Caitriona McDonagh

Paper for the symposium

The Transformative Potentials of Our Self Studies for a

New Epistemology of Scholarship in Our University

Educational Studies Association of Ireland

Conference 10 – 12th March 2005

University College Cork

(This paper may be downloaded in Word format by clicking here)


Increasingly, teachers experience educational research as informing policy and provision rather than resonating with their work (Paechter, 1998). This raises three issues. First, teachers, as professionals, need to claim their right to exercise their voice in what counts as effective learning and best practice. Therefore teachers require confidence and capacity in perceiving themselves as theorists. Second, teachers are frequently positioned as objects of research or sources of data in educational research (McNiff et al., 2003). In this way, teachers can often perceive themselves as disempowered by a form of theory that values external knowledge and consequently ignores the embodied knowledge of the teaching profession. In recent years this embodied knowledge has begun to emerge as the core of living theories of practice (Whitehead, 2003). Third, research of practice by teachers can generate new theories with direct relevance in their specific contexts and in particular to the learning experiences of their pupils (Zeichner, 1999). In this paper I address these three issues as I show, in episodes from my own doctoral research, how I generate my own theory of practice as a teacher of pupils with specific learning disability in a primary school.

I am a resource teacher of pupils with specific learning disability or dyslexia. I would like to invite your critical response to this report on my work in progress and specifically to the following questions: Would you agree that I am generating my own theory of practice? Does this theory demonstrate the expression of embodied professional knowledge? Has this theory relevance in my specific work context? I engage with a methodology of self-study action research because it offers opportunities to enable practitioners to theorise their own practice. Mc Niff, Lomax and Whitehead (2003) position learning as a central feature of self-study action research. In this paper I demonstrate, in Part 1, my personal learning as the core of developing a new theory of practice and, in Part 2, how my learning has influenced my pupils’ learning.

A context for developing personal theories of practice

Practice as a form of theory (Dadds and Hart, 2001: Schon, 1995: Whitehead, 1993, 2004) has been shown to contribute to a knowledge base in which teachers can learn from and with one another (Snow, 2001). Delong (2002) in Canada, and Zeichner (1999) in the USA have shown how individual self-studies can, not only, contribute to the local knowledge base but also to the wider cumulative knowledge base of the profession. Therefore in the following accounts from my practice I show how my professional learning can become a form of theorising guided by the educational principals of the uniqueness of the individual (Department of Education and Science Curriculum, 1999).

My professional commitments are grounded in a value of social justice that prioritises the right of all to learn, regardless of social or academic positioning. My research question is ‘How do I improve the learning experience of my pupils with specific learning disability/dyslexia?’ and it is informed by my personal values and the writings of Freire (1998), Noddings (1992 and 2002) Griffiths (2003) and Whitehead, (1993). Thus the standards by which my work may be judged are not how much did my pupils learn? but has my pupils’ experience of learning improved through my efforts to live in the direction of my values?.

Part 1 My Learning

In order to demonstrate the process of theorising my practice I need to show you, the reader, changes in my thinking rather than changes in my actions. In problematising my practice I have become critical of the underpinning assumptions of my practice - what I do and how I understand what I do. I find that the minute-by-minute decisions I make in my classroom draw on my existing theories and also produce new ones. Consequently, I can no longer unthinkingly maintain old habits in my practice and therefore I shift from traditional propositional theories about practice to generating my own theory-in-practice. This idea resonates with Schon’s (1995) thinking of reflection on and reflection in action.

In the following sections I show how I have come to a greater understanding of why I am doing research and why I teach as I do.

How I theorise practice

Two methods I use in order to understand my own learning about my practice are (a) reflection and (b) critique.

(a)                Reflection

I keep a journal of learning and correspondence with critical friends to document changes in my ways of thinking. For example, here is an extract in the form of rough sketches to show how I have come to a new understanding of how I interact with my pupils. The commentaries and visuals are representations of my learning, showing the development of my learning and how that translated into new forms of pedagogy.

