Constructing Living Educational Theories From Action Research With Others

Constructing Living Educational Theories From Action Research With Others


In Enquiries Of The Kind, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’

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I am writing this for teachers who are exploring the implications for themselves and others of questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ I am writing this for those who believe that the profession of education needs educational theories that can explain their educational influences in their own learning, in the learning of others and in the learning of the social formations in which we live and work.

Author: Jack Whitehead Publication Date: 2006

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The idea of living educational theory emerged from my recognition in 1971, after some five years teaching and four years study of educational theory, that the dominant form of educational theory known as the ‘disciplines’ approach was mistaken. In this view, educational theory was believed to be constituted by the disciplines of education, of the history, philosophy, psychology and sociology of education. My experience of the mistake in this approach was that no explanation, generated by any of these disciplines either individually or in any combination could produce an adequate explanation for my educational influences in my own learning, in the learning of others or in the learning of the social formations in which I lived and worked. I came to the University of Bath as a Lecturer in Education in 1973 with the purpose of contributing to the creation of forms of educational theory that could produce valid explanations for such educational influences in learning.

The title of my 1988 Presidential Address to the British Educational Research Association is, How Do We Improve Research-based Professionalism in Education? A question which includes action research, educational theory and the politics of educational knowledge ( ). This title points to the emphasis I continue to give in my professional life to the development of a research-based approach to enhancing professionalism in education. I do this through supporting a living educational theory approach to action research that engages with the realities of the politics of educational knowledge. I see this approach as connecting to the Mission of the University of Bath which includes a distinct academic approach to the education of professional practitioners. I see the generation of living educational theories by practitioner-researchers (Whitehead & McNiff, 2006) as a distinct academic approach to the education of professional practitioners.

However, I know from discussions with many teachers that they associate the word Academic with something disconnected from their practice and as something that they are not. They often say ‘I am not an academic’. In this paper I want to show how practitioner-researchers have distinguished themselves through masters and doctoral enquiries into their educational practices in which they have generated their own living educational theories. Their masters’ dissertations and doctoral theses are highly academic and scholarly and retain a living connection with their experiences, values, skills and understandings in the processes of improving learning for themselves and with their students.
You can access the masters accounts at .
You can access the doctoral theses at .

Jean McNiff (McNiff & Whitehead, 2006, McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 2003) is one of the world’s outstanding educational action researchers and communicators ( ). We have worked together for some 25 years and I continue to be inspired by the way she generates, shares and communicates complex ideas with great clarity and with a passion for enhancing education. To commemorate 21 years of working together Jean placed, freely available, on the web her booklet:

Action research for professional development. Concise advice for new action researchers ( )
This explains how a teacher could develop into a teacher-researcher through an action research approach to their professional learning. For me, a characteristic of action research that distinguishes it from all other forms of research, is that the individual practitioner-researcher is studying their own practice with the intention of improving it and with a view of themselves as a knowledge-creator in sharing their explanations of their own learning, freely, with others. Hence I tend to focus my attention on asking, researching and answering questions of the form, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ and on supporting the enquiries of others. In the course of these enquiries I tend to use action-reflection cycles of the kind,

What is my concern?
What am I going to do about it? Forming an action plan.
What data will I need to make a judgement on my effectiveness?
Evaluating actions in terms of their educational influence in learning.
Modifying concerns ideas and actions in the light of the evaluations.
Producing an account of learning.
Submitting account to a validation group and responding to the evaluations of others.

Of particular concern in judging educational influences in learning is the gathering of data that will enable evidence-based answers to be given of the question. ‘What evidence do you have that you have influenced the learning of others?’ In offering evidence of my educational influences in the learning of teacher-researchers, whose research programmes I tutor and supervise, I draw on the accounts of the teacher-researchers in their own voices. I do this to show where my influence is acknowledged and my ideas explicitly recognised as having value in the creation of their own living educational theories ( ). Hence, in working with teacher-researchers in the development of their enquiries I always stress the importance of showing pupil learning in the pupils’ own voices. I also emphasise the importance of showing educational influences in learning from the receptive responses of the teacher, with a pupil, through time.

I also work with others in the sense that I engage with their ideas and show how these ideas have influenced the growth of my educational knowledge in the creation of my living educational theory. This includes encouraging individuals to show how they have been influenced by the ideas of others. For example, there is a scholarly account from Ben Cunningham in the Appendix to his doctorate on How do I come to know my spirituality as I create my own living educational theory at: . I encourage the teacher-researchers I work with to read Cunningham’s account because he begins with the first text to focus on action research to improve schools practice. That is a book by Stephen Corey in 1953. Cunningham acknowledges the pioneering work of Kurt Lewin on action research. He moves through ideas from Stenhouse, Elliott (1991) and Adelman with a focus on interpretivist/hermeneutic approaches to action research and into the work of Dadds to integrate feeling and action and of Winter with his emphasis on improvisatory self-realisation. Cunningham explains what attracted him to the idea that he could generate his own living educational theory as an explanation of his own learning journey.

In showing how my own living theory has been influenced by the ideas of others I acknowledge the influence of the work of Erich Fromm and other critical theorists such as Marcuse and Habermas. In my own doctorate I show how I integrate the highly significant work of Carr and Kemmis (1986), on Becoming Critical: education knowledge and action research, into my own articulations of action research. The doctorate on ‘How do I improve my Practice? Creating a discipline of education through educational enquiry ( ) also acknowledges the significance of the dialectical materialist ideas of Seve. More recently I have integrated ideas on inclusionality from Alan Rayner ( into my understandings and educational practices and the ideas of Yaqub Murray ( on postcolonial theorising.

