What peace means for us, what conflict means for us:
Understanding Education for Mutual Understanding in the
Northern Ireland curriculum
A paper presented to the Special Interest Group Peace Education at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, New Orleans, April 1–5
When I was a child I often missed school because my mother would take me with her to the cinema in the afternoons. She had a passion for westerns and romances, so I was brought up on a plain diet of good guys and bad guys and happy endings. I brought this uncluttered view with me into adulthood, where it remained for a long time. Indeed, it has been only through working in problematic contexts during recent years, while at the same time experiencing profound personal and professional destabilisation myself, that I have come to the realisation that there are no good guys and no bad guys, and often no happy endings. My belief in simplistic stereotypes was of course naïve, and, I think, downright dangerous. On this understanding, one party could come to think that they were ‘right’, and see the other side as in need of remediation. My more developed view today is that all of us are together in this business of living, doing the best we can with what we have. But coming to that realisation has been greatly challenging, for it has meant recognising that I might be positioned as the bad guy by someone else who still believes in stereotypes, and indeed I might be one, given that there are no universal structures to decide who is right or wrong, or what is good or bad, or what these terms mean in the first place …
The purpose of this paper
The purpose of this paper is to describe Time to Listen, a small-scale professional education project aimed at helping teachers improve their practice through self-study in the Northern Ireland curriculum strand Education for Mutual Understanding. The paper aims to show how a group of us – three supporters and eight teachers – came to develop our own standards of judgement for our practice from within the experience of reflecting on that practice, and how we exercised our professional responsibility to change our practice in light of that critical reflection. Time to Listen provided a context in which all of us as educators were able to show how we came to appreciate that understanding the values that inform peaceful practices means understanding the values that inform non-peaceful practices, and how experiencing ourselves as in denial of the values which inform peaceful practices led us to try to overcome the situation so that we were living in the direction of our values (Whitehead, 1989). We began to see that the meaning of peace is arrived at by working through conflict. We began to see the meanings we give to our lives in terms of the values we held (Whitehead, 1999), and we began to appreciate that these meanings emerged as we tried to live in the direction of our values.
Background to the project
The project was located in the Craigavon District area, which includes Portadown, Drumcree, and Lurgan, and is an area of acute political sensitivity. I was invited to support the group in my capacity as independent researcher. The group comprised two professional education providers, and eight teachers from the Craigavon District area. The providers worked with the University of Ulster Education for Mutual Understanding Schools Promoting Project. The eight teachers worked in different kinds of schools across both Catholic and Protestant traditions and were trying to understand what it meant to teach Education for Mutual Understanding. This can be very difficult for teachers in Northern Ireland, since many social and educational structures tend to reinforce prejudicial attitudes and practices, and these are often quite contrary to the principles that underpin education for mutual understanding, as I now explain.
The permeating metaphors of the education system in Northern Ireland are those of fragmentation and alienation. Dominant forms of initial teacher training and teacher continuing professional development are largely didactic and coercive. Teachers’ professional knowledge is assessed in terms of a competences model (Department of Education, 2000) that emphasises the skills base of teaching. The curriculum, which has become increasingly controlled and manufactured by central government, is ‘delivered’ in a standardised fashion. Children’s achievement is judged in terms of normative tests, and children are allocated to schools within a largely segregated system of schooling on the basis of their achievement in cognitive logics. The metaphors of fragmentation that characterise education and schooling in Northern Ireland are the same metaphors that characterise much of social life. People tend to live in a ‘containered’ society, talking much but saying little. By and large ordinary people live together without conflict, until issues of dominance and ownership surface, as they did in the Craigavon area during the summer of 2001, and in Belfast during 2002, and old hostilities become prominent and people barricade their doors in desperation. The fragmentation and alienation of ancient traditions are compounded by manifestations of deep social inequities such as preferential housing and jobs allocation. When structural inequity is endemic to the extent that it cannot be challenged, and is not even seen, so resentment and frustration and consequent aggression flourish.
