york st john university

Action Research at York St John University 

I work at York St John University as a Professor of Educational Research. I am fortunate to work with wonderful people who are committed to education and educational enquiry. Together we are developing our special HEART project: Higher Education Action Research in Teaching. As an action research group we like to disseminate our work at conferences and seminars. Below you can find the successful proposal for the BERA Practitioner Research seminar in 2009. Participants were Jenny Carpenter, Karen Llewellyn, Jill Munro Wickham, and myself. Here it is – hope you find it interesting.

Academic practitioner-researchers: shifting the epistemological centre in higher education


Given the current upsurge of interest in work-based learning, and its potential accreditation as a means of contributing to economic and cultural renewal (THE 2009), it is not surprising that a new focus has developed in scholarly debates about the need for more and better quality research in higher education (RAE 2008). It is understood in many quarters that the form of research needs to meet not only the previously identified criteria of originality, rigour and significance, but also needs to demonstrate relevance to real-world issues of building a social economy grounded in the integration of theory and practice. This was a theme identified as far back as 1951, when Kilpatrick stated that educational theory would have a profound influence for the future of humanity. More recently, it has been reiterated by theorists such as Sen (1999), who sees social and cultural regeneration as in the freedom of people to take control of their own lives; by Said (1994), who speaks of the need for intellectuals to engage in their own critical reflections on their being in the world; and by Schön (1995), who, drawing on Boyer’s (1990) understandings of the need for a new scholarship, speaks of the need for the development of appropriate epistemologies for this new scholarship, as manifested in the form of action research.

This symposium offers progress reports from academics who are engaging with these issues through their integration of theory and practice. They do this by positioning themselves as practitioner-researchers who are researching their own practices, and producing descriptions and explanations for their work in the form of their living educational theories of practice (Whitehead 1989). These living theories show how they are trying to exercise their educational influences in their own learning and in the learning of those whose studies they support. By doing so, they are reconceptualising educational theory through their explanations of the epistemological transformation of educational knowledge. These new epistemologies can be found within the accounts offered in this symposium.

The symposium will take an interactive form, as presenters invite the critical responses of participants to their presentations, in relation to testing the validity of their claims to new forms of educational knowledge, and so judge the originality, rigour and significance of their work. The presentation is organised so that participants regard their responses as their own knowledge claims, which are also subject to validation processes. Thus the presentation becomes a site for the generative transformational co-creation of educational knowledge and the testing of truth claims. These processes of the communication and legitimation of new educational knowledge are further subjected to the tests of social validity – comprehensibility, sincerity, authenticity, and appropriateness – as set out in Habermas (1976). The session itself demonstrates the generative transformational nature and potentials of knowledge creation through critically informed engagement.

Boyer, E. (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the Professoriate. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. University of Princeton, Princeton NJ.
Habermas, J. (1976) Communication and the Evolution of Society.

Kilpatrick (1951) Philosophy of Education. New York, Macmillan.

RAE (2008) UOA 45 subject review overview report. Retrieved 2nd January 2009 from http://www.rae.ac.uk/puns/2009/ov/

Said, E. (1994) Representations of the Intellectual: The Reith Lectures 1993. London, Verso.

Schön, D. (1995) Knowing-in-Action: The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology, Change, November–December.

Sen, A. (1999) Development as Freedom. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Times Higher Education (THE) Editorial. 9th January 2009.

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): 137–51.

Abstracts of the papers follow.

Jenny Carpenter, York St John University
Building Reflective Relationships for and through the Creation of Educational Knowledge

This paper is an account of my ongoing enquiry as I research and theorise my practice as course leader of a primary PGCE programme. I have found that researching my practice enables me to make sense of the frequent dilemmas I encounter, some of which I record below, and to find ways of realising my values of providing a fulfilling educational experience for myself and the students in my care.

As part of the planning for the primary PGCE programme, I was keen to establish student reflection as a core element. This could be achieved through encouraging an enquiry-based approach to learning conversations with students and school-based mentors during teaching placements. I was, however, surprised at the lack of interest by the students, and their reluctance to engage critically with their own learning, especially from my understanding that developing the capacity for reflexive critique and dialectical critique are taken as key criteria for judging the quality of action-oriented enquiries (Winter 1989). I found myself asking key questions: Why did students not see the value of being involved in their own learning? Why did they not see themselves as on a learning journey, as I did? I became increasingly aware of the need to reflect critically on my own understanding of my practice with regard to the relationship between my actions, values and role as course leader, and on the basis that I was striving to realise my values in my practice (Whitehead 1989). I also understood clearly that I could use my values as the living criteria and standards for judging the quality of my practice and my research (Whitehead and McNiff 2006).