The larger head represents me. The smaller heads represent my pupils. Towards the end of the first year of my research, I drew sketch two. It depicted, for me, that I positioned myself as a facilitator of multiple ways of learning within my class. I then reflected on how I had perceived my ways of working prior to that date. In sketch one I positioned myself as a gatekeeper of knowledge, presuming that my knowledge of dyslexia, received from books and courses, would inform the pupils’ understanding of dyslexia. Looking at both sketches 1 and 2 side by side in my journal, I came to the realisation that the shifts in my practice had been pupil-driven. Therefore sketch three represents ideas of learning from and with pupils.


The form of reflection shown here speaks to ideas of knowledge creation rather than positioning me, a teacher, as a transmitter of knowledge. Traditionally specific learning disability and dyslexia is regarded as a pathology to be cured or remediated by teachers (McPhillips, 2004). By contrast, the sketches above show my developing understanding of my role in facilitating the learning experience of my pupils and they also raise issues around power and pedagogy (Bernstein, 2000). Through reflection I have gained awareness of how schools (and society) subtly programme us into conformity and the logic of the system (McDonagh 2002 and McNiff, 2002b). In this way both teachers and pupils are programmed into subjugating our voice (McDonagh, 2004a). I believe that critical reflection has caused both my children and myself to rise above this ‘culture of silence’ (Devine, 2003).


I use the following four questions, which I draw from the work of Mc Niff and Whitehead (McNiff and Whitehead, 2005) to facilitate critique of my practice.


What have I learned?

Thinking in a self-critical way was a new form of thinking for me and brought an awareness of new perceptions in previously the taken-for-granted teaching situations. An example of making the implicit explicit (Dadds, 2003) was the realisation that research about learning often ignores the voice of the learner (McDonagh, 2004a). For example objective, measurable and observable data required in a behaviourist approach, as in the work of Skinner (1954), do not value narrative accounts of the learner. Clinical-type interviews in Piagetian and constructivist research accounts shape, interpret and control the voice of the learner rather than giving the freedom of open-ended dialogue (Noddings, 2003). I have learned to be aware of how and why I teach and research as I do.

What can I do about my new understandings of practice?

New thinking has to be tested and modified. To do so I make my developing thinking public in paper presentations, thus testing it against the responses of an academic audience – a method which both progressed and validated my research as in the following example: In making a case for pupil voice in research (McDonagh 2003), I realised that a major block to my pupils learning was that they were prevented from exercising their voice in how they learned. I was aware that my research, at that time, echoed the ideas of Freire (1970, 1993). But I was encouraged to consider further concepts of relationship, voice and curriculum in correspondence from a member of the audience.

‘What is happening to you is that - I think - you are reframing your own experience as teacher in light of a new perspective….I suspect that in encouraging children (or anyone) to find their voice - oral or written - you are in some deep sense validating them and their lives and identity. This seems to me an aspect of the caring principle in education.’

Colleague D. Correspondence in data archive July 2003

I was also made aware of the values – such as caring - that underpin my work and are the criteria by which my research may be judged (Whitehead, 2004).

How do I critique what I know?

New thinking informs actions so it is necessary to constantly critique what one is learning. Therefore new thinking must be recognised by the peer community – in my case the teaching profession - as quality theorising. In the next piece of correspondence, following the presentation of practical learning from my research, a colleague wrote of my theory of practice:

‘I think your work is very relevant to resource and learning support teachers. In an ideal for the 20:1 classroom too! But probable more difficult to organise as the range of abilities and learning modalities would be vast.’

Resource Teacher A. Correspondence in data archive December 2004.

This correspondent was extending my ideas beyond children with specific learning disability and into a mainstream setting. The following was part of a written critique of a presentation of my work to another peer group of action researchers

‘Yours is a theory drawn directly from your practice as support teacher and you clearly demonstrated a critical engagement with the issues and concepts involved as well as an impressive critical engagement with education theories. This engagement, along with the close monitoring of your practice over a period of years, has led you to form new theories of teaching and learning that are grounded in your aim to improve your practice, and thereby the educational experience for your students.’

Validation Group Member B Correspondence in data archive November 2004

How am I going to learn more?