‘The word “opinion” is a new concept in Northern Ireland, and the word “opinion” for Catholic teachers in Northern Ireland is something radical. I am speaking as a Catholic teacher. I realised at an early age that Catholics had a very different goal than Protestants, in terms for example of jobs and social status. I wouldn’t have had access to many opportunities; education was my only route to opportunity. So for Catholics it is currently a case of working out what it is to have an opinion in the North, and where do you actually come in, and is it safe to have an opinion, because you might cut yourself off from opportunity if you raise your voice’ (supporter, tape recorded conversation, in McNiff, McGeady and Elliott, 2001; see http:www.jeanmcniff.com/research reports/Time to Listen).
Education for Mutual Understanding and its related theme Cultural Heritage, implemented in 1990, is a statutory cross-curricular theme in the Northern Ireland Curriculum for all state-funded schools. It is about ‘self respect and respect for others, and the improvement of relationships between people of differing cultural traditions’ (NICC, 1999). The objectives are
- To foster respect for self and others and build relationships
- Understand conflict
- Appreciate independence
- Develop cultural understanding (CCEA, 1997).
In 1999, the document Towards a Culture of Tolerance: Education for Diversity (DENI, 1999) recommended the promotion of the following core values:
- Pursuit of social justice
- Acceptance of human rights and responsibilities
The way in which these principles should be realised in practice was through
- an integrated strategy of support and capacity building for teachers engaged in EMU.
- All bodies involved in ITT, INSET and professional development of teachers should review the content and impact of courses to address EMU values;
- Consideration should be given to the inclusion of training in dealing with diversity and the management of conflict within the competency model of teacher education.
(Department of Education, Commentary on Recommendations, 2000: 2)
The form of logic used in setting out these recommendations is the same as that used in teacher professional education in Britain (for example, by the Teacher Training Agency), and it carries the same problematic implications. The recommendations are presented as linguistic items, forms of words. No strategy is put forward to suggest how the values embodied within the recommendations can be turned into lived reality; no indication how these embodied values can become the living criteria of involved people. Linguistically presented recommendations remain just that; they do not automatically translate into personal and social practices. The fact that statutory obligations require schools to engage in joint activities does not prevent children from one tradition sitting at one end of the bus and children from the other tradition moving to the other end. Against the backdrop of the high-sounding rhetoric of official documents, educational and social problematics run deep. Some researchers believe that in Northern Ireland schools there is little understanding of what EMU is, or how it should be integrated into the curriculum (Morgan and Dunn, 2000). ‘Education for Mutual Understanding’ remains just a form of words, not a lived practice. Few evaluation studies seem to exist to explain the educational impact of EMU: ‘The problems of conducting evaluation are considerable and include lack of clear agreement both about what should be evaluated and about the different methodological approaches to evaluation’ (Morgan and Dunn, 2000: 10).
Further, and with regard to the professional education of teachers, the introduction of EMU meant that many teachers experienced anxiety relating to their lack of training in the area (Smith and Robinson, 1996). To compound these anxieties, no coherent system of professional education is available. Most in-service education has been provided by the five Education and Library Boards, but there is no agreed plan or strategy for teachers’ professional education. Further, ‘Teachers have often felt that they do not have easy access to the type of support which meets their particular needs’ (Morgan and Dunn, 2000: 14). Further still, no research seems to have been carried out to ask teachers what their needs might be, and what kind of support might be most appropriate to help them meet the objectives of EMU. In short, the recommendations remain as recommendations – high-sounding rhetoric with which most teachers would agree, but presented in an abstract conceptual fashion that make real teachers and their living practices invisible.
Time to Listen, as part of the wider Education for Mutual Understanding Promoting Schools Project, developed out of a concern that teachers should enjoy the kind of support they felt was appropriate to their needs. I was invited to join the project in a loosely defined capacity that involved being an evaluator, supporter, mentor, adviser, and friend to all. I worked at multiple levels, advising at team meetings as well as working with people individually in schools. The two providers worked tirelessly to meet with teachers in their own schools and respond to their identified needs.
