Every which way

Jean McNiff

Click here to view a summary of the interactive symposium

A paper to be presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting as part of the interactive symposium for the Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices

[Word version available]

The transformative potentials of individuals’ collaborative self-studies for sustainable global educational networks of communication

Recently a friend commented to me that, when you think in a particular way, you tend to assume that everyone thinks in this way too. In fact, you often don’t realise that there are other ways of knowing. In this paper I want to explore the issue of what people know, how they come to know, and how they use their knowledge, when it is case of encouraging other people also to come to know in their own way. I am talking here about educational practices for generating and sharing educational knowledge, because, for me, education is about freedom in knowing, freedom in coming to know, and freedom in enabling other people to be free about what they know, how they come to know, and what they use their knowledge for.

Living in a visual world

I tend to think visually, so visual metaphors permeate everything I do. When I go shopping, I don’t write out a list; I see myself walking around the supermarket. When I prepare for a class, I write notes in my head, and these are visual notes with individual colours and shapes. When I write, the writing begins somewhere at a visceral level. It takes time for these feelings to transform into shapes and colours, and finally into words. Writing for me is primarily a kinaesthetic experience, in the sense that ideas must have kinaesthetic congruence before they can be communicated as words. Writing therefore becomes an aesthetic experience, so the aesthetic value that underpins the experience becomes a criterion by which I judge my work. A piece of writing is not right until it feels right.

It has taken me a lifetime to understand how I think, and to appreciate that not everyone thinks as I do. For as long as I can remember, my thinking has taken the form of visual models. As a child, the visual elements of my mental life were so overwhelming that often I could not articulate ideas in words, and I was diagnosed as suffering from a form of aphasia because I appeared to be prone to sudden onsets of speechlessness. If only my teachers could have shared my rich images; if only someone had asked me to draw what was in my head instead of say what I knew. Now, for the last ten years or so, I am able to articulate those visual models as words, and to explain linguistically how visual imagery helps me to theorise my practice more adequately.

These days I do well. I deliberately use my mental models to understand what I am doing, so I understand how to incorporate ideas, represented linguistically, into my visual world. In the same way that I now understand how I transform mental visual images into words, I also understand the reverse process, how I transform words into visual images. Therefore I am able to fuse together the ideas of the writers who have influenced me, and I can also more coherently communicate my own ideas visually and linguistically. I also understand how the new technology could assist me in representing my visual world, and a next task would be to learn how to create computer graphics to communicate my meanings – given of course that I can sort out and articulate the complex images in the first place.
Mental models of connectivity and emergence

Also since childhood I have seen things in relation to one another. This has happened at all levels of my thinking, and has enabled the transformation of one level of thinking into another, and back again. For example, I understand how, for me, the ontological values I hold transform into forms of logic, how these logics transform into epistemologies, and how these in turn transform into moral commitments and then into practical commitments. In reverse, I can see how my practical commitments in the world are inextricably embedded in my ontological values. Understanding my practice becomes a constantly shifting process of archaeology and construction, up and down Jacob’s ladder, from beginning to the now.

I am not the only person to use this form of logic. Gregory Bateson (1972) spent a lifetime developing a theory of an ecology of mind, and I have drawn on his work to help me understand how and why I also am interested in an ecological conceptualisation of people in company with one another and with their natural environment. I also became fascinated by the ideas of Goethe when I was an undergraduate studying German. Goethe’s (1988) ideas of morphology and the interconnectedness of thought and experience had a considerable influence on me (see Bortoft 1996). Subsequent reading of the work of philosophers of process such as Bergson (1998) and Dewey (1916) enabled me to see that similar strands of thought have permeated the history of ideas since Plato and before. I see these ideas also in many so-called ‘Eastern’ philosophies, some of which developed long before Plato.

