Realising a knowledge base for new forms of educational theory in Irish universities

A paper to the All Ireland Society for Higher Education,

Dublin Institute of Technology, October 2002
Jean McNiff

[Word version available]

Introduction: images of knowledge generation

This paper is an imaginative exploration of ways in which universities in Ireland might set new paradigms for knowledge-generation by developing new forms of theories of learning, and of the kinds of contexts that are appropriate for its flourishing. In the paper I set out how many contemporary conceptualisations of learning are animated by dominant technical rational discourses, whose underpinning technical epistemologies are those of alienation and fragmentation; and how these epistemologies have considerable consequences of one kind for the education of social formations. I also set out how newer generative transformational conceptualisations of learning are animated by intersubjective discourses, whose underpinning epistemologies are those of emergence and synchronicity; and how these approaches also have considerable consequences for the education of social formations, of a different kind. I go on to explore how an appropriate knowledge base might be established and disseminated, in order to influence the trajectories of social change.
1 Two visions of education and its contexts

In contemporary debates, two visions exist about education and its contexts, and these visions are often seen as conflicting and competitive. Vision (a) is to do with the idea that learning involves the internalisation of a specific body of knowledge, while the contexts of learning are held to be discourses to do with the management and delivery of that body of knowledge. Vision (b) is to do with the idea that learning involves the making explicit of an infinite latent fund of personal knowledge; its contexts take a form that ensures conditions that are conducive for the emergence of that knowledge. Traditionally the two visions of education are held to be contradictory and their contexts competitive. Hence in North America, universities are categorised in terms of the form of knowledge they promote, and forms of knowledge and their contexts are largely segregated. The two visions themselves struggle for dominance. In most post-industrialised societies, technical rational orientations overwhelm public debate and close out critique. This situation is manifested by the very fact that debates about knowledge and its contexts are located within discourses of competition and alienation, features of technical rational visions.

The two visions underpin different perceptions of the responsibilities of universities and departments of education.
The responsibilities of universities

Debates about the responsibilities of universities and their departments of education are caught up in debates about the nature and purposes of education, and these debates are part of wider debates about the nature and purposes of knowledge and its relationship with social evolution. Education research and the kind of theory it generates is a contested domain undertaken in contested contexts of learning; and learning itself is contested in terms of its form, content and legitimation. Contemporary debates about the purposes of universities are clearly located within debates about visions of education and its contexts: whether, according to Vision (a), universities are institutions that favour transmission modes of pedagogy that support the generation and consumption of technical-rational knowledge (this knowledge is useful for sustaining competition and technical achievement, and is much in favour at universities, given that universities are embedded systemically in the global economy, driven as it is by globally oriented transnational organisations); or, according to Vision (b), whether universities are places of learning whose mandates include fostering critical debate and protecting the processes of informed contestation and scholarly engagement.
The responsibilities of departments of education

Teaching and professional education are also vigorously contested. The two visions, still perceived as polarised and contradictory, manifest in terms of whether (Vision (a)) teaching is about the production of transmission mode teachers who will market knowledge as a commodity by means of a curriculum that ensures measurable outcomes; or (Vision (b)) whether teaching is about engagement in participatory learning and the development of communities of creative scholars by means of a curriculum that takes the form of constantly emergent thoughtful conversations.
Reconceptualising the visions as generative transformational processes

It could be argued that current ways of understanding Visions (a) and (b) – as polarised and free-standing positions, existing as outcomes of opposing systems of thought – have brought the world to its current dangerous state, given that these ways of thinking take the form of an analytical logic that eliminates contradiction and seeks after one unchanging Truth. Distinguished scholars, commenting on the work of Isaiah Berlin, have remarked on Berlin’s deep sense of outrage at the scale of suffering and destruction inflicted throughout history through unilateral claims to truth (see for example Lilla et al., 2000). It could also be argued that new research should be pursued to create new conceptual models that show the essential embeddedness of both positions, rather than their linear polarisation: Vision (a) may be conceived as embedded within Vision (b), though the reverse is not experientially possible. These new research programmes should proceed from a study of practice, and show how models are created from within the practice, rather than imposed on it, as is the way of much traditional research (see McNiff, 2000, 2002). Promoting such a view – that the pursuit of skills and technical knowledge such as excellence in business (Vision (a)) needs to be pursued by people who already excel in democratically informed intersubjective forms of life (Vision (b)) – could have profound implications for the future of educational enquiry, as it informs the development of good social orders. These kinds of models could usefully be tested within university new scholarship programmes. These would focus on developing forms of humanistic enquiry and dialogical forms of discourse as the practical and conceptual framework for the pursuit of technical rational interests; for example, business studies would be seen as the ground for the production and equitable allocation of social goods. Such programmes of scholarship could position universities as the publicly recognised institutional realisation of new transformational processes of living enquiries that inform the future course and development of organisation and social growth.
2 Which forms of scholarship are valued in universities?

