The transformative potentials of ICT for educational theory

A paper to be presented at the symposium

‘How do we explain the significance of the validity of our self-study enquiries for the future of educational research?’

at the

British Educational Research Association Annual Meeting,

University of Warwick, 8 September 2006.

Ray O’Neill, St Aidans School, Dublin

This paper follows the presentation of a short video clip.

The piece of video that you have seen shows two of my students, Mark the interviewer and Keith, the interviewee, who took part in a school programme called the Vocational Preparation and Training programme. The video clip could be seen as a simple piece of school video with a couple of students showcasing their work. I suppose it is that. However a more finely grained examination of the video can show it to be more than that. When I look at the video I see more than that. These young men were taking part in a non-mainstream programme; in many respects they were marginalised within what was a very traditional boys’ secondary school. My own involvement with them was in my role as teacher of Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Our particular interpretation of ICT was quite broad in that it encompassed electronics, video and materials in addition to the traditional use of computers. In this context I would like to lay out for you what I see in the video but before doing that I would like to present a short theoretical framework for this work.

Hannah Arendt (1958) has written extensively about the place of people in the world. In her work ‘The Human Condition’ (Arendt 1958) she examines human activity and argues for a three-sided view of human activity: she calls these labour, work and action. Labour refers to routine behaviour required to meet basic needs; work includes activity by artists and craftspeople to make lasting objects that comprise the human world; action requires collective interaction to determine what is good and just (see also Sutherland 2001).

School work in relation to ICT often relates only to ‘labour’ – those routine activities that are required to keep the systems running. However, another conceptualisation of ICT involves ‘work’. The development of multimedia tools and internet technologies that support creative interaction are consistent with Arendt’s concept of ‘work’. A third conceptualisation of ICT involves the use of multimedia tools and technologies to support original human agency – this can be ‘action’ in the Arendtian sense.

If we look at the video clip in the context of Arendt’s view of human activity what can be seen? Over a period of time Keith has learned about resistor colour codes, about how diodes control the direction of current flow, about how the quality of soldering can determine if a circuit works or not. Much of this is what Arendt calls labour: routine behaviour that meets the basic needs to complete his class work. He has used his skills to build the basic circuitry that is needed to make this mini-company sign. However he has gone beyond his basic need to complete his class work by producing a durable artefact. This artefact was used to advertise his class mini-company at a range of mini-company activities, trade fairs, shows and displays. I think Arendt would call this work: activities undertaken by craftspeople and artists to produce lasting objects that comprise the world. But Keith has gone further still. He has used his work to become part of his mini-company community. In the video he tells us that he has worked with others, Kevin Green and Warren who cut out the plastic (without breaking any pieces!!). They produced the public symbol of his mini-company. Keith’s work has involved him in collective interaction with his community and they together have determined what is good for that community. This has not been achieved without disagreement. Within the video Keith tells us that Barry Kinsella, the General Manager of the mini-company, had opposed the sign being used; however, Keith and his fellow workers argued their side and won out in the end. This could be an ‘ideal speech situation’ (Habermas 1984).

Fundamental to Arendt’s conception of action are the ideas of ‘natality’ and ‘plurality’. Natality emphasises that as a result of their birth alone, every person has the possibility to contribute something new to human experience and therefore to give meaning to life (Arendt 1958: 178). However natality is not expressed in isolation. It is expressed in community – we can define ourselves and create our own identities in relationship with others. “The realm of human affairs…consists of the web of human relationships…” (Arendt 1958: 184). The web of human relationships is enlivened by plurality – the diversity that exists among people (Arendt 1958: 8).

In the action that Keith describes in the video, he is expressing his natality. By making the mini-company sign, Keith takes the opportunity to contribute something new to human experience and therefore gives meaning to his life and the lives of others around him. He is making a contribution; his own unique contribution to the mini-company in particular and to the world in general. Someone else may have made a different sign or no sign at all. However, Keith did not act in isolation. He tells us that “…Kevin Green came up with the design and Kevin and Warren cut it out”. Keith worked within his community to devise, design and develop his mini-company sign. Within that community there was plurality. Keith, Kevin and Warren brought different contributions to the project. Each expressed their own natality (their right to contribute to making the world). The diversity within their contributions can be seen as plurality. The making of the sign empowered the students as members of their mini-company community to make something new within that community and to share it with the wider community.

