Realising the potentials of educational action research for renewable cultural transformation

Jean McNiff, St Mary's University College, Twickenham

[Word version available]

A paper to be presented at the 2007 AERA annual meeting in Chicago as a contribution to the Action Research Special Interest Group session on 'Action Research: Participating, Transforming, and Creating', Friday, 13 April 2007, 12.25 - 1.55, Hotel Inter-Continental Chicago, Seville Ballroom, East-First Floor.


In this paper I explore some of my developing understandings of the relationship between the methodologies of human enquiry and the methodologies of renewable cultural transformation. As part of this wider issue, I explore developments in my thinking around the idea of transformational potential and its relevance to some of the work I am currently engaged in. Without this understanding, my work would not have the capacity to exercise the kind of influence it does in enabling people to do things for themselves, especially in terms of developing their capacity for self-determination and in securing the freedom for self-development, which Young (2000) says are the two main pre-requisites for sustainable democratic forms of living.

The work I will describe is to do with continuing professional education programmes in Ireland and South Africa, two of my work contexts, where I encourage all participants, including myself, to undertake our action enquiries into our own practice, and to produce our accounts of practice in the form of our living educational theories (Whitehead 1989). By doing this, in practical terms, I am aiming to encourage people to transform their own lives in a way that enables them to influence their cultures, and to produce their accounts of practice to show how and why they have done so. In conceptual terms, I am showing the generative transformational capacity of educational enquiry for influencing processes of cultural transformation. I will draw from the growing evidence base to show how the work actually is beginning to influence cultural transformation in the development of more sustainable societies. I will also show how, by realising the transformational potentials of networking as a form of political action, individual groups in different countries are beginning to share their stories of personal transformational influence in their society’s processes of cultural renewal, and therefore how, collectively, they are contributing to global renewal. Furthermore, by expressing their understanding of their developing capacity for transformational influence through the form of their higher degree dissertations and theses, they are ensuring the academic legitimacy of their ideas, where they have tested their beliefs, grounded in a strong validated evidence base, about their own capacity for cultural transformation against some of the best minds in the literature and the Academy. Because my work is always undertaken in the broad contexts of educational research, I can therefore draw links between educational research and processes of cultural transformation.

I do, however, hold that a necessary condition for the realisation of this potential is that the form of educational research itself demonstrates its own transformational capacity. However, to gain legitimacy for transformational forms of educational research, an approach that is not yet institutionally mainstream, means influencing the development of research cultures in higher education, the body responsible for the legitimisation of higher degrees, where the present culture remains rooted in propositional forms of theorising and its social manifestations of dominance and control. I therefore draw links between my contributions in influencing research cultures in higher education and how such transformation in the higher education research culture can then transform into renewable forms of cultural transformation in relation to how people live their lives in their homes and workplaces. Especially I would like to show how these efforts are having influence for policymaking contexts, and the potentially significant implications of the ideas.

To stay true to my commitments around the transformational potentials of educational action research for renewable cultural transformation, grounded as I believe they are in the contributions of individuals working collectively, I organise my writing in terms of an account of my own action enquiry (see Whitehead 1989; McNiff and Whitehead 2006; Whitehead and McNiff 2006), whereby I aim to communicate, through the content and the form of the text, the processes of the realisation of my own capacity for transformational influence for cultural renewal.



My practice takes different forms and is conducted across a range of contexts and countries. Although it may appear disparate, all elements of my practice are interlinked and integrated. The main thrust of what I do is to encourage others to believe in their own capacity for personal and social transformation, and to produce their accounts of practice, in the form of their living educational theories, to show the validity and legitimacy of their ideas, so they can be taken seriously as participants in public debates about what counts as educational knowledge and who should be seen as a knower. The people I work with perceive themselves as practitioners, and work in schools, higher education institutions, and other workplaces. The work is conducted in several countries, but for this paper, I will focus on two of those countries, Ireland and South Africa.

First, I have been active in Ireland since the early 1990s, where I began by supporting practitioners in schools-based action research projects, developed this into continuing professional education programmes for teachers leading to masters degrees through the University of the West of England, and I now support doctoral enquiries at the University of Limerick. Second (although I will not speak further about this context here), I work at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham, where I support a group of academic staff who are studying for their masters degrees through the University of Surrey, and I also support a group of staff who wish to pursue their doctoral studies, some of whom are drawn from the masters group. Third, I work in South Africa, with a group of teachers from Khayelitsha, a township near Cape Town, who are studying for their masters degrees through St Mary’s University College, and I also support a group of academic staff in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, who are investigating their practices as higher education-based educators. An encompassing practice is that I theorise my involvement in these different projects through writing, and I produce books and papers that explain the processes involved in supporting practical educational development work. In so doing, and like Whitehead (1999), I aim to show the significance of the work for reconceptualising educational theory. This reconceptualisation is about moving from a focus on traditional propositional forms of education theory (Whitty 2005) to living forms of educational theory for a new scholarship of educational enquiry (Whitehead 1999). The lineage of this idea is that it was developed initially by Boyer (1990), who spoke about the need for new forms of educational enquiry; subsequently by Schön (1995), who spoke about some of the implications for developing new epistemologies in research universities; and most recently by Whitehead (2007), who explains how new forms of multimedia can provide a living evidence base to communicate more adequately the transformational processes of developing new scholarships of educational enquiry. In this paper I wish to explain how my work with those groups in different places has the potential also to contribute to new scholarship initiatives, especially through offering explanations for how underlying conceptualisations about the origin, nature and uses of the deep metaphors of generative transformational processes may be transformed into their living realisation in everyday lives.