In section 3 I shall speak about how universities are valued in terms of their contribution to debates about knowledge generation, through the production of scholarly writing. Books and papers are held to be the ultimate in faculty achievement. But first questions arise about which kind of knowledge, as manifested in publications, is valued in the university. Clearly the kind of knowledge treated in most publications depends on the kind of knowledge that is valued in the society. Thus most scholarship and its publications deals with technical rational knowledge, because that is what dominant voices in the contemporary culture value: a supermarket mentality where institutions make available what is currently in demand (see Winter, 1999).

In terms of much initial and in-service teacher education, and professional education in general, practitioners continue to be ‘trained’ via a traditional disciplines approach, though the disciplines might have changed their image these days and appear in the guise of management, achievement and quality control. As in many business schools, management curricula take the form of defined blocks of knowledge. This can be the fate of even the newest of newcomers: I know of at least one institution in Ireland that ‘teaches’ reflective practice, and then tests participants on their level of achievement by setting targets in terms of behavioural outcomes.

Universities are not supermarkets. They are locations for not only the generation of, according to Vision (a), the kind of skills and subject knowledges that characterise much scientific enquiry, but also for, according to Vision (b), the kind of relational knowledge that enables people to create their own good societies. Both are indispensable for human flourishing; and Vision (a) always needs to be seen within the context of Vision (b). ‘Linguistic communication has a double structure, for communication about propositional content may take place only with simultaneous metacommunication about interpersonal relations’ (Habermas, 1975: 10). (Given my commitments about the generative transformational nature of evolutionary processes (McNiff, 2000), I would edit this sentence to read: ‘ … may take place only within simultaneous metacommunication about interpersonal relations’.)

Forms of scholarship

Traditional forms of scholarship take the form of a linguistic analysis of systems and experience from an externalist perspective. Their aim is to demonstrate relationships between variables, which might then be generalised to all human experience (Schön, 1995). Claims to knowledge are made and legitimated through careful statistical analysis to demonstrate the logical consequences of causal relations. Newer forms of scholarship take the form of personal engagement with experience, which can be communicated via multiple forms of expression. Their aim is to offer personal explanations for experience, which will enable others to make choices about their own lives. Claims to knowledge are made on the basis of how embodied values can transform into living standards of practice and judgement (Whitehead, 2000). These newer forms of scholarship are representative of the major shifts that are taking place internationally in the epistemological base of human enquiry, and are particularly noticeable in the professional education of educators.
A scholarship of teaching

More than a decade ago, Ernest Boyer, then President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, called for a reconceptualisation of scholarship in the academy. He said (Boyer, 1990) that faculty need to develop scholarships of discovery, integration, application and teaching. His ideas are echoed in the work of influential scholars such as Donald Schön, Lee Shulman, and Stephen Rowlands, who call for academics to study their own practice as teachers as well as communicators of specific subject knowledges. The ideas of new scholarships could be extended to include scholarships of educational enquiry.

3 How are universities valued?

Universities are valued in terms of research output. Research output is achieved by the University’s members, usually its faculty. The quality of research output depends on the degree of ownership of and engagement with knowledge production processes. If people are engaged and committed, their enthusiasm tends to spill over into all aspects of their work and institutional life. If they are not interested, they probably do not produce, or produce work of inferior or inappropriate quality. Those who do produce often do so to promote their own interests and careers. While this is common practice, it is not the best way to develop an image of a university having a corporate something special to offer.

If universities wish to maintain their credibility and status within their communities, and to attract external funding, they must focus on generating scholarly output through the research activity of their membership. This has real implications for the resourcing of faculty to pursue their scholarship, engage in critical conversations that nourish the capacity for the development of insightful knowledge, and disseminate their work as publicly available validated knowledge. If universities wish to develop their own status within their communities, they need to develop forms of collective scholarship, which will demonstrate the realisation in practice of democratically agreed organisational goals. When the broad goal is the professional education of teachers and other practitioners, as informed by a vision of how the professional education of practitioners can impact on the quality of learning in schools and organisations in the development of good social orders, then administrators need to give their best efforts to finding ways to create opportunities for debates about the purposes of teaching in the education of social formations. This can best be accomplished through the commitment of all practitioners, located in the academy and other workplaces, to engage in their personal enquiries with a view to addressing the questions, ‘How do I/we improve my/our work?’ (Whitehead, 1989), and producing validated evidence to show that their claims to improvement are justified in terms of their educative influence in the social order.
Supporting faculty development

