Notes for Jean McNiff’s contribution to the Symposium

Teaching and Learning Action Research

American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, April 1–5, 2002

[Word version available]


It has taken time to come to understand what drives my life and to communicate these values in appropriate ways.

The main core values I hold that inform my life work are love and freedom. These values are related conceptually in a deep way, and the conceptual relationship manifests as the lived relationships between people in their everyday contexts. My work is devoted to finding ways of communicating my own potentials for love and freedom by helping people to experience love and freedom in their own lives. The metaphors I use to help me communicate my values are those of relational and generative transformational processes.

For me, the idea of love includes the capacity to value others and to see them as unique persons, a reciprocal process in which one also is valued and seen as a unique person. My understanding of freedom is that it is a process of experience that includes the capacity to value others’ opinions and feelings, even though those opinions and feelings might be in conflict with one’s own. Freedom involves reciprocal responsibility, and this responsibility manifests in ways that communicate an acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions.

I understand the nature of human enquiry as an unending quest for knowledge, a quest undertaken by individuals in company with one another. Whatever knowledge they acquire is the grounds for, and transforms into, new knowledge. Nothing is static. Everything is in a state of becoming. Personal knowledge transforms into explicit knowledge; values transform into practice.

I believe profoundly in the capacity of people to think, speak and act for themselves. My work is to help people to do so.

I believe that living inevitably involves learning, and the quality of living is in relation to the quality of learning. The quality of learning is influenced by the degree of freedom that is experienced in the process of learning, and the quality of the experience of freedom is influenced by the quality of love that enables it. Education, in my view, always needs to be understood within contexts of love and freedom, and how those contexts can provide spaces for people to create their own knowledge.

Freedom is not a ‘given’ in some preordained sense. It is an emergent process within social relationships, as people work out who they are and how they should live together. This involves accepting the responsibility of personal decisions and holding oneself accountable to others for the consequences of one’s thinking, and how that thinking transforms into acting. Because I am a person also in company with others, I need to hold myself accountable for my thinking and how it transforms into action.

An implication of the above views in terms of pursuing my chosen profession in education is that frequently I experience situations in which my values are denied in my practice (Whitehead, 1989). I consistently encounter obstacles to the realisation of my values. These obstacles often take the form of institutional structures and processes. They also take the form of many people’s unquestioning acceptance of established norms. Part of my work is to help people to appreciate how their own thinking and practices are controlled. My love of freedom manifests in a desire to enable people to learn to see what is there, rather than what they choose, or are led, to believe is there. I aim to justify my views by showing how my actions have enabled other people also to realise their potentials for love and freedom in mutual relationship, and how those people justify their practices in terms of how they are enabling others to do the same.

I have learnt from Jack Whitehead the powerful idea of how educational enquiry is a form of dialogue that has profound implications for the future of humanity. I bring this idea with me to my practice contexts. I aim to create contexts of care within which people can learn, appreciating that their learning is often best enabled through loving relationships that encourage the unfettered exploration of ideas, even though those ideas might create dissonance for themselves and others.

My contexts

My situation is that I am an independent researcher. Of Scottish parentage, I live in England and work mainly in Ireland and Northern Ireland. I have been engaged for the past ten years in developing formal and informal programmes for the continuing professional education of people across the professions, mainly teachers. When I first began this work I tried to persuade Irish universities to support educators’ professional learning by accrediting their workplace based enquiries. These overtures were unsuccessful, so I negotiated with British universities that they would provide routes to accreditation. Ten years on, some 60 Masters degrees have been awarded to Irish educators by the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. I later developed a guided doctoral programme with the University of Glamorgan in Wales, and the first PhD degree is about to be awarded in March 2002. I believe that education providers should take responsibility for supporting the continuing professional learning of educators, so I pursued my original ambition of negotiating with Irish universities to develop professional development programmes. That wish has come true. I now work formally with the University of Limerick in developing a doctoral programme, in company with the Faculty of Education and Professional Studies. The situation is that a group of 10 doctoral researchers, together with Faculty, study together to find ways of improving the quality of their work in their own contexts. Their enquiries take the form of self studies undertaken collaboratively with their students and workplace colleagues, and with one another. Given that universities in Ireland set the paradigm for teaching and learning in primary and post-primary education, this initiative has significant potential for a reconceptualisation of what counts as educational knowledge in Ireland and how knowledge is generated from within the living practices of people as they ask collaboratively, ‘How do I improve my work?’ (Whitehead, 1989).

Themes in my writings

I try to write in a way that speaks directly to people’s experience. I consciously try to keep my writing accessible. I tend to write for practitioners in workplaces, regarding people positioned in universities and other higher education contexts also as practitioners in workplaces. Therefore I do not write specifically for an academic audience.