I also want to introduce the point, to be developed later, that this practice of intensive bursts of noisy action while working with other people, during which I develop insights about what I am doing from practical experience in the field, followed by intensive periods of quiet reflection at home, during which I make sense of what I am doing, is an example of what I see as the stochastic nature of generative transformational processes. I argue that, although processes of transformation may unfold in a smooth and seamless manner, they are also processes of punctuated equilibrium (Gould 1996; Gould and Eldredge 1993), a term that refers to sudden creative jumps in otherwise uninterrupted processes. I will explain how deep but not-yet well-formed insights frequently develop during intensive action-oriented creative episodes, that are filed away in the memory, can be consolidated into formal explanations through periods of intense thought and articulation through writing. I will also draw on the work of Kosok (1976), to help me make sense of these processes as transitional structures, which are themselves temporary and with transformational capacity, within the wider generative form of transformational processes, and I will show how ideas that emerge during these times as valid knowledge frequently transform into new forms as part of ongoing action-reflection processes whose seeming end points act as new beginnings for future aspects of enquiry. Thus, I explain, the stop-start nature of my work in different contexts is embedded within its overall seamlessly transformational nature, where periods of action transform into periods of reflection, and this dialectical process emerges as an integrated holistic and inclusional practice. Furthermore, I will attempt to communicate the nature of these processes both through the content and form of this paper. I will try to communicate through the text how moments that focus on ideas transform into moments that focus on action, and all the moments transform into an account of a life of productive and worthwhile contribution. I develop the argument to explain how such processes that enable practitioners to produce accounts of their action enquiries can enable those practitioners to use their knowledge in realising their potentials for renewable forms of cultural transformation.


I now offer an account of my action enquiry.

What is my concern?

The concern that inspires this paper is that, if it is acknowledged that forms of theory can influence forms of practice, and can in turn be influenced by the logics used in the process of theorising, then the dominant form of theory used to theorise processes of continuing professional development is inadequate for the job, since propositional forms of theory cannot offer robust explanations for an individual practitioner’s values-based life. One of the reasons for this inadequacy is that the form of logic is grounded in inappropriate metaphors. The dominant form of theory is propositional and linguistic, that is, it offers explanations about the way things are in an abstract conceptual form, using words as instruments with which to define other words. The dominant form of logic is linear and one-directional, and is grounded in a Darwinian metaphor of reality as proceeding along a fairly straight trajectory towards a specific end-point. This underpinning metaphor serves as the mental model of the theorist, and reflects their assumptions. Dominant forms of theory assume that events in life can be predicted, based on the evidence of other similar events; that processes will eventually achieve closure; and that everything is working towards a specific end. It is Newton’s metaphor of a clockwork universe, with God as the benevolent clockmaker who ensures that everything is in its place, as Creation proceeds towards a given end point, and presumably at some stage grinds to a halt because there is nothing left to do; in the same way as, in Piaget’s stage development theories, once a child achieves the stage of formal operations there is no place else to go. God in this case becomes an abstraction, along with the imaginary of the universe he creates. Riegel (1975) suggested a further stage of dialectical operations, but the methodological assumptions remain that life proceeds in stages towards closure. It all works beautifully on paper, and, in the best of propositional worlds, no aberrations are allowed to distort the fearful symmetry. This is why Popper could say that any theory that contained a contradiction was useless as a theory (Popper 2002, p. 429, emphasis in the original). Perfect mental models are by definition perfect. Their aim is to represent normative reality, as it should be, so the model cannot afford to be distorted by the contradictoriness of real life.

This is, however, according to Bourdieu (1990), dangerous territory for one’s mental wellbeing, because the model is then taken to be the reality, rather than representative of another reality. The model itself becomes its own virtual reality, and, as Habermas (1987) has pointed out, once a system becomes reified, it moves to a level of abstraction somewhere above the heads of its original creators, so the creators end up worshipping the golden calf they created themselves, forgetting that it is an abstraction of that which they hold dear, and, in the idolatory, forget what they originally held dear, and cling instead to a false belief. The false belief then becomes true belief in what they hold dear.

My current concern is that the idea of transformation has gone much the same way in dominant discourses. To take one of my contexts, South Africa, as an example, discourses of transformation are everywhere. Entire policies are built on the idea of transformation. It is contained, for example, in the Ministry of Education (2003) report Higher Education Restructuring and Transformation: Guidelines for Mergers and Incorporation, which focuses on structural transformation through institutional mergers. The Council for Higher Education (2004) report South African Higher Education in the First Decade of Democracy begins by declaring: ‘The tenth anniversary of South Africa’s democracy is a timely opportunity to reflect on a decade of policy-making and policy implementation aimed at transforming South African education’ (page i). The transformation in question remains largely to do with mergers and other forms of structural change within the higher education system. This view of transformation as structural change is frequently reflected in everyday discourses, as, for example, when I heard a white man claim that he was transformed because he now sat down to coffee with a black man. The structured metaphors of a linear form of logic underpin the structuration of social practices. However, the structuration of any system may change the form of the system but does not necessarily change its nature.

