Where the action is

Jean McNiff

[Word version available]

A paper for publication in the Health Information and Libraries Journal, September 2007 issue

This article takes the form of an action research account, the communication of my living educational theory, as part of my ongoing action enquiry into how and why I hold myself accountable for my practice. I explain how I have come to see the relationship between teaching and action research, and I explain my thinking around why teachers need to communicate the significance of their teaching as knowledge creation, grounded in their evidence-based practice. I adopt an action research frame to show the transformational nature of my action enquiry as I ask, ‘How do I improve my practice?’ (Whitehead 1989), and I organise my text in terms of these headings:

  • What is my concern?
  • Why am I concerned?
  • What kind of evidence can I generate to show the situation as it is and as it unfolds?
  • What can I do about it?
  • How will I ensure that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and justified?
  • How do I modify my ideas and my practice in light of my evaluation?

(see Whitehead 1989; McNiff and Whitehead 2006; Whitehead and McNiff 2006)

First, I set out my contexts as the locations of my research.

My contexts

I work as a professional educator in a range of settings around the world. In this paper I focus specifically on my work in three settings: in St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, where I support the higher degree studies of a group of staff in the School of Education; in Khayelitsha, a township in South Africa, where I support a group of teachers who are studying for their masters degrees; and in Ireland, where I support the doctoral studies of a small group of teachers at the University of Limerick. All this work is conducted using an action research approach, in which I encourage people to ask the kind of questions I have outlined above, as methodological frameworks for their enquiries. I also write textbooks about action research, and offer advice about how to do action research and ensure it is of an appropriate quality that will qualify as a legitimate form of knowledge creation.

What is my concern?

My concern is around the way in which action research is construed in some quarters, and how this has implications for the form that action research accounts take. My concerns in this regard are threefold:

  1. There seems to be a view that it is sufficient to regard action research as to do with professional development. I agree that action research can be a powerful form of professional development, but I do not think this goes far enough. The purpose of research of any kind is to generate new knowledge, which can be transformed into new theory. Action research is no different. Action research is not simply about improving practice; it is also about offering explanations for how and why the practice has improved, how the validity of any knowledge claims is demonstrated, and how the potential significance of the research for future practice and theory can be communicated. Professional development programmes do not necessarily require participants to engage in this depth of explanation; action research does.
  2. I am concerned that many accounts appear in the literature as descriptions of practice – what has been done – without engaging critically in offering explanations for practice – why the research was undertaken and what the practitioner hoped to achieve. Offering descriptive accounts does not require a practitioner to offer explanations for their practice, or offer a justification for the values that informed the practice.
  3. Dominant action research literatures assume that action research is about taking action in the social world, without showing how actions in the social world are informed and underpinned by specific values that exist in the practitioner’s mental world. Unless the link can be shown between the ontological and epistemological values that informed the research, and the research practice itself, the validity of claims to have improved practice are in danger of being seen as ungrounded.

Here are the reasons for my concerns.

Why am I concerned?

I am concerned because I am a teacher, and I take my work seriously as knowledge creation. I encourage the teachers I work with also to take their work seriously as knowledge creation. I think as teachers we have much to contribute to public debates about education and educational research, from the grounds of the authority of our experience, and also from the grounds of our evidence-based research practices. I am therefore put out when the teachers I work with are assumed to need to be ‘developed’, which is often the assumption underpinning conventional forms of continuing professional education. I am also concerned that I am frequently positioned as having the capacity, and responsibility, of ‘developing’ them. I have come to understand my own philosophy of education as grounded in a view that people can think for themselves and are genetically endowed with the capacity to make choices, and do not need me to tell them what to do (although many request that I do, having been schooled into this kind of mental set, a request that I politely and consistently decline). I see my work as enabling people to become critical of their own intellectual and soci al practices, so that they will make the kind of choices that are appropriate for them and the people they are accountable to, namely their students and others whose studies they may support. This is why I encourage them to undertake their action enquiries, on the basis that if they can articulate for themselves the values that underpin their work, that is, how and why they practise as they do, they will stand a better chance of realising those values than if they remain unaware of their values base.

I have learned how action research and teaching are interlinked. For me, teaching is about holding open creative spaces for people to explore their potentials for independent thinking, and having faith that they will do so; and action research is about taking creative action to find ways of transforming those potentials into actions in the world, and offering descriptions and explanations (theories) for how the transformation has happened, what it looks like, and what its significance and implications could be for oneself and others. Teaching can be understood as exercising one’s influence in a way that is educational, that is, enabling people to learn how to make their own choices about how they act, from the basis of their understanding of themselves and how they are in relation with the world; and action research can be understood as a means of enabling people to offer their descriptions of what they do, as well as explanations for how and why they do it.