My learning and practice are intertwined and so the process of my research required an ongoing cyclical and self-reflective practice through which I have developed a passion for enquiring into knowledge. In pursuing my investigation into the nature of knowledge I also engaged with debates regarding popular conceptions of knowledge and how these are dragooned into the service of bureaucracies who wish to promote a view of knowledge as technical rational activity (McNiff, 2002b and Mc Donagh, 2002). Recently, the Department of Education and Science and the National Council for Special Education Special, in order to establish criteria for special education provisions, have required audits of pupils with special educational needs. In challenging their thinking, that children can be labelled with one specific disability for their entire school-life, I have not only demonstrated my changing thinking but also its influence on my practice - evidence of which is in the following correspondence

‘You seem to wish to move in the direction of knowledge as a form of personal enlightenment that can be developed through a process of action and reflection, and refined through dialogical practices. I really like the idea that knowledge is created dialogically, that as people talk and critique, their knowledge develops, and this knowledge is embodied within their relationships.’

Critical Friend A. Correspondence in data archive April 2004

Reconceptualising my practice

My account of my learning is about how I am reconceptualising my practice. As I make my implicit ideas explicit, my theory of practice continuously evolves. Making my theory public in this paper and in other fora is a form of professional accountability. I have made my research public in my school where teaching colleagues critiqued it. I have made presentations of my research at resource teachers’ support meetings annually where specialist teachers critiqued it. I have made presentations of my research to the Irish Association for Teachers in Special Education (McDonagh, 2002); Dyslexia Association of Ireland (McDonagh, 2003b) and to educational research associations in Britain and America (McDonagh and Sullivan, 2003c; McDonagh, 2004b and McDonagh, 2004c)

The methods of theorising I have described in the first part of this paper enable thinking to be shown as a process rather than a form of theory that seeks concrete, replicable solutions. Within the above approach new questions challenge and individuals’ critical capacities are celebrated.

The significance of my learning and my theorising of practice is that I am learning to recognise, evaluate and live towards my educational values in practice (Whitehead, 1989). A further significance is that I am making my theory public not only for critique but so that others, at all levels of education, may learn from my reconceptualisation of my practice. The piece of correspondence, which arose from a presentation that I made at a research seminar (McDonagh, 2003a), is evidence of the educative influence of my research on others:

‘the combination of the children's voices and your reflections on their learning opened the closed doors of the classroom and pushed out the walls - a way for other educators like myself to be in your classroom and learn from the lived experience. The very simple and yet multi-layered idea of asking pupils themselves how they learn, and the realisation that these children have a very clear sense of the ways that work for them, struck me very forcibly.

My immediate reaction was to consider the question in the light of my own practice in my work with student teachers during their Teaching Practice in schools - how can I help my students to learn more about how their pupils learn, by asking them?’

Colleague M. Correspondence in data archive June 2003

What I am learning could have implications for how others may learn and come to new understandings of how they themselves also can improve their ways of learning.


Part 2 How my learning has influenced my pupils’ learning

In this second section, I will relate how the methods of reflection and critique, which helped in the written recording of my changing thinking, also enhanced the learning experience of my pupils and enabled them to develop new theories of learning for themselves.


To address the question ‘What have I learned?’ my pupils recorded their personal learning in a diary of achievement. Their diaries have at times taken the form of tape-recordings, pictures or traditional written formats as in the example below


January 2002


I learned 8 times. I need visual picstures. It only takes a few seconds to get a pixsure. If I can’t get a picsture I get all flustered and move onto the next one.


I learned puck the sliotar. I asked me brother, I watched and he learned me.


When he can’t do it I practice meself all the days.

I know how to do desumals. I can explain things by just scribbling and drawing things.


I learned to mack pot noodle.


Taught a person 8 times tadles. I dident know how much I learned till I wrote a diary.


The pupils’ diaries form a daily self-affirming record of a variety of successful learning, which contrasts with their label as having a ‘learning disability’ and the normative focus on difficulties those pupils experience in schools (DES, 2005).. Pupils’ recorded reflections show how they are developing an awareness of personal learning and learning strategies (McDonagh, 2004a).

(b) Critique

The following are examples from my research of how my pupils’ learning came to be critiqued within the same four questions that I used to critique my own learning.