This view of transformation as structural change is well demonstrated in the mainstream literatures to do with transformation. It is possible to read about ‘transformation scaffolds’ and ‘tools for transformation’ (see Marina Warner’s engaging (2002) book Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds adopts this view, and speaks about the structural forms that transformation processes can take – mutating, hatching, splitting, and doubling. This is grounded in an Aristotelian view of transformational processes as structural – combination, contact, and action-passion – as properties of things which undergo natural change. This view has informed a range of disciplines and fields of enquiry. In traditional Bloomfieldian structural linguistics, for example, the study of language focused on the structural formation of language, and the study of language acquisition was about how a speaker-hearer acquired language by assimilating those structures and substituting new linguistic items as they were learned (Skinner 1957). In stage development theories, such as those by Kohlberg (1981), Levinson (1978), and Piaget (1977), it is assumed that maturation processes happen by means of structural changes as one stage transforms into another. What concerns me about these forms of theory is that they assume that the different stages develop in a linear form, as part of a hypothetical universal fixed structure that may be applied to everyone’s experience. They do not necessarily recognise the influences of socio-cultural and historical experience, or the stochastic nature of personal and social evolution, given the different contexts of life experiences or the different values-based choices that people make about how to use their genetically inherited capacities for personal transformation. Propositional theories of human development do not explain how many children in Khayelitsha, as in many other contexts of extreme deprivation, have to learn to assume an adult identity at an early age. Similarly, in Irish Traveller cultures, marriage among teenagers is not infrequent, and many have children at a young age (see Sullivan 2006). It is a sign of cultural approbation that a young Traveller matron will have babies.

The metaphors underpinning this view of transformation as structural change are the same as those underpinning formal propositional theory. The metaphors are formal, two-dimensional and one-directional. Once a thing changes, the change proceeds in a given direction. Furthermore, transformation of the form is assumed to be transformation of the whole. This is a category mistake. The transformation of form does not automatically mean transformation of the whole. The beauty business exploits this mistake, selling the idea that if people make changes to the form of their faces and bodies, they will be happy. This category mistake is repeated across a wide range of discursive contexts, including that of educational research, and can be seen, for example, in the limitations of critical theory. It is not enough to imagine the world, as much critical theory does, and produce propositional statements about how it may be improved in theory. Talking about improvement never changed anything in practice, although it may have been an important first step in acting for change. The trick is to find real-life ways to change things, to bring transformation into the real world, and test different understandings of the nature of transformation, to check whether those understandings are sufficiently robust to inform new developments in social processes. This means testing the validity of claims about the transformational capacity of theories of transformation, using appropriate criteria and standards of judgement. These criteria and standards of judgement themselves need to be transformational if they are to communicate the nature of the kind of transformational processes that are necessary for the development of sustainable social orders. We judge our practice in terms of what we expect of the practice, as our expectations are grounded in our values, and our standards emerge dynamically as we ask questions about whether or not we have brought our values to life (Whitehead 2006). Did I realise my value of justice? Did I manage to enable people to think for themselves? When we come to make claims about our work, such as, ‘I realised my value of justice’, and ‘I managed to enable people to think for themselves,’ we test those claims against our criteria, and they become our living standards of judgement, and we ask evaluators to judge our work on this basis, taking care to ensure that the claims are grounded in rigorous methodological processes that show that the aetiology of the claim is clear, and the account of the processes that led to the claim is unambiguous. We say, ‘This is what I believe I have done and why I have done it.’ We invite our audience to make judgements about our claims in relation to whether there is sufficiently robust evidence to show that the values that inspired the research actually were realised in practice.

This is where traditional logics, grounded in traditional metaphors, lack explanatory adequacy. Two-dimensional changes in form are inadequate to communicate the multi-dimensional realities of a complex values-grounded practice that transforms over time, and that is inspired by human intent. For me, from my experience of working in the real world, transformation is more than skin-deep. It involves the intent of the person to realise their own truth in their practice and to tell that truth in the public domain through the account that they offer for their truth.

This is also, I believe, where the potentials of educational action research enter the debate as a form of renewable cultural transformation, but this means first problematising the idea of culture. ‘Culture’ is frequently assumed in the management and leadership literatures to be ‘the way things are done around here’, but this definition is quite inadequate for debates about personal and social transformation. The practice of suttee (sati), the self-immolation of Indian widows on their late husbands’ funeral pyres, was ‘the way things are done around here’ for centuries. The continuing practice of enforced female circumcision, the practice of detaining prisoners unlawfully in Guantanomo Bay, the unquestioned disappearances of children, are examples of the way things are done around here. These practices are informed by culturally normative values and epistemologies that assume that the way things are done around here includes the perpetuation of the underpinning values and epistemologies themselves. Said (1983) critiques this view, pointing out that those who position themselves as cultural elites maintain this status by communicating the unchallengeable nature of the values that constitute what in fact becomes their own manufactured culture to those not in power, and Chomsky (1991) explains how these cultural elites put in place regimes of propaganda that serve as forms of mind-control. Thus a recent article in Time (reference unavailable) reports how universities came out in protest against the war in Vietnam, but there is barely a whisper today in universities against the war in Iraq, evidently for the following reasons. Higher education cultures are frequently controlled by epistemological and cultural elites who focus on securing wealth and power rather than concern themselves with sustainable social renewal. To do this, those elites ensure that higher education institutions are populated by traditional academics who maintain the status quo by adding to the body of existing propositional knowledge (another example of transformation as structural change). In Fuller’s (2005) opinion, which I share, universities need also critical intellectuals who explore the potentials of new forms of knowledge, and seek to influence the values base of institutional epistemologies in the interests of democratically-oriented practices.