The students are taking action to change their own circumstances by developing their own capacity for action through communication. The students are talking together and working together to achieve inter-subjective communication with a view to taking political action; political action in the form of taking control of their own lives.

It can be seen clearly from the video that articulating his thoughts and ideas is not easy for Keith. However, the making of the video helps Keith to articulate his position. The video clip shows several ‘takes’. On subsequent ‘takes’ Keith improves his articulation. He is clearly disappointed that the sign was not used at the Trade Fair but is happier that it will be used at the Careers Fair. During the takes Mark, who is interviewing, helps him to articulate his contribution. Colm, who is behind the camera, also plays a part in supporting Keith in taking his place in the world. However in the video Keith is providing Mark and Colm with an opportunity to take their place in the world by their contribution of the video. Keith reciprocally provides each of his group with an opportunity to take their place in the world. As Arendt might say ‘…to make the world’. Within this piece of video we are directly viewing communicative action (Habermas, 1984). The students are talking control of their lives; they are creating the world through the communicative medium which is supported by ICT.

This paper is a vignette on the development of my own theory of practice. My practice is about contributing to a just and caring society. My theory of practice is about how I have encouraged myself and others to work in solidarity to exercise our agency through communicative action. While drawing on Lave and Wenger’s (1991) ideas of community of practice I diverge from them on their idea of partial peripheral action. I see all members of the group as full members. Through participative approaches based within web technologies I am showing communicative action through ICT using real time and virtual communities of practice (Wenger, 1998). In this way the work is showing the potentials of ICT to form both real time and virtual communities of practice. I believe that these communities of practice are a form of communicative action. By undertaking activities like those that form the video I have generated my own theory of practice and that theory of practice is grounded in my core values based in justice, creativity and freedom and in my own capacity to encourage young people and colleagues to think for themselves and regard themselves as knowledge generators. The focus of my research is the generation of my own theory of learning and I am testing that theory in the public domain through this paper and through my website. As the theory is embodied within myself this is a living theory.

The key theme within this paper is the transformational quality of ICT which supports individuals in developing their own knowledge creating capacity. ICT acts as a form of political action in contributing to a just society. Arendt’s concept of natality (1958:8-9), the idea that ‘each person has the capacity for contributing something unique to human experience’, resonates with me and encourages me to study my own practice as a means of supporting others to study theirs and realise their natality in their practice. I am making an original contribution to knowledge by developing an approach to the use of information and communications technologies that supports political action. This approach draws on the development of ideas arising from the ‘New Science’ which suggest that organisations need to be conceptualised as transformative processes that recognise the agency of transformative individuals. The metaphors of the new science transfer to how the practices of social scientific and educational enquiry are conceptualised. New paradigm research in education embraces newer forms of enquiry such as action research. Like the ‘New Science’ these newer forms of educational enquiry emphasise uncertainty and the need to embrace contradiction. I have come to appreciate the need for new models to reconceptualise social processes and the education of social formations (Whitehead 2003a, 2003b, 2004). In my work as an educator I am exploring these issues and finding new ways of understanding my teaching and administration as educational practices. I hope this work contributes to the wider body of literature in terms of what theorists such as Boyer (1990) term the New Scholarship. It does this by developing a theory grounded in my own practice and the practice of colleagues and supports Schön’s development (1995: 27) of Boyer’s ideas by contributing to an epistemology which is relational and inclusive in nature and therefore challenges the norms of technical rationality. In developing multimedia materials I have drawn on Gardner’s ideas of multiple intelligences (1989, 1993) in devising materials that appeal to those intelligences. Eisner’s ideas (1997) on alternative forms of representation have informed the choice of materials used. The programme of work draws together insights from a range of contexts in an attempt to see the patterns that underlie successful change within organisations. But far from being linear processes these patterns are enfolded (Bohm 1994) within patterns that represent the relationship between learning and practice and indeed the patterns that represent relationships between people. This paper draws on work that unfolds some of these patterns to examine ‘…the unbroken wholeness of the totality of existence as an undivided flowing movement without borders…’ (Bohm 1980: 172)