To develop this view, however, means challenging normative assumptions about action research as only a form of professional development, about offering accounts that remain at the level of description, and that focus on action research as about taking action in the world without also taking action in relation to one’s learning. I do challenge, and I have a good deal of evidence to show the transformational nature of my educational influence in learning as I encourage practitioners to become critical.

What kind of evidence can I generate to show the situation as it is and as it unfolds?

I can draw on the data and evidence of my practice, to show how practitioners have come to realise their capacity for original and independent thinking, and engage critically with how they can improve their learning in order to influence the transformation of their social situations, and I can compare the living theories generated from this evidence with existing propositional theories in the literature about the nature and processes of professional education. Propositional theories of continuing professional education make statements about its nature and processes, but do not necessarily show the exercise of educational influence in learning. Living educational theories of practice, of the kind that I am offering in this paper, do.

In Ireland, five teachers have produced their doctoral theses as their accounts of how they have made themselves critical, and how they bring their new learning to their schools-based practices while seeking to improve the quality of educational experience for the children and colleagues in their care (see Cahill 2007; Glenn 2006; McDonagh 2007; Roche 2007; Sullivan 2006). In South Africa, twelve teachers have done the same, as part of their masters studies, especially in relation to how they are overcoming the legacies of a colonised past within a present context of creating a new social and cultural order (for example Barnes 2007; Blayi 2007; Mpondwana 2007). In Twickenham, a group of ten academic staff are showing how they are deliberately developing emancipatory pedagogies, grounded in their own capacity to become critical, in order to enable the teachers of the future also to develop a more critical stance. Representative of these efforts is this comment by Julie Pearson:

‘As an educational leader I focus on my own learning, and share my learning as the grounds for my own education and my possible influence within educational settings.’ She critiques dominant forms of leadership theory, that communicate that ‘I am not necessarily required to exercise personal judgement but to follow procedures and produce quantifiable results. This policy direction could be viewed as one which implies order based upon a hierarchical model of management and leadership, thus freeing the participants from the need to make choices. I however will continue to make choices to improve my practice for the social good of those involved, and exercise my agency for educational renewal.’

(Pearson 2007: 8)

What can I do about it?

My view is that practitioners can and should offer their explanations for their practices, in the form of their living educational theories. Most practitioners wish to offer their own explanations for what they are doing. They do not want other people to speak on their behalf. This then is where I turn to my practice of writing, within the context of issues raised by Furlong and Oancea (2005), who maintain that, while practitioner research is now fully accepted as a legitimate form of professional education, it is not so well accepted as a legitimate form of educational theorising. To counter this challenge, I offer advice to practitioners to enable them to offer explanatory, not only descriptive, accounts of practice, that show the reasons and purposes of the research, and that articulate the practitioner’s understanding of the significance of the work for new forms of practice and new forms of theory. Explanations need to be offered from an articulation of identified standards of judgement, against which claims to knowledge may be tested, grounded in a rigorously authenticated evidence base. Those standards of judgement are grounded in the practitioner’s values, such as the faith that each person is able to think for themselves and make their own decisions, so practitioners’ values come to act as their living standards of judgement (Whitehead and McNiff 2006).

How will I ensure that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and justified?

Claims such as the one I am making in this paper, that I am exercising my educational influence in learning for the educational benefit of myself and others, need to be grounded in a robust evidence base and tested against identified standards of judgement. Whitehead (2004) has demonstrated persuasively that values emerge through practice as living standards of judgement, so practitioners can test the validity of their claims to improved practice in relation to the extent to which the values that informed the practice have been realised. Can I therefore show that I have realised my values around the ability of each and every individual to engage critically with their own capacity for original and independent thinking? Yes, I believe I can.

A significant knowledge base now exists, as Snow (2001) recommended, to show how practitioners the world over have come to realise their capacities for knowledge creation through conducting their action enquiries (see www.actionresearch.net and www.jeanmcniff.com). In addition to this empirical knowledge base, I can also produce evidence of the kind found in multimedia representations (see

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6okDegbVW6o), where practitioners publicly attest to the quality of the educational influence in their learning of colleagues such as Jack Whitehead and myself, as we work collaboratively.

How do I modify my ideas and my practice in light of my evaluation?