In this paper I am challenging the reification of ‘the way things are done around here’. I am aiming to show how cultural norms can become hegemonic traditions, unless actively critiqued, and, in terms of my argument about the need to transform the idea of transformation itself, the need to challenge the hegemonic perpetuation of the theoretical tradition of transformation as structural change. I locate my concern in the evidence of my work in South Africa, where cultural practices frequently continue to perpetuate the underpinning values that I am critiquing here. I draw especially on reports of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and its potential legacy for contemporary cultural practices that aim to eliminate discrimination and violent practices.

I have learned much from the work of South African writers, including Antjie Krog, whose work I admire. As well as acting as a journalist who reported on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she has written other texts, most notably for my interests, A Change of Tongue (Krog 2003), which speaks of emerging personal identities and their transformational potentials for new forms of living. The book carries this epigram:

Some rules, according to Noam Chomsky, are transformational: that is, they change one structure into another, according to such prescribed conventions as moving, inserting, deleting, and replacing items. Transformational Grammar has stipulated two levels of syntactic structure (an abstract underlying structure that incorporates all the syntactic information required for the interpretation of a given sentence) and surface structure (a structure that incorporates all the syntactic features of a sentence required to convert the sentence into a spoken or written version). Transformation links deep structure with surface structure.

(Krog 2003: v)

Yet while I admire this work, and am also influenced by the work of Chomsky (see below), and have frequently drawn on his ideas of deep and surface structure (McNiff 2000), I have developed my own thinking about transformational processes beyond the idea of deep and surface structures as fixed structures, as has Chomsky himself (see Chomsky 2004), and now understand that theories of processes of transformation that seek to inform new practices need to develop more dynamic inclusional forms that move beyond, while incorporating, formal structures, as transitional nodal points (Kosok 1976). As long as theories stay at the level of the description of structures, they will not attain the explanatory adequacy necessary to enable them to be taken seriously as contributing to personal and social wellbeing.

Let me give examples of what I am speaking about, and I draw again on Krog’s work, this time her Country of My Skull (Krog 2002).

This work contains many graphic accounts of the horrors of apartheid, as told during the public hearings. Although many of the stories are more horrific than the one I reproduce here, this is the story that most influenced me, possibly because I am a woman, possibly because of the banality of its setting.

Captain Van der Merwe and Kruger were present and they interrogated me about the necklacing.

I said, ‘Even a dog can see that you are stupids – surely you know that I wasn’t there.’

They got angry and one of them said, ‘We’ll see who’s a dog,’ and they closed the doors, the windows and blinds. Kruger put paper and a piece of cloth in my mouth. Van der Merwe bound my hands and eyes.

Kruger took off my jersey and my shirt and pulled me up to the desk. One of them took off my bra. They forced me to bend over the open drawer so that one of my breasts would hang in the drawer. They then slammed the drawer shut so that my breast was squashed. They did this three times to each of my breasts. Their actions caused me a lot of pain and my whole body became weak. They also pulled handfuls of hair out of my head.

They then untied my hands and left me in the office. I unbound my eyes and mouth and noticed that my nipple had split and a watery sticky mixture was flowing out. I took the cloth from my mouth and dried my breasts. I kept the hair and the cloth and when I went to the toilet I found a plastic packet and put the hair and cloth inside it. I still have this packet in my possession.’

(Krog 2002: 113–4)

Transformation, when it came to South Africa in 1994, aimed to make such episodes a thing of the past. It did so by producing policy statements that stipulated specific criteria whereby the society should judge itself, criteria such as respect, justice, freedom, and care. Above all, the policy was one of transformation. But transformation does not come about simply through the stipulation of criteria. Criteria are linguistic items that set out a principle of judgement. Principles of judgement are often made in a decontextualised vacuum, as an intellectual exercise. Take for example the value of respect, as in the story told by Krog, about how, as part of the Commission’s proceedings, two white South African men went looking for the bodies of those in whose killing they had been involved. They found in a shallow grave the remains of a black woman, together with shreds of blue plastic around the pelvis. They tell how, in custody, they had kept her naked, and she made a pair of knickers out of a blue plastic bag. They tell the story with a note of respect. ‘“Oh yes,’ the grave indicator remembers. “We kept her naked and after ten days she made herself these panties.” He sniggers: “God, she was brave.”’ (Krog 2002: 128). Respect is a great criterion, invoked by many literatures about moral behaviours. The respect of those men for the woman did not stop them killing her.

What is needed is new standards of judgement, as setting out the level of achievement of the criterion, and these standards of judgement need to be dynamically related to the values that give rise to them. Krog tells a story about this, too, how the exercise of living standards of judgement enabled six black youths to walk into the Truth Commission’s offices in Cape Town, just before the midnight deadline for the submission of applications for amnesty. She writes:

They insist on filling out the forms and taking the oath. Their application simply says: Amnesty for Apathy. They have been having a normal Saturday evening jol in a shebeen when they started talking about the amnesty deadline and how millions of people had simply turned a blind eye to what was happening. It had been left to a few individuals to make the sacrifice for the freedom everyone enjoys today.

‘And that’s when we decided to ask for amnesty because we had done nothing.’ They went to a nearby shop, asked the owner if they could use his computer and typed out their ‘Amnesty for Apathy’ statement.

