Facilitating A Living Theory Approach To Educational Research.
Research Students' Seminar 6th June 2006, University of Bath, Department of Education.
I'll begin with some original ideas about a living theory approach to educational research and the evidence that shows some successful facilitations of the approach in Canada, China, Ireland, South Africa and the UK. I will then share some of my understandings about why this facilitation has been successful.
A Living Theory Approach To Educational Research
The living theory approach I have in mind emerged out of my response in 1971 to a mistake in the then dominant view of educational theory. In this view educational theory was constituted by the disciplines of education such as the history, philosophy, psychology and sociology of education. My rejection of this view was based on my belief that a valid educational theory should be able to generate a valid explanation of my educational influence in my own learning, in the learning of others and in the learning of the social formations in which I live and work. Yet, I could not generate a valid explanation for these educational influences in learning from any theory of the existing disciplines of education, taken individual or in any combination. This could of course be due to my inability to generate something that was possible to do. You can test out the validity of my belief that it isn't possible to generate a valid explanation for your educational influences in learning from any of the existing disciplines of education, taken individually or in any combination, by seeing if you can generate a valid explanation for your own educational influences in learning from any theory in any combination from any discipline of education.
What I decided to do, in response to the mistake, and with a passion to contribute to the knowledge-base of education, was to research the possibility that individuals could generate their own valid explanations of their educational influences in learning in educational enquiries of the kind, 'How do I improve what I am doing?' My choice of question emerged from my first day's teaching in 1967 at Langdon Park School in London's Tower Hamlets. I came out of my first class with the clear desire to improve what I was doing so that my students could improve their learning. I am continuing to research the implications of asking and answering this kind of question.
I think a living theory approach is easy to comprehend but difficult to embody in the cultural formations and power relations that influence what is recognised as valid knowledge in the Academy. I think the ease of comprehension is that the approach resonates with what individuals know about the lives they live and about their leadership in their own learning. I think that I can communicate below the characteristics of a living theory approach by:
The idea of a living theory approach to educational research emerged from my recognition that I existed as a living contradiction in my question, 'How do I improve what I am doing?' This recognition was assisted by video-tapes of my classroom with my students in 1971. I believed that I had established the conditions in my classroom to support enquiry learning. On viewing the video-tapes I could see that I was dominating the questioning and that the way I was structuring the resources in the classroom was actually hindering the development of enquiry learning. I set out about improving my practice so that I could see that my values were being lived more fully in my practice. During my initial teacher education I had read and been influenced by the work of John Dewey and his logic of inquiry. This seemed to be consistent with my experience that when faced with the tension of existing as a living contradiction my imagination started to create possible ways forward to enable me to live my values more fully. I recognised that I tended to act on this action plan while gathering data, sometimes intuitively rather than explicitly, to make a judgement on my effectiveness. I would then judge my effectiveness in relation to my values, skills and understandings and modify my concerns, plans and actions in relation to this evaluation. These action/reflections cycles were consistent with the newly emerging interest in action research and in 1976 I connected my enquiries to this research because it seemed to be the only form of research in which the researcher could study her or his own practice with the intentions of improving it and of generating knowledge of the processes of improvement.
So, the original idea of a living theory approach to educational research emerged from the insight that I could produce a valid explanation for my educational influences in my own learning and in the learning of others through educational action research. In order to legitimate these explanations, as contributions to educational knowledge and theory, I needed to establish new living standards of judgement. In my experience these standards emerged from an ontological commitment to the values I used to give meaning and purpose to my existence. For example, I love what I do, I'm passionate about my own freedom from oppression and the freedom of others, I value democratic forms of decision making, I value enquiry learning and artistic forms of expression that carry hope for the future of humanity. I value spiritual, emotional, physical and economic well-being. I could see that the meanings of these embodied values were clarified in the course of their emergence in my action research and in the process of clarification became formed into publicly communicable living standards of judgement that I could use to account to myself for the life I was living and I could use to evaluate the quality of my explanations, or living theories, of my educational influences in my own learning.