However, I again encountered moral dilemmas, which seemed at the time to conflict with my educational values. My management and pedagogical aims were to develop my capacity for pedagogical and academic leadership, and to communicate that the programme would operate smoothly partly by reassuring the students that they were in capable hands. These became my guiding leadership and management values. However, I came to wonder whether I was imposing my values system on my students. Would they feel coerced into agreeing with me against their better judgements, and possibly in areas where their values were contrary to my own? Through engaging with these problematics, and through drawing on the literatures, I have come to understand that values need to be negotiated, and that there are few overarching universal values (Berlin 1969). Further, I have come to the realisation that I need to problematise the question of values, and perhaps understand values as practices rather than as abstract principles (Raz 2003).

These kinds of reflections have led me further to problematise my management, leadership and pedagogical practices. I need to research and theorise the complexities of my relationships with students and colleagues. I understand that if I wish to develop a sense of community and practice with students, I need to question my actions and check whether they are indeed a realisation of my ontological and epistemological values. Through this form of reflection in action (Schön 1983), I am generating my own living theory of practice (Whitehead and McNiff 2006), which enables me to communicate the processes involved in developing appropriate relationships with students such that we can form a community of practice (Wenger 1998) that is grounded in enquiry. I will attempt further to theorise my effectiveness as a fellow-enquirer, and how this practice may influence my own professional development and that of students on the programme. I believe that, through making my findings public, I am potentially positioned as contributing to the learning of others who are similarly positioned, and whose practices may benefit from their reading of my accounts. In this way I am meeting the challenges of finding new criteria for judging the quality of practice-based research (Furlong and Oancea 2005), by showing its relevance for others’ learning.

My enquiry continues, as I begin to explore what kind of relationships I need to nurture with my students to encourage them to engage more critically with their own learning, and to research and theorise their own practices, so that we may indeed form a community of educational enquirers.


Berlin, I. (1969) Four Essays on Liberty. London, Oxford University Press.

Furlong, J. and Oancea, A. (2005) Assessing Quality in Applied and Practice-Based Educational Research: A Framework for Discussion. Oxford, Oxford University Department of Educational Studies.

Raz, J. (2003) The Practice of Value. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Schön, D. (1983) Schön, S. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York, Basic Books.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Whitehead, J. (1989) ‘Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, “How do I improve my practice”’, in Cambridge Journal of Education, 19 (1): 137–153.

Whitehead, J. and McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research: Living Theory. London, Sage.

Winter, R. (1989) Learning from Experience. London, Falmer.

Karen Llewellyn, York St John University
How does a teaching quality enhancement project contribute to pedagogic change?

In the context of a growing UK discourse in relation to the research/teaching nexus, this presentation intends to explain how a teaching-led university implemented a TQEF Research Informed Teaching (RiT) project to take a more reflexive, critical approach to its pedagogic practice in order to enhance the learning experience for students.

In UK higher education, it is generally recognised that current debates on the links between research and teaching have surfaced at both institutional and disciplinary levels (for example, Healey 2005, Jenkins and Healey 2005, Brew 2006, Rowland 2006, and Jenkins, Healey and Zetter 2007).

In the USA, the Boyer Commission (1999: 9) advocates that

‘the ecology of the university depends on a deep and abiding understanding that inquiry, investigation and discovery are at the heart of the enterprise …’

Based on earlier work of Ernest Boyer (1990), the reference above is primarily to the undergraduate experience and ways in which undergraduates might engage authentically within a research-led community of scholars; where, as Lave and Wenger (1993) might suggest, students become ‘legitimate peripheral participants’.

Also from the USA, Hodge et al (2008: 1), drawing on Magolda Baxter (2004) and Barr and Tagg (1995), suggest that, in moving towards what they describe as a discovery paradigm or ‘student as scholar’, this requires ‘a fundamental shift in how we structure and imagine the whole undergraduate experience’. Furthermore, Hodge et al state (2008: 3):

‘the Student as Scholar Model represents the far end of the educational spectrum, specifically progressing from an instructional paradigm that emphasizes telling students what they need to know, to a learning paradigm that emphasizes inquiry in shaping how students learn what they need to know within the traditional academic context, and culminating in a discovery paradigm that encourages students to seek and discover new knowledge, emphasizing inquiry with no boundaries’ (emphasis in original).