‘But where does apathy fit into the Act?’ a Truth Commission official asks.

‘The Act says that an omission can also be a human rights violation,’ one of them quickly explains. ‘And that’s what we did: we neglected to take part in the liberation struggle. So, here we stand as a small group representative of millions of apathetic people who did not do the right thing.’

With applications like this, the amnesty process has become more than what was required by law. It has become the only forum where South Africans can say: ‘We may not have committed a human rights abuse, but we want to say that what we did – or didn’t do – was wrong and that we’re sorry.’

(Krog 2002: 121–2)

This is how I understand the way to renewable cultural transformation. The setting of a linguistic criterion does not of itself bring about change, although the articulation of the criterion may inspire it. The articulation and enactment of living standards of judgement has a greater chance of realising the transformational potentials contained in the criterion. The exercise of living standards of judgement, to make judgements about practices in relation to the living realisation of values, enables people to take stock of what they have or have not done, to make reparation, and to move beyond, not only changed in terms of the present structures of their self-identity but with a perception of the generative transformational potentials of a self in a process of a new becoming.

To move to a situation of generative transformation, however, requires a gestalt shift in the underpinning Aristotelian form of logic that objectifies things in freeze-frame, assumes that arguments should eliminate contradiction, and should move towards a predetermined end whose nature is premised on an idealised imaginary norm (see Butler 1999). That gestalt shift is itself underpinned by a transformation of the idea of transformation. This is what my practice is about, grounded as it is in a view of transformation as generative, dynamic, and inclusional, and above all grounded in real life processes.

I learned this view of the generative transformational nature of evolutionary processes from several main sources, including first, the work of Comenius, who wrote probably one of the first-ever pedagogical texts about child-centred education, but more importantly, from the work of Goethe and Chomsky. Goethe believed that life was in a constant state of emergence, and that any judgements about the quality of life needed to be made from the practical stance of whether it was possible to transform an unsatisfactory situation into a more satisfactory one through personal learning (Armstrong 2006). Influenced by the ideas of Spinoza, he grounded his beliefs in the idea of an unfolding nature, which was always in transition. In his botanical studies, he developed the idea of the ‘Urpflanze’, maintaining that transformation was more than structural, as manifested as a stem transforms into a leaf or flower, and was also generative, in that the potential for the leaf or flower was always already in the plant itself. He based his claims about the generative transformational nature of evolutionary processes (although he did not use this language) in his observations of nature, maintaining that whatever happened in nature was right and true to itself. This view is also expressed by Feynman (1999). He speaks of scientific enquiry as ‘the pursuit of some subject or some thing based on the principle that what happens in nature is true and is the judge of the validity of any theory about it’ (page 240). Nor, for Goethe were these processes teleological. Life simply was. The goal of life was life itself. Many people, in his lifetime and afterwards, have accused Goethe of denying the obligations of following a moral pathway. My understanding is that Goethe achieved his own morality in terms of showing the futility of working towards an idealised end point, as did Popper in The Poverty of Historicism (1957) and Gray in Heresies (2004), and instead focused on ensuring that the moment was the best it could be, on the grounds that what happens in this moment will influence the future that this moment can transform into. This would be my own view, and informs my practice.

This brings me to my next point in my action enquiry, where I ask, ‘What are the reasons for my concern?’, and I draw again on the work of Chomsky, who has been key in enabling me to understand the nature of the metaphorical base of my practice.

Why am I concerned?

Like Maria James (James 2007), my practice is faith-based. I have faith in life, that it will continue. Life is unstoppable, and never ends. Even though an entity may die, its form and nature change in such a way that it has the potential to contribute to new forms of life. I have faith in other people, and in myself, that we have the capacity to realise our potentials. I have faith in a power-energy greater than me, and I believe that this power-energy, which I call God, manifests itself throughout the whole of creation, including humanity. The relationship I have with this power-energy is personal.

I used to think, like Gray (2002), that my faith was blind. I have learned better. My faith is not groundless, but grounded in a strong evidence base. Like Goethe and Feynman, I look at nature, in my garden, and I see how generative transformational potential is realised everywhere, as plants and animals grow and reproduce. I also look at the work of Chomsky, who challenged the mid-twentieth century dominant structuralist-behaviourist form of linguistics, demonstrating through strong empirical evidence that the capacity of children to create language rested not only on their ability to substitute words in the formation of syntactic structures, but also rested on an acknowledgement of the capacity of humans to create a potentially unlimited number of original utterances out of a small corpus of rules that govern the production of a specific language. This view was contrary to the behaviourist view that transformation refers to changes in a surface structure, and it develops a view of transformation as generative, where each element contains its own potential future latent within itself.

I draw on this idea of the latent potential in all things, and I ask, ‘How is it that the latent potential realises itself in a living form?’ This brings me to another article of faith. I have faith in the creative capacity of all living things. In terms of my belief in human nature, and still drawing on the work of Chomsky (1986), I have faith in people’s potentially unlimited capacity for a potentially unlimited number of creative acts, which Chomsky believes is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. Like Habermas (1975), I believe that the capacity for learning is a core property of humans (and perhaps also for other animals). Habermas believes that we cannot not learn (page 15). Furthermore, drawing on the work of Berlin (1969), I understand humans as choice-makers, and so the capacity to develop the use of their potential capacity for unlimited creativity is often a matter of choice.