Originality in my research is carried through to the collection of evidence. I have provided evidence here today in the form of a video clip. The evidence base of my research is built on the multimedia base providing evidence using a range of media – video, audio, text, and hypertext. In my mind, I am presenting here today a multimedia paper. I regard the paper I am reading as a linguistic subset of the multimedia paper in the same ways that traditional forms of theory and of pedagogy are subsets of newer relational forms of theory and pedagogy. The more complete multimedia version of this paper will be available shortly at

This paper is part of a programme of research where I am contributing to a new scholarship of educational enquiry (Whitehead, 1999). Whitehead’s work is part of an evolution of ideas started by Boyer (1990) when he developed the idea of a new scholarship of teaching. Schön (1995) advanced this by arguing for the need for a new epistemology for a new scholarship of teaching. Whitehead took this further this with the idea of a new scholarship of educational enquiry. I see my contribution to the new scholarship in that I am involved in developing my own educational theory. I am putting that theory to the test in my own practice and offering it to public scrutiny. While doing this I reconceptualise the role of ICT within education by creating a conceptual framework around political action (Arendt 1958) and communicative action (Habermas 1975). By offering my work to public scrutiny I am contributing to a knowledge base to show how I have developed my personal theory of education. I am demonstrating my contribution to the knowledge base here today with the multimedia presentation of this paper and I am opening it to challenge. In this way I show how I am transforming propositional theory into a living form of dialectical theory.

This presentation is a window on one of a set of projects which can be seen to form a democratic enclave within an authoritarian system. The projects that this paper is based on encourage the equal distribution of educational and social goods by developing within the classroom a different form of relational space and as a result giving rise to relational epistemologies (Schön 1995). These epistemologies indicate that what we know is in our relationships and how we come to know is through our relationships. Rather than being a pre-packaged chunk of knowledge to be delivered, curriculum can be reconceptualised as a creative conversation between teachers on the one hand and between teachers and their students on the other (Elliott, 1998). In the process all parties, teachers and students, can learn to make choices about their life plans.

The motivation for my work and for my research is driven by my personal values base. I have values in relation to humankind. These have particular expression in relation to education. First, I believe all people to be unique, special individuals. Consequently, to deny a person their place in the universe is the most serious wrong that can be done. This is similar to Arendt’s concept of natality (1958:8-9). In recognition of people’s natality, educators have a responsibility to support those that we work with ‘to be the best’ (Arendt 1958:19). That responsibility lies, in the first instance, with themselves. My first responsibility as an educator is to be the best that I can be. I can be the best that I can be by supporting others in their struggles to be the best that they can be. This responsibility is not a consequence of my work. It is a part of my natality. I carry this responsibility simply because I am alive. The responsibility lies with me in the various places that I live with my students, my colleagues, my family and friends. The responsibility is to support others to realise their own natality.

While my belief in natality is important, simply believing that every individual has the capacity for original human agency is not enough. I see education as a means of expressing one’s original human agency. Learning is central to this. Consequently, I see learning as a lifelong process and not in the sense that we all need formal learning and retraining throughout life but in the sense that to live is to learn (see Dewey, 1916:358-60). While the conventional view is that learning takes place within specific locations and contexts I take the view that learning is not bound by context or location. My learning does not begin and end in the classroom or the lecture hall; my life is the living embodiment of my learning. My thinking is influenced by Habermas’s (1975) idea that learning is part of the human condition: humans cannot not learn. This is also my vision for my students and colleagues. Learning is not something that is ‘done to’ them or that they ‘do to’ others, learning is a process that we participate in together. While there is a contrary view that learning is a characteristic of the individual learner, my experience of myself and my students is that the learning that I value is enhanced, transformed and developed by cultural interaction.

Within the video clip Mark made a number of references to Keith that were not respectful. These comments did not show much regard for Keith’s natality. Within this work there are contradictions and uncertainties. Within propositional logic you cannot have contradictory elements. Propositional forms of logic tend to give rise to propositional forms of practice which in teaching often take the form of didactic forms of delivery. Propositional forms of thinking which see the self and the rest of creation as separate can give rise to Marcuse’s (1964) idea of a logic of domination. The video clip illustrates how my practice is not grounded in propositional logic but in forms which are dialectal and so accept and welcome contradiction and give rise to dialectical forms of practice which value the other. Rather than pursuing the traditional elements of positivist thinking which move towards closure these processes move toward opening out. Within this context I move from being an authority figure to something else. So the teacher works co-operatively with the students rather than impositionally. There’s a fundamental change in the relationship.