Evidence of successful facilitation of a living theory approach to educational research
I think that there is sufficient evidence of successful facilitation of a living theory approach to educational research in the sociocultural artefacts flowing through web-space from http://www.actionresearch.net . What I have in mind in particular in these artefacts are some 20 successfully completed living theory doctorates between 1995-2006.
You can appreciate the nature of the enquiries from the titles and access the Abstracts and full texts from their flow through web-space as you connect to the live urls:
Eames, K. (1995) How do I, as a teacher and educational action-researcher, describe and explain the nature of my professional knowledge? Ph.D. Thesis, University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
Evans, M. (1995) An action research enquiry into reflection in action as part of my role as a deputy headteacher. Ph.D. Thesis, Kingston University. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
Laidlaw, M. (1996) How can I create my own living educational theory as I offer you an account of my educational development? Ph.D. thesis, University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
D'Arcy, P. (1998) The Whole Story..... Ph.D. Thesis, University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
Loftus, J. (1999) An action enquiry into the marketing of an established first school in its transition to full primary status. Ph.D. thesis, Kingston University. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
Whitehead, J. (1999) How do I improve my practice? Creating a discipline of education through educational enquiry. Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from http://www.actionresearch.net/jack.shtml
Cunningham, B. (1999) How do I come to know my spirituality as I create my own living educational theory? Ph.D. Thesis, University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
Finnegan, (2000) How do I create my own educational theory in my educative relations as an action researcher and as a teacher? Ph.D. submission, University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
Austin, T. (2001) Treasures in the Snow: What do I know and how do I know it through my educational inquiry into my practice of community? Ph.D. Thesis, University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
Mead, G. (2001) Unlatching the Gate: Realising the Scholarship of my Living Inquiry. Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
Bosher, M. (2001) How can I as an educator and Professional Development Manager working with teachers, support and enhance the learning and achievement of pupils in a whole school improvement process? Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
Delong, J. (2002) How Can I Improve My Practice As A Superintendent of Schools and Create My Own Living Educational Theory? Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from
Scholes-Rhodes, J. (2002) From the Inside Out: Learning to presence my aesthetic and spiritual being through the emergent form of a creative art of inquiry. Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 19 February 2004 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/rhodes.shtml
Roberts, P. (2003) Emerging Selves in Practice: How do I and others create my practice and how does my practice shape me and influence others? Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 19 August 2004 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/roberts.shtml
Punia, R. (2004) My CV is My Curriculum: The Making of an International Educator with Spiritual Values. Ed.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 19 August 2004 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/punia.shtml
Hartog, M. (2004) A Self Study Of A Higher Education Tutor: How Can I Improve My Practice? Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 19 August 2004 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/hartog.shtml
Church, M. (2004) Creating an uncompromised place to belong: Why do I find myself in networks? Retrieved 24 May 2005 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/church.shtml
Naidoo, M. (2005) I am Because We Are. (My never-ending story) The emergence of a living theory of inclusional and responsive practice. Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 2 April 2006 from
Farren, M. (2005) How can I create a pedagogy of the unique through a web of betweenness? Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 2 April 2006 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/farren.shtml
Lohr, E. (2006) Love at Work: What is my lived experience of love and how might I become an instrument of love's purpose. Ph.D. University of Bath. Retrieved 26 May 2006 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/living.shtml
There is further evidence of successful facilitation from the masters enquiries of practitioner-researchers at:
in the AR in China at Guyuan section of http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/moira.shtml
in the Jean McNiff homepage at http://www.jeanmcniff.com
and in the five volumes of Passion in Professional Practice, from Canada at http://schools.gedsb.net/ar/passion/index.html
Explaining successful/unsuccessful facilitations of a living theory approach to educational research.