This is where I ground my practice, in my faith that all people have potential unlimited capacity for new acts of creation; that they cannot not learn; and that they have choices about whether or not to use their capacity, and for what purposes. This view, however, is not shared by the dominant literatures of education, that assume that people cannot think for themselves and have to be taught how to do so, and so develop regulatory systems that seek to control others’ thinking and enforce conformity (Callahan 1962; Holt 1964). These literatures are grounded in a propositional logic that is premised on metaphors about transformation as changes in the structure, not changes in the nature. Dominant stories about structural transformation are perpetuated by the form in which the story is told, which tends to adopt a linear structured form itself, in which an argument is prosecuted through its different logical steps of hypothesis formation, gathering of data, generation of evidence in relation to predetermined criteria and standards of judgement, findings, and conclusion. In terms of my work contexts where I use the methodologies of educational action research, I am alarmed at how this view of the nature of processes of human enquiry as comprising sequentially-ordered static structures carries through to many forms of action research that use a design of problem identification, gathering of data, proposed solution arising from a perusal of the data, implementation of the solution, problem solution, closure. Such forms perpetuate a notion of transformation as residing in the structure. They do not engage with the idea of how learning informs action, and how this learning can transform the very nature of the researcher and the situation under scrutiny by enabling them to become aware of their latent potential and intentionally to find ways of realising it. Structural change in the identified situation does not necessarily lead to social transformation. Change in the nature of the thinking of the person who is involved in the situation can however have this transformational potential.

Mary Midgley (2003) explains how dominant forms of thinking can become the myths we live by. I agree. The nature of myth is that it is assumed to be a legitimate part of the culture, with profound truths to communicate about that culture. The myths we live by become part of the normative habitus (Bourdieu 1990). Antjie Krog (2002) shares this view: ‘The function of a myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction. The myth proves that things have always been like this, that things will never change’ (page 190). Yes, provided the idea of change remains at the level of static structure. I do not work at this level. Like Midgley (1983), I aim to influence the transformation of hearts and minds, enabling people, including myself, to become aware of our moral experience and find ways intentionally of transforming that experience, not only in relation to the possible structures of society, but also, and as the grounds for cultural transformation, in relation to how we think.

What kind of data can I gather to show the situation as it is and as it unfolds?

I draw on the data of my records of activities in Ireland and South Africa, to show that ideas founded on the bedrock of a commitment to generative transformational potentials have currency in contemporary debates about what counts as quality in educational research and how that quality is to be judged (Furlong and Oancea 2005). I draw on the evidence of the consequences of my involvement in those places to indicate that these ideas and their evidence base could have potential purchase in emerging policy debates, and are already doing so in some places.

I explained earlier that I support the higher degree studies of practitioners. These accounts comprise the descriptions and explanations that practitioners offer for their lives, in the form of their living theories of practice. Prior to my involvement in Ireland, beginning in 1992, few such accounts, if any, were available. This is historical fact that can be verified by a perusal of the scholarly literatures prior to 1992. Between the years 1996 and 2000, some 65 masters dissertations that contained the living educational theories of practitioners were made available in the Irish context, validated by the University of the West of England in Bristol. Some of these dissertations may be downloaded from All dissertations are available from the library of the University of the West of England, Bristol. Recently, PhD theses have started to emerge in the Irish context. Three of these theses, validated by the University of Limerick, are available from Each of these theses shows how the researcher was able to bring her improved learning to bear on the processes of cultural transformation. Bernie Sullivan (2006) explains how her learning from her work with Traveller children has led to new inclusional forms of education. Accounts of this work will appear shortly in the public domain, in the form of books and papers. Máirín Glenn (2006) shows how she transformed her own thinking with the intent of improving her pedagogical practices. Her thesis is a tour de force in demonstrating how multimedia can provide a living evidence base for claims to knowledge. Caitríona McDonagh (2007) explains how she has revolutionised her own and others’ thinking about the nature of the education provision for children with so-called special educational needs (dyslexia). Her work has potential for influencing policy debates. Other initiatives (McNiff and O’Shea, in preparation) explain how workplaces can be transformed by the influence of people’s intentional interventions in their own thinking and learning, and how that learning then influences social practices.

Similarly, prior to my involvement in South Africa, few doctoral theses were available to demonstrate the capacity of practitioners to theorise and offer accounts of their own practices. A strong knowledge base is beginning to emerge, acknowledging Snow’s (2001) call for a knowledge base that systematises the contributions of practitioners. The work in this regard continues to develop (for example Steenekamp 2004; Dunbar-Krige 2007). In addition, my work with teachers in Khayelitsha is providing a new form of professional education that has implications for new forms of pedagogical and management practice. Zola Malgas (2006) explains how she is involving parents in their children’s education; Nqabisa Gungqisa (2007) explores her own capacity for learning; Alice Nongwane (2006) explains how she has become aware of her own capacity for generating her living theory; Arthur Mgqweto (2006) shows how reflection on a painful childhood in the apartheid era has inspired him to develop new caring pedagogical practices. Tsepo Majake (2007) has explored his own capacity for critical thinking, and has consciously transformed his thinking in a way that will enable him to move beyond the myths of internalised oppression and take control of his own professionalism as an activist educator. These and other stories will shortly be available from my website.