Faculty need to be encouraged through a variety of strategies to concentrate their energies on research and scholarly production, and to build up an appropriate knowledge base for this purpose. They need to meet regularly to discuss their work and develop the practices of offering and receiving critical feedback. They need to be supported in writing for publication, and finding outlets for their work. They need to be supported in researching their own teaching, as professional educators, and in coming to regard their teaching as a form of scholarly activity.

Reconceptualising departments of education

Departments of education need to be reconceptualised, in whole or in part, as research centres, in order to promote and establish in the consciousness of their members and of the wider public the idea of universities as settings for the generation of dialogically constituted forms of knowledge that will contribute to the education of social formations. The work of Boyer and Shulman (see above) is conducted from the location of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. There is no reason why all universities should not develop themselves similarly. There is no reason why associations of academic staff should not mobilise themselves to build a knowledge base and disseminate its findings to inform the education of social formations.
4 Developing a knowledge base

Debates about what counts as legitimate knowledge and how knowledge is produced are easily discernible in the leading journals, such as Educational Researcher, the monthly journal from the American Educational Research Association. Two articles from Educational Researcher are striking and significant for this discussion.

In October 2001, Catherine Snow writes (as her Presidential address, entitled ‘Knowing what we know: children, teachers, researchers’):

‘ … The second challenge is to enhance the value of personal knowledge and personal experience for practice … The challenge here is not to ignore or downplay this personal knowledge, but to elevate it. The knowledge resources of excellent teachers constitute a rich resource, but one that is largely untapped because we have no procedures for systematizing it. Systematization would require procedures for accumulating such knowledge and making it public, for connecting it to bodies of knowledge established through other methods, and for vetting it for correctness and consistency. If we had agreed-upon procedures for transforming knowledge based on personal experiences of practice into “public” knowledge, analagous to the way a researcher’s private knowledge is made public through peer-review and publication, the advantages would be great …’ (Snow, 2001:9).

In June/July (2000), Hiebart et al. ask, as their article title, ‘A knowledge base for the teaching profession: what would it look like and how can we get one?’ In their abstract they write:

‘To improve classroom teaching in a steady, lasting way, the teaching profession needs a knowledge base that grows and improves. In spite of the continuing efforts of researchers, archived research knowledge has had little effect on the improvement of practice in the average classroom. We explore the possibility of building a useful knowledge base for teaching by beginning with practitioners’ knowledge. We outline the key features of this knowledge and identify the requirements for this knowledge to be transformed into a professional knowledge base for teaching’ (Hiebart et al., 2002: 3).

It seems to have escaped the attention of researchers such as Snow and Hiebart et al. that knowledge bases do exist around the world, some very visibly. I am thinking for example of the award-winning web site; of my own web site; of the web site of my colleague Margaret Farren at DCU,; of the Ontario Educational Research Council (, the Ontario Action Researcher ( and the Grand Erie District Board, where the Superintendent of Schools (Delong, 2002) was recognised for Leadership in Action Research by the OERC in December 2000.
A scholarship of educational enquiry at the University of Limerick

I work on a visiting basis at the University of Limerick, developing with others new forms of guided doctoral programmes. We are developing a new scholarship knowledge base in the Department of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Limerick. A group of eight researchers are undertaking their doctoral programmes from the perspective of studying their own practice and producing their theories of education from within the practice. These researchers are joined by members of faculty who are interested in pursuing their own studies, formally and informally. The group is supported by several members of faculty who are similarly involved. Research output is vigorously supported and encouraged; indeed, it is an expectation of the programme. Papers for publication exist in draft and finished form, and may be accessed through traditional and electronic media. The completed theses of this group will contribute to a new public knowledge base that can inform national and international debates about education. They will supplement the existing knowledge base of 65 masters dissertations written by educators supported by me under the auspices of the University of the West of England, Bristol, across the years 1995–2000.
Sustaining and disseminating the knowledge

It is not enough, however, only to build the knowledge base. You also have to disseminate the knowledge. This then becomes an exercise in marketing, and for this, a certain political awareness is necessary. Disseminating an idea does not just happen. It takes considerable time, energy and material resources. It takes injection of cash as well as commitment of the spirit. Sometimes the cost and effort just seem too much. A salutary insight, however, when it does seem too much, is to remember that those who wish to maintain established systems also invest considerable time, energy and material resources. We are in a political world, and people will commit to our ideas if they see that we are sufficiently committed to the ideas ourselves and that the ideas really do have benefit for human lives.