I brought with me to the project a commitment to agonistic pluralism (Gray, 1995), the idea that, in a society that notionally espouses pluralism, it is necessary to recognise and live with diversity to the extent that all are valued, regardless of their beliefs and practices. I appreciate how, in settings of deep conflict, old issues are not resolved quickly. They are part of historical processes, and need to be worked through. New forms of knowledge need to be generated to constitute a process of social renewal (Grace, 1995). However, this working through is often far from peaceful and involves understanding how to conceptualise reconciliation as part of a potentially conflictual process of knowledge generation itself (McNiff, 2000). Part of the process is coming to a form of thinking that recognises oneself in the other, and the other in oneself (Minh–ha, 1989), a most difficult thing to accomplish within cultures that value prejudice. My commitments to processes of emergent understanding through discernment and critical reflection on practices are features of the new epistemologies of practice (Schön, 1995), which are well characterised in terms of the self studies of teachers as they produce their accounts of practice to show how they are trying to live their values in their moment to moment lives.
I also brought with me an awareness of the powerful contributions of recent studies in education research, including the focus on developing new epistemologies (Zeichner, 1999); demonstration of the significance for educational practices of the new scholarhips of discovery, integration, application and teaching (Boyer, 1990); and the importance of developing appropriate standards of judgement for testing the validity of claims to educational knowledge that are made through the processes of self study (Bullough and Pinnegar, 2001; Whitehead, 2000). From recent work in evaluation (McNiff, forthcoming) I was aware of new conceptualisations of evaluation (Kushner, 2000) as personalised accounts of practice. This fitted well with my own understandings of evaluation as a transformative process of knowledge-creation in which embodied values emerge over time into observable forms of practice that are manifestations of these embodied values. These observable forms of practice would then become the ‘living’ criteria by which practices can be judged, and practitioners can hold themselves to account for their work and understanding (see Laidlaw, 1996;Whitehead, 1999, 2000). Evaluation becomes an integral process of individual knowledge creation as people address questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve my work?’ (Whitehead, 1989), and consciously give their best efforts to living in the direction of their values.
In the project, our small group of educators explored new forms of professional learning appropriate for encouraging a living engagement with issues of peace and reconciliation. This involved moving from a traditional position of accepting definitions of peace and applying them to practice, to trying to understand what peace means for us (Alford, 1997) in terms of the values we hold, and, by implication, what conflict means for us. The supporters, including myself as advisor and evaluator for the project, undertook their own self studies together with the teachers they were supporting who also undertook their self studies.
We adopted Whitehead’s (1999) action plan that enables practitioners to come to develop a logic of practice (Bourdieu, 1990), and that takes the form of
What is my concern?
Why am I concerned?
What do think I can do about my concern?
How do I gather evidence to show that I am exercising my educational influence?
How do I ensure that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and accurate?
How I modify my practice in the light of my evaluation?
(see also McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 1996, and forthcoming)
We all began to produce accounts of how we came to reconceptualise our own practices within the contested contexts of curriculum, professional education, and theories of learning. These accounts reveal the highly problematic process of coming to know what it means to live a peaceful life, and how a commitment to reconciliation means self-conscious engagement with the process of knowledge-generation itself. They also reveal how knowledge can be disseminated, and how the knowledge-dissemination process can be a major constituent in the education of social formations. Comprehensive data can be seen in the report (McNiff et al., 2001). Here, I would like to present two comments that I believe are representative of the kinds of insights the teachers developed, and how these insights began to influence their daily practices with their students and colleagues:
‘Maybe I’ve got it wrong, but as far as I can see it’s not actually the children, but the main focus here is the teacher. It’s what I do, and taking part in this project has given me the chance to look at what I do in a different way. I think that is different from anything else that has ever been in the school’ (tape-recorded conversation with teacher).
‘Women’s groups talk about ‘The Glass Ceiling’ where they can see opportunities but are unable to break through and reach them. Here in Portadown, we talk about “The Glass Floor”. We can see what has happened, layer upon layer, but we can’t change what has taken place. We understand why some individuals and groups behave as they do, but we can’t undo the hurt, suspicion and trauma. We have to live in the present and deal with our situation on a daily basis. The problem about standing on a glass floor is that you can’t make drastic or sudden moves. One enthusiastic leap too many, and the floor cracks! Then you find yourself falling. Progress will be slow, and movement cautious.
Participation in this project has enhanced the boys’ perceptions of themselves, their school and their own community.