Processes of cultural transformation require the intentional action of individuals who are involved in transforming themselves. This means developing new epistemologies that see everything as in dynamic living transformation. However, this has implications for other contexts. I have explained how I support people in their higher degree programmes. If I am to support them in a way that their stories of their realisation of their capacity for personal transformation, and its significance for renewable forms of cultural transformation, are validated and legitimated in the Academy, this means that the Academy itself needs to engage in exploring the potentials of generative transformational forms of evolutionary processes. This can be difficult, as Schön (1995) explains, when the Academy largely subscribes to the same kinds of logic that I have critiqued here, often refusing even to move out of its own comfortably crafted propositional epistemological structures.

This brings me to the next step of my action enquiry, in relation to how I take intentional action.

What can I do? What will I do?

My strategy, like others, is to contribute to an evolving knowledge base, comprising accounts of the living educational theories of practitioners (see, that provides empirical evidence for the validity of ideas such as those being explored here, and to show their transformational potentials for the evolution of the Academy itself. A key strategy is to demonstrate the validity of the knowledge claims contained in those accounts by testing the claims against the kind of dynamic standards of judgement I have already outlined, so that the accounts may be seen as of a quality that should be legitimated in the public domain. This means however engaging with issues about the means of testing the validity of knowledge claims, and this becomes the focus of the next step of my action enquiry.


How do I test the validity of my claim to knowledge?

In new writing (McNiff and Whitehead, in preparation), Jack Whitehead and I make the point that a claim to knowledge is always made as part of a public account of the research that led to the claim, whether spoken or written. Therefore the issue of validity needs to be understood as relating to the processes that led to the making of the claim (the content of the account), and also as relating to how well the account communicates those processes (its form). I shall use the text I am writing here to show these processes in action, and thereby aim to show in practice what it means to establish the validity of one’s research processes through establishing the validity of one’s research account.

I judge my practice in terms of what I expect of the practice, that is, the realisation of my values. In relation to communicating the validity of my research processes, I am claiming that I have realised my methodological and epistemological values, and that the validity of the claim is demonstrated by the methodological rigour with which I have pursued my action-reflection enquiry. Throughout, I have taken my values as my organising frameworks. I have shown here how my values have transformed into my research question, my conceptual frameworks, my research design, and my standards of judgement, and that these all take a living form. My research question is live, and constantly transforming. My conceptual frameworks are drawn from my values, and further extended by engagement with the literature. My research design evolves as I change it according to new ideas and insights. My standards of judgement are dynamic as they relate to the evidence I generate. I am claiming throughout that research needs to be seen, along with other processes of human enquiry, as a process containing infinite generative transformational capacity for new forms of learning and practice. I am claiming also that the realisation of such capacity can go far in nurturing the kinds of thinking and practice that are necessary for the development of renewable democratically-constituted cultural forms. I am claiming that I have shown how I have realised my own capacity for such nurturing by supporting people as they have produced their living accounts of practice to show how they have done the same.

I now need to test these claims against my own standards of judgement, as these are grounded in my values.

In relation to the practices of which I am speaking, I identify the criteria against which I judge my practice as faith, hope and love (see also James 2007). I transform these criteria into my living standards of judgement as I ask, ‘Do I show the generative transformational practices that I have engaged in, and have I explained how and why I adopt them? Do I show that my faith in people’s capacity for infinite forms of self-renewal was justified? Do I show how I have enabled people to realise their potential for new forms of thinking and living in spite of the hazards involved?’

I can search my database and find data that meet my criteria, both in the accounts of practice as described above, and also in the responses to me of some of the people involved. As an example, I recount an episode that will have lasting influence on me.

Caitríona McDonagh achieved her PhD award in 2007. At the end of her viva voce, she gave me a beautiful sculpture of a sleeping child cradled in a hand. She wrote to me later.

I want to share a little memory with you about the little statue. When my mother was in training college (probably in the mid-1930s) she made a statue of a child sleeping in exactly the same pose as the girl in your statue. Mammy’s child had curly rather than long hair and could have been a small boy or girl. When Mammy died (after you and I met in 1998), that statue was the only thing of Mammy’s belongings that Ciara, my daughter, wanted. So the care, solace and protection that it represented for her has passed on down through the generations of our family. During the past few years and particularly in the past weeks you have offered me care, solace, protection, and much more. The image of the child in the hand struck me as a possible visual representation of the generative nature of our real worlds (generative as in living theory rather than the generalisable of propositional theory!); and as a visual representation of the transformative nature of living, in that not so long ago I saw myself as the little child, then became the hand when Ciara was born and she now too has become the hand for her new family.

(McDonagh, personal correspondence)

I look at my statue on my desk as I write this.

I also need to show that these values transform into the living standards I use to make judgements about the communicative adequacy of the form of my account. I am claiming that the form of my account communicates the processes of generative transformational capacity that I have spoken of here. Todorov (1990) speaks of different forms of narrative accounts. The first form, he says, adopts the form of ‘a sequence of propositions that is easily recognised as a narrative’ (p. 27). The second form shows how narratives can have transformational capacity. In my account, I believe I have demonstrated this transformational capacity, in how ideas have transformed into action, questions into provisional answers and back again to questions, and how one methodological point has segued into the next. Furthermore, the processes are holographic, in the sense outlined by Bohm (1987), in that one part is manifested in the whole, and the whole is manifested in each of its parts. The values that give the grounds for transitional structures are shown to permeate the whole, and the whole communicates the rational and relational processes of the transformation of values into practice.