This is where, I believe, concerted action is needed. I perceive an amazing amount of amazingly good work around this island. What I do not perceive is a mobilisation of resources and energies to disseminate the work and promote the ideas. This is where I return to the idea of the two visions with which I began.

In his book ‘Realizing the University: in an age of supercomplexity’, Ron Barnett writes:

‘In a supercomplex world, the key challenge is not one of knowledge but one of being. Accordingly, the main pedagogical task in a university setting is not that of the transmission of knowledge but of promoting forms of human being appropriate to conditions of supercomplexity. Teaching becomes the discomforting of minds and beings; but it becomes also the comforting of minds and beings. Students are embarked on a never-ending process of self-doubt and self-reflection, but also of determinate action, of living purposively with wry acceptance amid half-sensed precariousness.

Understood in this way, university teaching attains – for the first time – the promise of a higher education. Now, under conditions of supercomplexity, higher education is obliged both to produce a dislocation among its students and to enable them not just to tolerate this dislocation but to live effectively through it. The dislocation has now to embrace the three dimensions of being: knowing, self-identity and action. This is a complete education, in that it extends across the full dimensions of human being. But it is also a genuine higher education, in that it calls for the highest order of self-reflexiveness, a self-reflexiveness that understands that, at best, only a precarious stability is attainable. This is a self-reflexiveness that does not delude itself with the soft option of any grand narrative – of truth, justice, economic competitiveness, virtue, community and the like – but accepts, even if resignedly, that there is no security to be had’ (Barnett, 2000: 164–165).
Conclusion: Changing cultures

Clearly this paper is not only about developing new forms of scholarship through organisational strategies. It is also about changing cultures. Cultural change calls for engagement from practitioners who want first to change their own practice, and for support from administrators for those who do wish to change. Appropriate forms of support communicate messages about what and who is valued, and what form their contribution might take. Investment in people, as the major resources of a university, is of greatest priority, and is ignored at institutional peril.

Cultural change happens largely through the discourses of the culture (Williams, 1961). New discourses need to be established, and embedded within institutional and organisational life, discourses that celebrate the uncertainty of knowing and that award value to processes of personal and collective enquiry as practitioners engage, with their own inimitable originality of mind and creativity of spirit, in the creation of good lives in the interests of what Margalit (1996) calls ‘the decent society’.

And where do these discourses begin? They begin as conversations among practitioners, among us, who have given thought to, and ‘have a developed sense of what it is we care about’ (Said, 2002: 364). Above all, we must care, passionately and without equivocation, about education, as a form of encounter in which we all can grow – no small task, but perfectly realisable, as our knowledge bases already demonstrate. We all have choices about these things, and we in the academy are in the tremendously privileged position of being able to make those choices. So, let us choose.


Barnett, R. (20002) Realizing the University: in an age of supercomplexity. Buckingham, Open University Press.

Boyer, E. (1990) Scholarship Revisited: Priorities of the Professoriate. New Jersey, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Habermas, J. (1975) Legitimation Crisis. Boston, Beacon Press.

Lilla, M., Dworkin, R. and Silvers, M. (2001) The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin. New York, New York Review of Books.

Margalit, A. (1996) The Decent Society (trans. N. Goldblum). Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

McNiff, J. with J. Whitehead (2000) Action Research in Organisations. London, Routledge.

McNiff, J. with J. Whitehead (2002) Action Research: Principles and Practice (second edition). London, Routledge.

Said, E. (2002) Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said. New York, Vintage Books.

Schön, D. (1995) ‘Knowing-in-action: the new scholarship requires a new epistemology’, Change, November–December.

Whitehead, J. (1989)’Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, “How do I improve my practice?”’, Cambridge Journal of Education 19(1): 41–52.

Whitehead, J. (2000) ‘How do I improve my practice? Creating and legitimating an epistemology of practice’, Reflective Practice, 1(1); 91–104.

Williams, R. (1961) The Long Revolution. London, Chatto and Windus.

Winter, R. (1999) ‘The University of Life plc: the “industrialization” of higher education?’, in J. Ahier and G. Esland (eds), Education, Training and the Future of Work, vol. 1: Social, Political and Economic Contexts of Policy Development. London, Routledge and the Open University.

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