In facilitating a living theory approach to educational research I am aware of the supporting and constraining power of sociocultural influences. For example, the success of Jacqueline Delong in facilitating this approach in the Grand Erie District Board in Ontario, can be partially explained by her position as Superintendent of Schools with the power to embody the approach in policy. She could also provide some resources from her position of systemic influence and communicate her expectations and support for the approach. I think a similar process is at work in the successful facilitation by Professor Moira Laidlaw of Ninxgia Teachers University. At present the accounts are not accredited and the successful facilitation has, I think, been influenced by the support of the Dean and influential colleagues, in creating a space for dialogue with the expectation that the living theory accounts will be produced. In my facilitation, I do not believe that the individuals I have worked with would have sustained several years of engagement in their enquiries without the motivation of the desire to receive a higher degree for their studies. So, my facilitation is intimately related to my supervision of doctoral research programmes and my tutoring of masters units and dissertations.
One of the issues in facilitating a living theory approach to educational research is the recognition by others of the legitimacy of the approach. When this recognition is carried by power relations in the Academy that influence what counts as valid knowledge, it is wise to take account of both the recognition and a lack of recognition. For example, in 2005, as I was sharing ideas on living educational theory with a group of M.Res. and other research students in the University, I asked them to talk with a partner about the values that mattered most to them in judging the quality of their research. On receiving their responses I said that I found it strange that love was not mentioned. I said that I assumed that love was significant in their lives and that I was curious that it was not mentioned as having any significance in their research. I asked why love was omitted. After a pause the response came, 'Love isn't Academic'. There was a brief silence then laughter. The group got my point that if Love, as a standard of judgement, was not perceived as Academic, then there was something wrong with the perception of what counted as Academic, rather than there being something wrong with valuing Love! I am delighted to say that Eleanor Lohr (2006) will be graduating in July with her doctorate for her thesis on Love at Work. To emphasise the importance of loving relationships in the creation of living theories here is the signature on my e-mails and images of a sculpture by Samual Murambika called The Ring of Love:
"When Martin Dobson, a colleague, died in 2002 the last thing he said to me
was 'Give my Love to the Department'. In the 20 years I'd worked with
Martin it was his loving warmth of humanity that I recall with great life
affirming pleasure and I'm hoping that in Love Jack we can share this
value of common humanity."
Here is what Murambika says of his Ring of Love
"In Shona society, family bonding stands as the foundation for the entire culture. It is the sacred unit and all laws governing Shona society serve to protect these vulnerable bonds. The arms and bodies are carved with the continuous flow of rhythm to signify the unbroken bonds of their souls. This couple, locked in eternal embrace, offers constant reminder that love abounds in all places of the world."
On a visit to Ningxia Teachers University in China in May 2006 I gave two lectures with Professor Jean McNiff. One on Living Theory Action Research in China: A World View and another on Educational Action Research in Ningxia Teachers University: Possible Futures. We ended both lectures with the following photograph to reinforce our ideas about relational forms of accountability that included love, spontaneity and pleasure.
On Monday evenings I hold open a space for educational conversations in the Department of Education of the University of Bath. On Monday 22nd May 2006, Cathy Aymer participated in the conversation around her thesis on Seeking Knowledge for Black Cultural Renewal. There is a relational way of being and quality of life known as Ubuntu that originates in Africa. Cathy expresses her relational values of humanity in terms of Ubuntu. I experienced the life-affirming energy of Ubuntu flowing through Cathy as the following picture was taken:
What I imagine that I do in the successful facilitation of a living theory approach to educational research is to communicate to those I am working with a similar flow of life-affirming energy and pleasure in being with the other. I can be seen expressing this energy and pleasure in the laughter with Jacqueline Delong in a supervision session towards the end of her doctoral research programme (http://www.jackwhitehead.com/ajwjdwis.mov ). I think this recognition of pleasure in being with the other is vital in my facilitation of a living theory approach. The relationship feels life-affirming and pleasurable. Also, in my experience of everyone I work with, there is embodied knowledge that I feel could make significant contributions to the future of humanity if it could be made public and moved into the flow of communication of web-space. I think that everyone I work with experiences my passion to help them to bring their embodied knowledge into the public domain by legitimating their living theories in the Academy as original and significant contributions to knowledge, with my consistent expression of belief in the value of seeing their living theories flowing through web-space. There is an ethics and politics at work in my postcolonial intent of bringing Ubuntu into my discourse and seeking its legitimation as a living standard of judgement in Western Academies. Given Africa's experience of colonialism and the way that colour has been used in colonial practices to support white supremacy and privilege I want to acknowledge a value of humanity originating in Africa that could help with the decolonizing of sociocultural practices and artefacts that influence those with sociohistorical influences of being colonised and coloniser. You can see me exploring the implications of this postcolonial intent in a video-clip from a presentation with Jean McNiff and Joan Whitehead at the University of the Free State in South Africa in March 2006 at http://www.jackwhitehead.com/jwubuntucd.mov