What have my pupils learned?

This question was addressed in pupils’ learning diaries and my pupils came to value the importance of their own personal knowledge (Polanyi, 1958). The value an individual places on his/her own learning is crucial not only for motivation to expand their learning further (Slavin, 2003) but also to build self-esteem and self-perceptions as an able learner. In my research I have facilitated open discussions where my pupils’ learning has been opened up to the critique of their peers and other teachers who have further validated pupils’ individual learning in written comments such as the following;

Pupil S has devised his own strategies for learning and for attempting sums. When given a sum he can now explain different ways of tackling it to his class. Open discussions about learning and his confidence in his own learning have improved his maths results from the 2nd percentile to the 88th over the past two years’.

Teaching Colleague M Correspondence in data archive December 2004

What can my pupils do about their new understandings of learning?

Based on the benefits of having my own new thinking tested and modified, I encouraged my pupils to put their new ideas before their peers. An example of this was a group discussion on their learning strategies for spellings. Having listened to and questioned each other’s strategies for learning spellings they concluded;

‘We all learn differently.’

‘I find the best way for me.’

Recording and transcript in data archive March 2003

I am claiming that my pupils have generated a theory of learning difference by developing new understanding of their learning and. My facilitation of this process enabled them to also become self-study action researchers in terms of improving their own learning.


How do my pupils critique what they know?

I have described in Part 1 how peers within my own institution and outside critiqued my new learning. My capacity to change my practice, to one of innovation and constant questioning of pedagogy, has increased parallel to a similar experience for the children. These children visited many classrooms in the school to explain their ways of learning and understandings of specific learning disability/ dyslexia. Their ideas were presented as paintings, projects, discussions and quizzes.

The pupils’ peers have written what they have learned from the presentations

‘It is hard for you and not hard for us.’

‘I realised that everybody was different.’

‘Lots of famous people had difficulties.’

‘How to express your feelings in paint.’

‘That you will find a way.’

‘You enjoy learning.’

Teachers also commented on their own new learning in this field as a result of these presentations:

‘It is different for each person.’

‘People with dyslexia learn differently; are as intelligent as anyone else, just different.’

‘They need to be understood and appreciated for what they are and supported so that they can learn what they can become.’

How are my pupils going to learn more?

I claim that my pupils had come to reconceptualise their practices and capabilities as learners. This has significance not only for my pupils but also for the whole school community. First, my pupils bravery in opening up their learning difficulties to their peers was acclaimed by the School Principal as a model for best practice in the school of developing openness in dealing with all problems (McDonagh and Sullivan, 2003). Second, whole classes changed their perceptions of specific learning disabilities. To support this claim I present evidence in the form of responses to a questionnaire. In the questionnaire, completed by 2nd to 6th classes (300 pupils approx) prior to my research, revealed that those with specific learning disability were perceived as dumb. Following my research the same questionnaire and similar population were asked if pupils with specific learning disability/dyslexia dumb, meaning stupid. Their answers included:

‘They are just as clever as we are.

No because they are great at other stuff

No because they could be better at Irish and maths than you.

No. No. No. Absolutely NOT!!!

No because he may be able to do things that we can't.

No because the brain leaves letters out.

They are very good they just leave words out

No only a bit mixed up.

No they just don't know the word

No they just have trouble reading’

Data archive 2004


My actions, in the research episodes above, are a manifestation of my learning. The generation of new learning in this way can be seen to constitute a holistic and integrated process of theorising. By positioning learning and theorising as complementary, I believe that new thinking grounded in my practice informs new theories of practice This idea challenges the traditional view of practice and theory as separate.

Improving learning rests on the knowledge creating capacity of each individual in the system (Delong, 2002). I believe that there is a need for teachers to frame their practice as theory. Thus, I have started my process of theorising with my own learning because as another primary school theorist put it ‘Our discourses inform our thinking and our thinking informs our actions’ (Roche, 2005).


I would like to invite your critical response to the following questions: Would you agree that I am generating my own theory of practice? Does this theory demonstrate the expression of embodied professional knowledge? Has this theory relevance in my specific work context?


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