-perception, from being helpless and looking for support, to being capable and offering support to others; from a need for ready-made resources, to a desire to engage in independent research and the production of original knowledge.

·      a reconceptualisation of personal identity, from being an innocent ‘trainee’ to being a non-innocent ‘knower’, and from being an ‘everyday practitioner’ to being a ‘researcher and theorist of considerable merit’.

Managing these transformations required a critical stance, from participants and from me, towards our individual and collaborative learning. We all came to appreciate how personal perceptions are often influenced by normative conceptualisations of the work of teachers, academic staff, and of universities in general. Don’t we often try to be the people other people want us to be, rather than the people we want to be? And often we are not even aware of the differences between the perceptions or why we are fulfilling them.

It also involved learning to read and write (often re-write) the different texts of higher education, which are themselves in a transformational relationship with one another, as the following typography suggests:

·      Achieving technical competence in writing: This was especially problematic for the South African teachers, for whom English was a second, third or even fourth language. It involved considerable negotiation for me to help the teachers develop their work editorially and conceptually, while not actually writing their texts for them. It may also have been problematic for those who were making the identity shift from ‘practitioner’ to ‘researcher’.

·      Learning ‘academic language’: It is well appreciated that academic writing is different from everyday discourses. When people who self-identify as teachers arrive for a higher degree study session they often need to switch register, style, sentence structure, choice of vocabulary, and other aspects of language use, from ‘classroom speak’ to ‘academic speak’.

·      Learning to write for a reader: One of the most difficult aspects of writing for publication is to write for a reader, to see writing as a form of pedagogy that communicates ideas through the text; this involves organising ideas appropriately so that a reader will see immediately what the writer wishes them to see.

·      Learning the normative practices of continuing study in a frequently alien and rigorously disciplined return-to-study environment: e.g. the need for accurate referencing and observation of academic conventions; accessing and using the literatures; handing in work on time; negotiating assignment schedules; achieving assessment criteria; and so on.   

·      In brief, learning to turn oneself from being a classroom teacher into a successful writer and academic practitioner. Both groups achieved this, as their work attests – see (detailed urls available shortly).

Excerpts from correspondences and conversations show how all participants developed capacity in using the ‘right’ words for supporting dialogue; and how they appreciated why these words created the conditions for understanding and, where appropriate, reconciliation. They also spoke of the significance of what they were doing – see for example, Zola Malgas speaking about the significance of her learning for her work and the future of herself and colleagues at

You can also see some critical reflections from Tsepo Majake and colleagues at  

Luvuyo Ngumbe writes in his dissertation:

In conclusion, my Master of Arts in Education with a focus on Professional Values and Practice has helped and trained me to always look back at my actions in my educational practice, as grounded in my ontological and professional values.

It therefore means that I was exposed to an act of reflecting in action, and as a practitioner I was able to become accountable for my educational acts.

This question of reflection in action reminds me of Schon’s writing (1995), when he says ‘If we want to discover what someone knows in action we must put ourselves in a position to observe her action. If we want to teach about our “doing” then we need to observe ourselves, describe it, and reflect on our descriptions’ (Schon, 1995 p.30).          

(Ngumbe 2008: 10)

Alice Nongwane writes:

As an experienced educator, I have attended as many workshops as I can in the area of professional development. I have listened to trainees and enjoyed meeting them during sessions, but I realized that, when I left those sessions, the information was forgotten because they lack the skills of practical implementation, whereas I accessed the information and was also involved in the practice.

My action research involves me in a practical situation whereby I am dealing with my own particular concerns in my own classroom.

I think, if action research can be supported as a form of professional development by the Department of Education, educators can manage to change their educational environment in their own way. If educators have learnt something from me as a first-time researcher, it is time for schools in South Africa to look seriously at action research.

I have contributed to new practices and new forms of theory, and I believe I have made a claim to knowledge with the support of other partners, that I have improved the quality of educational experience for myself and my learners.  … …  

In my school we are faced with big numbers in the classrooms; therefore whatever they write, the numbers make it difficult to return their scripts as soon as possible. Because of this situation, I recommended that some of their work be done in groups or with partners so that even weaker learners can benefit from the experience. Despite having made good progress, I began to feel very uneasy in judging their abilities.