In my successful facilitation I think that individuals experience my flow of life-affirming energy and faith in their values and embodied knowledge as inclusional. I see myself expressing this energy and faith in Ubuntu and inclusionality in the video-clip. I mean this in Alan Rayner's (2006) sense of a relationally dynamic awareness of space and boundaries that are connective, reflexive and co-creative. For the last six years Alan has offered the Life, Environment and People course in the Department of Biology. The students' work from the 2005-6 group is now on display, until the end of June, on the landing of Level 1 of the 3 South Building. I do urge you to browse through this exhibition as it shows the originality of the students as well as the educational influence of the inclusional pedagogy of a most inspiring educator.
I also believe the responses of those I work with, in generating their own living theories, that they value my story in the 1993 text on The Growth of Educational Knowledge: Creating your own living educational theories, (http://www.bath.ac.uk/%7Eedsajw/bk93/geki.htm )
They tell me that they identify with the stories of:
In the flow of the narrative I include the evidence of my publications that provides hope in my persistence in the face of this pressure and evidence of my commitment to academic freedom and the love for what I do in education. Those I work with say that they identify with my experiences of existing as a living contradiction and derive some inspiration from my creative and productive responses to these pressures. So, I think that part of my successful facilitating has been in my willingness to publicly share my own enquiries and my explanations of my own learning that include both loving and pleasurable experiences together with some pain, emotional stress and struggle as poles of a dialectic.
Another characteristic of the successful facilitation has been the clarity of the emergent methodology used to explore the implications of asking questions of the kind, 'How do I improve what I am doing?' together with the knowledge that each individual can create their own narrative form for the communication of their living educational theory. Many researchers come to action research from a history of 'spectator research'. By this I mean research that removes the 'I' from the research question and works with a view of objectivity as something discrete and separate from intersubjective criticism. Beginning living theory educational researchers appear to appreciate the security that action reflection cycles can provide with the inclusion of 'I' as a living contradiction and with a view of objectivity as emerging from intersubjective criticism. In producing their first action research account there is often an explicit recognition of the value of structuring the account in terms of:
Another capacity I express, that others have said they value in my facilitating, is that of bringing into the conversation ideas from others that they associate with my wide reading. I do value ideas from the following and bring insights from their work into my conversations as I seek to deepen understandings of ontology, epistemology, ethics, methodology, politics, leadership, management and narrative in the creation of an individual's living educational theory. To appreciate how I acknowledge the significance of such ideas see the Appendix to the keynote to the Act, Reflect, Revise III keynote of November 2005 (Whitehead, 2005) at http://www.jackwhitehead.com/monday/arrkey05dr1.htm .
Here is how I explained to Marie Huxtable what I do and how I do it in an email of the 12th March 06 in response to her questions. The direct dialogic response might help the clarity of my communications:
What do I do, how do I do it? I'm working on that tape from South Africa and I think I'll need to show you the video-narrative to share adequate answers to your questions. The first thing I think I do is to communicate a flow of life- affirming energy with the pleasure I am experiencing and expressing in being present with an individual or group. I think I express an excited expectation that I'm going to enjoy the time together and that something of value for each individual is going to emerge. I think I express a fascination with the embodied knowledge of others within a communication that they are the experts in this knowledge of theirs. I think I communicate a desire to understand what others feel, think and are doing in a way that encourages others to tell their stories of what matters to them and to share something about the context in which they are working. I think I express a passion about my own vocation for education and that I express a pleasure of affirmation when others tell their stories in a way that connects with the values that they use to give meaning and purpose to their lives.
