Drawing on concepts of the New Literacies, this paper argues that academics are currently caught within a contextualized Discourse of required writing for publication. Drawing on frameworks of a capabilities approach, the paper tells of efforts to enable academics to develop self-efficacy and capacity in multiliteracies as well as academic literacy. A new model of knowledge explication for communicative competence is proposed, extending ideas about knowledge communication and knowledge development. This model reflects the evolutionary process of complexity theory and is relevant to cognitive, communicative, social and other domains. Evidence is generated from a database including audio and videotaped conversations among different international groups, in relation to identified analytical categories, that show the need for explanatory adequacy in theory development.


This interactive presentation offers an account of research undertaken to find ways of supporting academics in writing for publication. Its importance lies in current contexts of performativity (Ball, 2007) where academics are required to publish as conditions of tenure (Kendzior, 2013), publications are used as measures of academic performance (Sikes, 2006; Hyland, 2007), and failure to publish can be seen as lack of capacity (Murray, 2002). However, not all academics find it easy to write, or know how to write (Fanghanel, 2012); therefore, given that writing is usually an individual and often lonely endeavour, weakness in academic literacy (knowledge of how to write) can become a source of considerable demoralisation.

Such situations have led me as a higher education professional developer to emphasise the need for supporting academic literacy. Yet, according to the New Literacies Studies (Lanksheare and Knobel, 2011), Academic Literacy needs to be embedded within a focus on Multiliteracies, an appreciation of Gee’s (1990) ideas about ‘little d’ and ‘Big D’ Discourses, where multiple and frequently conflicting Discourses often constitute and/or confuse professional identities. One of these Discourses is to deny the legitimacy of practice-based forms of research as a valid form of theory generation (Hammersley, 2004; Taber, 2013); another is to insist that academic writing should conform to the established canon (Herr and Anderson, 2005; Noffke, 2009). Further, many institutions accept action research only in a sanitized form that virtually eliminates the political from the social (Herr and Anderson, 2005), and sees quality in action research in terms of the achievement of institutions’ aims. If practitioners wish to maintain elements of political critique which has historically been the basis of much socially-oriented action research, they need to ensure that the quality of writing does not distort the message or turn reports into live ammunition to be used against their authors.

My job therefore is to help colleagues learn to read political situations, and understand how they are positioned within these Discourses as producers of academic texts for personal and institutional knowledge capital (Graham, 2002). I support academic practitioners in producing their practice-based texts that conform to established criteria of academic rigour while recognizing the legitimacy of the power of local practice-based and embodied knowledges. By doing so I encourage a view that heritage is understood as how meanings in the present influence readings of the past, and in this way I hope to demonstrate my commitments to the AERA conference aims of ensuring academic justice for practitioner-academics to establish the validity of their action research and to preserve the heritage of local knowledge as a powerful means of collaborative meaning-making (Ricoeur, 1992).

The aim of the work has been to establish a systemic approach to developing institutional capability (Sen, 1999; Walker and Unterhalter, 2007) in writing for publication. Sen’s (1999) ‘capability approach’ involves understanding that while practitioners may be capable of high quality outputs, this capacity cannot be achieved unless political steps are initiated and practical resources provided to help them become capable of realizing their capacity. My aim is to provide these resources, including the provision of robust theoretical frameworks as intellectual resources.

Theoretical frameworks

These intellectual resources are drawn from the theoretical frameworks that inform my work across cognitive, research and social domains. All frameworks reflect the dynamic evolutionary processes and patterns of complexity theory (Johnson, 2002), including ideas of immanence, emergence, spontaneous self-organisation and ecological interconnectivity.

Cognitive domains: from knowledge telling to knowledge explication
Drawing on work by Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) an extended model is now developed that shows the evolutionary nature of knowledge creation and communicative competence, both knowledge about topics and knowledge of the processes involved. In writing for publication, the model appears as:

• Knowledge telling (author describes what has been done);
• Knowledge transformation (author considers how best to communicate messages in contexts of knowledge transfer and sharing);
• Knowledge analysis (author reflects critically on knowledge of writing for communication, i.e. development of communicative competence)
• Knowledge synthesis (Galbraith, 2009): (author explains the processes involved in achieving communicative competence);
• Knowledge explication: author comments critically on processes involved in theorizing their practices – essential for communicating political significance of writing research.

Significantly, when speaking about matters of knowledge creation, new forms of knowledge are developed. Participants’ comments from the research data reflect the idea that once we know something (when we learn), we change our knowledge as well as an understanding of the knowledge creation processes involved.

This model may be applied in the communicative domain, formalised as knowledge building.

Communicative domains: From knowledge building to ideas improvement
Knowledge building may be construed as a theoretical, pedagogical, and technological innovation that focuses on contemporary needs to work creatively with knowledge. Knowledge building spans multiple disciplines, sectors, and cultural contexts (Scardamalia, 2005). Scardamalia notes that the difference between knowledge building and constructivism lie in the intentionality of participants to share knowledge, and to see knowledge building as done for the benefit of the community.

However, the concept of ideas improvement (Bryk et al., 2010), as part of knowledge building and improvement, requires systematized support. Such supports have been developed throughout my work and research contexts, and include strategies such as the use of boundary objects (Engeström, 2014) operating as boundary spaces to facilitate boundary crossings (Ackerman, 2008). These boundary processes link with Arendt’s (1963) reading of the concept of liminality, destabilising periods of transformation that involve deep level reframing of existing frames (Schön and Rein, 1994). The boundary spaces take the form of workshops and internet meetings where people can explore and shape ideas together; and dedicated meetings and research forums where people can come together on an equal footing to share their writing and give and receive critique in a supportively, rigorous manner that aims to encourage confidence and a sense of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977), a belief that personal values and social aims are achievable in practice.