Moving closer to home, HEFCE outlined in the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF) 06–09 Document (March 2006/11) four areas where institutions could invest RiT Funding, as follows: (1) Keeping the curriculum up to date and active, effectively supported by appropriate learning resources linked to recent research; (2) enabling staff to engage with developments in their field and link to developments in their teaching; (3) ensure that courses are designed in ways that support the development of learning outcomes appropriate to the knowledge economy, including appropriate pedagogy – students in research mode; (4) embedding research-informed teaching in institutional structures, including human resources strategies and quality assurance processes.

For York St John University (YSJU), rather than just concentrating funding on staff research informing the curriculum. the action plan returned to HEFCE was arguably more student-centred, adopting a learning through enquiry approach or what has been redefined as enquiry-based learning (EBL). In essence, rather than reproducing a more traditional, transmission approach to learning, the aspirations of the project were to encourage students to become more deeply engaged in learning in ‘research-mode’ within their programmes; that is, students are actively encouraged to become (co) creators of knowledge, not just consumers. Therefore, the emphasis for student learning is on knowledge creation rather than merely knowledge acquisition.

Approaching the end of the RiT project, this presentation mainly aims to do two things: first, examine how conditions for a paradigm shift from learning to discovery relate to the YSJU context and second, explain how an emphasis on EBL engaged both staff and students in a shared enterprise of enquiry and research. Further to this, the presentation explores how the EBL project initiated not only a pedagogic dialogue across the learning communities of YSJU but also created formal and informal space for both risk and reflection. In some disciplines, this meant validation of pedagogic practices characteristic of enquiry and discovery. The project also acted as a catalyst to reconsider and problematise the institution’s pedagogic position in relation to what was largely internally understood to be within a learning paradigm. Underlying this institutional perspective were varying positions within and between the disciplines. In other words, there were contradictory pedagogic positions both horizontally and vertically within particular institutional spaces; highlighting what could be asserted as the coalescence of different educational paradigms.


Barr, B. and Tagg, J. (1995)

Boyer, E. (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the Professoriate. Carnegie Foundation fo the Advancement of Teaching. University of Princeton.

Boyer Commission (1999) Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities. Stony Brook, NY: Carnegie Foundation for University Teaching

Brew, A. (2006) Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide. Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan.

Healey, M. (2005) Linking Research and Teaching: Exploring Disciplinary Spaces and the Role of Inquiry-based Learning. A chapter in R. Barnett (ed.) Reshaping the University: New Relationships between Research, Scholarship and Teaching. Maidenhead, SRHE and Open University Press.

HEFCE (2006) Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund: Funding arrangements 2006-07 and 2008-09 (March 2006/11)/

Hodge, D., Haynes, C., LePore, P., Pasquesi, K. and Hirsh, M. (2008) From Inquiry to Discovery: Developing the Student as Scholar in a Networked World. A paper presented at the Learning Through Enquiry Alliance Conference 2008 ‘Inquiry in a Networked World’; June 25-27, University of Sheffield, UK.

Jenkins, A. and Healey, M. (2005) Institutional strategies to link teaching and research. The Higher Education Academy.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1993) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participants. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Magolda Bazter, M.B. (2004) Learning Partnerships Model: A framework for promoting self-authorship. A chapter in M.B. Baxter Magolda and P.M. King (eds) Learning Partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship. Sterling, VA, USA: Stylus.

Rowland, S. (2006) The Enquiring University: Compliance and Contestation in Higher Education. SRHE and Open University Press.

Jill Munro Wickham, York St John University

Improving the quality of education for physiotherapy students

This paper deliberates the significance of listening to physiotherapy students and valuing them as researchers of their own practices to enable the tutor to explore the use of pedagogical tools to enhance the total student learning experience. In particular, the articulation of the student experience relating to periods of transition from University to the clinical placement setting and the return to University is identified as a unique and valuable learning experience integral to the achievement of preparation for academic development and professional registration. The development of a learning community is identified as a practice with potential for enhancing this learning experience.

Physiotherapy students engage in a number of transactions from pre-entry to qualification with arguably the most challenging being that into the placement setting. Edmond (2001) identifies a need for a culture shift to ensure effectiveness of selected models to articulate and teach the complexities of clinical practice through related research in order to address a new paradigm of practice. In addition, if the learning from placement is to impact positively on the remainder of University study, it is imperative that the transition back into University from placement is explored and supported with tools to improve future academic study.