I believe that the significance of my research lies in my ability to offer a methodologically robust research account, grounded in my values, that achieves explanatory adequacy through its logical form. This form of enquiry is already having influence in some policy recommendations, such as the new professional standards of practice for the teaching profession (TDA 2007). Further work needs to be undertaken, as commenced by Whitehead and Whitehead (2007), to show how new policies for teacher education will link standards used to judge practice with standards used to judge the educational knowledge generated by practitioner-researchers. To do so would ensure that valid educational theories are included in national and international policies, and that national and international policies are reciprocally connected to educational theories in order to spread the influence of valuable ideas.


Have I produced an authentic account? Have I communicated it sincerely, truthfully, comprehensibly and appropriately to my context, as Habermas (1987) recommends? Have I shown the processes of doing my own action research? If so, and if my story speaks to your experience, I encourage you also to find ways of realising your educational values in your practice, to test your claims to knowledge against the extent to which they are emerging in your practice, and then to make your account public as a contribution to the knowledge base. Only through standing together in solidarity as they offer their living educational theories can teachers hope to influence new policies and practices that will benefit the teaching profession and the people whom it is meant to serve.


Barnes, P. (2007) ‘Teaching with Heart.’ Module 30PVPM08: Strategic Planning for Research Project, MA programme, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham.

Blayi, S. (2007) Final assignment for Module 30PVPM08: Strategic Planning for Research Project, MA programme, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham.

Cahill, M. (2007) ‘How do I generate my living theory of an inclusional practice?’ Draft PhD thesis, Limerick, University of Limerick.

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.

Glenn, M. (2006) Working with Collaborative Projects: My living theory of a holistic educational practice. PhD thesis, Limerick, University of Limerick. Retrieved 12 March 2007 from http://www/jeanmcniff.com/glennabstract.html

Habermas, J. (1987) The Theory of Communicative Action: Volume Two: The Critique of Functionalist Reason. Oxford, Polity.

McDonagh, C. (2007) My living theory of learning to teach for social justice: How do I enable primary school children with specific learning disability (dyslexia) and myself as their teacher to realise our learning potentials? PhD thesis, Limerick, University of Limerick. Retrieved 12 March 2007 from http://www.jeanmcniff.com/mcdonaghabstract.html

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

Mpondwane, M. (2007) Final assignment for Module 30PVPM08: Strategic Planning for Research Project, MA programme, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham.

Pearson, J. (2007) Playing Powerful Games. Academic paper as final assignment for Module 30PVM03 Managing and Leading Change, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham.

Roche, M. (2007) ‘My living theory of the practice of encouraging dialogue in an Irish primary school context.’ Draft PhD thesis, Limerick, University of Limerick.

Snow, C. (2001) ‘Knowing what we know: children, teachers, researchers’. Educational Researcher, 30 (7): 3–9.

Sullivan, B. (2006) A living theory of a practice of social justice: realising the right of Traveller children to educational equality. PhD thesis, Limerick, University of Limerick. Retrieved 12 March 2007 from http://www.jeanmcniff.com/bernieabstract.html

Training and Development Agency for Schools (2007) Draft Revised Professional Standards. Available online at http://www.tda.gov.uk/teachers/professionalstandards.aspx (accessed 27th February 2007).

Whitehead, Jack (1989) ‘Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, “How do I improve my practice?”’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 19 (1): 137–53. Retrieved 12 March 2007 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/writings/livingtheory.html

Whitehead, J. (2004) ‘What counts as evidence in the self-studies of teacher education practices?’ in J. J. Loughran, M. L. Hamilton, V. K. LaBoskey and T. Russell (eds) International Handbook of Self-Study of Teaching and Teacher Education Practices. Dordrecht, Kluwer.

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

Whitehead, Jack and Whitehead, Joan (2007) Researching Contributions to the Creation of a World of Educational Quality. A paper presented at the AERA annual meeting, Chicago, in the Acton Research SIG programme session ‘Action Research: Participating, Transforming, and Creating’, 13 April 2007.

Jean McNiff is Professor of Educational Research at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, Adjunct Professor at the University of Limerick, and Visiting Professor at Ningxia Teachers University.

Address for correspondence: jeanmcniff@mac.com

See www.actionresearch.net and www.jeanmcniff.com for action research resources.


What's New






Go to www.september-books.com to order and to see further information about the book and its contents. 

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




© 2017 Jean McNiff | jeanmcniff@mac.com
site design: plexus © 2009-10