Social domains: developing ecologies of inquiring communities
Drawing on the situated learning and communities of practice/inquiry literatures (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998), we have developed interconnected and emergent ecologies of practice. Our work/research sites have taken the form of individual learning communities in different countries with international reach: we can show how local groups form individual communities, which, when linked with wider communities, form new, global communities. From a systems perspective, the parts may be seen within the whole, and the whole is reflected in each of its parts (see Bohm, 1996).

Methods and modes of inquiry

The research takes the form of a mixed-methodologies approach – my individual self-study as a provider, whose main question is ‘How do I support the development of academic literacy through enabling practitioners’ negotiations of multiliteracies?’ linked with collective self-studies by participants whose main question is ‘How do I/we develop academic literacy within a culture of multiliteracies?’ This view of collective self-studies extends ideas promoted by Torbert (2001) and Reason and Bradbury (2001) about first-, second- and third-person action research, where different researchers adopt insider and outsider positionalities for different purposes. Instead, from a knowledge building perspective, collective self-studies show individuals’ and groups’ intentionality to improve collective ideas and co-create knowledge. From the narrow focus of the practice of learning to write for publication, group processes help individuals to move from describing practices (knowledge telling) to commenting on the significance of what they are doing (knowledge explication) and offering one another ideas about the possible development of existing ideas and practices at increasing levels of theoretical complexity.

Data sources, evidence, objects, or materials

Projects to support writing capacity have been conducted with groups in Norway (a group of 10 university-based health professionals), the UK (one group of 8 university lecturers studying for their PhDs; one group of 4 chaplains). This work has been extended across other sectors and disciplines such as in Ireland – a group of 6 teachers of autistic children – and South Africa – a group of 4 teachers, though these groups are not included in the research reported here. All participants have formed opportunity sample research groups as we have worked with them over time. Projects have been conducted during the years 2005–2014, of varying duration, according to the identified needs of clients. Data have been collected systematically over this period, from the following sources:

• my own and participants’ reflective diaries;
• participants’ assignments, including some as part of degree programmes, to show the development of critical thinking, practice improvement and development of writing capacity;
• voice and videotape recordings of feedback on workshops and writing retreats;
• written responses from participants about the value of the support, and as a means of identifying new directions for improvement;
• archives of draft writing and the compilation of portfolios to show the development of appreciation of publication routes and appropriate standards, and critical reflections on these;
• unpublished Masters and PhD dissertations and theses;
• published texts in the form of books and journal articles

Analysis of the data has been conducted using four main analytical categories:

• Do the data show the development of enhanced interpretive capacity (Ricoeur, 1992)?
• Do the data show the realisation of dialogical and relational values (McNiff, 2013a), and interpersonal/intercultural sensitivity (McNiff, 2013b)?
• Do the data show improved capacity for knowledge explication (McNiff, 2014)?
• Do the data provide grounds for showing the capability development, for self-efficacy and sustainable forms of living (Sen, 1999)?

Results and substantiated conclusions

Evidence has been generated from the data using the methodological principle of showing how these analytical categories have transformed into procedures for generating evidence in the form of the realisation of values in practice. The evidence base contains research outputs in the form of formal and informal texts (books, articles and theses) that contain stories of practice, embedded within critical reflective commentaries about the cognitive and social processes involved in their production. Evidence is also drawn from the transcripts of audio and videotape-recorded conversations containing participants’ critically reflective comments on the importance of dialogical processes for knowledge transformation during periods of knowledge transfer, and for a critical appreciation of understanding of levels of knowledge development for critical explication of the processes involved.

Scholarly significance of the study and work

This research has significance for several dimensions:

• For demonstrating the validity of research reports by writing not only at the descriptive level of knowledge telling and knowledge transforming, as currently reported in the literatures, but also achieving explanatory adequacy by offering critical appreciation of the knowledge-creating processes involved when the practice of writing is seen as a research practice and site.
• For demonstrating the need for the development of critically reflective researchers who regard writing as a vehicle for generating new knowledge about writing-based research practices.
• For developing higher education group processes where academics may engage critically with one another to form dialogical communities whose purpose is to model forms of reflective practice and critical feedback to peers that encourages supportive and responsible peer mentoring.
• To provide guidance about how to negotiate multiple institutional Discourses so that academics may produce high quality texts that, while not necessarily abiding by the established academic canon, may be judged appropriate quality for academic publication.

In the coming months I hope to develop the Higher Education in Action Research Teaching (HEART) project, centred on York St John University, UK, that aims to bring together practice-based academic researchers whose aim is knowledge development across domains. This means that contemporary practices of academic publication will emphasise the processes of knowledge explication, with an automatic assumption that higher education research outputs will offer explications for what is written and its form of representation. My research, I hope, shows how I have enabled others to develop capability in these practices. I hope to use my presentation as an interactive forum where participants offer critical commentary, as a living manifestation of the processes outlined in this paper.


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Read about the Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research conference at York St John University, Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th June 2015. Go to www.yorksj.ac.uk/value&virtue for further information.
Keynote speakers: Dr Tina Cook, Northumbria University

Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Anglia Ruskin University

Professor Julian Stern, York St John University

Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




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