Physiotherapy students have the overarching aim of achieving a degree that will pronounce them fit to register with the Health Professions Council (HPC). The HPC state that registrants must be able to make informed, reasoned decisions about practice in order to ensure that the professional standards are met. HPC are clear that this includes ability to use research, reasoning and problem-solving skills to determine appropriate actions and to be able to monitor and review the ongoing effectiveness of planned activity and modify it accordingly (HPC 2007). The clinical placement setting offers many learning experiences, so it is imperative that to be able to achieve the final goal – registration – students are empowered to maximise learning from their experiences of the learning setting and in the context of learning in the remainder of the programme modules, both University and clinically based.

Searle, Bevan and Roebuck (2005) use a model that is transferable to a health education context. They identify that emphasising an increase in the awareness of knowledge in the placement setting will empower learners to exploit the experience to expand capabilities and to negotiate and reflect on the differing requirements of placement and university environments. There is a clear connection between the development of supporting tools and the connections made between the modules that students have already completed, emphasising the need for a form of clinical placement that can enhance the transition back to the university environment.

Participants in a study by Roe-Shaw et al (1999) reported feeling under-prepared for the transition to clinical practice, lacking direction and guidance as to what to expect. They found that rather than being driven by a spirit of enquiry, students’ learning experiences were directed by fear and anxiety. Students articulated concern because they felt a lack of direction and focus for the engagement in the clinical experience. Uncertainty relating to both expectations and outcomes of the clinical placements led students to use learning tools possibly more appropriate for University rather than placement-based modules. The team concluded a need to address the transition to placement.

The challenge facing the tutor is to develop the ability to utilise both new and existing technology to enhance the pedagogic opportunities for taking students towards an androgogical learning style enhanced by a spirit of enquiry appropriate to learning in a wide and diverse clinical setting. A way of enhancing the student experience is to encourage students to utilise the most readily available and arguably most useful learning resources, notably themselves and other students, For students on health professional programmes arises the additional learning experience facilitated by the service user offering a richness and realism to the learning experience that could only be theorised by the tutor in the academic setting. By developing a learning community that includes students and service users it is anticipated that the placement experience will be enhanced, allowing students to learn both from the placement and in University-based modules.


Edmond, C.B. (2001) A New Paradigm For Practice Education, Nurse Education Today May; 21(4): 251-9 (32 ref).

Health Professions Council (2007) Standards of Proficiency Physiotherapists.

Searle, J., Bevan, F. and Roebuck, D. (2005) ‘Transitions, interrelationships, partnerships and sustainable futures’, Vocational learning: proceedings of the 13th annual International Conference, Gold Coast, Queensland, Volume 2, pp 124–130. Brisbane: Centre for Learning Research, Griffith University, 5–7 December,

Roe-Shaw, M., Gall, A., Jones, L., Lattey, M.E. and Sainsbury, N. (2003) Approach and preparation for clinical placements: final year physiotherapy students. New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy March 31(1): 17¬–23.

Jean McNiff, York St John University
How do I contribute to a reconceptualisation of educational theory for moral accountability in the creation of sustainable social orders?

Background to the research
This paper is part of my ongoing action enquiry as I make public why I hold myself accountable for my work. This work is as a professional educator in higher education, where I encourage academic staffs to find ways of adding value to their research capacity by engaging in critical reflexivity (Winter 1989) about the kinds of theories they generate, and the underpinning epistemologies, logics and values that inform those theories. I do this from the grounds of my convictions that the Academy is one of the most powerful bodies for influencing what counts as valid knowledge and who counts as a legitimate knower, and how these issues enter into debates about the reconstruction and reconceptualisation of existing social orders. Like Chomsky (1967) I believe it is the responsibility of intellectuals to find ways of showing how we hold ourselves accountable for what we do, given that we are in positions of potential influence in other people’s learning. Like Arendt (1958), I believe that the first responsibility of people is to think, and be aware of their own capacity to use their thinking for personal and social betterment. Like Said (1994) I believe that academics need to identify themselves as critics of normative knowledges, including their own, so that the potential solidification of normative orthodoxies (Habermas 1976) is constantly interrogated and destabilised to ensure that it maintains its moral relevance to changing practices and conditions.