I link the ideas of beginnings (Said 1975) with the idea of generative transformational processes, an idea that I adapted, with his permission, from Chomsky’s entire work (for example see his Knowledge of Language, 1986). Said says that the idea of ‘beginnings’ is different from the idea of ‘The Beginning’, which tends to communicate an Event, a Big Bang in natural and social history. As I interpret Said’s work, ‘beginnings’ can be seen as what we potentially do every moment of our lives. Each beginning is undertaken with intent, and intent becomes its own methodology. Goethe also held the view that all is beginning. His idea of the ‘Urlaub’, the original leaf that transformed into a flower, communicates for me the idea of how beginnings constantly emerge as new forms, and how the process of transformation itself becomes a methodology of practice. I love the ideas of David Bohm (1983) who believes that human and natural processes unfold, and the future is enfolded within the present. I imagine how the oak tree is enfolded within the acorn, and how the unborn baby, who, if I adapt Husserl’s idea (1962, cited in Moran and Mooney, 2000: 7) that each person already holds an infinitude of knowledge, is born with all its potential futures already present. I link these ideas to Chomsky’s concept of generative transformational processes, and I see all beginnings as having generative capacity within themselves that enables each form to transform itself into a new form. I am in awe of the entire magnitude of the ever-present now, as it holds its future already within itself.

I draw on the work of authors like these, and I synthesise their words into my own visual thinking (see ‘Action Research in Organisations’, 2000, where I began publicly to articulate and link my visual representations). I am fascinated by how ICT can be used in schools as a way of helping young people to articulate the visual models that animate their intellectual and emotional lives, and to come to theorise their practices by showing how they transform these visual models into morally committed practices (see the work of Máirín Glenn, 2003, and at http://www.iol.ie/~bmullets/sandcastles, http://www.iol.ie/~bmullets/hen,for examples of innovative work in this direction).

Yet I am aware that these visual representations are just that – visual representations. I bear in mind Bourdieu’s (1990) cautionary words that the model is not the reality that it represents. My visual thinking, as part of my mental life, could remain at the level of a mental activity, a rather solitary experience that is rich and exciting and focused on my living in harmony with myself – the ‘I’ studying the ‘I’ at the level of personal ontological development and in an effort to establish aesthetic harmony that is a form of personal integrity (Todorov, 1999), but, unless articulated and made available to others, serves no social purpose. So, given my capacity to transform my mental life into practical commitments, let me now turn to how I try to realise my ontological values in my everyday practices.
Ontological values of relation, relational practices

My work at the level of social practice is focused on enabling others to theorise their work in a way that will enable them influence the trajectories of social change while holding themselves accountable for what they do. In my understanding of a good social order, it is a fundamental moral principle that people who position themselves as actors in the world should demonstrate their own readiness to hold themselves accountable for what they do. This willingness can transform into the production of personal accounts that offer both descriptions and explanations of practice, that is, descriptions of what was done as well as explanations of why it was done and for what purpose. Drawing on the work of other thinkers enables me to articulate the kinds of ontological commitments and moral principles that drive my work as a professional educator, so I now want to show how my ontological values transform into moral commitments.

I link the ideas of Husserl and Goethe, expressed above, with the ideas of Habermas (1973), who maintains that humans cannot not learn. Given that we are humans, and not birds or fish, it is our genetic endowment that we speak, but that we do not fly or live under water. We are ‘pre-programmed’, as it were, to talk and walk and live socially. Above all, we are born with the capacity to be aware of our own awareness and to critique our own thinking, unlike other organisms, as far as we know. This capacity for critique demands that we make choices. Perhaps it is a significant feature of being human that we must make choices. The capacity for choice enables us to choose whether to live in isolation or in community with others, whether to act with the intent to help or to harm. It is also an aspect of our capacity for influence, and for being influenced (see Said, 1975, citing the work of Paul Valéry). Importantly, it is a feature of how we develop our own moral positioning in the world, and the degree to which we are prepared to transform our moral commitments into social practices.