As many parents are illiterate, it is not easy to give learners too much homework knowing that parents can assist at home. On reflecting on the situation, and thanks to Kingore (1993: 7), I realized that I needed to provide ‘meaningful and appropriate guidance’, for the betterment of education for my learners. … …

I will continue with my research, because when I engaged in action research, and as time went on, I saw that people came to expect advice from me. Through learning and sharing with other colleagues who are interested in improving their work I can contribute to a much wider body of knowledge. …

By getting involved in action research, I have begun to reflect on my growing understanding of the changing nature of my work at my school. This project has helped me to understand my professional development directed at how I influence my colleagues to develop good quality teaching, learning, and assessment practices. It shows how I have worked collaboratively with my learners, colleagues and parents. As I worked with participants, one partner friend began to share my ideas about how I can improve the area I wanted to improve. My evidence shows that my research has contributed to the learners’ personal development and progress by improving their motivation and increased awareness of their strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.

I can make a claim to knowledge that, with the support of these people, I can show that I have improved my practice.

Making sense of practice

So I now offer some critical reflections about the processes I have described. I move from descriptions, to explanations, to critical reflections for theorisation: my account itself takes the form of a generative transformational process, including an analysis of the potential significance of this shift. I still need to make the link between critical reflection, writing, and contributing to the social good. I try to do this now.

Critical reflection, writing for publication, and contributing to the social good

My research focuses on how I can help practitioners to speak for themselves by offering descriptions and explanations for their practices in the form of their personal theories of practice (Whitehead 1989), with a view to producing their texts for public critique.

The production of texts for public critique involves developing, at a surface level, technical awareness about (among other things):

·      What it means to speak for oneself, i.e. the practice of parrhesia;

·      How this involves an appreciation of the technical skills and capacities involved in the reading and writing of physical texts (see also Derrida’s 1976 and Barthes’s 1994 ideas that all communications are a kind of text, which may include oral, print, visual, multimedia forms of representation); this involves an understanding of writing (or speaking) for a reader/hearer;

·      And so on …

Inviting public critique on the achievement (or not) of these skills facilitates validation of claims to technical capacity.

At a deeper level of epistemological awareness, it means knowing what to write and how to write it across a range of texts. This involves:

·      a knowledge of content and form, while also demonstrating socio-cultural awareness;

·      an appreciation of reading and writing non-physical texts in the form of, for example, practices and attitudes (including the politics of knowledge production and the politics of writing) (see Foucault 2001, Bourdieu 1984);

·      This involves the legitimation of a range of non-orthodox texts such as comic strips and blogs (Collins 2010), and for appropriate legitimation processes to be put in place to accommodate these as much as ‘academic texts’

Inviting public critique on the achievement (or not) of these knowledges facilitates validation of claims to epistemological capacity.

At an even deeper level of ethical awareness, it means being prepared to critique one’s own standpoint, values and epistemologies in light of better argument or deeper insights through critical reflection on the processes of reflection. This involves:

·      The capacity to see oneself and one’s ideas as through the lenses of others’ perceptions;

·      Demonstrating critique, even in the face of one’s own convictions of the rightness of one’s position;

·      Demonstrating authentic sincerity and humility (some problematics here, when people turn humility into a talking point, or a person seeks celebrity status because of their sincerity; when self-consciousness in writing is to be avoided, while it is to be encouraged in critical self-appraisal).

Inviting public critique on the achievement (or not) of ethical awareness facilitates validation of claims to moral capacity.

Some implications

However, engaging with these issues carries consequences, especially for appropriate forms of theorising, because then everything must be seen as contingent, and in generative transformational relationships of meaning: for example –

·      coming to appreciate how and why one’s practices should be understood as ‘virtuous’, or ‘good’ means …

·      engaging with issues around what counts as ‘virtue’ or ‘the good’; which means –

·      recognising the contested nature of the idea of virtue within rival views of the purposes of society, and how institutions, including the Academy are able to fulfil those purposes, and if they should; i.e. what is the relationship between institutions such as the Academy and the wider society; which means –

·      appreciating that individuals and institutions are part of a habitus, with its own language games, which means –

·      finding ways to make judgements about quality in practice and quality in writing; which means –

·      appreciation of and capacity in negotiating the legitimation processes involved in establishing the discursively constituted rules of personal and social engagement; – and –

·      all kinds of other implications – these are probably endless. The traditional six degrees of separation between ideas (Figure 1) –

Figure 1            Six degrees of separation: retrieved 3 September 2011 from

­– transform into an infinite number of generative transformational possibilities – see again Figure 2:

Figure 2            A generative transformational evolutionary process – see also my books and

So, like T.S. Eliot (2001), Said (1997) and other generative transformational theorists and philosophers of process, we return to the beginning and know it for the first time, all over again, now transformed into a new dimension of awareness, and into the future ….

So, how can capacity in academic literacies inform the creation of good social orders? Go write, and have faith that the writing will speak for you. And watch this space …


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