Key values within schools are order, uniformity and control. These values are linked with education as product, as a commodity. Dewey (1938: 17-23) in an examination of traditional education identified the linked pedagogies as didactic and controlling and suggested that good teachers ‘will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features’. ICT can fit into this methodology in that it can work in exactly the same way. Many CAL systems do precisely that. Many people support ICT systems within schools because of its capacity to assess and report and in many respects assessing and reporting can be tools of control.

I have concerns that the dominant form of theorising ICT is around productivity. The kind of knowledge underpinning this is instrumental, functional, and utilitarian.

The key purpose for my carrying out research is to improve my own learning and by improving my own learning to improve my practice. The improvement of my learning is based on my identification of a gap between my values and my practice. I need to learn how to close that gap and bring my practice into line with my values. I address the issue of improving my learning on two fronts. I make a study of practice and theorise that practice in the light of insights drawn from others. Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt (1958, 1973, 1978, and 1994) I frame the initial question: ‘How can I reconceptualise ICT as political action?’ I go on to place my practice within the framework described by Whitehead (1979, 1993). I locate my understanding of learning within frameworks established by Argyris (1982), Apple (1999; 2000; 2003), Dewey (1916;1938), Lave and Wenger (1991), Wenger (1998), and express the desire to locate this work within the wider literature particularly in relation to the ‘New Scholarship’ (Boyer 1990); in supporting the development of a new epistemology for the new scholarship (Schön 1995) and this epistemology draws on the ideas of an epistemology of educational enquiry (Whitehead 1999).

Among the understandings that I have developed through this research is the centrality of autonomy to the types of learning that I value. Part of my own autonomous learning is the insight that a central part of an educative relationship is the support I offer my students and colleagues in developing their own autonomous learning. My purpose, therefore, is to devise ways of working that support autonomous learning.

At a theoretical level, this programme of work shows what it means for me to live my embodied values in my practice. By doing this and by making my work public I am contributing to the growing literature of self study that shows that practitioners can generate their own theories of education from within their practice (Whitehead 2003a, 2003b, 2004). The process of undertaking research into my practice has in turn changed that practice as I have engaged in cycles of action and reflection.

The main focus of my research is in examining my educational influence and transforming my embodied knowledge into explicit knowledge and from explicit knowledge into public knowledge (Varela et al., 1993). In her presidential address to the America Educational Research Association in 2001 Catherine Snow, while supporting the wealth of knowledge possessed by teachers, called for that knowledge to be ‘systematized so that personal knowledge can become publicly accessible and subject to analysis’ (Snow, 2001:3). In making my embodied knowledge public I am responding to Snow’s call to systematise personal knowledge so that it will be become publicly accessible and contribute to the knowledge base of teaching. In particular I am showing my educational influence in the learning of others while I support them as students, administrators and colleagues.

While bringing together the possibilities provided by ICT and challenges generated by my values I have noticed the transformative potentials around ICT. While working with ICT I have noticed that these transformative potentials are frequently not realised. While reflecting on this contradiction between my values and my activities using ICT I see a need to clarify my thinking around ICT. In doing this I have drawn upon the ideas of Hannah Arendt (1958; 1973; 1978; 1994).

By asking this question: ‘How can I reconceptualise ICT as political action?’ I am asking whether it is possible to conceptualise ICT as a tool which supports individual human endeavour by people working in collaboration with others in life-affirming practices which enable them individually and collectively to create a new world for themselves. While asking this question I need to ask others: ‘Does the programme of work using ICT that I have been involved in over the past five years constitute political action?’ ‘What are the characteristics of this programme that would allow me to make this claim?’ ‘While the programme of work involved innovative practice can I conceptualise this practice as a personal theory of education?’ ‘How do I demonstrate the validity of my evidence-based claims to knowledge?’ I engage with some of these questions in this paper and further engagement can be found at my web site. Both here and on the web site I engage in a dialogical form offering my work, my action to public interaction because ‘…to be political means that everything is decided through words and persuasion…’ (Arendt, 1958).


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