My understanding of good social practices is that they are characterised by freedom to act within a duty of care to the other, and are grounded in one’s capacity for choosing the way that one is, in company with others. This view has serious consequences for forms of educational practice, and also for forms of educational theory. Russell (1932) speaks of how schools should be about the production of free-minded people, not the production of obedient citizens. The paper I hope to present earlier on Friday 16th April at the Peace Education SIG (McNiff, 2004a) makes the same point. In that paper I explain why I am alarmed at current conceptualisations of citizenship education in Britain, and the way that citizenship education focuses on teaching young people to learn to be passive, unthinking consumers of manufactured goods and official knowledge, and how a war is systematically perpetrated against teachers in order to prevent them from questioning the system within which they work. This is the way to totalitarianism (Popper, 1972). I also make the point that it is in the hands of practitioners whether or not they submit to the consistent pressures of a neo-liberal agenda that aims to secure new markets and global consumers. Practitioners need to build up their intellectual and emotional reserves so that they can not only combat dominant discourses but also create new forms of social practices, with the intent of promoting the globalisation of educational values. Unless we take control of our own thinking and actions and make conscious decisions about what form of life we intend to live, we are in danger of contributing to the totalitarian states that are being imposed on us every bit as much as those who are doing the imposing.

When I reflect on my own practice, I can see how the metaphors that underpin these theoretical issues are relational in nature, and how they manifest themselves in my practice with others. I work in a variety of contexts. I work in the academy, where I support the studies of scholar practitioners for their doctoral degrees. Those studies are to do with how individual practitioners can transform their individual enquiries into collective enquiries, for the purposes of changing their own social situations. Caitríona McDonagh and Bernie Sullivan will be speaking shortly to outline how they do this. I work also in contexts of business and social enterprise (McNiff, 2004b) where individual researchers also undertake their individual enquiries into how they encourage groups of practitioners (in Credit Unions, for example) to develop ways of thinking and practising that enable them to mobilise and use their energies to transform their personal and social lives. In May 2004 I hope to be speaking at a symposium whose aim is to celebrate the capacity of individuals to explain how their individual enquiries have enabled them to work cooperatively as collectives, and explain the kinds of practices that have enabled them to do so. These kinds of presentations contribute to a worldwide knowledge base that can contribute to global understandings of the methodologies we need to develop in order to work together successfully. It is not only the idea that we should work together; it is also, drawing on Jack Whitehead’s ideas (2003, 2004) about the education of social formations, that is, how groups learn to work together successfully in order to pursue their commitment to the development and implementation of their own sustainable life plans. In terms of this symposium, the people I work with are showing how they integrate their ‘I’s’ into their ‘we’s’, how they begin beginnings that hold an infinitude of potentials for choice about the changes they intend to make in the world, beginning with themselves.

This symposium itself is a living example of the issues I am addressing. In 2000, Caitriona McDonagh and Bernie Sullivan received their Masters Degrees in Education (McDonagh 2000; Sullivan 2000). A significant point is that they, along with some 60 other practitioners, achieved their higher degrees through the University of the West of England, with the direct support of Joan Whitehead, previously Dean of the Faculty of Education at UWE. The story of embedding the idea of action research in Ireland is long and complex, and involved challenging established academic orthodoxies about the legitimisation of practitioners as theory generators (see McNiff 2004b). When involved in work with the Marino Institute of Education, Dublin, in the early 1990s (see Halton 2004), I approached various Irish universities to enquire whether they would support the higher degree studies of teachers in schools. My efforts were singularly unsuccessful. I then negotiated with UWE to develop a modular programme that would enable practitioners to achieve their higher degrees, without leaving their home country, and in spite of what was then common practice of denying access to higher degree study for practitioners without traditional qualifications or who preferred to use an epistemology that deviated from the norm. The influence of Joan and other like-minded colleagues, both in her own institution and at a remove in Irish institutions, was considerable, in arranging for the kinds of organisational structures and processes that would enable the practitioners I supported to achieve their dreams. Caitríona and Bernie were two of those practitioners. Today they are studying for their doctoral degrees at the University of Limerick, where we are developing a new epistemological base for self-study that will, it is anticipated, have considerable further impact in Irish education. The fact that Joan, Bernie and Caitríona are here today together can be seen as evidence of the transformative influence of Joan and her allies as they live out their commitments to justice and freedom.
Moral practices