What the ideas of critical theorists have enabled me to see and appreciate, together with the ideas of Foucault, McIntyre and Richard and Basil Bernstein, are the influences of the power relations that exert a systemic influence with individuals in particular contexts through political, economic and cultural formations. These influences can limit what is possible in a particular context and because of this they need to be taken into account in deciding what actions to take in an enquiry, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’

One of the ideas that emerged from my research was the significance of including ‘I’ as a living contradiction in explanations of educational influences in learning. My recognition of my ‘I’ as a living contradiction emerged through viewing video-tapes of my classroom practice in 1971. I could see that I was not living the values of enquiry learning I thought I had established in my classroom. I experienced this recognition, of existing as a living contradiction, as an embarrassing tension in which my imagination responded quickly with ideas about how I could change my practice so that it was more consistent with my values. I have continued to find video-data on my practice most valuable in helping me to see what I need to do to improve my practice.

Sometimes my experience of contradiction has a socio-cultural connection. For example I know of other universities that have required action researchers to remove the personal pronoun ‘I’ from the titles of their enquiries! I know that the Academic Staff Committee of my own university would not yet recognise the living theory knowledge-base as an outstanding contribution to the advancement of knowledge and I am working on this recognition with some understanding of the power relations that sustain what counts as legitimate knowledge.

For example, the regulations of the University of Bath in 1980 explicitly refused to permit the judgements of examiners of research degrees to be questioned under any circumstances. The dominant power relations in the culture would not permit such questioning. In 1991 under pressure from European legislation, the University, along with others, changed its regulations to allow questioning on the grounds of bias, prejudice and inadequate assessment. Such changes as these, I identify as educational influences in the learning of social formations. I see these educational influences in terms of learning to live values that appear to me to carry hope for the future of humanity. Another such change in regulation occurred in 2004. This permitted the submission of e-media in research degrees. This opened up very significant changes in the forms of representation that can now be legitimated in the Academy.The doctorates of Hartog, Church, Naidoo, Farren and Lohr show some of these possibilities in their multi-media accounts of learning. Of particular interest to teacher-researchers could be Naidoo’s representation of a passion for compassion and Lohr’s representation of love at work. These theses establish new living standards of judgement in the Academy that have been formed from action research accounts and that clarify the meanings of embodied values in the course of their emergence in practice. The theses of Hartog, Church, Naidoo and Farren are accessible from and Lohr’s thesis should be alongside these at the end of May 2006.

In connecting with the ideas of others in the field I encourage those I work with to contribute to and learn from the journals of action research such as Action Research, Educational Action Research, Action Research Expeditions ( )
and The Ontario Action Researcher ( ). I also encourage teacher-researchers to contribute to the Conferences of the Practitioner-Researcher Special Interest Group of the British Educational Research Association and the Action Research and Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association ( – see in particular March 2005, Vol. 5, No.2 ), The Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN – ) and Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management (ALARPM). The contributors to ALARPM
include the President, Ernie Stringer (2003), Ortrun Zuber Skerritt (1991) and Bridget Somekh (2005).

The ideas of these three action researchers are having a global influence in the field and I do encourage you to follow up their ideas with a search on google. You might also like to participate in conversations about their ideas and the ideas of others in the guest e-forum for the 7th World Congress of ALARPM from 21-24 August 2006 in Groningen. You can access details of the Congress from and contribute to the guest e-forum on Evidence Of Standards In Acccounting For Ourselves at

Margaret Farren at Dublin City University is as inspiring educator and action researcher who has used ICT in the creation of her living educational theory and in supporting the enquiries of others. I do urge you to access her thesis on, How can I create a pedagogy of the unique through a web of betweenness? at and visit her web-site at:

Probably the most influential extension of the above ideas is being support by Moira Laidlaw and her colleagues in China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching (CECEARFLT). You can respond to an article on this work from the June 2005 issue of Action Research Expeditions at:

What I believe that Mirandanet is offering is a creative web-space that can enhance the flow of values that carry hope for the future of humanity. I hope to make some contribution to this by continuing to share accounts of our learning that show how individuals are living values of humanity as fully as we can in working together on the living educational theories we are generating in our lives and workplaces.


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References & Contacts

Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming critical: education, knowledge and action research. Deakin; Deakin University Press.

Elliott, J. (1991) Action Research for Educational Change. Milton Keynes; Open University Press.

McNiff, J., Lomax, P. & Whitehead, J. (2003) You and Your Action Research Project. 2nd Edition, New York & London; RoutledgeFalmer.

McNiff, J. & Whitehead, J. (2006) All You Need to Know about Action Research. London; Sage.

Mills, G. (2003) Action Research: A guide for the Teacher Researcher. Columbus Ohio; Merrill Prentice Hall.

Somekh, B. (2005) Action Research: a methodology for change and development. Milton Keynes; Open University Press.

Stringer, E. (2003) Action Research in Education. Prentice-Hall.

Whitehead, J. & McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research Living Theory. London; Sage.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. (1991) Action research for change and development. Aldershot; Avebury.

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