The criteria I propose to make judgements about the quality of my text are communicative criteria, such as those proposed by Habermas (1987), in relation to the sincerity, truthfulness, authenticity and normative awareness that the text demonstrates. I transform these criteria into living standards of judgement, as I ask, ‘Have I told my story with sincerity? Have I shown that it is true by producing authenticated evidence against which to test my knowledge claims? Am I authentic in my communication, in that I do not seek to persuade through obfuscating rhetoric or hyperbole? Do I demonstrate normative awareness, in that I have located my propositions against the background of an understanding of dominant cultural and epistemological practices?’ I also pose other criteria that I call rhetorical criteria, because they are used to persuade the reader of the validity of my arguments, including those of clarity of expression, textual organisation, and self-awareness. I turn these into the living standards I use to judge the quality of my text as I ask, ‘Have I communicated my story clearly and unambiguously? Have I organised my text in a way that its internal coherence is evident, and that it reads well? Have I ensured that the text itself demonstrates its own critical awareness of the need for methodological rigour?’

If I have done these things, then I ask that my claim to knowledge be validated in this public forum, so that it may stand as a legitimate and original contribution to knowledge to my field of educational research.

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

I now explain how I continually modify my practice, as a generative transformational process, by improving my own understanding of the nature of generative transformational processes and their potentials for renewable cultural transformation, and transforming these understandings into the way I create my life and identity. I analyse this in terms of how I have acted to exercise my transformational influence within the discrete domains of personal, social and theoretical practices, and how those seemingly discrete practices do not remain as singularities but emerge into a holistic practice with transformational potential.

In relation to my own continuing transformation, perhaps the most significant element is that I see myself as in a process of infinite transformation, with an increasing capacity for educational influence within discourses of cultural transformation. This has meant resisting the propaganda of normative theories of human development, as communicated through the dominant culture, that seek to persuade people that advancing years implies inevitable decay as they work towards closure. I have received such messages, for example in the somewhat disapproving stance of my neighbour who tells me to settle down and get a cat; and in the form of computer generated letters advising me of my pending retirement (I am making a career of retirement, having gone three times through socially-constituted age-related benchmarking systems). I have learned to ignore them. I take the pensions offered and use them to fund my research into my practice of working with others as I encourage them to see themselves also in processes of infinite transformation. I share the sentiments of Elizabeth and Charles Handy (2002), that people can reinvent their lives at sixty, although I do not share the stop-start metaphors that inform their language of ‘reinvention’. I have never stopped inventing myself, and will continue to do so while I have breath.

This view of myself as in an infinite process of transformation enables me to support others in their own such processes, and in this way I am potentially contributing to the practical efforts of people to transform their own cultures. I have written extensively about how people I work with have found ways of acting on their own social situations by developing their capacity for critical enquiry, using their transformed understandings to challenge normative assumptions and introduce new ways of working and living, and making their stories public (see for example McNiff 2002; McNiff and Whitehead 2005, 2006; Whitehead and McNiff 2006). These practitioners’ stories comprise a significant knowledge base (see and, constituted of academically legitimated accounts that already stand as evidence for the transformation of the epistemological base of higher education, as Schön (1995) said was necessary in influencing the transformation of the focus of modern research universities from the perpetuation of technical rational forms into a new focus on cultural and social renewal. These ideas were expressed by earlier thinkers such as A.N. Whitehead (1929). In this way, I believe practitioners can exercise their capacity for influence by showing how they are already influencing the practice-based cultures of which they are a part, and thereby potentially influencing the transformation of the wider culture as it is supported by existing cultural elites. This amounts to influencing debates about which values count in public discourses and how these are communicated. Practitioners have this kind of potential, as demonstrated in the evidence base, but to take this kind of action also needs energy. One source of the energy is drawn from their faith in others and themselves, and from their own passion for improvement. Understanding that their interactions can be a source of energy, I deliberately spend time and energy in supporting the development of networks and the sharing of stories, to encourage the development of the kind of energy that can lead to sustained action, so that, when practitioners test their claims to improved knowledge, they are also testing their claims about the potential of their values for cultural transformation.

Such practices, I believe, have transformational potential for contributing to a new scholarship for educational enquiry (Whitehead 2007). In my view, the purpose of the Academy is to exercise its capacity for influencing the development of renewable forms of cultural transformation, through exploring the potentials of new forms of knowledge and new ways of knowing. It is not enough to remain at the level of academic theorising, whereby critique tends to take the form of the recycling of existing knowledge. A colleague once whimsically shared his regret that his university, once identified as ‘the university of the intellectual left’, was now in danger of being perceived as ‘the university of the intellectual left-overs’. To avoid being ‘left over’, the intellectual pursuits of the Academy need to develop new trajectories, whereby the embodied knowledge of practitioners is systematically brought into the Academy, to encourage and celebrate the development of democratically-constituted cultures of educational enquiry that have the potential for renewable cultural transformation.

This can be done through the development of personal and institutional epistemologies that are grounded in a view of transformation as generative, where the core value can be traced in all its parts and the parts in turn reflect the core value. The practice reflects and contains the epistemological base within itself, and the base can be seen dynamically realised throughout all aspects of practice. Such a metaphor of generative transformational potential shows the dynamic form of the kind of interrelationships that, in my view, are necessary for renewable cultural transformation. This is where I ground my practice, in the mental metaphors of generative transformational potential, as I try to realise it in my own life.


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Professor Julian Stern, York St John University

Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




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