I have recently been reading Tzvetan Todorov’s (1999) Facing the Extreme: moral life in the concentration camps. Todorov cites the work of Etty Hillesum (1983), herself a victim of the camps, who makes the conscious decision not to contribute to the evil in the world by hating her enemies. Here is a passage that made a deep impression on me.

It is not the enemy but hatred itself that must be defeated: ‘True peace will come only when every individual finds peace within himself [sic],’ she writes, ‘when we have all vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow human beings of whatever race – even into love one day, although perhaps that is asking too much’ [Hillesum, 1983: 123]

If we hate the enemy the way he [sic] hates us, all we are doing is adding to the world’s evil. One of the worst consequences of the occupation and the war, Hillesum maintains, is that the victims of the Nazis begin to be like them. ‘If we allow our hatred to turn us into savage beasts like them,’ she writes, ‘then there is no hope for anyone’ (p. 143). Someone who sees no resemblance between himself and his enemy, who believes that all the evil is in the other and none in himself, is tragically destined to resemble his enemy. But someone who, recognising evil in himself, discovers that he is like his enemy is truly different. By refusing to see the resemblance, we reinforce it; by admitting it we diminish it. The more I think I’m different, the more I am the same; the more I think I’m the same, the more I’m different …

(Todorov 1999: 200)

I have dwelt much on this passage. It speaks constantly to my understanding of experience, that we all have the potential for good and evil in equal measure. The capacity for sustained evil, as well as sustained good, resides both in the nature of our humanity (as we are reminded by Milgram’s chilling experiments), and also in the nature of the totalitarian societies we contribute to by passively submitting to dominant voices.

This I why I ground my hope in the power of self-study. Earlier in his book (pages 111–118), Todorov sets out two fundamental moral commitments, with which I agree, and which speak to my own work and experience as an educational action researcher. The first, he says, is to remember that rhetoric is often a far cry from practice. ‘To say that one is in favour of morality is not a moral act; most of the time, it merely signifies conformity or a desire to live at peace with one’s conscience’ (page 114). Here are implications for those of us who subscribe to the notion of self-study. If we really mean what we say, we need to carry out our own self-studies, to show how we hold ourselves accountable for our actions in the world, and not only write learned documents about the theory of self-study. Todorov continues (pages 117–118): ‘The second basic requirement of a moral life – that I myself be the one to carry out the actions I recommend – implies a never-ending questioning of the self.’ If we say we study ourselves, we need to explain why we do so, and what we hope to achieve through doing so. Are we contributing to a discourse, or living it? I made the point above that visualising at a mental level is not the same as living in the direction of the visual metaphors. As a child I visualised beautiful patterns of connectivity; my childhood circumstances were such that I had much to hate in life, and I never managed to transform the patterns into reality. However, my beautiful patterns remained an inspirational power throughout life, a vision of how the world should be, and could be. Now an adult, I have made a conscious decision, as Polanyi (1958) says, to understand the world from my own point of view, and to exercise my capacity for choice making, like Etty Hillesum, by choosing to live with the universal intent of love, rather than with hate. Each of my beginnings carries a new moral commitment.