Here's how I think I do it - and this is closely connected with what I do - these are in a receptive and responsive relationship with each other. I think I work with the action reflection cycle I learnt from the 6 teachers I worked with over two years 1975/76 as we worked together to understanding the processes of improving learning for 11-14 year olds in mixed ability groups in science. This is recognisable in the TASC wheel and involves connecting with the values that people use to give meaning and purpose to their lives. It involves being sensitive and receptive to the tensions they are feeling as they recognise that their values are not being lived as fully as they can in their professional practice. By using the term living contradiction I think people begin to move away from a feeling that 'they are the problem' and that it is OK to feel this tension of being living contradictions as part of the human condition. It involves opening a conversational space where they feel free to express these tensions and to tell their stories of their contexts where their values are not being lived as fully as they could be. It involves a conversational space where others will listen to them as they listen to others and prompt a creative response that taps into their imagination as to what they could do about it.
I think that I sustain a conversational space over time that includes a projection by the individual as to what they could do to improve matters and return, through time, to the issues that the individual is raising and the actions they are taking. I think that I focus some attention on the issue of how will we judge the effectiveness of the actions in relation to the individual's values, skills and understandings and, most importantly, in terms of student learning. I think that I also focus, over time, on the importance of public documentation/record/account/story/explanation that can be shared with others as a living explanation of the educational influence that the individual is having in their own learning, in the learning of others and, as the enquiries progress, in the learning of social formations. (e-mail correspondence with Marie Huxtable 6 March 2006)
Having set out my understandings of how I facilitate a living theory approach to educational research I want to avoid criticisms that the approach does not take account of economic, political, sociocultural and other relational forms of power that influence the generating and testing of living educational theories. For example, the experience of living contradictions can be understood in terms of inner and outer arcs of attention. Sometimes we can work at overcoming our living contradictions through inner work that engages with psychological and psychoanalytic understandings. I always distinguish my understandings of therapeutic pleasure and therapy in what I do. While I have benefited from psychoanalytic theory such as Anna Freud's normality and pathology in childhood, I am not engaged in any professional sense in psychoanalysis or psychotherapy as practiced in the mental health services. I do however recognise the therapeutic flow of pleasure in well-being that I associate with living my values as fully as I can. I have seen individuals with the mental health problems associated with 'mental breakdown' that necessitated early retirement on health grounds or extended periods of time away from work and/or sustained treatment with personality changing drugs. I have understood something of the pressures that can contribute to such mental health problems. These are often accompanied by feelings of ontological despair and distress. The music of the Blues communicates something of these kinds of feelings with its three phases of Moaning, Mourning and Morning. I do not want to give the impression that I do not at times move through the Moaning phase of human existence! My choice has been to experience and respond to this Moaning in a private space where possible, and, as far as I am able in facilitating a living theory approach to educational research, to express an authentic feeling of ontological security, life-affirming energy and loving passion for education. At the same time I think that I communicate an openness to the expression of the existential angst of the other with the recognition that it is often in stories of such angst that a clear understanding emerges of the embodied values that the other uses to give meaning and purpose to their existence. Such stories often appear in living theory accounts, including my own (Whitehead, 1993). I think that being clear about sustaining this kind of boundary with private Moaning as an inner arc of meaning with a professional relationship expressing a life-affirming energy as an outer arc is one of the characteristics of my facilitation as an educator.
Sometimes we can work at overcoming our living contradictions through outer work that engages with power relations and understandings in the economic, political and sociocultural formations in which we live and work. I imagine that everyone reading this will have some understanding, from personal experience, of power relations that serve the interests of the truth of power rather than the power of truth and that serve to deny appropriate recognition for values, skills and understandings that are making outstanding contributions to knowledge of education. My own responses to the experience of such power relations has been to recognise and express my outrage at the injustice (usually in private and to work through the rage on my own). I then consciously seek to channel the energy of the rage into creative responses that fuel the life-affirming energy of well-being and serve my purpose in continuing to enhance the flow of living educational theories that carry hope for the future of humanity and my own.