“Time to Listen” has taught us that standing on a glass floor does not necessarily mean standing still. We have taken the first step on a long journey!’
(Harrison, Porter and Willis, 2001)
Data and evidence
We all monitored our practice over the 12-month period of the research, and produced accounts of our work for public dissemination at a celebratory conference on June 13th, 2001 (see McNiff, et al., 2001). These accounts show how teachers had worked collaboratively with children, parents, educational agencies and policy makers in creating the kinds of contexts and methodologies of care (McNiff, 1999) that would encourage personal self esteem and improved social relationships. They showed how they were able to reflect on the process of generating their own educational knowledge, and reflect critically on how they were able to identify their values as their living standards of judgement (Whitehead, 1999) in support of their claims to educational knowledge as their values gave meaning to new practices. These claims were widely validated by participants at the celebratory conference, and also by no less a personage than the Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness, at a seminar in July 2001 to discuss the appropriateness of different epistemologies for the scholarships of professional education.
What is significant about this project is that it moved, systematically and intentionally, beyond linguistic definitions into workplace practices. Instead of defining Education for Mutual Understanding, and then working towards fitting our practices into those defining frameworks, we took ourselves as the location of our studies, and tried to understand what Education for Mutual Understanding meant for us in the course of our everyday lives. This was very hard for some, because it meant that they actually had to suspend their prejudices and try to understand what other people were feeling. These other people were children, parents, colleagues; and those people might have been from the opposite tradition. Within our group we struggled with our own interpersonal relationships and prejudices while we spoke about how we were working with children and colleagues and trying to influence them also to suspend their prejudices and relate to others. Some of these conversations were very difficult. The first thing we had to do was recognise that we were prejudiced, and then commit to doing something about it. What made the conversations possible was the quality of relationships which developed among the group, the quality of listening and response, as these were encouraged by the supporters, who themselves (including me) were struggling also with their assumptions. The significance of the methodology of support cannot be overestimated. The group developed its own rules of conduct, that we would listen to one another respectfully even though we did not agree with some opinions expressed. Interactions were informed by the tacit agreement that we would not shy away from problematic issues, but engage with them in a manner which honoured the right of the other to hold their own opinions. The whole interaction was characterised by an ethic of trust in commitment to maintaining one’s own identity and opinion without doing harm to the other. The behaviours cautiously tried out here in this safe ‘practice’ setting could then be tried out within the more problematic settings of the reality of classrooms and staffrooms. Many teachers in the project commented on the power of this approach, especially the security of knowing that responses would be respectful:
‘The most important thing that came across in the meetings is that people just had time to sit down and actually talk to someone. … It’s nice to be able to talk with someone who understands what it’s like to be a teacher in today’s schools … but also to hear other people’s experiences of their own school …’
‘When you teach within a particular school context you can become very closeted and you are not aware of what is happening in other secondary schools, the problems they have to contend with. I became aware of the problems and needs of the less able kids which until now I wouldn’t have had a clue about … I became more sympathetic, too. Aware of the level of disadvantage.’
‘”Time to Listen” has allowed me time to think seriously about what the children’s needs are. It’s helped me to go from what I can do to a situation to what do the children need, and that’s a big difference.’(All comments taken from tape-recorded conversations with teachers)
Our group learned the importance of validating our work by gathering evidence that would show how we were attempting to exercise our educative influence. We became aware and articulate about the values base of our work, and how our values were systematically becoming the criteria by which we judged the quality of our influence.
Jean Do you feel you are making progress with this group?
Teacher I certainly feel there is a better relationship. There is trust there, and that’s good.
Jean Is it possible to produce evidence for that?
Teacher I don’t know that the evidence is in what they said but the very fact that they said it. The fact that a wee girl who has big big problems, when she first came into my class she never spoke to me, she never even looked up, and now she came up this morning, she came up with sweets, ‘Do you want a sweet, Miss?’ Now, she had a bit of a problem with being bullied, and she came to me to tell me, so I thought that says a lot, that that child would actually come and say because she would never have done that … My relationship with that child has changed.
And wise words from another teacher: ‘I think for a lot of [colleagues] it will be what they see, not what you tell them to see that will matter, because people do judge you that way, they like to see your work telling the story.’