My metaphors work every which way. In my mind’s eye they work in a vertical way, where tacit knowledge transforms into explicit knowledge; in a horizontal way where ontological values transform into logics, which transform into epistemologies, which transform into commitments, which transform into practices, which again transform into new forms of values and commitments; and in a multidirectional way, where mental activity transforms into social activity. I see also how the metaphors of connectedness transform into relationships of influence among the people I work with. Teachers influence their students and other colleagues. Students influence one another, and so do colleagues. One group influences another group, directly through face-to-face contact, and indirectly through books and multimedia. People learn with and from one another, in their own way, using their own metaphors, which have the potential to transform into new practices. It is already a glorious global network, which has the potential to transform itself into more than it is.

In future writing, I want to set out what I think is the nature of the superthreads that bind us together. For me, the stickiness in the threads is kindness. Acts of kindness can be seen as acts of goodness. While goodness is somehow a more abstract concept, kindness always happens at the level of living relationships. So I have set out my agenda. Now to see if I can live it out today.

Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, Ballantine.

Bergson, H. (1998) Creative Evolution. Meniola, N.Y., Dover Publications (originally published 1911).


Bortoft, H. (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science. Hudson, New York, Lindisfarne Press and Floris Books.

Bohm, D. (1983) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London, Ark Paperbacks.

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. New York, Free Press.

Glenn. M. (2003) ‘Multimedia, the celebration of creativity and multiple forms of learning.’ A paper presented at the seminar ‘Critical Debates in Action Research’, Limerick, University of Limerick, June.

Goethe, J.W. (1988) Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen (original date 1790), reproduced as The Metamorphosis of Plants in D. Miller (ed.) Goethe: Scientific Studies. New York, Suhrkamp.

Habermas, J. (1973) Legitimation Crisis, trans. T. McCarthy. Boston, Beacon Press.

Halton, M.J. (2004) ‘Putting professional development into action by putting action into professional development in second level schools in Ireland?’ in Educational Action Research, Vo. 12, No. 1, pp. 127–144.

Hillesum, E. (1983) An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, trans. A. J. Pomerans. New York, Pantheon.

Husserl, E. (1962) ‘Author’s Preface to the English Edition’, Ideas. General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans. W.R. Boyce-Gibson. London, Collier Macmillan.

McDonagh, C. (2000) ‘Towards A Theory of Professional Teacher Voice: How can I improve my teaching of pupils with specific learning difficulties in the area of language?’ MA Dissertation, Dublin, University of the West of England, Bristol.

McNiff, J. (2004a) ‘Citizenship Education and its transformative potentials for peace education’, a paper presented at the Peace Education SIG ‘Peace Education: Transforming Conflict and Citizenship in Divided Communities’, AERA Annual Meeting, San Diego.

McNiff, J. (2004b) Writing your action research report. Birmingham, West Midlands Social Enterprise Project.

McNiff, J. (2004c) ‘How do I exercise my transformative influence in Irish education?’ A paper to be given at the conference ‘Discourse, Power, Resistance’, Plymouth, University of Plymouth, April

Moran, D. and Mooney, T. (eds) (2000) The Phenomenology Reader. London, Routledge.

Polanyi, M. (1958) Personal Knowledge. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Popper, K. (1962) The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 2: Hegel and Marx. London, Routledge.

Russell, B (1932) Education and the Social Order. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Said, E (1975) Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Basic Books.

Sullivan, B. (2000) Sullivan, B. (2000) How can I help my pupils to make more effective use of their time in school? MA dissertation. Dublin, University of the West of England, Bristol.

Todorov, T. (1999) Facing the Extreme: Moral life in the concentration camps, trans. A. Denner and A. Pollack. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Whitehead, J. (2003) ‘How are the living educational theories of master and doctor educators contributing to the education of individuals and their social formations?’ Paper presented on 12 September 2003 at the BERA Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. Retrieved on 12 March 2003 from http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/writings/jwbera03.htm

Whitehead, J. (2004) ‘What counts as evidence in self-studies of teacher education practices?’ In Loughran, J. Hamilton, M.L., Laboskey, V.K. and Russell, T. (eds) The International Handbook of Self-Study of Teaching Practice. Netherlands; Kluwer academic publishers.

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