Research methods
The research methods I employ are those of action research, which enables practitioner researchers to generate their living educational theories of practice (Whitehead 1989). This involves understanding values as the basis of enquiry, and processes of enquiry as demonstrating how one lives in the direction of one’s espoused educational values. It involves appreciating how those values come to act as criteria and standards of judgement to test the validity of claims to knowledge, as well as to test the quality of the practice (Whitehead and McNiff 2006). It involves the production of high quality accounts that offer clear theorisations of practice, whose communicative capacity may also be tested against the critical feedback of others through using communicative criteria such as those articulated by Habermas (1976), of comprehensibility, authenticity, truthfulness and awareness of normative contexts. Especially it involves the production of an authenticated evidence base to demonstrate the truthfulness of knowledge claims. However, if I am maintaining that it is the responsibility of all academic practitioners to show how they hold themselves accountable for their work, and if I am to live up to my own values, this injunction applies first to me. I therefore focus on producing my own evidence base, which will contribute to the wider body of educational knowledge, and also in response to Snow’s (2001) calls for a systematisation of practitioners’ accounts that will enable all to learn from and with one another.

Theoretical frameworks
My specific theoretical frameworks are grounded in an overarching framework of ideas to do with generative transformational processes (Bohm 1983; Chomsky 1957; Said 1997). I see everything in process, where any element has its future always already within itself. These conceptualisations inform my processes of theorising. In relation to processes of theory generation, I see a transformational relationship between logics, values, epistemologies and social practices, and how these elements potentially influence the creation of new world orders. Therefore, like Whitehead (2008), I encourage the development of new epistemologies for a scholarship of educational knowledge that is grounded in the accounts of practitioners. I see how these ideas can inform the development of cultures of shifting epistemological centres, where individuals deconstruct their thinking so that they decentre themselves and allow other centres to emerge, with whom they are in dynamic relation (Ngugi 1993). These processes, I believe, go beyond Habermas’s (2002) ideas of the inclusion of the other, to developing cultures of mutually dynamic educational relationships, where each contributes to the educational growth of the other, understanding spiritual and moral growth as grounded in the capacity to engage critically first with one’s own thinking, and then to bring this capacity to a critical deconstruction of normative assumptions to test their validity as claiming to contribute to sustainable social practices.

Evidence base
In my presentation I will make public the evidence base in which I ground my commitments. These include the masters and doctoral theses of academic practitioner-researchers who have found ways of interrogating and improving their own thinking as they show how they hold themselves accountable for their work of encouraging early career and experienced practitioners to do the same. I draw especially on the accounts produced by academic staffs at St Mary’s University College, UK; York St John’s University, UK; the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa; the University of Limerick, Ireland; and the National Zoological Gardens, South Africa (see also http://www.jeanmcniff.com). I link these accounts with those at http://www.actionresearch.net. This comprises a powerful knowledge base that has the potential to inform new thinking and new practices, and to contribute to the development of new public spheres that are grounded in epistemologies of ontologies as we make public our scholarly accounts of how we enquire into who we are and how we our exercising our responsibility for truth-saying (Foucault 2001) in the creation of the kind of societies in which we wish our children to live.

Significance of the research
The significance of this research lies in the capacity of all participants in what has transformed into an international community of educational enquirers to make public their accounts of practice that show how they hold themselves accountable for what they do. The implications of the emerging body of knowledge could have far-reaching consequences in influencing a coherent knowledge base that has profound implications for the creation of new public spheres and social economies, by explicating the relationships between social and cultural regeneration and the creation of educational knowledge.


Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago, University of Chicago.

Bohm, D. (1983) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London, Ark Paperbacks.

Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. The Hague, Mouton.

Chomsky, N. (1967) The Responsibility of Intellectuals. The New York Review of Books 8(3).

Foucault, M. (2001) Fearless Speech. Los Angeles, Semiotext(e).

Habermas, J. (1976) Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston, Beacon.

Habermas, J. (2002) The Inclusion of the Other. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1993) Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. Oxford, James Currey.

Said, E. (1994) Representations of the Individual: the 1993 Reith Lectures. London, Vintage.

Said, E. (1997) Beginnings: Intent and Method. London, Granta.

Snow, C. (2001) ‘Knowing what we know: children, teachers, researchers’, Educational Researcher, 30 (7): 3–9. Presidential Address to the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, Seattle.

Whitehead, J. (1989) ‘Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, “How do I improve my practice”’, in Cambridge Journal of Education, 19 (1): 137–153.

Whitehead, J. (2008) Increasing Inclusion in Educational Research: A Response to Pip Bruce Ferguson. Research Intelligence, 103: 16–17.

Whitehead, J. and McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research: Living Theory. London, Sage.

Winter, R. (1989) Learning from Experience. London, Falmer.

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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 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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