The idea of the work telling the story is nowhere more evident than in the video made by the boys of Portadown, who reluctantly took on the pre-examination project of finding ways to promote their town to visitors, and ended up making a highly professional video documentary with the support of, but non-interference by, a local arts company. In the video they speak of their pride in themselves and their locality, erstwhile boys who had a low opinion of themselves as ‘thick’ and saw no future for their community.
The implications of this small project for forms of professional education in Northern Ireland and elsewhere are potentially major, as well as for understanding the forms of logic appropriate to conceptualising curriculum interventions such as Education for Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage, and for conceptualising the professional education of teachers. Describing the significant features of these issues is not the same as understanding them (see also Alford, 1997). Dominant forms of research in curriculum and professional education emphasise linguistic definitions; new forms of self study research emphasise how meanings are given to lives from within the process of trying to understand, and from the explanations that we give to our lives in terms of how our values lend meaning of what understanding means to us. These issues are very hard, but need to be at the heart of educational enquiry if it is to have significance as a process of demonstrating the core values of pluralism, pursuit of social justice, acceptance of human rights and responsibilities, and democracy. The processes of knowledge-generation itself need to demonstrate a living out of these values as much as policy frameworks require them to be lived out in the curriculum. On this view, indeed, curriculum may be conceptualised as a process of engagement in mutual understanding as all participants negotiate the validity of what they know and how they come to know it (Elliott, 1998).
The core significance of this work is in the establishment of communities of compassionate practitioners, and their capacity to reflect critically on their work and to exercise their originality of mind and critical judgement with universal intent (Polanyi, 1958). The claims to educational knowledge which teachers have made individually and collectively rest on clear standards of judgement that are related to the values which inform their work (Whitehead, 1999, 2000). These values may be understood both in terms of the personal educational values of teachers, and also the core values of the Northern Ireland curriculum. Teachers are able to show how they came to understand, through the highly problematic process of individual and collective learning, how they can justify the values they hold, and also live them in their practices, by showing how the living out of those values can have benefit in their own and others’ lives. Negotiating these contexts can be a matter of conflict, as teachers try to move from a position of internal and external denial of their values, especially as the forces of denial manifest in the epistemologies of the old scholarship and how they manifest in social practices, to one in which their educational values are lived out. We hope that our study shows how it might be possible to demonstrate the processes of knowledge-creation and dissemination as practices that live out the values of education for mutual understanding for the development of good social orders.
The Report by the Post-Primary Review Body, Education for the 21st Century (Department of Education, 2001), calls for educational reform, including the abolition of Eleven-Plus Transfer Tests, on the basis of the following:
The present structure is inflexible, fragmented, wasteful of resources, and makes it difficult to ensure equality of opportunity for all pupils. We have been left in no doubt that the Eleven-Plus Transfer Tests are socially divisive, damage self-esteem, place unreasonable pressures on pupils, primary teachers and parents, disrupt teaching and learning at an important stage in the primary curriculum and reinforce inequality of opportunity (p. 7, para. 2).
This critique in relation to tests might be extended to many other contexts of teaching and learning.
What the report fails to do is address how teachers are going to implement the proposed new structures in a way that the reforms can be shown to have educational significance for the children. The assumptions underpinning the reified concepts of good guys and bad guys and happy endings are highly visible. People are still assumed to live as defined categories, automata who do not think for themselves or have values of their own, but who understand definitions of what is good and bad and aim to implement them. This is the way things are because this is the way things are.
It simply does not make sense to talk about system and curriculum reform without talking about reform in teacher professional education. At the moment, teacher professional education still takes the form of a delivery model. Teachers are expected somehow magically to transform the words of recommendations into the good deeds of practice. What is needed above all are forms of personalised support that place teachers and their educational values at the heart of education processes, with the uncompromising commitment to support teachers as they undertake their action enquiries in asking questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve my work?’ The living ‘I’ needs to be at the centre of education in all its forms. All the rhetoric on earth, all the high-sounding espoused principles, cannot substitute for one caring teacher who can say, ‘My relationship with that child changed’, and have the confidence in their capacity for making professional judgements in order to let their work tell the story.
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