I try to communicate theories through the form and content of stories of experience. My work contexts involve helping practitioners understand how their own theories are embodied within their practices. I encourage them to make these theories explicit so that others may learn from them. My writings have the same purpose. I try to show how my own theorising has emerged from within my embodied practice of encouraging others to do the same. My writing is informed by the metaphors of relation and generative transformation, and I aim to show how I am developing forms of communication that show the practical realisation of my own embodied values as I try to help others to do the same. My work adopts an ecological perspective, as I try to make connections between values and practice, and show how an elegant underlying dynamic relational order manifests as an emergent dynamic social order of relationships among people, and among people and their environments.

Themes within my writing are to do with how I enable people to learn within contexts of love and freedom. We show how we achieve freedom to think and learn as a developmental process in loving relationship with one another. I believe I communicate these ideas to people successfully because I am constantly trying to find ways myself of experiencing love and freedom in relation with others.

I am deeply interested these days in the idea of responsibility and how this manifests in educational enquiry. I am learning that there are levels of experience of responsibility. Particularly pressing are my needs to find ways of realising Noam Chomsky’s ideas of telling the truth and exposing lies, ideas with which I profoundly agree, especially in relation to the lies that are told within the invisible propaganda systems that underpin formal education and social systems; and to balance these imperatives with the need to do no harm and especially to protect those with whom I am in company and who are subject to direct punishment by powerful elites whom I might offend. I recognise these elements as obstacles to my own progress in developing contexts of love and freedom. I try to approach all relationships in a spirit of love and freedom, recognising from long experience that my efforts may well be rejected, often in a way that does emotional violence. I have become political. I do see the need for strategic action in achieving my long term goals. Current specific difficulties in these arenas are foregrounding for me the need for ethical awareness, first in relation to how self study is justified in terms of making one’s own contribution to good social orders, and second in relation to how I have a responsibility to care for the welfare of those who are dependent on me to support their formal and informal workplace enquiries. This dependency is short-term, but real; I am working to secure ways in which people can become self-reliant.

My teaching strategies

I work mainly with in-service teachers, and educators across the professions.

My strategies are to support the development of groups of practitioners who are involved in formal and informal professional learning. This work is undertaken in university contexts, teaching and managing professional learning programmes for accreditation, as well as teaching and managing workplace programmes. I complement this work with the production of texts, both my own which show how I am helping others to learn and in which I offer advice about how they might develop their own capacity for learning, and I also support the publication of others’ work. My aim is to withdraw from teaching programmes and concentrate on working with faculties in building their own capacity for supporting professional education programmes through personal and collective enquiry. I also hope to develop my writing more systematically.

I am currently involved in developing web-based learning opportunities.

Obstacles and challenges

The obstacles and challenges within my main practice contexts in Ireland and Northern Ireland are the same as those in the wider contexts of education research, and its extension into other research contexts such as organisation and management research. I encounter structural prejudice against the ideas that people are able to think and act for themselves, and against practitioner-based forms of enquiry that hold this as a core value. I encounter situations in which people, who should have learnt to see permeating prejudices for what they are, either deliberately choose not to see or are unable to see because of the insidious nature of the propaganda systems that control their thinking. Like Maxine Greene (from whose text ‘The Dialectic of Freedom’, 1988, p.112, I have borrowed part of my title) I refuse to accept these underpinning systems of control, and I resist their influence. I celebrate the transformative potentials of people in community to create their own opportunities for freedom and loving relationships.

I justify the foregoing by evidence collected over the years in the shape of the dissertations and theses of people I have supported, and in their comments about their experience of our working together. Examples of such comments are offered here from our group of research participants and faculty at the University of Limerick.

‘For me, what I am learning is there is great value in discourse and sharing and exchanging ideas. In the course of today I can see that I actually change my ideas, that they can develop in such a short time … this is something we don’t normally get an opportunity to speak about.’

‘You have created these spaces in which we can develop new ideas and test them with each other.’

And finally …

I value opportunities such as our meeting today to share the joy of learning and teaching. My life is animated by a faith that hidden processes transform into explicit ones in life-affirming ways, and this emergence is a property of living. The faith that exists at a deep level within me emerges over time into the lived reality of practice. This process of inexorable emergence towards the good, in terms of love and freedom among people and their environments, is how I understand the nature of God. While my faith exists as a form of personal knowledge, I support my claim to this knowledge by showing how it has transformed into the realities of practice.


Greene, M. (1988) The Dialectic of Freedom. New York, Teachers College Press.

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.

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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 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




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