I know that other action researchers, who have been particularly successful in facilitating a living theory approach to educational research, have shared their own stories of their facilitation. For example,
Jean McNiff (http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/mcniff.html ),
Margaret Farren (http://webpages.dcu.ie/~farrenm ),
Jacqueline Delong (http://schools.gedsb.net/ar/passion/index.html and
Moira Laidlaw (http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/moira.shtml )
have been outstandingly successful in creating cultures of enquiry that support the generation of the living theories of educational researchers and in mobilising the systemic influences in organisations that support this work. I do urge you to engage with the narratives flowing from their own web-sites to see what they are doing in their own contexts of being an international educational consultant and Professor of Educational Research, a Lecturer in e-learning at Dublin City University, A Superintendent of Schools in Ontario and a Professor for Life at Ningxia Teachers University in China.
Perhaps the most important quality of a facilitator of living educational theories is that they can show their own self-studies through which they are creating their own living theories. I am thinking here of explanations of educational influences in learning in which the individual is holding themselves to account, and sharing the account with others, for living a productive and worthwhile life that is moved by a concern to enhance the flow of values, skills and understandings that carry hope for the future of humanity and our own.
As I have said I do not want to give the impression that facilitating a living theory approach to educational research is unproblematic. The story of my own learning in my workplace in holding open a creative space for the generation of living theories bears witness to some of the problems that can be encountered (Whitehead, 1993). There are always ethical issues to be faced in the creation of living educational theories because the motivating principles that energise people to act in education are ethical, in the sense that education is a value-laden practical activity. Geoff Suderman Gladwell (2001) has an excellent analysis of the constraints he experienced in the conduct of his action research in the context of a university ethics committee.
Ethical issues around self-study, living theory research, can become inappropriately constraining when ethical guidelines from social science research are applied unchanged to living theory research. For example, in social science research it is usual to focus on anonymity of participants. In self-study research, the researcher insists on self-identification. When students are being encouraged to develop their own living theories of their own learning they are not participants in the social science sense that the research is being done to the participants. When practitioner-researchers are studying themselves and their learning, they do not need anyone's ethical permission to reflect on their own learning. However, when practitioner-researchers are working with others and wish to include evidence from the other participants in their accounts then they need ethical permissions (BERA 2004). When the action research involves children, as in most teacher-research where claims are being made about influences in students' learning, then ethical permission to make the accounts public, as distinct from being part of the everyday professional learning of the teacher and the learning of the students, needs to be given by pupils and parents. It is also often prudent to seek approval for publication from one's employer while recognising that academic freedom is protected under the law in legislation of 1988.
I am most interested in hearing your responses to this presentation and to your ideas that might help to enhance my capacity to captivate the imaginations of others in the generation of their own living theory accounts of their responses to being human and to learning to live a worthwhile and productive life.
BERA (2004) Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research. Retrieved 30 May 2006 from http://www.bera.ac.uk/publications/pdfs/ETHICA1.PDF
Suderman-Gladwell, G. (2001) The Ethics of Personal Subjective Narrative Research. MA, Brock University. Retrieved
30 May 2006 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/values/gsgma.PDF
Whitehead, J. (1993) The Growth of Educational Knowledge. Creating your own living educational theories. Bournemouth; Hyde. Retrieved 30 May 2006 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/%7Eedsajw/bk93/geki.htm
Whitehead, J. (2005) Living inclusional values in educational standards of practice and judgement. Keynote to Act, Reflect, Revise III Conference, Ontario, 11 November 2005. Retrieved on 30th May 2006 from
Whitehead, J. & McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research Living Theory. London; Sage.
Jack Whitehead, 26 May 2006.